Momentously, in December last year I threw in my resignation from the full-time job I was doing, and so from February this year I’ve been entirely dependent on freelance journalism for my income. This means I’ve read a lot more than in previous years, both because I’ve had more time for it, and because I’ve needed to in order to have things to write about. It also means I’ve read more new books than ever before: the majority of my 2016 reading was published in 2016, which is quite a painful circumstance for someone who’s a Victorianist by disposition.
But then this has been a painful year to be a Victorianist anyway, as any sense of order and security underpinning ongoing progress has been shattered by a series of shocks until only violence and fear seem certain. I think about Virginia Woolf’s brutal pen-portrait of George Eliot in the TLS from 1919 (“the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power”) often now, as not just a standard act of artistic matricide repaying Eliot’s swipe at the silly lady novelists before her, but also as a semi-hysterical surrender of the steadiness and good sense that Eliot represented, split into bits by a world war and civil disorder.
Still, my favourite novel of this year was Victorian-set: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (see March, below). Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (March) and Naomi Alderman’s The Power (October) run it close. My favourite non-fiction was Susan Faludi’s memoir of her father, In the Darkroom, which I read in June; Respectable by Lynsey Hanley (April) and Pimp State by Kat Banyard (June) are up there too. Of the older books I read, Janet Frame’s The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories takes the fiction prize (see February), and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (November) wins from non-fiction.
I read a lot of books I didn’t like as well, although the only one I tossed aside unfinished was Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours by Slavoj Žižek (Allen Lane, 2016) because come on, I don’t even think Žižek finds his Žižek character interesting anymore.
In the sleepy days around Christmas, I read Mhairi McFarlane’s Who’s That Girl? (Harper Collins, 2016) – perfect company for long baths with a G&T handy in the soap dish. Heroine Edie is a perfect example of McFarlane’s talent for inventing flawed and fully-formed characters, and the novel’s mix of wit and sharp moral wisdom pull you all the way through its tale of social-media shaming and celebrity travails to a Christmas climax. Then on to Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Biography by Jonathan Bate (William Collins, 2015), which is both satisfyingly gossipy and perversely shallow. His comments on Plath’s relationship to the women’s movement missed the mark hardest for me, although it’s difficult to be completely unimpressed by any literary critic with the chutzpah to make a case for Hughes’ mad hippy wizard side.
The first book I cracked the spine of in 2016 was Margaret Drabble’s The Pure Gold Baby (Canongate, 2013). The Plath reference pulled me in after finishing the Bate, but I ended up feeling strangely untouched by it, its anthropologist’s eye view both remote and unrevealing. Sarah Paretsky’s Brush Back (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), which I reviewed for Crime Scene magazine, is a satisfyingly tough-talking neo-noir for one of my favourite crime characters. But Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown, 2016) fell short. Its evocation of the Seattle WTO protests was timely and thrilling. Its characters, however, were slight (especially the female ones) and its plot lacking in payoff. I reviewed it for the Guardian.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2014) was a present from my husband, which makes it a sort of meta-mansplaining. The centrepiece essay is, of course, great; but “Woolf’s Darkness” (which beautifully smudges ideas about space and certainty and the body) left a mark on me. So too did “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite”, which revisits the 1999 Seattle protests in the course of writing about the rape allegations against former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and sharpened up my sense of what was missing from Your Heart is a Muscle.
For years I’ve been trying to identify a short story I heard as a Radio 4 reading when I was a child. It involved a scholar who wanted to be rid of his body and who, with the assistance of some mice, finally pared himself down to a wizened, senseless walnut of brain. This year my brilliant friend Rachel Hewitt made the identification: it was “Solutions” by Janet Frame, and I was finally able to re-read it as part of The Daylight and the Dust: Selected Short Stories (Virago, 2010). I cannot stress enough how truly great these stories are: Frame’s writing is wildly gifted with both generic range and intimate observation. From the near-sci-fi satiric absurdities of “Solutions” and “The Mythmaker’s Office” to the banal terror of “The Bath”, every one is riveting.
Next: Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist (Random House, 2016), which was so crass it managed to make torture-porn boring (I reviewed it for the Guardian), and then the off-puttingly mannered and precise Vertigo by Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman. Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years (Icon, 2015) is a brisk and witty manifesto for women of middle-age and after (we now share an agent, disclosure fans); and Joanna Walsh’s Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) was vastly more satisfying than her short stories. A digressive, extended essay on the meaning of hotels, the things that happen in them, and the breakdown of Walsh’s marriage, it prods at the fantasy of sterility rather than succumbing to it as as the stories do.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) is one of my favourite novels of the year, a historical potboiler simmering over with a truly Victorian sense of strangeness and possibility, where science and the supernatural face each other down to find out which is which. It also has the best sex scene of the literary year. I reviewed it for New Humanist. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Scribe, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman on its UK release later in the year, is also historical, telling the story of seventeenth-century noblewoman and literary pioneer Margaret Cavendish. Brief but brilliant, it is a superb study of what it means to be ambitious while female in a misogynist world, and came to me as a recommendation from the ever-wonderful Sian Norris.
Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (Vintage, 1994) is still exhilarating, though the late career faults (a weakness for the Grand Guignol stuff, a utilitarian approach to character consistency) are there in embryo. Freya by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape, 2016) continued this month’s theme of historical novels by being set in the post-war period, and also this year’s theme of me giving bad reviews to books by men (this time in the New Statesman), by being low on incident and schematic of character.
And then I went to California for two weeks, so the next six books I read were all California-related. Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (Canongate, 2015) is whimsical in a very Miranda July-ish way, but it’s also teasing and clever about sex and gender, and full of unexpected things. Reading the description of Santa Monica pier the same day I visited Santa Monica pier was a fine thing to do.
I’ve thought a lot about which book I read this year was the absolute worst, and decided it’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (Penguin, 2000). Utter misogynistic bullshit. After finishing that in a lodge at Yosemite, I went on to Norah Ephron’s I Remember Nothing (Black Swan, 2012), mousse-light and charming, leaving nothing but the warm feeling of having been entertained.
Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (New York Review Books, 2015) was a recommendation from Daisy Buchanan. Purchased in Book Soup on the Strip, it’s as cynical and starry-eyed as I could ever dream of Hollywood being, and even if Babitz is maximum cool girl (she calls Steinem “Gloria the Crass and Gross”), there are moments of dagger-sharp feminist insight here.
In the Yosemite Village book shop, I bought John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (Modern Library, 2003; 1911): a fine piece of nature writing, and a fine illustration of the making of the white American myth. His obsession with the dirtiness of first-nations people (by then, driven hard to the margins by European colonisers, though Muir of course does not acknowledge that) and his use of this to classify them as not natural, and therefore no more entitled to the land than the white settlers displacing them, is an instructive study in the flexibility of racist tropes. His extended hatred of sheep (“woolly locusts”) is an irony as well as a delight, in the circumstances.
I finished that on the plane home and then started How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher (North Point Press, 1988). I bought this from the Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury on Babitz’s recommendation (in Eve’s Hollywood she calls Fisher “just like Proust only better because at least she gave the recipes”), and it is a wonderful thing that is both food-writing and life-writing, wise and resourceful. Read it. It’s possible that I’ll never go to America again now, but as I finished Fisher on my sofa at home, I had never loved the country so much.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Fleet, 2016) came highly tipped as an Oprah book club pick, and survived its own hype with ease: a raw and painful story of slavery which pulls off a steampunk liberty with history (the underground railroad becomes a literal railroad here). I haven’t read Estates by Lynsey Hanley so I can’t say how Respectable: The Experience of Class (Allen Lane, 2016) compares, but I can say that it’s an incisive and insightful book on the paradoxes of belonging and mobility. Later this year, weighty efforts to understand the white working class became an exhausting constant, but this brisk work of a mind both affectionate and analytical is the one to read. Hanley’s nods to the band Broadcast, though, were what won me over entirely. (I quoted the book in this column on sexual harassment in schools.)
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Granta, 2014) is a novel that captures wonderfully the shine and the compromise of love. Few things will ever make making-do seem so ecstatic – and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Fourth Estate, 2016) certainly didn’t. The glorious portrait of the hypochondriac mother in this novel was in no sense a compensation for the vile whimsy of an anthropomorphic squirrel. And if cutesy animals don’t sicken you, the cheery attitude to coercive control and punching holes in women required to carry the “happy ending” probably should.
I was rapt by Emma Cline’s The Girls (Chatto & Windus, 2016), partly because I have an abiding fascination with the Manson murders on which the novel is based (thank you, Evan Dando and Q magazine c. 1993), and partly because it’s a meticulous anatomy of power and coercion from a girl’s point of view. I reviewed in for the Guardian, and wrote more extensively about the figure of Manson in popular culture for Little Atoms. Cline’s decision to excise Manson’s racism from his fictional counterpart – and by extension, from the San Franciscan counterculture and the entertainment industry of 1960s America – has sat increasingly ill with me, though.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Melville House, 2015) just sat ill with me from the start. Widely displayed in American bookshops, I’d toyed with buying it and decided it would annoy me. I bought it in the UK. It annoyed me. Nelson’s lyrical writing on the body and its transformations is fatally shot through with a keening insistence that she’s not like the other women, which hits a note both pretentious and apolitical. I wrote about The Argonauts along with Dept. of Speculation and The Portable Veblen in another essay for Little Atoms.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (Arrow Books, 1974) is a towering piece of true-crime writing. I hadn’t read James Baldwin since my teens when I cracked open Going to Meet the Man (Black Swan, 1984; 1948). His unsparing insight into how racism corrupts the individual makes these short stories tense, uncomfortable and impossible to look away from. “Sonny’s Blues” is shatteringly brilliant of course, but his sympathy with the female lead of “Come Out the Wilderness” and her experience of sex has echoed in me long since reading too. Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life (Scribe, 2015) is by turns reassuring and revelatory about women and sex. I wish everyone would read it.
The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff (John Murray, 2016) was at its best when Schiff let her imagination run surrealist and satirical, as in the standout story “Rate Me”. Otherwise, she seemed too tightly bounded by writing in a character that is already wildly overdone: the sad ironic slutty young American woman writer. I reviewed the collection for Literary Review. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Virago, 2004) was boosted up my reading pile by fervent recommendations from Sara Barnard and Sarah Perry, and it did not disappoint: sad and strange and full of painful truths and human lies.
The best non-fiction book I read this year was Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom (William Collins, 2016), which I reviewed for the Spectator. It’s memoir of Faludi’s reconciliation with her abusive father after his transition to live as a woman that is also a book about Jewishness, about identity, about manipulation of images (Faludi’s father was a photographer) and about life in the shadow of violence, both interpersonal and state-sanctioned. Further excellent feminist writing in a more polemical style from Kat Banyard’s Pimp State (Faber, 2016), which I reviewed for the Guardian: a clear, calmly angry and robustly evidenced argument against prostitution, and a book that legislators should read closely. Faludi inspired me to open up Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times (Granta, 2000), a fine and complex story of the founding of Israel. I read this in the garden after the Brexit vote, and thought about the confounding of twentieth-century hopes, the invisible worms in the roses we tried to cultivate.
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2013) did not ultimately answer its own question, but did make unambiguously clear that drunks are arseholes, if you needed that making clear. Rereading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (Faber, 1988; 1963) was a revelation – the expressionistic, vivid passages of breakdown I’d remembered but Plath’s immense gifts as a darkly comic writer and chronicler of shame hit me anew. Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Fleet, 2016) is a deft and moving account of a life in science that will make you think warmly about friendship and trees.