2019 reading review and plans for 2020
In the hellscape that has been 2019, my reading was a bright spot. I didn’t read as much as I did in 2018 and I failed a bunch of challenges, but I enjoyed what I read. I broadened my reading horizons and revisited old favorites. I’m not going to make a Top 10 list, but here are some books and patterns that stood out to me.
70 71* books this year. The first half had me on pace to read 100 again, but by summer I was mired in work stuff, and my vacation and other travels were less reading-friendly than usual. Fall semester was even worse, and there were stretches where I barely read at all. Given those developments, 71 books feels like an accomplishment. And last year I wondered if I’d read too many books, because I want to remember what I read. Anyway, the total number is fine. I didn’t have a total books goal, so what I read is what I read. I’ve been cataloguing them at LibraryThing, so you can see the full range of my 2019 reading there.
Of the 71, the majority were 4 stars or above. That isn’t great for a reviewer’s distribution, but for a reader it’s satisfying. Apart from a couple of lists with a range of types of books (TOB) and challenges (especially the Romance TBR Challenge) I tended to pick books I expected to like. As opposed to when I was reviewing for Dear Author, I didn’t feel as if I had to cover a particular swath of the genre.
I read more books in translation than I have in the past, in part because I followed the Man Booker International award in the spring. I also read a few more translated mysteries by Japanese authors, and I paid more attention to translated Quebecois fiction. And I continued to buy books from Fitzcarraldo, who publish quite a bit of translated fiction.
My standout translated novels were The Sound of Things Falling, Soldiers of Salamis, At Dusk, and Life in the Court of Matane. I still have Songs for the Cold of Heart, Dupont’s Giller shortlisted book, in the TBR and plan to read it soonish. A friend strongly recommended Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, and I have two more Cercas novels in the TBR (and he has a new one coming out this year). And while I DNF’d two highly regarded translations, I think I’ll revisit both of them, because I may have just read them at the wrong time.
I had a number of standout reads in English-language novels: top of the list in terms of unexpected enjoyment was Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte. I get why people didn’t like it, but I loved it. Rushdie’s work is very personal for me, and this novel resonated across place, time, and topics. Another unexpected gem was Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything. I was meh on the first half and then everything fell into place in the second and it was brilliant. Frustrated as I get with the Booker process, it’s experiences like this that keep me reading the longlist. I should also mention Michael Hughes’s Country and Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, both of which were wonderful in very different ways. Country is an example of the problems with the Literary Fiction Hype Machine: it remains under the radar despite being as good as some of the highly hyped novels and better than a lot of them.
My favourite authors did not let me down this year. I caught up with some old Sarah Morgan romances and her most recent women’s fiction novel was terrific. I finally read an old Kearsley I’d had in the TBR forever and will definitely, finally, read Belleweather this year. I hope she has a new novel in the works for 2020. I need to get back to my Trollope rereads; I’m halfway through the first Palliser and have two Barchester novels to go. I only have two or three Iain M. Banks Culture novels left, so I’ll continue spacing them out, but I still have half a dozen of his non-Culture books to look forward to, as well as a couple of non-M novels.
In other classics, TheH and I listened to the first dozen or so chapters of the Moby Dick audiobook that was put together for the anniversary and it was excellent. Only 100+ chapters left!
My challenges were a mixed bag. I managed to write a review every month for SuperWendy’s TBR challenge, which is a first for me, and I completed (barely) my 24-book Virtual TBR challenge, which tallies up library reads. But I only managed 36 of the 48 required books for my Mt. TBR challenge level, and I only read half of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge. In unofficial challenges I read 9 of the 13 Booker longlist novels and have two of the remaining four in the TBR. I’ll get to them in 2020.
No more challenges. No more online hype machine reads, and by that I mean not just Goodreads and other social media but the “what’s coming in 2020” lists that everyone from LitHub to The Millions to Guardian’s book section puts out. After years of paying attention to them, it’s clear that they are at least 50 percent based on marketing efforts. Does anyone really need to be reminded that Hilary Mantel’s final Cromwell installment is dropping this year? Will we somehow avoid finding out that Ali Smith’s final seasonal novel will be published in (you guessed it) Summer 2020? Of course I’ll read it, but please, for the love of literature, tell us about the books we aren’t likely to have heard of, by people who don’t have fantastic agents. I wonder if the site writers who compile these lists even bother with publisher’s catalogues anymore, or if they just scroll through their emails looking at agent and editor promo blasts. Blergh.
On the more positive side, I’ve really enjoyed returning to regularly reading the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. I eventually learn about all the It books there, as well as a bunch of others, and I learn about them through long, thoughtful reviews and essays, not listicles and breathless promotional prose. It’s so 20thC and I’m totally there for it. I can take or leave the TLS, but I’m quite fond of the New Statesman‘s book section (mostly for Leo Robson’s reviews).
I’m going to keep reading my TBR but I’m trying to cut back on library borrowing and holds on new books. I’ll keep borrowing library books when I want to read something, but I find that my hold lists and attention to new releases echoes the challenge system a bit too much, because I have to read them when they become available (sometimes all in a rush) and it takes some of the fun out of it when I can’t read at my own pace. I’ll put books on hold that I really want to read, and borrow ebooks when I have the print and want both formats, but I’m done with the 2- to 6-month wait for the book everyone is talking about. Or at least I won’t do nearly as much of it.
What I hope to read this year: Lots of translated fiction. The Galley Beggar Press books I’ve bought and haven’t read. Ditto for Fitzcarraldo, especially the two big fat Enard novels. More Cercas, Vasquez, David Peace, Penelope Fitzgerald, Higashino’s mysteries. More Patrick Modiano. More northern England novels (Ironopolis was tough but the further I get from it the more impressed I am by it). And of course more romances, at least one a month from the TBR.
2019’s reading helped me get through the year, and I expect 2020’s reading to be just as necessary to my mental and emotional health.
*I finished Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana just under the wire. That’s what I get for writing up the post before the end of the year. Verdict: mostly good and sometimes very good but also peppered with racist language that I had trouble getting past. Yes it was period-appropriate, but it still felt like a gut-punch when I came across it. It’s a recurrent feature in Greene, especially in his colonial-set novels.