2016 in Books
This year’s been a bad year in general. But for me, for reading, it’s been a pretty good one. I read 68 books in total, and went far outside of my comfort zone, reading on impulse and recommendation as much as possible. I tried to read much more women than men (due to my own, literary, and educational biases towards male writers), which I achieved: I read 47 books written by women.
Which brings me to my book of the year, which I read on total impulse (previously pretty unusual for me):
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
The Lonely City was the first book I bought after becoming a bookseller. It’s part memoir, part art history, and a meditation on loneliness and the urban landscape. It’s one of those books I wish I’d read far earlier in my life, as it revolves around themes I spend a lot of time thinking about. It explores the shame of loneliness and the unnecessary social stigma around isolation — something I got 1000 words into writing about myself, before reading this and realising that it had already been written about, and with a far more fluid style. It also introduced me to a kind of non-fiction that I really love, which is the kind of memoir that revolves around a theme, but at the same time is tender and personal. The kind of memoir which can only come from someone’s deep, thoughtful obsession with an idea:
“A long time back, I used to listen to a song by Dennis Wilson. It was from Pacific Ocean Blue, the album he made after the Beach Boys fell apart. There was a line in it I love: Loneliness is a very special place. As a teenager, sitting on my bed on autumn evenings, I used to imagine that place as a city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers into life. I recognised myself even then as one of its citizens and I liked how Wilson claimed it; how he made it sound fertile as well as frightening.”
Olivia Laing weaves her own personal experience into telling the stories of the artists she finds interesting, and the history of loneliness in our culture, what it creates, what it does. It’s one I’m going to have to read again, and was definitely the best book I read this year. Which is saying a lot, because I read some really great books.
Highlights from Fiction
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
I originally had some grandiose idea that I would read every book that was longlisted for the Man Booker. Partly, in order to make me a better bookseller (because I do not usually read a lot of contemporary fiction) and to challenge myself — to get out of my comfort zone and be less of a reading snob. And then the shortlist was announced, so I thought I’d do the shortlist instead.
I ended up only reading half. Out of those three, I was hoping Do Not Say We Have Nothing would win. It’s a historical novel starting in modern day Canada tracing a family story back to the first days of Chairman Mao’s China, and forward through decades of intertwining characters and events right up to the Beijing demonstrations. It passes seamlessly through time, space and character, moving down generations and across cities in a paragraph. Yet it completely works. Each time I thought the novel had settled in a place and a character to follow, fifty pages later it’d be totally different. And still, it read like one coherent story. It was one of those books that just feels like an expansive epic. Like, a proper yarn. And it reads exactly like this:
“It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that they days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.”
What I enjoyed most about this book is the poetry of the language, and its focus on language as a theme. Thien uses a lot of Chinese characters, classical and modern, in order to illustrate a point to do with language, showing how some meanings contain other meanings, and the how words, characters and symbols always contain multitudes. This is the kind of fiction I absolutely love because it’s self-referential. The whole book is constantly about language and stories, and it just hits every spot for me.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
A total masterpiece of fiction. I read it as a text for a course on Dystopia at university, and I knew this was going to be the book I had to write about for my final English essay at university. It’s a compelling look at an American dystopia, and is especially relevant given the current political climate. Atwood didn’t write it as a fantasy but as a look at what the American Conservative Right could become, given a push, and the ways in which society has shown it is capable of treating women. In particular, the language is just fantastic. It’s a book about writing, and the entire way through language, sexuality and freedom are equated and used as metaphors for the other, and Offred’s freedom ultimately comes through her voice — constantly denied her, but always aching to escape.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
It seems strange and wonderful that an auto-biographical novel about discovering your sexuality in the context of an evangelical missionary community in Northern England — who think you’re possessed — could be so witty and charming. If someone told me that plot, and I took one look at the cover, I assumed it’d be a great read, but very serious and grandiose. Instead, it was a weird, tender joy of a read. I read it all in about two sittings and didn’t look back.
This year I attempted to read far more non-fiction, particularly essays and memoir, because fiction has always been my main read. And it’s been pretty successful. I’ve read a lot in areas I haven’t read before, taken recommendations and impulse bought, to the point that the best book I read this year was non-fiction. Anyway, here are some other highlights:
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Teju Cole is probably one of the coolest people in the world. He’s a Nigerian-American art historian, photographer, and novelist and he is an unbelievably good essayist. This collection ranges over travel-writing, political commentary, literary criticism and memoir. But it almost didn’t matter to me what he was writing about — whether it was something as close to my heart as Virginia Woolf, or as far away from my areas of knowledge as photography — the style of writing is just simply exquisite. He just knows how to write a sentence. And he also really, really knows how to write about art — which should almost always be observational.
“Nearly one trillion photographs are taken each year, of everything at which a camera might be pointed: families, meals, landscapes, cars, toes, cats, toothpaste tubes, atrocities, doorknobs, waterfalls, an unrestrained gallimaufry that not only indexes the world of visible things but also adds to its plenty. We are surrounded by as many depictions of things as we are things themselves.”
In short, the whole book is about various kinds of interpretation, historical or literary, and whatever he writes about, you become interested in.
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
As mentioned before, I’ve become totally in love with a specific kind of non-fiction, which I can only describe as “memoir-around-a-theme”. I absolutely adore Leanne Shapton as an artist and as a human, and it turns out, rather unfairly, she’s also a fantastic and lucid writer. Swimming Studies is a memoir about her relationship with swimming, and explores obsession, ambition and habit — and something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is our relationship to our (capital-G) Goals. How much you can love a feeling; how much a routine and who you are become the same thing:
“I think about loving swimming the way you love somebody. How a kiss happens, gravitational. About compromise, sacrifice, and breakup. The heart can suffer more than a few not-quites, have poor timing. We are outtouched by others, can psych ourselves out, we lose, win, become our results, find our place and rank.
I think about swimming the way you love a country. The backseat of my father’s car, driving through Toronto’s older neighbourhoods to see the Christmas lights.”
What’s particularly great about this memoir is the presence of the senses throughout the whole thing. She has a way of getting you right underneath the skin of her memory by describing exactly the way a place felt. She includes some photography and some art through the book, and at one point has a chapter dedicated to the smells surrounding her routine training for the Olympic swimming trials, accompanied by splotches of colour.
No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay
It’s hard to describe this collection as anything other than this word that I hate. But, “Uplifting”. It’s just humble and honest and reassuringly small-scale. Most of the poems are very small slivers of personal stories, told with remarkable flair for language. My copy of this book is so dreadfully highlighted and ear-marked because every poem became a new favourite that I had simply had to show to someone.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
Warsan Shire records the intimate stories of displaced and marginalised cultures, and uses the body as a long metaphor for trauma, mostly through immigration narratives. Thus, she combines two things that the white Western world doesn’t want knowledge of: the stories of cultures that are not their own (and how we treat those cultures) and the autonomous sexuality of women of colour. Once you’ve finished reading this pamphlet you’ll be like me, longing for her full-length collection that still hasn’t been published. Any poet that can have the effect that Shire does with 30 pages is worth paying attention to and the fact that she can do so much with so little really just mirrors exactly what poetry is.
Dear Boy by Emily Berry
Something about Emily Berry’s voice is just very charming, and extremely witty. My favourite poem, by far, was “Bad New Government”, which I guess managed to capture the feeling we all had after the general election — a mixture of sadness, defeat and also a weird sarcastic bashfulness:
“I want to go very fast an email you about the following
happy circumstances: early rosebuds, a birthday part, a new cake recipebut
today it’s hot water bottles and austerity breakfast and my toast burns in protest”
So, I’ve already got her next collection, Stranger, Baby, on order for the end of the month.
Special Mention: Tilted Axis Press
I will probably do a full-length post on Tilted Axis Press, but I just wanted to mention them as probably my favourite find of the year — whatever that means. They’re a small UK press, founded by Deborah Smith, who translated The Vegetarian, and their main focus is on translating interesting and modern literature into English. They’ve since published two novels and one book of art and poetry, and have lots of interesting looking titles coming out in the next year. They were kind enough to send me copies of Panty and One Hundred Shadows when I sent them an email, and I absolutely loved One Hundred Shadows (Panty I will be reading in the New Year). They just seem to be doing something really interesting with publishing, and seeing as I don’t read as much in translation as I would like to, I’m keeping my eye on them. It also really doesn’t hurt that they have a really delicious and consistent design theme. All those books would sure like nice together on the same shelf…
This year I’m looking forward to reading some more non-fiction, lots more poetry and fiction in translation, and I’m going to dip into a bit of classic science-fiction, I think. But the best thing to do is read on impulse. Pick things up that look interesting, that people have really honestly recommended to you. People sometimes spend too much reading stuff they think they should read, or reading about things you know, about experiences you’ve had. But, to quote from the introduction to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,
“Write what you know is reasonable advice. Read what you don’t know is better advice.”