A Year in Books, 2016
Early in the summer last year, we went on holiday to the south of France. The lanes around the house smelled of lavender and olives. We ate outside on the veranda, looking out over wooded hills, the day’s dry heat like smoke in the air.
There was a swimming pool, a neat Topaz jewel, the same bright blue colour as the sky. Sadly my toddler son decided to hate it — he would sit on the edge and kick his little pink legs to paddle but if he got in deeper than his waist he would scream and cry in rage.
A few weeks later, at the end of the summer, in a hotel in Scotland, the same boy was very different. Again and again, he sat on the lip of the edge of the pool, grinning and bouncing, before pushing himself to fall toward, into the water and into my arms. Something had changed, and he was ready for the world. Now we try and go swimming every other weekend to the local pool. The first time we went, as we got changed, I took off my watch and my shoes and my socks and I remembered how when my father took my brother and I swimming as kids, he used to push his watch into one of the shoes before putting them into the locker. The carefulness of that action came back so strongly, even though I never knew I remembered it.
This year’s best books weren’t about character, but about the context of the past.
All of the above is to say, my world is widening. My son left babyhood behind and I took a new job that is laced with complexity, helping build digital products in 27 languages that are global, regional and local. I find myself thinking about big systems and deep forces, and was drawn increasingly to books that peel back those layers. On Empire, Mary Beard’s SPQR is excellent at telling both the history of Rome and the story of the history — how it came to be, and what remains unknown. I finished Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy about Opium and the East India Company. The second volume (see 2015) was dominated by the complex and flawed character of the Opium traders; in the third book, Flood of Fire, the focus moves from these individuals to the forces of history itself. The ideas of trade, justice and profit all have far greater emotional heft than any individual’s story. “How was it possible,” someone wonders, that in a battle:
“…a small number of men, in the span of a few hours or minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?”
It is the British army who triumph, and the book ends with the birth of Hong Kong and a particular phase of the Empire. Alexandra Fuller’s excellent Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight fast forwards to the drink sodden hungover end. Combining clarity and grandeur, she charts a chaotic childhood amid civil war and Southern African independence in the 60s and 70s.
It was the best year in reading for a long time.
Part of that was down to strong recommendations (especially the Unbound podcast), but part also came from reading books that were newer, and part of current conversations. I read books from the current Booker list, and more than a few which ended up on year end lists. I read a few more books than I usually get through too, though in part that was due to a restful holiday on a remote Scottish island. The Outrun was both year-end-list terrific and set on a remote Scottish island, a memoir of an Orkney island woman who goes to London and discovers depression and alcoholism instead of dreams and success, and who returns to the wild kindness of the islands to fix herself. Lovely twinning of personality and coastline, and some very good stuff on the spectral nature of the internet, the ghost landscape linking the city and the island.
Of the new books, The North Water was the most fun, a gory tale of a murderer on a whaling vessel, and a doctor returned from the colonies in disgrace. The writing is electric, precise and thrilling, and the plot works like an absolute machine, a combination of Tarantino and Conrad that was thoroughly capable of wrestling my phone from my hand Grief is the Thing With Feathers — in which a crow comes to live with a recently bereaved Husband and his two sons — was not as strange as it sounds, but far sadder. Written to sit in the space between poetry and prose there’s a bare beauty to many of the lines. It manages to be direct and pure but that belies the strength of understanding that’s there too.
The best book came first, or last.
In our little family, we’ve started a Christmas Eve tradition — borrowed from Scandinavia, my wife tells me — of giving each other books. This year mine was The Underground Railroad, about a runaway slave escaping a plantation, making her way through a nightmarish and slightly fantastical pre Civil War America. It’s not just angry, righteous and sad — though it is all of those things — it is also startlingly easy to climb inside and be one with. It describes awful times and awful things, but there you are as a reader, right in them, as much as a reader can be. It is bright and clear, and shines such a crisp light on so many of the awful angles of slavery: the grinding economic structures, the coarse brutality, the way it lobotomises so much that is good and right in communities and families.
So that was either the year’s best or, perhaps, it was the book I started with: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the story of WW2 POWs building the railway in Burma. It really is magnificent, rendering time as a tidal force, coming in and out throughout one’s life. “It’s only our faith in illusions that makes life possible,” the narrator says at one point. “It’s believing in reality that does us in every time.”
In full, this year’s reading:
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan. It really is magnificent. Loved the interweaving structure, the way it enables time to be tidal, coming in and out. Beautifully judged and totally compelling.
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. It is what it is, which is a classic. It’s only at the end that I realised it’s nowhere near as hard or as lean or as done with the world as it gives off. It’s much more complex and all of that was there all along, which is the great sadness of these things.
- Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull. Insightful view of the emotional complexities of creating good work and a good place to do that work. Some brilliant counterintuitive lessons — about divorcing fear from failure, about the perils of optimising for control — and great stories to back it up, too.
- Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter. A crow comes to live with a recently bereaved Husband and his two sons. Not as strange as it sounds, but far sadder. Written to sit in the space between poetry and prose there’s a bare beauty to many of the lines. It manages to be direct and pure but that belies the strength of understanding that’s there too.
- The Hunters, James Salter. Efficiently captures the loneliness of fighter pilots; particularly smart on the way people grade themselves and their achievements.
- Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller. Mad, sad and bad, they said about Byron’s life — and there’s more than an element of that to this memoir of growing up amid a civil war and the changes of Southern African independence. A lot of the elements seem familiar from many family memoirs — drunken parents, moving houses, the accumulation of quiet tragedies — but Fuller writes beautifully and with a sense of both grandeur and unflappable clarity.
- SPQR — A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard. Terrific thematic history of Rome, with lots of detail about the time, and lots of thoughtful tangents on the nature of what can’t be known about the past.
- A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James [DNF]. Great language, but it’s a lot of talking about very little.
- Last Orders, Graham Swift. It’s hard to explain why some novels which swirl their voices together and let the truth come gradually feel like bar room bores and some are totally compelling. This is the latter; a drive to the coast to spread a friend’s ashes and along the way, the people in the car try to explain just how it is they came to be there. The decision, reactions, unasked questions and aches of the past are beautifully revealed as each character speaks about the way simple decisions hide complex emotional truths.
- Six Four, Hideo Yokoyama. Intricate police thriller that’s as much about the structure and pressures of work inside a large organisation as it is going inside the mind of a criminal. Great twist at the end.
- Sapiens — A Brief History of Mankind, Yuval Noah Harari. Spectacular opening — the grand sweep of pre Homo Sapiens history — and a really interesting perspective on the agricultural revolution (eg: from a Darwinian perspective, did we domesticate wheat, or did it enslave humanity on its way to becoming such a successful plant?) Less and less good as it goes on though — some of the stuff on money and capitalism rings true, but there’s a lot of certainty and not quite as much insight.
- The North Water, Ian Macguire. A gory tale of a murderer on a whaling vessel, and a doctor returned from the colonies in disgrace. The writing is electric, precise and thrilling, and the plot works like a machine. At its best, a page turning combination of Tarantino and Conrad.
- Consuming Pleasures — Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera, Jennifer Hayward. Interesting overview of three different phases of the serial form — Dickens and the novel, mid 20th c. cartoons and then late 20th c. Soap opera.
- Latecomers, Anita Brookner.
- Double Indemnity, James Cain. Contains one of the great Noir lines — “I had killed a man for money and a woman, and now I didn’t have the money or the woman” — but it’s not quite as tightly wound as The Postman Always Rings Twice.
- Legends of the Tour, Jan Clejine. Atmospheric, stylish history of the Tour told in bite sized chapters.
- A Life Discarded — 148 Diaries Found in a Skip, Alexander Masters. Weird and compulsive, and with some funny twists to the narrative — though it seems somewhat slight, even tangential. So much happens at the edges of the narrative but is only sketched in; the overall effect is as if the heart of the matter has been missed.
- The City of Mirrors, Justin Cronin. Excellent confusion to the trilogy — far stronger than book 2 (“The Twelve”) — though if there is one flaw, it is that Amy is strangely passive for much of the book. It’s on very strong ground when it comes to the passage of time though, and the campus novella that shows up in the middle to explain the backstory of the main bad guy is quite affecting too.
- The Outrun, Amy Liptrot. Simply terrific, and I don’t say that just because I’ve recently returned from a remote Scottish island rather in love with the idea of the edge of the country. But this is the story of someone from an island off the edge of the country (Orkney) who goes to London and discovers depression and alcoholism instead of dreams and success, and who returns to the wild kindness of the islands to fix herself. Lovely twinning of personality and coastline, and some very good stuff on the spectral nature of the internet, the ghost landscape linking the city and the island.
- The Stranger, Albert Camus. I was too old for the book, and it was too old for me.
- The Mersault Investigation, Kamel Daoud [DNF]. Exactly the kind of one trick pony that the précis promises.
- The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen. Pretty much as good as everyone says it is; far funnier than most literary fiction, just self aware enough to feel knowing and sad but not too far gone that it isn’t also true and tender.
- Rain — Four Walks in English Weather, Melissa Harrison. A short meditation on wet weather, perfect for the armchair walker.
- Us Conductors, Sean Michaels. Fictionalised biography of Soviet scientist and Theremin inventor, Lev Termen. The first half, set in the Jazz age in New York feels very flat — which makes for a strange contrast with the second half, where Termen is sent to the gulag. All of a sudden the book is learn, urgent and involving.
- Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein. Decidedly non-narrative story from the Sleater-Kinney guitarist that’s still a compelling tale of a working life building a compelling and crucial band.
- Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh. Decent conclusion to the trilogy, and in the widowed Shireen and the Indian soldier Kesri there are two interesting new central characters. Both have strong ties back to the first and second books and help conclude longer running stories, but the endings aren’t as satisfying as I’d have liked. Something about them doesn’t quite land, and it’s almost as if the focus at the end moves from these individuals to look at history itself: the description of the battles and the treaties, of the ideas of trade, justice and profit all have far greater emotional heft than any individual’s story here.
- The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. It’s not just angry, righteous and sad — though it is all of those things — it is also startlingly easy to climb inside and be one with. It describes awful times and awful things, but there you are as a reader, right in them, as much as a reader can be. It is bright and clear, and shines such a crisp light on so many of the awful angles of slavery: the grinding economic structures, the coarse brutality, the way it lobotomises so much that is good and right in communities and families.