About me
Archive
About me

My favourite books of 2016

At this time of year, lots of people and publications start putting out lists of their favourite books of the year. Because I’m a bit contrarian, I thought I’d do something a bit different: share my favourite books from three years ago.

My rationale is that if a book I read three years ago has stayed with me, it surely must have been a good. And so, I logged onto my Goodreads account and downloaded a list of books I read in 2016. I manually sorted them in order of favourites as I remember them, without any reference to what I thought at the time. And in this post, I share my top few.

Because I evidently read a lot of novels in 2016, I decided to divide my list into “novels” and “not novels”, and have listed the top five in each category below. As I also tend to go through phases with particular writer, I’ve limited myself to including only the top-ranked work by any single author in each list; otherwise, the top five novels would mostly be Ian McEwan, and that doesn’t make for an interesting blog post.

So here are my thoughts on my favouite books of 2016.


My five favourite novels of 2016

5: Dodgers by Bill Beverly

This was a coming-of-age novel about a group of black American teenagers going on a road trip across America.

Steeped in a culture and viewpoint which is unfamiliar to me, this was unlike anything I’d read before (or since). I think this book taught me to think rather differently about the challenges of up as a deprived black kid in America and about the pervasive nature of gang culture.

More generally, this book made me reflect about becoming better at understanding that people’s life decisions can be perfectly logical within their own frame of reference, even if they make little sense from my point of view. I remember the central resonant theme was really about breaking away from one’s own past and upbringing.

At the time I read this, I gave it five out of five:
“I’ve never read anything quite like this before. East is a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He runs a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team fails to see a drug raid coming, East—who has never left his neighbourhood—is ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan.
“So Dodgers turns out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel, with East at its centre, against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It’s written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novels, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This is a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come—and will definitely read again at some point.”

4: Conclave by Robert Harris

I have a slight (and possibly irrational) aversion to historical fiction, so I’ve read less of Robert Harris’s work than might be assumed.

Conclave, however, had a contemporary setting, and concerned the election of a new Pope. This book had lots of great colour about the process of entering the conclave, and wider observations of the machinations of the Vatican.

This book became a somewhat unlikely (but nonetheless brilliant) political thriller, yet the philosophical and theological questions the plot confronted made this still more intriguing, and provided plenty of food for thought.

There was also a quote from this book which I’ve thought about a lot since reading it:

No one who ever follows their conscience ever does wrong. The consequences may not turn out as we intended; it may prove that we made a mistake. But that is not the same as being wrong.

It was a really good book.

At the time I read this, I rated it four out of five:
“A political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elect a new Pope. This was great: a real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, but with lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. The dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches, was very well written. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but felt like a real insight into the machinations of the Catholic Church.”

3: Holding by Graham Norton

Holding was a witty, closely observed and genuinely intriguing murder mystery set in Ireland. I remember thinking that it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d associate with the chat show host, and that I could barely believe it was someone’s first novel. It was atmospheric and evocative.

In 2016, I rated this four out of five:
“A witty and engaging novel describing the aftermath of a body being found in a sleepy Irish village. I wouldn’t have guessed this was by Graham Norton if his name wasn’t on the cover, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was a first novel.
“The characters are endearing, and the plot is relatively pacey while still allowing space for carefully observed description. The resolution of the main plot is a bit disappointingly ‘crime novel by numbers’ and doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the book, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless.”

2: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I love Ian McEwan, so it’s no surprise to see one of his novels towards the top of my list. In fact, I loved On Chesil Beach so much that I even managed to get Wendy to read some of it, and she usually hates novels.

On Chesil Beach was the story of the wedding night of a young and sexually inexperienced couple in the 1960s. The short book was set entirely in that one evening, lending it a sense of detailed immediacy.

For such a short book, this had considerable emotional heft. I found it very moving. I took a few quotes from this book that often pop up in my Readwise emails, several of which give away the ending, but this one doesn’t:

He was discovering that being in love was not a steady state, but a matter of fresh surges or waves, and he was experiencing one now.

Since I read this book, it has been adapted into a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. I haven’t seen it because I’m too worried that it will spoil my fond memory of the novel.

I didn’t review On Chesil Beach at the time, so I’ve nothing to compare my retrospective view with. I did give it a start rating though: five out of five.

1: Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Reputations made me reflect rather a lot on the difficulty of political journalism in countries with particularly tubulent politics. This is perhaps because of the degree to which political journalism has become a challenge in the UK in the context of divisions over Brexit: many people see bias everywhere, there’s no consensus on basic facts, and impartiality has become ever more difficult to achieve.

Reputations concerned a Colombian political cartoonist reflecting on his career and his choices along the way. I remember being absorbed by the questions (often also pertinent in Ishiguro’s novels) about reliability of memory and the interaction between memory and regret.

This book was also jam-packed with great quotations, presumably thanks in large part to Anne McLean’s wonderful work as translator. Three choice examples:

Not knowing is not hell. The hellish thing is not knowing whether I want to know.


There are no political cartoons that don’t sting, and none without honey.


People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if its the mendacious authority of newspapers.

Just brilliant, and so on the money for the times we’re living through.

I am amazed to see that, when I read this, I only gave it two out of five stars—what a contrast with how I think of it in retrospect!
“This is a novella about a political cartoonist reaching the end of his career. At an event celebrating his life, he meets a young female journalist who he had previously met as a child, when an event pivotal to the novel’s plot occurred. Revisiting ‘the event’ risks the reputations of many of the novel’s characters.
“The writing is tight, and even in translation remains eminently quotable.
“But—I found the plot hard to follow, very implausible in places (seven year olds drinking themselves unconscious?!), and unresolved by the ending. With fantastic prose but so much else letting it down, I’m slightly baffled as to why this has been so critically praised.”


My five favourite non-novels of 2016

5: Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It by Geoff Dyer

This was a fantastic romp of a book, a sort of self-discovery travelogue of things that acutally happened, “even if some of them only happened in my head”. I haven’t read anything quite like this before or since: it was absurd and deep and hilarious and philosophical and though-provoking all at the same time, often in the same sentence.

There are so many quotes from this book that I love, and which pop into my head spontaneously from time to time:

‘It’s all about moderation,’ he said in the Greenhouse on Friday night, after a deliciously inauthentic Thai meal. ‘Everything in moderation. Even moderation itself. From this it follows that you must, from time to time, have excess. And this is going to be one of those occasions.’


‘It fucked up my life but I wasn’t upset. You know, they kept talking about “undergoing” surgery, “undergoing” chemo. It really bugged me. I never saw it that way. I was just living my life. I wasn’t “undergoing” it.’


I became convinced that buildings don’t just fall into ruin – something in them aspires to ruination. It’s the same with people. The purpose of architecture – even the most baroque, especially baroque – and medicine is simply to thwart the urge to collapse. (Maybe that should read ‘disguise’, not ‘thwart’.) All we can do is keep applying the creosote, propping ourselves up with health and success, trying to keep the rain and the damp and the rot at bay for a little longer, trying to postpone the moment of complete collapse and abandonment for the same reason that one waits as long as possible for the first alcoholic drink of the day: because the longer you leave it, the better it will feel.

This was just a rollercoaster of hilarity and genius all mixed in togeher.

I gave this only four of five stars when I read it in 2016:
“Geoff Dyer staggers through an autobiography of adventures, all of which “really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head”. Essentially, Dyer has incredible experiences around the world but laces descriptions of them with profound bathos, either by pointing out their intrinsic absurdity or by drawing unflattering comparisons to humdrum daily life.
“I very much enjoyed this, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The careful balance between earnestness and knowing humour is very well judged and really tickled me. And every now and then, there are sparklingly brilliant passages.”

4: Heretics by Will Storr

I think Will Storr is criminally under-rated, and it is no surprise that one of his books should be so high up on my list.

Heretics was Storr’s book about cognitive bias, in which he unpicks why people who hold views which run counter to conventional science continue to hold those views in spite of all the evidence. It was a sympathetic and interesting portrait, and changed my view on some of the relevant challenges in public health, such as people who oppose vaccinations.

This book taught me that it is important to understand their perspective to understand why their decisions may be rationale, even if they are completely wrong from an objective standpoint.

We tell ourselves a story, we cast the monster and then become vulnerable to our own delusional narrative of heroism. This kind of binary thinking insists upon extremes: heroes and villains, black and white, in-tribes and out. This corrosive instinct is evidence in the so-called ‘culture wars’. For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree.

This is a book that had a real impact on my public health practice, despite superficially having nothing to do with public health.

Heretics got the full five stars in 2016:
“One of my favourite books of the year so far. From the blurb, I was expecting this to be an enjoyable (if slightly sneering) debunking of pseudo-science. It’s not that. It’s a fascinating illustrated discussion of cognitive bias, backed up by astounding and revealing investigative journalism. Storr examines the claims and motives of ‘heretics’ and ‘skeptics’ alike in forensic detail – he doesn’t pull any punches in his discussion of the latter, which is refreshing and offers new insights.
“I’ve long been a fan of Will Storr’s magazine features – I will read almost anything with his byline on it, because his name is almost a guarantee that I’ll enjoy this article – but this is the first of his books I’ve read. It won’t be the last.”

3: The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

This was one of the most surprising books I read in 2016. It was a deep dive into ‘nerd culture’, and specifically the culture around the character Batman. I knew virtually nothing about Batman before I read this book, and I picked it up only reluctantly because I didn’t think I wanted to know anything about Batman.

It turned out that this was an illuminating social history about how the character has changed over the years in response to societal pressure, and how ‘nerd culture’ has developed around these superhero characters. It even became quite philosophical at points, considering the importance of authorial intent to the interpretation of characters.

It really didn’t matter that I didn’t know or care about Batman: this was just a really well-written deep dive into a topic that the author was clearly passionate about, which illuminated lots of other topics.

Essentially, this was unexpectedly brilliant.

When I read this in 2016, I gave it four out of five stars:
“Someone (I can’t remember who) recommended this book, and saying that interest in Batman was not prerequisite for enjoying it. I am the perfect test case for this: I’ve never read a Batman comic, never seen a Batman film all the way through, and only sketchily remember seeing the “Bam! Pow! Zap!” Adam West Batman series when it used to be on Saturday morning kids’ TV. Before reading this book, I would’ve sworn that Batman was able to fly.
“And I loved this book. It’s a fascinating history of how the Batman character has changed over time, and the sociocultural pressures that have caused the changes. There is a lot of discussion of how people’s own experiences colour their understanding of the character at pretty profound levels. And the whole book is infused with endearing lightheartedness, warmth and humour.
“This is also a deep exploration of how much an author’s intentions matter (or don’t matter) in creating a character. Before reading this book, I would have said with confidence that an author’s vision of a character is the “correct” interpretation of that character. Now I’m not so sure: I can see a valid argument that each reader’s interpretation is equally valid. Why can’t one audience enjoy Batman as a gay character and another audience attribute their enjoyment of the same production to his hypermasculine heterosexuality? Why limit interpretations to the artist’s intentions?
“On top of all of that, this book gives one of the most coherent and readable accounts I’ve read of the development of nerd culture, and the influence of the spread of the internet on nerd subcultures.
“I didn’t expect to make it all the way through this book – but, in fact, I raced through it and I’m raving about it. It’s great!”

2: A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

This was a brilliant book about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the subsequent investigations into his murder. This included a detailed account of the public health response alongside the political and criminal investigations. A Very Expensive Poison was written with great precision and a driving plot, almost like a thriller. I remember being absolutely hooked.

I gave this the full five stars when I first read it:
“One of the most arresting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. A clear, detailed and compelling account of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder by the Russian state – including all of the cack-handed bungling, which only serves to humanise the story and hence make it that much more horrific. Fascinating detail on the investigation, too.”

1: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was a deeply moving memoir by an American neurosurgeon facing his own terminal cancer diagnosis. Reading this was a deeply emotional experience, partly I think because of the quality of Kalanithi’s writing, but also partly because our broadly similar early career paths kept making me put myself in his shoes. I can still remember the intense emotion of finishing this book.

I also gave this book five stars in 2016:
“An extraordinary memoir of a doctor dying of lung cancer as he reaches the end of his specialty training, reflecting on what is important in life and death. Deeply moving.
“The similarities between Kalanithi’s life and my own made this hit close to home. The writing is brilliant – as a single example among many, Kalanithi describes someone being “found by his supervisor, covered in blood and failure” – a sensation that was so familiar I had to put the book down for a while to reflect.
“An unforgettable book which I will certainly read again.”


Reflections

I have really enjoyed this exercise of comparing what I thought when I first read these books to what I think today. I’m particularly surprised by Reputations—I can scarcely believe how negative my contemporary review was compared to how this lives in my memory.

Perhaps I’ll try and do 2017 review next year!

This 2,459th post was filed under: Reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

I Never Said I Loved You was an astonishing and unconventional autobiography by the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder, in which he covered topics including his history of childhood sexual abuse, subsequent lifelong struggle with mental illness, and his complicated but loving relationship with his mother. His adult romantic relationships were also discussed in some detail. Samadder’s writing was beautiful, with power, honesty and—perhaps unexpectedly—real humour. This was really very good, and certainly one of my favourite books of the year to date.

I was delighted this month to come across a copy of Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, a book I’ve never read before. I’ve always been a fan of Calvino’s writing, and it’s therefore no surprise that I devoured this macabre yet amusing and insightful fable. The story concerned a Viscount bisected in a battlefield injury whose two halves went on to lead two different lives, one evil and one virtuous, and whose paths eventually crossed. It was just unhinged enough to be both funny and gently thought-provoking.

It was an unusual experience to find myself captivated by a book in which I struggled to orientate myself and untangle the plot. Sarah Winman’s Tin Man was an extraordinarily sensitive story of first love, loss and grief. It was narrated in sections by two middle-aged men reflecting on their lives to date, including their childhood friendship and teenage love for one another. I was completely taken in by the depth of the emotional insight and the delicate treatment of sexual identity, so much so that I didn’t really care that I struggled to follow the wider structure of the plot.

By turns amusing, astonishing and terrifying, Heathcote Williams’s Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit was an excellent essay. It was a full-throttle character assassination of a type which is rarely done so well. A powerful, passionate and somewhat persuasive argument.

In The Carer, Deborah Moggach set the scene of a family recruiting a carer, Mandy, for their elderly widowed father. Suspicions about Mandy’s behaviour grow amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, and it felt as though the plot direction was clear. However, a change in events turns this into a much more sensitive novel with far more character development that it first appeared. All things considered, I enjoyed this as a light and easy read, with an unexpected amount of depth and thought.

The Cockroach was Ian McEwan’s satirical novella on Brexit, a sort of reverse version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in reverse in which a cockroach became Prime Minister. The Brexit-esque policy was ‘reversalism’, in which the flow of money was reversed: people paid to take things from shops, and pay to go to work. I felt it was a bit subpar for McEwan: it was clever, in that many of the phrases and speeches were verbatim quotations of contemporary debate, but it was also a bit mean-spirited. Casting one side of a debate as self-interested insects wasn’t as illuminating as trying to understand their reasoning might have been.

Gotta Get Theroux This was a career-focused memoir by the television journalist Louis Theroux. It included rather thoughtful reflections on the complexity of the human condition, and discussion about the “non-binary” nature of people’s morality. In the current climate, it felt oddly brave to acknowledge that the subjects of Theroux’s documentaries, such as Jimmy Saville, could be both talented and have committed horrendous crimes. I enjoyed the book, but my opinion was probably coloured by my existing admiration for his documentary work.

Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was a story about loneliness and social isolation in which, contrary to traditional expectations, the protagonist is a young adult with an office job. I was slightly disappointed by this novel, as I found the writing a little glossy and unreal, and somehow lacking depth and complexity despite a rather unconventional psychiatric subplot.

This 2,457th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom packed far more food for thought into 40 pages than many writers manage in 400. The plot involved a young-ish girl sent on an ominous train journey by her parents. It was spine-tinglingly creepy, and the discomfort was only heightened by the clear allegory to the path our up-bringing bringing sets for each of us. I actually read this twice, as I couldn’t help myself from flicking back to the start almost as soon as I’d reached the end.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think” was the opening to David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: and the next 310 pages proved his point. This book explained the current position of the world with respect to global warming, and how much worse the situation is going to get as a result of damage that has already been done. I found this text both arresting and illuminating. It was one of those rare books that completely changed my understanding and frame of reference on a topic. And yet, it was also a reasonably easy read by virtue of the engaging style of writing.

Lorrie Moore’s Terrific Mother was a short novella in which a 30-something women was caught up in a simple accident which resulted in the death of her friend’s baby. This caused her to spiral into a deep depression, at the nadir of which she decided to marry an academic. She was whisked off to Italy as a spouse on a academic retreat, and fell for her American masseuse. Despite the heavy subject matter, especially at the start, this was written with an oddly true-to-life lightness and a certain sense of wit. It was 76 small-ish widely spaced pages long, very easily read in a single sitting, and that felt like exactly the right length for the story.

Amateur, Thomas Page McBee’s short autobiographical account of training for, and taking part in, a charity boxing match as a transgender man, was thoughtful and reflective. McBee’s exploration of boxing was fascinating: it’s a sport I’ve never engaged with in any meaningful way, yet one on which that I held a passively negative view. McBee’s exploration of boxing and the reasons men fight educated me and allowed me to see more of the nuance behind the sport. The discussion of masculinity was interesting too, particularly given the particular perspective McBee can bring as a transgender man.

A River in Egypt by David Means was a 34-page story covering a father’s thoughts during and after taking his infant son for a sweat test to diagnose Cystic Fibrosis. I thought Means did a great job of capturing the broad tumult of thoughts that people experience in situations like this: the complexity and frequent tangents felt true to life.

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald J Robertson gave some historical context to Marcus Aurelius’s writings, and also drew some interesting and insightful comparisons between the practices advocated by the Stoic philosophers and techniques of modern psychotherapy. I appreciated that Robertson discussed differences as well as similarities and that the analysis went beyond superficial description of the longevity of the ideas. I thought that some of the more imaginative parts of the book didn’t quite work, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

I was a bit disappointed by Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. It was a story about a the experience of a young couple who buy a human-like robot. I felt that there were too many ideas stuffed into the novel: resurrecting Alan Turing, a counter-factual social history of the 1980s, and technologically advanced and life-like robots. There were lots of interesting ideas hinted at, but none of them particularly well explored. The characterisation was very thin by McEwan’s usual standards – I didn’t really feel that I understood the motivations of the central human characters. It all just came across as bitty and confused to me.

I struggled to the end of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type? this month, a book which promised to be a history of the cultish Myers-Briggs personality test, but turned out to be an interminably dull biography of Myers and Briggs. I don’t think I took anything useful away from this.

This 2,452nd post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , .

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.