My 2019

The covers of the various books I read in 2019
The books I read in 2019, in the order I read them

Books –

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.

Films –

Posters of films watched in 2019

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.

My 2018: More books (and even fewer films)

Books I read in 2018, in the order I read them

Books –

I didn’t hit my target of 52 books in 2018, but I got close (50). I will start something else before the year is out, but I’m unlikely to finish it quick enough for inclusion here (unless I pick something short, but that would feel like cheating). I’ve only included things I’ve read for pleasure or personal curiosity, not anything I’ve read for work. I don’t continue with a book that becomes a chore (life is too short), so any of the above can be taken as ‘readable’ (not wishing to damn with faint praise but in my experience people’s taste in literature is harder to determine than their taste in films, so I wouldn’t recommend everything to everyone). There’s a range of genres, formats (I’ve developed a taste for short stories), and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction – something for everyone! I make no distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ titles, but the highlights for new-to-me books (Hope in the Dark was a re-read) were (in alphabetical order by title):

  • and our faces, my heart, brief as photos – John Berger
  • Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life – Yiyun Li
  • Down the Rabbit Hole – Juan Pablo Villalobos
  • Evening Descends Upon the Hills – Anna Maria Ortese
  • The Goodbye Look – Ross MacDonald
  • The History Thieves – Ian Cobain 
  • Jagua Nana – Cyprian Ekwensi
  • Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark
  • The Man Who Walked Through Walls – Marcel Aymé
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike – Carys Davies
  • Wise Children – Angela Carter

Honourable mentions: The Lady and the Little Fox Fur – Violette Leduc; The Little Virtues – Natalia Ginzburg; all of the Walter Mosley titles (all part of the Leonid McGill series).

2019: I’m just going to keep on reading, and try to avoid having periods where I don’t read at all (I had about five weeks between September and October where that happened this year, which was the longest I went, but there were several other shorter periods as well). I didn’t really carry out my intention of attempting longer books, so I’m going to aim for that as well – maybe have some short stories on the go at the same time.

Other reading –

A selection of the articles and essays that I’ve found informative, chucklesome, enraging, or thought-provoking this year (where they are available online) [a-z by title] (a couple of the LRB articles are behind a paywall – I’ve tried to pick ones that aren’t – but if you sign up with your email, you can usually read them without charge):

I’m aware that I have probably missed things this year – and will in the future as well – because I closed my Twitter account. I’ve signed up for mailing lists of publications that I find interesting, and I’ve tried subscriptions to a range of print titles…I might miss some things, but I’m still finding a rich seam of information.

Music –

Most-listened-to albums in 2018, in order of release date

I tend to be behind with music, so it’s actually quite surprising that a third of the twelve albums above were released in 2018. The rest aren’t necessarily new purchases (I think three were, but the rest I’ve had for longer), but collectively these were the albums that I listened to most often (usually in the form of my iPod shuffle whilst at work) throughout the year. The impetus for Lauryn Hill’s appearance was the realisation that the album came out twenty years ago (the year I left school and started university). In terms of ‘new discoveries’, Dessa and Rosalía were the highlights. For a musical dunce such as myself, this 38min video (in Spanish but subtitled) exploring what Rosalía does musically in El mal querer – and explaining why it is innovative – was enlightening.

Films –

Total films I’ve watched this year, in the order I saw them

No, that’s not my ‘best of the year’ (rolls eyes) but the sum total of films watched by me in 2018 (so far). I didn’t watch any films in the first half of the year (I watched some TV documentaries, but that’s about it), and more than half of the above were watched in December (due to the combination of being off sick for a week with norovirus and then the Christmas holidays). That Spanish cinema catch-up didn’t happen. If I have another year where my malaise in relation to cinema extends beyond writing about films to not even caring to watch them, it’ll probably be time to shutter the blog – but I’ll see what happens. I’m reading a lot more because I’m enjoying reading for the sake of reading; I need to get back to watching films for enjoyment, and leave the writing to one side.

Becoming Cary Grant (Mark Kidel, 2017) was my favourite of what I watched (I saw it twice); it is a melancholic (the reverberations of childhood trauma throughout his adult life) but insightful portrait of one of my favourite actors. I particularly liked the discussion/analysis of how different directors utilised and developed different aspects of his star image/persona. It made me want to hunt down some of his films that I haven’t yet seen. It screened on TV as part of Imagine, so I don’t know whether it had been edited or whether the redundant and tacked-on Alan Yentob introduction was the extent of the tinkering. The Dead Nation (Radu Jude, 2017) is also very good (making Radu Jude three for three where I’m concerned – Aferim! and Scarred Hearts have both previously been in my ‘best of the year’ posts), and a further dissection and exploration of Romania’s murky history. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (Radu Jude, 2018) in some manner. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2017) should have been cinematic catnip for me, but fleeting moments of magic aside I found it long and meandering. Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016) has Diego Luna, and that’s probably enough to warrant third position (although Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017) did make me laugh at various junctures).

2019: the films mentioned at the end of last year’s post are still things to catch up with, alongside the likes of Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018), First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018), Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR, 2018), You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018), Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018), Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2018), and Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis, 2018). Plus more Spanish titles: Quién te cantará (Carlos Vermut, 2018), Petra (Jaime Rosales, 2018), La ciudad oculta (Victor Moreno, 2018), Entre dos aguas (Isaki Lacuesta, 2018), Viaje al cuarto de una madre (Celia Rico Clavellino, 2018)…and more. A certain man from La Mancha also has his new film out next year (in the Spring in Spain – I’ve not yet seen a date for the UK).

Anyway, for now I’ll wish you health and happiness in 2019!