My Books of the Year

Deborah Levy – Swimming Home

And-other-stories-Swimming-Home-cover2

This was my pick for this year’s Booker Prize, my favourite from probably the best shortlist in a decade. It reminded me of John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, in its sorrowful beauty. It takes a familiar set-up in English novels: middle-class couples of holiday, with the interruption of a young, wild stranger, but Levy weaves these familiar strands into something strange and unsettling. It’s a novel about expectations, about depression, about identity and about what it means to be home. When it’s over, I was baffled and beguiled by how much Levy had managed to fit into such a short page count.

Hilary Mantel – Bring Up The Bodies

Bring-up-Bodies-Hilary-Mantel

Even better than the brilliant Wolf Hall and deserving of every accolade bestowed upon it. Hilary Mantel is one of the best prose writers around. The precision of her prose is a joy. When people bang on about “holiday book”, they usually mean books that require you to leave your brain behind as you turn the front page. Personally, I gather no satisfaction from reading something that is going to leave no lasting impression, except for a disdain for clunky prose and over-reliance on Deus Ex Machina. Jeanette Winterson writes beautifully on the power of great literature in her collection of essays, Art Objects, as well as the fact that so many people can read, but don’t know how to read. What she means by this, is that there are so many people out there who choose the “easy option”, when in fact reading proper literature shouldn’t be the harder option, but is in fact just as easy, if not easier than reading a Dan Brown or James Patterson. There is so much more depth with which to hook in the casual reader, and Bring Up The Bodies is a perfect example of this. When there are brilliantly written novels like this that are so easy to read and – with its richness and emotional depth – can give so much more pleasure than a bog-standard thriller, I am baffled that anyone would choose to take “beach books” on holiday. If there is to be such a thing, then this should surely be it. A glorious novel, fully deserving of the Booker Prize.

Keith Ridgway – Hawthorn & Child

hawthorn

A brilliant book, weaving interconnected stories that surround two policemen in North London. The stories are ostensibly detective stories, but they never reach a resolution, in a manner that is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’. The invention on display is mind-blowing, drawing you into Ridgway’s strange world of crying policemen, ghost cars, Japansese gangsters and paranoid schizophrenics.

For a fuller review of the book, I would recommend checking out John Self’s wonderful blog at ‘The Asylum‘ (in my opinion, this is the best book blog around): http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/keith-ridgway-hawthorn-child/

Zadie Smith – NW

NW

Yes, there are faults, but the writing is dazzling. Every page buzzes with an energy, intelligence and wit that papers over any cracks in the plot. In terms of pure prose there are few more exciting writers around than Smith. There’s more pleasure in every sentence of this book than in the whole of whatever dirty novel or vampire romp is being passed around offices this week.

Dana Spiotta – Stone Arabia

stone-arabia

Her last book, Eat The Document, was a favourite of mine a couple of years back. Along with Jennifer Egan, she is one of the writers who should feel aggrieved at the disparity between the approbation heaped upon male writers like Jonathan Franzen and the paucity of coverage for female American writers. Franzen’s The Corrections is one of the best novels of the 21st century, but Freedom is not as good a book and pales in comparison to Egan’s ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’. Stone Arabia is a wonderful novel about obsessions and memory that I finished in a couple of days. Stone Arabia is another example of a book that, if you want a “readable” novel

Barbara Kingsolver – Flight Behaviour

Flight-Behaviour

This brilliant novel manages to tackle the issue of climate change without ever feeling preachy. In fact, there are some strong criticisms of the (mostly unmeant) condescension that comes from eco-campaigners (in particular in a passage in which a campaigner runs the main character through his pledge – most of which doesn’t apply to a relatively impoverished resident of Tennessee) , as well as sympathy for those who buy into the Fox News line that it’s all a crock. Kingsolver has the advantage of being a former biologist, as well as a fantastic writer. The harrowing, yet majestic final passages of the book are masterly in both their power to shock and the subtlety of the prose.

Favourite classic: Kazuo Ishiguro – The Unconsoled

unconsoled

When it first appeared, this meditative, dream-like 500+ page book drew the ire of many critics. Tony Parsons opined on a television review show that the book was so bad that it should be burned (could there be a higher recommendation than that?!) and the critic James Wood wrote that the book “invented its own category of badness”. However, over time the book has come to be seen as a classic “difficult book”. However, early critics such as Anita Brooker began to reappraise the book, with Brooker declaring that she couldn’t see how Ishiguro “could have got it more right”. When I sat down to read it, I’d been told how difficult the book was (The Observer recently included it in a list of the ‘Top 10 Most Difficult Books’) and I was somewhat trepidatious. However, not only did I enjoy it far more than Ishiguro’s more famous novel ‘Never Let Me Go’, I didn’t find it difficult at all. There have been few books that have stood out so much as this one and I have continued to think about it ever since I put it down. It is almost impossible to concisely explain the peripatetic narrative, which follows a supposedly famous cellist as he prepares for a concert of seemingly paramount importance in a fictional middle-European town. It is a work of extraordinary imagination, which marks out Ishiguro as possibly the finest male writer of his generation.

Other great books I’ve read this year:

Nicola Barker – The Yips (a brilliant comic novel set in and around Luton)

Jeanette Winterson – Art Objects (a wonderful collection of Winterson’s – one of my favourite writers – essays on art and literature)

Thomas Frank – Pity The Billionaire (a very funny (and enraging) look at the rise and rise of neoliberlism and the billionaire)

Edward St. Aubyn – The Patrick Melrose novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last (buy the set, sit down, read within a week – dazzling prose, hilarious, sad, beautiful; these are some of the best English novels of the last 50 years – somewhere between Alan Hollinghurst and Martin Amis)

Tobias Wolff – Old School (if only for his brilliant depiction of Ayn Rand in the final third of the novel)

Flannery O’Connor – The Complete Stories (one of the finest writers of short stories ever to have lived)

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