I’ve managed to get through quite a few books in 2019 – about 40, I reckon, not including ones I left unfinished for whatever reason (just couldn’t plough through As A Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo, which tbh I only attempted for the title alone.) Some of my reading highlights of 2019 are listed below:
Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
Bill Hayes is a New York-based writer and photographer. He was also the partner of the neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book is about Hayes’s relationship with Sacks, whom he met close to the end of Sacks’ life. It is also about wandering New York, often by night – Hayes is an insomniac, hence the title – and his encounters with a motley collection of New Yorkers, illustrated by poignant photographs. There’s a gentle humour that runs through the book, and the love between Sacks and Hayes is beautifully captured in snatches of dialogue and vignettes. Since I love urban walking and photography, am an admirer of Oliver Sacks, and am dealing with personal loss myself, this was the perfect book for me this year.
‘A languid Sunday, afternoon turning into evening, evening into night, night to morning.
“I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness,” O says.
He puts his ear to my chest and listens to my heart and counts the beats.
“Sixty-two,” he says with a satisfied smile, and I can’t imagine anything more intimate.’
from Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
I first read Sacks probably 20 years ago, but revisited this book after reading Bill Hayes (above). It’s a fascinating account of several patients that Sacks treated during his career as a neurologist, including a surgeon with Tourettes, a painter who loses his ability to perceive colour, and a blind man, Virgil, who recovers his sight in his 50s. The last of these is the most poignant story: rather than being the miracle everyone had hoped for, sight turns out to be a disaster for Virgil, because his brain is unable to decode the information it receives from his eyes. He goes from a functioning blind man to a state of depression, “between two worlds”. This book is full of fascinating reflections on the ways our brains control what we think we know about the world, and even who we are. I enjoyed it for Sacks’ elegant literary style, and his approach to these incredibly complex questions, which wears its learning lightly and is characterised by doubt rather than certainty.
“Now, at last, Virgil is allowed to not see, allowed to escape from the glaring, confusing world of sight and space, and to return to his own true being.”
from An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
This novel was recommended to me by a few people. The narrator is a writer who inherits a Great Dane when a close friend dies. Despite not being a dog lover she forms a bond with the animal, which helps her to process her grief at the incomprehensible fact of her loss. It’s a simple tale, and besides the spare, witty writing what I enjoyed most were the apt quotes from other writers with which Nunez loads her narrative, along with her acerbic observations on marriage, the New York literary scene, and university teaching. It’s not a saccharine Hollywood story, there are no simple answers, but it does somehow leave you with a sense of positivity.
“The thing that keeps me from becoming a complete misanthrope is seeing how much dogs love men.”
“What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”
from The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage
I confess that I probably would not have picked up a novel about surrogacy were it not written by a friend, but when I did read this book I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking – which shows the benefits of getting out of your literary comfort zone. Angela Savage’s novel focuses on three women: an Australian, Meg, who wants to have a child by any means possible; Mod, the Thai woman who will carry the child to term for a fee; and Meg’s sister, Anna, a judgemental aid worker who disapproves of her sister’s actions but supports her out of loyalty. This is an ethically complicated area, and Savage allows all sides to emerge through the story. Her characters are portrayed as complex, flawed individuals, negotiating a path between their desires, cultures and morality. As with all of us, their motivations are far from pure and simple, and at times murky. Savage’s descriptions of Thailand are evocative and obviously based on personal knowledge of the place and culture. Unlike some literary novels this one has narrative drive, and is genuinely moving.
“We’re not in this to be nice to people, Anna. We’re in this to have a baby. It’s a business, OK? However else you want to dress it up, at the end of the day we’re paying for a product.”
“A product?” The indignation Anna felt on her sister’s behalf gave way to anger. “We’re talking about a baby here, Meg, not a bloody product.”
from Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage
The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath by Janet Malcolm
This is a brilliant investigation of the perils of biography. Janet Malcolm, veteran journalist of the New Yorker, enters the fraught world of Hughes-Plath scholarship, riven with feuds, partisanship, and jealousy, and asks: can we ever really know the truth about someone’s life and death? In the course of her research, Malcolm talks to several biographers, and to many of the surviving participants in the controversies that followed the publication of their books, including Ted Hughes’ ferocious sister Olwen, who for many years attempted to control the narrative. Malcolm broadly comes down on the side of Hughes, but whether or not you agree that he has been unjustly portrayed as the villain of the piece, this book raises fascinating questions about the impossible task facing biographers. Malcolm wants to challenge our tendency to like our narratives to be simple and unchanging, and the ways we choose what to believe based on the side we are on, rather than deal with the mess that is real life. This book also contains what is my single favourite quote of the year, which is below.
We all invent ourselves, but some of us are more persuaded than others by the fiction that we are interesting.
from The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
Well, I had to have one book like this on my list … Houston provides a racy account of the origins and history of some of the lesser known punctuation marks, including the pilcrow, asterisk, dagger and the @ sign. On the way, we venture into the worlds of Biblical scholarship, computer science, and (of course) typography. Great bedside reading and full of the kind of quirky historical facts I adore.
I’m honoured to have Mother of Pearl appear in this fine list, Nick. You make all these works sound tantalizing. One of my own fave reads of the year was ‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer, which you recommended, so I’ll be sure to check out at least one of the books on you list.
But what, pray tell, is a pilcrow?!
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I enjoyed ‘Less’ very much, glad you did too! A pilcrow is the ¶ symbol that represents a new paragraph. According to Keith Houston it originated as a mark used by manuscript copyists. As you will recall, I also used it as a surname for one of the characters in Death of a Typographer.
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