One of my 2019 New Year’s goals was to read 19 books (see: 2019 Goals). I knew that goal was unachievable, but I wanted to set myself a challenge to work towards; I wanted to encourage myself to read as much as I could. I’m pleased to share that, by setting this task, I re-kindled my love of reading and read 12 books in 2019!* Here are my thoughts on the books I read in 2019:
*Technically, I started one in 2018, and you can read about Recipes and Everyday Knowledge in the post linked above.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
I only read a brief synopsis before picking up this book, and I was initially puzzled as to why a novel requires a table of contents. After reading the first 100 odd pages, I realised that the description of this work being “multi-generational and across continents” was apt, and the temporal sections make perfect sense.
Proulx truly takes the term “historical novel” to heart by covering a period from early French settlement in North America to the early 2000s. My advice? Don’t get attached to the characters or the plot. This book’s sub-title should be “101 ways to kill a character”. It’s a lengthy read, but with the ever-changing story lines, Barkskins doesn’t stagnate, and I enjoyed that the central character is in fact the environment, not human.
Through the lens of the environment, Barkskins illuminates the troubled histories of indigenous groups and North American early settlers. It highlights this complicated and deeply destructive history of colonialism through the story of the desolation of the world’s forests. What I appreciate most about the writing is the historical research that went into accurate descriptions of everyday life. Proulx’s message concludes poignantly on climate change. Her message is clear — in regards to conservation and reforestation “you are pleading with men who just don’t care”.
From the coureur du bois and habitants, to modern-day lobbyists and businessmen, there has been a continual parade of white men presuming entitlement over nature and over others. There have equally always been people who deem them themselves stewards of nature, part of the natural environment. These contrasting views are what make Barkskins such a heart-wrenching read.
A perfect marriage of historical fiction and sustainability, Barkskins is a must read for anyone interested in either Canadian/ New England history or environmental history, as well as social and environmental justice. This book was my favourite of the year, and one of all time.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This novel is about an aristocrat who is forced to live under house arrest in a Moscow hotel following the Russian Revolution. The narrative is sophisticated and gentle, rich with beautiful language. Dipping in an out of relationships the Count has formed with inhabitants of the hotel and those from his genteel past, Towles takes the reader on a subtly humorous historical journey steeped with moral messages about humanity and life purpose. It was a delight to read.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Set in Victorian Britain, Perry’s novel is centred on the height of natural science and the fossil hunting craze. Cora Seaborne finds herself seeking emotional refuge from her opulent yet empty London life in an Essex village, which is preoccupied with mysterious occurrences. Though drawn to Aldwinter by the allure of a mythical estuary serpent, Cora becomes entangled in an intellectual and intimate relationship with the local priest. The Essex Serpent is about relationships and fear and fantasy of the unknown, which cleverly mirrors Victorian mores. It took me a while to get through this book, as the story is complex and the characters dynamic, but it was beautifully written and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Muse by Jessie Burton
The Muse has two temporal narratives, one set during the beginning of the fascist regime in Spain, and the other in 1960s London. I absolutely loved the London-based story line, which follows Odelle Bastien, a writer and woman of Caribbean heritage who secures a new job in an art gallery and overcomes many challenges commonly faced by women and immigrants in that era. I found the Spanish narrative (which is based on a British art dealer’s family living in Spain) to be clunky, and I couldn’t connect with the characters. Predictably, the two story lines are connected, but what I enjoyed about this novel is that you don’t figure out the connection until the end.
Unfortunately, the conclusion is rushed as Burton wraps things up in a few pages, which is counter to the slow pace and chronology of the rest of the book. This is the second book I’ve read by Burton, The Miniaturist being the first, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore
This illustrated work is essentially the book version of Gore’s presentation that he delivered on tour in the 2000s. It is also similar to the film by the same title. While the statistics are dated, it is fascinating and distressing to read now, given the state of the climate crisis. Gore presented the warning and the facts loud and clear and then nothing happened. All of the predictions have come true, or are worse than expected.
This book is worth reading as a reminder about what happens when we ignore science, get complacent, and let big business and greedy governments control the world’s future.
I wrote about the film versions Gore’s work in my post: Sustainability and Environmental Documentaries.
Lyrebird by Cecilia Ahern
I picked up this book for free and it sat on my shelf for ages. It’s set in modern day Ireland and is about a young woman named Laura, who is a recluse until she is “discovered” by a documentary film crew. While I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of Ireland’s rural beauty, much of the storyline, including the romance, was not to my taste. I did finish the book, but wouldn’t recommend it.
Mottainai: A Journey in Search of the Zero Waste Life by the FNR Foundation
I picked up this small book second hand purely because it sounded interesting. The writing is less than stellar, but the message of being content with less is great. The word “mottainai” in Japanese loosely translates as “what a waste”, and is used in an environmental context to convey regret about waste and hyper consumerism. The story, which is about an American going to Japan to learn about sustainability, is simply a vessel for conveying the zero waste message. I wouldn’t encourage you to rush out to get it, but the message behind the book is an important one.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
Brilliant book! I wrote about it in my Summer Favourites 2019 post.
First One Missing by Tammy Cohen
Another great psychological thriller from Cohen, this quick-read is about missing children in a London neighbourhood and a possible serial killer. Cohen’s works are great pulp fiction; they keep you entertained but aren’t overly complicated.
Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World by Londa Schiebinger
Schiebinger’s research is similar to my own interests and her previous works on bioprospecting and imperialism where what inspired my masters and doctoral theses. Although this book was a fascinating read about experimentation and medical treatment in Atlantic colonialism, it didn’t really go into detail beyond Chapter 1 about the medicinal plants and remedies used by African and Amerindian populations; rather, it explores how they were discredited before moving into discussions of race and experimentation. I was hoping the book was about the secrets themselves and I was somewhat disappointed.
East of Croydon by Sue Perkins
Although I preferred Spectacles, this humorous and emotive documentary/ travel diary style book is based on Perkins’ journey down the Mekong River that she did as part of a BBC travel show.
I watched and enjoyed the show, and this was an enriching perspective on what happened behind the scenes, and what was omitted from the series. You don’t have to have seen the TV series to read this book, but they do compliment one another.
Sourcing Books Sustainably
Finally, I just thought I’d mention how I source my books. The majority I buy second-hand from UK sellers via Amazon. Most of the time I get them for only a few quid. This year I’m going to look into getting a local library card, and use the Bodleian if I want to read academic books. I also enjoy trading books with family members. I keep a list of books I want to read, and often I spot these by window shopping walking to the bus. No need to buy new books, there are plenty of used gems out there waiting to be read!
I hope you found this post on the books I read in 2019 useful! What did you read in 2019 and what’s on your list for this year?