A strangely old best of the reading year: Top reads of 2016
It has been a very weird year, both ‘out there’ within the wider world – which, of course, paradoxically seems set on being a smaller, narrower, meaner world obsessively devoted to self-harm in a foolish attempt to numb its pain – and, reflected in my reading world
I have read (though in some cases, abandoned in disgust) 113 books. Now some of them are still to be reviewed on here : I am regrettably behind on my reviews. But I haven’t posted anywhere near treble figures on reviews. My ‘won’t make the blog unless it is at least a CLEAR (not rounded up) 4 star’ tells its own story. And a goodly number of the books read have not been reviewed anywhere. Books so drearily derivative or, just so abysmal, that I abandoned time spent with them as soon as indecently possible. And that included any time spent explaining their dreariness. Better to head off quickly to time spent with a wonderful book.
I note that a goodly proportion of my ‘best ofs’ were not just reads, but re-reads: books so good half a life-time ago, that it was a treat to dust them off and say hello again. And also, books by authors never read at their time of writing: older writers, discovered.
I think what has, in some ways, sadly, impressed me about those mainly dead and gone older writers is their discipline and craft with language, character, setting, style and narrative. Writers with things to say, and the ability to say what they said memorably and with authenticity. We have a fast-book culture, and sometimes I think, that like fast-food, we have surrendered ourselves to ersatz, sitting heavy in the gut, and with little memorability or feeding much at all.
Now I HAVE read some most enjoyable new books this year, and a small number have crept into my ‘best of’ but, in the main those older reads were more powerful at keeping me thinking and admiring, weeks after closing their final pages.
But I’m still quite shocked to discover (getting into the stats thing) that despite reading 41 books published this year, only 1 of the 2016 novels got into my top fiction reads. Though I race to also say I read some very very good new fictions indeed. It’s just those earlier writers took centre stage
I also had to leave it at top 9 and top 8, as they were clear, and having spent several days agonising over which titles should get the final places, particularly the fictions, as some 5 or 6 were together at the finishing line, I thought I’d podium place the smaller number. If I had to rank, I’d still be here by midsummer 2017, constantly rejigging!
So In no ranking order, just in the order they were read :
Non-Fiction – I had a great NF year, including, inevitably some NF standout re-reads (Oh, Virginia! Oh, George! You delighted me a lifetime ago and you delight me more, and still)
Bee Wilson is an utterly engaging writer on matters historical and foodie – together. I love the history of the domestic, but with First Bite, she soared to new heights, as she wove other passions of mine together – the psychology of food, the relationship we have with food, the politics of the food industry, childhood and the development of taste
Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City as ever, with her reflective, soulful writing about the arts and her relationship with them, delighted me. This book explores mainly American artists, some known to me, some not, and the role of solitariness, alienation and the ability to observe both one-self, and the society one inhabits, in artistic creation. It was also a book which had me blessing the internet as I could search for every artwork she was describing so eloquently
Martin Stevens’ Cheats and Deceits was a fabulous book about the evolutionary ploy of Cheating and Deceiving, and the myriad ways in which it manifests and works. In a year where cheating, deceiving political figures appear to be on the brink of taking us to regrettably dangerous places, it has been quite salutary to think of Trump, Farage et al as particularly obnoxious blister bug larvae, and the populace as a sadly duped Habropoda pallida, taking (to mangle a metaphor beyond recognition) these vipers to the bosom of their children’s nests. Whaaa? Habropoda Pallida is a bee species, and the obnoxious blister bugs hop onto the duped HP, so that they will get carried back to bee nest. Their favourite food is young bee grubs – i.e. they destroy the next generation and its world
On the heels of my snucking in the politics of the present, came a re-read of the wonderful George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, like many in his generation with a sense of idealism enlisted for the left in the Spanish Civil War. This was part of Kaggsysbookishramblings 1938 Club. I have loved Orwell’s writing since first discovering him in my teens. And I loved what his writing revealed to me of the man. He still seems an unusually honourable figure
Svetlana Alexievich’s harrowing Chernobyl Prayer allows those most directly affected by the blowing of the nuclear reactor, ordinary Belarusians, to tell their own stories and the land’s story. This is compassionate journalism as witnessing.
I needed some non-fictional joy, following a couple of painful recognitions of what our worst can lead to, and I got it in John Powell’s enthusiastic, playful, erudite Why We Love Music. Another read outrageously enhanced by the benefits of the internet, as I could roam around listening to snippets of illustrative sound
The January Man, which I read in the summer as an ARC from Amazon Vine has not yet been reviewed on here, as there seemed little point to whet appetites when its publication day is the 12th January 2017. The link therefore is to my Amazon UK review. Suffice it to say Christopher Somerville’s wondrous book is much more than a book about walking through the landscape of these isles, it’s a journey through time, through relationship, through music, and it made my heart sing even whilst it made me weep. Curiously, it also reminded me, in the compassionate tenderness of Somerville’s writing, of the very first Olivia Laing book I read, To The River. It will be appearing here closer to publication date with some entrancing media
Jeanette Winterson was my big find of the year. How could I have missed her, how? Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is the autobiographical story which provided much of the material which formed the narrative of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Here is a woman with a childhood start which is unbearable to contemplate, but whose fierce, fierce, glittering intelligence, and whose capacity for joy sing out. She had me laughing so hard through my tears and anger
And my non-fictions end with Virginia. It’s easy to think of Woolf through knowing her end, and the mental illness she suffered. But she was another who burned with intelligence, humour, joy. A Room of One’s Own takes to the barricades of feminism; singing, wit, creativity and incisive argument its weapons. Again, one I devoured in my twenties, and though much has been achieved since its writing unfortunately it still has relevance, and is not a purely historical read
So to the fictionals – and, as you will see, Virginia and Jeanette take their places on this podium too
It seems kind of fitting that Virginia Woolf should have been my last top non-fiction, and turn out to be, late in February, the first of my top fictions. I re-read – or probably re-re-re-re read To The Lighthouse, as part of Ali’s Brilliant Woolfalong. What can I say? Any time I re-read this one its going to make a best of list. Is it possible (yes!) that it continues to get better, that I continue to find more, with each read. Looks like it,
Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, first read, most potently, in my adolescence, was another re-read. I approached it slightly nervously, as with any book which had glowed out, and been remembered, for decades. Could it speak to a much older reader, or would its delights be limited to youth. Well, good heavens, there was again so much to discover and to re-discover. A shifting focus, a little more ability to stand outside so that, on this read, Fournier’s extraordinary craft and magic delighted my more critical, intellectual appreciation.
Meaulnes led me to another favourite, more modern author – John Fowles, whose The Magus owed a deep (and expressed) debt to Fournier. The French Lieutenant’s Woman plays majestically with the novel’s structure. He was using ‘meta-fiction’ devices quite early. Everyone does it now, but it was a wonderfully playful, sly thing, when I encountered it first (yes, another re-read)
Finally we get to a fiction published this year, Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge of The World. In part, her inclusion is because her first, The Snow Child, was such an extraordinary first novel that she had set herself a dangerous peak to attain with her second. So I was delighted to find that this book was both very different from her first, but had elements of the strengths of her first – the potency of myth and magic, and, oh yes, the wonderful, cold, mysterious setting of the frozen North
H.E.Bates was an author I thought I had read but in fact, never had. Love for Lydia (which had been a TV adaptation which I never saw) was a sheer delight. Luscious writing, restrained writing, in this story of the interwar years.
Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains was another re-read. Once again, I think in part it is the lurch to the right which has made many of us think uneasily of those major conflagrations of the twentieth (and of course we are moving through the hundredth anniversary of the 1914-1918 War To End All Wars) Isherwood’s part autobiographical part-fictional narrative of his time in Berlin as the world of the 30s was doing its own inchings to the dark places, as dangerous demagogues were making their appeals to hatred, fear and castigation of ‘the other’
Oh, Virginia again! Her magnificent cross-gendering historical fiction Orlando was my very first Woolf, in my teens. And this romp from Elizabethan England to the twenties crossing geography and gender, mixing historical personages with invented ones stays so pleasurable – another book where I wasn’t only re-reading, but re-re-reading
I discovered Jeanette Winterson’s 1997 novel through some chance or other, this year. Gut Symmetries was my first Winterson, in late August. I am currently reading my fourth, so, perhaps, expect more Winterson’s to imperiously demand inclusions in best ofs, for 2017. A marriage of the story of an affair and the Grand Unified Theory of particle physics. Rarely does a writer make me think about maths and physics so delightfully, and force a mental work-out without making me whimper
And there, sadly I have to leave it. There were just too many books fighting really really hard for the final two places. I could briefly decide to place one or two, but the others started screaming ‘Me! Me! deservedly, so I would substitute, but the screaming never died down.
At least all the ones chosen meant that the unchosens stayed respectfully silent and stopped yelling at me that they deserved the podium instead.
Duelling Banjos were menacing enough, with or without the presence of Voight and Reynolds, without the nervousness of duelling books at dawn, fighting for places!
And, of course, I wish you all the very best for you, yours and all your books, in 2017. I hope we might have some chance of living in ‘less interesting times’ as far as ancient Chinese curses go. I wish you all a harmonious year, and excitement, derring do and much ‘interesting’ firmly within the pages of your books!