Cordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.”
In the early 20th century, the mechanical peep-show was invented so voyeurs could enjoy the thrill of seeing women in their unwitting naked candour. Of course, the peep-shows were a lie: the pictures were staged, there was no real privacy to invade. But the promise that women can be revealed as they “really are” has always been an exciting one. Wendy Jones starts her book with a version of the peep-show promise that also places The Sex Lives of English Women firmly in the context of feminism: “This book is not about how to be a woman; it’s about how women are,” she writes, presumably angling a dig in the direction of Caitlin Moran’s blockbuster polemic How To Be a Woman.
What we are about to see, it is implied, is raw womanhood. Jones presents us with 24 pseudonymous interviews representing the gamut of the English female, aged from 19 to 94. There are women from Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic backgrounds; black, white and Asian women; lesbians, straight women and somewhere-in-between women. Each one occupies her own chapter, written up as a monologue so it appears that we have unmediated access to her inner self. Like the peep-show photographer who keeps all evidence of himself outside the frame, Jones effaces herself. We are never told what questions she asked in order to elicit these answers.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer at a time when being a writer was unusual enough, let alone being a woman as well. Before Daniel Defoe, before Aphra Behn, Cavendish wrote – voluminously, uncategorisably, turning out works of science, philosophy and fantastical fiction. She was nicknamed “Mad Madge” for both her eccentric outfits and her gender-flouting insistence on recognition. Margaret’s untutored invention has embarrassed even ostensibly sympathetic readers: Virginia Woolf, in one of her swipes of matricidal waspishness, likened her to “some giant cucumber [that] had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death”.
Yet strangeness suited the duchess’s purposes, in a world where “normal” com-passed a very small realm for women. “Art itself is, for the most part, irregular,” she wrote, and these words become the epigraph to Danielle Dutton’s fictionalised account of Margaret’s life. For Woolf, she had the profile of a mortifying aunt, honoured out of obligation but held at a remove for fear that her oddity might point to some congenital disarray in the “female author” as a type. Dutton’s sympathy and love, however, are offered more uncomplicatedly in this luminous historical novel.
I bucketed through Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (& Other Stories, 2014; 1990), which is like a theologically-minded version of Victoria Wood’s “The Ballad of Barry and Freda”; I then continued bucketing with Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon (Viking, 2016), a pounding bit of storytelling that makes you fall in love with its foster-kid star and made me cry more than any other book this year. I should probably have read The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter (Virago, 1985) a long time ago, having dipped into it at uni: it’s a great political analysis of women and madness that is ripe for revisiting as we face a contemporary crisis in girls’ mental health.
Penguin Modern Poets One: If I’m Scared We Can’t Win by Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins (Penguin, 2016) is a gloriously rangy collection. Carson was the standout for me. Holly Bourne’s Am I Normal Yet? (Usborne, 2015) is YA done the best way: funny, fearless and kind, with a solid backbone of feminism. I passed my copy on to a young friend who soon came back for the follow-ups. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It (Yale University Press, 2013) is a provocative – and I think correct – work of moral reasoning. Hecht’s open and unembarrassed interest in establishing, and maintaining, ethical norms for the good of communities is rare and valuable.
Mount! by Jilly Cooper (Bantam, 2016) was just horrible. I reviewed it for Literary Review. (It’s paywalled, but I’m sure they won’t mind me giving you the conclusion: “about as jolly as masturbating with a DVD of Top Gear. Truly there is nothing the rich cannot ruin – including, it turns out, a good wank.”) And Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (Picador, 2014) did not win me to her fans. I found it aggravatingly twee, with a story that collapsed like dust under the slightest application of scrutiny.
I know that objectively Oneworld has had a storming year with its second Booker in a row, but subjectively, the only book of theirs I read was Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Oneworld, 2016) and that was a stinker. I reviewed it for the Guardian. Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child (Granta, 2012) was not at all what I expected, in a very good way (inexplicably, I thought it might be a picaresque tale about a travelling salesman and his son): not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection, but all-round bewitchingly macabre, with the best metaphysical policemen since Flann O’Brien. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Viking, 2016) is a close character study, finely drawn and emotionally stark. Then I read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (City Lights, 2014; 1914) and never felt quite sure whether it was ravishing or piss-taking, but I did like “magnificent asparagus” a lot.
Two weeks of holiday (Rutland followed by Scarbados) started with Scarlett Thomas’s Bright Young Things (Canongate, 2012; 2001), a kind of nineties-nostalgia version of And Then There Were None with an abundance of lightly deployed malice that would surely please Christie. Rereading The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin, 2000; 1926) is ever a pleasure, with its cruel fates, crueler personages, splendid excess and peculiar grace. Sylvia Plath’s Winter Trees (Faber, 1975; 1971) is great collection slightly out of the high ranting style of Ariel: a piece like “Three Women” shows her thinking through the body in the most brilliant way. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (Virago, 2001; 2000) was just tremendous. Pulpy, playful and heart-gorgingly romantic, I loved every single page.
Why didn’t I love Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2014; 2012)? I found it too much tell and not enough show, with characters outlined in detail but never actually realised. But it sprang to life in the last few pages enough for me to think I’ll read the sequel. Back home, I read Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (Virago, 2014; 2013) which cleverly combines brilliant and clear-eyed criticism with my other favourite non-fiction genre, true crime. Churchwell is a great reader and will make you a better one.
I loved A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and so I also loved Eimear McBride’s more-of-it follow-up The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016). More unspeakable trauma! More fractured stream-of-consciousness lyricism! More transfixingly awful descent! But, this time, some redemption too, and a Tindersticks reference that I was very gratified by. Tiffany McDaniels’s The Summer That Melted Everything (Scribe, 2016) came from a reliable publisher in a plush package (my heart soared at the foil on that dust jacket), and was terrible. Overripe southern gothic with an incoherent chronology (the “present” sections of the narration appears to be set more-or-less now, but the age of the character suggests that it should actually be several decades into the future), magical negro bullshit and a false rape accusation thrown in for good measure. I reviewed Wendy Jones’s The Sex Lives of English Women (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) for New Humanist. A collection of decontextualised interviews with women about sex, it’s doggedly unenlightening thank to Jones’s refusal to offer any connecting argument or buttressing factual detail. Read Nagoski (see May) instead.
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm (Granta, 2012) is a captivating study of biography, its ethics and its victims. All the Plath and suicide reading I’ve been doing was towards an essay for publication next year, which unexpectedly includes a quote from Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir (Granta, 2016) – although I actually picked this up for a change of pace after thinking my research was done. Negroland, like Hanley’s Respectable and Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level (which I reviewed for the Guardian last year), belongs to the intriguing genre of “aesthetic autobiography”: it’s about race and class and taste and aspiration and mobility and acceptability, with a knockout section about female ambition and the drive to self-destruction. If I felt frustrated in the end that Jefferson keeps the reader at a cool distance, I also grasped enough to see that my wish for more intimacy was in direct conflict with the dignity that Jefferson values so much.
Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon, 2017) is Cordelia Fine doing what she does best: dismantling the stories that sustain sexism, and doing it wittily and comprehensively. I’ll be reviewing it for the Guardian in the new year. My friend Sara Barnard’s A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Macmillan, 2017) follows up her great YA friendship story Beautiful Broken Things with a sensitive and sweet love story between a mute girl and a deaf boy, which is really about finding your voice. Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference (Allen Lane, 2003) is hilariously bad. Did you know that making mix tapes is a fundamental trait of the male brain? The book is, in fact, a pile of one undeniably essential aspect of maleness: ballbags.
Sara Flannery Murphy’s The Possessions (Scribe, 2017) is a great gothic potboiler. Again, look out for the Guardian review next year. I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, 2016), which I reviewed for the New Statesman. In fact, one of the few things to give me solace since the US election has been making lists of men I’d like to electrify, given the same power that Alderman bestows on women in her book; consequently, I am a living exemplum of the novel’s thesis that non-violence doesn’t come naturally to women.
God, Emily Witt’s Future Sex (Faber, 2016) was disappointing. I reviewed it for Literary Review, and found it sloppy with details to the point of downright disregarding anything unhelpful to its thesis, although it did give me the jump-off point for this New Statesman column about the demise of techno-utopianism. Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) is crisp and melancholically lovely, although it is also, as the Private Eye review pointed out, in quite large type and and surrounded by rather a lot of white space. It feels like part of a (very good) novel rather than the full work. I’d been putting off reading Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, 2013) because come on, how interesting is a book about the pharmaceutical industry really going to be? Answer: very interesting. Read it and suddenly the world of medicine looks like a whodunnit to be cracked open.
Dragon’s Green (Canongate, 2017) is Scarlett Thomas’s first YA. It heads to a weird place about a third of the way through, and that’s when it starts to get very interesting. Look out for it. The main pleasure it gave me, though, was being set in a world where due to some cataclysm or other the internet and mass media no longer exist; and since I was reading this as the US election result came in, I was more than happy to escape into the counterfactual of a world where a reality show bully couldn’t make a Twitter-fueled power grab. Ah well. Good luck, planet.
In those bleak days, the only thing that felt like consolation was reading Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (Vintage, 2008), which I know everyone else read ages ago but is perfect for now if you need it underlining that yes it can happen here, yes it can happen faster than you think, and when drinking and dancing are the only acts of resistance left, you’d better get some blackout curtains to drink and dance behind.
Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, 2016), like The Pure Gold Baby (see January), is told from an anthropologist’s perspective, and it’s possible that I just don’t like books about anthropologists. While the writing is often luminous, the overall effect is flat, and characters seem to simply act for the sake of acting. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017) is a low-key coming-of-age novel; review coming for the Guardian next year.
Another upcoming review is Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others (Picador, 2016), which I’ve done for the Spectator. I am very, very excited about this novel and plan to bore on about it to anyone who will listen. Next, I read Girls Will be Girls by Emer O’Toole (Orion, 2015), which is a chatty and funny introduction to the idea of gender as performance. If you tend to side with Nussbaum over Butler (and I do), O’Toole is your go-to for proving that performativity is actually a mighty useful concept for getting under the skin of gender, although I think the book’s strongest in the first half when it’s running headlong at the issue of male power and privilege. Performativity can show that men’s dominance is unjustified, but I’m sceptical about whether that’s enough to convince men to get up and (say) do the laundry or wash the pots en masse. (Disclosure fans: we share an agent.)
And now, and possibly till the end of the year, I’m finally reading something Victorian: Villette by Charlotte Brontё (Penguin, 2004; 1853). I was nudged into rereading by The Possessions, which riffs on Brontё’s epically sad novel. It is hard to think of any book quite as suffused in bleakness as this one, as protagonist Lucy Snowe’s comforts and securities are progressively stripped away from her by death and unnamed fates. It’s a novel where nature and nurture tussle it out in full view: “I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and activity were forced upon me by circumstance,” says Lucy, whose prissiness would make her disagreeable if she wasn’t surrounded by so many even more disagreeable people. And so in the end the Victorians did have 2017’s number after all: it is all so very, very grim.
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.
Being really neither about the future nor consistently about sex, Future Sex is a disappointment. Its pitch is a big idea on an urgent theme – a kind of state of the insemination address, or The Way We Frig Now. But what Emily Witt delivers is an accidental exemplar of another modern malaise: the essay collection ransacked from various outlets and contorted into a fictive autobiographical and intellectual arc.
Why should we read? The magazine Project Calm set me the task of explaining how books can sharpen your brain, strengthen your sympathies and make you more resilient (and yes, I do prescribe strong doses of Middlemarch for all conditions). The magazine is on sale now, and features beautiful illustrations by Jody Thomas alongside my words.
For as long as novels have existed, there have been moralists to warn of their dangers. Late Victorian educationalist Charlotte Mason chided that “the girl who sits for hours poring over a novel, to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her general nervous system, is guilty of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.” Recent research, though, has claimed that rather than inducing a slow death, reading books can actually keep you alive: a study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that those who read a book for 30 minutes a day had a 23-month survival advantage, regardless of their wealth, education, health or sex. And fascinatingly, this advantage was specific to books. No other reading material did so much good for its readers.
Feminism has done a thorough job of establishing the existence of sex-based inequality, but less so of explaining where this gross unfairness came from. Instead, feminist engagement with evolutionary theories has been mostly of the debunking kind: Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that women are adapted to nurture while men are adapted for conquest; Cordelia Fine patiently explains why this isn’t true; and everyone resumes his or her place to repeat the same debate in another five years’ time.
Naomi Alderman takes a look at this depressing situation, grasps the whole lot in her fist and crushes it down to a new beginning. The Power starts with a simple question: what if women got the edge? What if, somehow, nature placed a thumb on the scale so that women’s tendency to be smaller and weaker than men no longer mattered? This edge, whatever it is, would have to be more significant than physical parity, because it would have to overcome more than bodily difference: something sufficient to upturn millennia of male dominance and all the traditions that sustain it.
The unwanted declaration of love. The friend who decides to honestly reveal what they always thought of your baby’s nose. Sometimes it only takes one line to kill a relationship. For some reason, the publisher of Private Citizens invites us on the flyleaf to “Call it … Middlemarch for millennials”. And what could have been a pleasant encounter between reader and slab of near-contemporary realism is suddenly dead, murdered by incompatible expectations. Every page of this debut is haunted by the unflattering question: “Is this what a Middlemarch for millennials would do?”
In the pro column: it’s on the long side, with liberal use of free indirect discourse, some philosophical digressions, and erudite quotes to head up each chapter (one of which is taken from Middlemarch, suggesting that the comparison has not been imposed unbidden). It’s also set around a critical moment in technology from recent history, with the burgeoning internet of 2007-8 in place of the railways bearing down on Middlemarch. In the con column: this is not a study of life in a provincial town, because it’s set in San Francisco; and it doesn’t have the roaming, rangy sympathies of Eliot. Where Middlemarch achieved understanding for even its most flawed characters, no one in Private Citizens rises above the level of detestable.
‘It is sad to be reminded, once again, that all this horse racing business is about the rich, for the rich are hideous. There is nothing they cannot ruin,’ wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan in his social history and memoir Blood Horses. But the hideousness of the horsey rich is Jilly Cooper’s inspiration: for ten novels now, she has extracted frothy, filthy entertainment from the lives of the rich and randy in the fictional (and fittingly named) county of Rutshire.