My Twitter bio used to say ‘Lives vicariously through books and films’, and I think that I have pursued escapism through books this year (films, not so much). I finally hit my ’52 books in a year’ target! I am currently reading book no.59, but I’m unlikely to finish it before the year is over. I started a new job back in May, and was doing a fair amount of background reading in the first half of the year (I applied in January and was interviewed in March, so the application process was quite elongated) – I usually only include books read ‘for fun’ or my own curiosity, but there is work-related reading in my tally this year (nothing ‘how to…’ but more thematic or topically relevant non-fiction), mainly because it was done in my own time and to answer my own questions, so it ‘counts’.
New job aside, 2019 can be characterised as ‘ugh’. We’re ending on a low. I wasn’t as shocked by the election result as I was in 2015, but I was still surprised and dismayed by the scale of the defeat. The Windrush scandal alone should have seen them turfed out on their arses…and that is the tip of the iceberg of what they have done in the last nine years. Now with a sizeable majority, they have a free rein. I don’t remember exactly what was going on at the time, but my reading a combination of ten John Sandford and Robert Crais books back-to-back over the course of two weeks or so in August is illustrative of a desire to block out the news (my literary crime sprees occur when I’m low or need distraction).
I usually list my standouts for the year in alphabetical order, but this year my favourite was far out ahead of everything else, so I’m going to list them in order of preference. My overall top 5 were:
- West – Carys Davies
- Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
- Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
- The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy
- Sarah Jane – James Sallis
Honourable mentions: An Honourable Man – Paul Vidich, Four Words for Friend – Marek Kohn, and The Equestrienne – Uršula Kovalyk. I’m aware that these selections are weighted towards the second half of the year, but I believe that has more to do with the first half of the year’s reading including the aforementioned background reading (and a focus on work), rather than them simply being fresher in my mind. My crime spree hit a reset button and I got on to a good run of fiction in the last few months of the year. I wouldn’t ordinarily read so many books by the same authors in one year, never mind back-to-back (even the best writers get a bit same-y or the stories run into each other, especially with recurring characters), but I was attempting to catch up on certain long running series by Sandford and Crais.
2020: I still have another series of Sandford’s to catch up with, and also Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, of which I’ve got at least four to read. I’ll keep on with the short stories and novellas – and I didn’t read as much in translation this year, so I’ll put more effort into that again. In the first half of the year I managed to read non-fiction during my morning commute and I want to re-start that (it tailed off after the summer and I either got sucked into reading the news or stared out the window instead). I still haven’t got back into longer books (I’m talking 400+ pages), but maybe this will be the year when I finally read John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.
Other reading –
Online articles that I’ve found interesting or thought provoking in one way or another (usual disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with them, but think that they are worth reading). I’m going to list them in chronological order because a number of them relate to situations that developed over the course of the year (UK politics/social issues, mainly). Where I don’t know the date, I’ve positioned them where they occur in my bookmarks (on the basis that I must have read them at that point in time). You will also notice that they are not evenly distributed throughout the year – the large gaps are where I was deliberately spending less time online, and the clusters in certain months are where I felt the need to pay attention (noticeably in relation to the General Election). There’s not much film writing included, which is indicative of my general levels of interest but also I’ve found that without Twitter I encounter less of that subject matter. Articles from The Guardian are mainly from their Long Reads series – I subscribe to the RSS feed of certain sections of the paper and those of specific journalists (part of a strategy to avoid the clickbaity provocations of the main page). The London Review of Books (LRB) has a new website and has removed the paywall until mid-January, so I’d advise you to fill your boots over there.
- Consolation Prizes – Alex Pareene, The Baffler, January
- “The goal is to automate us”: Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism – John Naughton, The Guardian, 20th January
- Finding My Father’s Auschwitz File – Allen Hershkowitz, New York Review of Books, 25th January
- Three Writing Rules to Disregard – Benjamin Dreyer, The Paris Review, 1st February
- Bolsonaro’s Brazil – Perry Anderson, LRB, 7th February
- Leave, and Leave Again – William Davies, LRB, 7th February
- The New Scabs: Stars Who Cross the Picket Line – Soraya Roberts, LongReads, 8th February
- Valeria Luiselli: “There are always fingerprints of archives in my books” – Mary Wang, Guernica, 12th February
- An inevitable division: the politics and consequences of the Labour split – Jeremy Gilbert, openDemocracy, 20th February
- How the truth of ‘The Troubles’ is still suppressed – Alex Gibney, NYRB, 22nd February
- Spain’s Watergate: Inside the corruption scandal that changed a nation – Sam Edwards, The Guardian, 1st March
- Debunking the myth that anti-Zionism is antisemitic – Peter Beinart, The Guardian, 7th March
- Among the Gilets Jaunes – Jeremy Harding, LRB, 21st March
- Corita Kent’s Rules, Reading Design
- Colorism in High Fashion – Malaika Handa, The Pudding, April
- Roberto Gavaldón: Mexico’s Auteur of Noir – Will Noah, NYRB, 27th April
- A Study of Italian Fascism: Rosi’s ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ – David Schurman Wallace, NYRB, 2nd May
- The first missing numbers: the savings from Universal Credit – Anna Powell-Smith, Missing Numbers, 9th May
- If you didn’t desert Labour over the Iraq war, why give up on it over Brexit? – Gary Younge, The Guardian, 17th May
- Will Spain be the Saviour of Social Democracy in Europe? – Omar G. Encarnación, NYRB, 28th May
- The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism – Andy Beckett, The Guardian, 25 June
- Journeys through Black Europe: An interview with Johny Pitts – Owen Hatherly, Tribune, 7th July
- The Driest Eye [on Natalia Ginzburg] – Deborah Eisenberg, NYRB, 18th July
- Deep Focus: the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema – Chloe Roddick, Sight & Sound, July
- Present Tense: Back-ting – Sheila O’Malley, Film Comment, 25th July
- The Central Park Squirrel Census – Jamie Allen, The Paris Review, 31st July
- Agnès Varda – Michael Wood, LRB, 1st August
- Symposium – Martin Scorsese: He Is Cinema, Reverse Shot, Sept – Oct
- I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain – Martin Scorsese, The New York Times, 4th November
- On London Bridge – James Butler, LRB blog, 2nd December
- Translating a Person – Alejandro Zambra, Believer, 2nd December
- ‘Hijacked by Marxists’ – James Butler, LRB blog, 10th December
- Labour won’t win again until it works out why it lost – Gary Younge, The Guardian, 13th December
- This Labour meltdown has been building for decades – Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian, 14th December
- ‘It’s in the Air, It’s in Your Bones’: Notes on an Aftermath – Salvage Editorial Collective, Salvage, 18th December
- Labour must resist those who say nationalism is the way to gain power – Daniel Trilling, The Guardian, 23rd December
I was in half a mind to just have an image from the film(s) I want to talk about, but having displayed everything that I’ve read, I thought that I may as well display the entirety of what I’ve watched as well. It’s an odd assortment. Four more titles than last year but still very few in terms of my older habits. All but two of them are documentaries or documentary series – I have had zero interest in watching fiction recently.
My favourite thing that I’ve watched this year is the combination of Bertrand Tavernier’s 3 hour documentary on French cinema and his subsequent 6 part TV series that continued on the same subject (if you look closer, you’ll see that the second poster puts the title into the plural). The TV series (the French DVD set has optional English subtitles) covers the same time frame (he again stops at the point when he began making films himself) but different films and filmmakers to the documentary film – even with what must be more than 8 hours, it feels like he barely scratches the surface of his enthusiasms. As with Scorsese’s documentaries on Italian and American cinemas, you’re getting a personal view of the films rather than a straightforward history, but that’s what I find so engaging – not just that you’re getting a knowledgeable person’s recommendations, but that you’re getting introductions to titles that don’t necessarily feature in the sanctified canon. [If someone could make an equivalent for Spanish cinema, that’d be grand].
My knowledge of French cinema is fairly basic (certainly in comparison to Spanish cinema) or feels un-informed, essentially confined to what was covered in either an Introduction to Film Studies module, or a semester-long undergraduate module which concentrated on the 1980s (Besson, Beineix, Carax – and the cinéma du look) onwards. That said, French films had decent distribution during my teenage years and into my twenties, so I did watch a lot of French films – and developed a love of Claude Chabrol and Lino Ventura – both at the cinema and via Lovefilm, and initially my PhD was going to include French cinema, so I had subscriptions to French film magazines and was paying attention to what was being made at that point. But in terms of what French cinema means to French people, my understanding was limited (although the film magazines were interesting in that regard in terms of what was popular and who got coverage – that’s why I still have subscriptions to Spanish film mags; if I had to rely on information filtering through to UK/US publications, I wouldn’t know anything or anyone).
After watching Tavernier’s films, I have discovered that where Pathé and Gaumont have in recent years restored older films for French home viewing, a fair few have optional English subtitles – I now have a small pile of imported films by Duvivier, Clouzot, Lautner, Grangier, Grémillon, Becker, and others. In 2020 I’ll be looking to rekindle my interest in cinema via these treasures. I have given up on contemporary cinema at the moment – at least in terms of going to the cinema – but alongside the French imports (of old films) I am hoping to start watching some of the (recent) Spanish films that I’ve imported in the last couple of years (although I think I’ve said that in each of the equivalent posts in the last two years). So 2020 may be a year of French and Spanish cinema for me…and more documentaries, no doubt. Hasta pronto.