Hindsight of 2020

I have never been one for saying, “I have a good feeling about this year.” My feelings and Time don’t seem to have any kind of causal relationship, and global pandemics have not historically demonstrated any consideration for calendars either. I think 2021 will be last year’s encore, and marking the new year is a way to formally recognise the desperate need for better days. Such days will come along in due course: US politics show signs of improvement, vaccines are on their way, we have found and will continue to find ways to adapt; I just don’t think 2021 is going to bring the cathartic relief whose hope to which we’ve so desperately clung. Maybe in the latter half we’ll have reasons for optimism that are based on scientific progress, good leadership, improved relations all round, and each of us doing the right thing. I think it wildly premature to start celebrating any of that now.

Small victories are still important though, and I’ll continue to take them where I can. Although my overseas trip was cancelled, and numerous domestic sojourns too, I did manage to make it interstate. I celebrated my niece’s first birthday in Brisbane with her in January with no idea of what was ahead, or that I would be unable to see her again until she’s at least 2. My nephew’s twice-postponed baptism in South Australia was an occasion I became resigned never to attend, and it was a joyous surprise to be able to slide in between outbreaks and border closures. Christmas in Tasmania with my parents seemed like a sure thing until two days before departure, though we made it there with just hours before the border slammed shut behind us.

Things could have been worse. Things can always be worse.

With the extra time on my hands this year, I read more books than ever before (161 in total including one in another language) and when reading wasn’t doing it for me, I baked like a madwoman. How glad am I to have branched out with a new hobby that not only maintains my sanity but also tastes delicious AND increases my popularity!

My top book of the year is one I read early on – #25, Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne. I knew within pages that I was onto something special, and called it then as my favourite for 2020 unless something even more spectacular came along. Notable contenders attempted competition but never pipped it. It was as though Sarah Winman and Sally Rooney conspired to write a book just for me, which is about as high a compliment I can think to pay.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li is right up there, and if you need to feel sad with a book as your witness, this is a good one to accompany you. Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar completes my trio, and if I were on the judging panel for the Booker, I’d have gunned hard for its victory.

At the bottom of the pile we have How to Have a Beautiful Mind by Edward de Bono. I listened to this on audiobook while waiting for the book I actually wanted to listen to to become available. It was featured as one of the most popular downloads, and was quite short, and I was unimpressed by the whole thing other than its brevity. A more apt title would be How to Try and Trick People into Thinking you are Slightly Less Boring than you Actually Are. Read or listen to any other book and your mind stands a better chance of improving its substance and appearance. The Bat by Jo Nesbo also bottomed out for me, and I would not have finished it had I not picked it up to complete a work reading challenge in the first place.

I remember being asked a year ago if I’d try and beat my 133 total for 2019, and saying, “no, I didn’t really get anything else done.” Turns out I can read even more and also get a lot of baking done! Nevertheless, no attempts will be made on my part to outdo my-reading-self, and if this year we all have to stay home as much as we did in 2020, who knows what new hobbies I may incorporate? (I expect it will just be more reading and baking and jigsaw puzzles. In many ways I’d been preparing for lockdown my entire life and it wasn’t so bad after all.)

Here it is: Big Fat List of the Year 2020.

  1. Any Human Heart by William Boyd
  2. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  3. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  4. Home Work: A Memoir of my Hollywood Years by Julie Andrews
  5. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  6. The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
  7. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
  8. The Smell of Fresh Rain: The Unexpected Pleasures of our Most Elusive Scent by Barney Shaw
  9. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
  10. Like the Flowing River by Paulo Coelho
  11. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
  12. Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television by Louis Theroux
  13. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
  14. Transit by Rachel Cusk
  15. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  16. The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead
  17. Thirty Thousand Bottle of Wine and a Pig called Helga by Todd Alexander
  18. Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin
  19. Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith
  20. Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharti
  21. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
  22. The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
  23. Couchsurfing in Russia: Friendships and Misadventures Behind Putin’s Iron Curtain by Stephan Orth
  24. Hit So Hard by Patty Schemel
  25. Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne
  26. Gifted by Nikita Lalwani
  27. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  28. The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
  29. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  30. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  31. The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
  32. The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen
  33. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
  34. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges
  35. Me by Elton John
  36. Outside Looking In by T. C. Boyle
  37. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  38. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat who Touched the World by Vicky Myron with Bret Witter
  39. Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
  40. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
  41. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (reread)
  42. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
  43. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
  44. My Man Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
  45. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  46. Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse by David Mitchell
  47. 488 Rules for Life by Kitty Flanagan
  48. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
  49. False Impression by Jeffrey Archer
  50. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
  51. The Gap: An Australian Paramedic’s Summer on the Edge by Benjamin Gilmour
  52. Normal People by Sally Rooney (reread)
  53. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  54. Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by J. K. Rowling
  55. In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan
  56. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  57. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See
  58. After Dark by Haruki Murakami
  59. Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You when the World goes Dark by Julia Baird
  60. The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory by Corey White
  61. Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change and Courage by Tori Amos
  62. Being Light by Helen Smith
  63. Talking to Strangers: What we should Know about the People we Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
  64. Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Tom Robbins
  65. Liberty by Garrison Keillor
  66. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  67. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  68. The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket
  69. Writers & Lovers by Lily King
  70. Between the Stops: The View of my Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus by Sandi Toksvig
  71. Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan
  72. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (reread)
  73. Coraline: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell
  74. The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith
  75. Come Again by Robert Webb
  76. A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith
  77. Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy: and Other Rules to Live By by David Mitchell
  78. Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li
  79. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad
  80. How to Have a Beautiful Mind by Edward de Bono
  81. Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
  82. The Bat by Jo Nesbo
  83. The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather
  84. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
  85. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
  86. Miss-Adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America by Amy Baker
  87. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
  88. Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin
  89. Encounter: Essays by Milan Kundera
  90. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
  91. The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
  92. Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade
  93. Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
  94. Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
  95. In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum
  96. Real Life by Brandon Taylor
  97. Here We Are by Graham Swift
  98. The Spy by Paulo Coelho (reread)
  99. Boys will be Boys: Power, Patriarchy and the Toxic Bonds of Mateship by Clementine Ford
  100. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  101. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (reread)
  102. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
  103. Gods and Demons: Behind the Tourist Veneer of Bali and Greater Indonesia: a Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir by Deborah Cassrells
  104. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
  105. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
  106. One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainana
  107. Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
  108. Hurricane Season by Fernando Melchor
  109. Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
  110. The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton (reread)
  111. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  112. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  113. Apeirogon by Colum McCann
  114. Angel in the Mirror by Lumi Winterson
  115. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
  116. Couchsurfing in China: Encounters and Escapades Beyond the Wall by Stephan Orth
  117. Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker
  118. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith
  119. Perseus in the Wind: A life of Travel by Freya Stark
  120. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
  121. All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton
  122. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (reread)
  123. Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler
  124. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
  125. Just Ignore Him by Alan Davies
  126. Court Out (A Netball Girls’ Drama) by Deb McEwan
  127. The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
  128. The Golden Maze: A Biography of Prague by Richard Fidler
  129. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  130. Honeybee by Craig Silvey
  131. What Westerners have for Breakfast: Five Years in Goa by John McBeath
  132. Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
  133. A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson
  134. A Thousand Ships: This is the Woman’s War by Natalie Haynes
  135. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
  136. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
  137. The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave
  138. Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
  139. A Life on our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough
  140. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  141. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
  142. Things I Learned from Falling by Claire Nelson
  143. The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie
  144. Around the World in 80 Trains: a 45,000 Mile Adventure by Monisha Rajesh
  145. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
  146. The Best Kind of Beautiful by Frances Whiting
  147. Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
  148. Stories of Hope: Finding Inspirations in Everyday Lives by Heather Morris
  149. Amnesty by Aravind Adiga
  150. The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk
  151. A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu
  152. Other People’s Houses by Hilary McPhee
  153. Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp (J. K. Rowling, illustrated by Emily Gravett)
  154. Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell
  155. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  156. ‘Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay
  157. More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran
  158. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  159. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (reread)
  160. The Ickabog by J. K. Rowling
  161. The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

Going Viral

You may recall that this time last week, I was up to my eyeballs in self-pity over my trip cancellation and the general state of the world. The balance has shifted somewhat over the intervening days, back and forth like the plates I used to ferry across a busy restaurant during my waitressing days. Turns out my travel insurance was absolutely useless, but with a partial refund of the policy and a printed product disclosure statement to use as toilet paper, things could, I suppose, be worse. I’m reminding myself regularly that I have spent time in hospital in a third world country with a pretty nasty virus, and on balance working from home is considerable step up.

Yes, working from home. I arrived at work on Monday morning, cancelled my annual leave, and began clomping and stomping my foul mood around the library with the view of getting a few hours’ worth of scowls out of my system before fronting up to the public. Turns out I could’ve scowled all I liked for all the difference it would make to the public, since minutes later staff were told we were closed until further notice. The unpleasant expression fell right off my face and was replaced with shocked bemusement. My mum had asked me only days before if I thought the library would close, to which I responded, “Mmm I don’t think so, not unless a confirmed case wanders through. They’ll probably close the branches first and try to keep us running.” Shows what I knew. Things got very real very quickly as I realised how much bigger was this beast than my foiled travel arrangements.

I think it was absolutely the right call. It seems like the rest of the world is shutting up shop, and our closure a week or so earlier than our hands would’ve been forced can presumably have done very limited harm, and instead kept us out of harm’s way. I still went in to Library HQ the next day before being told I’d henceforth be working from home, which gave me enough time to stock up on a few weeks’ worth of books and DVDs, and collect what I thought might be useful in my home office. When I say “home office” I mean dining table, which once belonged to my grandma and is still covered in the detritus of abandoned travel plans. It’s right next to my main bookshelf, which helps me feel like I still have one foot (or at least a toe) in the library, but otherwise bears little resemblance to my usual workspace.

At 8:30am on WFH day 1, I donned my lanyard and sat down at my laptop, thinking how this already differed from my usual school day. Obviously the lanyard was unnecessary. The public would not be sauntering through my apartment wondering who to ask for readers’ advisory or help with printing. Nor would I spend the next half hour tidying up the library and making sure a few shelves of books were in correct DDC order, which is the standard order of the half hour before opening. I won’t bore you with the details of my entire day, suffice to say only that I’m not used to sitting at a desk for so long, and certainly not in a room by myself. I’m quite sure I don’t like it.

I’ve since taken to a brisk walk before sitting down for the day, again during my lunch hour, and once more when the clock strikes 5. On WFH day 3, I phoned a friend at 5:06pm, and she declared what a diligent employee I was to wait until I’d officially clocked off before making personal calls. The way I see it, much as I’d prefer to be running around the library, I’m incredibly fortunate to have a job that will still pay me to do what I can remotely, so the very least I can do is be where I’m expected to be when I’m supposed to be there. A week earlier I had assumed we would be like the band on the Titanic, staffing an emptying library as the public ran for cover. Not because our bosses are unsympathetic or uncaring of our welfare, but because libraries have never been more important for keeping us all connected and informed. Turns out that teachers are the ones playing the violins, but that’s a conversation for another forum. I’ve no doubt that every teacher in the country would dearly love to switch places with me. I’ve caught a very lucky break, and I know it. That’s to say nothing of the other professions who are effectively jobless right now, like my younger brother the Qantas international pilot. My home library is quite the place to be.

All of that said, I never thought I’d miss my usual work environment this much. I know I was hanging out for my holiday, indeed it was what kept me going through all the arguments about overdue book fees, tech mishaps at events, extra desk shifts, general disgruntlement from impolite library members, and all my other regular complaints. I miss them though. I miss the ones who come straight to me for book recommendations, the ones who say a simple “thank you” when I help them with their printing, the ones who go about their business with no personal interaction from me. I miss my colleagues; the way they roll their eyes but chuckle appreciatively at my bad puns. Even if I’m at my desk and we’ve all got our heads down doing our own things, or I’m doing my best to fly under the radar and do my job without being asked any questions. Even if I’m hoping to avoid as many people as possible for the duration of the day, it’s still nice to feel like I’m part of something bigger.

Of course I’m still part of that bigger something, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last week (other than that I seem to really love touching my face) it’s that we’re all in this together. All my colleagues are doing the best they can with what they’ve got from where they are. With the exceptions of toilet paper hoarders, Bondi beachgoers, and Australian border security allowing planeloads of passengers to disembark and go on their merry way without so much as a temperature check, I think we all are. With no real precedent on which to base our next move, it’s hard to know how to best get on with things. But if the library’s group chat is anything to by, we’ve got each other’s backs.

Never has it been more important for us to remember…
We’re all part of something bigger, and we’re all part of it together.

Going Viral

Very very mad world.

I’m pretty cross with the whole wide world just now, Self included. Right now I should be itching with anticipation across my whole body and not just my feet. I should be adding the finishing touches to my Spreadsheet, packing my carry-on in the reverse order of which I’ll use its contents. I’ve already changed some money at the currency exchange at the worst rate it’s been in years, and it wasn’t necessary to begin with but I like to be prepared, and a poor exchange rate is worth the peace of mind of having a few dollars in my pocket. I started taking immunity boosting supplements, which won’t protect me from the Plague but will help against catching a common cold that is far more likely and just as disastrous when you present at a border crossing with a runny nose and mild fever. I should be counting down the hours to setting my out of office message that tells anyone who wants a piece of me they’re on their own until 20 April. This point of the week was going to keep me going for the rest of it, while I argued with library members over non-refundable room bookings and explained to the rest that no we don’t delouse every item that passes through the library’s returns chute. I even polished my boots. This time next week, Lou and I should be in Bangkok at the start of our latest adventure, and I’d be filled with relief that the tail-end of the trip would be spent on a lush Vietnamese beach where I’d surely be safer from germs than if I was at work. I’d even planned how to spend my self-isolation, if it came to that. Was rather looking forward to it, in fact. Not having to see anyone? Perfect. Food deliveries to my doorstep or handed over the balcony? Divine. It was going to be the holiday that kept giving.

Instead, Lou and I are having an emergency meeting to discuss how we go about getting our money back. We were supposed to be going to the Pixies concert, but of course that’s been canned, so we’ll be reading through 64 pages of travel insurance policy instead. The tour we were booked on has been suspended, as has every other tour with this company, and who knows what other bookings will be rescinded over the next week. My conservative estimate is, “just about everything except work.”

I get it; we all need to do our bit to stop the spread of germs and stay out of harm’s way ourselves. The decision has been taken out of our hands, and I just need to suck it up. I’m as fiscally prepared for this moment as possible, having taken out top cover travel insurance the day I booked the flights, and paid extra for the “cancel for any reason” add-on that is no longer available for purchase. There will be forms and bureaucratic nonsense to wade through, hours spent on hold to speak to overworked and stressed-out insurance representatives doing their level best to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Hours that should’ve been spent playing, “I dare you to eat that deep fried insect,” down some anonymous alley in Cambodia. But thanks to my organisational foresight, that should all come good in the end, and there are worse positions to be in.

Organising this trip has been one international incident after another. Lou and I decided a year and a half ago, sitting by the pool of a hotel in Goa, that our next trip would be to Iran. A new Canadian friend asked if she could come too (obviously we said yes) and within a few months we had paid a $400 deposit. As the months went by and international conflicts progressed, we pulled the pin on that idea. I was terribly disappointed, but the whole thing was starting to sound riskier than it was worth, and as soon as we decided on where we might go instead, my excitement returned. Iran could wait til Trump was a distant nightmarish memory, and we’d have just as much fun in Southeast Asia in the meantime. When DFAT officially declared Iran a “do not travel” zone a few weeks ago, I was aglow with relief at our decision to re-route. I hadn’t considered that a global outbreak of the Plague would be the deal-breaker for ministries across the world, but my trip was safe. Just call me Smart Traveller Dot Gov!

My to-be-read shelf underwent an appropriate transformation, and I put down Persian biographies to pick up Southeast Asian travelogues and accounts of recent history. Every time someone was rude to me at work (about 80% of my customer interactions) I clung to the thought that in the foreseeable future, it would be a colleague’s problem. With so many staff absent the last few weeks, I was doing my dash, and the only thing holding together my sanity was my upcoming exit-strategy. When management added extra things to my perfectly planned calendar then asked why I hadn’t done this, that and the other, instead of yelling, “I’m not made of time!!” I bit my tongue and thought of the two hoots I would not give from Halong Bay. Let someone else figure out how to do my job while I’m off sipping drinks with colourful umbrellas through a long straw.

I realise now how I set myself up. All my eggs, and all my marbles, were being stored in one basket that now no longer exists. I should know better: every time I return from a trip, I unpack my bags then immediately start down an existential spiral that gets tighter and tighter until I start planning another sojourn. Usually by this point I at least have some fond recent reminiscences to look back on and a nice break under my belt. It gets me through the period during which I’m convinced my life has no meaning and nothing at all to look forward to. As I’m writing this, Lou is desperately trying to convince me the fun has not dissipated but is merely postponed. Points to her for trying. There’s not much else to be said really, even though we both know postponing your sanity is about as effective as being completely crackers.

I know I’m writing from a very privileged place. My current position threatens the lives and health of precisely no one, and insurance battles notwithstanding, I shouldn’t end up very much out of pocket. My health is just fine, I’m not stuck somewhere far from home with an awful virus. Indeed I’ve been in that position before, and must say that where I’m at right now is preferable. I’ll get over it, it’s the only thing to be done, and throw myself into planning the next trip once this worldwide calamity settles. I’ll plan fun things to do over the next month, small treats to look forward to week by week. I already know that every time I have to deal with something unpleasant at work, my first thought will be, “I’m not even supposed to be here!” but really, who is that going to help? It will just make my workdays that much worse. But now that I’ve voiced it, I might have a bit more control over what the next thought will be. Perhaps something like, “life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is.” Allow myself to be more gullible than I am cynical.

I’ll calm down in a few days, most likely. I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll shut up about it, probably about 24 hours after everyone’s had enough of my whinging. For the good of friends, family, acquaintances and the general public, I probably should self-isolate. Anticipating that this won’t qualify me for sick-leave though…

…see you Monday.

Mad World

Big Fat List of the Year: 2019 Edition

Hello 2020, a pleasure to meet you. I say this in spite of the fact the whole year seems like a mockery of people with imperfect vision. I wonder if this bodes poorly for me and foretells a year of feeling out of place (or out of time?), but my tastes never left the 90s anyway so I’m confident whatever struggles lie ahead would probably have happened on their own. I’d better go to the optometrist at some point anyway though, if only so I can remark drily that this year, of all years, it’s particularly insensitive to tell someone their eyesight is anything short of 20-20, true though it may be. I’m sure SpecSavers are already looking forward to 2021 because of dad-jokers likes me.

2019 was rather a good one, all things considered. I’m better at my job now than I was a year ago (unsurprising, given I was only two weeks into the role at this point) and go about things with far more “I know what I’m doing,” than all out winging it. I did get yelled at by various members of the public for things beyond my control (and often within theirs, ie. their overdue book fees) and once got locked inside the library (not as much fun as it sounds) but things on the work-front have otherwise been positive. We’re trialing a new Readers’ Advisory program at the moment where members fill out a form about their reading preferences, and one of us will send them a list of personalised recommendations they can borrow from the library. I am living that dream job! And if nothing else I’ve enjoyed a full year of actual weekends; something which was not afforded to me in previous years of working in retail and/or multiple jobs. Paid leave has felt like a bonus too, even though I only took one day off sick and didn’t have enough annual leave to cover my month-long holiday. Nevertheless, to still get paid for any part of my travels felt like reaching a wondrous milestone of being a professional traveler – a very specious moniker, but one I’ll take all the same.

I met my niece and nephew for the first time and learned that, like the Tin Man, there’s been a heart inside me all along. There are two small children in the world whom I favour above all, which replaces my previous sensibility of staying well clear of anyone too young to talk books with. I don’t know what we’ll talk about when they’re older if they’re not readers, but we’ve done alright so far and they can’t talk at all, so have a feeling we’ll be fine. I can tell my niece about how when she was very small, her grandma and I went to Melbourne to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and it was magic on a stage. How not long after that, she sat on my lap during her other aunty’s wedding just outside of Edinburgh – until she made baby-noises I was ill-equipped to deal with, and handed her back to her daddy. How we holidayed together on the Isle of Skye and beyond, where I saw puffins in the wild AND caught her first laugh, so it was a big week all round. Then her grandparents and I roadtripped around Ireland having a marvellous time, and I’m not sure exactly what she got up to, but I’ll ask her to make up a story about it. My nephew arrived a couple of months after all this, at a similar point in my work roster, which meant I was sitting at my desk rather than playing out on the library floor, and my next-desk neighbour was at hers too, so she was the first person to be privy to the arrival of both babies. Because I was impatient to find out his name, and this announcement was still a few hours away, I decided to call him Hagrid and am still the only person to do so. I’m holding out hope the name will take root, although I’ll probably wait for him to tell me he doesn’t like it before I give up. I’ll also remind him that there was a point in his life he thought my singing was really something, and I introduced him to the first dog he ever met, which is an important part of any person’s life and I’m glad to be a part of it all. He’s a pretty cool little guy; I think he and I are going to be good pals.

Now that the rest of my year has been wrapped, I’ll get to what I read, which is why you and I are here in the first instance. I read 133 books, which broke my previous record (120 in 2018) and when I’ve been asked how, have answered very simply, “I don’t get out much.” My favourite 2019 releases were Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, and Lanny by Max Porter. Honourable mention to Horror Stories by Liz Phair, which was an unexpected literary joy. Some other favourites published in years gone by but new to me were The Green Road by Anne Enright, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, and Outline by Rachel Cusk. The biggest surprise to me was the Booker Prize co-winner Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I was bracing myself for a thankless task, since I read the winner each year out of a sense of duty borne from a desire to have an informed opinion on something that experience of Booker winners past suggests I probably won’t enjoy. But wonders will never cease: I thought it was very good AND I enjoyed it! That almost never happens. I wish it had won the award outright; I felt all at sea with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I suspect a working knowledge of the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale would’ve benefited me greatly, but damned if I’m going to do any TV homework before attempting a reread. That book can stay on everyone else’s “you simply MUST read…” list.

  1. The Science of Harry Potter by Mark Brake with Jon Chase
  2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
  3. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  4. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  5. The World was Whole by Fiona Wright
  6. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
  7. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
  8. The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
  9. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  10. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn
  11. Laura the Explorer by Sarah Begg
  12. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
  13. Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown
  14. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  15. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
  16. The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti
  17. The Flaneur by Edmund White
  18. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
  19. Persian Pictures: From the Mountains to the Sea by Gertrude Bell
  20. The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket
  21. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  22. The Green Road by Anne Enright
  23. The Librarian by Salley Vickers
  24. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
  25. Knuckled by Fiona Wright
  26. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Part 1 by Akira Himekawa
  27. The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux
  28. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  29. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – Part 2 by Akira Himekawa
  30. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  31. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  32. Educated by Tara Westover
  33. Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan
  34. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
  35. The Seventh Circle by Rob Langdon
  36. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
  37. One City by Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin & Irvine Welsh
  38. Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
  39. Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
  40. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K Rowling (reread)
  41. The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
  42. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
  43. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
  44. Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally
  45. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  46. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  47. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
  48. Outline by Rachel Cusk
  49. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
  50. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (reread)
  51. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
  52. The Recruit by Robert Muchamore
  53. Ox-Tales: Earth by Various Authors
  54. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
  55. I’d Rather be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel
  56. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (reread)
  57. No Friends but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Island by Behrouz Boochani
  58. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  59. Sunrise by Jessie Cave
  60. The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionised Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics by John Pollack
  61. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
  62. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
  63. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  64. Lanny by Max Porter
  65. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
  66. No Walls and the Recurring Dream by Ani DiFranco
  67. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  68. The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper
  69. Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry
  70. The Valley of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels by Freya Stark
  71. I’ll Be There for You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller
  72. The World’s Most Travelled Man: A Twenty-Three-Year Odyssey to and through Every Country on the Planet by Mike Spencer Bown
  73. Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
  74. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir by Kristin Newman
  75. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
  76. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
  77. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
  78. The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley
  79. The Opal Dragonfly by Julian Leatherdale
  80. The Other Wife by Michael Robotham
  81. Tin Man by Sarah Winman (reread)
  82. Saltwater by Jessica Andrews
  83. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  84. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  85. East of Croydon: Blunderings through India and South East Asia by Sue Perkins
  86. Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
  87. I Built No Schools in Kenya: A Year of Unmitigated Madness by Kirsten Drysdale
  88. The Sparrows of Edward Street by Elizabeth Stead
  89. A Dream About Lightning Bugs by Ben Folds
  90. NW by Zadie Smith
  91. Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham
  92. The Stationery Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali
  93. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
  94. Running Away from Home: Finding a New Life in Paris, London and Beyond by Jane de Teliga
  95. Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom by Walter Mason
  96. The Dinner by Herman Koch
  97. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joana Cannon
  98. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
  99. The Wind in my Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad
  100. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith
  101. The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
  102. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan
  103. Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison by David Chandler
  104. My Life as a Traitor by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman
  105. Schadenfreude: The Joy at Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith
  106. The Nancys by R. W. R. McDonald
  107. The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smth
  108. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  109. Elsewhere: One Woman, One Rucksack, One Lifetime of Travel by Rosita Boland
  110. Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris
  111. Horror Stories by Liz Phair
  112. Grand Union: Stories by Zadie Smith
  113. There was Still Love by Favel Parrett
  114. Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  115. The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
  116. About a Girl: A Mother’s Powerful Story of Raising her Transgender Child by Rebekah Robertson
  117. The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover
  118. High School by Tegan and Sara Quin
  119. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  120. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: The Journey Behind the Scenes of the Award-Winning Stage Production by Jody Revenson
  121. Night Fishing by Vicki Hastrich
  122. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein
  123. Part of the Pride: My Life Among the Big Cats of Africa by Kevin Richardson with Tony Park
  124. Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount
  125. Girl by Edna O’Brien
  126. Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe
  127. Bridge Burning and Other Hobbies by Kitty Flanagan
  128. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
  129. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
  130. Fly Already: Stories by Etgar Keret
  131. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
  132. Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce
  133. Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson


2019 list

Rather be Reading, Rather be Travelling

In quiet, slow moments at the library, usually when I’m out on the floor and trying not to think of all the work piling up that I really need to be at my desk to attend to, my mind wanders to some odd places. Usually towards useless hypotheticals that have no discernible use in the real world: Jasper Jones-esque “would you rathers” like, “would I rather slam my fingers in a door or get them caught in a toaster?” or “if I had to give up one, would I sacrifice reading or travelling?” I don’t know why I do this. The latter is a rabbit hole of despair just waiting for me to tumble down, and I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d ever have to make this call. But it does help pass the time and spur me on to read more books and plan further travels just in case.

Fingers being slammed in doors do not embolden me to get them caught in a toaster, but my reading and travel decisions do tend to inform one another. I read a string of Indian fiction and non-fiction in the lead up to that trip, and was quietly confident my first trip to the UK ten years ago would feel like a homecoming of sorts having grown up on a steady diet of Famous Five and Harry Potter. On the other favourable hand, reading can assuage some of the less achievable wanderings my itchy feet have in mind. I’ve read a few novels by Nigerian authors in the last few months, which has been enough to satisfy my yearning to hop a plane to Lagos. I’ll park that particular idea for the time being and focus on destinations that are more achievable and at least as enjoyable, and read a few books set in places I’m more likely to find myself. Redirect those itchy feet.

When we were in our early 20s, my older brother asked me why I spend so much time reading when I could be out in the world doing things. Possibly he was trying to justify his late nights out in relation to my being an absolute square, or maybe he really did think one day I would look back on those days with regret at having spent so many hours with fictional characters instead of real people. Probably he didn’t understand quite how much real people exhaust me, or the restorative power of fiction. My standard response was usually, “I do go out in the world and do things (author’s note: I didn’t) but I can’t actually go to Hogwarts or all of a sudden decide to scale Mount Everest.” I must’ve read a book about scaling Mount Everest. In any case, we’d stare at each other blankly for a moment and wonder how we could possibly be related, before turning on our heels: he to the pub, me to the library.

We’ve since reconciled these differences. He became a reader for a period when he was living just outside of London – too far from town and too short on cash to be doing anything “interesting.” I finished uni and took off out into the “world” to do “things.” We’ve settled more or less back into our original patterns, he working as a winemaker and me in a library. His life is pretty busy with the doing of things – the playing of sports and raising of family – but he does find time to read occasionally. Mine is filled with the reading of books and staying at home where it’s nice and quiet and nothing ever happens, but I save my money so I can blow it all on travel adventures now and then. We may yet be related after all.

While Paulo Coelho might’ve inspired a trip to South America and Arundhati Roy the Indian adventure, I decided when I was quite young that I would one day travel to Africa, and I’m sure this did not come from anything I read in a book. I went through a phase of being deeply interested in and curious about deadly animals, and living in Australia was apparently not enough for me. My parents gave me what I still consider one of the greatest birthday presents ever when I turned eight or so… remember Encarta CD ROMs? It was one of those, but exclusively about dangerous creatures. The African animals I found particularly interesting. I read every scrap of information therein until I could ace the quiz at the end. To this day, I know an inordinate amount about Great White Sharks, and did you know that hippos are responsible for more deaths than any other large land mammal? Eight year old I did! Then one day my father approached me for my considered opinion and some expert advice. He was off to London on a business trip, and had some time at the end before he needed to come home and be back at work, so thought he’d make a trip of it.

“Erin, if you could go anywhere in the world on any kind of holiday, where would you go and what would you do?”

“Well Daddy, there are lots of good places to go, but I would go to Africa and go on safari.”

That afternoon he booked himself a trip to Zimbabwe. I was not invited. You’re very welcome indeed. I decided then and there that one day I would go to Africa, go on safari, would not invite him thank you very much. It took another 14 years but I got there. I think it’s fair to say this decision and this trip were based on jealousy and defiance, but it did inspire me to read some books set in and about southern African nations in the meantime, which kept the desire alive.

As for 32 year old me, right here right now, I’m saving up my leave and my money for the next trip. My reading list this year has so far taken me to various corners of the globe, but if you have any glowing recommendations of books set Elsewhere, send them my way. In the absence of any substantial travel plans in the next few months, I need all the books to keep me going. These itchy feet won’t scratch themselves!

Travel books and HP

A Suitcase Full of Books

It’s coming up to that time again… time to fly! This time next week, I’ll be in a metal tube 10.668km (approximately) above the Philippine Sea hurtling towards Tokyo. After a few days there it’s on to Scotland, Ireland (Republic of AND Northern) then a couple of days in London before coming home to remind myself that these trips don’t pay for themselves and I rather need to return to work. After coming home from India, I found myself pacing my apartment for about 10 minutes in existential despair. I had a load of washing on, had separated gifts to others from gifts to self, restored my passport to its Safe Place, and it was throwing away my spreadsheet that began the spiral. What was I even doing with my life now that I wasn’t out experiencing the wider world? Sure, I had work the next day and a job interview in three. I was quietly confident about the interview (spoiler alert: I got the job) so change was already afoot and I had things to be working towards, but in my post-holiday blue, I wanted none of it. If my clothes hadn’t all been in the wash and my body in such need of a lie down, I’d have been sorely tempted to repack my bags and head back out the door. (Jokes! I knew darn well I’d have an even greater guilt complex about failing to show up for work the next day, and couldn’t trust myself in travel-mode without a spreadsheet.) Then I remembered there was another spreadsheet. The next trip was already booked, I had a thing to look forward to. In one relieving realisation, my life had meaning again. Please remind me of this in a month’s time when I’m back here experiencing an identical crisis – I’ve already booked part of a trip for this time next year. I haven’t started the spreadsheet yet, but that’ll give me something to do when it’s stupid o’clock in the morning and my jetlagged brain thinks it’s a good time to do some work.

With an overseas adventure imminent, the pressing question is a big one: what should I read while I’m away? I’ve read 32 books this year so far, which is an average of 2.667 per week. I’m away for 3.5 weeks, which means 9.3345 books. Invariably, I read less when I’m on holidays; apparently I need less distraction from the world when I’m not at work, and have greater interest in scenery when it’s not part of my commute. Oh, and am more inclined to talk to people when they speak with an exotically attractive accent. Let’s conservatively say I’ll need 5 or 6 books. Maybe even fewer if they’re particularly long.

I usually like to read a book or two set in the place I’m visiting. For India it was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Last time I was in Scotland, it was the first in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been prepping for Japan with The Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki, and Ireland with Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. But what do I take with me? Fortuitously, my last trip to Scotland came not long after my 30th birthday, for which I was gifted a Kindle from my brother and his then fiancée. They’ve always been excellent and generous gift-givers, and since the upcoming trip was for their wedding, a Kindle was perfect. Naturally, it comes with me whenever I leave the house for more than a day, and now that I think about it, it has the next two Outlander books on it already. (As I recall, there was an Amazon deal at the time of purchase that meant it was cheaper to buy three books than just the first. Bit of a no-brainer, really.) Evidently I didn’t enjoy the first book enough to move on to the next, but part of me knew I’d be back in Scotland before too long, which might provide a prompt sufficient for me to continue the series. The books are also on the lengthy side, which is great when it’s all on Kindle anyway, and means lugging fewer physical books in my carry on.

Which brings me to the next criteria: I don’t think I’d know myself if I didn’t have a physical book on me. It has to be something long enough that I won’t finish it in one plane ride, but not so big I’ll be discouraged from carrying it with me. In previous years, when not reading my book of choice, I’ve wrapped the hefty tome in a jumper to use as a pillow. Having said that, my financial situation at such times meant I could not afford accommodation anywhere the pillow provided could be trusted not to give you bed bugs, so this last point is not the deciding factor it once was. My bookshelves are overflowing as it is, so I plan to take a book I can pass along to the next reader somewhere on the road to free up some space at home. For India, this was A Fine Balance, and the last Eurotrip was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. For this trip, I’m thinking a classic I bought secondhand – something like War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, something I can easily buy a cheap secondhand copy of again if I think I’m really going to miss it.

If I’m taking a classic, I probably want to balance it out with something contemporary, which is where you guys come in. What have you been reading? What might I like to read when the weather is European-mild but I’m nevertheless wearing three jumpers because that’s how I roll? What Amazon deal of the day has piqued your interest? What have I missed that’s come out of Scotland and Ireland recently? Note: I’ve read both of Sally Rooney’s already (loved them) as well as Milkman by Anna Burns (very “worthy” but also impossible for me to enjoy.) I should also point out I won’t be taking any library books with me. I’ve never had so much as a late fee (except for my cunning scheme within the university library, but that’s another post) and don’t intend to accrue any now. I also don’t have anything on my non-fiction TBR pile that’s burning to be read, so will gratefully accept any such recommendations.

I’m sure you appreciate the weight of such decisions, and I really would like some recommendations. Because I like to be proactive about such things, I’m now going to consult The Novel Cure, “a warm and passionate, witty and wonderful way to expand your reading list,” according to the blurb. And if I don’t see you before I go… so long, suckers!

Travel Books

2018: Quite a Story

Like any year, like any day, like anything, really, 2018 had its good and bad points.  I went skiing in Winter (as no year really feels complete without it) and to India with Lou in Spring, which was most definitely and easily the highlight. I finished reading my hundredth book of the year (A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry) in flight from Mumbai to Goa, a book which kept me company for much of the trip, including a 17 hour train journey. I might add that audiobooks were an additional graceful saviour during said journey. I read books aloud to Lou, even as she fell asleep and later swore she was enjoying it. Perhaps she was, so on those grounds I continued. I finished working at the bookshop for a full time job at the library – something I’m still figuring out and impatient to feel competent in. Three weeks in and I’ve not burnt the library to cinders, which I’m chalking up as a small victory. I’m still all about achievable goals. One of my brothers got married, and I’m to become an aunty in 2019.  With this pleasing news, I’ve been entrusted a child’s literary upbringing. Which is just as well, as it’s the only branch of adult guidance I feel naturally inclined toward and rather think I’m a good choice for the job. Any tips on auntying are otherwise welcome, if you please.

It hasn’t all been the fun of expansive travel horizons and career progression, and even my reading habits took a hit after Luke died. I think I said all I needed to for cathartic release in the previous post, so I’ll say no more about it here. I was happily distracted while in India but on my return picked up books I would ordinarily probably quite enjoy, then put them down for inability to focus. I turned instead to the comforting familiarity of Harry Potter rereads and even a Marian Keyes. Achievable goals, once again.

On balance, I think I’ve come out ahead. I read more books than ever in previous years. Highlights were Normal People by Sally Rooney, Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale, and Lethal White by Robert Galbraith. I don’t tend to finish books I’m not enjoying, since there are so many good books out there that it just seems like a waste of time. I’m not sure why I stuck with Katerina by James Frey, since I didn’t enjoy it or find it well-written, and it’s not one of those literary buzz titles that I thought I needed a professional opinion on. I’m naming it as my least favourite book of the year, so I guess that’s something.

Without further ado, this is what I read in 2018:

  1. A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. The Dry by Jane Harper
  3. Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Annie Buist
  4. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
  5. The Simple Act of Reading edited by Debra Adelaide
  6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  7. One Day We’ll All be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
  8. Indian Takeaway: One Man’s Attempt to Cook his Way Home by Hardeep Singh Kohli
  9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  10. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  11. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
  12. The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  13. This House of Grief by Helen Garner
  14. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  15. Night by Elie Wiesel
  16. The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben
  17. The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury
  18. Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice
  19. The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
  20. Travelling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd & Ann Kidd Taylor
  21. The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth
  22. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  23. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane (Scots Edition) by J.K. Rowling, translaitit intae Scots by Matthew Fitt
  24. An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney
  25. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
  26. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  27. The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells
  28. Room by Emma Donoghue
  29. The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser
  30. Denial: Holocaust History on Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt
  31. One Life One Chance: A Story of Adrenaline and Adventures in the Most Unforgiving Places on Earth by Luke Richmond
  32. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  33. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
  34. Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
  35. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  36. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
  37. Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kari Gislason
  38. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  39. Circe by Madeline Miller
  40. The Moth edited by Catherine Burns
  41. Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World by Stephan Orth
  42. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  43. The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman
  44. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  45. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  46. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  47. Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
  48. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
  49. Lovesome by Sally Seltmann
  50. Staying by Jessie Cole
  51. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  52. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
  53. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
  54. Sinning Across Spain by Ailsa Piper
  55. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  56. Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
  57. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  58. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur by Steve Brusatte
  59. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
  60. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
  61. Broken Republic by Arundhati Roy
  62. We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (this one was a reread)
  63. The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
  64. Cedar Valley by Holly Throsby
  65. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
  66. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  67. Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
  68. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
  69. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  70. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
  71. The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada
  72. Christopher Robin by Elizabeth Rudnick
  73. Shock for the Secret Seven by Enid Blyton
  74. Danger Music by Eddie Ayres
  75. A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman (reread)
  76. The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
  77. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  78. Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale
  79. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson
  80. Snap by Belinda Bauer
  81. You’re Just Too Good to be True: A Love Story about Lonely Hearts and Internet Scams by Sofija Stefanovic
  82. Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  83. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
  84. Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin
  85. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
  86. Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  87. Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough
  88. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
  89. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  90. The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux
  91. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
  92. Katerina by James Frey
  93. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
  94. Ignorance by Milan Kundera (reread)
  95. The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
  96. Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales
  97. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  98. Hippie by Paulo Coelho
  99. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  100. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  101. Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
  102. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  103. Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith
  104. Milkman by Anna Burns
  105. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
  106. Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing by Daniel Tammet
  107. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  108. Enid Blyton: the Biography by Barbara Stoney
  109. Making it Up as I go Along: Notes from a Small Woman by Marian Keyes
  110. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  111. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  112. The Children Act by Ian McEwan
  113. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  114. Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
  115. Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald – the Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling
  116. Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman
  117. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  118. The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
  119. Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
  120. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (reread)




Tribute to an Old Flame

The last couple of months have offered me a little bit of everything: some of the happiest, most hilarious, laughter-inducing moments served as a timely chaser to the most heartbreakingly sad, snot-and-tear-soaked moments I’ve lived through. You’ll hear all about my trip to India in due course I’m sure, not least because I finished reading my 100th book of the year while I was there. But this was prefaced by some terrible news and a funeral of such sadness, such complex layers of grief, that I’m not quite sure where to begin.

Luke was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, ages 15-28. In the interest of clarity, we were together less than we were apart; of those 13 years, I think I celebrated four birthdays where we were romantically involved, five or six where we were just friends, and during the rest we had little to no contact at all. I don’t wish to overstate my significance to him, but we were important to each other during our formative years, and seemed to orbit one another the rest. He introduced me to some of my favourite musicians: Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins, Bright Eyes, and he gave me the complete Nirvana collection for my 21st. More importantly, he got me onto some amazing authors. I doubt I’d have come to Milan Kundera on my own, and it would’ve taken me a while to reach Haruki Murakami but for his recommendation. When he worked at Borders, he’d borrow books he thought I’d like as long as I promised to read them carefully and within a week. Another time he bought me a book of Courtney Love’s letters and artworks, then hastily reneged on the gift: having miscalculated his finances, he’d accidentally spent his rent money and had to return it the next day. A very sweet gesture nonetheless. When he worked at JB Hifi he bought me wireless headphones and a waterproof Bluetooth speaker so I could listen to audiobooks in bed and in the shower. The dude provided books and encouragement to read them. Easy to love, right?

He was easy to love, but hard to be in relationship with for all that. He seemed to struggle to identify his emotional needs, making it damn near impossible to communicate them. He was a quiet boy and a private man, ill at ease maintaining relationships on his own mysterious terms. Much as I value quiet and personal boundaries, his were too rigid for me and I felt like the only one emotionally engaged, which obviously wasn’t true by his reaction when I’d then pull away. We’d break up, spend time apart, see other people, commit to other people even. One way or another though, our paths kept crossing and we’d end up back together. He was my dead-body guy: I lived with full certainty that if I showed up with a corpse in tow, he’d help me get rid of it. Turns out, however, that an eager accomplice does not a soul mate make: it would be far more helpful for the other party to discuss one’s options and diplomatically urge you to alert the authorities. Still, there’s something deeply comforting in the knowledge that there’s someone out there who will take your side no matter what. That doesn’t mean you’re right for each other though. And while I don’t regret getting back together with him time and time again, nor do I regret finally calling it quits. We weren’t really that good together, in the end.

He wanted to stay friends; I didn’t. It’s hard to bear helpless witness to such angst, and I didn’t have it in me anymore. I knew he’d sought professional help with his mental health since we broke up for the last time, and I was glad for him. Relieved for him. He had been struggling for as long as I knew him, reluctant to admit it and terrified to face it. As far as I can tell, he was doing well for a while. He went back to art school, something he had given up and longed to return to. But evidently it didn’t last. News of his suicide hit me like an iron-fisted punch, but it didn’t come as a total surprise. It wasn’t a fear I had entertained in recent years, but it fit the rest of the picture. And the fact that I first met Cate through him, who took her own life three and a half years ago, brings an awful sense of symmetry that seems too painful to be fair.

His funeral was a heart-rending reunion and outpouring of grief for the old gang, the worst reason for getting the band back together. Ellie took the day off work to accompany me and pay her own respects – she had been friends with him too, back in the day. I brought along a copy of When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman to give to an old school friend, Mia, who is a bookworm like myself. I had a feeling she’d like it (she did) and I wanted at least one of us to walk away with something other than a heavy heart. She rose to give me a hug, elegant in her sadness. I trod on her toe as my tears fell onto her shoulder. “I think I stepped on your toe,” were the first words I spoke to her in person in nearly a decade. “You did,” were hers to me. Then I said I had a present for her, which everybody thought was a feeble attempt at a joke. I reached inside my bag for the book and pulled out instead a half-eaten packet of chocolate pretzels I had brought for the drive then promptly forgotten about. I offered the pretzels around, which made everyone laugh more than it should’ve. I guess I wasn’t the only one worried about breaking the ice at such a miserable assembly, but I think I succeeded, albeit with spectacular awkwardness. I gave her the book, which she appreciatively accepted, and again offered around the pretzels, which were politely declined. Just as well, really, as I hadn’t offered any to Ellie and we were hungry on the drive home after all the grieving.

The chapel itself was adorned with relics from Luke’s life. Artworks, photos, his soccer shirt and year 12 jersey. His coffin was carried in to a Smashing Pumpkins song. For one last time, he was everywhere. The service was as sad as they come – it could never have been anything else. At its conclusion, we were invited up to his casket to share some final private moments with him. I was thinking Deep Thoughts in his direction while Ellie stood by my side. Things like, “I’m sorry for the parts that were my fault,” and, “I forgive you for the parts that were yours.” But because the coffin was positioned left to right rather than top to tail, I wasn’t sure if I was addressing his head or his feet. So I switched, which obviously didn’t solve the problem. Instead I directed my parting missive somewhere in the middle, which was probably right at his crotch, which I think he would’ve liked. So I laughed, because he would’ve laughed, but tears and snot were pouring from my face so it came out as a breathless choke, and that’s how I said goodbye to Luke.

I met up with his brother a couple of days ago. He hand-delivered a folder to me that had my name on it and was filled with half of Luke’s and my history: the half I cared less about, which was my own. I already knew the secrets hidden there, but was deeply moved by what he had kept. There was a photo of me aged about 15. One from his year 12 formal. The Valentine’s Day 2015 card I made him with a wry, brief attempt at poetry: “I love the way your mouth fits mine, will you be my Valentine?” – seriously, I’m not making this up. And letters. Lots and lots of letters. Letters that I had written, of course – he kept them all. I don’t have his replies anymore. He was never as wordy as me anyway. But it’s nice to remember the time when I still called and he still responded. And in the middle of it, a letter he had written me post-break up and never sent. That one was particularly hard to read. I don’t know what to do with these memories. Writing it out with sadness and fondness seems as good an option as others, any past hurts now so thoroughly eclipsed.

Luke: the boy who made me mixed CDs, the man who kept making them for me well into our 20s. The deeply flawed lost boy. The guy who would muscle his way to the front of a crowd so I could have the best spot at every gig. The only person ever to buy me a bouquet of cats. The boy who loved me first. The softest spot in my heart.

I hope the world sees the same person that he’ll always be to me.

Here we are, ten years apart. Age apparently did not help us look any less awkward.

The Bibliotherapist Will See You Now

I learn all sorts of things during a day’s work in the shop. Sometimes it’s a piece of juicy goss from a colleague, others it’s exciting news about an upcoming release, occasionally it’s academic and obscure. And often it’s a chapter of a person’s life: unsolicited political views are frequent, as are the details of a person’s most recent bad day/week/month/life. I don’t know what it is about my appearance that makes me seem so approachable or interested. I strongly suspect it’s more the fact that I’m a captive audience, paid to be polite. Paid, what’s more, by my employers and not directly out of the pocket right in front of me. You can come in, unload your baggage, and leave one grumble lighter with a book or two under your arm. It’s like therapy but cheaper.

I say this as though I’m completely unsympathetic, which isn’t exactly true. I’m happy to help if and where I can, especially if it’s with a book I love and just a minute or two out of my day. But there’s a big difference between helping someone who needs it, and the lady who comes in to talk at anyone within earshot, other customers included. She rattles off a list of everyone in her life and what they’re up to, as though I know who they are. There’s absolutely no cohesion though and I’m still unsure whether John is her husband or her dog, just that the sound of a paper bag will wake him up even though it’s only mid-afternoon. I don’t care enough to ask, especially since the answer will take a circuitous route via Karen’s 60th birthday party and Leo’s third day at school.

But then there’s a sweet middle-aged lady who comes in for a bit of downtime and a bit of a chat, and as she always leaves having purchased a book, I never feel guilty that I’ve neglected actual work for a cozy catch-up. She comes in, tells me the latest problem she’s facing, and I pair her up with a novel she didn’t know she needed. So far we’ve covered her separation from her husband, difficulty negotiating shared custody of their daughter, the well-meaning friend doing more harm than good, and the declining health of her mother. Perhaps unusually, I remember what she’s read and what she’s liked, even when the titles escape her. Even more unusually, she seems to trust me implicitly to help guide her over these obstacles with which I have approximately zero personal experience. I’m not separated from my fictional husband, and we don’t squabble over the living arrangements of our daughter, because even in make-believe I’d never have a child. My friends are all pretty rad, and both parents in good health. Her taste in books and mine only occasionally overlap, although now that I think about it, she probably doesn’t know that. I found myself feeling a little smug the other day when she purchased the first book I suggested rather than one of many suggested by a colleague. I think she’s expecting her mother to die fairly soon, and I don’t know what I’ll suggest when she does. Maybe I’ll load her up with the Harry Potter box set and a packet of tissues, and call it a day. I’m not sure how much help I actually provide, but she seems to find it all beneficial, which maybe is the same thing.

Having said that, a different customer burst into tears at the counter a couple of weeks ago. He was after the book On Grieving, which we had, and I gently recommended another. I didn’t want to come right out and ask if it was for him, but a moment later he burst into tears and I had my answer. His adult son had just died, the poor man, and he was flying to London to bring him home. I came out from behind the counter to offer him a hug, which he accepted, before pulling himself together to pay for his book and be on his way. I’m not usually in the custom of hugging strangers, but I didn’t know what else to do. I probably did as much as anyone could. I don’t think his salvation is to be found in any particular volume. As he left I wondered if I should’ve told him something sage I’d found in book; something like, “Surviving this is the second worst thing that will happen to you. The worst has already happened,” but I’m sure that would’ve only sounded trite, and he didn’t come in looking for platitudes. My repeat customer might’ve appreciated it, but as she actually refers to me as her bibliotherapist, it would’ve been a little less out of line. Wherever that man is right now, I hope he’s doing ok.

I’d much rather help my regular customer with a novel than a self-help book. I have far more faith in the healing power of reading itself than in whatever the latest inspirational fad is. However if ploughing through books about bringing joy to your life by rearranging your sock drawer and giving fewer fucks about everything else does the trick for you, then sally forth with abandon. Horses for courses and all that, what doesn’t work for me might work for you. My inherent cynicism doesn’t make it easy for these things to get through to me, and I tend to think that if these motivational books had any staying power, there wouldn’t be so many of them. I’m not the best person to help you select your latest self-help book, but then you shouldn’t really need outside assistance. A customer at my old bookshop once asked if I could tell her where the self-help books were. Thank goodness she laughed when I told her I could, but that would defeat the purpose. Of course after that I did tell her where to find them, and as with the aforementioned grieving customer, I hope she found what she was looking for.

To call myself a bibliotherapist does of course overstate my skill set, qualifications, job title and pay grade; but I do think that booksellers and librarians are undervalued when it comes to the service we can and do provide. Obviously none of you should fire your therapist and replace them with a long-suffering bookworm, but if someone recommends a particular book for a particular time and it actually helps, perhaps tell them. They might come up with the goods a second time. Just know that if you ask me and I’ve no idea how to help, I’ll give you a hug, the box set of Harry Potter and a packet of tissues, and call it a day.

Customer Nervous

For someone who spends so much time in a shop, I both disappoint and pride myself on how little I enjoy shopping. Pride because it saves a lot of money and suggests a good work-life balance, and disappointment because many of the things I need are to be found in shops. It’s a necessary evil for me much of the time. I don’t mind grocery shopping, and when it comes to most other things, I’m usually organised enough that there’s no last-minute gift buying or frenzied purchase of other essentials. I completely lose my cool, however, when it comes to the transaction of goods & services to do with physical appearance.

Most of the time, I don’t wear much makeup. This cuts down expenses, getting ready time in the morning, means I look way better in photos of special occasions, and reduces the time I ever have to spend buying cosmetics. This last point is key. I realised I’d have to buy some nice makeup for a wedding a little while ago, and since it was overseas, figured I’d buy it all duty-free, saving myself a little money and killing time at the airport because I always get there obscenely early anyway. I was with my mother, who shares my cosmetic-related aversion and proclivity for punctuality, and since we both had to remove our glasses to sample any kind of eye makeup, it was truly a case of the blind leading the blind. We fumbled along as best we could but realised we weren’t going to be able to do this alone. An employee approached to offer her assistance:

“Can I help you with anything?”
“Yes please. I don’t really know much about makeup, but think I need some foundation.”
“Ok, what kind of coverage do you want?”
“My… face?”

At this her eyes practically rolled out of their sockets. I was prepared to take whatever suggestions she offered but instead she let out a sigh. It was the sound an unimpressed cat might make when a new puppy is brought home. I bought the first thing she deigned to offer me a sample of, and to this day still don’t know what she meant by “coverage.”

“What about some lipstick?”
“Oh yeah, guess I’d better get some. I think I should be able to choose that on my own though, thanks all the same.”
“And do you need lipliner?”
“They’re over here.”

I was even more confused. I didn’t have any, but did that mean I needed it? Is that the kind of thing anyone ever actually needs? I forewent the product on account of it sounding a little too much like dark magic. I ended up with foundation, lipstick, new eyeliner and eyeshadow (the only items I had any familiarity with but have probably been doing wrong for years) and free mascara for my expenditure. I put the lot on my credit card, grabbed my mother (who had cleverly taken a backseat to the proceedings) and rushed to the gate as though we were in some sort of hurry. I messaged Jenn to disperse my stress and unravel the mystery of lipliner. She told me that my decision to forego it was for the best and never to go makeup shopping without her. My relief was palpable, because to go back for lipliner would feel like reentering the gates of hell, and flagrantly gone against her second instruction. I got out of that shop, that airport, that country, as quickly as I could. I reentered the country and airport (but not the shop) a month and a half later, having put off the retraumatisation for as long as I could.

It did teach me a useful lesson in customer service though. I had admitted to the sales assistant up front that I was in unfamiliar territory, and am certain I looked at least half as scared as I felt. Even beneath the currents of perfume samples, she could assuredly smell my fear. What I needed in that moment was a basic makeup kit and some assurance, and while I was satisfied with my purchases in the end, as she looked down her perfectly made up nose, I felt about the size of the free mascara I’ve since used only twice. I already felt like an idiot, in need of help without disapproval. I’m prepared to admit that I was already very sensitive to even the slightest whiff of judgment in that department, but it felt lathered over me like shellac. It got me wondering if that’s how I come across when a customer at the bookshop asks for the latest 50 Shades instalment.

Disappointingly, I think I sometimes do, albeit perhaps to a smaller degree. Not only do I quietly enjoy feeling superior, I also have a very expressive face. My expressions of disapproval are never far away, and because I can’t raise one eyebrow without the other, half my lip curls instead and I fear I go around this world sneering at anything that causes me even the slightest displeasure. I’ve tried really hard to correct this though, and think I’ve been at least moderately successful because I still have a job. Two jobs, in fact, both focused on customer service. Mostly it’s friends and colleagues who bear my accumulated sneers, and because they have a solid sense of self and know it’s nothing personal, they laugh it off as a symptom of my curmudgeonly old soul and general world-weariness. They know me well.

So when a customer approached me in the bookshop and said she needed to buy a present for a kid, but didn’t know much about them or what their age group might be into, I was ready to help. It’s not her job to know what the youths are reading, it’s mine. She followed up with one proviso, however, that completely countered both productivity and intuition: she didn’t want to buy a book. Thankfully I was leading her to the kids’ section at this point, and as she was walking behind me, could not see my face. Even my most pronounced reactive judgment doesn’t reach the back of my head, and I had a couple of seconds to compose a response. How desperately I wanted to inform her that she was in a bookshop, that we sold books, that when someone comes into a bookshop to buy a present, they invariably leave with a book. But who would that have helped? Presumably she knew she was in a bookshop and hoped we were the kind that sold puzzles, board games, crockery and plant seeds. (These are all commodities which can be purchased at a bookshop I used to work at. Yes, even the seeds.) So hey, who was I to be judging her? Obviously I did or I wouldn’t have laughed about it with colleagues later or be writing about it now, but I realised I could do so without calling her out on her faux pas. I would’ve enjoyed a second of smugness as the insult sunk in, and then we both would’ve felt like fools. I’d have offended her and regretted it immediately. I showed her to the craft section instead.

I optimistically expect the makeup I bought to last me a good long while, and when it does run dry I’ll make an identical purchase online. There’s a lot to be said for cutting out the middleman, but my livelihood is as exactly that. I’m not paid for my snide comments, which I happily give away for free. If I weren’t so intimidated by potentially rude makeup salespeople, maybe I’d buy it with slightly greater frequency. I don’t want to put people off buying books, and I have some great book-related conversations with customers. They’re not all as out of their depth with books as I am buying makeup. I certainly don’t want to put myself out of a job because I come across as superior and unaccommodating. I may have to begin my career anew as a makeup sales assistant. And who needs that?