So 2016 is finally about to fade into, what will hopefully be, a better and brighter 2017. But for all of the bleakness of the past twelve months, it’s been a phenomenal year for pop culture. So I’m choosing to spend the dying gasps of this awful, awful year to remind myself of the very best content that I’ve consumed. What’s the point in being miserable over the past year, when you can celebrate a more positive cultural legacy?
I’m starting with my favourite books released in 2016. I would describe myself as a voracious reader – I graduated with a first class English Literature degree this year after-all – but I am notoriously bad at keeping up with new releases. It’s hard to keep up with current releases when there is literally hundreds of years worth of classics within the canon to read. That being said, 2016 did produce a handful of books interesting enough to pique my interest. Amy Schumer released her surprisingly funny and honest autobiography The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo; I am no fan of her standup, but her written prose is wonderful. There was the literary comeback of Alan Partridge, one of the greatest comic characters in the British canon, with Nomad – a Bill Bryson-esque walking tour of the journey between Norwich and London. There’s something magical about reading through the focalising voice of an absolute tosser. I even kept on top of the more experimental work released this year like Max Porter’s haunting Grief is the Thing With Feathers. If I was mediating this list purely by quality I think I would have to make Grief is the Thing With Feathers my book of the year. But this list is my favourite books of 2016, and surprisingly there were two books I enjoyed more.
Runner Up: The Blade Artist – Irvine Welsh
I am a huge fan of Irvine Welsh, particularly his work within the Trainspotting series, but initially The Blade Artist left me cold. I talked in my full review how I couldn’t buy into the idea that Franco Begbie had turned into the Jim Francis character from the novel’s opening chapter. Begbie has been repeatedly defined by his sudden acts of hyperviolence. His narrative voice constructed through a prose of capital letters and Glaswegian slang that suggests that his very identity revolves around his rage and his homeland. But Jim Francis is immediately more controlled, a doting father to two young girls who lives in California and speaks without a trace of Scots. I couldn’t believe in his supposed redemption and thus I disconnected from the narrative.
But what if this disconnect is deliberate in an attempt to make a meta-textual point? Just like the reader, none of the characters in this world finds Begbie’s reinvention particularly convincing. When the narrative forces Begbie to return to Scotland, he finds his masculinity under question. When you have built your gendered identity around a penchant for destruction and violence, returning to a family in desperate need of a patriarch comes with certain expectations; the Begbie name carries a weight after all. Thus that uncomfortable uncanny feeling Welsh imbues in the opening few chapters forces his readership into the same position as most of the books supporting cast. In a book where one of the most prominent questions being asked is – “can someone really change?” – is it not remarkably effective that both the audience and the majority of the characters agree that change is impossible? I don’t wish to spoil the novel, but it would be easy to read The Blade Artist as a long form exploration that a leopard can’t change his spots. But I feel like this is a reductive argument. Welsh argues that change is possible, but what never changes are other people’s expectations of you: perhaps Begbie really did change, but was ultimately forced to conform to the readers expectation of him.
Don’t get me wrong, The Blade Artist is not Irvine Welsh’s best work – it lacks the wit of Trainspotting or the political bite of Skagboys – but in the way it manipulates the audience it is probably his cleverest text. The concept being explored here is you as a reader, and your own expectations concerning Frank Begbie. Sure Begbie is a psychopath, but Welsh positions the audience as complicit in the violence.
Winner: Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame – Mara Wilson
This pseudo-autobiography told through a series of essays simply blew me away. I hunted it down because I loved Matilda as a kid and in all of her promotional interviews Mara Wilson seemed a witty and interesting person. Essentially I paid the price of admission for a few cute Danny DeVito anecdotes and nothing more. I didn’t expect the book to be as touching and as insightful as it turned out to be.
Growing up as a movie star Mara Wilson was obviously afforded certain privileges (and she recognises this) but growing up is tumultuous for everyone, and Wilson successfully expands her experience into general advice. By talking about the specific experiences and pressures she faced, Wilson explores what is to “grow up”. One of the key themes throughout the text is the pressures of anxiety and mental health as you go through puberty. Wilson is incredibly honest about how she felt the pressures of OCD growing up in the public eye, and how these issues all got worse once her mother passed away. It would be very easy for this all to come across as the writing of a self-absorbed hollywood starlet – “my heart bleeds for the child millionaire” etc.- but it never once crosses into conceited territory. So honest and genuine is Wilson’s prose that even the oddly specific stories come across as relatable. Sure I didn’t discover forums as a preteen with peadophile foot-fetishists discussing my toes (how horrifying!) but the mocking, self-loathing tone is recognisable to anyone who has ever felt like they have suffered with their mental health.
In one chapter Mara Wilson writes a letter to Matilda, the fictional character that cemented her fame. In it she argues that she felt she always was Matilda in real life but eventually she had to realise that she never really fit the identity. This is the only point I disagree with the text, as in my opinion this is the sort of book I could imagine a grown up Matilda writing; the text is funny, heartfelt and full of witty wisdom. In writing this book Mara Wilson does Matilda justice, and that is a wonderful thing. But even if you hate Matilda, or Mrs Doubtfire, or Miracle on 34th Street I still recommend this book to you. It is equal parts insight into being a child star in Hollywood and genuine advice for anyone who has felt neurotic in the twenty-first century.
If you see this on the shelf in your local bookstore I urge you to buy it as this is a text that is both laugh out loud funny and genuinely affecting.