I’ve selected six of the thirty-six mainstream books that I read this year, five novels and one short story collection, as “Best Reads”. These are the ones that meant something more to me than entertainment. They’re the kind of books I find myself referring to when I explain my thinking on something.
Set in 2008, the year of Obama’s election, “American By Day” follows Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård, the Oslo police detective from Miller’s wonderful “Norwegian By Night”, to upstate New York in search of her missing brother. She arrives to find herself in the middle of an investigation into the death by fenestration of her brother’s girlfriend in which her brother is the main suspect.
As Sigrid tries to use a mix of rational analysis and deep cunning to prevent her brother being killed by the police searching for him, we are lead through an exploration of American policing and the why so many encounters between the police and black men end up with the black men dead.
“American By Day” works as a standalone novel. It’s funny, has an interesting mystery at its heart and deals with issues that are at the centre of American identity without being simplistic or pompous.
“The Queen of Blood Everything” is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.
Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a “real” family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.
Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido’s adult years, “The Queen Of Bloody Everything” captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.
It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Anything Is Possible” is how readable it is. I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn’t consume it in a single sitting.
Yet this isn’t page-turning in the conventional sense. There’s no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There is just life as we all live it.
What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.
Each chapter focuses on someone who was in the supporting cast of characters when Lucy Barton was recalling her childhood in *My Name Is Lucy Barton”, In “Anything Is Possible”, each of them gets to be centre-stage for a while, the prime mover in their own universe. Each universe exercises a gravitational pull on at least one of the other universes in the book. We get a guided tour of their universe with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.
The main joy of “The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr” is that Elvira Carr, Ellie to her friends, is a wonderful person. Not a saint. Not perfect. But someone who is fully engaged with her own life. She’s curious, honest to a fault, wants to help others and is capable of great joy. I fell in love with her immediately.
Elvira is also neuroatypical. This means she perceives and thinks about things differently than neurotypical people.
Only when her mother is hospitalised does Elvira discover, at the age of twenty-seven, that what her mother always referred to as Ellie’s “condition” has a name and that she is not alone.
As she uses the internet to connect to others like herself, Ellie comes to understand that her “condition” is not an illness. She’s perfectly capable, not just of looking after herself but of contributing more widely to her community. Ellie’s problems are caused by the often incomprehensible and contradictory expectations and behaviour of neurotypicals, some of whom she believes have the power to “send her away”.
To help navigate the strange ways of the neurotypicals and to prevent her freedom to live an independent life being taken away from her, Elvira develops seven rules and then tests them against her experience.
We follow Ellie’s progress in applying these imperfect rules to deal with a series of challenges: her mother’s incapacity, a mystery around her dead father and his frequent trips to Japan, conflicts with members of her neighbour’s family, predatory males and lots and lots of NEW things that create stress.
Ellie’s struggles and her limitations are ones we can all empathise with and perhaps share to some degree which means that her triumphs make us happy.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” is a beautiful book. The language is rich and diverse without being pompous or self-conscious. The themes of war, loss, fear and purpose are handled with a deft, light touch that nevertheless refuses to look away or to pretend.
It tells the story of Billy, a young soldier and his fellow “Bravos” spending Thanksgiving in the early years of the Iraq war as honoured guests of the Dallas Cowboys as part of a “victory tour”.
Billy and the Bravos have been propelled into the spotlight by a Fox News video of a firefight that went viral.
As the day goes on we learn about Billy through a mix of memories, reflections and slightly stunned reactions to the often overwhelming here and now.
Billy Lynn is literally the heart of the book. He’s nineteen going on twenty, unassuming, just coming to terms with life and what it holds for him, matured by the war in ways he’s only beginning to understand and puzzled and disturbed by the ferocity with which his fellow Americans talk about the war as they thank him for his service. Billy is real and likeable. He’s not a message or a symbol. He’s just a guy in a shitty place trying not to screw up.
In the Dallas Cowboy’s VIP suite, Billy and the Bravos are brought face to face with wealthy, powerful people they would never otherwise meet. As these millionaires repeat, with apparent sincerity and sometimes zeal, the same phrases “Honour… Sacrifice… Freedom… 911… So proud… These Fine Young Men… 911…Finest Fighting Force in the world… Real American Hero… 911… keeping us safe.” Billy experiences increasing dissonance. He would follow his sergeant through hell and would die to protect the men he serves with but he finds the behaviour of the civilians he is fighting the war for almost incomprehensible.
Hollywood is pulled into the book because a producer is trying to sell a movie deal for the Bravos, based on their well-known battle in Iraq. Hollywood is used as an example of the disproportionate power of belief, the worshipping of the fake, the unwillingness to see the real because it looks too fake and the power of the millionaire asshole. Hollywood is presented as the self-serving distorting mirror America holds up to itself.
It took me a little over two months to read the eleven stories in this collection because each one demands a period of reflection before moving on to the next. Each has its own flavour that I found I wanted to savour by itself for a while.
This is one of those rare collections where all the stories a strong and the themes and types of people that they cover are diverse. What binds them together is clear, simple but beautiful writing and an insight into people that is acute and dispassionate to the point of fatalism. You can find a review of each story here.