If, twelve months ago, you had said that Donald Trump would be elected as US President, the UK would vote to leave the EU, Theresa May would become prime minister of the UK, Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Leicester City would win the English Premiership and the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series, you would have been quite rightly locked up. But, fortunately, you did not predict any of those things and nor did I. In a year that has also seen Aleppo, ISIS leaving Mosul and Palmyra and retaking Palmyra, the European refugee crisis, Putin playing games in Ukraine, Hollande becoming the first post-war president of France not to stand for a second term, the Zika virus, the Turkish failed coup d’état and the vicious repercussions, the athletics doping (no, it wasn’t just the Russians. Ask Lance Armstrong) and leadership turmoil in Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea and, doubtless, other countries, I can only start with a negative approach.
Things I did not do this year
- Vote for Trump or Brexit
- Play Pokémon Go
- Go to a Wellness Clinic/Seminar or, indeed, do anything involving wellness
- Read Knausgaard or Ferrante. Nor I did read Matar’s The Return, The Underground Railway, My Name Is Lucy Barton or any of the Man Booker shortlist. I may do so at some time in the future. But not Knausgaard or Ferrante. This list claims to be the list of lists of best books (English-language version) of 2016. I have read two of them. I may read a few more.
- Use the following words: gift (as a verb. The verbal form of gift is give); curate; literally when I meant figuratively (my daughter gave me a mug which had on it the phrase I am figuratively dying for a cup of tea; she thinks that I am pedantic. She is right); post-truth (Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 but first coined in 2004 in Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie and first used in a UK book in Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying in 2005); alt-right; mindfulness; sharing economy
- Watched The Hunger Game of Thrones or whatever it is called.
- Take a photo of my dinner for Instagram or post a naked selfie on Instagram. Indeed, I did not do anything on Instagram, not least because I do not have an Instagram account. And nor did I take a selfie, naked or clothed.
- Read Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream. Yes I know that Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review and that others braver than I have done so but I suspect I am neither intellectually or physically able to cope with it. My bad. Sorry, Michael.
- Compile a list of must-read or your favourite books. There is no such thing as a must-read book and I do not know what your favourite books are and I would not presume to guess.
- Read any book with the word girl in the title. See my last year’s review for more on this.
- Ride an Uber taxi or stay in an AirBnB room
- Use WhatsApp
- Buy anything that was advertised as The Perfect Gift. Perfect for whom? The seller, of course, because he wants to get rid of it.
Things I did do this year
I read 148 books from forty-five different nationalities. Forty-four were by women which is not a good ratio but better than previous years. Quite a few were from relatively small nations, including: Basque, Bolivia, Burundi, Catalonia, Comoros, Cyprus, Estonia, Greenland, Inuit, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Puerto Rico. The most read nationality was Japan, because I focussed only on Japan early in the year, with USA second and Russia third. The longest title was Hendrik Groen‘s Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old) and the shortest Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond and Thea Astley‘s Coda.
As mentioned above, I seemed to avoid the Booker Prize shortlist books, not because I thought they were no good – far from it – but nothing really attracted me enough to read it, instead of what I had planned to read. I can certainly see myself reading one or two of them at some time but then I might not and the same applied, more or less to the other prizes, except the French prizes
I also note, though this was not planned, that I have managed to read at least one book from every decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, I am well aware that there are many very fine novels out there from days of yore that I have not read. The earliest novel I read this year was Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman) (first published in 1906) who was writing Ferrante-type novels a hundred years before Ferrante, and doing, in my opinion, a better job.
Talking of women writers, too much neglected on this site, I would mention some others I enjoyed. I read three of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer‘s novels and very much enjoyed them all and may well read some more. My Korean reading has been somewhat neglected but I did enjoy Han Kang‘s two novels, both of which were fairly gruesome but very well written. I read seven novels by the Australian writer Thea Astley and am convinced that, outside Australia, she has been sorely neglected. Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary) was first published in 1935 but has only just appeared in English and is well worth reading. Finally, I will mention a novel that did get good publicity at least in its native United States but did seem to do so well in the UK or elsewhere: C. E. Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings, though the Daily Telegraph did say it might be a candidate for the Great American Novel. If horse racing is not your thing, do not let that put you off. It is not my thing either but I really enjoyed this book.
Of the men, I was glad to have finally read Max Aub‘s El laberinto mágico [The Magic Labyrinth] six volume Spanish Civil War series. Yes, it is thoroughly partial (anti-Franco) but it does tell the story of the ordinary people opposing Franco in great detail. I do really enjoy a good long novel and this year read two excellent ones from smaller countries: Ramon Saizarbitoria‘s Martutene (Martutene) and Bakhtiyar Ali‘s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City), the first one Basque and the second Kurdish. I really enjoyed Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age), a thoroughly original novel. I must just mention three novels which deserve to be better known: Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness], a wonderful post-modernist romp, which has not been translated into any other language; Yoshikichi Furui‘s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) and Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ [Dogra Magra], also sadly not available in English.
Of the well-known names, most were not terribly exciting. I enjoyed Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time and Don DeLillo‘s Zero K but new works from Ian McEwan, Vargas Llosa and Eimar McBride disappointed. I still have something of a backlog in this area.
I have looked at what is coming out next year and have not been terribly impressed so far but then the most interesting novels to come out in 2016 were not known to me this time last year. In 2017 we have the new Murakami (Men Without Women) (sounds like Hemingway, doesn’t it?), the first novel by renowned short story writer George Saunders (Lincoln in Bardo) and a new work from the eighty-four year old Robert Coover (Huck Out West), all of which may or may not be interesting. In Spain, there is a new Javier Cercas (another Spanish Civil War novel), a new Vila-Matas and a new Luis Goytisolo.
So onto 2017. If you thought 2016 was bad, remember 2017 will see President-elect Trumpelstiltskin become President Trumpelstiltskin. Theresa Maybot and her Three Stooges will continue to dither around on Brexit, breakfast, brisket, Brontosaurus, bric-à-brac and brain fade. We have three elections in Europe – France, Germany and the Netherlands – where a right-wing nut and/or a right-wing nut party will do well and may even win. Italy and Greece will face financial collapse. Italy may face a major volcanic eruption. And Putin, well, he will do something unpleasant. Last year I wished you a Trump-free 2016. That didn’t work out well so this year I can only wish you a joyful, interesting and exciting selection of books to read. I shall make only one prediction. A singer/songwriter will not win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But only because David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died this year. Though, of course, Patti Smith is a singer/songwriter, did turn up at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm this year (to represent Dylan) and is a published poet. And it is about time a woman won the Nobel Prize for Literature…