My best reads of 2016

For 2016, I set myself the goal of reading 30 books, and managed to pull it off, finishing the 30th one (José Saramago’s The Double) in the last few days of December. As you will see, these are not books published in 2016, just the ones that I happened to read in that year.

It has occurred to me that if you like my blog, you might also share some of my taste in literature. And who knows, perhaps you’ve set yourself a reading challenge for this new year and would like some recommendations. So, without further ado, here are the books I liked most, presented in the order in which I read them.

Lady Susan (1794) by Jane Austen

lady-susanWith the advent of the Kindle, it has become very easy to collect public-domain classics and to make your way through an author’s entire œuvre. I acquired the novella Lady Susan in this way and, since my goal is to read all of Austen’s works, began reading without taking the time to check what exactly it was about, or whether it was considered one of her best or a lesser work. I was thus pleasantly surprised by this very witty story. The exploits of scheming socialite and recent widow Lady Susan Vernon, as she attempts to find husbands for herself and her daughter regardless of the cost to others, are revealed in clever and comical ways by the epistolary structure, which also allows for multiple points of view. Published posthumously, this book suffers from a rather abrupt ending that may be due to Austen’s simply not having had time to finish it, or not intending to publish it. But the story is such a good one that this does not detract much from the overall experience and is not, in my opinion, enough cause to skip it. In fact, it has generated so much interest that two modern novels inspired by or even retelling the story have been published: Lady Susan (a novel), by Phyllis Ann Karr (1980) and Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by mother-and-daughter authors Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway (2009). Whit Stillman’s 2016 film adaptation, titled Love & Friendship in homage to an early Austen work, has been much praised. I have not seen it yet myself, so this is one of my goals for 2017!

Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna (2003) by Peter Singer

9780732290016In the spring of 2015, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was asked to interpret for Australian philosopher Peter Singer at a press conference prior to his talk at an animal-rights event in Paris. Although I do not normally do interpretation (my specialty is written translation), it was an honor and a pleasure to meet Singer and to help facilitate his interviews with the French media. In between things, I had the chance to chat with him a bit and he mentioned that he had done some translation work himself (from German) for a book he wrote about his grandfather, the Austrian classical scholar David Oppenheim, who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. I found a copy of Pushing Time Away during my next visit to the US and delved in. I was immediately captivated by this unique work, which is part biography, part history (of Vienna, its psychology circles and the war years) and part personal reflection (Singer’s musings on love and courage). To learn about his grandfather, whom he never met, Singer traveled to Vienna and searched through his aunt’s old papers in the hope of finding something that would shed more light on this man’s life. He found letters exchanged between his grandfather and grandmother that tell of an unusual love story and a great deal of open-mindedness for the day. Singer also found academic papers and research Oppenheim carried out for Sigmund Freud before breaking with him over a point of honor and becoming a supporter of Alfred Adler. In all his dealings with his fellow man, Oppenheim showed thoughtfulness, compassion and loyalty. As I read, I came to greatly admire this man, and after getting to know him in these pages felt all the more keenly the tragedy of the way he met his end. It is an important life story that everyone can benefit from, especially at times such as these when the consequences of ignoring George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are more chilling than ever.

Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s (2007) by Jennifer Worth

call-the-midwifeThis book, which is actually the first in a trilogy, came to my attention after I saw the excellent television series based on it. In Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth recalls her experiences and the stories of people she met while working as a midwife in post-war London’s East End slums and living in a convent with a group of nuns. From the mother of 24 who gives birth to her 25th prematurely under dangerous conditions to the 14-year-old Irish girl who has run away from her unstable home and become involved in prostitution, as well as stories about the lives of the nuns and Worth’s fellow nurses, the book paints a detailed picture of this page in history. You also learn many fascinating details about childbirth that cannot be conveyed in the series as they would be far too graphic (and in any case are undoubtedly better to read about than to see!). It is thus one of the many cases in which the film or television adaptation, while good, is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m hoping to read the rest of the books soon, and then to catch up in the shows. Another goal for 2017.

The Patience Stone (2008) by Atiq Rahimi

the-patience-stoneI learned about this novel when I discovered Ann Morgan’s A Year of Reading the World project of a few years ago, in which she challenged herself to read a book from each of the world’s 196 countries in the space of one year. And as she went along, she posted reviews of each book on her blog, which she continues to update. I browsed through the entries alphabetically and was fascinated by the very first country. For Afghanistan, she wrote, she wanted something not written by the mega-famous Khaled Hosseini. After some digging, she found Syngué Sabour, written in French by Afghan author and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi, who came to France as a political refugee in 1985. The story, for which Rahimi won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, focuses on an unnamed woman who tries to care for her comatose husband alone at home in a city in the clutches of war. His condition creates a complete reversal in the dynamics of their relationship: whereas she has always been under his thumb, he is now dependent on her mercy for survival. As time goes by and the situation in the city grows more desperate, she finds her tongue loosening and begins to confide her frustrations, longings and secrets to the unresponsive man. I was attracted by this plot but also by the fact that I could read it in the original language (as a translator, I am all too aware of how nuances of meaning and effect can be lost in translation, even in the most skilled hands). In an interview, Rahimi explained that he first tried to write this story in Dari but that the words would just not come. It was only in an outside language that he could speak of topics such as the ones in this book. As I read this novel in French, I cannot vouch for the quality of the English translation (by Polly McLean), but judging from her positive review of the novel, Morgan seems to have liked it. I also highly recommend the beautiful 2012 film adaptation, which was directed by the author himself.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence

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I had been familiar with the title of this book for years but didn’t know about its contents or the scandals it created until I saw the series A Very British Romance. In it, host Lucy Worsley tells us about the major English romantic novels that influenced not only later literature but also society as a whole, and more specifically people’s views and expectations of romance. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mentioned among these, although with its explicit descriptions (and they are quite explicit!) of the protagonists’ sexual adventures, it proved too risqué for its time and was banned until the 1960s. It tells the story of an aristocratic woman with a passionate nature whose husband sustains a spinal injury early in their marriage. He wants a child to carry on his family name and, unable to help his wife conceive himself thanks to his injuries, encourages her to seek outside assistance. He does not, however, count on it being someone from the working class. And neither does she, initially. I sympathized with the plights of most of the characters and found the love story between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper lover quite touching. The novel has been adapted for film and television many times, but Jed Mercurio’s 2015 version for the BBC (also the only one I have seen so far) was quite good.

Deaf Sentence (2008) by David Lodge

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This intelligent and very funny novel, which I picked up by chance in the foreign-books section of my local library here in Paris, deals with the unlikely combination of deafness and death, although not in a causal relationship. Its central character is a recently retired and increasingly deaf linguistics professor who wants nothing more than to relax and enjoy his new-found freedom, but who must contend with his difficult elderly father and an attractive female grad student with strange demands. Author David Lodge manages to find the right balance between comedy, as his protagonist attempts to rein in his stubborn father’s eccentricities and to conceal his own deafness in a series of improbable but humiliating situations, and poignancy, as he watches the fire inside his proud father dim. The linguistics enthusiasts out there will enjoy the academic points that Lodge (a former literature professor) weaves into his hero’s narrative in a subtle enough way that the lay person will not be put off, as well as his witty plays on words around the concept of deafness. With regard to this last point, Lodge wins extra points from me for the preface in which he acknowledges the difficulty his translators of this book face and expresses appreciation for their efforts.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

we-are-all

I had not heard much about this book, apart from its title, prior to receiving it as a birthday gift this past fall, but was intrigued by the gift-giver’s injunction not to read anything about the book before starting it. And after finishing the book, I can say that she was right! There is something quite unexpected in this story that you will not want to have spoiled for you, and so I will say only what is already revealed in the official synopsis. It is about a young woman who lost her sister, and then her brother, under mysterious circumstances during her childhood and struggles to deal with these losses in a city far from her home where nobody knows her past. We watch her struggling to keep on blocking the memories but inevitably yielding to a pull to uncover and solve them. A very touching story that has much more beneath the surface than one expects.

The Double (2002) by José Saramago

the-doubleI discovered this Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author ten years ago, when I happened upon a copy of All the Names in Switzerland. Saramago is famous for his very original punctuation style. Rather than setting dialogue apart from the narrative, he flows from one into the other and back again, and uses only a capital letter at the start of a new turn to indicate a change in speakership. Sentences can be very long, composed of series of independent clauses separated just by commas. When Saramago actually uses a period, you know that he really wants to make an impact. While many hate his books for this, it is one of the things that endear them to me. I enjoy the challenge of having to work a bit to follow a story rather than being more passively entertained. I also love Saramago’s subtle dry humor, and the way he has of getting you to simultaneously cheer on and shake your head over the underdog heroes of his works. The protagonist of The Double, a high-school history teacher with an unfortunate first name who seems to be drifting through his life without attempting to direct it, is no exception to this. We are privy to the teacher’s every thought as he struggles with the challenges of his everyday life and then his discovery of an actor in a film who resembles him identically. New characters pop up to complicate things, including his own common sense, which appears at various points to try to make him see reason but most often exits the scene in exasperation. Translated brilliantly by Margaret Jull Costa, the novel’s original title is O Homem Duplicado (The Duplicated Man). It incidentally inspired a recent film titled Enemy, which I saw not long after finishing the novel. All I can say about it is… read the book instead! I will be stubborn and not even link to it here because it falls so far short. Most of the book’s value and humor resides in the main character’s inner experiences, and this is completely lost in the film version, which is also much more of a high-tension psychological drama than the book seems meant to be. But I can imagine Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson doing a good job with it. Let’s hope one of them gives it a go at some point!

Honorable mentions

The following are other books I read in 2016 that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone, but that I personally got something from, either because I was fascinated by the story/topic or because analyzing its structure was useful for identifying and reflecting upon various literary techniques and strategies.

Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself (2013) by Sarah A. Chrisman. The author’s account of what wearing a corset and incorporating more and more Victorian-era clothing into her daily life taught her about the past and how it changed her present. The book contains some digressions, but I enjoyed it overall and admire what Chrisman is doing. Over time, she and her husband have created a lifestyle for themselves that probably comes as close to the late 1800s as it’s possible to get in our day and age. Photos and more stories can be found on her blog, This Victorian Life.

Helen Keller in Love (2012) by Rosie Sultan. It was recently discovered that Helen Keller (1880-1968), the world’s most famous deaf-blind person, had a brief romance with a man hired as her temporary secretary. Little is known about what happened apart from the fact that any plans they had together were foiled by her family. In this novel, Sultan imagines what Keller’s experiences with this man might have been. Writing from Keller’s point of view is certainly an ambitious thing, and I found some parts of her experience to stretch the imagination a bit much, but it was a fascinating topic to contemplate.

Below Stairs (1968) by Margaret Powell. This book caught my eye because of my interest in shows like Downton Abbey, and in particular the life of the servants. I have to confess that I feel a kind of connection to them due to my experience working as a waitress, a job that makes similar (albeit far less extensive) demands upon the body and soul. The content of this book—stories of Powell’s work as a kitchen maid and then cook at a series of grand houses in the early 20th century—was interesting, but I wished it had been better edited and that she had not glossed over certain potentially more exciting parts of her story, such as how she met her husband, who was her long-hoped-for ticket out of that life. If you begin this book already knowing that it reads like a lightly edited transcript of an informal monologue, you will not be too disappointed.

What were your favorite books from 2016? Share them in the comments. 🙂

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