In a variation on our reading lists of last summer, our first wave of contributors share their most favourite books of 2019 thus far…
I too have read Rooney’s Normal People and Porter’s Lanny and would love to blast my lexical canon about how tremendous both were. Yet the book that hit me most unexpectedly was Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. Aye, it shouldn’t have been a surprise being a Bloomsbury published international best seller. And, aye, like Rooney’s book, it came out in 2018 but I’m going to attest to the British version being a 2019 surfacing (or so close tae it there’s no point getting contentious over a few swoops of moon).
Terese notes ‘sometimes suicidality doesn’t seem dark; it seems fair’. Terese grew up on Seabird Island First Nation Indian Reservation and is writing beyond trauma; writing in a notebook post breakdown; writing of the life her mother lived, of her life and that of her child. Poetry, activism, suffering and oneiric wonder are passed along the chain in a voice so distinct it’s many voices.
Nestled within the zeitgeist genre of narrative non-fiction The New York Times called Heart Berries ‘a new model for the memoir’. I won’t speak eruditely on behalf of the older models it’s usurped but can’t see memoir being any other way now.
THE OFFING – BEN MYERS. I’ve had the privilege to read an early draft of this soon-to-be-published novel. Not really a follow-up to The Gallows Pole or part two of Under The Rock this is a new departure for Myers, and just as welcome – it reminds me of a time when David Bowie could serve up something new with almost every album. The Offing, then, is Myers’ own Low and takes us out to my East Coast in the footsteps of a young man in a time not so long past. Yet this is no mere boy’s adventure, the book portrays an uncanny feminine touch and though the trip is gentle, there are deep undercurrents in this heart of a new rural darkness.
I binged Lisa Taddeo’s extraordinary Three Women over the course of a weekend. An intimate, deeply researched account of her subjects’ sexual lives, I saw parts of myself reflected in all three of the women’s experiences. A subtle, complex, occasionally overwritten but ultimately devastating project, it underscores the difficulty women face in growing into and owning an authentic suite of desires given the distorting effects of sexual inequality. It’s a sharp change of gear but I’m now really enjoying Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places by Julian Hoffman, whose last book The Small Heart of Things was an exquisitely written gem. The jacket really doesn’t do this vibrant, peopled, hopeful book justice: it’s packed with stories of struggle and resistance, as well as some breathtaking nature writing. A reminder of the power we all have to protect the places we love, Irreplaceable could not have come at a better time.
Ash Before Oak by Jeremy Cooper (Fitzcarraldo Editions). Not only does Ash Before Oak contain some of the most immersive nature writing I’ve seen committed to the page, it is also one of the most moving and emotionally wrenching books I’ve read in years. I refer to as a ‘book’ as beyond that I am not sure how else to categorise it. Diary? Memoir? Novel? Landscape journal? Prose-poetry outpouring? Yes to all of these…but also no, because the barriers between each genre are blurred as Jeremy Cooper simply presents his daily thoughts on a new life living in seclusion on a remote Somerset estate.
The flora and fauna, the daily repetitions and observed rituals of the simple life are documented in keen detail, and with some beautiful turns of phrase. But what on the surface sounds like the pursuit of a post-pastoral idyll actually peels back to reveal the inner workings of a fragile and unravelling mind as it descends towards darkness over a two year period. It’s a book with a thin skin. That I devoured all 500+ pages of it in two days while staying on a farm in rural Herefordshire surely heightened and enhanced the experience. Ash Before Oak inhabits a self-contained world and is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever previously read.
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – Constellations is a memoir of a female body, told through a series of essays. It charts pain, loss, trauma and healing. Gleeson describes how it is to move through the world in a body that bleeds and is prone to breakage, that is yours but is so often pulled away from you by other people. I felt the clots and the gristle of it in my own bones. It made me feel strange and sore and alive.