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A Year in Books

Back in January 2010, I decided that I wanted to keep a list of all the books I read for a year, and since then, I’ve been faithfully recording my reading. Keeping the list has proved quite a fascinating process, and I think I’ve ended up learning a whole lot more than I ever anticipated about my reading habits – not to mention myself.

Lots of things I discovered about my reading surprised me: for example, how many more books by women I read compared to books by men; how little poetry and non-fiction I read; and just how many children’s and young adult books I read, – even considering that it’s fairly essential for my job. And also, just how much I read. I’ve always been a pretty avid reader, but I hadn”t expected to discover I read over 100 new books in a year.

Keeping a list of just the books that were new to me – first reads, if you will – was a deliberate strategy. I’m absolutely not one of those people who can only read a book once. In fact, I frequently revisit favourite books over and over again, and certain moods may draw me towards particular titles, so I decided there wasn’t any point listing every single book I read, but only the new ones.

I also set myself some other rules, for example: I wouldn’t list any books that I didn’t actually finish, and I wouldn’t include anything that I simply ‘flicked through’ rather than reading cover to cover. So art books I skimmed wouldn’t count, but a graphic novel I sat down and read properly would; recipe books I dipped into wouldn’t count but a biography or collection of essays that I read from beginning to end would.

Twelve months and over 100 books later, I thought it would be fun to revisit my completed list, and take a look at some my highlights from a very interesting year of reading. First up I thought I’d focus on the adult books I read this year – I’ll have to revisit the children’s and teen books later as there are so many of them!

My favourite new fiction:

  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: a crumbling country house in the unsettled post-war society of 1947 is the setting for this compulsive, intense page-turner with a hint of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
  • The Children’s Book by AS Byatt: spanning the period from the end of the 19th century to the conclusion of the first world war, this sweeping, highly-charged, multifaceted novel is the best Byatt I’ve read since Posession. Probably my book of the year.
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: In spite of all the hype, I wasn’t disappointed by Mantel’s latest novel. Focusing on the fascinating figure of Thomas Cromwell and his place within the complex, richly-evoked world of the Tudor court, Wolf Hall is a slow burner: it took a little while before it grabbed me, but once it did, I was hooked.
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: I was in two minds whether or not to include this as in general, I’m not a huge fan of McEwan. However, I did rate this slender, understated tribute to misunderstanding and disappointed love, which was to me at least, more compelling than most of his books that I’ve read
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: Surprise! I do read something other than literary fiction with a historical setting! This companion volume to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, set in a dystopian bioengineered future is an incredible feat of imagination: fascinating, startling and moving by turns.
  • The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger: from the author of the hugely popular The Timetraveller’s Wife comes this surprisingly understated graphic novel. And it’s about compulsive reading, so of course it struck a chord with me. My review of it on the Booktrust website is here.
  • Corrag by Susan Fletcher: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story of the Jacobite rebellion, told in part through the eyes of a young woman imprisoned and condemned as a witch, but was soon impressed by Fletcher’s luminous, lyrical evocation of the Scottish highlands.
  • Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla: All right, so I know this one is by my buddy Nikesh, but all the same it is genuinely deserving of its place amongst my best books of the year. I have enormous admiration for any book that can make me laugh out loud, and this book didn’t just do that, it actually made me laugh out loud, many times, on public transport. Now that really is pretty cool.
  • Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Another surprise entry: a book about a giant, gin-swilling dog? And Winston Churchill? Huh? But this promising debut novel is actually an unexpected pleasure: bold, witty and well-crafted.

My favourite new-to-me fiction (otherwise known as the ‘how come I hadn’t read this before?’ list):

  • The Collector by John Fowles: I re-read The Magus on holiday in Croatia this year and enjoyed it so much I had to seek out the other Fowles titles I hadn’t read, including this, his first novel, the tale of a sinister butterfly collector. Compulsive, fascinating and incredibly clever, it didn’t disappoint me.
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (and indeed the entire Jackson Brodie series): Simply brilliant. I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s other books for years, so why did it take me so long to discover Jackson Brodie? I’m recommending these to everyone I know.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer: Much more than just a whimsical love story, this charming and nostalgic wartime tale is a delightful, heartwarming read.
  • Snobs by Julian Fellowes: Like everyone else on the planet, I loved Downton Abbey this year, and so I thought I should seek out more of Fellowes’s writing. It’s no Gosford Park but this entertaining satire of upper class life is great fun: a little bit E.M. Forster, a little bit Nancy Mitford, with maybe a touch of the Jilly Coopers thrown in.
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield: The other book that made me laugh out loud on the tube a lot this year. This one is going straight onto my all-time favourites list. Quite simply brilliant.

Best non-fiction:

  • So Much to Tell by Valerie Groves: For anyone who knows their children’s book onions, the name ‘Kaye Webb’ has a little bit of magic about it. This fascinating biography of Webb’s odd and extraordinary life had been on my must-read list for ages, and it didn’t disappoint
  • Home by Julie Myerson: I’m always fascinated by the history of old houses – thinking about all the people who might have lived there in the past. Julie Myerson takes it a step further in this readable ‘biography of a house’, researching the story of everyone who has ever lived in her Clapham home.
  • Mrs Keppel and her Daughter by Diana Souhami: I’m reading a lot about the Edwardian era at the moment, and this vivid biography, focusing on the King’s mistress Mrs Keppel and her difficult daughter Violet, is one of the best things I’ve discovered.

What were your most memorable reads of 2010?

[Image via Tumblr]

The Monster Supply Store

You’ll have been hard pushed to miss the recent press coverage of the Ministry of Stories, a newly-launched volunteer-run initiative aimed at reawakening children’s imaginations and getting them writing creatively. Supported by authors including Nick Hornby (one of the founders), Zadie Smith and Roddy Doyle, the London-based project is inspired by the hugely successful 826 Valencia, a children’s writing centre set up by Dave Eggers in San Francisco.

The Ministry aims to provide a free space for fresh writing by young people, including workshops and one-to-one mentoring. The services are all provided by volunteers, including local writers, artists and teachers, who give their time and talent for free. And at the front of the workshop spaces is a rather unique shop – Hoxton Street Monster Supplies. It’s only been open for a week or two, but anyone is welcome to pop in and purchase anything that the average monster might need – from a tin of Escalating Panic to a packet of Fang Floss.

I went to take a peep at the shop last weekend, and if you’re in London, I highly recommend paying it a visit. It’s enormous fun and incredibly well-thought out: all the staff stay perfectly in role, and there are lots of lovely little touches, from a shelf with a huge bite taken out of it, to a handy noticeboard for monster small ads (e.g. ‘Missing: One Brain…’).

As well as tins of Mortal Terror (the tins, by the way, contain short stories by the likes of Joe Dunthorne and Laura Dockrill) you can buy monster artworks created by illustrators who teamed up with local primary schools, and t-shirts printed with a slogan of what else but ‘Boo!’

My personal highlight is the ‘invisible cat’ that purrs on your approach. “Oh don’t mind her,” said one of the assistants as I stopped, intrigued, to take a closer look. “She’s such an attention seeker.”

 

Find out more about the Ministry of Stories and the Monster Supply Store here.

[Images via Ministry of Stories]

making lists

As an avid list-maker, I like the look of this exhibition about lists, currently running at the Laurence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington D.C., discovered via the BBC website.

The exhibition includes hundreds of lists drawn up by modern artists, ranging from lists of ideas or paintings, right through to apparently straightforward ‘things to do’ lists. Amongst them is Picasso’s handwritten list of recommended artists for the historic 1913 Armory Show: amusingly, he couldn’t spell the name of his contemporary Marcel Duchamp. Other notable in the exhibition include architect Eero Saarinen’s list of attributes he found attractive in his wife (!) and Alfred Konrad’s illustrated list of what to pack for a trip to Rome and Egypt in 1962 (see above).

I’m finding further list-making inspiration at the Listography website where users can create a personal database of lists from to-do lists and wish lists through to High Fidelity-esque top tens ; and also on hula seventy‘s blog – a fellow list-maker, she is posting a new list every week, ranging from guilty pleasures to favourite words.

Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artist’s Enumerations from the Archives of American Art runs until September 2010 (the chances of me getting to see it are non-existent, but luckily there will also be an exhibition catalogue).

[Image: Adolf Konrad’s packing list via the Archives of American Art ]

fourteen interventions: swedenborg house

On a very wet evening last week, I went along to the opening of a new site-specific exhibition, Fourteen Interventions, at Swedenborg House in Bloomsbury.

Swedenborg House is an intriguing place in itself: this elegant Bloomsbury listed building is the centre of operations for the Swedenborg Society, established in 1810, whose aim is to translate and publish the works of the idiosyncratic scientist, philosopher and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. Fourteen Interventions is part of the society’s bicentennial celebrations – a series of site specific and site responsive artworks, dispersed throughout the four storey building to celebrate the space, its unique history, its architecture and its artefacts: the artists involved include Jeremy Deller, Olivia Plender, Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan, Bridget Smith. Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair.

At the crowded private view, it was difficult to get a good look at many of the artworks tucked away in unexpected corners of this rambling building, but I did get a chance to explore the installations in the basement store room, where mysterious voices emanated from speakers concealed within archive boxes, and flickering projections of blurred images were glimpsed in half-hidden spaces at the back of shelves.

I was especially interested in the combination of visual artworks with written texts throughout the exhibition: Sinclair’s commentaries on unusual and arcane objects from the society’s archives underlines the point that in such a unique and atmospheric context, there’s only a fine line between everyday object and artwork. In a building like this one, it can be difficult to see where site responsive artistic intervention begins and ends, and what is simply the fabric of the space itself.

Fourteen Interventions will be at Swedenborg House until 5 March.

27 things to do before I turn 28


Following my fairly unsuccessful list of 26 things to do before I turn 27, I thought it would be only right and proper to make a new list of things to do in my 27th year. However, having learned my lessons from last year, I decided to be slightly less ambitious with my plans this time. Who knows, I might even manage to actually achieve a few more of the following, rather more achievable goals for 2010…

Here are some of the things I’d like to do this year:

1. Knit a jumper
2. Keep a list of all the new books I read
3. Plant red geraniums in a window box
4. Go to the ballet
5. Swim at a London lido
6. Have an elegant afternoon tea
7. Start writing a new novel
8. See some live comedy
9. Go to London Zoo
10. Take a dance class
11. Learn to crotchet
12. Collaborate
13. Get a bicycle
14. Eat a lobster
15. Go to Rye in East Sussex
16. Make handmade Christmas presents
18. Read more non-fiction
19. Buy some art
20. Read the only book I still haven’t read from the Lone Pine series by Malcolm Saville (Strangers at Witchend)
21. Go on holiday
22. Bake a pie
23. Get published in print
24. Eat sushi
25. Swim in the sea
26. Create a handmade book
27. Go on the Eurostar

[Image via Tumblr here]