• Sophie Wilson

Everything I've read in 2020

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

A selection of books I have read this year about music, feminism and British politics.

This year most of us have had more spare time on our hands than we have done for years. The past few months have felt like a long summer holiday even longer than Phineas and Ferb's 104 days of summer vacation. So how do we find a good way to spend it?

I've been reading a lot, spending more time absorbing than creating. I feel like I've been able to take my foot off the gas a bit and finally make a dent in my 600+ long lists of films to watch and books to read. I've been reviewing the books I read for years but I've never actually shared them. I love using Goodreads but rarely post reviews on there. However, I love reading book reviews so in case there's a chance that other people do too I've decided to share all the reviews I've written this year in this really, really long post (sorry.) The books I have chosen to review and the books I haven't aren't based on how much I enjoyed them or how much merit I think they have overall, but simply whether I made notes when I was reading them or not. I've put in bold beneath each review whether I would recommend it or not.

I'm turning 23 next week but life still feels like it's on pause. I was planning to move to Paris in May so now I'm just waiting for that to happen, but realistically it probably won't until January. I've been spending my time reading, writing, studying French, going for long walks and watching films. I wrote a bit about how being in lockdown feels like being a teenager again but if I felt like I was 17 again at the start of lockdown I have regressed back to being 13 now; crying to Taylor Swift's new album and rewatching the Twilight movies. In one of my weirdest lockdown dreams so far I dreamt I was Bella and Edward and Jacob were fighting over me (kinda hot tho not gonna lie.) Anyway, recently I've written about Kristen Stewart's most iconic looks – which triggered the Twilight marathon lol – and digital avatars in music. Now, for the book reviews:

Quant by Quant – Mary Quant

Published in 1966, Mary Quant's stream of consciousness memoir goes some way in demystifying swinging sixties London and the 'look' that came to define it. It's intimate and personal, which means it's not the best book if you're looking for an overview of Quant or 60s London. As much as I appreciate this book for what it is, I found the prose lacked anything that really helped me envisage the universe it describes. For a memoir depicting one of the most exciting moments in British cultural history, it didn't have much spark.

Would I recommend it? No.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

Most reviews of Breakfast at Tiffany’s pit the book and the film against each other. I couldn’t help hearing Audrey Hepburn’s voice whenever I read Holly Golightly’s dialogue because I've watched the film so many times. However, the cinematic interpretation is really quite a sanitised version of Capote’s original tale. The novella deals with sex, striving and power. Holly Golightly isn’t a likeable character, but most critics are too harsh on her – she is a teenager trying to make her own way in New York after all. It's also a story about queerness. Paul, the narrator, is based on Capote himself. Instead of depicting a romance between Holly and Paul, like the film does, the book implies that Paul is gay and Holly is bisexual but of course early 1960s Hollywood wasn’t exactly known for its queer representation. Capote’s writing is as dazzling as ever, painting New York with a brush that's equal parts glamour and realism.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

The Importance of Music to Girls – Lavinia Greenlaw

Being a woman seemed to mean listening to the music boys liked and neither dancing nor singing along. Music memoirs and music writing are overwhelmingly masculine. Lavinia Greenlaw’s attempt to rebalance this interweaves music with coming-of-age. And who didn’t come-of-age with music? The soundtrack to our growing pains, our attempts to fit in, our rebellion is at once deeply personal and completely universal. From the classical music that formed the background to her childhood to the punk rock that fuelled her rebellious phase, Greenlaw paints a portrait of ordinary English adolescence in poetic prose that makes it seem special. The timeline of her growing up is the same timeline of musical evolution and celebrity deaths. Honest, and never snobby, this book is more about girlhood than music, but how could you ever separate the two?

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Candide Voltaire

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Candide clings to the idea that we live “in the best of all possible worlds.” But philosophy cannot protect us from visceral suffering. It’s basically a dig at anyone who believes everything happens for a reason and it all has some larger cosmic significance. Candide suffers so much. It's really over the top and extra. While I think the take away from this is interesting, eighteenth-century satire isn’t really for me. I found the lengthy, repetitive descriptions of the characters’ hardships tiresome. However, I am not opposed to rereading and changing my mind. Some of its supposed brilliance might have been lost on me because I listened to a free audiobook version with an annoying voice and I still prefer reading a book to listening to one.

Would I recommend it? No.

The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure is a feminist dystopian novel in which three sisters engage in bizarre rituals to keep them from being poisoned by ominous forces in nature. The biggest threat of all, though, is men. Their mother tells them they must be protected from the chaos and violence of men above all else. Then one day three men arrive onshore. Cautiously, they are taken in and what follows is testament to sibling rivalries and female desire. The Water Cure has been described as The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Virgin Suicides. Comparing a novel to two such towering works of contemporary literature sets it up for disappointment. HBO’s revival of The Handmaid’s Tale has sparked renewed interest in feminist dystopias, but The Water Cure misses the mark. I found it too strange, the events oddly spaced out and at times dull. There’s a potential richness in the ideas it touches on, but it rarely digs deeper.

Would I recommend it? No.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novella is an exploration of what it means to be a feminist written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a letter to a friend who has just become a mother. She reflects on the challenges of raising a daughter and the traditions and stereotypes to be wary of. This is a quick read. I listened to it as a free audiobook and it’s only one hour long, so it felt like listening to a podcast. Whether you are/want to be a mother or not, it's an interesting overview of what it means to be a feminist today. I liked that many of the suggestions were centred on leading a rich, fulfilling life, regardless of gender, but picking out the societal pitfalls to be wary of as a woman. It includes suggestions about marriage, oppression, and the importance of early and comprehensive sex education.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

I enjoyed reading this, but the whole time I was thinking about how different Orwell's experiences would be if he wrote this today. There were more accessible spaces for poor creatives in London and Paris in the 1920s/30s. That's not to say these spaces that Orwell depicts are in any way desirable. He describes bug-infested lodgings, unrelenting physical labour and sleeping rough. These things haven't disappeared but gentrification is pushing them further and further out of cities as if poverty will just stop existing if rich people in their central studio flats don't have to see it every day.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

The Waves – Virginia Woolf

This is my least favourite Woolf novel and I only enjoyed it when I read it aloud instead of in my head. I imagine it's an interesting text to study, but it meanders too directionlessly to enjoy reading casually, and I'm someone who usually loves Woolf's directionless meandering. I should have just reread Mrs. Dalloway because the excitement with which Mrs. Dalloway prepares for her party makes much more sense when you realise she had just lived through quarantine for the Spanish flu pandemic.

Would I recommend it? No.

Circling the Sun – Paula McClain

Paula McClain's previous historical novel The Paris Wife changed my life and was one of my favourite books as a teenager. It made me fall in love with Paris, with 1920s artistic and literary circles, with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Told from the perspective of Hemingway's first wife, it also opened my eyes to the fact that most of the authors I thought I admired were awful people. Circling the Sun is another work of historical fiction. This time McClain narrativises the life of Beryl Markham, an aviator, adventurer, racehorse trainer and author. Markham was English but she grew up in Kenya in the early 20th century so it's very much written through the colonial gaze. McClain does admit that the novel's colonial positioning was something she grappled with but wanted to be as true to fact as possible. The novel mostly follows Markham through a series of tragedies and unlucky love affairs. Her career was sidelined by the men in her life, and this novel nearly does the same. The reader feels much more intrigued by her affairs than anything else in her life. Historical fiction leaves a lot of messy, untied ends because it's real. While Markham was undoubtedly a remarkable woman, Circling the Sun isn't particularly inspiring. Perhaps it's because the subject in The Paris Wife is more aligned with my interests, or because I was easily impressed as a teenager, but McClain's second stab at historical fiction misses the mark.

Would I recommend it? No.

Love – Jeanette Winterson

"What else is there? Love. Lack of love. Loss of love. I never bought into status and power even fear of death as independent drivers. The platform we stand on, or fall from, is love." Jeanette Winterson knows what it's like to make sacrifices for love. Adopted by a fundamentalist Christian family, she came out aged 16 and left home. The publication of her semi-autobiographical debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit severed her ties with her adoptive family forever. It's especially touching, therefore, to read what she writes about love in all its different forms. Oranges... is the only book by Winterson I have read in full, but I definitely want to seek out more of her work after reading this. Here are some highlights:

- In Sexing the Cherry, Winterson reimagines Rapunzel as a story of queer love, with Rapunzel and 'the witch' living happily together in the tower before one day the prince comes and steals Rapunzel and blinds her lover.

- Written on the Body is a novel with a genderless narrator (or gendered, depending on your interpretation, but basically the narrator's gender is unknown) and in introducing this extract Winterson asks: "Does the character of our love change if our own gender, or the gender of our lover changes? Why is gender so defining in our culture?"

- An extract from The Powerbook describes an affair between two women – one married, one unmarried – in Paris. Winterson describes their brief love in small, detailed vignettes; the way that we look back at love once it's over. A man is exercising two Dalmations under the trees. She says "I want to kiss you." Your black jeans and white shirt. The night wrapping round you like a sweater. Your arms wrapped round me. Two Dalmations.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Just Kids – Patti Smith (Reread)

This is my favourite book of all-time. I reread it over a weekend as part of my research for a dream feature I had been commissioned to write about Patti Smith. Just Kids is the most vital and heart-breaking elegy: to Robert Mapplethorpe, to youth, to a city that no longer exists. Just Kids is lifegiving. It is my spiritual guide – as an artist, as a writer, as a human being. I've reread parts of it countless times since 2013, taking it with me to university, trips abroad and hospital stays. It is as important to me now as it was when I first read it aged 15 on a family holiday in Dorset. I still long for the world it portrays as if the memories were my own. I find solace on every page; in Patti's descriptions of the Chelsea Hotel, Max's, and Charleville, the birthplace of Rimbaud. Patti holds the keys to a mystical lifestyle where art matters above all else. My longing for her universe and way of living is as sharp as any longing I have experienced. It’s a path to holding hands with God, to being another link in a chain of generation-spanning artists and lovers. Everyone should read this book.

Would I recommend it? Yes yes yes.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacted the Power of the Wild Woman Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Maya Angelou said of Women Who Run with the Wolves: “Everyone who can read should read this book.” It took me on a journey within myself and was probably the most soothing book for my mental health that I’ve ever read. You will find comfort in the words written here. It’s educational, intersectional and as much about poetry as about the psyche. Clarissa Pinkola Estés retells archetypal stories from cultures around the world, identifying in each how female protagonists have been lured, tempted or forced away from their true, wild, creative nature. When I first came across this book online, I thought the title made it sound like the most ~white feminism~ / hippie dippy book ever. But I was wrong. For as much talk as there is of nature and soul and psyche, there are lessons and advice that can be applied whenever and wherever you are in life. It’s a little repetitive at times, but that’s because its message needs to be remembered. It hits uncomfortably close to home. Read this if you are ready to take a look at your life so far and starting living your best, fullest, most creative existence, whatever that looks like to you.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Pearl: Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin – Ellis Amburn

Women who Run with the Wolves spoke a lot about Janis Joplin as an example of a wildly creative woman who had been drawn away from her true nature by other people and substances. This memoir felt voyeuristic, with a strong focus on her sex life and drug use. The writer seemed weirdly obsessed with finding a way to prove she was a lesbian when she was clearly bisexual. Janis Joplin was an incredible woman and what happened to her was really sad, but I don't think this memoir dealt with it with any sensitivity.

Would I recommend it? No.

Steal as Much as You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in the Age of Austerity Nathalie Olah

A well-researched analysis of class in Britain today and how to steal from corporations to reclaim our own narratives that the mainstream media will not tell. Since Tony Blair's policy of "education education education" more working-class people than ever before have a university degree (and the debt that comes with it.) A degree doesn't always make social mobility any easier but a generation of working-class people have studied degrees in sociology and philosophy and history and we are more class-conscious than ever. This was quite a depressing read, but it also changed the way I think about work as a freelancer. Olah suggests that we should "steal as much as you can" from the companies that can afford it (know your worth, charge high rates etc.) then use that money to do work that you really care about even if it's not as well paid. That's not a radical idea but Olah puts it in radical language that really incentivises desire for change.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (Reread)

“The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” The Dream enables, enacts, and maintains white supremacy, white ignorance, white privilege, white violence. But it would be too simplistic to describe Between the World and Me as merely a dismantling of the Dream. This book defies categorisation. It is wildly poetic, forcefully loving; a letter from father to son about growing up Black in America today. When Mike Brown’s killer is acquitted, Coates’ teenage son gets up from the sofa and says, “I have to go,” then shuts himself in his bedroom. This “I have to go” haunts the rest of the book. It Coates' son's realisation that the Dream slaughters, incarcerates, and criminalises the Black body. This has featured on many anti-racist reading lists. It's not only essential reading but moving, creative, joyful at times. At one point Coates refers to the “bad poetry” he used to write in college, but I cannot imagine anything other than the most vital, magical words coming from his pen.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Zong! – M. NourbeSe Philip (Reread)

“There is no telling this story; it must be told.” This is how M. NourbeSe Philip describes the task of creating a literary representation of the Zong massacre, the killing of 130 enslaved Africans by throwing them overboard to claim insurance. Zong! is a text that tells itself. Reading it is disorienting, confusing and, at times, impossible to understand. During the writing process, Philip asked herself, “How did they- the Africans on board the Zong- make meaning of what was happening to them?” Many of the Africans on board would not have even understood the command, given to them in English, to throw themselves overboard. Yet, despite this purposeful sense of confusion that the reader faces, the poem's powerful evocation of emotion is not lost. Philip writes that “law and poetry both share an inexorable concern with language.” Yet language is often a barrier in colonial narratives. Modes of communication break down like the poem breaks down our understanding of language. Read this and I dare you not to agree that all statues of slave traders need to be literally thrown INTO THE SEA ASAP.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom – Sylvia Plath

Mary Ventura deals with temptation, nihilism, coming-of-age and God. Mary Ventura's parents send her away on a train. Plath was young when she wrote this so she was likely thinking about growing up and moving out. Everyone goes away or is sent away from their parents' house at some point. In Mary Ventura, this is presented as infanticide. When Mary realises that she can't get off the train, she starts to panic. Reading this feels like being in a dream; a dream where you're trapped and there's no escape. Death is imagined as comfort. It's nihilistic but the ending is hopeful. I always find reading hope in Plath's work more upsetting than when there's none.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Patriarchal disapproval is the catalyst for Anna Karenina’s unravelling. When she is exiled from society for falling in love with a man who is not her husband, her lover gets to continue his social life – going to dinners, going to the theatre, engaging in politics – but Anna is shunned by everyone except other ‘fallen women.’ One night, Anna decides to put on a beautiful dress and go to the theatre anyway; telling herself that she doesn’t care what anyone says and acting bubbly and charming all evening. Tolstoy writes that, on that night, her lover’s “respect for her was diminished while his sense of her beauty intensified.” Anna’s beauty “gave him a sense of injury.” It still angers men today to see women they deem to be somehow unvirtuous looking beautiful. We see the violent repercussions of this all the time, in femicide, in the number of trans women and sex workers murdered year after year. Men feel rage about beautiful women using their beauty to make money on OnlyFans or as influencers. Anna Karenina is not allowed to be happy or beautiful or charming because she has committed the crime of falling in love with the 'wrong' man. There are so many scandalous, melodramatic, timeless, universal themes in Anna Karenina. It’s a classic for a reason and over 800 pages, so there’s a lot to unpack, but this is what most stood out to me because its a relevant today as it was in 1877.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

There’s no such thing as subtlety in Middle England. Jonathan Coe illustrates the lives of ordinary people in a country sleepwalking towards disaster. Focusing on the years 2011 to 2018, from Amy Winehouse’s death to the aftermath of the EU Referendum, Brexit looms large over everything the characters think, say, and do. It's in every conversation, every decision. The foreshadowing is too heavy-handed to be elegant, but it’s not an elegant topic anyway. It fuels tension and bitterness over dinner tables, incites hate crimes in the street. Coe suggests that the biggest divide in political opinion is age. It’s an overgeneralisation but it’s hard to disagree with entirely. I read this because I'm trying to diversify my reading list and accept recommendations from anyone. My dad’s friend (Tory, Remainer) lent this to my dad (Labour – but sometimes Tory – Leave) who lent it to me. My dad’s least favourite character was the one the exact same age as me. Her introduction is as a 13-year-old mourning Amy Winehouse. She comes to personify what certain people would call ‘the intolerant left.’ She’s overdramatic and hugely privileged and self-centred but she’s far from the worst character in the book. The closing message seems to be that you shouldn’t let political differences get in the way of personal relationships, including friendships and marriages. It’s not a message that I agree with entirely – some issues are too big to disagree on. Jonathan Coe could not have predicted this pandemic at the time of writing but there are barbed references to Tory privatisation of the NHS and you can see how it could slot in as the next chapter, the next disaster. Many reviewers describe Middle England as a comedy but it mostly filled me with dread. The comedy is dark. It’s bitter. It’s stomach-turning and a bit too on the nose. But perhaps that’s the only sense of humour appropriate for these times.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Very short reviews of everything else I read:

Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre – Walter Kaufman

I still don’t understand existentialism but that doesn't stop me from feeling existential dread every time I think about the fact that I still don't understand existentialism.

Would I recommend it? No.

The Collected Poems – Marcel Proust

I purchased this dual-language edition from Shakespeare & Company last summer and I mostly read it to improve my French and to learn more about Proust after visiting his grave and finding out that he was Yves Saint Laurent's favourite poet, but I didn't love it.

Would I recommend it? No.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

When I read The Goldfinch, I lost myself in it; some moments felt more real to me than my own life. I can't say the same about The Secret History. Filled with plot holes, unlikeable/unrelatable characters, I didn't feel like it had a soul. I'm not sure why it's such a classic but Tartt wrote it in her twenties so fairy play!

Would I recommend it? No.

L’Etranger – Albert Camus (Reread)

I had read this in English before but reread it in French. I still think it's a bit overrated but I enjoyed reading this New Yorker article about what the famous first line Aujourd'hui, maman est morte should be translated as in English and how it's hard to get right because there isn't an English equivalent to the word maman.

Would I recommend it? No.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

A brilliantly funny, clever novel about gentrification, hookup culture and being a Black woman in South London today.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino

The best critique of late capitalist society I have ever read. Some people criticise this book for not saying anything new, and while I think a lot of the topics have been exhausted in articles already, in Trick Mirror Tolentino writes about these issues well and all in one place. I don't think all writing has to say something new. It just has to say it well.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

I loved this even more when I found out the writer used to work in a convenience store and only quit after the success of this book and could leave to write full time.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I'd wanted to read this for years, but I was disappointed; mostly because I wish the title short story was longer.

Would I recommend it? No.

Mix Tape Jane Sanderson

I stole a proof copy of this from an internship because it's based in Sheffield which is a place I miss a lot. It was a cute love story and it gave the best idea for a playlist based on the best last two songs of albums.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

Little Women Louisa May Alcott

I put off reading Little Women for years because it seemed too twee. Then I watched Greta Gerwig’s adaptation which was stunning so decided to give it a go but I did find it too twee. I think I would enjoy The Good Wives (the second part) more because the girls are older and that's when all the drama happens but I'm not sure I'll ever read it. I'll just keep rewatching the Gerwig adaption and crying every time.

Would I recommend it? No.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing

I remember when this came out and lots of people I knew were obsessed with it and told me I'd love it. It wasn’t what I expected and I would have liked a little more memoir and some more women artists. The Andy Warhol section felt a bit out of place because so much has been written about him already.

Would I recommend it? No.

Birthday Girl Haruki Murakami

I just love the way Murakami writes and this story of a weird meeting a waitress has on her twentieth birthday is no exception. Some might find the ending frustrating but Murakami always leaves it open to interpretation, never answering questions about what it all means.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe

Often I think it’s unfair to dismiss beat/‘hippie’ literature as a gross example of white male privilege in America but I...uh...can’t think of anything else to say about this one.

Would I recommend it? No.

55 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All