Saturday, 31 December 2016

Reading in 2016

TL;DR: read Jarett Kobek's I Hate the Internet!  Also, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford; everything Zen Cho has ever written; Nell Zink's Mislaid and The Wallcreeper; Jane Smiley's Hundred Years trilogy; Becky Chambers' Long Way to a Small Angry Planet; Catherynne Valente's Radiance; and The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

In January I read two very good humane sci-fi novels: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.  I shall definitely read Becky Chambers' next one when it's out in paperback.  I also enjoyed Kim Newman's The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School -- sometimes I don't like his stuff but this was very well-pitched -- and Gerard Russell's Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, about minority religions in the Middle East.

There was nothing quite as good in February, though I did like Catherynne Valente's Deathless, a combination of Russian fairy tale with 20th-century (Russian) history.

In March I loved Nell Zink's Mislaid and The Wallcreeper, which came out at the same time.  The first is about a separated family and is very funny.  The second is weirder but very good, about a young American couple living in Germany.  Like everyone I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and it totally absorbed me and took over my brain.  It didn't seem important at the time how insane and manipulative it is.  It is an amazing book in its way but I think I'd have mixed feelings about recommending it. I preferred her first one, about a turtle that makes you immortal.  Also crazily intense was Steve Toltz's Quicksand.  Somehow uncanny was Richard Beard's Acts of the Assassins, which is difficult to describe, but is sort of about someone investigating the deaths of the disciples but set in the present.  Reassuringly sane, as well as erudite and witty, are Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters from her time in Istanbul when her husband was British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

In April I enjoyed Mary Beard's SPQR, which wasn't the same old Roman Empire thing, and Andrea Wulf's biography of Alexander von Humboldt.  I also liked Kevin McNeil's The Brilliant and Forever, about an island in Scotland where alpacas live alongside humans but suffer from a lot of prejudice and discrimination.  Three friends, two humans and one alpaca, enter the island's famous short-story competition.  All three of these books pleased me by not being books I had read before -- so many books seem like remixes of things I've already read many times.  The Humboldt biography (called The Invention of Nature) cracked that thing where biographies always end on a down note (slow decline or an early death) by concluding with chapters about some of the people Humboldt had influenced, showing his ideas living on.

May was a good month.  I enjoyed Jonathan Coe's Number 11, Barbara Pym's Crampton Hodnet, Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen, and Bradley Somer's Fishbowl, which is about a goldfish which leaps from a balcony at the top of a high rise and what he sees as he falls down the stories.  But I also read two of my books of the year.  The last volume of Jane Smiley's Hundred Years Trilogy, Golden Age, was brilliant.  She is such a reliably engrossing and intelligent writer.   I will definitely reread this trilogy before long.  I also loved Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads.  It takes as its starting point the assumption that all histories are biased, and present a particular perspective about what is important and what questions are worth asking.  So he wrote a history of the world taking as its centre-point the area that is now roughly Iran and the middle Asian republics that get lumped together as the -stans.  I enjoyed it hugely.  I was surprised how interesting and eye-opening the 19th- and 20th-century sections were.  I gave it to my father for Father's Day, and I don't usually get him a present for that.  He read it in Myanmar and enjoyed it.  Also I have just given it to my brother for Christmas.

In June I went to Istanbul for my birthday.  I had meant to read pretty solidly but somehow didn't have the oomph in the heat, and none of the things I read that month really stood out.  I did quite like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves though it was also rather frustrating and inadvertently ridiculous.  Sometimes he strays into what I think of as Isaac Asimov territory, where the physics is all precisely real but the people aren't.

July wasn't much better, though I did enjoy Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies.  I reread one of my favourite books, Muriel Spark's A Far Cry From Kensington, to cheer myself up.

Things improved a lot in August.  Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography, a book about global geo-politics centred around ten maps, was very good, and made things like Putin's interest in the Crimea more explicable.  I also discovered Zen Cho.  I adored her Sorceror to the Crown, like a very intelligent Georgette Heyer with magic and a hint of P. G. Wodehouse -- it starts with a hapless young man whose aunt is trying to make him give a talk in a girls' school.  Then I read everything else of hers that I could lay my hands on, most of it short stories on the internet.  I await her future career with considerable interest.  I also loved the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.  I first heard of it in an interesting reference to it in a talk Rowan Williams gave about sexuality long before he was archbishop of Canterbury, and I'd been meaning to read it ever since.  It's one of those things like A Dance to the Music of Time which sounds a bit hard work but turns out to be very good, and not something you ought to read but something you want to read.  And I reread Cathleen Schine's Rameau's Niece for the fourth time since records began (in 2011), which I think is an unequalled number.

In September I really loved Catherine Valente's Radiance, set in a slightly different world where the other planets are much nearer, and people have worked out how to travel to them in massive catapults.  It's about a woman who never returns from making a documentary about the disappearance from Venus of a community which makes a living harvesting milk from the huge whale-like things that live there.  Again, not a book I had read before.  Likewise Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus, about a fifteenth-century healer travelling through Russia and beyond.  I just googled it to check the spelling and found that it was one of Rowan Williams' books of 2016.  So go me!

In October I liked the last of Amitav Ghosh's Opium Wars Trilogy, Flood of Fire, although I am a little worried about the fate of Pugli.  Did Ghosh realise what an unfair thing he had done to her?  I also enjoyed Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall sci-fi novels, starting with The Praxis.  It's the sort of thing I usually steer clear of -- militaristic hard sci-fi where everyone's happy living under fascism -- but I had heard this was particularly good and I'm glad I made an exception.  I also liked Emma Bull's War for the Oaks.  But definitely the stand-out book was Francis Spufford's Golden Hill, which is just brilliant.  It's set in the small colonial New York of the eighteenth-century and is a picaresque adventure in the style of the time.  A young man arrives in town with documents to require payment of a huge sum from one of the trading houses, refusing to explain what he wants it for, and acting in a generally suspicious manner.

In November I really enjoyed Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory.  It's the first book I've read by her and I think she might be a reliable author to read in future.  I also liked Marge Piercy's feminist classic, Woman on the Edge of Time, which is crazy in a good way, and I think rather better than The Handmaid's Tale.  Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint was mannered but good in a way that lingered more than I expected.  But my favourite book probably of the whole year was Jarett Kobek's I Hate the Internet.  This was a great book to read in the immediate aftermath of the Trump election, because it's very angry in an energising way.  It starts with a list of trigger warnings, which you can read here.  In the UK some bits had to be censored with thick black lines because of our libel laws.  These censorings are all annotated with the words "Jim'll Fix It", and often involve a paragraph in which the only words visible are "Peter Thiel".  I read it because of a review in the Graun which compared it to Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, but it's really more like Kurt Vonnegut.  I have since recommended it to a friend who loved it, and given it to another who also loved it (although it was a present so she has less motive to be honest if she didn't, but I bet she really did).  And I reread it in December.  Go Jarett Kobek!

December is harder to assess because it's still now.  I only recently finished Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, and am still feeling a bit numbed by it.  It's a very good book, and it feels necessary to know.  I think it will turn over in my mind for a while.  Perhaps our image of the holocaust has been over-simplified in time.  To Arendt, writing in the early 1960s, it seemed like a long time ago, while to us that seems like the immediate aftermath, and some of the things that she talks about weren't things I knew were even issues.  She caused a furore at the time by mentioning the alliances between Nazis and Zionists -- Eichmann at least seems to have sincerely wanted to arrange mass Jewish emigration until the orders came through in 1941 for the Final Solution.  I found it odd that Arendt assumed you had to have a Jewish state to prosecute crimes against Jews -- but I suppose this is a reaction against the way that the Nazis were careful to make Jews stateless before acting against them.  But who acts for the stateless who aren't Jewish?  I am feeling a pull, after the events of this year, to read books from different perspectives.  Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped, a memoir of the author's experience of the deaths of young black men in her community, is very powerful and moving.  W. Willow Wilson's excellent Alif the Unseen has a devout Muslim veil-wearing heroine and lots of djinni on the internet.  I liked Tobias Jones' A Place of Refuge, about setting up a community in the woods in the Somerset countryside.  Benjamin Markovits is always good, and I finally got round to reading his You Don't Have to Live Like This, about (mostly white) people trying to rescue Detroit, and their conflict with the (mostly black) residents.

This is the sixth year I've kept track of my reading.   
  • Total number of books read: 209
  • Gender of authors of each book: 82 male, 127 female, 0 not sure, 0 anthologies
  • Number of non-fiction: 25 (roughly 12%)
  • Number of re-reads: 34 (roughly 16%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 69 (roughly 33%)
Writing this summary is a more relaxing way to spend New Year's Eve than unsuccessfully trying to party...