Cheerfulness is an achievement: favourite books of 2015

December 28, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Posted in art, Books, capitalism, creativity, health | 2 Comments

The Guardian Weekly ‘Books of the Year’ (18-31 December this year) is where writers and critics present their favourite reads of the past year and it is a reliable guide to some great reading. You can also hear authors speak about their work on theguardian.com/books/series/books

Popular choices of ‘Books of the Year’ were Ali Smith’s short story collection Public Library, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet and Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster. Kate Mosse recommends selected essays by women under thirty entitled I Call Myself A Feminist (Virago, 2015).

The uplifting website www.brainpickings.org also lists favourite books of the past year. The first is the late Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life.

If The Guardian were to ask me, I’d recommend Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go (Sphere, 2014). The plot leaps into action from page one, gripping the reader until the end. After a tragedy, protagonist Jenna Gray leaves everything and moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast. The novel is written from the perspectives of several characters, in first, third and even second person. I don’t usually read crime novels except for the psychological thrillers of Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume for her novels in that genre) but, like the Barbara Vine novels, I Let You Go has much more insight and psychological depth than your average crime novel.

This hard-to-put-down narrative is so sophisticated and assured it’s hard to believe it’s is a first novel. It has unusual insight into what domestic violence does to a person’s self-esteem. Intriguingly, the author is an ex-Police Officer who is the founder of the Chipping Norton Literary Festival.

The theme put me in mind of Australian writer and television presenter Annabell Crabb, who wrote in a recent newspaper:

‘I am a feminist because it bothers me that a woman gets killed by her male partner every single week, and somehow that doesn’t qualify as a tools-down national crisis even though if a man got killed by a shark every week we’d probably arrange to have the ocean drained.’

Annabell Crabb’s The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives is published by Ebury. It’s going on my list along with some of those Guardian Weekly and Brainpickings.org choices to read next year.

In this world full of violence, injustice and war, it can be difficult to keep going or at least keep a healthy perspective while we keep going, and Australia’s national ‘wise fool’ Michael Leunig wrote recently in The Age (about his 2016 calendar):

‘One feels the painful state of the world and yearns innocently for universal beauty, health and peace – but in time one learns to work as calmly as possible with the appalling realities of humanity.’

We can be aware of grim reality, yet still get the most from life and some degree of serenity by working away at improving our craft, whether it’s writing or painting or cooking or whatever you like to do. We can make an art of living.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong published their book, Art as Therapy (London, Phaidon) in 2013 and it has cheered me ever since. They write:

‘Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. … Today’s problems are rarely created by people taking too sunny a view of things; it is because the troubles of the world are so continually brought to our attention that we need tools that can preserve our hopeful dispositions.’ (p. 16)

This is a beautifully written, clear book (with not a very good title). Just glancing over at its bright turquoise spine on my bookshelf gladdens me. There is no academic jargon or over-analysis to wade through. All you need do is open your heart to its contents.

I also liked David Gillespie’s lavishly illustrated The Sweet Poison Quit Plan Cookbook (Viking, 2013) and David Permutter’s Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar – your brain’s silent killers. (Little, Brown and Co., 2013). More about them next week.

I love the courageous writing of English award-winning journalist Nick Davies, whose Flat Earth News (2008) exposed the corruption in journalism today. Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch (Chatto & Windus, 2014) tells the gripping story of the Murdoch press phone hacking affair and how it exposed much wider corruption in the British establishment.

It was a tragedy that I missed out on seeing Nick Davies when he spoke at the National Library of Australia earlier this year. I was in England at the time. Another Engish journalist who also appeared later at the NLA was Jon Ronson, promoting his most recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Picador, 2015). It’s about the power of social media to shame people, inducing fear and queasiness in some and self-righteousness in others. Ronson meets the famous victims of some recent social media frenzies of shaming.

In many cases the punishment far outweighs the ‘crime’ and in fact in the case of Justine Sacco, it was hardly a crime, merely a misinterpretation (of a satirical Tweet) on the part of her audience. Fascinating as it all is, the most intriguing part, with the most profound implications is towards the end of the book when he quotes the American psychiatrist James Gilligan, who believes that all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem.

A far different culture from the world of public shaming can be found in Margaret Heffernan’s A Bigger Prize: Why competition isn’t everything and how we do better (Simon & Schuster, 2014). All over the world significant numbers of people and businesses are finding creative, cooperative ways to work together. They are demonstrably better off, often even financially, than their stressed out peers working in the toxic workplaces where winning at all costs is the only thing that matters. This is an important book, thoroughly researched and engagingly written. I borrowed it from the public library and loved it so much I bought my own copy.

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  1. Penny, I went to university with Annabel Crabb and knew her well. She was dynamic and destined for greatness then, so no surprise that she’s at the top of her game now. I haven’t been in Australia to follow her meteoric rise to stardom in the media but I get the occasional update from other friends. Thanks for all your book recommendations on de-cluttering and living in south Wales (after fleeing from London), I will certainly read Clare Mackintosh’s novel. Hope to be in touch with you more in 2016. Congratulations on your book about the Churchill Trust recipients and I hope to be more in touch in 2016. Lots of love, Siobhan

  2. Hi Siobhan. Thanks. It’d be great to see you again. My sister and I were in UK May-June last yr. Weather comically awful except for gorgeous tiny interludes. I tried slotting in a photo for first time with WordPress and it put the pic of my book in a logical place at the beginning, so I thought it must be automatic, can’t see any way to influence placing of pic anyway, so with Marie Kondo’s book tried it again – and it turned out like that – in a totally illogical hopeless placement that makes blog author look like idiotic luddite – ha! And I can’t take it away or put it elsewhere. Will try to get help but haven’t yet. Will email properly with more info on more important things soon. lots of love, Pen.


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