Hope and Despair: My Top Ten Books of 2016

I decided a couple of days ago to go back over the books that I read this year to try to establish, largely for myself, a kind of top ten that were books I would recommend to others. It was more difficult than I expected – I read very few novels that really stuck with me this past year, so it became mostly non-fiction, which is unusual for me. Some of the things on this list feel like filler because I could only get about five books I absolutely loved if I cut out books that I’d re-read (perhaps I should have included Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, though). I originally planned to post this list to Twitter and Facebook, but as I reflected on them and what they meant to me, I found a lot more depth than I had expected. Thus it has become a blog post. The books are presented in roughly the order in which I read them, not in any way intended to be a ranking based on relative enjoyment or quality.

  1. Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

I think that, if I’d got around to reading Solnit’s Hope In the Dark (it’s primed on my kindle), it would have made this list rather than Men Explain Things to Me. That’s not to say that Men Explain Things to Me didn’t affect me, but the thing that has really been going through my head the past few weeks/months are Solnit’s reflections on despair and optimism (both, in her interpretation, forms of certainty cause for inaction) and hope, which promises the possibility of a good outcome if one works towards it, in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness”. I’ve see a lot of people since November talking about embracing despair, not giving in to hope, but I think they use ‘hope’ the way Solnit uses optimism. Reflecting on this alongside my (joint-)favourite film of the year, I came up with an example:

OPTIMISM: The Empire has built a Death Star, but let’s wait and see if they actually use it, it could be fine.

DESPAIR: The Empire has built a Death Star! We must disband the Rebellion and go back to living in fear!

HOPE: The Empire has built a Death Star. Let’s try to steal the plans and blow that shit up.

The last one is what we need right now. Perhaps not the ‘blowing shit up’ part, but definitely the resistance. We need hope, an aim, a motive, not to give in to the worst possible outcome and let the Empire destroy us.

  1. The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore

I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I tend to prefer the history of comic books to the actual comic books themselves. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is concerned as much with the creator of Wonder Woman (and the women on whom she was based) than the actual history of the comic book character and her use and abuse over the past 75 years (which could have dovetailed nicely with Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminist Once, discussed below), but it’s still a fascinating history of a comic book icon. At the time of reading I found it paralleled Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Romantic Outlaws, which I read in 2015, in that it chronicled the ways in which supposedly progressive men can be blind to the experiences of women. I think that this remains a significant barrier in progressive circles; I suspect that, if we looked at the Democratic Party and the support given to Barack Obama and Bernie Sandars but not to Hillary Clinton, we might find that it is one of the sources of the current problems in the world today.

  1. The Birthday of the World – Ursula Le Guin

Of course Ursula le Guin makes it onto a list of my favourite books from any year; and this year I read the last of her Hainish/Ekumen stories. This collection contains many stories that reflect on change over time, particularly “The Matter of Seggri”, and the idea that progress is gradual but happens. It is, I would say, optimistic more than hopeful. But that is perhaps doing it, and le Guin, a disservice. This year I also listened to the audiobook of The Dispossessed, which I originally read in 2012, and reflected on its message that progress, equality, and freedom are on-going projects, ones that require work and maintenance. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and I thought about what undermines the utopianism of Anarres, the anarchist society of the novel. It is, perhaps, that the society was optimistic – “we have created an anarchist society, therefore we are free and equal” – rather than hopeful – “we have created an anarchist society, through which we can strive for freedom and equality”. “The Matter of Seggri” is far behind the utopias of The Dispossessed, but one might look on it as a hopeful tale, where the difficulties and struggles of Seggri past are overcome as it progresses towards a more equal society.

4 & 5. Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire/A Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I didn’t read many novels this year, as a proportion of the books I read, and few of them really stuck with me in the way that a lot of the non-fiction did. Besides Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, these two novels were the most thought provoking.

Were I being completely honest, I would admit that the novel that most affected me this year was Way Down Dark by James Smythe; it doesn’t make the list because the effect was negative. Perhaps I had already been down because of the referendum bullshit but Way Down Dark is the first thing I can date this year that made me really despair. It was so hopeless and bleak that it put me off reading for a while afterwards, and may explain why I read so few novels after it. As I reflected in my Goodreads review of A Calculated Life, it is possible that I enjoyed it so much because I had not enjoyed the previous, overlong, stodgy book that I read. Looking back, perhaps it was also because I followed it up with Way Down Dark.

  1. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America – Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian stands apart from many of the other things that I read in 2016. I didn’t – couldn’t – review it on Goodreads, I couldn’t think how to encapsulate what it made me think and feel. I still can’t. What I can say is that it has made me reflect on some of the other histories that I read, both for my research and for pleasure, and how they discuss Indians, and colonialism, and colonization. They do not often come across all that well. Perhaps the most important key theme of the book is that of betrayal – how Native and First Nations people have constantly be betrayed by the promises and treaties that colonial Canada and the United States of America make with them. It has made me notice how far in the background Native rights are in most discussions of progressive politics in both the USA and Canada, and how easily they can be discarded once a ‘progressive’ party wins an election, but also how progressive media consistently ignores or marginalises Native peoples – or depicts them with tropes and clichés, as a people that belong in and to the past (King’s ‘Dead Indians’).

The Inconvenient Indian was published in 2013, towards the end of the Harper era (although obviously that was unclear at the time). One might have thought that with Justin Trudeau’s election things were looking better and that now, when I think about The Inconvenient Indian, I am hopeful that the cycles of mistreatment have come to an end. But 2016 has not been that kind of year. In fact, when I jokingly commented in December 2015 that Trudeau’s flip-flopping regarding his statement that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film was a poor indicator for his time as Prime Minister, I didn’t expect to be proven as right as I have been this past year. It’s difficult, because as a spousal immigrant in Canada the Liberal government has improved things for me, and for those who come after me, in the ways in which they have changed the application procedures and decreased the waiting times. But the government has still betrayed its promises to First Nations people, still allowed more pipelines to be built, still isn’t prioritising missing and murdered First Nations women. The Inconvenient Indian actually provides the best check to my hopeful side in what has happened since it was written and since I read it.

  1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?/Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

I listened to a few audiobooks by comedians this year and Mindy Kaling’s were the best. It’s difficult to fit this into the narrative of hope, optimism, and despair that I’ve established throughout this account. I can reflect on the (optimistic) jokes in the first part of The Mindy Project season 5 that assume Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election. But I think that, mostly, I like to think that a funny, successful person wrote a couple of books that I really enjoyed.

  1. Death’s End – Cixin Liu

I have some reservations about recommending Death’s End, especially as it is the third part of a trilogy of exceptionally long novels. The first, The Three-Body Problem, was fantastic; the second, The Dark Forest, began terribly but ended well. The trilogy is certainly worth reading if you can cope with the misogyny. But, in a way, it is even bleaker than Way Down Dark. Throughout the trilogy humanity goes through stages of hope and despair, trying to find new ways to survive, sometimes just about holding on. Despair, it seems, is the best course of action. Indeed, it is clear at some points that hope and optimism – or at least, attempting to stifle despair – causes more problems for humanity than it solves.

  1. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era – Michael Kimmel

Like The Inconvenient Indian, Angry White Men was published in 2013 but remains a pretty solid explanation of how what happened in 2016 happened, three years before it actually, uh, happened. This book details the circumstances in which the anguish of white men is turned to anger, and how it is directed against those who are coming up from beneath them rather than against those above them who hold them down. It also provides the handy term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to explain how men react to no longer being the centre of attention.

While I do not think that Kimmel is guilty of the blindness to women’s suffering that I attribute to William Moulton Marston or the men in the lives of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, I found that my interest in the failings of supposedly feminist men were not met by this book. It’s a topic that I find a lot of interest in because it is something that I feel myself and that I am trying to be self-reflective. It doesn’t really fall within Kimmel’s remit, which is to look at the angry masculinity of a certain kind of man, but I think that the entitlement of progressive men also needs to be considered, even though it is yet to be aggrieved.

As with The Inconvenient Indian, subsequent events have affected how I react to Angry White Men three years after its original publication. Kimmel is a little over-optimistic in his conclusions. His implication is that we don’t actually have to do anything; these men are in decline and will eventually be drowned out. That doesn’t seem to have actually happened; in fact, it seems like the harmful forces that take advantage of these men’s anguish have managed to do so to an extraordinary degree. But the book offers me hope, even if that hope is fragile: that those who have gained rights will not back down; that the lack of progress over the next few years will show these angry white men that their optimism has been misplaced; that left-wing movements can take over where right-wing ones have previously held sway. Ultimately, it shows me that there is a way through this darkness; it’s just that the way through needs to challenge the right, admit how neoliberal economics have failed, and to hold fast to the importance of the rights that have been gained over the past decades. It’s a sliver of hope, but it is there.

  1. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement – Andi Zeisler

The last book that I read this year, and one on which I am still mulling. It will have been written with some awareness of what might happen in 2016, but was published before much of it happened; but there is still a tone of hope in the dark as Zeisler presents a difficulty in a modern progressive movement and reflects on how to make the best out of it. But the part which made me the most hopeful was a section in which Zeisler discusses the attacks on female bodily autonomy under the Bush administration in the early ‘00s, and the way in which 9/11 was used to prevent criticism of the government. Zeisler comments that subsequently, social media has created connections and support networks between women so that it is more difficult to feel as alone as one could in the early ‘00s. Here, again, is a shred of hope. As Kimmel concluded, women and minorities are not suddenly going to back down and forget that they are still treated unequally; under Bush, the spectre of terrorism and the lack of social media made it difficult to challenge attacks to past gains, but in the next few years such a defence might be possible. It’s not much, but it’s there. Again, it is why hope (understood to mean looking for solutions) is better than optimism or despair (assuming an outcome, positive or negative). The fight will get more difficult, but it will not become impossible.

In a way, I found Zeisler’s focus on the co-opting of ‘feminism’ as an identity among right wing and capitalist women such as Sarah Palin rather than on how some men use this identity as an excuse to get at women (to Explain Things to Them, as it were) more disappointing than Kimmel’s lack of discussion on the topic, as it perhaps fits better with the theme of her book. It connects We Were Feminists Once with The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Romantic Outlaws; men continue to use ‘feminist’ as an identity or gold star, especially young men, as a way of showing their ‘wokeness’, or how they are Good For Women. It is outlined well in this BuzzFeed article, which describes these men as ‘thirsty male feminist[s]’. It is worth a read, and a salient reminder that if one is a man who wishes to enact feminism then one must be careful of pitfalls, the most prominent one being dictating feminism to women and girls rather than using their position among men as a way of promoting feminism and respect for women and other genders among those of us who benefit from the patriarchal dividend. For me, next year will partially be about how to put one of Zeisler’s main points – that feminism is something that you do, not something that you are – into action in my own life. I’m still thinking about how I might do that. But I remain hopeful.

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