Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

7016625Push – Sapphire

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

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Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

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Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

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The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Negroland – Margo Jefferson

“We’re considered upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans,” Mother says. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negroes.”

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family.

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

She explores her personal experience as a member of Negroland beginning with a letter her mother wrote to a friend during her parents’ time stationed at an army base during WW2. The letter ends ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?’ Jefferson follows it with the times she’s almost been allowed to forget too and the times when she definitely hasn’t. She takes us with her to summer camp where she’s directed to befriend a black boy; to the private, mostly white, school she and her sister attended; to the neighbourhoods the family lived in – mostly white when they arrived, mostly black within a few years; to the hotel in Atlantic City where they’re put in inferior rooms; to university.

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Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities.

There are some awful instances of racism and a heart-wrenching moment, reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, when Jefferson confesses ‘she was silly enough to believe her hair would turn blonde when her mother washed it. Fortunately, she aired this belief, and it dies a clean, brisk death’ but there’s also humour. One of my favourite moments comes during a discussion about passing:

Suddenly the fact of racial slippage overwhelmed me. I was excited for days after. I knew something none of my white school friends knew. It wasn’t just that some of us were as good as them, even when they didn’t know it. Some of us were them.

There’s been some discussion this week on Twitter around the idea of ‘identity politics’ and whether they reduce people to characteristics. (If you haven’t come across the debate, Musa Okwonga wrote a point-by-point response to the criticisms on his blog.) As the conversation went on there were some fairly crude comments about levels of privilege in relation to race. I’m going to quote Jefferson at length because I think what she has to say on this, from a self-identified position of privilege, is important:

In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.

– If, as was said, too many of us ached, longed, strove to be be be be White White White White WHITE…

– If (as was said) many us boasted over much of the blood des blancs that for centuries had found blatant or surreptitious ways to flow, course, and trickle tepidly through our veins and arteries (cephalic, aortal, renal, femoral, jugular, subclavian, and superior mesenteric)…

– If we placed too high a value on the looks, manners, and morals called the birthright of the Anglo-Saxon…

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

Negroland is a superb book. Non-fiction books that meld genres seem to be having a bit of a moment but what this one does differently is consider the intersections of race, class and gender in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society. Highly recommended.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

In the Media, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

In the Media, May 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It seems there’s been a return to traditional topics this fortnight. Having children (or not) and body image are back at the top of the agenda. On the former, Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘I’m economically infertile, and I’ve made peace with that‘ on The Pool; Stephanie Merritt, ‘Sheryl Sandberg admits she did not get how hard it is to be a single mother‘ on The Pool; Ashley Patronyak, ‘A Slight Risk‘ in Guernica; Jordan Rosenfeld, ‘On Discovering Real Mothers on the Page‘ on Literary Hub; Diana Abu-Jaber, ‘Motherhood vs. Art: There Is No Wrong Choice‘ on Literary Hub; Rivka Galchin, ‘Why Does Literature Hate Babies‘ on Literary Hub; Willa Paskin, ‘Speak, Motherhood‘ on Slate; Jennifer Gilmore,’I’m Glad My Mother Worked‘ on The Cut, and Louise O’Neill, ‘I think I would be a good mother; I just don’t want to be one‘ in The Irish Examiner.

Discussions about body image seems to be around the publication of two new books: Shrill by Lindy West and Dietland by Sarai Walker. West wrote, ‘The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed it for a long time and let it shrink my life‘ in The Guardian. Walker was interviewed in The Bookseller and The Pool. And Mallory Ortberg wrote, ‘“We would have paid her the same if she weighed 500 pounds”: Publishing, Weight, and Writers Who Are “Hard To Look At”‘ in The Toast

And then there was this: the men-only bookclub who only read books about men. LV Anderson at Slate decided to tell us all off for being outraged about it, ‘Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Books Clubs. We Should Applaud Them‘.

This fortnight saw the deaths of Sally Brampton and Geek Love author, Katherine Dunn. Kathryn Flett wrote, ‘Sally Brampton – the woman who made ‘Elle girls’ the new normal‘ in The Guardian and Daisy Buchanan wrote, ‘Depression is not a battle that can be won or lost‘ on The Pool.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, November 2015, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

We’re still deep in book awards territory this fortnight with a number of winners and shortlists being announced. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Bailey’s Best of the Best for Half of a Yellow Sun. The award prompted pieces from Alice Stride in The Bookseller, an editorial in The Guardian and Anna James on The Pool about why we still need the Bailey’s Prize.

Sarah Waters won Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade; Lydia Davis will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Award 2016; Kerry Hudson won the Prix Femina for Translated Fiction; Roxane Gay won the PEN Centre USA Freedom to Write Award; Jacqueline Wilson won the JM Barrie Award

The shortlists include the eclectic, female dominates Waterstones’ Book of the Year Award, chosen by Waterstones’ Booksellers; The Guardian First Book Award which Catherine Taylor, one of this years judges, discusses, and The Young Writer of the Year Award (which not only has gender parity, but also an equal split between writers of colour and white writers).

Meanwhile, Arundhati Roy returned her National Award for Best Screenplay, she explains why in The Guardian and Heather Horn investigates why the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to a man 102 times and a woman 11 times on The Atlantic

Irish women have been speaking out about the Abbey Theatre where nine out of ten plays in its 2016 centenary programme are written by men. Emer O’Toole writes about the reaction in The Guardian and Ellen Coyne in The Irish Times while Dr Susan Liddy, academic at the University of Limerick, writes ‘Women and the Irish film industry‘ to The Irish Times.

And if you only read one thing from this fortnight’s list, I highly recommend Jacqueline Rose’s essay, ‘Bantu in the Bathroom: on the trial of Oscar Pistorius‘ in The LRB.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

The interviews:

The regular columnists: