Let's get something out in the open straight away - 2016 was a sucky old year in many, many respects and I for one was not sorry to see the back of it. This year, 2017, already feels lighter, like the heavy energy of the last twelve months has lifted. That said, there are still a few loose ends to be tied up and one of them was deciding on my favourite reads of the year and sharing them on the old blog, as has become a Phil Tradition.
I thought it would be hard to narrow down, as always, but for a change there was a clear winner....the book I was most excited about in 2016 and most enjoyed reading, in fact I enjoyed it so much I read it twice in two months, was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin, 2016). It hasn't been released in physical form in the UK, so last September when one of my best friends was visiting, she brought me a copy over, mere weeks after release!
Heather is one of my heroes. She has been publishing wonderful, exquisitely written fiction, for adults and children, for the best part of two decades now. Whenever someone has asked me in the past to name my favourite writers, and I listed Heather among them, nine times out of ten they wouldn't have heard of her. But this novel is getting her some much deserved and long overdue attention in Australian literary circles - in fact, it's been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize. (UPDATE: it won!!)
"I think art saves people all the time."
The Museum of Modern Love seems like such a simple story on the surface, but Heather Rose is in fact threading together many, multi-layered, complex themes and ideas, highlighting that simplicity is often a guise for the most complicated things, art most of all.
Intertwined with a unique exploration of art - what it is, what it isn't, how do you get it to mean something, how does the public's reaction to it influence its meaning and power - is a story about love, loss, grief, heartbreak, betrayal and, most of all, courage.
The novel takes place against the backdrop of a real life event - the three-month performance of 'The Artist is Present' by Marina Abramovic in New York City in 2010. For those who don't know, the piece involved the artist sitting still for 7 hours a day and inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. There was no interaction in the traditional sense - no touching, no speaking - but artist and audience member sat opposite each other and held eye contact, for however short or long a time as the audience member wanted, or could bear. Many found it a very moving experience and came back again, to sit opposite the artist, and to be seen by her.
"She watched as the final hours of The Artist is Present passed by, sitter after sitter in a gaze with the woman across the table. Jane felt she had witnessed a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans who had been drawn to this art and had found the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"
In The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional tale unravels about several people who find themselves witnessing, or participating, in Abramovic's performance and how it affects their lives. The central character is Arky Levin, a celebrated composer of film scores, who is grieving for his terminally-ill wife who hasn't physically died yet but, out of supposedly wanting to spare him grief, moved herself into a care facility and cut off all contact with him. His 22 year old daughter also seems to want little to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Arky finds inspiration is eluding him. Arky somehow ends up at "The Artist is Present" and, over the course of the next three months, watches the performance unfold and various aspects of his life untangle in response.
I loved the insight into the creative process from perspectives other than writing and acting - the visual arts, architecture, music composition. For a novel, it is a remarkable manual for artists. It even opens with Marina Abramovic's "Seven Steps" (which I now have pinned on the wall above my writing desk).
Therefore, for me, The Museum of Modern Love is almost a manifesto. Heather Rose is asking us, as we read, to think about art and how we connect with it. Connection, after all, as shown through the interweaving stories of all the novel's characters, is what matters, and art is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with each other. But it takes courage to connect, because in reaching out, in asking to be seen, we make ourselves vulnerable. That is art too. Making art is an act of courage. Therefore, live (and create art) with courage. That is the key ingredient.
This is an original, beautiful and utterly compelling novel. I never tire of Heather's writing - to me, her words are like fine wine, only improving with time.
"Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless."
But wait, there's more
There were so many other books I read in 2016 that I loved, that gave me great comfort, that made me laugh and think, that have been consigned to shelves all within easy reach so I can refer to them again. Here are a few of them!
I did a lot of research for my current work in progress, which involved reading a lot of war diaries, biographies and history texts about 1940s London. The best of these were A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt (Canongate, 2015) and Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (Penguin, 2012).
Jean Lucey Pratt was a lifelong diarist who also contributed to the Mass Observation project. Her collected diaries - A Notable Woman - cover nearly her whole life, from her first diary as a child in the 1920s to her old age in the 1980s. She was my age during the second world war and her diaries of course focus on those events but also her daily life and concerns, her dreams, anxieties and longings which for the most part remained unchanged by the war and all its dramas and hardships. She was still a woman who was figuring out who she was and what she wanted, and often pondered about all the what ifs, missed chances and the might-have-beens. It made me realise that the only thing that distinguishes each decade in history is technology - the human heart, with all its wants and needs, remains the same. I enjoyed her later years as much as I did the war years. She was funny, brave and inspiring. This book was a joy to read.
Millions Like Us is also a fascinating read, following the lives of a dozen women of various ages and backgrounds and the changes inn their lives over the course of the second world war.....and, most interestingly for me, what happened once peace came. The seeds of the feminist revolution that came a few decades later were sown, but many were keen for life to resume as it was, which made things very complicated. It was absolutely enthralling to read and an impressive piece of work, I highly recommend it.
Another of my favourite reads of last year was Nobody Told Me (Blackfriars, 2016), a poetry collection by Hollie McNish, which has since won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award. It is a collection of stories, taken from diaries the poet kept during her pregnancy and the early days and years of her daughter's life, of being a young parent in modern Britain. To put it simply - everyone should read Nobody Told Me. Parents, people who want to be parents, and people who don't want to be parents. Those who are and do will feel some solidarity and understanding, those who don't will have their ignorance smashed to smithereens. After reading this book you'll never think 'why would you bring a child on a train at peak hour?' ever again. Hollie's voice is mesmerising, raw, vulnerable, honest, and full of joy. I applaud her and her bravery.
I was also blown away by The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Known for his wonderful works of non-fiction, this time de Botton has written a novel that follows the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten over, as the title suggests, the course of their love.
This isn't your typical novel, that's for sure. It reads like a case history in parts, like philosophy in others, and there are other sections where the writing is very lyrical indeed. Whichever genre you think it might fit best, it is a stunning exploration of what it takes to have a successful long term relationship. I think we all know that falling in love is easy. It is the maintaining of that love over the long term, over the course of our lives, that is the real challenge.
Basically, the Romantic notion of love is what sets so many of us up for a fall. Romance is only part of the story. We are ready for marriage, de Botton writes, when we are prepared to love rather than be loved and compatibility, he explains, is an achievement of love - it shouldn't be a precondition.
The exploration of this particular marriage between Rabih and Kirsten covers pretty much everything - disillusionment, loss of desire, adultery, "immature rages, late-night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors and everyday acts of thoughtlessness and cruelty", as well as the loneliness and fear of being vulnerable that can be felt in long term relationships. Alain de Botton has a voyeur's eye as he zooms in on Rabih and Kirsten, going beyond their physical bodies and into their hearts and minds, where he can see everything and how their past experiences, childhood traumas, their earliest experiences of love and what it meant and how you were supposed to show it, are now playing out in their marriage.
There are many truths in The Course of Love, some of which (having been through a divorce and now having been repartnered for nearly a decade) I knew very intimately. Some of de Botton's observations were so accurate they made me squirm a little. I highlighted a lot of passages on my Kindle version!
Ultimately, I came away from reading this wonderful, wise book feeling reassured and comforted. Human beings are complicated and no relationship is perfect. Love can be quite messy, entailing a lot of compromise, and de Botton's stance is that you can only ever really love and make a success out of a long term relationship if you are prepared to accept that your partner isn't perfect and inevitably they will disappoint you. So much of our disillusionment in life comes from expecting people (not just our lovers, our friends and families too) to be mind readers and meet our needs without our ever having to articulate them, so we need to take a bit more responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness, rather than pour all our hopes into one person. Also, the occasional blips that you might worry about are actually far more common than you think (well, that, or Alain de Botton must have had my house bugged at some point!).
I think this book should be compulsory reading for anyone thinking about getting married. Having got divorced at 26, when I remarried at 29 I think I definitely went into it with my eyes wide open and with realistic expectations - spare yourself what I went through in my first marriage to get to that point, however, and read The Course of Love instead!
I could go on about all the books I read and enjoyed last year - if you want to see them, and what I'm reading on a more regular basis than once a year, I am on Goodreads and you are welcome to add me as a friend!
The best book of 2017 so far? For me, it would have to be Between A Wolf and A Dog by Georgia Blain. I read it in the first few days of January and the poetic and moving experience of reading it I hope bodes well for the rest of my reading year (it has so far).
What was the best book you read in 2016?