In August 2014, my husband gave me a black notebook, and I started what’s turned out to be one of my most important habits as a writer: keeping longhand notes on every book I read. So not only do I know everything I read in 2015, but I also know what I thought about it, rather than having to agonisingly reconstruct it all from the stacks of books I’ve left around the house and half-formed thoughts I tweeted as I went.
I read 50 books this year, 18 non-fiction and 32 fiction (which is less biased towards fiction than I expected). 35 were by female authors and 15 by male authors. A thoroughly unimpressive five were by non-white authors – which means that I read more books by BME authors than I did James Bond books, but only just. Something to work on next year. Only one of the books I read was in translation. 14 were for review (because this year I started writing book reviews regularly for a few places), and another six were background reading for reviews.
In January, I read The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (a present from my husband), in which Wonder Woman’s secret history turns out to be tangled up with some of the key figures in the women’s rights movement in America as well as the febrile domestic life of her creator. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel nearly lost me early on with a pile-up of coincidental meetings between characters that tested my disbelief, but won me over by the end with its enormously beautiful evocation of human life after near extinction, and its hymnal to the persistence of art, high and low. I was maddened and beguiled by Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, which flits between ferocious insight into the dehumanised condition of woman under patriarchy, and lunatic vortexes of puns.
I grew up in the country in almost exactly the kind of village where Melissa Harrison sets her novel At Hawthorn Time, which I read in February. Her rural realism is attentive to both nature and people, tender but not sentimental, and beautifully written – though I wish the world had had more room to breath before the climax. Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James is the start of a good novel that peters out into too much white space and not enough story. And I read Femicide: The Politics of Woman Killing, a collection of essays edited by Jill Radford and Diana E H Russell, which meticulously places men’s fatal violence against women into the political context of men’s social dominance over women. It’s brutal, horrifying and essential.
In March most of my reading was directed towards a project that is as-yet unpublished (but will hopefully appear in the new year). So I read Sex Itself: The Search for Male and Female in the Human Genome by Sarah Richardson; Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffries (a polemic against trangenderism); Redefining Realness by Janet Mock (the engagingly written memoir of a transwoman); and Brain Storm by Rebecca M Jordan-Young, which I only regret not reading sooner. Jordan-Young is one of those writers who can make a whole field of otherwise impenetrable study (in this case, neuroscience’s quest to discover features that might amount to “brain sex”) entirely lucid and open to criticism.
I wrote my first review for the Guardian in April. The subject was The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (who also won the Polari First Book Prize this year for her short story collection The Rental Heart). Despite the promisingly eerie drowned world it is set in, and the sweetness of the romance between its two main characters, it didn’t quite make it for me. When everyone was reading Piketty in 2013 (my copy is still on my nightstand, bookmark near the beginning, looking squat and accusing), one of the big questions from my friends was: “Where is the feminist response?” Katrine Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? was actually originally published before Piketty but only came out in English this year, and goes a very long way to answering the question of what feminist economics might look like: it takes seriously the value of unpaid work and the degree to which society is borne up by the female body. It changed the way I think about labour. Do It Like a Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez is an invigorating survey of female endeavour and activism, from the South Pole to the slums of India, from spray painting in London to divorce courts in Yemen. It is a catalogue of sheroes and I loved it. And finally in this month, I read Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which has stuck to my brain like goose grass since: a double-jointed story of love and women’s work and loss and the strange transfers of sympathy that art can accomplish. (I wrote about it for the New Statesman when Smith won the Baileys Prize this year)
I read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill in May, and it’s fair to say this dystopia of sexual and reproductive exploitation in a world where women are grown and moulded to precisely serve male desires never quite shakes off the shadow of Atwood. The New Statesman asked me to review In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, with the proviso that I had a weekend to read it, and it happened to be a weekend when I was taking four nine-year-olds camping. So in what felt like the most Judy Blume reading experience in the world, I read it on what was basically a sleepover, in a tent, by torchlight. As you might expect from Blume, it’s a novel of humour and honesty, delivered with enormous kindness. Wonderful. I started Leslie Jamison’s exquisite essay collection The Empathy Exams which was shortly (but fortuitously) interrupted by the Guardian asking me to review the new novel by Scarlet Thomas, so I read Thomas’s 2006 novel The End of Mr Y in preparation, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before, as this concoction of metaphysics, metafiction and bad sex was almost the exact definition of my bag. Very, very funny too.
In June I read, reviewed and entirely loved The Seed Collectors by Scarlet Thomas, a family saga that pushes ideas about dependency, relationships and the eroticism of empathy (I ended up quoting Jamison in the review) to a strange, raw and filthily hilarious new place. The character of Bryony is an invention of pure splendour. I’m appalled that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have noticed how right I am about this, and I plan to bang on about it indefinitely. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, which I somehow hadn’t read before. I love the idea of magic as the power of words to order the world. I love the idea of a magician haunted by the unstoppable evil he summoned in his hubris. I just love it. Heather O’Neill’s short story collection Daydreams of Angels, however, I did not love. In fact it was a naus, overripe with sentiment and leaden with ill-thought-out twists on fairytale scenarios. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Schafer was much better, a conspiracist thriller set in a corporate data dystopia that’s all the more disturbing for being basically the world exactly as it is, although I wanted more than the conclusion gave and was sorry that of the three principles, the female character was the one who tracked the closest to cliche.