I Read a Lot of Books this Year. Here’s Some of the Best
An unfortunate side effect of moving overseas is the inevitable dip in your social life. The hours in Sydney that would normally have been spent stuffing myself full of sushi with friends, pumping dat iron at the gym and seeing my third movie for the week, were in London filled with work, writing and books.
As a result, I read more this year than I have in a very long time… possibly since childhood. How many exactly remains uncertain – I’m kicking myself for not keeping count.
However many I did read, these were some of the best.
Birdgehl’s Book Review 2015
Heartburn – Nora Ephron
Like any child of the 90s, I love Nora Ephron’s films – yet I’m ashamed to say I’d never picked up any of her books. This changed last year when I read two of her collections of essays – Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble. I was hooked from the first sentence.
On learning that Ephron has passed away as recently as 2012, I decided to read the rest of her collection, while attempting to pace myself. There’s nothing worse than finishing an author’s entire anthology and know you’ll never read another word of theirs again (here’s looking at you, Douglas Adams). So I distracted myself with other reads throughout the year (pretty easily done) coming back to Ephron’s books whenever I could.
As much as I love a good essay, Heartburn – her only novel, was my standout favourite. Ephron never hid the fact that the book was more than loosely based on the demise of her second marriage – a tragedy, disguised as a comedy.
Protagonist Rachel takes us through the pain and anguish she experiences on discovering that her husband Mark is cheating on her with someone who is “not only a giant, but a clever giant” WHILE she is seven month’s pregnant – with good grace and good humour. Bonus snaps for the delicious sounding recipes spread throughout the book – a nice touch, as Rachel is a cookbook author. Ephron was a fan of food herself, a fact she repeatedly makes mention of throughout her other essay collections.
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
I feel I would have got around to reading this novel quite a lot sooner if I still lived in Australia, as it seems to have made quite an impact there. From afar, it was on my periphery and I decided to read it during a particularly bad bout of homesickness.
Don Tillman has never had much success with love – mostly due to his oddball personality and inability to correctly interpret social situations (Tillman has since gone on to be embraced by the Asperger’s community as one of their own, although author Graeme Simsion has stated he based the character on many colleagues he worked with during his 25 years within the IT industry). Determined to finally meet his “perfect woman” he devises what he calls “The Wife Project”, which includes an extensive list that all would-be candidates are required to complete. Enter Rosie, a bit of a mess and as unsuitable as they come, yet they find themselves falling for each other nonetheless. AWWWW!
It sounds dreadfully clichéd but in reality – The Rosie Project was a fun, but quick read. Simsion released a sequel to the book – The Rosie Effect earlier this year. I have ordered my copy. It is currently at the mercy of British Royal Post.
The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost – Rachel Friedman
With all the travel I’ve been doing over the course of the last year, I’ve been compelled to read quite a few memoirs. Not many (if any) grabbed me in the way that Rachel Friedman’s did.
Friedman has recently given up on what she though was her dream of becoming a professional classical violist. She moves to Ireland to work in Galway for four months, hoping to figure her life out. Here she meets Carly – an Australian girl addicted to travel. Carly convinces Rachel to join her in Australia and then South America and they have some pretty unreal adventures together. Rachel eventually heads back to America having met her soulmate and feeling ready to take on her life as a professional young woman. The book made me more than a little homesick for Australia and set me thinking that it might be time to start contemplating finally stepping foot on South America…
I digress. What did I like about Friedman’s book? It wasn’t preachy, to start with. It was also totally relatable. We all feel a little lost in our lives from time to time and it’s commendable and uplifting to hear or read about someone who is actively doing something about it, rather than the alternative – moping from now until the end of eternity.
I liked that she didn’t go into great detail about the men she had liaisons with along the way – particularly Martyn, the Kiwi she met in an Irish bar in Peru, who would later become her husband.
“…the story of Martyn and me could fill another book entirely… this is not a love story and I do not wish it to be…”
No. It was a story about the search for meaning, about travel, but ultimately, about a pretty rad friendship.
It was particularly refreshing, particularly after having read both Elisabeth Eaves Wanderlust: A Love Affair With Five Continents and Kristin Newman’s What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding. The first was beautifully written. The second – funny as hell. However – waaaaay too much information, on both parts. I would have much rather have read in more detail about Eaves internship in Cairo and her walking the Kokoda Trail, something I have longed to do, rather than who she was fucking at the time. And I really didn’t need to hear about the time a Brazilian went down on Newman with such ferocity that he actually drew blood.
I think most female writers (myself included) dwell far too much on love, lust and relationships in much of their writing and we as readers, miss out on a lot of the better, more relevant and interesting aspects of their experiences along the way.
But that is a topic for another blog post.
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
This book is an Australian classic, which I am ashamed to say I didn’t pick up until this year.
Put simply, it covers an event that took place on St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, when three schoolgirls and a teacher go missing, while out on a picnic at an area known as Hanging Rock. Three out of the four are never seen again and their disappearance has devastating repercussions on the town’s small community.
Perhaps even better than the book itself, are the various conspiracy theories surrounding the book. Author Joan Lindsay was deliberately vague throughout her lifetime over whether there was any basis of truth to the events within her book. The ending was left to be particularly ambiguous – the last chapter explaining the disappearances omitted on the suggestion of Lindsay’s editor. The final chapter was published in 1987 as The Secret of Hanging Rock. I read it in the end, but in my opinion it’s best not to.
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
Would you believe me if I told you that I have never managed to finish a Jane Austen book? BAD LC! I know.
I have been trying to read Persuasion since the age of 19, with no luck. Having been advised that there are better books within Austen’s anthology and not wanting to read Pride and Prejudice just yet (mostly because I feel I know the story inside out already), I decided to tackle Sense and Sensibility.
What a fun read it was! You can tell Austen, the original feminist, was having an absolute ball poking fun at the aspects of 1700’s British society that she’d later grow frustrated with, as evidenced in Persuasion (I’ve read enough if it to know that much!). Fanny was such a dick and Willoughby, what a scoundrel!
It made me look forward to a return to Bath (I went there briefly this year, must return) and learning more about one of Britain’s best loved authors.
Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith
This is a no-brainer. JK Rowling has and always will be one of my favourite writers and I’m happily addicted to the Cormoran Strike series. As it progresses, the crimes get more and more gruesome and both Cormoran and Robyn are further fleshed out as massively flawed but very likeable characters.
I started reading Career of Evil at ten o’clock the night I got it and finished it at four in the morning. Only Rowling has that effect and I’m so glad for it.
Extra points for this being a book that’s set in London – it’s such a joy to read the places mentioned and be able to picture them clearly in my head. It really makes a book come alive. Well, until the inevitable movie comes along and ruins it.
Travels With Charley: In Search of America – John Steinbeck
Steinbeck has the inaugural position of being one of only two fellas featured on this list and for good reason. I hadn’t read any of his novels (I know) and I’m so glad I started with this one.
Steinbeck procures a camper, christens it “Rocinante”, rounds up his poodle Charley and embarks upon a road trip across America. Along the way, he offers his insights, views and overall analysis of his country and its people, much of which will resonate with anyone reading the book today.Travels With Charley went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and has been critiqued for its levels of accuracy. Some say that although the book is intended to be read as non-fiction, much of it is probably fiction, as Steinbeck was a novelist at heart. Take away from it what you will – it’s still a brilliant read.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This book was everywhere in 2015, which I’d normally see as a reason to shy away from a novel. (In some cases it is, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey) However, I’m really trying hard these days to be less of a pretentious twat and this book served as a really good payoff. I devoured it in a three hour sitting (laying) on a beach in Greece, during the measly few hours I had to work on the tan that would have to last me through the European winter.
You may be familiar with the plot of The Girl on the Train – Rachel is a divorced drunk, intent on drinking herself into oblivion, or an early grave. She spends her days travelling on the train to London’s Euston station, under the guise of going to work at a job that she was fired from eons ago due to her alcoholism. Her hobbies include drinking on public transport, stalking her ex-husband and his new family and constructing elaborate fantasies about a couple she sees almost daily on her commute into the city. One day, the female half of this couple goes missing and worse – Rachel is somehow involved. Yet, she can’t for the life of her remember in what capacity, as she was uncharacteristically blackout drunk at the time…
We follow the story through the combined perspectives of Rachel, her ex-husband’s new wife Anna and Megan, the girl who disappears. It’s a technique crime fiction novels tend to favour and in this circumstance, it definitely works.
Many have referred to it as being the “next Gone Girl“, which doesn’t strike me as fair. Both books are addictive and psychological thrillers, but for me, the comparison ends there. Rachel has also been described as “unlikeable” – once again, I disagree. I felt sorry for her and there were many occasions where I wanted to reach into the pages of the book, grab her firmly by the shoulders and shake her, while encouraging her at a high and forceful volume to pull herself together. That being said, I found her far easier to empathise with than bloody Amy of Gone Girl, who I loathed almost as much as Bella from Twilight. That’s saying a lot.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History – Elizabeth Kolbert
Onto a more sombre note. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert documents previous mass extinctions on earth and delivers a horrific piece of information that we all should be aware of – we’re currently in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the history of our planet. Guess who’s causing it? Well, largely – we are.
From the end of the dinosaurs, to the plight of the Great Auk, the fungus that’s killing the bat population of North America and the acidification of the world’s oceans, Kolbert covers it all. She calmly predicts that by the end of this century, planet earth will have lost between 20-50% of its living organisms.
If there is any book on this book that I feel should be mandatory reading – this is it. It haunted me for months after its completion. It continues to do so, really.
Spinster – Making a Life of One’s Own – Kate Bolick
“Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these two questions define every woman’s existence.”
Not Kate Bolick, who finds herself unmarried and childless at the age of 40. Part biography and part memoir, the author uses both her own experiences and those of women throughout history that she describes as her “awakeners”, which include the likes of Maeve Brennan and Edith Wharton. Interestingly, many of her awakeners were married during their lifetimes – some quite happily – yet they never let their marriage stand in the way of artistic callings.
The book promises to answer the question of “how does a woman move through the world alone?“, although Bolick may not be in the best position to answer this (the end of the book finds her in yet another relationship with a man of “uncommonly moral intelligence”). However, the book does offer insight on how to live a “life on one’s own”, as Bolick takes her cues from her unconventional mentors.
There’s no doubt that Bolick could be taken as a role model herself for future generations – she has a very impressive CV and her debut book Spinster cut a six figure publishing deal.
Phew. That’s a lot of reading. However – I’m not done yet.
Want to know what my number one book of the year was?
Tiny, Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed
Before Cheryl Strayed became the household name she is today, she was writing under the pseudonym “Sugar” for The Rumpus. People asked questions, she answered – simply and honestly, often intertwining her own experiences into her lengthy, beautifully worded columns. Tiny, Beautiful Things is simply a compilation of some of her best.
I read the last column in the book and bawled my eyes out. Then, I rang my mother up and read it to her. We were both in tears by the end of it. It is truly moving stuff.
Read it. It may not change your life, but it will stay with you, long after the last word of the last sentence has been read.
What’s on My List for 2016
Quite a few, already! I have Straight White Male and Mansfield Park sitting and waiting on my shelf, along with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. I’m casually reading Status Anxiety on my iPad, along with Herland and have another Elizabeth Kolbert book – Field Notes from a Catastrophe ready and raring to go. I’ve got one more Nora Ephron book on my list (sob) – Wallflower at the Orgy and on the recommendation of many, I plan to soon delve into Americanah
I’m also quite ashamed to say, that although Jane Ayre and Wuthering Heights are two of my all-time favourite books, I’ve never actually read any of Anne Brontë’s works. So, my goal next year is to get through Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
And who knows – I might finally finish Persuasion.
If you’re as nutty about books as I am, I thoroughly recommend checking out bound2books, an excellent blog run by my very good friend Hope. She’s an academic who studies English Lit. – suffice to say, she knows her stuff.
What were your favourite reads of 2015? Have you read any of the books on this list? What did you think of them?
NB: This post contains affiliate links, which goes directly back into feeding the book addiction. But remember – there’s no better feeling than walking out of your local independent bookstore with an armful of novels!