“The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
I think the inverse could be true for books. Books are so immediate – I need to be reading them right then and there to feel it all. The precise emotions disappear too soon after reading, leaving a memory of a feeling so maddeningly indistinct and impressionistic that all articulation becomes trite and balkingly incomplete. I find most book reviews painful to read. Reviewers can be more concerned with their own flourishes than paying tribute to those of their subjects. Or sometimes their attempts to pay tribute are so sycophantic that they accidentally embark upon an embarrassing errand of imitation. This year I read a review of Hera Lindsay Bird’s chapbook written in a style so strivingly similar to the poet’s own – so much so that I felt physically sick. At the same time I live for reviews. I have to read about a work after I’ve experienced it. Even to read a plot summary is strangely soothing. Ah, yes, that’s how it unfolded, and someone else has witnessed it, too. So a poorly written review is a wretched thing, but even the bad ones help ease my prickly passage through a curly work. All that said, these are not reviews. Just a list of favourite reads from the past year. And not even an exhaustive list at that.
Teju Cole – Blind Spot. I was so bowled over by Cole’s live photography criticism at the Auckland Writers Festival last year but it took me a while to follow up. This work contains 150 of his photographs, each paired with a precise paragraph. Sometimes it’s obvious but other times the connection between image and text is like a Where’s Wally experience. Like your favourite not-instagrammy instagram account turned into pages and bound in delicious green. No blind spot here – Cole can see, really see.
Olivia Laing – Crudo. I know, I know, the biggest Trump-Brexit-shitshow-era novel we’ve all been waiting for. I first heard about this novel via a tweet from Max Harris, of ‘politics of love’ fame. I love his work and the fact that anything that this academic visionary touches can’t help but take on some of his earnest aura. But there was nothing earnest about this book. Apocalypse NOW. This book is filled with queasy, despairing observations borrowed from all of our selfish, squirming minds. Laing mocks the comfort of the blind spot and the long-expired legitimacy of ignorance:
“Ten years ago, maybe even five, it was possible to ignore atrocities, to believe that these things happened somewhere else, in a different order of reality from your own. Now, perhaps because of the internet, it was like the blind spot had got very small, and motional like a marble. You couldn’t rely on it. You could go on holiday but you knew corpses washed up there, if not now then then, or later.”
Elif Batuman – The Idiot. I read this one on the train from London to Glasgow. Something was unfurling and waking up in me after a numb, numb time. Perfect timing, this was yet another favourite from my 2018 stack that featured an anxious writer writing about writing (or not writing): “Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.” HA.
Sheila Heti – Motherhood. The best book I read this year. A novel that made me love novels again. Even great fiction-writers fall into cringey behaviour and pull too heavily on the privilege of suspended disbelief. But this novel didn’t feel like a novel. It felt like a personal essay. Three years, three coins, and one question. But it’s not really one question, is it. “What am I – not my behaviour or my roles, but this burning light inside me that is laughing all the time.” Heti tells us it’s about hope, purpose, futurity, and care. With or without children.
Sally Rooney – Normal People. It wouldn’t be a 2018 reading list without this title. Even Kim Hill weighed in and named it the best. Well CWF was better, sorry. But I read this one in a day when we returned from the UK and it helped distract me from my thesis woes. Had many tense talks with Grace over Marianne and Connell:
H: If they were so smart (as the narrator irritatingly insisted) then why couldn’t they communicate with each other?
G: That’s what it’s like to be young, Hannah. You’ve forgotten already.