Another terrific year of reading, and a hard choice to get it down to 10 + 1. In the end, the criteria for inclusion came down to the fact that all these books continued to make me think about them and talk about them and be not quite ready to let them go and start something else. Book nags, the lot of them!
In no particular order, but more or less the order I read the books in, though two of the books I found were in, out, in, out with each other, and by the time Ginger finished a final decision was not forthcoming, which would seem to make them joint 10, as none of the others budged a millimeter from inclusion. 4 of these books are non-fiction, the rest fiction. Books by dead Americans loomed large this year.
Links to original reviews within the text.
C.J Sansom’s Lamentation was the first of two books in my list this year which gave me certain nightmares about what it might have been like to live in the reign of that much-marrying man Henry VIIIth. A terrific book, a proper page-turner, and one which had me worrying intensely for the central character and his friends, as much as if I was back in the day, and Sansom’s characters were real. This was a book which made me cry, lots, and also terrified me, was instructive, and gave much exercise to the heart too
Helen MacDonald’s extraordinary book, H is for Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson prize was a clear and unforgettable inclusion in my list. Written in searingly powerful prose, MacDonald’s book encompasses grief at the loss of her father, a transcendental exploration of the natural world, an assessment of T.H. White, and, most of all a kind of intensity about what it means to be human through engaging as searchingly as possible in attempting to inhabit the being of a non-human living creature.
Patrick Hamilton was described by J.B Priestley as one of the best minor novelists writing in the interwar (and beyond) years. That sounds like being damned with faint praise, though I don’t believe it was meant in that way. I think, over time, his stock has risen, and that perhaps his difficult personal history may have prevented his peers from seeing quite how good his writing is. He is particularly fine in being able to give authentic voice to ‘little people’ – and, especially, to women. The Slaves of Solitude, set in 1943 is wonderfully funny, as well as making the reader wince with true empathy and recognition, often in the same moment. A light touch writer
American author Dorothy B. Hughes 1963 Golden Age Crime Thriller The Expendable Man makes my list for similar reasons to the three other American books. Not just a well-crafted book, and a strong narrative, but a book which lays bare much of how society, in specific times and places, is faring. Novels, creating the imaginary lives of imaginary individuals, can really bring home, powerfully, something which statistical analyses of information about attitudes from questionnaires and studies, fail to do. I can’t say too much about Hughes book. There’s a journey the reader needs to make for themselves with it, but I do recommend it highly. The fact that it was re-published by the excellent Persephone Press is also a recommendation!
Sean Michael’s Us Conductors was a delight. Canadian Michael’s between the two world wars and beyond, USA and Russian set novel, won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s Man Booker equivalent. It is a kind of fictionalised biography of Leon Termen, a scientist and inventor who invented the teremin, an electronic musical instrument played by the performer’s hands between the circuits of two oscillators. The book, like the instrument, and like Termen’s life, is a weirdly wonderful thing. This was another book which was instructive, as well as being beautifully written, thoughtful and engaging. It was one of two books I had my in/out tussles with. I couldn’t bear to drop it, nor could I bear to drop the other which was as equally needing inclusion. Published 2015 in the UK
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath , a flawed, raging, book about the exploitation of migrants, the disenfranchised, an impassioned polemic for the righteousness of socialist politics, and against the putting of profits above fair pay and working conditions, was always going to be high on my list. Published in 1939, as war began to provide a terrible solution to the stock market crash of the late 20s, this is another book which uncomfortably drags the reader to the mirror, making us examine ourselves, and the society we live in. Steinbeck pulls no punches, and his writing is sometimes sublime and sometimes punches the reader round the head to ensure he gets his point across. It’s a far from comfortable, far from easy read, but good heavens, it is an awakening one
And I’m staying Stateside with Richard Yates Revolutionary Road. Originally published in 1961 Yates’ book is a portrait of a suburban marriage, and of corporate America, the American Dream and its underbelly. It is set in the mid-50s, in Connecticut. Though it was made into a fine film, directed by Sam Mendes, with Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, which at some point I mean to positively review, what the film can’t do (outside using dialogue taken from the book) is to do justice to Yates’ stunning use of language, and the way something which is described in the book, like the building of a rockery path in a garden, encapsulates, in a very unforced way, metaphors as well as close description. In this, there is a kind of poetic sensibility in his writing, which is full of layers, whilst being absolutely accessible
Having spent quite a lot of time on fictions set earlier in the twentieth century this year, it became time for two non-fiction books about history to occupy my ‘best books’ slot. Alison Weir’s The Lady In The Tower connects back to my first read book of my top reads, the C.J. Sansom. Weir explores the last few month’s of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. This is history, not historical fiction, and she uses the book to also explain what historians can and cannot do with their research. As well as piecing together documentary evidence she also explores how the thinking of the times in which a later historian is writing, will influence interpretations of meaning. So history has changed its view of the principal players, over time
And then there is the wonderful children’s history book, A Little History of the World, written by the art historian E.H. Gombrich in the 30s, which follows ‘history’ right from prehistoric times with a wide-angled view of the world. It has been updated to end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the recent translation into English. Less about a view of an individual country across the millenia, there’s a global view of ideas, dreams and nightmares of attempts at world domination. It’s like the historical version of the evolution of mankind. Gombrich may have written it for children, but it proves to be a book of immense interest and edification for adults
I returned to Stateside reading in the first book in my ‘Reading the Twentieth’ Challenge. And what a book Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie turned out to be. Dreiser was looking at concerns which would come to dominate again, later in the century – how women (and men) are exploited by capital, the hypocrisy of society towards women’s sexuality, how much we can be said to have free choice, given the power of the unconscious, and the need for peer acceptance, toeing the line, fitting in: the influence of the thinking of the times upon us. A great, rich, weighty tome of a book. I’m keen to engage with Dreiser further, if I can ever penetrate further into the century!
And my final book, one published this year, was also the other one of the in/out tussle. Sara Taylor’s assured debut novel The Shore is a collection of interweaving stories about a community within the geography of islands off the Virginia Coast. Told in distinct voices, and in a back and forth timespan between 1876 and 2143 this is a strange and powerful book. Violent at times, it is never gratuitous, though punches are not pulled. I found myself quite amazed at the strength and assurance of the writing. Taylor is certainly a writer to watch; this is a first novel of great finesse, brutal and beautiful all at once
It only remains to wish you all a very happy 2016, and may your TBR’s grow ever more unwieldy, as magnificent books demand to be added!