I tend to shy away from judgements on published works on this blog (though not elsewhere!), but I thought I’d do my own year-end list of books: books I’ve enjoyed, books that left an impression, books I gained something from. Not all were published this year, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten other books I read in 2015, and this could be a slightly different list were I to write it yesterday or tomorrow.
Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl is perhaps my favourite book of the year. 2015 could go down in literary history as the year I discovered Edna O’Brien. Yay! Love her. A couple of months after reading, what I remember most: the lyrical prose, the stories of her family and her marriage, the celebs she describes (could be namedroppy in lesser hands, but here they just come naturally and deservedly). I was taken into another world with this book, which is one of my measurements of what a great book should do for me. What a star.
If that book has a contender for my fave, it’s probably Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, which I finally read back in February. A powerful family story, with a strong setting in time and place (Rhodesia in the 70s and 80s) and great political purpose. Searingly good, and so rich and so intense I eked it out a couple of chapters at a time.
Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family is perhaps the novel that consumed me most this year. I can’t quite put my finger on why, as at times I found its central character and a couple of other players a little grating. But then there were other characters who really got under my skin, which makes me think that sometimes we have to set up certain things (grating characters) for other things to work better (characters who get under the skin). They certainly felt real as a result, and worked their magic – the voice and the tone really took hold of me at certain points.
I also enjoyed a reading where Bill Clegg described his process in writing this book: on returning to his hometown after a long time away, he started writing about it. He had a line – She will go – that would end up as the opening sentence of Chapter Two, in fact, but it took four years of accruing many pages in the voices and points of view of an extended community before he landed on the narrative device that would be placed at the start of his book and drive his plot. It took another three years to refine what went in the book (much went out). I think this shows in the deeply felt portraiture of people and place: this was instinctively assembled, bottom upwards, and we really experience a slice of these characters’ lives.
I’d been gripped by Bill Clegg’s first memoir Portrait Of The Addict As A Young Man when it first came out, and, having been impressed by his novel, this year I caught up on his second memoir, Ninety Days, which is about his recovery: whoa! Economical writing, and very powerful in its frankness. A very New York book, too, I thought.
Another economical read was Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. It has a pretty simple setup (oldsters seeking company), and unfolds with a beguiling humour and depth of characterisation, and also a certain darkness. It took me back to the small towns on the plains of Colorado. This is the author’s last novel (he died a year ago), but I still have a few other books of his to catch up on. A lovely feature by him here: ‘The Making Of A Writer’.
Nina Stibbe’s Man At The Helm was probably the novel that charmed me most this year: her characters, her setting (a gossipy Midlands village), and especially her voice. We are there with her and her family in what turns out to be a funny and clever and bittersweet book. Funny is hard to pull off: funny is the mark of a clever writer, and when it’s combined with feeling it’s a powerful thing. And I love that she uses all the words (the effs and the cees), like a good writer should.
Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room is a strange and unsettling book that held my attention with pretty ordinary events that delivered unexpected turns of suspense. Again, it is the style that wins my praise. He is unafraid to experiment or be something other than obvious, and he does so unpretentiously in a way that seems effortless.
I read a few dreadful (published) books too. I’m usually hesitant about parading harsh judgements on this blog, or even entertaining the idea of dreadful, because my job is about encouraging writers to find their way in the world of writing, and taste is so subjective, anyway – many books I enjoy might in fact be subject to others’ snootiness.
But: I hated A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It started off so well, and I did admire the book’s management of time – compressing, looping back, opening out as it went along – but I knew things had really gone irretrievably badly when [spoiler!] a character in a wheelchair got pushed down a stairwell by his violent boyfriend, and my visceral reaction was to laugh out loud. I found this book manipulative without being moving, and could not help but compare the misfortunes it melodramatises with any number of real-life stories (e.g., see Alexandra Fuller, above). The book is said to aim for a heightened reality, which sounds like the bold sort of deviation from representative realism that I usually love, but I’m afraid I was not persuaded, perhaps as its fans seem to have identified in very literal and mawkish ways with its cast of cartoonish characters.
It was its reception that probably confounded me most, especially on Twitter, where it sometimes felt as if emotional cripples – stunted by the limits of 140 characters, and craving reaction – were live-tweeting their readings. (Later, I imagined some of these readers were the same people tweeting that London Spy was the best and most heartbreaking thing on telly, even after that last – that word again – dreadful episode; it too had started so well …) So many publishing successes nowadays seem to be twysterically generated.
Maybe I’d not have felt so strongly about A Little Life had I not read the quote from the Atlantic saying this might be the ‘great gay novel’. Ultimately it felt to me like misery-porn for self-hating homos, a ghoulish fantasy for faghags who prefer their gay men as victims, abusers, consumers, or pastry chefs. Eventually I saw sense prevailing among some readers, such as discussion with Scott Pack on his blog. Daniel Mendelsohn’s exacting review in the New York Review of Books (as well as his even more exacting response to a letter from the book’s editor) must rank as one of the most thoughtful pieces of criticism I read in 2015 (and not just because I heartily agree with it). In a year in which personal attacks and trolling have continued to pollute social media, I resisted sharing my own negative responses so publicly. But eventually I thought that it felt pollyanna-ish not to speak about something I felt strongly about, and I note I’ve written more about it here than any of the books that I enjoyed; perhaps this is in fact my book of the year?! Much can be formed in provocation and opposition. And I did at least end up loving-to-hate this book, I guess!
I increasingly think that volumes of short stories should not be read all at once, and I’ve continued to read the short stories in Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, which I started in 2014. I’m bowled over by her voice and style and sense of place. And in a year where so much discourse in identity politics has been marked by righteousness, I particularly liked how Watkins’s essay ‘On Pandering’ raised questions rather than sought offence.
I’m still working through the most excellent catalogue for the most excellent Celts exhibition at the British Museum, and I’m also a few chapters into Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (I often read nonfiction in fits and starts). I also enjoyed many pieces I read on or via Literary Hub.
Another great discovery was Lynda Barry. I’d read about her before, but not read any of her books. Syllabus, which gathers together her classroom notes for a course she teaches on creativity at the University of Wisconsin, is called life-changing by its publisher, and I think the hyperbole is warranted. It was also refreshing for me to read something where so much of its energy came through illustration rather than words, and it prompted me to read others of her books: What It Is, Picture This, and One! Hundred! Demons! I should write a review for Syllabus on this blog sometime. Yay! All hail Queen Lynda! I also want to read more widely in graphic novels and memoirs.
While discussing books on writing and creativity, I should mention The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, which I’m still working through (on pause till I finish my close reading of Silence of the Lambs, which it will discuss in detail as a case study). And I am also pleased that Ursula Le Guin’s Steering The Craft is now more widely available in a new edition.
Further special mentions go to two debut novels coming in 2016 that I was lucky to read as advance proofs: Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats And Sheep and Kit De Waal’s My Name Is Leon. Both have children as protagonists, and each delivers a certain unexpected bite, but they work their wonders in different ways. Both, I now realise, also have period settings in the Midlands (70s and 80s), which I think is very good indeed: we need more strong Midlands voices in contemporary fiction (okay, Nina Stibbe is another one too – yes, maybe I’m biased). I’d not be surprised to see either of these engrossing novels as prizewinners or book club selections, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from their authors.
There were a number of books I did not get to. I hope in the near future to read Sanjeev Sahota’s Year Of The Runaways and Marlon James’s Brief History Of Seven Killings and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen; this was a good year for the Booker, it seems. Also Oliver Sacks’s memoir On The Move; his column in the New York Times was another moving read. And maybe sometime soon I’ll get to Elena Ferrante – I confess to starting the first volume several times now, and finding the translation a bit stiff.
I’d also hoped to finish Moby-Dick this year, nay this summer, but other things came along (not least, its mid-Victorian style of rambling and musing, which has its moments, but I’m wanting me some STORY). I’m 40 per cent of the way in, and finally (FINALLY) we’ve met Ahab and had a mention of the whale. More anon (I hope), though for now I think I’m going to take a breather with Anne Tyler’s newest book A Spool Of Blue Thread.
And I realise I still (after three serious goes) have not finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro; I was really looking forward to this, and thought it sounded like the sort of literary fantasy I should have enjoyed, but what I did read just didn’t grab me (and I only have sixty pages left to go – which says a lot): sometimes a bit heavy-handed, often a bit lacking (in spark? in magic?). Plus I am tired of the patronising conversations about genre fiction by literary authors and their readers.
The novels I’ve listed as enjoying here have been on the whole pretty straightforward works of realism. People and places and voices were what seemed to count in my reading. No plot-rich pageturners this year, or historical blockbusters, or escapes into fantasy: no Goldfinch, no Burial Rites, no new George R.R. Martin.
Despite my love of novels and short stories, I think the works of fiction I enjoyed the most in 2015 all appeared on television. Game of Thrones continued to entertain and surprise, and I’m looking forward to see how it departs further from the books in 2016. I’m currently watching the second season of Transparent, whose characters at first irritated the hell out of me, until I really fell for them. So Jewish and so Californian, and so many of the joys and misunderstandings of relationships and family life are drawn with truth. And The Bridge also gave surprises, especially beyond the usual resolutions of a police procedural drama – the last hour of the third series was the best hour of telly (and fiction) this year.
Happy New Year!