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Once again, a year has gone by in which I realise I have one of the best jobs in the world. The only pain in it is having to restrict my choice to one book a week. Anyway, here is my selection of this year’s paperbacks that have stayed with me the most, in chronological order of publication.
First: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber), a strange, shifting tale, superficially utterly unlike any other Ishiguro, set in post-Arthurian England, in which an aged couple travel to see their son in a distant village. Bizarre and haunting.
Secondly: Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Pushkin Press). As many have said, if you’re not a native Russian speaker you’re never going to pick up on all the nuances of Pushkin’s great verse novel. So what? It’s still hugely worth reading, especially in Anthony Briggs’s new translation, and in this beautiful, pocket-sized edition.
Another publisher who brings us mislaid gems from the continent is Istros (I’m not saying the above is a neglected classic, but it’s how Pushkin Press started), who gave us Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade, translated by Christopher Moncrieff, in which we discover that Adrian Mole was real, and lived in 1920s Romania. Eliade’s book really is his teenage diary, but it reads like a literary creation – and is very funny. Thanks to the interwar education system in Romania, it has a rather wider literary frame of reference than poor Mole’s diaries. Schoolchildren there read Balzac in French for pleasure.
Also redolent of a more learned time is John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr (Vintage). The 17th-century biographer is brought to the page by Scurr in the most ingenious fashion: she recreates his life in diary form from his own diaries and letters, ie in pretty much all his own words. As this was one of the great ages for English prose, this is very much a win-win project.
The English language is also safe in the hands of Adam Mars-Jones, whose Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father (Penguin) is the funniest book I’ve read this year, and also the tenderest and most forgiving: Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Justice Mars-Jones, the “homophobe’s homophobe”. The punchline “thirty bob and a box of Black Magic” has never been better deployed. Just you see.
Another autobiographical work, but one that looks outwards – specifically, out of a cockpit window – is Skyfaring: a Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker (Vintage). Once you read this, you’ll never feel the same way about flying. You’ll feel happier: more reassured and better informed.
Contemporary poetry has been given a shot in the arm by the relaunch of Penguin Modern Poets, and their first selection, If I’m Scared We Can’t Win, brings us two established poets (Anne Carson, Emily Berry) and a newcomer (Sophie Collins). All three are great, with Carson becoming my new imaginary best literary friend. All can be deep and funny, and sometimes both at once. A terrific new start.
An eye-opener for me was The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (Penguin). The more I think about this, the higher I esteem it. Cartoonist Padua riffs on the life of the first programmer and the first computer designer, with some great corny jokes, but also proper maths backed up by solid research. Inventive, fun and, by the way, very good on making you think anew about the Alice books.
I was very pleased to see Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration, translated by Desmond M Clarke. Penguin Classics have excelled themselves this year, extricating themselves from the nadir of that book by Morrissey. This is more like it: Voltaire’s plea for religious tolerance, applicable, too, to other areas, and – the reason I pick this over the others they have brought out in 2016 – never needed more than now. This book, and Cyclogeography by Jon Day (Notting Hill Editions), helped me tolerate cycle couriers much more than I hitherto had. It’s a charming, absorbing, well read and intelligent book on what it is like to be a cycle courier in London. Even those of us on foot or in a car who have been carved up by one of them will find this worth reading. You will learn about more than just cycling here. Not an enormous amount more, but still.
And finally: The Complete Short Stories of Saki (Vintage). Just because.
Best book of 2016
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Source: The Guardian
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