Travelling Far and Wide: My Reading Year in 2016
by Baz Ozturk
What a wonderful reading year it’s been. I read seventy-three books and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. I liked most of them, and loved a special handful. I went to the slums and salons of nineteenth century France (Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac), and gained insight into the development of the bourgeoisie and its obsession with money and status, and its envy of the upper echelons of Parisian society. It’s a thrilling tale of revenge and one of my most memorable reads of the year for sure. One of the most simply beautiful novels I read was set in a small town in Colorado, America (Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf). It’s a minimalist love story about Addie and Louis, both living alone and lonely, having lost their spouses years ago, and getting on in age and finding solace in each other when they come to an agreement to sleep in the same bed at night to keep each other company. It’s breathtakingly moving. I also discovered an author who I’ll be reading for the rest of my life. She’s the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, whose trilogy of novels (The Country Girls, Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in their Married Bliss) blew my mind. They introduced me to the lives of Kate and Baba in a remote countryside in Ireland, and led me from their impoverished childhoods to their maturity into womanhood and tragic experiences of romantic love. If you’re jaded about love and relationships and want to validate your pessimism, look no further than O’Brien’s fiction. The books were banned in Ireland and actually burned in public. In a long repressed conservative Ireland O’Brien’s novels dismissed social conventions and openly explored the sexualities of its female protagonists, and it was a revelation. It changed the landscape for Irish literature forever after. As a feminist they were of particular interest to me and I gulped the books whole. Is there anybody better than the Irish at heartbreaking melancholy and lyricism? I think not. I also read a collection of poetry called Dome of the Hidden Pavilion by James Tate; it’s easily my favourite title of the year – I enjoy reciting it in my head, it’s so phonetically pleasing. They’re narrative poems so they can almost be read as short stories, and it was the most surreal and avant-garde literature I read this year. I’ll definitely be returning to Tate and reading poetry more widely in 2017. Where else did I go? I went to nineteenth century Russia (A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov) and got to know the charming and arrogant Pechorin. Easily bored and possessing a sharp mind, he finds life utterly absurd and can’t take anybody seriously. He goes on a series of adventures with the aim of satisfying his lust for easy pleasures and if he has to lie, manipulate and break hearts to get what he wants, so be it! I loved him despite his douchebaggery because of his wit and sensitivity and deeply sad life philosophy. I went to Nigeria and was immersed in the terrors of the Nigeria-Biafra War of the late 1960’s (Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I went to Japan where a young man’s dream to settle down with his wife to start a family and live a cosy existence is shattered when she gives birth to a deformed baby. In this novel (A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Ōe) what’s being said between the lines is clear: “Think you’ve got your life in order and your plans for a happy future in place? The senseless tragic comedy of life will knock you down when you least expect it!” I went to Vienna and followed the Cinderella-like rise and then devastating fall of a young girl as the story developed from fairytale and descended into horror as it became clear this was a story about the social costs of the First World War on the working class (The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig). I met Adam Gordon, a young American poet in Spain, who tries to reconcile his art with its inherent fraudulence (Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner). It’s a novel about the distance between our projections of ourselves and who we really are. It’s a meditation on art and literature and the relationship of both to society and politics. What meaning lies in a so-called “profound experience of art” anyway? What is the value of art when compared to the mundane everyday things that affect and influence us much more powerfully? I think about these things constantly, and to have it be the subject of a novel was intensely pleasurable. I also met and followed the Englishman Patrick Melrose in three novels, part of the aptly titled series The Patrick Melrose Novels (Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn). I don’t remember the last time I came across a character as insidious, fascinating and malicious as Patrick’s father David Melrose. There is so much psychological violence in these books (shockingly highly autobiographical) as Patrick’s brutal experiences as the child of rich, snobbish, creepy and deeply unhappy parents (volume one) lead to his finding solace in drugs as a disillusioned and depressed young man (volume two), and then his excruciating and moving struggle to do better by himself (volume three). There are two more volumes to go, Mother’s Milk and At Last, which I finally acquired recently (otherwise they would have long been read) and I can’t wait to dive back into Patrick’s world. These fictions and so much more that I haven’t mentioned have made 2016 a tolerable year for me. It’s been a year of awesome fiction, of beautiful language and profound feeling, of deep pleasure and intellectual nourishment. All seventy-three books helped me to continue to grow and mature and question everything; they gave me a lesson in humility and an education in empathy. And above all, they brought me closer to myself and my connection to the world. Bring on more of the same in 2017!
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