It’s over. It’s finally over. As the ember-glow of the burning trash fire that was 2016 slowly dims, take your mind off the worst year in recent memory (or try to process it) with these wonderful reads, hand-picked by our brilliant authors.
Miss Jane by Brad Watson
Miss Jane, by Brad Watson, recreates the life of a Mississippi girl born onto an early 20th century farm with a genital birth defect, and while that might sound bucolic and contained, this novel is utterly relevant to today’s atmosphere of xenophobia, racism, and distrust; it’s about what it feels like to be Other, to be different, to feel inadequate, to feel insufficient. Jane’s inner life is so moving, so sensual, and so well-rendered that I found myself putting down the book multiple times to blink away tears.
Anthony Doerr, author of All The Light We Cannot See
Evicted by Matthew Desmond and Euphoria by Lily King
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted and Lily King’s Euphoria were two books of the best books I read this year. I thought I knew a thing or two about “the brutality of American poverty,” as Mathew Desmond put it, but in his heartbreaking ethnographic study, he shows how something as basic as
a home is out of the reach of millions of Americans. Euphoria, like many great works of literature, opened up a whole new world to me. After I was done reading it, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d just returned from living in a village in New Guinea.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers
The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth
For a while I went around telling people to read The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing, but the responses fell into two categories: “I loved that book when I was thirteen,” and “Maybe it was politically correct when she wrote it, but we know now that no woman needs a penis to climax.” It was discouraging. So here’s a less uncool recommendation: The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth. It’s nonfiction about European revolutionaries from the Paris Commune to the Russian Revolution of 1905. London was their happy place, where they enjoyed civil liberties and freedom from extradition, though (sample sentence) ‘Kropotkin was not alone in being lured to Switzerland by the prudish, caffeine-addled temptresses of Zurich.’ But police provocateurs being what they are, before long the reformers had become Terrorists on the wrong side of a War on Terror. It’s sad. Some of them sound admirable and kind of fun, like the communard Louise Michel.
Nell Zink, author of Nicotine
LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii by Victor Klemperer
My book of the year is Vcktor Klemperer’s LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947) – translated into English by Martin Brady and published as Language of the Third Reich (2000). Klemperer analyses changes in language usage in Germany during the 1930s. ‘Language does not simply write and think for me,’ he writes, ‘it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.’ We are living in an age of poisoned language. The book remains as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
Ian Sansom, author of Essex Poison
Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations by Susana Hislop, illustrated by Hannah Waldron
In this dark year we have to turn to the stars for solace, even though we have lost the brightest and prettiest one. So on my return from pre-dawn swims in the inky black sea, I’ve been reading Susana Hislop’s wonderful accounts of the constellations and their stories, by turns mythic, witty, irreverent and intuitive (Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations, illustrated by Hannah Waldron, Hutchinson). She shows us how Cetus and Sagittarius got their names, taking in classical, Maori, and modern interpretations. As John Berger wrote, ‘Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began’.
Philip Hoare, author of The Sea Inside
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
I greatly admired Olivia Laing’s previous books To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring. Her latest, The Lonely City, an exploration of urban loneliness through the lives and work of several 20th century American artists including Hopper, Warhol and Wojnarowicz, was one of the most absorbing books I read all year. The chapters on the early years of the AIDS epidemic and the relationship between technology and loneliness are captivating. The Lonely City is a deeply moving, empathetic work, tender, restless, fizzing with movement and beauty. Laing is one of our most interesting non fiction writers and I can’t wait to read what she does next.
James Macdonald Lockhart, author of Raptor: A Journey Through Birds
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Keeping on Keeping On by Alan Bennett
This year I finally bought a book I’d been hearing friends recommend for years – Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It opens in a surgical hospital in Addis Ababa in the 1950s, Emperor Haile Selassie’s overthrow and the Derg’s seizure of power are witnessed by a pair of or
phaned twins who are raised on hospital grounds. Over-wrought and overwritten in parts, the novel nonetheless does what only good fiction can achieve, bringing 1970s Ethiopia to life as no work of non-fiction ever could. Another pleasure has been dipping into Alan Bennett’s Keeping on Keeping On the latest volume in his diaries, consumed best in nuggets. Bennett lives up the road from me – he often drifts slowly past me on his bicycle – and I like to support local talent.
Michela Wrong, author of Borderlines
Red Rosa by Kate Evan and To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark
This year I have been struck as never before by the freedom and ferocity of the writer’s voice in graphic novels. I loved the full-
throated erudition of Kate Evan’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg Red Rosa. And through the excellent and subversive First World War anthology To End All Wars I discovered Jonathan Clode who is currently working on a graphic history of Cardiff’s Ely Hospital (where many patients with a learning disability were confined indefinitely) from the point of view of its residents. In these books I find an unapologetic – even joyful – assertion that to understand the present we must revisit the past.
Miranda Emmerson, author of Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars
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