My favourite books of 2019

2018

I got lazy last year and didn’t do an end of year post even though I read (or listened to) lots of amazing books, so here’s a very quick overview: The Mindbody Prescription and The Great Pain Deception were absolutely life changing (see last post).

Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was a stunning novel. Otherwise in fiction I loved The Milkman and the marmite book of the year: Normal People. I read lots of fascinating and amazingly entertaining non-fiction as well: Delusions of Gender, Smoke gets in your eyes, The Octopus, the Sea, and the deep Origins of consciousness, and the fascinating Why We Sleep.

In memoir, I loved The Trauma Cleaner, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Not My Father’s Son, and of course the glorious Notes to Self.


2019

I’ve read 52 books a year for 5 years now and here are my favourites from this year. I haven’t numbered the books this time. The list may be in some slight order but not really, whatever, who cares, here are twenty great books, a mixed bag:

  • 5 Novels
  • 5 Non fiction
  • 3 memoirs
  • 2 Graphic novels
  • 2 Graphic book of short stories
  • 1 regular book of short stories
  • 1 Books of essays
  • 1 autofiction

Tatty

  • Written by: Christine Dwyer Hickey
  • Format: Kindle

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Tatty is the nickname of a young Irish girl whose eyes we view the world through. She’s daddy’s little girl. But definitely not mammy’s. Her parents are flawed and her home life is turbulent. Her world is full of arguing parents, alcoholism, mental health issues and too many siblings. No one parent is fully blamed. And I liked the nuance. The child’s perspective is sweet and funny in its innocence, and sometimes heartbreaking but never twee. And the view of the turbulent world never approaches the realms of misery lit either. This kind of story can easily go too far into many eye-rolling territories but Tatty never did. More than anything it depicts Tatty’s family in the 70s and 80s as an almost typical, rather than unique, poor Irish family whose parents should have drank less and probably procreated less too. 

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Figuring

  • Written by: Maria Popova
  • Format: Audiobook, Non-fiction
  • Narrated by: Natascha McElhone

Figuring cover art

From the same author as the much loved Brainpicking’s Web site, Figuring is a serial biography of several women who pushed, and pushed against, the boundaries of science, literature, poetry, philosophy, women’s rights, gender, sexuality and environmentalism. Each biography would have been long enough to stand alone as a complete historical biography, yet the stories overlap and intertwine to become something broader. The writing is exquisite sentence by sentence, the opening paragraph a thing of wonder. I wasn’t fully won over by the sum of its parts. but it’s still a very worthwhile read. Figuring is essentially one very long love letter to these trailblazing (s)heroes who have a special place in Popova’s heart.

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A History of Loneliness

  • Written by: John Boyne
  • Format: Kindle, Novel 

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

John Boyne seems to get into the odd ruckus on Twitter but there’s no denying his great writing. I’ve only read two so far and they’ve both been thoroughly entertaining. He has a great knack for seamlessy flipping between the serious and the hilarious. This is the story of the vile evil acts of the Catholic Church; my words not his, as this story is told through the eyes of one minor priest which adds a little bit of balance. I’d just as happily read a book that completely tears this institution to shreds but it’s an interesting insight to see a priest struggle with his conscience as he realizes what he has really signed up to.  

Currently going cheap on Kindle.

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Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny: My Autobiography

  • Written by: Limmy
  • Format: Audiobook, Memoir
  • Narrated by: Limmy

Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny. cover art

I’ve been a big fan of Limmy since his website popped up in 2006 with lots of great Flash games and videos. I saw his first live show in Edinburgh, and was at his first book launch, and have  enjoyed pretty much everything he’s done including his two short story collections. Thinking back on all those moments made this audiobook all the more special and enjoyable. I couldn’t put it down. Limmy has such a unique way of looking at the world and talking about his experiences. He’s not afraid to tell you about all the times he was a complete shitebag, or all the times he seriously contemplated suicide, and lots more really intimate details in between all the amazing moments in the career of someone who started making funny stuff on his homepage and ended up making funny stuff for his own BBC tv show, writing several books and being an all-around hilarious fucking legend.  

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Night Boat to Tangier

  • Written by: Kevin Barry
  • Format: Kindle

We all know Kevin Barry is a great writer and he writes great characters. These two gangsters are two of his best. They’re waiting (for Godot) to see if they can spot an absconded daughter who may be passing through this port in Tangier while reflecting on their own colourful lives.

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Daisy Jones & The Six

  • Written by: 
  • Format: Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Narrated by: Sara Arrington, Jennifer Beals, Arthur Bishop, Fred Berman, Benjamin Bratt, Jonathan Davis, Ari Fliakos, Holter Graham, Judy Greer, January Lavoy, Robinne Lee, Peter Larkin, Henry Leyva, P.J. Ochlan, Robert Petkoff

Daisy Jones and the Six cover art

Here’s the pitch: The memoir of a band told through talking-head style interviews with all the band members. That’s it. And it works great on audio. Daisy Jones and the Six are a fictitious Fleetwood Mac style band but it’s written and performed so well, that at times I thought I was listening to a podcast interview of real musicians from a real band. 

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Problems

  • Written by: Jade Sharma
  • Format: Kindle, Fiction

Problems is about Maya, who most people will tell you is a drug addict. But she’s addicted to a lot of things: drugs, sex, love, men, sugar, drama, fucking shit up.

This is a brief snapshot of Maya’s life. She’s just about clinging to normal straight life when we meet her. She’s got a husband, a job, and a heroin habit that’s almost manageable. She’s at a crossroads. Or is it a T junction? Things could go either way. Will she go to heaven or hell? She actually goes to purgatory briefly by spending Thanksgiving with her Christian goody-two-shoe In-Laws for an extended scene (there are no chapters). We’re almost in romcom territory here before getting back to dark reality.

And although dark, Problems is also hilarious in places and thoroughly entertaining. It reminded me of Dept. of Speculation; if you were to start highlighting stand out bits, you’d just highlight the whole book.

Sadly Jade Sharma died this year. This is her only book.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

  • Written by: Mary Roach
  • Format: Kindle, Non-fiction

Stiff by Mary Roach

I’ve said it before and I’ll try not say it again; Mary Roach and Bill Bryson are two people who write about interesting topics while never forgetting to be highly entertaining at the same time. (I have written entertaining many times in this list, it’s a key factor for me). I think Mary Roach could write about watching grass grow and still make it fascinating and hilarious. And when the topic is about dead bodies, humour surely helps, even though the darkly comic image of cadaver crash-test dummies almost writes itself. Like everything else in this book, the grim reality of that practice would be pure horror without a bit of gallows humour for distraction.

And after reading the chapter about converting your body to compost and using it to grow a tree, I think that’s the way to go for me! There’s only one place, so far, in Ireland that facilitate this: https://www.greengraveyard.com/

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My Struggle, Book 5

  • Written by: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett – translator
  • Format: Audiobook, autofiction
  • Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini

My Struggle, Book 5 cover art

I’ve written about this amazing epic autofiction series before. I only have one more to go. I’ve been stretching it out and very much looking forward to book 6. Book 5 is mostly about his time in the writing academy alongside his usual teen-like struggles with life. 

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Driving Short Distances

  • Written & Illustrated by: Joff Winterhart
  • Format: Hardback, Graphic Novel

Lovely book about a college drop out who starts working with an older relative as they drive around various industrial estates and offices. A story of an odd  couple and their colliding worlds and their not-quite maybe-a-little bonding experience.

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Constellations

  • Written by: Sinéad Gleeson
  • Format: Hardback, Essays & Poems

Notes to Self. There I said it. Wotcha gonna do about it? It’s very hard not to compare these two books of essays from contemporary Irish female writers writing about women’s bodies, grief, pain and all the sticky bits in between. But they are only similar at a high level, it’s like comparing two novels by two irish women. So of course these two books are very different in detail but both deserving the title of one of the books of their respective years. 

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Beastie Boys Book

  • Written by: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Narrated by: Steve Buscemi, Ada Calhoun, Bobby Cannavale, Exene Cervenka, Roy Choi, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Chuck D, Nadia Dajani, Michael Diamond, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Crosby Fitzgerald, Randy Gardner, Kim Gordon, Josh Hamilton, Adam Horovitz, LL Cool J, Spike Jonze, Pat Kiernan, Talib Kweli, Dave Macklovitch, Rachel Maddow, Tim Meadows, Bette Midler, Mix Master Mike, NAS, Yoshimi O, Rosie Perez, Amy Poehler, Kelly Reichardt, John C. Reilly, Ian Rogers, Maya Rudolph, Rev Run, Luc Sante, Kate Schellenbach, MC Serch, Chloe Sevigny, Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller, Wanda Sykes, Jeff Tweedy and Philippe Zdar.

Beastie Boys Book cover art

This audiobook is amazingly good fun, with an insanely long cast of celebrities narrating what are mostly first-person anecdotes, which is an amusing combination; I burst out laughing when the very recognisable Steve Buscemi reminisced: “I joined the Beastie Boys in 1983”.

Most of the anecdotes, are either pretty funny, or musically interesting, and there are frequent tributes to the much loved Adam Yauch. In fact, flip that, a lot of the book seems like a swan song to Yauch, interspersed with a lot of amusing anecdotes from the other two.

It’s a chunky listen. It took me a month to get through. The sheer number of times an amazing track gets a name check will make you stop every few minutes to ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-check it out. So while the running time is nearly 11 hours, you should triple that if you’re going to check out half the music that gets a holler. There’s a Spotify playlist featuring 525 tracks mentioned weighing in at a hefty 37 hours and 18 minutes.  The audiobook is a real treat overall. Enjoy.

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Sabrina, Beverly

  • Written by: Nick Drnasno
  • Format: Hardback, Graphic Novel

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Two graphic books here by the same author. 

Sabrina is a graphic novel about the depressed boyfriend of a missing woman, who is staying with an old school friend during our very present times of fact, fiction, truth, lies, and conspiracy theories.

Although I’ve read a good few graphic novels in the last two years, what really struck me about Nick Drnaso’s books is how much he can convey with a simple image, particularly some of the images without text. Your mind tends to fill in the blanks; what a character might be feeling, or thinking, or even doing. It really makes the graphic novel a completely separate entity from books, audiobooks, or movies. It can play with the concept of show-don’t-tell on a different level.

Beverly is more of a collection of darkly comic short stories but the characters are all from the same town and sometimes connected. 

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I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human

  • Written by: Robin Ince
  • Format: Kindle, Non-fiction

I'm a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and Humanity by [Ince, Robin]

Fantastic read exploring the human condition through the experiences of what makes a comedian a comedian. I love books like this where the author takes a relatively trivial subject and immerses themselves completely and explores the vast depths of humanity while trying to connect all the dots and answer some of the bigger questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? I loved this book. 

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Tales from the Inner City

  • Written and painted by: Shaun Tan 
  • Format: hardback, graphic short stories

Image result for tales from the inner city

Shaun Tan books are something else. I don’t mean that figuratively, they are something other than books. The actual artefact of Tales From The Inner City is a book sure, a book with added illustrations – but it could just as easily be the other way around. It could also work as a large-scale exhibition of his paintings with some added text beside them on the wall. His surreal but wholly accessible paintings are quite stunning, and his surreal short stories are also things of wonder. They both compliment each other perfectly. And to have them tamed into this neat little entity called a book is a beautiful thing, it really is something else.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

  • Written by: Yuval Noah Harari
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Narrated by: Derek Perkins

21 Lessons for the 21st Century cover art

Fascinating. Insightful. Scintillating. Terrifying. Important. Fiercely intelligent. Prescient guru fare.

(Though I suspect that a noticeably missing summary at the end of each lesson tells us this book was never conceived to be 21 discrete lessons in and that the title was most likely an afterthought. Still fantastic book though)

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Room to Dream

  • Written by: David Lynch and Kristine McKenna 
  • Format: Audiobook & Unscripted commentary
  • David Lynch and Kristine McKenna 

Room to Dream cover art

It’s a weird kind of audiobook and I don’t mean Lynchean weird. Parts of Lynch’s life are written and narrated by the journalist Kristine McKenna, and then Lynch himself intermittently talks about the same period from his perspective. The McKenna parts sound oddly reminiscent of a voiceover from a cheap daytime TV biography – but at least they’re based on written material. Whereas Lynch’s parts are clearly ad libbed; reminiscing off the top of his head.

Now I’m very fussy about the definition of an Audiobook. I don’t know why I care but I do. Audiobooks are based on the written material of books. If it’s not based on written material it’s not an audiobook. Simple. It always gets my goat when someone asks for audiobook recommendations and people suggest West Cork, or similar. West Cork is a fantastic podcast. But it’s not an audiobook. Likewise for years Ricky Gervais was number one in the audiobook charts in iTunes. It wasn’t remotely anything to do with a book. I don’t know why this winds me up but it does.

Alas, at least half of Room to Dream is based on written material. So it passes. But it not only passes, I would say that Lynch’s ad hoc contributions are far more entertaining than the written material. ( Though I am confused about the whole process of writing the book – did the audiobook come first and then someone wrote down Lynch’s dialogue?).

Anyway…

Once I got past my various reservations, I just couldn’t get enough of this book. I just love listening to someone being so passionate about creativity, and Lynch is clearly a creative genius. And a creative addict. He just spends all his time creating. When he’s not directing, he’s creating most of the props for his sets. And when he’s not making movies or tv shows, he’s creating art of one kind or another. And I loved the stories about how his creativity manifested in various movie scenes.

I loved it. But totes jels. I would love to jack in the day job and just spend all day living the art life; creating art and music (again).

I also spent that whole month or so catching up on some of his work that I had not previously got around to watching. So it was a fantastically entertaining Lynch month overall.

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Boulevard Wren and Other Stories

  • Written by: Blindboy Boatclub
  • Format: Hardback

According to modern sleep experts, our minds process our thoughts while we sleep, converting short-term memories into long-term memories, and processing our fears, anxieties, worries and other emotions from the day, essentially providing free therapy while we sleep. This mostly happens unconsciously, with occasional leaks into our consciousness which manifest as dreams.

I think Blindboy taps into the same experience, by absorbing our fears and anxieties at a cultural level and expressing them in surreal dreamlike fantasies which process those emotions in a way that regular straight fiction can’t quite express. Just like June Caldwell’s abstruse rage and Eimear McBride’s spiky irregular language expresses life’s anger and frustrations in a way that standard prose can’t quite touch, Blindboy’s imagination performs dream therapy on our existential angst, our environmental worries, and our everyday anxieties: like the OCD teenage boy who worries that his ardent chicken-choking is causing catastrophes, or the pensioners who become hypnotized by a dead dog and a bucket of maggots, or the artist so bereft by comparisons to her social media peers that she conjures up Donald Duck as an Airbnb landlord in an unconscious effort to create her best work.

I don’t want to give the impression that these are all fantasy dream stories. A good few are straight stories (like the beautifully touching “Gruyère in the Desmond” about a group of middle-aged men who meet in the pub to drink beer, eat cheese and inadvertently save each other from depression and suicide), but even the more fantastical stories are all cemented in realism and then nudged towards the edges of surrealism, but I think they all tap into the same unconscious ennui that our minds do when we sleep.

Collective Jungian Dream Therapy© aside, these are just great stories. When I was reading “Below in Joey Ramone”, about four isolated brothers who have formed a punk cargo-cult tribe with their own language and rituals, I was thinking “Fuck me, this is deadly”. I didn’t care how it ended or what happened on the next page. I was just loving every bit of the story as I read it. That’s a sign of great story-telling, and so rare. It reminded me of the best book ever: The Wasp Factory

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Lost Connections

  • Written by: Johann Hari
  • Format: kindle

Mental health pre-amble

Before I get to the book, divulge me in some thoughts on mental health that have been on my mind this year. In the last couple of years my mental health has wavered a few times, never veering into serious mental illness, just something I needed to keep an eye on, and work on. I saw a therapist, I meditated daily, and practiced mindfulness in other forms. I journalled. I tried to get out into nature more. I got out for a long walk every day. I read various self-help books and did lots of running. All this stuff really helped.  

But I’ve noticed the occasional backlash on social media against some of these methods in the last year or so. There are a few different camps:

  1. Mentally well people who think it’s all a load of nonsense but don’t realise what a PRIVILEGE it is to be in a position to mock these mental health tools. 
  2. There’s a difference between people who use these tools to look after their mental health and people who have a diagnosed mental illness and need medication. Some of these people seem to have little time for non-medicinal mental health practices. But they seem to think this gives them license to slag off other mental health tools, despite their proven efficacy.    
  3. Lastly is the more valid gang of people who slag of the money-making corporate wellness industry. And sure, there is plenty of reason to be cynical here. But some of these people seem to rub their hands in glee when they come across any negative research about meditation or mindfulness, and the snide comments that accompany these comments often show their true colours as being really just a subset of the problematic first two gangs. 

I try  not to be an offended humourless git. But this gets my goat. I mostly keep it to myself. But I’m going to call this one more time. And then I’m going to stay Schtum on the subject once and for all: If you take glee in slagging off mindfulness, meditation, journalling etc, maybe have another think about the millions of people this shit genuinely helps from going over the edge, and have a think about your own privilege or slippy edge of superiority. 

There. Off my chest. Won’t mention it again.

The Book (Well, sorry, a bit more preamble that’s more related to the book)

I grew up with a mother diagnosed as manic depressive / bipolar who was basically a medication guinea-pig and also had electroshock therapy, and in her the only result I saw was a growing deterioration in brain function, though I still grew up arguing that depression is simply a chemical imbalance, nothing else. Then I had a severe anxiety disorder in my twenties. And my daughter has Selective Mutism / general anxiety. 

For a good few years now I’ve long had the gnawing feeling my daughter and many like her, an exponential number of young people with mental health problems, are more a product of a society that has lost the power of community and local family, and playing outdoors, and nature.

The Book (Definitely the book now)

I no way does Hari does want to banish the idea that for some people there can be a specific medical issue with their brain that needs to be fixed with medication. But – he argues that brain malfunction is just one of many factors of mental health issues or mental ilness. One of 9 causes. 

The problem is that because mental health medication is an €89 billion industry, the chemical solution is way overhyped and has dominated and quashed all other factors and solutions. Hari presents a longer list of factors that he’s come across in his research while talking to doctors, experts, researchers and patients:

Some credible scientists argue they [antidepressants] give some temporary relief to a minority of users, and that shouldn’t be dismissed. The false story is the claim that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that the primary solution for most people is a chemical antidepressant.

Hari discusses nine disconnections in this book:
1. Disconnection from meaningful work
2. Disconnection from other people
3. Disconnection from meaningful values
4. Disconnection from childhood trauma
5. Disconnection from status and respect
6. Disconnection from the natural world
7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future
8. And 9. Real role of genes and brain changes

There is much more research out there to show that modern society, traumas and general life struggles contribute much more to our mental state. And although medication might help a small percentage, most research indicates that it is short term, or doesn’t work at all, or it doesn’t work as well as a lot of non-medication-based approaches. This is actually long-known by most experts. But it’s hard for them to get heard.

The World Health Organization—the leading medical body in the world—summarized the evidence well in 2011 when they explained: “Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual, solutions.”

There are many reasons why a pill has become the easiest way to patch up mental health issues. But in most cases, it’s just a patch. On the whole modern society is much more imbalanced than our brains. We’re not designed to work 40 hour weeks in sometimes politically toxic environments, with shrinking communities, distant families, and spending more time looking at a screen than in nature or with friends, while continually being bombarded with bad news.   

Hari is careful to back up every chapter with peer-researched papers and interviews with plenty of mental health experts and patients.

I’m not sure I’ve done the book much justice here but he presents a very strong case for looking at all areas of our life and fixing those connections at a personal level, and hopefully at a social level. 

It’s a fascinating read. And thoroughly enjoyable too. Highly recommended. I think it’s the best book I’ve read on mental health. And my book of the year.

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I want to re-iterate that for a lot people medication, is the best solution, and no one is trying to banish that idea. The issue is that it’s certainly not the best solution for everyone.


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