The Top Ten List of the Best Fiction I’ve Read in 2016

 

toptenAs always I am limiting my Top 10 list to novels published during this century. I don’t think these recent novels should have to compete against the classic old novels I choose to read or re-read.  After the Top Ten, I will list a few classic novels that I really liked this year.

Click on either the picture or the title and author to read my original review for each book.

 

 

mfyf5wg1u5c4ukuqektbakg‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift – ‘Mothering Sunday’ captures the sunny ambiance of an unseasonably warm spring day in the Twenties and the sparks of an illicit but romantic love affair. I know this is nostalgia, but it is lovely, moving nostalgia, and I would not change a word.

 

 

szalayAll That Man Is’ by David Szalay – For me it was an exploration of myself, but for you women who want to figure out or understand guys, ‘All That Man Is’ is the fiction for you.  It is not always pretty, but it is pretty accurate. Actually men come out looking slightly less atrocious here than in a lot of modern fiction.

 

071361a1-009e-43ee-9bf9-8b773db7275fimg150‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley – This is the novel I read early in the year to which I compared all later reads. Most of the later novels came up short against ‘The Past’.  The pastoral family scenes here are just incredible.

 

 

 

 

9781555977184‘Application For Release From the Dream’ by Tony Hoagland – My new favorite poet.

“a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized Narrative Inside;
prone to frequent sideways bursting

of one feeling through another”

‘Wasp’, Tony Hoagland

 

the-four-booksThe Four Books’ by Yan Lianke – This is a powerful bitter political novel about the ridiculous imposing of and the disastrous results of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

 

 

 

londonjoan-138x211‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London – The Golden Age is a makeshift children’s polio hospital in Australia during the height of the polio epidemic in the early 1950s.  This is an incredibly moving old-fashioned story of children in the hospital, their families, and the dedicated staff.

 

 

 

signs_preceding‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera – This is a tough little Western novella written in distinctive heroic prose. You don’t mess with Makina; just ask the young guy who tried to grope her on the bus.

 

 

9200000056909680‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain – This is a fine unpredictable European novel about complex moral situations.  Rose Tremain has done it once again.

 

 

s-l225‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles – Here is a Russian novel written with Old World charm by a literary stylist about the head waiter in the one fine Moscow hotel during the Communist years.

 

 

 

9781911214335 ‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan – I’m always up for a clever Hamlet parody.  In ‘Nutshell’, Hamlet isn’t even born yet.  The rutting of his mother and his father’s brother causes Hamlet both mental and physical pain.

 

 

 

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As promised, here are three novels from the previous century I really liked this year.

 

9780307740823‘Love in a Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford – The unforgettable Mitford family

 

 

 

25489203-_uy200_‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns – A wife and mother tries to keep up a good front despite grinding poverty.

 

 

 

green‘Loving’ by Henry Green – It is difficult to decide who was more offbeat, Barbara Comyns or Henry Green.  In fiction, offbeat is good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Our Spoons came from Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns – Vivid, Devastating, and Honest

 

‘Our Spoons came from Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns    (1950)   –   196 pages

 

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Perhaps the darkest thing about ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’ is that it was based to some extent on the real life of Barbara Comyns.  When the novel was first published in 1950, she actually wrote a disclaimer on the copyright page: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11, and 12 and the poverty.”   The listed chapters are about her horrific experience giving birth to her first child in a public hospital.  The poverty of her early marriage years was all-pervasive.

We have all read or heard romantic tales of the starving artist who lives in poverty in order to pursue his grand artistic dreams.  However we rarely get the picture of the poverty from the point of view of his starving wife with a baby.  The wife and mother must work full time so her husband can stay at home not earning a penny.  Somehow the wife keeps up a good front for the family until the baby gets sick or she gets sick and can’t earn anything.

Barbara Comyns has frequently been call a naive Primitivist, but never has a writer depicted day-to-day grinding poverty in more vivid devastating fashion.  Perhaps what makes it so devastating is that her narrator always tries to keep up a good front no matter how terrible her plight.

“I was pleased he was going to be away now I felt so unhappy, because I knew men hate women when they are unhappy.”

Comyns can leave a sentence like the above hanging, so that its effect is more desolate than if it were explained.

Barbara Comyns deals in realistic fashion with subjects in a woman’s life that were hardly mentioned at that time including our married woman having an affair and then her back-alley abortion. But there is more to Comyn’s writing than her descriptions of sad destitution.  She tells her life in simple and honest terms.

“I was quite glad to see him wearing such stupid clothes.  It made it much easier to tell him I didn’t love him anymore.” 

We have all been in situations like that, even though we usually won’t admit it.  Our narrator in this novel always, always tells the truth even if it makes herself look stupid.  But ultimately she is not so stupid; she is living her life the best she can in an extremely difficult situation.

 

 

Grade:    A   

 

‘Reputations’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez – A Political Cartoonist from Columbia

 

‘Reputations’ by Juan Gabriel Vasquez    (2013)  –   187 pages        Translated by Anne McLean

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The previous novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, ‘The Sound of Things Falling’, was spectacularly good in my opinion, and it made my Top Ten list for 2014.  That was a moving novel about the violent Pablo Escobar years in Vasquez’s home country of Columbia.

‘Reputations’ does not quite measure up to that performance for me.  ‘Reputations’ is about a renowned political cartoonist, Mallarino, who becomes powerful through his newspaper drawings.  The story is told from the perspective of the cartoonist, and he just seems a little too self-satisfied with his life for me to entirely empathize with his situation.  The cartoonist job, the house in the mountains, the beautiful ex-girlfriend Magdalena, the understanding daughter, everything seems just a little too perfect for Mallarino for him to be believable.  If our hero had been a bit more conflicted, I could have accepted him.

At the same time the writing here is crystal clear and fun to read.  The plot premise is a good one.  Early in his career Mallarino drew a cartoon about an ambiguous situation involving a politician he didn’t like and an eight year-old girl which destroyed the politician’s career and caused the said politician’s early death.  Twenty-five years later, Mallarino is confronted with the girl who was involved, grown up now.  Mallarino must relive the circumstances of his drawing the cartoon which he had pretty much forgotten.

“Forgetfulness was the only democratic thing in Columbia:  it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and the heroes, like the snow in the James Joyce story, falling upon all of them alike.  Right now there were people all over Columbia working hard to have certain things forgotten – small or big crimes, or embezzlements, or tortuous lies – and Mallarino could bet that all of them, without exception, would be successful in their endeavor.”      

If Vasquez had taken his plot to its logical conclusion and once and for all given us the absolute facts of the case, I believe the novel would have been stronger for it.  However Vasquez gives us an open-ended conclusion so we don’t know whether or not the cartoonist had made a terrible mistake early in his career or not.   Mallarino does not fully confront his demons.  I felt the author had let Mallarino off the hook just like he had let Mallarino off the hook by having his ex-long-term girlfriend still be his lover.  Neither Vasquez or his protagonist Mallarino never really confront any difficulties head-on, and the novel is weaker for it.

 

Grade:   B  

 

 

‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain – A Fan’s Notes

 

‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain    (2016) –  240 pages

 

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I have been a devotee of Rose Tremain’s fiction for over twenty-five years.  First I read ‘Restoration’ and ‘Sacred Country’, then went back and read two of her earlier works ‘Sadler’s Birthday’ and ‘The Swimming-Pool Season’, and I have continued to read her novels and stories up to today.  I even seem to recall that she used the pen name Rosemary Tremain early in her career.

Why have I been drawn to Tremain’s fiction?  Her writing has the qualities that I much appreciate in a fiction writer.  Her writing is perceptive, empathetic, methodical, unsentimental, and precise, and yet she can also be light-hearted and even humorous.  She can deal with complex moral situations and capture the poignancy of the lives of people dealing with them.   She is also quite unpredictable as to what she will write about next, so her novels come across as new and exciting.

‘The Gustav Sonata’ is another fine example of Rose Tremain’s work.  At the center of this story is the father Erich Perle who is a policeman.  However he is fired for falsifying dates on forms so that Jewish people who were escaping Austria in 1938 could stay in Switzerland.  So this man gets fired for an act of courage for which he should have received a medal.  That is life.

Erich dies soon after his firing.  He leaves a wife Emilie and a small son Gustav.   Emilie blames the Jewish people for Erich’s death, and she remains an anti-Semite long afterwards.  However her son Gustav becomes best friends with a Jewish boy Anton starting at age five, a friendship that continues throughout their long lives.  Emilie and Gustav are very poor, while Anton’s family is quite prosperous, so they take Gustav along on their family trips.  Gustav has a positive steadying influence on the more anxious, temperamental Anton.

‘The Gustav Sonata’ is divided into three major sections.  The first section takes place in the late 1940s when Gustav meets his new friend Anton.  The second section goes back in time before Gustav is born and describes how Erich and Emilie meet and wed.  The last section takes place in the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are in their late fifties, Gustav running a small hotel and Anton a music teacher.

Another quality I like about Rose Tremain’s writing is that she is adept enough to only deal with the parts which are important to her story so we don’t have to waste a lot of time covering these people’s entire lives.

I will end with what John Boyne wrote in the Irish Times:

“In fact I have long considered her (Rose Tremain) to be the finest British novelist at work today, more consistent than McEwan, more prolific than Ishiguro, and less erratic than Amis, although the title is more frequently accorded to one of those three (no surprises here) men.”

I agree.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘The Transmigration of Bodies’ by Yuri Herrera – How does Herrera Do It?

 

‘The Transmigration of Bodies’ by Yuri Herrera    (2013) –  101 pages    Translated by Lisa Dillman

 

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Now is the time to ask.  How does Yuri Herrera do it?  How does he put us readers in the mood for his own distinctive form of noir with only a few short sentences?  Let’s look at the first few sentences of ‘The Transmigration of Bodies’.

“A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air.”  

This definitely establishes the desolate mood for what follows.

Eying the third of mescal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day.”

Here we get a sense of grim foreboding.

“He had no way of knowing it already was, had been for hours, truly awful, much more awful than the private little inferno he’d built himself on booze.”

Here we go from individual apprehension to a general sense of dread.

“He decided to go out.”

In a short staccato sentence, our hero acts.  With these few words, Herrera has set the mood which is desolate, truly awful.  This is a time of plague when everyone must wear masks over their faces to protect themselves.  However that terrible unease does not prevent our hero from acting.  Our hero is known as The Redeemer.  He fixes things between people.  In ‘The Transmigration of Bodies’ we have two families, each of whom are holding the dead body of a member of the other family.  Herrera gives us vivid descriptions of the decaying bodies   These are people the Redeemer has known and liked. It is up to The Redeemer to perform a body swap between these families in this desolate plague zone.

Herrera wins us over to the side of the Redeemer with the following:

“What did he expect, a man like him, who ruined suits the moment he put them on: no matter how nice they looked in shop windows, hanging off his bones they wrinkled in an instant, fell down, lost their grace.” 

I can sure identify with that remark.

‘The Transmigration of Bodies’ is not quite as austere and single-minded as ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’.  In ‘Transmigration’ there are a few too many characters to keep track of.  However, ‘Transmigration’ contains enough good things so that I am giving it the same grade as ‘Signs’.    It is another strong performance from Herrera.

Herrera gives us an insight into his own writing when he discusses the words that get written on a tombstone:

“I will love you always.  I can never forgive you.  Forget about me.  I’ll be back.  You’ll pay for this.  Words that etch deeper than a chisel.” 

The funny thing is that in my notes I kept for ‘Transmigration’, I had already written “Short sentences that stay etched in the mind, chiseled, imprinted.”

 

Grade:    A-   

 

‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay – Fiction about Living as a Modern Man

 

‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay   (2016)  –  358 pages

 

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Somewhere I read that the men in ‘All That Man Is’ are a total washout.  That’s sad, because I identified real strongly with these guys.  Everything that David Szalay writes rings true from my own experience of guys up to and including “He tries a wank, but he is too drunk.”

‘All That Man Is’ is a rather pompous title for a decidedly un-pompous novel.   Let’s start with a quote:

“We all think we’re special — we’re all the fucking same.”

Many would not call this book a novel. There are nine separate stories about men scattered throughout Europe from Croatia to Geneva, from France to Cypress, from London to Cordoba, Spain, and so on. There is a lot of travelling whether by car, train, or airplane, and a frequent venue is a hotel room.  The stories are arranged from youngest to oldest by the age of the main protagonist, the youngest being seventeen and the oldest being in his seventies.  The stories do have a common theme which appears to be masculinity today, so I am willing to go along with calling ‘All That Man Is’ a novel.  Here we get many distinct angles on manhood at different times in life.

Despite having all the stories told from a male perspective, each story contains at least one woman who is central to the story.  In fact some of the women have the best lines.  In one story a young woman is reading the tarot cards for her boyfriend at a Belgian hotel stop on their drive to her home in Poland:

She said,  “I think these cards are suggesting that you should maybe stop thinking about your…thing all the time.”

He laughed, “My Thing!”

“This.”

She put her finger on it.

“What it means,” she said, looking him in the eye, “is that your skirt-chasing days are over.”   

In this story the man is in his mid-twenties, and this is a fair statement.

Some of the early stories are quite raunchy.  However as the men age in these stories, their obsessions turn from sex first to their families, then to their own mortality.

 “It still seems incredible to him that he is actually going to die. That this is just going to stop. This. Him.” 

 Szalay writes from inside each of his main male characters’ heads, and we get a full account of how they see the world.  Some of the men are very successful and some are failures.  One was very successful early on only to see all his fortune collapse like a house of cards.  Each story here is entirely convincing to me in its understanding of and insight into the male psyche.

‘All That Man Is’ a well-written, original, and entirely perceptive novel about being a man in the various stages of adult life.

 

Grade:   A       

 

‘The Professor and the Siren’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

 

‘The Professor and the Siren’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa   (!957) –   69 pages

 

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When Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa died in 1957 at the age of sixty, he was an unpublished writer.  His novel ‘The Leopard’ had been rejected by two publishers.  However, after his death, a few literary friends of his continued to work to get the novel published, and it was published the following year.  Despite some divided critical opinion, the novel immediately achieved worldwide popularity.  It became the top-selling novel in Italian history.

I have read ‘The Leopard’ and consider it one of the most powerful and likeable novels of the twentieth century.  It is a good-natured view of the history of Sicily through the eyes of one former aristocrat who has lost his place in society.

In 1963 ‘The Leopard’ was made into a movie by Luciano Visconti starring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.   The movie is one of those few rare cases where the movie actually does justice to the novel.  The movie is well worth watching and I would suggest you add it to your lists.

But most of all you really should read the brilliant masterpiece ‘The Leopard’.  It brings you back into the vivid and violent world of 19th century Sicily as only the very best historical fiction can.

The recent NYRB collection ‘The Professor and the Siren’ contains only a few trinket leftovers from Lampedusa.  Most of the collection is taken up with the long short story ‘The Professor and the Siren’ which relates the love affair between an antiquities professor and a mermaid.

“Her body below the groin, below the buttocks, was that of a fish, covered with tiny pearly blue scales and ending in a forked tail that slapped gently against the bottom of the boat.  She was a siren.”  

It is Lampedusa’s charm and wit that makes this story fun to read.  The author does not shy away from the physical aspects of this man and siren relationship.  Because the professor is an ancient Greek studies professor, we get the full story of Calliope and the Sirens in Greek mythology.

john-william-waterhouse-a-mermaid-1900-oil-on-canvasThe second story in the collection, ‘Joy and the Law’, is a pleasant enough entry at only seven pages.

The third and last entry, ‘The Blind Kittens’, is the opening of a final novel Lampedusa was intending to write but had only completed about twenty pages when he died.  The opening is quite engaging but is only a fragment and not a complete story.

This is one case where it might be advisable to skip the introduction by Marina Warner, since it is interminable and detracts from the playful light-hearted tone of the collection.

I do believe that ‘The Leopard’ is a must-read, but this collection would be only for those who want more Lampedusa after reading ‘The Leopard’.

 

Grade:   B       

 

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