All the books I read in 2016, part 1

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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.

December

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.

January

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.

February

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.

March

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.

April

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.

May

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.

June

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.

All the books I read in 2016, part 2 

All the books I read in 2015 part 1 and part 2

Literary Review | Future Sex By Emily Witt

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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.

Read the full review at Literary Review (subscription required)

New Statesman | The Power by Naomi Alderman

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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.

Read the full review at the New Statesman

Guardian Review | Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte

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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.

Read the full review at the Guardian

Literary Review | Mount! by Jilly Cooper

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‘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.

Read the full review in the September 2016 issue of Literary Review (subscription required for online access)

New Humanist | The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Between the saucy carnival of the Georgians and the splintered genius of the moderns, the Victorians seem like a marble slab of respectability. Very fine and very deathly. The Essex Serpent is not about those marble Victorians. Sarah Perry’s second novel – a follow-up to her eerie 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood – contains many things that are unlikely, edging toward supernatural. There is early open heart surgery, hypnotism, contagious hysteria, and of course, the serpent of the title (which may or may not be ravaging the Essex shoreline). But the characters who inhabit Perry’s historical fiction are fundamentally like the Victorians of life rather than the ones of myth: a mix of the curious, the crankish, the sceptical and the devout, the upstanding and the down-low.

Read the full review at the New Humanist

The Spectator | In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

Portrait Of Author Susan Faludi

In 2004, after a 25-year estrangement, Susan Faludi’s father reappeared in her life via email. ‘I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man I have never been inside,’ it read, and was signed, ‘Love from your parent, Stefánie.’ The 77-year-old had embarked on a new life as a woman, both a dramatic abruption and the continuation of a biography full of reinvention. He was born as a Hungarian Jew called István Friedman, survived the Holocaust thanks to a talent for imitating Nazis, adopted the name Faludi to show he was ‘100 per cent Hungarian’, and later settled in the US, where he became Stephen Faludi, archetypal ‘American Dad’ and, as a photographer, a master manipulator of images.

In 2014, Stefánie Faludi died, and In the Darkroom is a memoir of the fraught reacquaintance between father and daughter. It’s also a record of Stefánie Faludi’s extraordinary life, and an unsettling interrogation of that modern obsession, identity. ‘Who is the person you “were meant to be”?’ asks Faludi. ‘Is who you are what you make of yourself, the self you fashion into being, or is it determined by your inheritance and all its fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical?’ Primo Levi asked If This Is a Man. Faludi looks at her father Stefánie and wonders, is this a woman? Is this a Jew? Is this a Hungarian? How much of the thing we call a self is truly negotiable?

Read the full review at the Spectator