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The year is zipping by fast and there are plenty of books I’ve still been meaning to read, but here are some favourites that I’ve read so far. I seem to be reading more memoirs recently or, at least, books that are heavily inspired by autobiographical experience. Several of these books fall into that category while being a hybrid of different kinds of books. But, of course, there are some novels I’ve loved and a poetry collection as well. It felt especially poignant to me how some of these books felt like they were in conversation with each other because they touched on similar subjects or events. Maybe that’s just me seeing connections since I read them close together. Whatever the case, these books had a big impact on me and I highly recommend all them! You can also watch a video of me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUjR0M_yrOE

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I read this wonderful book at the very beginning of the year. Of course, this isn't a memoir per say – although it does include personal details about how much libraries meant to the author when growing up. It's more a piece of journalistic nonfiction where Orlean considers the case of a horrific fire in the Los Angeles Central library in 1986. She covers the history of this library and the very curious man who was strongly suspected of starting the fire. But it's also an ode to libraries in general and contains so many fascinating facts about libraries and librarians.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is a novel but draws heavily on Li's own life because her son sadly committed suicide and this book is an imagined conversation between a mother and son – after the son took his own life. That sounds incredibly depressing and it is an intense experience. But the way their conversation plays out is very touching because when the mother thoughts become too lofty the son brings her back to reality. So it's alternately playful and profound how she considers life, language, motivation and grief.

Kill the Black One First by Michael Fuller

This is a straightforward but very moving memoir. It has a very startling title – and it's meant to be because this was something which was shouted from an angry mob as Fuller stood in a line of police officers during the Brixton riots in 1981. This was an infamous confrontation in London between the police force and members of a predominantly black neighbourhood. At the time, Fuller was one of the few black policemen in London and he found himself caught in the middle of this skirmish when someone in the crowd shouted “kill the black one first” and he knew it was aimed at him. So this memoir is about Fuller's life as a black man who was dedicated to his police work – he became Britain's very first black chief constable – and the work he did to try to bridge the gap between England's racially divided society. It's such a moving and inspiring story. And it's so heartening to know there are honestly good people out there like Michael Fuller.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

This is a novel set in South Africa in two parts which are bridged together. The first part concerns a woman named Susan who is forcibly put into a British concentration camp during the Second Boer Wars in 1901 after the British army burned her farm. And yes, this is something the British really did in South Africa; they ran multiple concentration camps during this war. The second half of the novel concerns a teenage boy named Willem who is taken by his parents to a sinister training camp to toughen him up and make him more masculine. Willem just wants to be left alone with his books but his parents are determined to make a man out of him. And this camp is also based on actual training camps which are meant to toughen boys. So both stories poignantly consider institutions and camps which are intended to keep people safe but really destroy their identity and their lives. It's so artfully and beautifully done.

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

These autobiographical essays follow the trajectory of Gleeson's life from a girl in Ireland where she suffers from multiple medical difficulties and her journey to becoming a great feminist, journalist, wife, mother and writer. The way she writes about illness in this book is so poignant and she draws upon many references from art and literature to reflect about her condition and life in general. It's a stunning book. It just floored me.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This autobiographically-inspired novel was first published in English last year but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It's an incredible look at the past several decades in France through one woman's eyes but is narrated in this unique collective voice which captures the mood and sensibility of a whole community. It's ingenious and inventive and moving and brilliant. It's essentially a woman looking through a photo album but it also contains a whole society. It's amazing.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

This is a historical novel which is so clever and gripping. It's the story of a woman in the mid-1800s in London who works in a laborious job making dolls, but she aspires to be an artist. So she agrees to become an artist's model as long as she's also given lessons. It's also about a sinister man who becomes infatuated with her. And it's also about the artist's pet wombat (which is my favourite animal.) But this novel is truly excellent in what it says about art, obsession and history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This is touted as the year's most mind-expanding love story and it really is that. It begins as a normal modern day love story where Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York City. But Kate has very vivid dreams where she slips back into a past life embodying the real historical figure of Emilia Lanier who was an Elizabethan poet believed to have been the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. She finds that in these dreams she's able to alter history. It's honestly so wild, but also makes you think about destiny and ambition and the meaning of reality. It is unlike anything I've read before.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

This is a novel I just read recently and concerns a group of drag house mothers who sit in silent protest in front of New York's city hall. For years children they've taken into their drag houses have gone missing and after the repeated indifference and harassment from the authorities they feel they are past words. It's also the story of Teddy, a child of these drag houses who now works in city hall so is very much caught between two worlds. Niven invokes the feeling and spirit of drag balls in this beautiful book, but he also presents the voices of different groups who are locked in opposition to one another. It's poignant, funny and fierce.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This is a startlingly powerful book of poetry. Jay spent a lot of time in an archive researching and thinking about the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre. This was a fire that occurred in the early morning amidst a teenage girl's birthday party killing 13 young people and injuring 27 others. Many believed this was a racist attack. The authorities' investigation into the fire was handled horribly and the case was never resolved. It led to protests and an outcry from the black communities in London and was one of the incidents which led up to the Brixton riots (as discussed in Michael Fuller’s memoir). This is a complex subject but Jay so artfully considers the weight of history in these poems, how we memorialize those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known. Some of these poems are also very personal reflecting on gender, national and racial identity. I don't often read a lot of poetry but these are poems that made me sit up and listen closely and I love this book.

A book I haven’t listed is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James which is another book I loved very much and I made a whole video gushing about it. But I read this at the end of last year rather than this year.

Let me know if you've read any of these books or want to read them now. What are some of your favourite reads from 2019 so far? Give me some good tips!

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In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.

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There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
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