Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

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38 thoughts on “Top Reads 2016

    • Now that’s a lovely coincidence! I do hope you’ll enjoy it. It was an interesting contrast to reading Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark in the same year, a woman born in that part of the world as well, but not of that world or culture and yet also not belonging to the England she dreamed of and eventually lived in.

      So what was your favourite book of the year, do tell!!

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  1. I think my own book of the year was Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’, which stays with me still. Also memorable was Anthony Doerr’s ‘All the light we cannot see’. I often don’t get to read books shortly after their release – but I get there eventually. All good wishes for 2017.

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    • Yes, Human Acts was a hard act to follow and Han Kang’s books both stay with me too, she’s an exceptional writer and viewer of life, searching for the answers to difficult questions. My favourites are rarely the latest publications, I like to wait and see, to be sure they are my thing, but I do love seeing and reading about them all as they come out. Happy Reading for 2017 Margaret!

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  2. Lots of interesting choices here, Claire, very different from many of the ‘best of’ lists doing the rounds at the moment. As you know, I loved Bonjour Tristesse too and hope to read another Sagan next summer (she feels likes a choice for the warm weather).

    Winterson’s memoir has been on my shelves for ages, but I keep skipping it in favour of other things – maybe next year!

    Wishing you all the best for 2017, I hope it turns out to be a great year of reading for you.

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    • Thanks Jacqui, reading around the world takes us to some interesting places, I also enjoyed the contrast of reading Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, a kind of bittersweet read, with that longing she had for two places, neither of which she belonged to, that one stays with me as well, her indirect depiction of a life lived in a kind of exile, while appearing to be like everyone else. Winterson’s memoir is great, I hope it makes your 2017 list. I’ll keep a look out for the Sagan you’re going to read and look forward to discovering more gems from your reading in 2017!

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  3. So glad you enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s memoir – I read it around the time I started my blog in 2012 and thought it was brilliant. I think A Brief History of Seven Killings will be one of my 2017 reads – I’m just waiting for the right time to tackle it!

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    • I’d been wanting to read it for some time and just knew it would be good, utterly brilliant in fact! A Brief History is challenging, but glad I have read it, I’m looking to read The Complete Claudine by Colette for this years summer chunkster, hopefully an easier read!

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  4. This is an amazing list, and an inspiring selection of books. I admire how widely you’ve read throughout the year, whilst retaining a relatively small read count. Definitely inspiration for my future reading.

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  5. Wonderful list, Claire! I want to read the Zora Neale Hurston and the Nawal El Saadawi! Sorry to know that you didn’t like the new Herta Muller book. I have read one book by her and loved it. But I can understand why you didn’t like it. Sometimes authors hash the same kind of story again and again and it is hard to read a new book of theirs. On the Nobel committee, I have given up on them. Their opinion doesn’t matter for me anymore.

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    • Thanks Vishy, I hope you do get to read those authors, brilliant both! Yes, I’ll be steering away from books I didn’t select to read myself, unless I see great reviews of them course! I hope you have some excellent books lined up for 2017, I look forward to following your reading and learning about more literary hems which I can rely on you to unearth for us!

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    • Oh yes, it was the most popular book I read, however one that I only really became aware of in the last year, it is less known outside America I believe, but what a wonderful book, astonishing prose and an evocative life she portrays! Just brilliant.

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  6. So many here to entice me to spend even more time with my nose in a book – bliss. Over the last month or so I’ve been reading voraciously, and long may it last. As to my top read of 2016 – now, that’s a tough call. Two books I learned about from you, Georgia, and How To Be Brave are both close but Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes the top of the list for me.

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  7. Loved Bonjour, Tristesse, which strangely enough reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan’s book, Atonement. I think that’s because they both contained girls I wanted to slap for their manipulations and self-focused tendencies, but then again, that’s what coming of age girls so often resemble.

    As for Ferrante, I enjoyed The Days of Abandonment more than the last of her Neopolitan novels. When I finished the last one, I was surprised at how I saw the girls/friends/women equally destructive.

    Interesting that as I leave my comment I find harmful qualities in both books, in both characters. These are books that I quite enjoyed, and would like to reread someday, perhaps in part because they reflect the complexity of relationships I have found in my own life.

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  8. Pingback: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera – Word by Word

  9. This year I’m starting an ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ reading challenge, as a means of reading more broadly and more translations – your list has given me lots of books to hunt down.

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    • Your challenge sounds great Kate, I belong to the Goodreads Around the World group, which is often a great source of information and in August there’s #WITMonth, where a number of us read works by Women in Translation, although I tend to read them all year round! I look forward to following your round the world reads too.

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  10. Dear Claire,

    I’€™ve been meaning to thank you for including Days of Abandonment, and in such good company!

    Hope all is well with you,

    Daniela

    Liked by 1 person

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