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.

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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.

 

Interview with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

If you’ve read my reviews of One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, you’ll know how impressed I’ve been with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s work. I was thrilled, therefore, when Pushkin Press asked me if I’d like to interview her to celebrate the paperback publication of Waking Lions. Here’s what we talked about…

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Waking Lions combines a moral dilemma, people’s attitudes to immigrants and a portrait of a marriage in crisis; was it one particular idea that made you decide to write this book or a combination of things?

I always start with a particular idea, a specific question I have in mind. In “Waking Lions” it was the hit and run. It wasn’t a literary question, but a real event which struck me: I was twenty years old when I met the protagonist of this novel. I was travelling in India and met a young Israeli who just sat in the guesthouse and stared for nights. He had a dreamy face and long, light coloured hair. He was just out of military service and was supposed to be having the adventure of his life. But there was something wrong with him. The guy looked frozen. He didn’t speak, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t do anything. He just lay on the hammock in the guesthouse and stared at the sky. Something was eating him up inside, that was clear.

Eventually I went to him and asked if he was alright. He admitted to me that several days ago he had hit an Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it, and one of the reasons was that I couldn’t find the right path for the protagonist. I didn’t want to write a 300 page-novel about a white guy feeling guilty and contemplating it in his decorated living room. Only after I realized that this person is blackmailed by the widow of the refugee he killed did I sit down to write.

Your characters are complex human beings; does your background in Clinical Psychology help you in creating realistic characters?

I think both jobs demand that you’d be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to enter someone else’s mind. When you meet a patient who has done things that you morally disagree with – hit his children, for instance – you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him, or stop him from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone has killed his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.

However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separate. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story here, he’s the narrator, and you’re just there to help him create a better narrative than the one he’s trapped in.

I’m interested in your female characters. Both of your novels have male protagonists but it’s women – Sirkit in Waking Lions, Bella and Sonya in One Night, Markovitch – that are catalysts for change; can you explain why you chose women to take such roles?

That’s a great question.

It was clear to me that the hit and run driver was a white man, the most powerful animal in the food chain. At first, I didn’t know if it would be a man or a woman who would witness the accident. But the more I thought about it, I realized it had to be a woman. The traditional female role – watch, and be quiet – is suddenly changed. Because what she sees when she observes the accident gives her power over this man. The roles are switched.

It was very important for me that Sirkit wasn’t this “black angel”, a saint, an African Maria. I wanted her to be a real human being, with dreams and desires and powerful ambitions. I think to portray her as a saint is just as dehumanising as portraying her as the ultimate evil. A “refugee” is no more a saint than a “middle-class man”. Both are labels, and behind those labels there are real people – who love, cheat, hate and trust.

Again in both novels, you mention people’s passions – in One Night, Markovitch there are many examples, including Yaacov’s passion for Bella, Bella’s passion for Rachel’s poetry and the passion of the soldiers who storm the fortress; in Waking Lions Sirkit’s passion for learning is something that Eitan recognises in her. What’s your interest in people’s passions?

I think passion and fear are the biggest motivators. It’s either what you long for, or what you’re running away from. When I think about my characters I always try to identify both. That’s the moment they start dancing on the paper

 

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Waking Lions is a gripping, tightly structured book with a number of twists. How did you go about plotting the novel? Were the twists decided in the planning or did some surprise you during the writing process?

When I write the plot I see myself as the first reader of the novel: I don’t want to get bored. So I try to ask myself: what would surprise you on the next page? It’s a bit like playing hide and seek with yourself.  In both  my novels, I had no idea how the story was going to end until the very end of the writing process. It’s like going on a hike – you don’t want to know how the view from the highest point looks until you actually get there.

Waking Lions is very different in terms to tone, style and central idea to One Night, Markovitch; did you deliberately set out to write a very different book?

No. I had no conscious thought of “what’s the next move”. I finished the first novel, and I missed the characters. After spending so much time together, it was like losing a close friend. And then suddenly I met this new story within me, and I followed it. When the second novel was finished I gave it to some friends, and they warned me that readers who expected a light tone – as in the first novel – would be shocked by the second one. But the reason I love writing is because it’s the only playground open to adults. The only place where you don’t have to remain coherent, clear, predictable. You can do what you want, be who you want, whether it’s a tale set sixty years ago, like Markovitch or something much more rigid and realistic like Waking Lions. I’m working on my third novel now, and once again I’m using my right to do exactly what I want to do, regardless of what’s gone before.

Both of your novels have been translated into English by Sondra Silverston; did you work closely with her on the translations? How do you feel about having your words translated into another language?

It’s really weird: my English is not good enough to read literature. I only read “Harry Potter” in English in high-school. So imagine what it is for me to open my own novel, and not recognise half the words! I simply trust Sondra that these are indeed the right words, with the right music.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?

Just that I’m working. Hard.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?

I owe Virginia Woolf every word that I wrote after the birth of my first child. “A Room of One’s Own” is for me one of the most important texts ever written.  It made me feel that I’m entitled to close the door and write, even if I’m a mother.

I also admire Elena Ferrante, “My Brilliant Friend” is my book of the year.

The Hebrew poet Yona Wallach is a big inspiration, both as a writer and as a therapist.

 

Huge thanks to Ayelet and to Pushkin Press.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of Waking Lions and One Night, Markovitch, both published by Pushkin Press. Waking Lions is published in paperback on 1st September, £8.99 pushkinpress.com 

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

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Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are friends. Indeed, Feinberg is Markovitch’s only friend and the pair couldn’t be more different:

[…]there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence.

Feinberg is the latter, while Markovitch is ‘gloriously average […his] face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onwards to other objects’.

The book begins with Markovitch saving Feinberg’s life; a young Arab almost shoots him as he has sex with Rachel Mandelbaum. However, Rachel is the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer, who will not hesitate to kill. The following morning when the moustache rash on Rachel’s chest confirms that she was having sex with Feinberg, he and Markovitch are forced to go on the run.

The men go to see the deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s. He sends them 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.

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Three women form the backbone of the story: Rachel Mandelbaum, Sonya, and Bella Zeigerman.

Rachel Mandelbaum came to Palestine five years prior to the beginning of the book. As she stood at the port, Avraham arrived, as he had every few weeks, looking for some one to fill his loneliness.

In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her but never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.

Rachel never reveals herself to anyone. She abandons the German language of her childhood and keeps the Austrian soldier she loved locked inside her. Her story is one of loneliness and sadness.

Sonya is Feinberg’s girlfriend who he swears he’ll marry once he and Markovitch return from Europe because:

[…] that woman has the strength of ten men […] a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water. […]she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.

While Feinberg is gone, Sonya spends every day standing at the edge of the water, waiting for his return.

[…] if she was doomed to wait, even if she was cursed with the humiliating tendency of women everywhere to find a piece of sand on which to stand and look at the sea, waiting for their man to return, at least she had the strength to be angry about it. And so she cursed Zeev Feinberg with all her heart and soul, loudly and resolutely.

But after the deputy commander of the Irgun returns a visit she paid to him, she finds herself in bed with Feinberg’s friend through sheer boredom. Unfortunately, she has quite an affect on the deputy commander and it isn’t sated by her marriage to Feinberg on his return.

Bella Zeigerman is the woman Yaacov Markovitch marries in Europe.

[…]Bella Zeigerman was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman in the apartment. And although, unlike Yaacov Markovitch, [Feinberg] didn’t think she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, she undeniably belonged to the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.

On their return, Markovitch refuses to divorce her and the two stay locked in a frosty marriage which sees Markovitch fall out with his best friend, Bella leave and return, and Markovitch raise someone else’s child.

Gundar-Goshen covers several, intertwined lives in this novel. The ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here. The relationships and the children, born to different fathers struck me as Shakespearian. These twists could have become farcical and the fact that they do not demonstrates Gundar-Goshen’s ability to plot on a large scale. Her characters are fully-rounded and it was refreshing to read about three women who were distinctly different people.

Credit must also go to the translator, Sondra Silverston: the writing fizzes throughout. It was an utter joy to read.

I finished reading One Night, Markovitch bathed in a warm glow. Although the novel has difficult and sometimes tragic elements to it, there’s something truly life-affirming about it. Like all great literature, it has eternal truths about humanity at its core, while telling a truly individual story. It is a wonderful book.

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.