It’s that time of the year when everyone makes list of their favourite books. Then, we compare lists and discover that basically we all pretty much liked the same book this year. So, here goes. I had high hopes for reading over the last twelve months. I started the year promising myself i’d make it all the way through Infinite Jest in 2016. I did not finish Infinite Jest this year. I did not even read the cover blurb of Infinite Jest though it sat on my bedside table like a particularly judgmental brick for the entirety of the year. I have now put it in a box and will not be making promises I can’t keep when it comes to reading in 2017.
I read 133 books this year. (I didn’t read as much poetry so that accounts for the slightly lower reading figure. Most poetry collections are shorter than novels. Unless you read “Collecteds” which are bloody enormous). I also read quite a few big, fat novels including Jonathan Safran Foer’s rather bloated Here I Am, which took me almost two weeks and four European countries to finish. Some of my favourite books of the year were absolute beasts. I read a quite a few books in order to interview the people who wrote them, (several twice, because I interviewed the people twice). This was a particular joy in 2016 as absolutely everyone I chatted to was lovely and really brought their work to life in conversation. I would thoroughly recommend interviewing the authors of the books you are reading. It is like having your own, personal book club where no one else gets to interrupt.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and I know lots of you will disagree with me, but 2016 wasn’t a particularly amazing book year for me. I read a few wonderful books and a lot of decent books and quite a few that really didn’t live up to the hype. I think I’ve realised I’m more of a traditionalist than I thought I was. I don’t mind a bit of experimental language but I really need a story I can get my teeth into and some interesting, well-developed characters. It’s actually been quite liberating to finally admit this and I’d say my old-fashioned reading habits are probably reflected in my choices for the top ten books I’ve read in 2016. I realised this year that people must be at the centre of everything I do and these are essentially all books which are focused on, intrigued, and occasionally repulsed, by people. I’d recommend dropping into your local bookseller, (No Alibis, Belfast and Gutter Books, Dublin being my personal favourites), and picking up these books in 2016. But only if you’re not hell bent on reading Infinite Jest instead.
(The first book is my book of the year. The others are in no particular order. Also, just in case you’re wondering whether I’ve fallen into some kind of time warp, they weren’t all published in 2016).
Book of the Year:
Hanya Yanaghira– A Little Life
I am made of pure concrete when it comes to books. I can’t remember the last time a novel made me cry. This one had me weeping for pages and pages. It’s not in any way sappy. It’s actually pretty brutal in places, but it is so very honest, it just gets under your skin and stays there. I’ve had so many conversations with other people who’ve read A Little Life this year and just been floored by Yanaghira’s capability as a writer. This is one of the finest and subtlest pieces of writing on the complexity of human suffering I’ve ever read. You can’t possibly read more than a few chapters without becoming emotionally attached to her central character, Jude. Ignore the fact that A Little Life is far from little, (I foolishly read it in hardback and had to engineer a kind of wrist support), go and buy a copy asap and then find yourself cancelling all social engagements for the next week as you remember what it’s like to get absolutely -“forget the real world/stop eating/start referring to the characters in the same way you refer to your actual friends”- lost in a story.
Mary Morrissy – A Lazy Eye
I’d never heard of Mary Morrissy before May. (With hindsight I feel this was very unfortunate). Then, I was asked to host her at the Belfast Book Festival. I read all her books in preparation and was astounded that I’d never read Mary Morrissy before. She is one of the sharpest Irish writers I’ve come across in a long time. All her work is fabulous but I’d particularly recommend this early collection of short stories. It has the dark humour of early Ian McEwan and an absolutely unswerving eye when it comes to recording Irish culture in all its brilliance and absurdity. These are the kind of stories which make me want to peel another layer off my sensibility and delve even deeper into the characters I write. Every single one of these stories is blistering. Well worth tracking a copy of this collection down.
Jane Yeh – The Ninjas
In 2015 I read a lot of poetry. Most of it was shite. This year I read less poetry but the quality level was definitely much higher. Jane Yeh read at the John Hewitt Summer School in July. I liked her name. I like her plastic jewellery and I certainly liked her fabulous poems about ninjas, pandas and futuristic robots. If you like magic realism and you’re a little bit wary of terribly earnest poetry, (i.e. me and maybe Roisin O’Donnell), these are the poems for you. (Also what a good looking cover. It puts other poetry books to shame. Maybe if the covers of poetry books had more rainbow donkey pinatas and less photos of waterfalls people who were wary of poems [i.e. me] would be more likely to buy them).
Conor O’Callaghan – Nothing on Earth
Oh this novel is good. It is very, very good. What is it about? I’m not entirely sure; people living in an unfinished housing estate who disappear one at a time, priests, Irishness. Nothing to set it apart from Donal Ryan or any of the other great pieces of rural, Irish writing. The plot, on paper, doesn’t feel like it’s enough to sustain a whole novel. The characters are only very lightly developed. And yet the novel actually has a physical feel off it and the only way I can describe this is to say it is like a cold shrug creeping up your spine when you’re reading. I can’t say why it’s such a creepy/mesmerising wee book. I can’t even explain why I loved it so much and thrust it upon everyone I talked to this summer. It’s something to do with the calibre of the writing. O’Callaghan has a light, but poetic, touch when it comes to description and dialogue. He hints and evades rather than bulldozes and, as a result, Nothing on Earth is the kind of novel which stays with you long after you’ve finished reading. The word I’d use for this is haunting. (Nb Nothing on Earth also wins the prize for most difficult to remember book title of the year. I’ve recommended it to several people under various alternative titles including Out of This World, Nothing Comes Close, and Nobody on Earth. It is closely followed by Donal Ryan’s impossible to remember, All We Shall Know).
Donal Ryan: All We Shall Know, (alternative Jan titles including What We Don’t Know Yet, Things You Should Know and Nobody Knows)
Donal Ryan is my favourite person in the world to interview, (though I haven’t interviewed George Saunders or Charlie from Casualty yet, so I’m drawing on a rather limited pool of personal experience). He is also one of my favourite Irish writers to read and All We Shall Know is definitely my favourite of his books so far. It’s not a fussy novel. It pulls no sly tricks. It just gets in there, tells a great story, delivers a set of fabulously interesting characters and leaves you charmed and a wee bit devastated, in the very best sense. As such, it’s kind of a microcosm for Donal himself.
Michel Faber: Some Rain Must Fall
I did not know of Michel Faber before 2016. Now I am a massive fan and this short collection is easily my favourite of the Faber books I’ve read so far. It’s odd and a little uncomfortable and impossible to put down. I loved the story about the suicide watch nun and the opening story about the teacher who specialises in teaching children who’ve survived school shootings and other traumatic experiences. Michel Faber writes people so well. His stories perfectly illustrate what I’ve been trying to teach in my writing workshops all year: if you want to write magic realism well, (or any other kind of other worldly writing), you must first master the art of writing believable realism. I’m looking forward to devouring more Michel Faber in 2017.
Shirley Jackson – Dark Tales
Oh Shirley Jackson you were probably my favourite thing about 2016. (You, and getting my lost lap top back). I’d only ever read “The Lottery” before this year. Then, one by one, every person I seemed to talk to during the summer wanted to introduce you to me and we were introduced and I instantly fell in love with your dark little stories and you, as a wonderful feministy writer who I could actually imagine having a cup of tea with. I am now so infatuated wit your work that I feel like I might be tempted to cheat on Flannery O’Connor and call you my all time favourite. But ,let’s not be hasty. I still have an awful lot of your books to get through first. Dark Tales is the best one I’ve read so far. I suspect it might also be one of your favourite. They’re all marvellous though, even the non-fiction ones. I wish I had discovered you earlier Shirley Jackson, or that you weren’t dead.
George Saunders – Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m pulling a but of a sneaky move in including this one in my best reads of 2016. I don’t think it’s officially published ’til February but a kind friend gave me a pre-release copy and I devoured it in one sitting on Christmas Day. It’s not what I expected. Though the slanted approach to telling a story is there in enormous measure, it’s quite different from Saunders’ usual style, with multiple narrative voices and a great deal of historical research included in the story. However, after about fifty pages I found myself adjusting the way I normally read to fit the style, (slightly more like reading a play script than a novel), and then it was a sheer joy and gave my atypical weird post-George Saunders’ dreams. Can’t wait ’til this is out so I can have a proper non-plot-spoiling chat about it.
Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind
I’m just going to be honest here and say I don’t really love Zadie Smith’s fiction that much. However, her non-fiction writing has always blown me away and this year I was actually fortunate enough to get to hear her lecture on the subject of “Why We Write”. It was one of the most challenging, witty and intelligent lectures I’ve ever heard and cemented my belief that Zadie Smith has the rare ability to make the most high brow topics accessible to everyone without compromising one jot of integrity. These miscellaneous articles and essays bear further testament to this. Here she writes about other writers, ethnicity, philosophy, her family and, amongst other topics, superhero movies. They are a joy to read and what’s more, they are also the kind of essays which lead to further reading. The best books, in my opinion, are always like little maps, pointing towards other books you should feel compelled to read.
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
I’m not going to say very much about this one except to say I am slowly learning how to admit when I am wrong. I have always been very vocal in my dislike, (or ,out and out hatred), of everything Mr. Hemingway wrote and stood for, but I actually really enjoyed this, (and The Old Man and the Sea wasn’t too bad either). There. I am contrite. (But I still think all those stories about bullfighting and big game hunting are absolutely rubbish).