Books of 2016


My book of the year is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women. It might even be my book of the decade. Its short stories bring to life a certain world of poets and bohemians that reminds me of Boulder and Albuquerque, where some stories are set and where I’ve lived too. In fact, various friends of mine were friends of hers, and she always sounded much loved by those people – so why hadn’t I read her before?! But this was much more than a nostalgia trip (even if I had to read it with a Boulder Book Store bookmark). Lucia Berlin is a real artist. Her writing enjoys a true bite and wit, and great warmth of perception. I was prompted to tears at a number of points.

Stories describe the working life of a hospital receptionist, or getting by as a single mom, or having affairs with a range of different lovers, or teaching in a prison, or growing up in a mining town in Chile, or going home to Texas, or bonding with a dying sister in Mexico, or a love story in letters. Or hitting the bottle, or life in rehab – many of these stories come pickled in booze. So: nothing sensational, really, just everyday craziness related with a certain confessional quality. There are no clever twists or particularly artful surprises, but an unpretentious and effortless magnificence. The storytelling is direct and easy. You can’t help but warm to Lucia’s generosity of spirit, and there’s always a sympathy for the underdog. This is writing that refuses to blink at ugliness, but finds beauty or humour within the grit. Lucia Berlin is a big-hearted, clear-sighted writer.

This is Great Writing. You read her stories and bring away a sense of the value of art in spinning gold out of the darkness. It’s ironic that wider appreciation for her work only came a decade after she died, but this does grant her a wish:

I don’t care about money or fame or New York Times reviews or any of that stuff. But I love the idea that I’ll be read a long time from now. I think more of that than I do of fashionable opinion.

You can read that charming interview with her at Lit Hub, and profiles at Vanity Fair and the Paris Review, and an excerpt of her fiction at Flavorwire, and there’s lots of other good stuff at I want to reread this book all over again, and in fact have some volumes with other stories I shall be reading soon.

I finally read several other writers I’ve been waiting to get to this year. I read lots and lots of Alice Munro’s short stories this summer, often on my kindle in the middle of the night, and I finally get what the fuss is all about: again, that clocking of truth in the middle of the darkness. Elizabeth Strout’s ‘novel in stories’ Olive Kitteridge was another powerful read, once more handling dark matter (many of the characters have problems with mental health), and once again enlarging in how something greater gets created.

My novel of the year has to be Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You – an uncompromising story about gay lives, and a deceptively ambitious study in desire and trauma. Stylistically, it’s just about as flawless as you can find. I feel very lucky to have seen him read this year too.

Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History was another novel by a great gay writer – imaginative, funny, and (again) unflinching, this time in its rage about love and loss and the AIDS crisis.

Other novels I enjoyed were Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which is cleverly structured and richly characterised and often very funny, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, an epic novel about slavery in America with a most inventive central conceit.

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe was a real treat. Humour is hard to pull off, but Nina is brilliant – her voice has ease, her characters are charming, and her observations sharp. And there is, as with her other books, a bittersweet edge to the writing. I recommended her books as holiday reads several times this year. She was another writer I was lucky to see read in person this year.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal was a work of nonfiction that give me plenty to think about, as did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a memoir whose oversharing tendencies never failed to deliver. To behold such frankness!

This week I squeezed in another wonderful book by an old favourite writer: Moonglow by Michael Chabon (out next month in the UK, but already available on Kindle). I’m not sure whether it’s memoir or a novel, but I’m not sure I really care – the central story about the author’s often unloveable but never unloved grandfather is a marvellous piece of portraiture and a powerful work of history.

I did finally complete Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I know it has admirers, but I also know I’m not alone in finding this book quite a slog (though I shall persist with other volumes in the series, as I am assured things improve). I couldn’t help comparing this book with various of these autofictions I’ve enjoyed this year, and by contrast found it humourless and laboured. The secondary characters feel interchangeable, the central relationship unexceptional, and (worst of all) the translation clunky; it was hard to read a paragraph without rewriting it in my head. It particularly makes me appreciate the sheer and shiny brilliance of Lucia Berlin’s prose.

Bookmarks remain jammed at early pages of a number of other bestselling, critically acclaimed, or award-winning novels, but there’s no accounting for taste or the bullshit of publishers or the gush of social media.

Overall, though, this was a year of good books. I attribute this in no small part to the fact that it was a year in which I read more because I ditched Facebook (an early adopter in this regard, I’m proud to say). I still find Instagram a pleasing distraction (plant porn and dog pictures), but Twitter so often feels shrill, fawning, or patently showing off, and just about every time I look at it I feel some sense of revulsion. I don’t miss Facebook at all.

I am a fan of newsletters that come from well-curated blogs with thoughtful, intelligent, or practical writing. such as Lit HubAusten KleonThe Frustrated Gardener, and The Middle-Sized Gardener. One thing that marks all of these sites for me is the generosity of their content, and I respond to that.

On tv, Stranger Things was great fun, and even if it’s a royalist plot I succumbed to The Crown. I continue to rave about Transparent and Game of Thrones – I love where the story is taking us, especially in that last explosive episode, and maybe the book of Winds of Winter will come this year?

And before I go, a couple of mentions for books coming in 2017: I recommend in advance Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (out in January), and I’m dying to read Laird Hunt’s new novel The Evening Road.

Happy New Year!

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