This is a shorter-than-usual look back at my most memorable reads of the year, mainly because this time, there were only a few books that were so good that they motivated me to put fingers to keyboard and rattle off a few hundred words about the immense enjoyment gained by reading them.
That’s not to say that the other books were bad – some were alright, some were good and some were great – but even the best of this bunch ended up relegated to the Honourable Mentions.
Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Four months into the year, I was happy with what I’d read so far but at the same time was yearning to find something truly exceptional, something that would knock my literary socks off and linger in my memory for months afterwards.
Then, completely ignoring the old saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, I picked up Exit West from a Waterstones display table and impulse-bought it, with no regrets.
Hamid writes in such a smooth and simple style that beginning a sentence feels like being swept along in a strong current and 70 pages pass in the blink of an eye.
This short novel was consumed in three long gulps and there was a long break between the second and third ones because, in less than 200 pages, I’d become so attached to Saaed and Nadia and concerned for their safety and happiness that I was afraid to continue.
As I flicked my fingers over the thin wedge of paper that remained between me and the last lines, I found myself taking a deep breath, not quite ready yet to dive back in and face whatever Hamid had in store for the couple.
Their journey is the heart of the book.
We follow them from the minute they first meet, just before the occasional military skirmishes in their unnamed Middle-Eastern city escalate into full-blown civil war and their lives are changed forever.
Around the same time, strange doorways appear all over the city, mysterious portals offering a tempting escape to an unknown elsewhere.
These doors are a clever device that allows Hamid to streamline their journey, as he’s less concerned with how they get from A to B and more focused on how living in an unfamiliar land affects them, their relationship, and the attitudes of that country’s native population.
Throughout their tale, he offers a timely exploration of how the world could deal with the increasingly-high number of refugees that seek sanctuary abroad and of the uneasy relationship between them and local residents who see their arrival as an unwelcome intrusion.
He has an exceptional way with words, sketching out the lives and histories of his protagonists, and of other migrants who tempt fate by travelling through the dark doorways, in just a paragraph or two through prose that is clear, compelling, and often full of warmth and melancholy.
When I did, at last, dive back in and allowed myself to be swept through the concluding chapters, I found an ending that was sweet, sad, hopeful, and poignant.
This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay
This collection of diaries, which were written while the author worked as a junior doctor, describe in vivid detail the realities of being part of an increasingly mismanaged and under-funded National Health Service.
Adam’s sarcastic and morbid sense of humour chimed perfectly with my own and lead to a lot of laughs, but this humour does not hide how harrowing and exhausting the day-to-day life of a doctor can be; the toll his job takes on his friendships, relationships, and his mental and physical well-being is made abundantly clear.
Frustration and anger bubbles under the surface of several entries – frustration at needless bureaucratic changes that cut costs and make worker’s lives harder, and anger at the health secretary’s clear lack of empathy or understanding for those working in the medical profession.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with him or share his concerns by the end of the book, when the reason why Adam hung up his stethoscope for good is revealed.
It moves from hilarity to tragedy to horror and back again at lightning speed but the tone never feels too jarring or inconsistent.
As an unexpected extra, it also taught me at least a dozen different ways that pregnancies can go horribly wrong, in graphic detail, so that’s… something.
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
This novella follows the lives of a motley crew of characters surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s in a small working-class Californian town.
The same compassion, eye for detail, and knack for creating realistic and flawed characters which made Of Mice and Men the best book that English teachers made us read in high school can be found here in abundance.
Full of affection, warmth and wit, the threadbare story of homeless man Mack and his friends trying to throw a party to thank their kind-hearted marine biologist friend Doc unfolds like a series of interlinking anecdotes that play out over the course of a few weeks.
In that time, Steinbeck makes the titular town come alive by filling his pages with vivid sensory detail, believable and fully-realised characters, and a keen understanding of how unemployment and poverty can affect a tight-knit community.
The blurb for this edition of the book wisely uses the novel’s very first paragraph to convince would-be readers to give it a go, and it’s difficult to think of a better way to do the same here, so… enjoy:
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”
If Only They Didn’t Speak English – Jon Sopel
At the end of another year of political insanity that overturned every notion of what was thought to be acceptable behaviour in both the American and British governments, it was nice to have this book on hand to dip into whenever it all got a bit overwhelming.
The BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel, who at times reports the news from the other side of the pond with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow and noticeable smirk which suggest that even he can’t believe the absurdity of what’s going on over there, has written a useful guide which explains the various conditions in America which led to Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election.
The buffoonish businessman’s triumph left many people completely gobsmacked, but Mr Sopel argues, with a calm common-sense approach that feels sorely-needed at such a chaotic time, that we could have easily seen it coming if we’d stopped thinking of America as being at all similar to the UK.
If they didn’t speak English over there, he suggests, we would treat it as an entirely foreign land, and in doing so we would better understand its many problems and complexities.
Through a mixture of short history lessons, the occasional flash of dry wit, and interesting anecdotes from his privileged press position that allows him entry into every presidential conference and onto Air Force One, he gives an in-depth overview of America’s issues with guns, God and government, plus the causes of the anger and anxiety which surged in parts of the country, and the new president’s worrying penchant for bending or entirely ignoring the truth.
Concepts which had been vaguely familiar to me became easily-understandable, law cases and wars which I’d seen referenced innumerable times but never fully researched were simply-summarised and their effects described in a way that was easy to follow but not intelligence-insulting, and many alarming but enlightening facts and figures were revealed and filed away into my memory vaults for later use.
Though the book describes massive, deep-seated issues which are hugely concerning and extremely difficult to fix, I felt oddly reassured by the end of it, because it succeeded at doing exactly what it set out to do – give the reader a better understanding of America’s issues and how on Earth a man like Trump became the most powerful person on the planet.
Reading this book was part of my new effort to consume more non-fiction, which began when I noticed a few embarrassing blind-spots in my cultural and historical knowledge that I’m now very keen to cover up. Now that I ‘get’, to some extent, what’s going on in America, I need to fully comprehend what’s going on closer to home, so perhaps it’s time to finally tackle the enormous, daunting paperbacks of Tim Shipman’s Brexit-tastic All Out War and Fall Out that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves…