2018 Reading Round-Up

All data from my Goodreads Challenge page.

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Non-fiction – essays

I spent some of 2018 working on an essay collection (loading. . . ) so it’s no surprise that I dived into a lot of non-fiction. Essay collections I loved: Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, not least because it allowed me to say things like “daringly inventive with the very form of the essay” in various pubs, Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, not least because it was written by Cheryl Strayed, and of course, as a bookish Irishwoman I devoured Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self . My personal favourite essay-read from 2018 was Leslie Jamison’s new-to-me The Empathy Exams. Her addiction and recovery memoir is on my shelf thanks to Dublin City Libraries and I’m very excited to read it.

Memoir

When is an essay collection not a memoir? When you read enough of either that lumping them together becomes ungainly, of course!

The most enjoyable memoir I read in 2018 was Helene Hanff’s Underfoot in Show Business. If you’re a creative person, just read it. Please trust me on this.

It’s often hard to call a memoir enjoyable, especially if it was written from a period of great trauma (“sorry you were sad, nice book tho”), but I am very glad that I read Poorna Bell’s Chase the Rainbow while being immensely sorry for everything she went through. It made me better.

Non-fiction – other

I re-read And the Band Played On, by the late fearless journalist Randy Shilts, about AIDS in Reagan’s America. The passage of time has debunked some of the book’s assertions (Gaetan Dugas did not, in fact deliberately infect people with HIV), but it’s still a fine piece of journalism that will break your heart.

YA

When I’m not writing essays, I write YA, and when I’m not reading essays, I read a lot of YA. It’s the category I come back to most often. This year I dug into Coe Booth‘s back catalogue and absolutely loved her work – would strongly recommend that any fans of Angie Thomas check out Booth. Brian Conaghan’s The Weight of a Thousand Feathers (now an An Post Irish Book Award winner) was also excellent.

I read a lot of great YA this year (Cethan Leahy’s debut, Tuesdays Are Just As Bad, has my hands-down favourite book title of 2018, Juno Dawson’s Clean is fabulous, and if you didn’t love Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, seek help). However, for some reason the YA reads that resonated the most with me in 2018 – Conaghan and Booth – were about the working-class teen experience, which is so often absent (especially from American YA – the exception springing to mind is Dumplin‘, which I re-read before the film came out and loved both). I am making an effort to read under-represented voices and so far it’s been a total delight, but I am conscious that class and wealth cannot be excluded from the discourse on marginalisation and I’m pleased to have the chance to read these stories. And on that note, it’s almost time for On The Come Up you guys!!

General Fiction

Putney was unsettling, but wonderfully written, evocative and unflinching (I wanted to throw a lot of punches that week), and was one of the stand-outs of the year for me. I also loved Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Crime/Thriller

Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girl was so good that I bought it for my highly discerning aunt, and it’s now Edgar Award-nominated! I read very little else in this category this year, although I did finally finish Hannibal Rising, the Hannibal Lecter origin story, and I was underwhelmed.

 

For 2019, I’m most eager to read the aforementioned On the Come Up (which one of my book clubs has chosen!), Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Sinead Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations, and Deirdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths, a YA that totally won me over when I snagged a sampler at Deptcon. It’s looking like a good book year…

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Review: Julia Cameron’s Floor Sample

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Floor Sample, by Julia Cameron. Copy courtesy of the Dublin City Library service. Background: My couch

Confession time: I have never completed The Artist’s Way. I have read it all, but I’ve never sat down and done all of the exercises. I can’t pretend I have a smart reason for this – the truth is that I do all of the exercises up to Week 3 in a single weekend and then forget about it for six months. It’s probably fair to assume that I’m never going to take over the world.

But I’ve always quite liked Cameron’s approach and her methods. The one element of The Artist’s Way that has resonated with me is morning pages – the practice of completing three pages of free writing every morning. Again, it’s not something I do consistently (blame working a full-time job with flexi time, and who I am as a person), but it has worked for me in the past.

There was a lot to like about Floor Sample – subtitled ‘A Creative Memoir’, there’s probably less salacious stuff about Martin Scorsese (Cameron’s ex-husband and the father of her daughter) than some readers might like, as the focus remains firmly on her writing with a slight detour into her history of addiction (Cameron is a long-term sober alcoholic). There is a lovely feeling of joy about Cameron’s writing – whether she’s hustling for stories for the Washington Post or shooting indie movies with her toddler and neighbour in the local park, you sense that this woman has fun with her work. In fact, against the backdrop of her alcoholism and later mental illnesses, you sense that there were times that creative work was one of the most pure sources of happiness she had.

However, it’s also quite clear that in her creative life, Julia Cameron has been astoundingly fortunate. Since graduating from college, she has never worked at anything that was not writing, or teaching writing, or filmmaking. If you are hoping for the tale of how a writing guru kept the faith while waiting tables and selling books, then I’d suggest Natalie Goldberg (or Tiffany Reisz, who sadly hasn’t written a book about her writing methods yet, but the FAQ on her website and her answers to writing questions on Goodreads have some solid advice. She wrote her first novel while working in a book shop and now writes full-time, free of student loan debt). Throughout her memoir, Cameron seems to have a network of ever-helpful friends to draw on for work, cheap rent, and crash space, but she doesn’t explicitly acknowledge – or explain how she came by – that privilege.

Which, for me, throws a somewhat different light on her earlier work on The Artist’s Way. I suspect that it’s probably quite easy to preach how great the creative life is when you’ve never had to balance it with making enough money to eat. Not that Cameron didn’t face, and overcome, other astonishing challenges – if she writes a memoir of her addiction and recovery, I’ll be first in line to read it. And I am not suggesting that The Artist’s Way lacks value because Julia Cameron never had to work a lunch shift in Eddie Rockets on South Anne Street – it’s helped millions of people (TAW, not Eddie’s).

But I am suggesting that the environment which enabled you to create your art cannot be separated from the art itself – if you position yourself as a teacher or a guide.

Interestingly, Cameron and her ex-husband Mark Bryan co-authored a book on money addiction. I may need to dig that out to see if it sheds any light on what I learned from Floor Sample.

Verdict: Check it out, watch for jealousy!