Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.

 

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I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!