Sunday, 18 December 2016

My favourite books of 2016

Good weather for reading

It seems to get harder, given the ever-increasing number of books and my ever-narrowing tastes and sensibilities, to hit a run of fantastic reading. Sometimes, a year goes by and I’ve not loved anything. In 2016, thankfully, against a background of rubbish reality, I had a run of luck with the books I read. All the ones below were books that made me feel the wow feeling, repeatedly. They made me feel strange, exhilarated, envious, inspired, and most importantly, transported.

Many I listened to as audio books (via Audible), so I’ve marked those. The great readings certainly added to the experience.

Bark, by Lorrie Moore (audio book). Part of the joy of this was listening to Lorrie Moore read her own stories, giving me the feeling of something between a private performance and a confessional. Her voice was so amusing, enveloping, hypnotic, that I had to listen to the whole collection twice. Moore’s stories are long – sometimes clocking in at over an hour of listening each – and this was the first time in years I’d read any short story over 7,000 words or so. I loved the effect; the 10k word story is almost a different form from the 3k or 4k one, looser and more generous. In Moore’s case, there is room for both cruelty and humanity, as well as much black humour (a character thinks that a spider plant looks ‘like Bob Marley on chemo’). I wanted this collection, and Moore’s laconic reading, to last forever, really. It changed the way I wrote.

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood (audio book). Another collection of long short stories, also as influential as it was pleasurable – the greatest treat being Atwood’s reading of the title story. Most of the ‘tales’, as Atwood calls them, are told from the point of view of characters in the later decades of life (reflected in the choice of superb readers), and themes of regret and loss are balanced by juicy veins of revenge (sometimes murderous). The first three stories pleasingly interlink, so we get to see three characters from each other’s well-seasoned points of view. Another affectionately revisits the cast of Atwood’s The Robber Bride. The final story, ‘Torching the Dusties’, is a chilling look into the possible near future that would work devastatingly well as a Black Mirror episode.
There are not enough short story collection available as audio books. These two are gold.

Hag Seed, by Margaret Atwood (audiobook). Well, I’d enjoyed Stone Mattress so much… This is Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, set in contemporary times, as a director ousted from his high-profile job takes on tutoring at the local prison. Another tale driven by desire for revenge, which, when the opportunity finally arises, is delivered with gleeful detail by Atwood. You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s play to enjoy all the levels on which this book works: the play within the novel, put on by the prisoners, provides you with all the plot and character analyses (albeit convict-led ones) to see what cleverness Atwood has applied. This is a rich delight, and beautifully read if you choose to listen too.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (print). Endless wow, for me personally, as this book knits together a series of independent short stories to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Bitter, angry, middle-aged Olive is sometimes protagonist, sometimes bit-part, always satisfying. I’ve heard enthusiastic readers described her as an awful person, which in some ways she is, but that is what makes her so interesting. She is not predictable, yet we get to know her, down to her faux-curses – ‘Godfrey’, she exclaims, instead of God, to please her mild-mannered husband – and the truth behind her bullishness. The short story format affords Strout a freedom with her writerly lens that a straight novel would not, and the result is wonderful, whether you read it as a writer learning technique or as a lover of funny, moving portraits of life and its small tragedies.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (print). Yes, published in 1989 and, I’d hope, part of the shared cultural consciousness by now. I list this because I have been using it to teach writers about unreliable narrators, and rereading it left me in a weeping puddle, as well as breathless with admiration. To build an emotional world so thoroughly around an infuriating, buttoned-up character who will never say what he thinks to anyone, least of all himself, is an incredible feat. To find yourself, as a reader, overwhelmed with grief just because a character gets on a bus, is the kind of miracle I constantly hope fiction will deliver to me. I never did watch Downton Abbey, but this is the ultimate under-stairs drama.

Light Box, by K J Orr (print). ‘Exemplary’ is the best word to describe K J Orr’s short stories, and they are indeed stunningly well-written and superbly structured. But all that does not capture the resonance of these pieces. They sometimes appear quiet, or gentle; and yet, like impossible bells whose peals echo louder rather than quieter over time, I find myself thinking about their characters weeks and months after reading. K J Orr deservedly won the BBC National Short Story Award this year for one of the stories in this book. There are plenty more in here that equal the winning story in terms of the ‘linger effect’, as I’m going to call it, all made possible by Orr’s intense sensitivity to both life and language. An essential for both readers and writers of the short story.

Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick Dewitt (audiobook). Dewitt is my discovery of the year (I’m now halfway through his earlier novel, The Sisters Brothers). I was attracted to this book because I saw it described as a ‘folk tale’ – pretty unusual for a literary novel. It certainly has many folkloric trappings: a gothic castle with a mad Count reminiscent of Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast; a pretty village maid; endlessly fighting soldiers; a fool (of sorts) making his way in the world. But, to mangle a beer slogan, it refreshes the parts other folk tales cannot reach, and this is down to Dewitt’s combination of action, affection and detail when it comes to his characters. There is endless incident, some of it so surprising that you sense it could not have been planned ahead; I laughed out loud many times; I also found myself wishing I could meet these people (not something I’ve ever felt reading a folk tale). To write movingly in a folkloric world whilst hardly pausing for breath is a feat; I’ll definitely be listening to this brilliant reading, with characters’ voices made delightfully distinct, again.

What is not yours is not yours, by Helen Oyeyemi (print). Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox attracted me with its complexity, wry humour and folk-tale edge; the same goes for this story collection, creating as it does a kind of layering, such that the tales enhance one another without directly overlapping. A hard thing to describe, and that is part of the pleasure, I think. Oyeyemi reads widely in a literary arena so different from mine – and other British fiction fans – that the invisible influences create a sense of wonder in her writing. Puppets feature here, as protagonists and props for human relationships, alongside off-kilter celebrities, magical rose gardens and fantastical machinery for plumbing the depths of the human mind. Oyeyemi’s worlds are so unlike any others I encounter in English; she has an imagination to relish.

Other books I’ve read and enjoyed this year: The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge; The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark; The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes; High Rise by J G Ballard; Heart Burn by Nora Ephron; Out of the Woods by Will Cohu.

Books already stacked in the to-read pile for 2017: All of Jenny Erpenbeck’s books; A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham; The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks; Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo-Buchanan; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; All the Beloved Ghosts by Alison MacLeod.

Happy reading!