Sunday, 11 December 2016

Best Books of 2016ish (1 of 3)

In the spirit of 'everyone else is doing it', here's the first of three posts on the best books I read in the last 12 months (so it includes December last year). Many of these were not actually published in the last 12 months, but that doesn't matter because they're fucking great and should be praised anyway. Overall there'll be 30-odd books, drawn from the around 300 books I managed in that time.

(NB: There were going to be four, but lack of time meant I crammed more books into the last post and made it three.)

The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, edited by Joost Zwagerman (2016)

Zwagerman put this collection together and then killed himself not long afterwards, which is incredibly sad. His anthology, however, is full of stories of astonishing quality. It includes a number of well-known Dutch writers (Harry Mulish, Louis Couperus, Cees Nooteboom), a number recently revived in English (Nescio's great 'Young Titans', Arnon grunberg) and a welter of little- or not-at-all-known in English, like the wonderful 'Castle Muider' by Maarten t' Hart, the Patricia Highsmith nastiness of 'Sand' by Mensje van Keulen, or 'The Kid with the Knife' by Remco Campert. If you don't come away from this book with a long list of new writers to further explore, I don't know what medical attention could help you.

Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (2014)

This book could so easily have failed, but it succeeds beautifully. Real-life historical beauty Venetia Stanley, an adored celebrity and muse to Van Dyck and Ben Jonson, is terrified of losing her looks. Sir Kenelm Digby, her philosopher-alchemist husband, just wants her to let herself age naturally. From this simple conflict and obsession, Eyre wrote an amazing, timeslipping (see the iPhone in Venetia's hand on the cover), perceptive and funny book.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, by Helle Helle (2014)

You could just read the Danish women being translated into English at the moment and you'd get great book after great book (see Dorthe Nors below, plus various recent Open Letter books, and more). Helle Helle's novel about a woman failing to go to uni or move on from a failed relationship is strange and sweet and very engaging.

Karate Chop & Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Dorthe Nors (2015)

Two short books, published back-to-back in one volume, both wonderful. Karate Chop is a story collection full of uncomfortable and perfectly observed human relations. Even better is Minna, a novella in the form of an obsessive list, about an artist who just needs some space to get on with her art. In the US, Minna has been published together with a different Nors book, So Much for That Winter, so people in postapocalyptic Trumpland have no excuse for not reading it before the lights go out forever.

The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts (2015)

If you don't think you need to read a novel that incorporates Immanuel Kant, the Fermi Paradox, a novel but retrospectively obvious problem with teleportation (think the conservation of angular momentum) and God, and which opens with a homage to John Carpenter's 'The Thing' before jumping backwards and forwards through different times and narrators, and which manages it all with elegance, rigor and great intelligence, then what are you reading books for?

Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (2015)

Coming-of-age tale, art heist suspense novel, revenge narrative. Get all three combined in beautiful prose with Scherm's first book.

Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, by Reiner Stach (2016)

Having written a huge 3-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Stach still wasn't finished. Frankly, if you have at least the vaguest idea of Kafka's life, I suspect this is the only book you need to get. Through 99 anecdotes, extracts and mini-essays, he brings Kafka more vividly to life than most biographers would do with 1000 stolid pages.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin (2016)

Levin's A Madman dreams of Turing Machines was a great novel from a few years ago, and her non-fiction account of the search for gravity waves--which succeeded after decades of attempts just as she was completing her book--is a pretty much perfect piece of reportage, full of intriguing people, weird conflicts, and frankly beautiful prose. Levin is both an wonderful writer and a practising scientist, and there aren't enough people who straddle both worlds.

More to come...

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