Another year, another pile of books, some borrowed, some given, some bought, some culled and dispatched to the charity shop, some given pride of place on my not-nearly-big-enough shelves. Here are the best, by which I mean, the ones I really remember reading.
Circe, Madeline Miller (fiction)
A birthday gift, a book I’d never never have chosen myself. Oh, what a pleasure it turned out to be. Beautifully written, mythical stories re-woven together by a female mind. I was spellbound all the way, I hungered to get back to it. And the ending – perfect.
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo (fiction)
Here’s another book I wouldn’t normally choose. I almost didn’t. I picked it up in the library, glanced at the first page, felt intrigued, but not enough to take it away. But the lines I’d scanned over lodged in my brain, so I came back for it. I honestly can’t believe the Booker judges thought they had the right to make Margaret Atwood’s book a joint winner with this one. Girl, Woman, Other is bursting with life. I chuckled and smiled so many times while reading it. My eyes sailed across the words with its lack of capitals and full stops, its teetering between free verse and prose. I’ve already got another book by Evaristo out of the library (Blonde Roots).
The Overstory, Richard Powers (fiction)
I can’t remember if I read this in 2019, or actually 2018, but who cares. I love it. If you care about the environment at all (i.e. the thing that keeps us alive) then this will be worth reading. It’s a tinder block of a book but that just means there’s more space for all the wonderful storytelling, the gorgeous descriptions of life in a forest, life in the canopy of a tree…
Waterlog, Roger Deakin (non-fiction)
This book was actually published in the 1990s but I only just got around to reading it. I read it in drips over several months, and it was delightful. Deakin – sadly departed – is like a more forgiving Bill Bryson. Let him take you on a voyage of love through water, be it a river, a sea, a lake, a lido, or even a canal.
Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie (non-fiction)
Jamie is one of my favourite nature-writers and dreadfully under-recognised. This book, like her last two (Sightlines and Findings), is a series of memoir-essays about places such as the edge of Alaska, China near the Mongolian border, and the Orkneys in Scotland. Her writing never strays into pretentiousness and she comes up with the most unexpected and lovely turns of phrase (‘a lone cloud wandered, as if looking for somewhere to rain’). But almost every chapter is weighted with the anticipatory grief of climate breakdown, which leads me onto my last two Books of the Year.
This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein (non-fiction)
If I could choose a single book to upload into the brain of every human being on earth, I think it would be this one. To try and be succinct – because it is a long book, meticulously researched over something like six years – This Changes Everything is about how business and governments have colluded to prevent any real action on climate breakdown. It’s also about the communities and movements fighting back, especially Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. This is the book I’ve been waiting for for so long, the one that tells it straight on climate breakdown: we have to change everything if we want to live.
The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells (non-fiction)
This book more or less put a seal on my decision not to have children (although it did also spark my current novel which is at 73,000 words and counting). Unlike Klein’s book, which seeks to explain how we have gone so wrong but also how we might claw back some of the future, this one simply tells us what to expect should we continue on our current trajectory of fossil fuel addiction. Of course, it’s utterly terrifying. Crops will be less nutritious. Floods and fires. Swathes of the planet including the Middle East will be uninhabitable because humans won’t be able to go outside without dying from the heat (no more hajjes to Mecca).
Happy New Year…