One advantage of this strangest of times is that there’s a little more freedom to both read and write! Once again, I’m doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge, with my target of 40 books based on last year’s reading. It may turn out to be a little low, given the advent of Covid-19 and our current more-or-less locked down situation, but I’m finding it quite hard to concentrate on reading given the demands of remote working, the many digital distractions and the constant low-level anxiety underlying everything right now. However, I’m definitely reading more than I normally would at this time of year, and I’ve finished fifteen books at the end of the first quarter of the year. It’s been quite a mixed bag!
Unusually for me, novels account for just over half of my reading so far this year – it’s normally nearer to eighty per cent, and probably will be by the end of the year! The absolute highlight so far has been Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful, poetic depiction of 21st-century womanhood, Girl, Woman, Other, joint winner of the Booker Prize, and deservedly so. Highly recommended, with the various intertwined stories offered in manageable chunks, which may be helpful if your concentration span is anything like mine at the moment!
I also really enjoyed Anne Enright’s Actress, a poignant account of a complex mother-daughter relationship, and Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups is definitely my favourite of her more recent books. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, but there’s an empathy about her character creation that really makes you feel part of the semi-dysfunctional Casey family. A note on this: I actually listened to it as an audiobook, read by Marian herself, which was a wonderful experience – just like having this wonderful, warm, funny author read ing to you! If you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, you’ll definitely want to read Olive, Again (though you probably have, as I was a bit late to the party on this one!). Here, Strout takes us through Olive’s later years in a touchingly funny and bittersweet tale. I liked but didn’t love Machines Like Me, which had been on my to-read list for some time. The story of the humanoid robot Adam is a timely one, but just didn’t really come to life for me (pardon the pun – groan…).
I delved into some classic fiction too, with Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, which won the 1978 Booker Prize. I found the deeply-flawed Charles Arrowby to be a horribly compelling character, and enjoyed the story in a car-crash sort of way, but when I followed this up with The Black Prince, I had had enough of deeply-flawed male narrators telling the disastrous stories of their lives!
I’ve just finished Irish author Liz Nugent’s wonderful Our Little Cruelties, and if you like your reading material dark yet blackly comic, I would definitely recommend this (and Nugent’s other novels too, which have all featured on my reading lists! The three Drumm brothers and their dysfunctional mother are fascinatingly awful characters, and yet Nugent skilfully ensnares our sympathy for them too.
My non-fiction reading has been quite a mish-mash of genres so far this year! Any sports fan will enjoy Kieran McCarthy’s Something in the Water, the story of the Skibbereen rowing club that spawned our recent Olympians, Gary and Paul O’Donovan, whose success is only one aspect of a really fascinating history.
Some Kids I Taught and What they Taught Me should be read by all teachers; it’s a really heartwarming but truthful account of teacher and writer Kate Clanchy’s encounters with students from various challenging backgrounds. Irish cyber-psychologist Dr. Mary Aiken’s The Cyber Effect was one I also approached from a work perspective, but this is a book that everyone needs to read, particularly parents, prospective parents and anyone who works with young people. It’s a deeply disturbing account of the effects of technology on all our lives, but particularly on the lives of those whose development it may irrevocably impact. A must-read.
I’ve loved the poetry of Maya Angelou since I first encountered it as a teacher, so I was delighted to receive the first volume of her autobiography as a Christmas gift from a very thoughtful friend. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been on the list of Leaving Certificate English texts for years, and yet I had never actually read it. It’s a searingly honest and matter-of-fact account of the writer’s early years, and I enjoyed it so much that I followed it up with volume two, Gather Together in my Name, and volume three is currently on my to-read pile. I also listened to and enjoyed Letter to My Daughter on audiobook, read by the great lady herself.
Finally, Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, again on audiobook read by the author, and also one I was a bit late getting to, was a funny but disturbing account of life as a medical student. I would not advise pregnant women, women who ever intend to get pregnant or anyone squeamish to read it, however!!! It’s quite an eye-opener, particularly in light of the current crisis facing health systems all over the world.
So there you have it; my first fifteen books of 2020. Here’s my current to-read pile (there may have been some panic-buying); I think I’m going for The Guest List next!
*Ideally, we should all try to support our local booksellers when possible. Midleton Books is a brilliant shop in East Cork, and I also like Vibes and Scribes and Waterstones in Cork city. I use Audible for my audiobooks. At the moment, many delivery services are suspended, but check out your local eLibrary at https://www.librariesireland.ie/elibrary.