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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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When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

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I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
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