Thursday, 22 December 2011

My Year in Books

This post elects and celebrates the best books of the batch read each month. It’s hard to get a crystal clear picture what was read overall, so let’s get lay down some statistics.

I read fifty-three books by American or Canadian writers (by birth), forty-six by French writers, twenty-four by English writers, sixteen by Scottish writers, nine by Russian writers, eight by Irish writers, five by Croatian writers, four by German writers, three by Czech writers, three by Italian writers, two by Argentine writers, two by Chilean writers, two by Chinese writers, two by Spanish writers, and one by Albanian, Australian, Belgian, Bulgarian, Dutch, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish and South African writers. Plus an anthology of European fiction with stories from every country in Europe. There were also a dozen or so nonfiction titles whose authors’ identities I didn’t log.

Of these 227 books (at the time of writing), one hundred and fifty-three were novels or novellas (or closer aligned with the novel than anything else), thirty-eight were nonfiction (essays, biographies, academic), twenty-seven were short story collections, and a feeble five were poems or drama. The numbers don’t scan exactly, but no one but me cares about this stuff, and I’m not so anal as to break it down into sub-categories. Or am I? Other stats: seventeen of these books were illustrated (with pictures, cartoons, unusual page design), and fifty-five were published by Dalkey Archive Press.

So what were this year’s greatest reads? To keep the post from expanding into the unreadable, I’ll try to keep my selections short. These reviews may contain original material. Be careful.

January — Deborah Levy — Billy and Girl

This was the first novel that truly floored me in at the start of 2011. I haven’t been dogearredly marking up the book as perhaps I should since I tend to have one incredible experience then move on, seeking the next like an empty thrillseeker. What I loved, if I recall, was the offbeat narrative voice, its mix of dark childhood themes (parental abandonment and abuse), black humour and unexpected emotional peaks. I haven’t taken to Levy’s work with a passion yet, I should read her earlier novels next year.

February — B.S. Johnson — B.S. Johnson Omnibus

A cheat, since this contains three novels in one. But these novels, among them Albert Angelo and House Mother Normal, contain some of the finest (and only) British metafiction and typographical experiment in print. Albert Angelo is a collage novel masterpiece with the infamous see-through pages: it’s a hilarious, tragic and personal novel. House Mother Normal is a fabulous black comedy that makes devastating use of blank space.

March — Hubert Selby Jr. — Last Exit to Brooklyn

A searing sift through the slurried slums of post-war Brooklyn. The only book that uses shock, violence and vulgarity to depict a world of tragic isolation that truly pierces the heart, gets you so deeply you feel you are THERE, in this boneyard of brittle bones and broken bodies, crying and fighting and fucking and SHOUTING AT YER FREAKIN KIDS TA SHUT THERE TRAPS. Selby’s editor on this book was Gilbert Sorrentino, who helped Selby refine his extraordinarily precise style, his pitch-perfect dialogue, distinctive abuse and misuse of punctuation, his staggering pacing.

April — Daniel Handler — Adverbs

Adverbs has a twisty, clever authorial voice, all-knowing and wise like the best omniscient narrators, which doesn’t really deviate from its essential Handlerness, despite inhabiting the emotional realm of his lovesick hipster personnel. But Handler handles words like a panhandler panhandles handles, or a handler handles hands: deftly, with aplomb. Like Watch Your Mouth, Handler uses recurring images, phrases, motifs, characters, spooling them through his stylish prose with its sardonic Sorrentino metacomment, its wily Nabokovian impatience, its Eggersian whimsy. Each chapter corresponds to one particular adverb, but it’s irrelevant really, as the star here is the style, and the style succeeds strikingly well at depicting the yearnings and maimings of love. And they’re endlessly funny.

May — Paul Morley — Nothing

Paul Morley, Best Rock Writer in UK, explores his own father’s suicide in this exhilarating memoir by taking the reader through his complex relationship to dead bodies (he saw Ian Curtis laid out on a stretcher), his waning relations with his dad, and the mindset that lead Mr Morley to end himself in a car somewhere outside Gloucester. There’s a dedication to B.S. Johnson afterwards, and Morley’s approach to telling the story is as stubbornly non-linear: the first section is about his aborted attempts to write the book (or imaginary versions of the book), there’s a straightforward memoir section about his school life, a series of little vox pops on various themes, and transcribed interviews. His style is maximal, indulgent even, but always warm and witty.

June — Tatyana Tolstaya — The Slynx

This exceptional little pearl should go straight atop your reading list, knocking off that willowy story collection, those fat-arsed historical doorstoppers, and that free verse thing carved into tree bark. Get rid of them all. Put them in a glorious bonfire and read this instead. The granddaughter of Leo T has all the talent of her antecedent, cribbing also the mordant wit of Bulgakov, the lyrical euphony of Nabokov, the despairing glamour of Zamyatin. The Slynx is a first-rate novel on all fronts: original and captivating in its form, succulent and rib-tickling in its prose, dark and prophetic in its subtext, sutured together with sugary feasts of stylistic invention that would make even the illiterate smile. A book about now, about the past, about the future—this book time travels, this book inhabits the fourth dimension. Read it now.

July — Raymond Queneau — Children of Clay

Les Enfants du limon emerged in 1939, the fifth of nine novels in a decade of tireless creative energy for the Parisian polymath. Unlike the other OuLiPo originals, Queneau had a solid body of work behind him before co-inventing potential literature, using the group as a springboard for ideas, to launch him into superstellar orbit. His output of poetry, essays and songs is far greater post-1960, though his corpus of novels act as fine exemplars of the OuLiPo methods—methods that would seep into postmodern literature throughout the sixties and beyond. Our protagonist, M. Chambernac, is working on an encyclopaedia of French “literary lunatics” in the 19thC, and hires trickster Purpulan to do the cataloguing and secretarial work. As he completes his work (of which vast screeds are reproduced here), he finds his own mind teetering off-piste, and discovers the real lunacy may be closer to home.

August — David Foster Wallace — A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

As much as I revere Wallace’s fiction—his attempt to rescue American culture from the despairing morass of self-aware ironical knowingness—his nonfiction is in another league. The sheer cinematic exuberance, the “floating eye” quality of these pieces is breathtaking and wonderful, bringing the reader as deep into each experience as is textually possible, and as close to Wallace as we can be on the page. In this essay collection, by making the focus tangentially on Wallace himself as filtered through the Illinois State Fair, a revolting cruise ship, or a tortured TV consumer, the work has a deeply personal and directly emotional feel, and although not as ambitious as his attempt to depict the grand throbbing alive-ness of life as in Infinite Jest, the work shines and sings with a more reader-friendly humour, brio and natural warmth, as well as the stylish feats of intelligence and logical probity that is his trademark. An essential text for any serious reader of contemporary essays.

September — Denis Diderot — Jacques the Fatalist

For those exhausted or defeated by Tristram Shandy, here is a precursor to the postmodern novel that packs in more incident, philosophy, bitching and warm humour in its 237 pages than most modern avant-garde writers manage in a whole corpus. Jacques—the titular Fatalist—attempts to recount the tale of his “first loves” while accompanying his Master on a series of oblique misadventures that invariably end up as digressions and more digressions. All postmodern tricks—stories-within-stories, frames-within-frames, direct reader-insulting—are present, and better than in 1971. This is a wild and hilarious romp with a fiercely readable translation from the unfortunately named David Coward, and this edition has an exemplary introduction that neither squeezes all life from the work nor drowns it in academic verbiage. Proof once again the French are the true genitors of all great literature. So it was written up there, on high.

October — Ali Smith — There but for the

I hate to resort to crude Americanisms, but Ali Smith is the motherfucking BOMB. Her latest novel, circa October 2011, shares a structure all but identical to The Accidental—four sections with little one-two-page prefaces—but also shares its masterful grasp over narrative voice, language, style, humour, and subtly heartbreaking strangeness. The novel plays elaborate games with chronology in frequent bracketed sections (the structural design of which eludes me) but There but for the is another lovingly designed work of art, bordering on masterpiece, from my newly crowned Favourite Ever Scottish Writer.

November — Dubravka Ugrešić — Lend Me Your Character

More magical egghead prose from Croatia’s best woman. ‘Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life’ is a patchwork novella with various instructions for perforating and crocheting the prose. Where B.S. Johnson might actually knit a novel in a scarf, Mrs. Ugrešić merely presents the idea with her customary sardonic wit. The story collection ‘Life is a Fairy Tale’ involves a woman who finds a penis in her hotdog, a zealous translator of Daniil Kharms failing to reach her publisher, a reworking of Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ involving a cannon on a train, and a man who borrows a writer’s female character to have sex with his male character. Absurd brilliance from this restless firecracker. I chose this merely to give Mrs U. a place—she’s my favourite Croat EVER.

December — Paul Murray — Skippy Dies

This month is technically still happening but at the time of writing (the 17th), the best book so far is Skippy Dies, a comedy drama set in an Irish boarding school. This novel paints a cynically accurate portrait of teenagehood (at least among rich Catholic kids) as texting thugs driven by spite, sex and sleeping pills. And the adults too are misguided souls, aimlessly searching for an elusive whatever in a disappointing and cold world. But for the duration, Skippy Dies is a manic not-really-coming-of-age-at-all novel written in a range of delicious close third-person narratives, flipping between breathless teenage babble, a convenient scientific genius (helps add cosmic heft), and an adult pedagogue with a wandering penis. The sublime comic energy that infuses this novel guides the reader through its giddying 600+ density, through its crass humour, teenage theatrics, comic caricature, towards the unusual ending where it withers into oblivion like the sequel to Carrie.

The end. Here’s to another two hundred or more in 2012!


  1. Wow, and I thought I did well reading 25 books.

  2. I'm also 25 years old. And a freak.

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