Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best Books of 2012

Thoughts on Books and other things in 2012

This year has been a far slower book year for me than 2011. A sort of general tiredness seems to settle over me, particularly towards the end of the year and at times it was a real struggle to write. I hope that I  have a more energetic 2013 and read more, and write more.

At the beginning of the year my main target was to read Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. I had thought a couple of months would do it but it took me a lot longer. It's hard to compare it to anything else but it is an experience as much as a book. The most positive thing about it was that it gave me the impetus to tackle my second target of the year, which was to finish a short story.

I did this as part of a workshop with the writer Keith Ridgway, who's Hawthorn and Child was one of the year's reading highlights.  Although work remains to be done on the story it is in the realm of editing, start, finish, action and characters are in place. I have also got some rough sketches towards more stories which I intend filling out in 2013, with the aspiration of having a collection in a couple of years. What happens to it - publication, series of blogs, whatever, is not something I'm considering too much at this stage but I do feel a need to complete them.

It's been a desire of mine since I was a book obsessed child to call myself a writer and what I've learnt is that if you work you'll produce something and if you work more it will be better. Going beyond that is an unpredictable mix of talent and inspiration. I struggle to convince myself that I've enough of either or both to create something worthwhile but there is only one way to find out.

Anyway, back to my 'books of the year'.

I reread a few books this year and that included a group reading of  The Savage Detectives which was an early highlight. It's a book I imagine I'll reread again. I look forward to reading a couple of new (to me) Bolaño books in 2013.
I also re-read one of my all time favourite novels, William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic. This re-read did nothing to damage the book's place in my firmament.
I also enjoyed re-reading The Left Handed Woman by Peter Handke which I had mostly forgotten.

Short Stories
Clearly, if you want to write short stories you should read some. I read a number of individual stories during the year alongside these collections (and a re-read of Iris Murdoch's one published short story)
Maeve Brennan's The Springs of Affection was a wonderful read and I will be hunting down the rest of her work in coming years.

I also read two collections by Kevin Barry, Dark Lies the Island & There Are Little Kingdoms. I won Dark Lies the Island in a competition on robaroundbooks.com and a story from it was used during my course with Keith Ridgway. I got There are Little Kingdoms (which is his first collection) for Christmas and it proved a quick read, and a more fulfilling one than the second, I think. I've yet to write about it. These are particularly interesting because they cover some territory similar to that which I wish to cover myself. We are of a similar age and background. Coincidentally, I almost bumped into Kevin Barry on my way to having my short story deconstructed by the class and spent five minutes trying to work out who it was, thinking he must be an old friend. I had a photo of him in my bag as Rob sent me one with the book.

Another collection of short stories which I particularly enjoyed this year was Junot Diaz's collection Drown. The themes of exile and identity are ones which fascinate me and they provide an interesting parallel to Irish writing on emigration. I hope to read his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this coming year.

I also re-read Iris Murdoch's Something Special and was struck by how Joycean it was and it is a timely reminder of the strength of her Dublin identity.

Apart from the afore mentioned À La Recherche du Temps Perdu and Hawthorn and Child
other highlights of the year include William Trevor's funny and touching novel of characters falling off the edge of suburban life Elizabeth Alone. I will be reading at least one more Trevor in the upcoming twelve months.

The Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week was another highlight of the year and Harriet Said was a real treat. I'm particularly looking forward to reading her Young Adolf (yes, that Adolf) in 2013. A comic iconoclast of the first order.

Juan Carlos Onetti's A Brief Life was a late modernist riddle of a book, dark but fascinating.
I read my first Enrique Vilas Matas book, Bartleby & Co., and enjoyed it immensely. A rich mix of essay and fiction it is full of ideas and could prove the starting point for a major readathon of the many books which form its core.

One of the writers who I decided to explore after reading Bartleby was Robert Wasler and his Jakob Von Gunten proved an interesting, quirky read.

I also took on a couple of Victorian potboilers and both Vanity Fair and The Woman in White were great fun and included memorable scenes and characters.

Knut Hamsun's Hunger is often mentioned side by side with the word classic and with a Janus like head pointing back towards Dostoyevsky and forwards to Beckett it lived up to its reputation.
I read my third Heinrich Böll, Group Portrait with Lady, and it excavated similar territory to Billiards at Half Past Nine and The Safety Net but found new ways to do so. I will be reading at least one more in 2013, hopefully reading The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum along with Richard at the mighty Caravana De Recuerdos.

Last but not least I read Truman Capote's drop dead classic In Cold Blood and it is a tour de force with some of the sentences worth the price of admission on their own. This has also proved to be by far and away the most popular post on this blog. This has, it's true, more to do with the fact that I included a few photos than with my post.

I am currently reading Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch which is a sometimes stunning novel of petit Bohemia in a modernist style. Some of the chapters have been close to perfection. I won't finish it until 2013, though.

The other thing which deserves some mention is this blog itself, which is growing in popularity (due to the number of posts) and has topped 5,000 page views in a month for the first time this month. My current undertaking of blogging 102 of my favourite albums in concert with Trevor @ Hissyfit and a bunch of people at Cathedrals of Sound (on the blog & in the comments) is also driving more pageviews due simply to more posts.

Thanks to everyone who took time to read something here & especially to those who left comments.

Happy New Year.


  1. So many words, so little time...

    1. You might as well try to drink a river dry. Which is both great and intimidating. The more our knowledge grows the clearer the realisation of the ignorance needed to hold it up.

  2. Yup, speaking of drinking a river dry; I had a long drunken Xmas day conversation with a friend about our ability to absorb only so much beauty (or recognize it as such) and whether we all had a saturation point. We came to the conclusion that beauty's clarity is at its most vivid to the young eye. Maybe knowledge/experience makes us too aware of the need to grasp at things; gulping rather than breathing. Maybe we get desperate at the thought that we only have so many epiphanies left in the cupboard. The transience of beauty? Now there's an original thought...

    1. My own feelings are that we have faith in absolutes when young but as we age the realisation dawns that the best we can achieve is to negotiate a temporary ceasefire with failure.

  3. Any year that features a Proustathon must be a good one, and if you add Vila-Matas, Böll and Hamsun, it sounds even better! Hope 2013 is just as good :)

    1. Yes, the quality is more important than the quantity and I red quite a few very, very good books this year. And Proust.

  4. What a productive blogging/reading/listening year for Vapour Trails, Séamus. Your fewer posts didn't feel like slowness at all to me, since the posts are always well done. And it's great to have read The Savage Detectives and Bartleby & Co. with you.

    1. Thanks Rise. Hopefully there'll be a few interesting readalongs in 2013.

  5. Great '12 reads; great list, Séamus. The fact that you read Proust in its entirety and still had time for so much more in 2012 is an achievement in and of itself. Hopscotch is in my personal canon. The only Heinrich Böll I've read is The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, and my read coincided with Amanda Knox's ordeal in Italy, and I found the novel eerily similar to what was going on with her.

    I'll try to do a better job in 2013 of following your blog, as I fell off the wagon completely with everybody in 2012.


    1. Thanks Brent. I'm looking forward to getting to The Lost Honour next year. I'll also try to get around to Black Light, as per your recommendation. I'm almost finished the 'short' 56 chapter Hopscotch and then after reading something to clean the palette I'm going to read the longer 'hopscotching' version. It's a great book.

  6. I'm slightly in awe of anyone who can read all that Proust - I thought I was doing well to get through Anna Karenina! You've had a marvellously productive year :-) Good luck with the reading and writing in 2013.