2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

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Miscellany

Some thoughts on recent reading, mostly crime fiction related:

Some Die Eloquent—Catherine Aird (1979)

Discovered Aird thanks to Steve at Stevereads (how does he read all those books?). Some Die Eloquent must come midway through the Sloan & Crosby series, but I don’t think it matters much where you start. Aird is clearly a genius in her way and I wonder why she’s not better known. Wonderful dialogue (witty but not snappy: dry), very funny, keen eye for the way institutions work (here medicine, especially hospitals). And a decent plot in less than 200 pages. Take that, bloated 400-pp crime novels! More Aird is definitely in my future.

 

Several books by Karin Fossum (translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson, Charlotte Barslun, and others)

I read Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books when they first started appearing in English translation, about ten years ago. I liked them well enough, but suddenly there were more and more and they just didn’t grab my attention enough to continue. I returned to her this year thanks to the English-language publication of the first in the series. (Eva’s Eye in the US, In the Darkness in the UK—both quintessentially lame crime fiction titles.) Despite what I just said above about length—the book is 400 pp—I thought this an auspicious start to the series.

Ruth Rendell claims to like these books, and it’s easy to see why. Like Rendell, Fossum is primarily interested in motivation—most of her books aren’t that suspenseful. Rather, the suspense comes from seeing how the perpetrator’s actions come undone. Fossum is better than most crime writers at characterization: her best feat comes in The Indian Bride, where she manages to make plausible and sympathetic an aging Norwegian bachelor who goes to India to meet a woman after falling in love with a picture in a National Geographic book. Eva’s Eye is good in this regard, too, giving us a desperate, haughty, and clueless artist.

What I particularly like about the first book is its balance between criminal and detective. Sejer is a bit in the sensitive mold I’ve decried before, but his triumphs are more muted and thus more palatable. In later books, Fossum seems unable to decide what she wants to do with Sejer. Sometimes he’s important, sometimes barely present. It’s as if she’s experimenting with crime novels that would have no detective or inspector, and only accidental perpetrators. I guess I like my procedurals more conventional. Still, I read four of these in a row, and have now read almost everything that’s in English, and I’ll likely pick up the latest translation when it’s out this summer.

 

Red Road—Denise Mina (2013)

Mina’s a superior crime writer, one of the few I’ll drop everything for. Her previous books have come in trilogies; I was glad to see that Red Road is the fourth in the Alex Morrow series. Morrow is a great character: smart, a bit stroppy, unable to let things go. Halfway through the book a body is found in an apartment high rise that’s being demolished. Morrow’s unwilling trip to the scene of the crime is a brilliant, frightening set piece. I don’t think Red Road is as good as either the second or third in the series, but it’s totally worth your time.

 

Life After Life—Kate Atkinson (2013)

Some of the people whose reading taste I respect most really love this book. I liked it, too, even quite a lot at times. But I didn’t fall under its spell the way they did. Strange, that: the book ought to be right up my alley, being set in the historical periods (Edwardian England through WII Germany) I’m most invested in.

Ursula Todd, the protagonist, lives many lives in the book, eventually learning to avoid the causes of death and unhappiness (influenza, rape, sexual abuse) that befall her in some versions of the story. At some point, Todd, struggling through a series of vividly depicted second world wars (though I prefer Sarah Waters, or, you know, Henry Green, on the Blitz), both in London and Berlin, decides she must assassinate Hitler to stop the bad things of the twentieth century happening. This view of history is less juvenile than Quentin Tarantino’s, say, but still pretty naïve.

Atkinson, never much of a stylist, does better with England than Germany (despite the irritating, anachronistic “parade of historical ideas” quality, evident, for example, when Todd is sent to a Harley Street psychoanalyst quite unlikely to have present in the early 1920s of historical London). Atkinson did a lot of research for the book, and it shows, mostly in the laboured scenes set in Germany. There’s a whole dull little biography of Eva Braun waiting to be excised from this book.

The book’s merits are two-fold. The first is in its play with our attachment to Ursula. We do get attached to her, despite or perhaps because she keeps dying on us. Each death comes as a bit of a shock, a disturbance anyway, even though we know she will begin life again on the next page. Atkinson makes us care about Ursula and her family a lot. I think the book’s structure is key to that feeling, but I’m not sure how exactly. Anyone have any ideas?

The second is its steadfast refusal of romantic love for Ursula. She has a few relationships, even in one life a (disastrous) marriage, but none of them are ever important. As the lives pile up and she starts to “learn” from earlier ones, she avoids sexual and romantic intimacy more and more. One reason for that is a traumatic early experience, important in a book that believes events have resonances not just over the course of a life but across many lives. Another, more interesting, reason is that there are already lots of intense relationships in the book—they just happen to be between siblings. Interestingly, the Todd children aren’t orphans, in the way they might have been in the Edwardian children’s book that lurks in the unspoken background to Life after Life. What this means is that the book doesn’t feel the need to undo the parent-child relationship altogether to present the one between siblings as the most meaningful one a person can have.

Still, I wanted the book to do more with these things. I wanted it to be smarter. But I can understand why many smart readers are excited about it. For a particularly compelling view, read Derek Jenkins’s Goodreads review—it is better than the book itself, and, at moments seems to be a brilliant riposte to, for example, Adam Mars-Jones’s surprisingly brittle and hostile review in the LRB: “When someone complains about the slack internal logic of Todd’s eternal recurrence, they aren’t exactly missing the point, but they are evidently missing some of the pleasure.” Wonderful!

 

Several books by Benjamin Black

When it first came out I eagerly read Christine Falls, the Irish novelist John Banville’s pseudonymous effort at crime fiction, set in 1950s Dublin and starring a pathologist named Quirke. In the meantime, Black has published a number of sequels, which have accumulated on my shelves on the hopeful assumption that I would like the others as much as I did the first. I’ve read the next three now, and they’re entirely satisfying, although sometimes a bit workmanlike. Black is better on atmosphere—he sure gets the fug of provincial cities right—than on plotting, and the general trajectory of the books (Quirke stumbles upon wrong-doing at the highest echelons of the young Republic’s oligarchy and is unable to do much about it) gets repetitive. But he’s a good writer, and he comes by his genre interest legitimately: as a reviewer of his recent Marlowe novel put it, the best part of Banville’s work already involved secrets and investigations of one sort or another.

He can do you a fancy, (almost) overripe sentence:

Strange, how for him all the uncertainty and doubt, all that feeling of adolescent fumbling, how it was all gone, rid of in an instant, replaced by something deeper, darker, of far more weight, as if that kiss had been the culmination of a ceremony he had not been aware of as it unfolded, and that had ended by their sealing, there by the cold hearth, a solemn pact of dependence and fraught collaboration, and it was not the nearness of the fireplace, he knew, that was giving to his mouth a bitter taste of ashes. (A Death in Summer, 2011

And he can do you a marvelously efficient one:

All institutional buildings made Quirke, the orphan, shudder. (The Silver Swan, 2008)

That’s how you do exposition!