Yes, it’s one of those ‘review of last year, looking forward to next year’ posts, and it’s a bit late in coming, but having shared my reading and theatre-going goals for 2015 last January, I thought I ought to report back on how I did. Plus, I’ve enjoyed reading my other friends’ book recommendations this last week, so hopefully someone will find mine interesting and useful, too.
My goal for 2015 was to go deeper with my reading and theatre-going, as a look through my 2014 lists left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I felt as though I’d spent a year eating a lot of candy floss (US: cotton candy), and very little meat (let alone veg!). I decided to say yes to invitations to plays that I initially thought sounded a bit odd, and to finish some of the excellent, but more intense, non-fiction books in the pile on my bed.
I definitely achieved the first, seeing 18 plays (compared to 6 in 2014), and having a good mix of fluff, popular hits and things with a bit more depth. Highlights on the lighter end were HMS Pinafore, and the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet (not often Hamlet gets described as ‘lighter’, but I think I mean it was familiar and easy to watch and follow). The top shows, though, were The Nether and The Car Man.
The former was a brilliant play about morality and reality: if a man only acts out his paedophilia in a virtual reality ‘game’, has he committed a crime? What if the child character he is grooming turns out to be an adult in real life? Is the desire itself a crime? I’d never heard of the play till my friend Becky discovered she had a spare ticket and offered it to me. I’m so glad she did.
The Car Man was the first of three productions I saw this year using the music of Bizet’s Carmen. The other two were traditional operas, but this was Sir Matthew Bourne’s ballet version. The first opera version I saw was in Moscow at the Bolshoi. It was sung in French and the surtitles were in Russian, so I understood very few of the words. I deliberately didn’t look up the storyline first, as I wanted to see just how much I could pick up going in cold. The power of opera is meant to be that it can move you deeply whether you can understand the words or not. Well, I managed to follow the basic outline of the plot, but missed some of the finer points (like why Carmen suddenly appeared in handcuffs having been arrested by the guards – her ‘crime’ had all happened off stage, so all I’d seen was a load of women singing, then the guards appearing). Matthew Bourne somehow manages to get his dancers to convey an entire plot without a single word or surtitle. Although he used Bizet’s music, he changed the plot entirely (to a much better one, in my humble opinion!), and I understood every scene. What’s more, I was really gripped by it. I cared about the characters, I understood their motivations, their desires, their hopes and dreams. I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to get their comeuppance. It was a powerful and brilliant piece of theatre, and one I would gladly watch time and time again.
I managed to read 39 books this year – thanks in part to a good, long Christmas holiday with some good, short books in it. 😉 (The 39th book, very satisfyingly, was The 39 Steps.) While I didn’t manage to finish the non-fiction ones sitting in my pile (apart from the first one mentioned below, but that was one I was actively reading, not a project to be resumed), I did go for some more depth, for instance reading eight more books that I categorised as biography, non-fiction or ‘religious’ than I had the previous year.
There have been some really great reads in there, and just a few disappointments. My top 5 are:
1) Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. I blogged about it in March, and though I thought at the time I might pick it up again almost immediately, I still haven’t, but it’s definitely one I’ll go back to.
2) Letter from New York, by Helene Hanff. I love Helene Hanff, and have read several of her books (notably 84 Charing Cross Road, which I urge anyone who loves books, London, New York, letters or any combination of the above to read (preferably a secondhand copy of) as soon as possible). This one I had never even heard of, though, until my best friend presented it to me – complete with notes in the margins (I love books with notes in the margins, especially ones made by a friend – I return it complete with replies, then borrow it again…and we chat away as we read!). It is a delightful follow-up to ‘84‘, with wonderful insights into the world of New York City in the 1970s.
3) Which Lie did I Tell?, by William Goldman. True fans of The Princess Bride will recognise Goldman’s name as the author of that classic novel of true love and high adventure, and the screenplay of the accompanying film (not to be confused with William Golding, who wrote Lord of the Flies). What you may not know is that he also wrote the screenplays for films as varied as Misery, Maverick, All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Which Lie did I Tell?, the stories behind the writing and making of many of these films, is a masterclass in screenwriting and editing. My mini review to myself read: “He’s such a good teacher and storyteller, it was a joy to read.” This is actually his second book of ‘stories from the screen trade’. His first is on my priority list for this year (see below). For an entire book dedicated to the making of The Princess Bride, check out As You Wish, by Cary Elwes. It’s slightly saccharine – I’m sure the making of the film can’t have been quite so relentlessly wonderful, but it’s worth a read or a listen.
4) The Churchill Factor, by Boris Johnson. I really enjoyed Johnson’s writing style in this, and although it is a thick book, found myself racing through it. It tended somewhat towards hagiography at times, though Johnson did address many of the criticisms of Churchill’s conduct and record. I’d be interested in reading a biography by someone who didn’t clearly love Churchill so much, and had a more dispassionate approach, but it would have to be at least as well-written, well-structured and interesting.
Oddly, the top 4 are also in chronological order of when I read them. I’m a bit torn about which to put as number 5. Having had a ‘religious’ book, a book of letters, a memoir/non-fiction title and a biography, I’d like to have a novel in my list, and if I did it would definitely be The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, because it was thoroughly delightful, unexpected and charming. However, I think I’m going to award to position to another Christian book:
5) The Life You Never Expected, by Andrew and Rachel Wilson. Andrew and Rachel had wonderful dreams of how they were going to use their gifts and talents to serve God and make a huge difference for him in the world. Then they found that first one, then both of their children was severely autistic, and their life plans – as well as their ordinary hopes and dreams for their kids – came crashing down around their ears. This book is unflinchingly honest about the painful times, speaking of how Andrew and Rachel learned to lament, but is also very real about how they have found God to be their sustainer and strength, their refuge in times of trouble. The book wins for me because it is just inherently more helpful than The Rosie Project. And I’ve already recommended it to one young couple struggling with the possibility of having to give up their missionary dreams due to their child’s medical needs. It won’t give them the answers, but hopefully it will give them a companion on the journey.
And I must give an honourable mention to Finding Myself in Britain, by Amy Boucher Pye. When Amy, a friend and fellow editor, sent me the early draft of her book – before I knew she was going to ask me to edit it – my verdict was: “4/5 Needs some work, but will be very good.” Now I’ve helped her do the work, I of course feel far too close to it to give you an unbiased opinion. Think Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, but with spiritual content, too. I think it’s great, but you’ll just have to buy it and judge for yourself… 😉
There are a few books I’m intending to read in 2016, as well as hoping to make some headway on the long list I was given in my Jar of Experiences on my birthday. Top of the list are:
Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman – the precursor to Which Lie Did I Tell?
The Locust Effect, by Gary Haugen – the main non-fiction one I intended to finish last year. Maybe if I actually name it this year I’ll finish it…?
I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – the autobiography of the girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, survived, and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize before completing her GCSEs (High School exams).
Resurrection Year, by Sheridan Voysey – I met Sheridan and his wife, Merryn, at Thanksgiving dinner at Amy Boucher Pye’s house. They were delightful company, and I’m very much looking forward to reading this book about their journey from closing the door on their dream of having children, to finding hope and new life.
And of course, there are all the others in the pile on the bed, and all the others I’ve yet to discover. As for the theatre, well, I’ve already been to see my first production of the year: Slava’s Snow Show, a Russian clowning show recommended in my Jar of Experiences (verdict – distinctly odd!). I’ve got tickets for a Pinter play later this month, and an Osborne (starring Kenneth Branagh) in November. Other than that, who knows what treats lie in store?!
How about you? What were your top reads of 2015? And what are you looking forward to delving into in 2016?
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