Thursday 7 January 2016

Books of the Year 2015

Books of the Year 2015

As  I have lapsed somewhat into inactivity on the book blogging front I hope to use this post to quell those pangs of conscience that niggle in the back of my mind when I think of all the books I meant to post about but never have.
I have also been reading less, even with the extra time I should have had due to the lapse in blogging. However I took up running and managed to lose three stone in the first few months of the year and have not put much back on since. Also my band has risen from the ashes, at least briefly. I guess I have a tendency towards single-mindedness and that means that when one thing comes to the fore, another slips back into its wake.
Another possible reason was the revelatory re-read of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, which rather than having it's edge blunted by the passage of time had the same impact as when it ravished me a few decades ago. It is my book of the year and re-calibrated my sense of the excitement a book should stir if it is to become a true favourite.

I enjoyed reading and writing about Miss Lonelyhearts, so much so that I felt that I needed to attempt some more ambitious writing, something that led not to greater effort but to procrastination and gradual lapse towards inactivity. Once I let my self imposed discipline to write about each book I read slip it seemed that I lost the impetus which had kept my enthusiasm alive for the few years I have been blogging 'seriously'. And I want this blog to be something I do for excitement and satisfaction rather than from a misbegotten sense of responsibility.

I do find myself missing it though and have been gradually spending more time trying to finish a couple of posts. I tend to write slowly, tentatively and somewhat chaotically so it can take me some time to find the right shape for a blog post.

Anyway, here are my books of the year. A list which tends toward growing into simply a list of the books I read (and there are not too many!) I have tried to make a Top Ten, which became a Top Fifteen, honourable mentions and disappointments.

Book of the Year
Miss Lonelyhearts - Nathanael West (re-read)
"The book remains defiantly modern, still able to shock readers more than eighty years after its publication. I was worried that I might no longer find it as powerful as my younger self did, but if anything, it seems even more prescient and filled with great writing than I remember. I won't leave it too long before I read it again. It is very short, the work of a long train journey. I cannot think of any book which I could comfortably describe as better than this."

Top Fifteen (with a little cheating)
Faces and Masks & A Century of Wind - Eduardo Galeano
Likely to get a post of their own soon (a post is growing like a barnacle colony of a wrecked ship) these books fully justify the reputation of Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. I wrote about the first book last year.

To Be Continued...
The Gate - Natsume Sõseki
"Although it dates from 1910 there is something very modern about The Gate. It deals with the death of ambition under the pressure of financial strain, conformity and the wearying monotony of commuter life. At times I found myself thinking that it sat somewhere between Dostoevsky and Revolutionary Road.
...a wonderful novel, which, despite it's sense of anomie and impending doom, still casts a gentle light over its characters and, despite his flaws, presents Sōsuke as much more than an antihero, even if he seems to lack the drive to be a classical hero figure:  "He was a man without roots, he reflected, someone who resembled a manikin being jerked this way and that."

The Mulatta and Mister Fly - Miguel Angel Asturias
"This is the first novel I have read from the Nobel prize winner Asturias, and I have to say that it was not quite what I expected. The book is less a narrative than an incantation: an amalgam of myth, history, sex and politics that seems more closely related to the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, or William Burroughs, than to other South American writers I have read."
 "The climactic battle sees Yumi as a hedgehog with eleven thousand spikes representing the devil's eleven thousand horns taking on a priest who grows eleven thousand arms so that he can grab the devil by his eleven thousand horns. Simple really. This is an strange and hypnotic book, full of puns, vivid descriptions and wild flights of fancy. I will certainly be seeking out more books by Asturias, and thinking about this one for a long while."

The Literary Conference & An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - César Aira
Having had my first experience of Aira with Ghosts last year I was eager to follow it up with the two other books that shared a slipcase with Ghosts. And I was not disappointed, with both books having much to offer and carrying off Aira's schtick with anarchy and humour. Aira is a sort of literary equivalent of the be-bop movement and the speed of his footwork is a pleasure to experience, as is his supple wrestling with cliches and genres.

But For the Lovers - Wilfrido D Nolledo
Recommended as an introduction to Philippine literature by Rise at the wonderful blog in lieu of a field guide this turned out to be a richly rewarding reading experience which, in retrospect, brings to mind Hopscotch.
It also reminded me of Kenzaburo Õe in its attempts to create a fiction that can somehow reflect the effect of the Second World War, although this time the Japanese are delivering, rather than receiving, the devastation.

Here is Rise's review.
Christie Malry's Own Double EntryThe Unfortunates - B.S. Johnson
"This comedy of morals is an all out attack on the 'realist' novel and draws on a tradition that includes Nathanael West and Flann O'Brien. It is also easy to see the influence of this on What a Carve Up! by Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe.
Johnson is withering about the expectations of the reader for detail. I have seen synopses which talk about Christie's story but it would seem more accurate to me to start a synopsis something like this: "A writer who has lost faith in the novel writes a novel. He can't be bothered with realistic detail for that is, after all, the literary equivalent of photocopying. However, his loss of faith in the world, being stronger than his loss of faith in the novel, impels him to write a scabrous comedy where the minor irritations of the average life give rise to imaginary acts of revenge on behalf of the average man.""
"When I initially heard of The Unfortunates it was more for the novelty value than as a book but when I read Christie Malry's Own Double Entry I knew I had to read everything by Johnson (at least until I encountered a dud). Even as a gimmick, I thought The Unfortunates sounded interesting but it's far more than that, as I expected.
Indeed, there is nothing gimmicky about the contents of this book at all. Johnson's belief that "The novel is a form in the same sense that the sonnet is a form; within that form, one may write truth or fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel" is clearly stamped right through this book, with it's strong basis in Johnson's life and the modesty and honesty of the narrator."

Dart - Alice Oswald
This long poem takes us on a journey along the river Dart through time as well as geography and with an intricate chorus of voices that pulls the reader along on a hypnotic journey.

Gruts - Ivor Cutler/ Martin Honeysett
"I have been trying to think of meaningful comparisons for Cutler and the two writers who come to mind are Roald Dahl and Flann O'Brien, particularly under his other pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen. Like Cutler, many of na Gopaleen's pieces (they were a newspaper column) were twisted around by the last sentence, from which it became clear they sprung. Like Dahl there is fantasy, cruelty and laughter in equal measure. You know there are hard times under the skin of these tales. Something of Tony Hancock's glum jowls lurks in the mix, too."

The Conformist - Alberto Moravia
"The Conformist is a stylish book written in a terse style with great clarity and powerful use of imagery. Bertolucci's use of contrasting light and dark stripes in the film was something I felt the director may have added to the mix but it is almost a defining aspect of the novel. Moravia seems to revel in dialectics, setting up contrasts at every opportunity and exploring how each action leads by often subterranean routes to the next."

August 1914 - Barbara Tuchman
Tuchman's A Distant Mirror has long been one of my favourite history books and this brings characters and the wider picture of the start of World War 1 alive in such a way that the vagaries of chance and luck seem once again to operate. It almost makes you believe that things may turn out differently to the way you know they do.

Woodcutters - Thomas Bernhard
Finally I have got around to Thomas Bernhard, and although late to the party, the cake still tastes fresh, or should that be refreshingly stale and crusty.

The Plain in Flames - Juan Rulfo
At times the world of Rulfo's stories can make the works of Beckett seem almost baroque. Bleached bones of stories in a desert landscape where there is hardly enough sand to cover the rocks. Hypnotic, mysterious and yet archetypical tales that exhaled the hot, stale air that Sergio Leone baked his films in.

Mr Palomar - Italo Calvino
Calvino manages the trick of being clever, philosophical and entertaining without breaking stride. Always playing games and being serious at the same time - "inside him there remains one point at which everything exists in another way, like a lump, like a clot, like a blockage: the sensation that you are here but could not be here, in a world that could not be, but is."

Pere Goriot - Honore De Balzac
It's easy to see why this has long been regarded as a classic. Social commentary, psychological acuity, romance and crime... I kept feeling the shadow of later books - Proust, Dickens etc as I read it. And also a slight return to the tragedy of poor old King Lear.
"If it dirties your carriage as you pass, you're respectable. If it dirties your feet, you're a rogue. Hook a mere trifle  up out of it, and you're put on show in the law courts. Steal a million and you're pointed out in every drawing room as a model of integrity. "

Body Snatcher - Juan Carlos Onetti
In which I returned to Santa Maria for the third time having visited already in A Brief Life and The Shipyard.
Here we get to see Larsen's first experience of Santa Maria, before his return in The Shipyard. The language in this was the least opaque of any of the Onetti's I have read, which may have been down to the translator, Alfred Mac Adam. This book further confirm's Onetti's place as one of the twentieth century's key authors.

Honourable Mentions
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute - Grace Paley
Some of the stories in this were revelatory and would easily get into my top fifteen but the collection seemed somewhat uneven to me. Still, the omission of this from my top fifteen is somewhat arbitrary and perhaps wrong.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower
This has been sitting on my 'being read' shelf for a few years, often the fate of short story collections but this year I finished it and enjoyed reading it immensely. Another which would have made the top Fifteen on another day.

Jude; Level 1 - Julian Gough
A sometime hilarious absurdist picaresque of an orphan who sets off on a road trip after inflaming a mob into a torch-carrying frenzy by accidentally urinating on a relic of Irish independence.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither - Sara Baume
There is much to admire in this book, and if anyone was looking to put together a book of photographs of the Irish countryside with text then Sara Baume would be a great choice to do the text. Her descriptions are fresh and razor sharp.  It is a story of two outcasts, one a man and the other a dog. If I had any issue with the book it was probably a sense that this was something of an exercise in (very good) writing, but little authorial risk.
This may have been a case of unreasonably raised expectations and I may return to this at some stage in the future.

Dublinesque - Enrique Vila-Matas
"As seems to be a hallmark of Vila-Matas' oeuvre, Dublinesque is full of references to writers and writing and film and art too. The title comes from a poem by Philip Larkin, the plot borrows from Joyce as well as using Bloomsday; Riba thinks of writers real and imagined that he has published, mostly in translation. In many ways Vila-Matas uses writers to suggest an autobiography of Riba. He is partly made of scraps of writers and books."
While the Women are Sleeping - Javier Marias
An enjoyable collection that never really scaled the heights of say, the Paley but still managed to be lots of fun. I need to try out some of Marias' long fiction next.

Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula Le Guin
I read this to one of the kids and enjoyed it a lot. A fantasy world I wish I'd discovered as a teen, when I devoured this kind of thing. I think even the adult me will look to read the rest of the series. I have a few Le Guin sci-fi books on my shelves and will certainly read at least one of them this year.

Lila - Marilynne Robinson
"However, there are passages of writing of great poetic power, and the hardscrabble life of Lila and Doll is bleak but there is a sensitivity to the seasons and plants and weather that imbues it with dignity and even joyfulness. The purifying wind of the countryside is absent only during time she spendsin New Orleans but her escape from her life there is the sign that she can shape her own faith, if only she gets the chance. And John Ames is dedicated to giving everyone a chance."

Perfidia - James Elroy
"I am sad to say that this book was a disappointment. I have been reading Ellroy with excitement since the late eighties, working backwards and looking forward to each new book but this is the first new book to disappoint me.
I'm not sure why. I will have to return to a favourite some time to see if it is just this book or if some spell cast by Ellroy's manic distillation of paranoia and gift for creating voices that carry the whiff of a genuinely authentic desperation has lifted."


  1. As you know, I thought the Miss Lonelyhearts was one of the best things I read all year. The Gruts piece was a treat, too. A shame you didn't review Mr. Palomar for me, but a band reunion trumps everything - everything!

    1. Thanks Tom. Mr Palomar would be a very fertile ground for a blog. You never know.... Getting very excited now. Only 18 days to go before the comeback gig.


  2. Haha, Miss Lonelyhearts - well you know what I thought of that! Seriously though, your ML piece was terrific, and I really enjoyed reading it.

    As for the others...Soseki's The Gate is in my TBR, so I'm delighted to see it listed among your favourites. Something for me to look forward to there. Vila-Mata and Marias are ever reliable - loved Dublinesque and I hope to read another Marias later this year. I have those Aira novellas as well, so let's hope Richard runs another Doom fest later in the year as it'll give me a push to read them.

    Interesting to see Grace Paley on your list too. I've been looking out for her in charity shops as her stories sound excellent. No luck yet, but she's definitely on my radar.

    All the best for 2016, Seamus. Looking forward to seeing what you'll be reading this year.

    1. Thanks Jacqui. Some of Grace Paley's stories are really extraordinary. I'll read them again and read more and maybe they'll figure higher in my list next time around.

  3. What a reader's list, Séamus. I'm glad to see several intersections in our reading. Rulfo, Aira, Bernhard. Such rewarding writers. Particularly happy to see my favorite Zen master Sōseki and Nolledo the negelcted master. The whole Earthsea cycle is awesome. The adult me gulped them down.

    1. Well, the interactions are somewhat arising from recommendations received from you. I look forward to finishing The Earthsea cycle at some stage and will certainly be reading more of many of these writers. Although I have read all of Rulfo after just two books... But him I will reread.
      Have also been reminded to put in the links to your site I had intended.

    2. Yeah, it's a pity Rulfo got the Bartleby syndrome and had only two flashes of inspiration. I want to read this particular translation you read. This might be another book "entirely" different from his The Burning Plain.

  4. A reader's list indeed, as Rise notes above. I've read only a scant few of your choices but should remedy that, as they're all enticing. I have the Balzac already on my TBR list for this year. And largely thanks to your spectacular Miss Lonelyhearts review, a few friends got that novel for Christmas. I'm looking forward to seeing your 2016 posts - perhaps especially a review of the upcoming gig!

    1. Thanks Scott! Great to have had some small role in spreading the word about Miss L! Hoping to get video of the upcoming gig. Nerves and excitement really kicking in now. Only two weeks to go.