This year was a strange year if ever there was one and I doubt I’d have made it through without reading. Sometimes – and we all know there have been a lot of crazy times – I read because I didn’t know what else to do or, simply, to escape. Yet the thing about good writing is that it will, in some way or another, make you engage. It may not happen in any immediate or obvious way, but if the words have hunkered down beneath your skin, it will happen. It may not happen until 2017 or 2018 and you may not realise it is happening, but it will.
One writer who explores the relationship between stories, words and action is Rebecca Solnit. She is also my latest literary crush. Having just read The Faraway Nearby, Men Explain Things To Me and Hope in the Dark in quick succession, I can confirm that I am head over heels. I will not attempt to describe Solnit’s alchemic blend of memoir, anti-memoir, lit crit, nature writing, reportage and fiction: you will just have to experience it for herself. Hope in the Dark is an exploration of political activism, hope and despair that, although originally published in 2003, could not be more pertinent to the ridiculously woeful and woefully ridiculous political climate that is currently upon us.
Maggie Nelson‘s The Argonauts also blew me sideways. Nelson, like Solnit, blends memoir, fiction, criticism and theory, in her tale of pregnancy, love, motherhood and bodily transformation; yet she is not ‘like’ Solnit at all. She is, like the best writers, herself.
I don’t read as much poetry as I might like, but I like most poetry that I read. I read and reread – after Brexit, and again after Trump – Claudia Rankine‘s poetry come essay come punch-to-the-gut meditation on race and identity Citizen: An American Lyric. I also enjoyed Andrew McMillan‘s exploration of masculinity, sexuality and – yes!- Barnsley nightlife in Physical and Helen Mort‘s meditation on female mountain climbers and difficult women of all descriptions, No Map Could Show Them. As a runner, I particularly enjoyed the way Mort dissected the tangled relationship between physical, emotional and cultural edges and extremes.
As a soon-to-be debut novelist, I also like to read – and be intimidated, wowed and inspired by – recent debuts. Some great debut novels I read this year included Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo-Buchanan, You Too Could Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman, The Shore by Sara Taylor and My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. It was also a great year for short stories, with the obsessive narrators and verbal trickery in Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond my absolute favourite.
What else? Of course, the two Smiths: Swing Time by Zadie and Autumn by Ali. A lot has been written about these novels. They bear no relation to one another other than the authors’ sharing of a surname and, as it happens, a publisher. They are both very of our time and beyond our time and, as far as I’m concerned, great. Go read them. Also read Liz Strout‘s My Name is Lucy Barton and Deborah Levy‘s Hot Milk – two spare and uniquely penetrating novels of female identity and motherhood from two more – yes, there are more, always more! – brilliant and seasoned female writers. Everything by Elena Ferrante if you haven’t already (I’ve read almost everything: still feeling the reverberations of her Neopolitan quartet, I am saving some of her early works for 2017).
Last but not least, a book of heart and lungs and guts in illustration-and-word form that will make you laugh and cry and laugh some more before you put it down, is It’s All Absolutely Fine: Life Is Complicated So I’ve Drawn It Instead by Ruby Elliot.
I am not promising any of these books will change your life; I can’t even pinpoint how they changed mine, only that their collective fluttering will push me into 2017 with my eyes and my heart and my hands open wide.