Athbhliain Faoi Mhaise Dhaoibh, agus Ngā Mihi o te Tau Hou!
Happy New Year and apologies for the almost two monthly blog silence!
(Which occurred, incidentally, just as I convinced a whole rake of new people to subscribe. Forward planning)
This was on account of a very intense period of rehearsal and development for Te Rōhi (next blog!) followed by a colourful bout of illness the week of my 29th birthday. As the well-wishes flooded in, I was not ruminating on being a year older and a year wiser, but instead on the taste of blackcurrant dioralyte as it went down the hatch, and then as it came back up again. If you’re the praying type, please light a candle for me, in the hope that I do not befoul a bathroom again before my 30th birthday. I ask for so little.
It’s just been Christmas break which means it was finally socially acceptable for me to read a whole book each day and eat chocolate for breakfast and I did just that. I slowed down my compulsive reading after day four, and started watching movies (such as the astounding film The Favourite) and listening to podcasts (finally catching up on Season 4 of My Dad Wrote a Porno – instantly follow this link if you haven’t heard of it before). Overall, book-wise, I managed to work my way through eighties cult classic My Sweet Audrina (fans of My Favourite Murder podcast will understand this obscure choice), newcomer Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Noah Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, Lynne Ruane’s autobiography People Like Me, Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self and Anna Burns’s Milkman.
It occurred to me that two of those books are some of the best books I’ve read this year. So I decided to list my top five. Bear in mind that these are not books necessarily written in 2018, simply one’s I read during the year and consider important works. A post-Christmas gift, if you’re stuck for anything to read this year, and you put any stock in my opinions (you probably shouldn’t).
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin (1956)
James Baldwin is best known to me, and maybe to you, as one of the most influential African American non-fiction writers of the twentieth century. His social commentary on the black experience in 50s and 60s America should be required reading. He wrote fiction, too, and aside from being a ground-breaking commentator on race, he also delivered some pretty hot takes on the gay and bisexual male experience (years before the Gay Lib movement, it’s important to add).
Giovanni’s Room came to me in the library of New Zealand Pacific Studio, and was a small, elegantly dressed book published in Penguin’s Great Loves series. It is both fitting and strange that it would be in that category, though the passionate relationship at the core of the book does imprint upon you. This is, rather, one of the best books I’ve ever read about shame and – written, unbelievably, in 1956 – it is scary to think how freshly it reads. Giovanni’s Room is a book that is soaked through with a revulsion towards it’s self, a book that will have you, through the protagonist’s eyes, recoil from the grotesqueness of Parisian men as you move amongst them, seek the love of one, and fall apart with the burden of having loved him. The story centres around the experience of David, a gay American living in Paris – as Baldwin himself was, for large periods of his life. The writing is exceptional. Even if only for Baldwin’s cutting, beautiful and wry style of writing, the book is a classic.
Giovanni’s Room does not teach you how to love. It advocates for loving, it calls out from a limbo of sexual desire, abortive intimacy and shame. It pleads with the reader, the male gay reader, as Jacques pleads with David –
‘”Love him. Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty – they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better – forever – if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.“
The Water of The Wondrous Isles, by William Morris (1897)
That’s right, baby, the heading says 1897. Possibly the first fantasy book ever written, and done so by the man you might remember from art history class as a pre-Raphelite and designer of nifty wallpaper.
It follows the adventures of Birdalone, a surprisingly right-on female protagonist who has the guts to say the medieval equivalent of “I kinda think you’re a creep and you’ve ‘happened’ upon me here in this valley because you’re trying to rape me – don’t think about it, bucko” to the handful of villainous knights who are, indeed, trying to rape her. She is made of tough stuff, physically capable, and she goes for what she wants. I like Birdalone. She’s a strong swimmer, and she gets hers.
This language in this book could be described as hard to read. It is full of thains and twixts and yonders etc. Then again, who cares. I can imagine that you probably got as bored, Son of Thored, Son of Wored as I did during the ancestral lists in Lord of the Rings. But LotR was hugely worth your patience, and this is the same.
The story is both quite naive and staggeringly ambitious, given the time it was written in. The Water of the Wondrous Isles hasn’t left me since I put it down, it carved a new space in my brain that wasn’t there before. It’s a story that I didn’t know I wanted, but I liked it when it was given to me, which is my favourite type of story. If you like fantasy, pay your respects to this book.
Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine (2018)
Emilie Pine’s book of personal essays was an unexpected sensation this year, and rightly so. Notes to Self has a lot to say about life as a woman, as a child, as a women without children, as a tear-away and as a brain that feels trapped inside an ‘inadequate’ body or a stressful academic institution. You will cry reading it, just incase you’re considering whipping it out on your morning commute.
I like Notes to Self in the way I don’t usually like books. I don’t think it reinvented the wheel, surprised me with a radical political or artistic take, or taught me to imagine something new. A book doesn’t have to do these things, but I do like it when books give you the feeling of gaining new ground in your interior or exterior world. I think what I gained in Notes to Self was a deeply personal insight into Emilie Pine’s perspective on these topics, and she has a lot to say, a lot to tell. Taken on their own, the individual stories might not be as remarkable as they are collected together, but cumulatively they leave you with the impression that Pine – over a lot of other pretenders to the throne – should be telling her tale to the public. The trajectory of her life, and the richness of her perspective on them, deserve a whole book, and a lauded book at that. Notes to Self will role-model courage and self-examination for you, and it’s on these pillars that this unlikely bestseller’s reputation has been built.
Milkman, by Anna Burns (2018)
I’ve heard some people I know say that they couldn’t finish Milkman, which begs the question ‘DO YOU HATE BOOKS? IF NOT FOR THE OCCASIONAL CAT’S HEAD IN A HANDKERCHIEF, WHY DO YOU READ?’
An animal lover might struggle with Milkman, as will anyone who can’t stand the hopeless tension of dystopian novel settings, even though Milkman’s setting is not fictional but very real (and an ongoing reality in many civil war states). I would suggest pushing through squeamishness and hesitancy. Milkman has a lot to say that you need to hear. I’d go as far as remarking that if you live in Ireland or Britain, you have no excuse not to read this book to completion. Hate to be that person, but particularly if you are English. I want to hand a copy of Milkman to every ‘Which half of Ireland are you from?‘ and ‘So what’s it all about, then?‘ I encountered when I lived in London.
And if you don’t live in Ireland or Britain, then just read it anyway because it’s glorious.
Any Sian-accolades are insignificant next to the Man Booker. But in one summation, Milkman is the best book I’ve read on the monstrous mental and social warping of the human being that occurs when living under authoritarian state / dissident control.
The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli (2013)
I’ve blogged about this already. When I read The Story of My Teeth (or, more honestly, when I read the first three pages) it immediately shot up into my top ten list of favourite books. In general, and not just for this year.
The Story of My Teeth is bonkers, so there is no point trying to describe its plot, simply it’s appeal. It is a true work of art insofar as it has no precedent and no equivalent. To write a book like this is to filter the human condition through the ephemeral squish of one particular consciousness (Luiselli’s) and to forge the brain-filtered-human-syrup on the anvil of a very unique context, a moment in time and space not likely to be used as an anvil again (in other words, a Mexican juice factory with an art collection). That’s how you get magic, madness and the perfect book.
The Story of my Teeth is smart without being patronising, surreal and strange, brutally funny, and the main character is a despicable man. It is my favourite book of 2018 and (I’m sorry for what’s about to happen) it gets the Sian Booker.
Security is about to escort me off the premises of my own blog.
Until next time.