After graduation, I was filled with optimism that I would maintain my reading at about the same level as during my studies. The only difference would be that I’d be free to choose what I read. At last, I’d have a hope of catching up on my towering ‘to be read’ pile.
My intentions were good, but unrealistic at best. Adjusting to a new town and new job left me with little reading time, and I thought that because I wasn’t reading at the rate I’d become used to, all was lost. Getting through a novel would take months at this rate.
But living a life that no longer revolves around digesting hundreds of pages a week has brought a renewed appreciation of the joy of reading. It is again a hobby, not a task done (sometimes) grudgingly with aching eyes and puzzled brain. I am no longer concerned for the quantity I read, but grateful for the time I can spend reading or listening to audiobooks. Now I read where my mood, rather than a reading list, takes me, and there’s no pressure to finish reading what I’m not enjoying (nor to write 2000+ words regardless of my opinion).
In the spirit of end-of-year round-ups, the rest of this post is devoted to my favourite reads of 2015. I love recommendations, so if there are any books you’ve particularly enjoyed this year, do please share them!
Heroines by Kate Zambreno
My book of the year, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It ought to be compulsory reading. Heroines brilliantly melds Zambreno’s own self-exploration and attempts to write with an examination of ‘literary wives’, 20th century women who found their self-expression silenced by their author husbands. Her feelings of sisterhood with these women fuels a destruction of the myth of the idealised creative partnership, showing how F Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot, though canonised, were anything but saintly when it came to treatment of their wives. She tears into authors like Flaubert, who write shamefully two-dimensional female characters and are praised endlessly, while there are seemingly endless examples of women not being trusted to write accurately about their own experiences. Zambreno does both of these things, and so much more. This is a blistering piece of literary criticism that’s engaging but enraging, and all the while completely inspiring.
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
Martha wants to go to university, but to focus on education isn’t the done thing where she comes from. Still, she works hard and gets a scholarship for Aberdeen University, which opens her eyes to new possibilities. She inhabits intellectual circles and falls for Luke, yet is all the time trying to balance her desire to learn with the demands of rural life. Questions of identity, destiny, and fitting in crop up continually. In which of these two worlds does Martha belong: the urban intellectual or the rural, physical one? The lush descriptions of a familiar landscape coupled with feeling affinity with Martha made this an emotional read for me.
The Group by Mary McCarthy
A reflection on the ’30s written in the ’60s, The Group is an engrossing read. In it, we watch a group of women – all university friends – go out into the world, and tread very different (yet intertwined) paths. Because they’re all relatively privileged and white, it’s easy to forget the setting is New York City at the height of the Great Depression, but the book does offer some scathing insights into society’s expectations for women at the time. We watch our heroines struggle to obtain contraception, raise their children, experience workplace sexism, assault, and even be institutionalised – uncomfortable to read, but important to appreciate that in some ways, a lot has changed.
Euphoria by Lily King
The promised high-stakes love triangle which drew me in at the airport bookstore kept me hooked for the whole flight home from New York. It’s the 1930s and three anthropologists are drawn to the Sepik River of New Guinea, trying to understand the tribes who live alongside it, but failing miserably to understand their own desires. Nell and Fen’s marriage is on the rocks. The attention Nell’s recent book has received drives a wedge between them, and a jealous Fen will stop at nothing for a breakthrough of his own. Meeting Andrew Bankson does little to help, and tensions academic and romantic build, soon becoming destructive.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
After falling for Spark’s style in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try another of her novellas. An air of unease surrounds protagonist, Lise – her behaviour seems erratic and she’s going on holiday, something she never does. We find out early what the outcome of this will be – Lise is going to be murdered. Following her to her inevitable fate through a tense exploration of why this happens, Spark gives us a ‘whydunnit’ as opposed to a whodunnit, the outcome is shocking, clever, and while anticipated, still unexpected.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Eilis has grown up in small-town Ireland, but her sister, Rose, is determined she leave and build a better life in Brooklyn. Initially, she’s crippled with homesickness but soon is dressing glamorously, studying at a local college, and falling for Tony, a handsome Italian-American. But news from home forces her to return to Ireland. Having spent much of her life appeasing others, Eilis must now decide for herself where her future lies. I thought the book’s treatment of her character was excellent, showing her gradual growth in confidence. Saoirse Ronan captured this on-screen perfectly (also those costumes <3).
I devoured this clever retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s classic, Jane Eyre, though while there are many clear parallels it’s a novel well worth reading in its own right. Our orphan is a Korean-American girl growing up in Queens, longing to escape her strict uncle’s grocery store where she’s made to work. Change comes when she’s offered the chance to au pair in Brooklyn. Here she finds her Rochester (a nice-guy teacher) and the resident ‘madwoman in the attic’ (his partner, a women’s studies professor). But (obviously) things don’t end there, and Park doesn’t merely bring the original story into the 21st century. Jane Re must figure out who she is and what she wants, which means going off the Eyre-beaten track, exploring some very different life paths.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen
More meaty (and with more reliable sources) than most gossip rags, Petersen delves into the personal lives of some of Golden-Era Hollywood’s best known stars, from Judy Garland to Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Dorothy Dandridge, exploring how their reputations were made and broken by the studios who employed them, and the press who relied on them for sales. A fun read for people who like both wild speculation and confirmation of what ‘really happened’, and those who are interested in the inner workings of Hollywood’s gossip machine.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Listen to the audiobook version if you can. Amy + a range of special guests = too hilarious to miss. This is something like memoir plus life advice, and you don’t have to be a huge Poehler fan (just down with her sense of humour) to enjoy the read. It’s stuffed with no-nonsense, wise words for living and creating art. My two favourite quotes? One on judging others and becoming comfortable in your own skin: ‘That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her, not for me.’ And one on doing… whatever it is you do best: ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’