Re-loving reading + Best books of 2015

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.

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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).
Re Jane by Patricia Park
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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
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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
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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.’
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9 Things for Literature Lovers to do in London

Read the whole thing on Bustle.

Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty, as if the tide of trade which deposits its burden so punctually and prosaically upon the shores of Oxford Street had this night cast up nothing but treasure.

Virginia Woolf’s wanders through London inspired me last week as I took in the capital, stalking the streets in search of sights a little bit off the beaten track. I went in search of spaces and places linked to literature, and this list covers the handful I managed to get around. If, like me, you love books probably a little too much and maybe sort of irrationally obsess over the people who write them, you might want to take note before your next visit.

Chalcot Square, Sylvia Plath's old stomping ground.

Chalcot Square, Sylvia Plath’s old stomping ground.

17 Must-Read Commencement Speech Quotes

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Read the whole thing on Bustle.

It’s spring, and graduation looms for many – myself included. To celebrate this/ help process this reality, I gathered wisdom from 17 writers’ commencement speeches to see what they had to say about life after university. Of everything I read, this from Toni Morrison resonated most:

“I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, target of your labors here, your choices of companions, of the profession that you will enter. You deserve it and I want you to gain it, everybody should. But if that’s all you have on your mind, then you do have my sympathy, and if these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.”

Despite all the changes on the horizon, it’s a process I look forward to.

Photo: Lincoln Memorial University

11 Scottish Books To Read For Tartan Day

Read my latest piece on Bustle here!

Today will be known to many as Easter Monday. But the date, April 6th, is home to another celebration: Tartan Day, which marks the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. It’s commemorated in Arbroath here in Scotland with loads of themed events, and has also sparked a huge parade in New York City that brings together Scots Americans in celebration of their heritage.

I’m immensely proud of my own Scottish identity, but like I say in this piece, there is no one standard experience of a country, or one way to live a nationality. Even a small country like Scotland has space for more than 5 million different life stories to play out in the hills, by the sea, in the country and the city. These 11 Scottish books exemplify that. 

15 Literary Quotes to Get You Through Your Final Year of College

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Heading into my final semester of university, I wasn’t really sure what to expect except ‘a lot of work’. Two weeks later, I’m actually starting to realise what this means. It is by no means a struggle (and once it’s all over I’ll wonder what I was complaining about), but I am working on a project that means I need to be more organised and hardworking than ever.

To get through the next couple of months, a steady stream of motivation is going to be key. So I’ve shared some literary quotes that are in my own mental scrapbook of helpful phrases – because when the going gets tough, the tough get their motivational quotes out.

Read them on Bustle.

Photo: Duke University Archives

11 Books on Inspiring Women To Motivate You

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I don’t know about you, but January’s a slow month for me. The weather here gets so cold that it feels like an effort to do anything that requires going outdoors. To tackle my winter blues, I got to reading, mostly because it’s a cosy indoor activity, and came up with this list to pull me out of my midwinter fuzz:

11 Books on Inspiring Women To Motivate You

The women on this list have done some pretty cool things, and you might well recognize some of them. I need all the energy I can muster to push through my last semester of university, so I’m taking a few leaves from these books to get me mentally prepared. If you’re feeling the same way right now, I hope one of these titles appeals to you, too!

Photo: Ian Aberle/Flickr

14 Things Only People Who Have Spent Countless Hours Working in a Bookstore Understand

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I’ve just started writing for Bustle’s books section. Naturally, my first post is all about the joys of working in a bookstore, as I have done ever since I started working at the age of 15.

Check out the list here, and have a look around while you’re there. There’s loads of amazing book recommendations to be found, and news, entertainment, lifestyle, and fashion & beauty verticals, too – what more could you ask for?

Photo: Anthro136k Spring 2011/ Flickr