Our authors' books of the year 2016
In many ways, thinking about 2016 is like looking through a photo album of the worst year of your life, except that you can't incinerate it when you reach the end. With that in mind, we asked our authors to celebrate something very good about last year (and every year): BOOKS.
Reunion by Fred Uhlman (Vintage, 2016 (reissue))
Chosen by SARAH PERRY, author of The Essex Serpent
My book of the year is Reunion by Fred Uhlman. It was first published in 1971 and more or less ignored at the time, but has just been reissued by Vintage in a handsome new hardback edition. It's a novella, but is so slender it could almost as accurately be called a long short story. In the most exquisitely measured and lovely prose, the melancholy narrator looks back at a passionate friendship with a fellow schoolboy in 1930s Germany. The story barely moves its focus from that single friendship, but manages somehow to encompass all the tragedy and horror of the second world war and its aftermath. The final line is a masterstroke: I've read it three times, and each time have been left just as dazed and devastated as when I first read it. It's a genuine masterpiece, undeservedly almost forgotten, and should be read by everyone.
Black American Psycho by Ernest Baker (self-published through CreateSpace)
Chosen by JARETT KOBEK, author of I Hate the Internet
A very American story, done 21st Century style. A millennial hack, Baker ended up with a career after he wrote an article in which he pretended that Drake was interesting. Cue the excess and inevitable social media scandal, this one happening on the American Internet’s biggest fault line: educated women versus Black men. The apparent cause was Baker’s then-forthcoming book How to Date White Women. Which, you know, irony. A year later, with his book killed and the charges dropped, Baker self-published this roman à clef. 2016’s most interesting title, exposing not only his interpersonal failings but also the cocaine sludge of Brooklyn content factories. Well-written, massively sleazy and totally unpublishable.
Double Teenage by Joni Murphy (Bookthug, Toronto, 2016)
Chosen by CHRIS KRAUS, author of I Love Dick
Joni Murphy’s beautiful debut novel follows the lives of two girls as they move from their childhood home of Las Cruces, New Mexico to points further north. Throughout their teen years, random and routinized border violence seeps through the shell of their upper-middle class homes and they come to see these events as systemic, normalized to the point of psychic ambient noise. As young adults living in cities, more insidious forms of emotional violence continue to haunt them. This book is a spell, Murphy writes, for getting out of girlhood alive.
Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
Chosen by ADRIEN BOSC, author of Constellation
What is a ‘book of the year’: the novel which collected dust on our bedside table? The one we recommended a lot, too much maybe? The classic that we re-read (Bulgakov) or read for the first time (Dos Passos)? Hard to say. If it is pages that stopped you with a single blow of sweet harmony, I would say without hesitation Barbarian Days by William Finnegan and Grief is The Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. The first is an inexhaustible source of joy, an incomparable and exhilarating feat! God, what grace, what rhythm, 600 pages that we leave with regret! Max Porter’s book is unforgettable. He avoids all the facilities of this kind of drama and invents a new language, a new kind of writing (the mark of a true author). It will soon be translated in France, thanks to his French publisher Marion Duvert.
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Chosen by MARY GAITSKILL, author of The Mare
My favorite books of 2016 were "The Brothers Karamazov" and "Cloudsplitter" by Russell Banks, but I think people know enough about "The Brothers K" so I am going to talk about "Cloudsplitter." It is a novel about the anti-slavery insurrectionist John Brown told from the fictionalized point of view of his son Owen Brown. Although I loved "Continental Drift," I for many years didn't read this book for the quixotic reason that I didn't like title, which seemed grandiose to me. In fact the title is simply the name of a mountain range near where Brown lived, but if it did have some kind of grand symbolic meaning, it would not be too big for this book. I don't like historical novels in general, but this is one of those books which makes its category irrelevant. In Banks' version of the story, John Brown was a rigid egomaniac, an "emotionally stupid" man who was nonetheless profoundly moral; a man who's genuine outrage over slavery was influenced, too influenced by his own profound experience of humiliation and failure, who was capable of fearlessly charging into a battle he had no chance of winning, yet also capable of butchering with broadswords men and boys surprised in their sleep, very nearly in front of their wives and young children. During that butchering scene, one of the young men about to be killed sees his pet mastiff recently decapitated by Owen Brown and he cries out "Oh, Bonny!"; the heart-rending detail is one example of the granular attention Banks pays to the human beings in his historical story, the harshness of their lives on a daily level and the strength of their will to live, to impose their will on life. We also feel their will to be moral, strained to the point of perversity; in one of the most powerful scenes, John Brown punishes Owen by whipping him; he then elaborates the punishment by forcing the young boy to use the whip on him, until he has scarred his father's back. There is an element of this perversity in the Brown's anti-slavery fervor (especially in that of Owen Brown), but finally, at the end of the book we (or at least I) respect and even revere the heroism of it.
Visit our Mary Gaitskill Tumblr fanzine
Mr Key's Shorter Brief, Brief Lives by Frank Key
Chosen by MAX DECHARNE, author of Vulgar Tongues
One book I found hugely entertaining and genuinely informative was Mr Key’s Shorter Brief, Brief Lives by Frank Key (Constable, 2015), which takes numerous people from down the ages and reduces each of them to one essential, frequently obtuse, fact. Thus I learned that Gertrude Stein liked to write while looking at cows, Ayn Rand was a passionate stamp collector, former Egyptian premier Anwar Sadat’s favourite author was Barbara Cartland, and legendary Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek was once described in the papers as ‘like a man wrestling with an octopus on a conveyor belt.’
Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett
WENDY JONES, author of The Sex Lives of English Women
My book of the year was Keeping on Keeping On by Alan Bennett. It is so witty and self-depreciating. And his entry of 18 October has stayed in my mind for its hilariousness.
18 October Robert Hanks, the radio critic of the Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel.
Who else in our country is this funny, this sharp? We are so lucky to have him for his sane, insightful and very moral analysis of what is going on politically and culturally. In his quiet, humble way his daily thoughts enrich our days
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press, 2016)
Chosen by ANTHONY CARTWRIGHT, author of Iron Towns
A novel that really moved me this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, which tells the story of an everyman: Marcus Conway, father and husband, municipal engineer, who lives (and dies - this is not a spoiler!) in the west of Ireland. His story is told across a single hour of All Soul's Day, from the chiming of the Angelus bell to the pips of the one o clock radio news. The novel is written in a single sentence, but the immense technical achievement never becomes showy. This is a novel about the beauty and tragedy of everyday life.
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric
Chosen by KIM ECHLIN, author of Under the Visible LIfe
This year I’ve been fascinated by Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina.
This book was first published in Serbo-Croat (Na Drini ćuprija) in 1945, and translated into English in 1959. Ivo Andric won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.
The book traces centuries of life near the river Drina in contemporary Bosnia, from its construction in the mid sixteenth century by Ottoman occupiers through 19th century nationalism, ending with the Balkan wars and the beginning of World War 1. Naturally, this history of ethnic tension, religious intolerance and fighting over territory has immense resonance today.
The original language must bleed into this translation—it is gorgeous. Andric describes the birth of the bridge after years of slave labour and how its graceful arch will endure for centuries. He tells us that the bridge would grow old but on a great scale of time, longer than a single human life, and longer than the passing of generations.
He writes, “Its life, though mortal in itself, resembled eternity for its end could not be perceived.”
Greek Plays (Modern Library, New York, 2016)
Chosen by SIMON CRTICHLEY, author of On Bowie
My book of the year is Greek Plays (Modern Library, New York, 2016). This is a wonderful, vast compendium of new translations of texts by the big three: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. There are some stunning new translations by proper classicists, like James Romm, Emily Wilson and the wonderful Mary Lefkowitz. Each play is skillfully and helpfully introduced and the language of the translations avoids needless colloquialism and approaches some affluence of the formal, elevated, non-natural and downright strangeness of the ancient Greek. The interest of these plays, to my mind, does not at all lie in their antiquarian quality, but in the insistent attention they bring not just to Greek tragedy but to our own largely self-wrought, doom-laden tragedies in psychical and political life. In order to make the ancients speak, we have to feed them with our blood. and when they are revived, they do not tell us so much about them, but about us, in all the difficulty of being us at the present time. I would urge readers to engage in a little blood sacrifice.
Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury (Archipelago Books, 2006, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies)
Chosen by RICK MOODY, author of Hotels of North America
Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun is about the Palestinian experience in the aftermath of the 1948 war, but more particularly it is about storytelling--a failed doctor tries to revive a comatose friend (and hero of the Palestinian resistance) by telling him stories. Much in the tradition of the Scheherazade, these stories are digressive, are bawdy, are heroic, are about love. Khoury's novel is an epic therefore, from a landscape badly in need of epics. Every struggle, it seems to say, must have its masterpieces.
Late One Night by Lee Martin
Chosen by JOHN DUFRESNE, author of I Don't Like Where This is Going
No one writes about the Midwest with such devotion, intelligence, and precision as Lee Martin does. His newest novel examines the aftermath of a horrific fire that claims the life of three children. I’ve always thought of fiction as the gossip we tell about the people we make up. Gossip and rumor play a significant role in Late One Night. And there’s plenty for the people in Goldengate and its outskirts to gossip about. The plot often turns on hearsay and speculation. Late One Night is a thematically rich novel. It’s about poverty and class and family and crime and death and secrets and rumor and small towns where people still read newspapers. And so much more.