Just under the wire for the annual lists season, and in no particular order, my favourite reads of the year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan (2016). Think Hamlet as fetus, bound in the “nutshell” of his mother’s womb, a smart and observant little fellow already possessed of a taste for beauty and fine wine, whose ruminations turn agonized as he overhears his mother and her lover plotting murder. Sounds a silly premise? It has its funny spots, for sure, but the book works. Brilliantly. The unborn philosopher considers whether he should simply give up before he begins, not be. Then again, “I want…my due,my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one chance of a consciousness…I want my go. I want to become me.”
- A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, an Austrian writer. I loved this quiet book and its quiet, stoic protagonist and marvelled at how Seethaler used single or small gestures to convey personality. I talked about this one earlier, here.
- Confession: I’ve read a number of books by John Steinbeck, but never his 1939 classic The Grapes of Wrath. That fault was corrected this year when someone in my book club chose it. This tale of Dust Bowl folk streaming out of Oklahoma on the U.S. 66 for a better, hopeful and ultimately disappointing life in California gripped me deeply.
- I didn’t realize until looking through my book journal that Irish writer Anne Enright had appeared three times this year: The Gathering (2007) in January, The Green Road (2015) in July, and currently a collection of her short stories, Yesterday’s Weather (2008). The novels, and many of the stories, concern family life, usually rather dysfunctional family life. “Family sins and family wounds,” she writes in The Gathering, “…with the Hegartys a declaration of unhappiness is always a declaration of blame.” I’m in awe of Enright’s poetic and psychologically penetrating work.
- Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (2016). Nobody asks ordinary people what they think about “grand ideas,” the Nobel-winning Russian journalist Alexievich has said. “They’re just asked to die for them.” In her latest book, she speaks to ordinary people about their experiences of socialism and the momentous changes around the collapse of the Soviet Union. The overall mood in the aftermath of a history of war and repression is gloomy. “Russian women have never had normal men,” one of Alexievich’s sources says. (If you haven’t read Alexievich but would like to sample her important oral history projects,I suggest beginning with Voices from Chernobyl.)
- Fraud by Anita Brookner (1992). I read this in March, in honour of Brookner, who had recently died. Her writing is absorbing, very much focussed on the interior of things, the slight movements of heart and mind. “Fraud,” says narrator/protagonist Philippa, “was what was perpetrated on me by the expectations of others. They fashioned me in their own image, according to their needs.”
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016). The story is simple enough, a tender relationship between mother and daughter, but it reads like wisdom. The protagonist is a writer and offers up bits of advice and comments on process too, which I figured may have been drawn from the experience of Strout, best known as the author of Olive Kitteridge.
- Two books about aging. I was alerted to Old Age: Journey into Simplicity by Helen Luke (1987) in a post by Shirley Hershey Showalter, who is currently thinking and blogging (and thus teaching me and others) about vocation in the later stages of life. Luke reminds that one grows old, and discusses that growth, spiritually, via Ulysses and King Lear and other literary sources. It nourished and inspired me. Then, Sixty by Ian Brown (2015), who kept a diary of his sixty-first year to mark the transition “to becoming the Other.” It’s a masculine take on aging but there’s much that resonates, and I like his honest, sometimes grumpy voice. It made me laugh and nod with recognition.
- Stranger by David Bergen (2016). I think this novel about a young Guatemalan woman robbed of her baby and trying to get it back is one of Bergen’s best books yet. It reads quickly, almost hypnotically, but there’s plenty in it to ponder once done, about power, vulnerability, who “owns” a child.
- The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. This book is called a novel, though based on the life of Russian composer Shostakovich. It’s an interpretation, really, probing at his life in relation to power, fear, cowardice or perseverance, survival within the Soviet system. One would like to quote line after line. Like music, which it celebrates, the book stirs melancholy, and joy. Eleanor Wachtel’s interview of Julian Barnes recent work is a delight as well.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). This is probably my top pick of the year. The subject matter (slavery) is awful, but the book is so well written, the awfulness doesn’t feel gratuitous but rather a plumb into the depth of both slavery and freedom. And Cora is one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. I wasn’t expecting the underground railroad to be literal, however, (I hadn’t read enough reviews I guess) but by making the novel both factual and fantastical Whitehead can highlight a variety of historical responses to slavery and abolition and reveal the “great war” still being waged between White and Black.
Honorable mentions: I spent the first months of the year concentrating on Canadian short story collections as a member of the Danuta Gleed prize jury and recommend our short list winners, as well as many other books I enjoyed this year, including Negroland by Margo Jefferson; The Animal Game by Kirsteen MacLeod; Lives of Mothers and Daughters by Sheila Munro; The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s by Jeanne Murray Walker; Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter (which didn’t fare that well on Canada Reads, but I thought a fine book); When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today by Harvey Cox; Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.