Sunday, 18 January 2015

14 Books of the Year 2014

My 14 Books of the Year 2014
(none of which are actually from 2014)
(and there are actually more than 14)
I guess I'm a bit late with this but I seem to be developing a backlog of half completed posts and I would rather finish than delete them. 2014 was marked by a few separate events, none more so than the death of Dermot Healy, the brilliant Irish novelist, poet and dramatist. I'm not sure what order he would have put those in but that is the order they hold in my head. I was inspired to reread all of his novels, his only collection of short stories and a couple of books of his poetry (although I have yet to post anything on the poetry). The novel reading culminated in a reading of his final novel, Long Time, No See, which I had bought when it came out but which had remained (in good company) unread on my shelves. This had probably been partly a result of the lukewarm reception the book received. However it was the highlight of my year and brought my "project" to a satisfying close.

I have put these fourteen books (I've cheated by counting series as one) in no particular order. Memorable readalongs of I, The Supreme and What a Carve Up! deserve special mention but its hard to discriminate between many of these books.  Well here are some excerpts and links to the reviews.

I read four novels by Marguerite Duras but haven't managed to put together a post on them. They were fascinating and intriguing and deserve a special mention - The Square; Moderato Cantabile; 10:30 on a Summer Night; The Afternoon of Mr Andesmas. Perhaps it is a sign that I don't actually feel like I've finished reading a book until I've posted on it...

Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy
I have seen the novel compared to John McGahern's swan song That They May Face the Rising Sun but it reminded me more strongly of a late work by another Irish writer, Michael Curtin's under appreciated Sing!, which I plan to re-read soon. All three novels insist on the importance of the everyday, which is the true heart of humanism, and a trait they share with Joyce's Ulysses. The vision of life in Long Time, No See is tragicomic, at times seemingly absurd or mundane but lit with an inner fire of compassion and driven by the rhythms and strangeness of the vernaculars of the western seaboard.

Not to Disturb - Muriel Spark
This short novella is from the early seventies and is similar in style to The Hothouse by the East River, which I read and wrote about a few years ago. It is a spectral book, with elements of a play, and of a film script, only ninety one pages long and telling a story of murder and suicide in a locked room, mostly from the outside. And not alone are we outside the room but we also seem in some way to be outside time.

How's the Pain? - Pascal Garnier
Garnier's writing is wonderfully terse, drawing characters and place with a minimal fuss. You get a real sense of the lives of all the characters, even those we only glance against.  I will be watching out for his other books, and he wrote sixty plus - more to add to the endless list of books I want to read.

The Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen
This is a powerful and sophisticated novel, arranged like a symphony. Repeated themes and images build upon each other until each element seems to resonate with the others. It is a novel about feeling, and about the destruction of feelings. It is a novel about how society organises itself for its own protection. It is a novel about how we see each other and how we see ourselves, and of the power of observation and the word. In the final section, the house has undergone a spring clean and the mirrors are particularly sharp, so much so that "their jet-sharp reflections hurt the eye; they seemed to contain reality." This is a book that I will certainly re-read, firstly for the sheer brilliance of the prose and then for the sense of an artist excavating deeply into their own life and feelings to try and discover what makes them tick, while all the time remaining aware that it is a profound mystery.

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates
There is a lot more in this book, which works both as a topical and realistic story of the times, much of which remains topical today. It also works as a mythic telling of lives in a consumer society that has come adrift from meaning, trying to find it in things, or places, but unable to simply be. These are characters who do not know themselves, and often don't wish to look too closely for fear of what they might find. It is easy to understand how this book has come to be considered a modern classic. If you haven't read it already you should.

A Scots Quair: Sunset Song; Cloud Howe; Grey Granite - Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The first book in the trilogy is generally accepted as the best and I wouldn't argue with that although I did read all three as one book. It created a vivid picture of early twentieth century rural life which strongly reminded me of how that life continued right into the seventies in the rural Ireland of my childhood. I found myself thinking of the time I spent in East Galway with my grandparents, whose link to the world of this novel was immediate (My grandfather was born two years before Grassic Gibbon) and still feels palpable to the child inside me.

It was a world where storytelling and gossip were one and the same, where every person had tales attached to them, if not from their own lives, from their forebears, or indeed, from the unfettered imagination of their neighbours. It seems that many of the characters were closely based on the characters from the authors locality. Now, we probably use celebrities and the characters from soap operas to fill this need for a weave of shared stories to surround us and enhance our sense of belonging.

Wolf Hall Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies together and it adds up to a long novel but it never felt like an effort. When I was a teenager I loved historical fiction and read quite a bit, most of which has been wiped clear from my brain, as has most of my knowledge of English history. Most of what was taught in Ireland back in my day focussed on the injustices perpetuated by the English on Ireland any way. Therefore we got more Oliver than Thomas Cromwell.

I mean I knew that heads would roll and monks faced eviction but not a whole lot else. Some other bits sounded familiar as I progressed but not awfully so. So I wasn't too worried about the absolute historical accuracy of this portrait of Thomas Cromwell, but instead focussed on how convincing a fictional character he was and the quality of the writing. I was not disappointed with either.

I The Supreme - Augusto Roa Bastos
This is a sprawling book with one of the craziest narrators in literary history. Fusing paranoia, puns and power El Supremo fires fusillades of vitriol mixed with artillery barrages of self-justification at his bewildered reader, forcing words to fit the flow of his conversation and dispensing with such things as temporal and character stability. By the end we feel we may be hearing the story from a consciousness born of it's own volition in a skull, long stored in a noodle box, that may or may not be the skull of El Supremo. But boy, can he rant!

Genesis - Eduardo Galeano
In Genesis he builds a riveting tapestry of pre-'discovery' America and its many cultures. He also tells stories of how these cultures continued in parallel with that of the European colonists, and of how they were systematically and deliberately eroded by the Europeans.
"Through the centuries, Latin America has been despoiled of gold and silver, nitrates and rubber, copper and oil: its memory has also been usurped. From the outset it has been condemned to amnesia by those who have prevented it from being. Official Latin American history boils down to a military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry-cleaners. I am not a historian. I am a writer who would like to contribute to the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America, but above all of Latin America, that despised and beloved land"

Rebellion - Joseph Roth
Rebellion is a brilliant novel. Roth must rate as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century. And the translation by Michael Hoffman reads like the work of a great prose stylist, concise, precise and perfectly balanced. The book reminds me of a great unmade Chaplin film. Indeed, Chaplin, as a child, used to search out men with barrel organs, and dance along. Not much of a career, but it lead to greater things. For Andreas, it was more of a cul-de-sac.

The Shipyard - Juan Carlos Onetti
But in the end my memory of this book will be the atmosphere, the 'sets'. Each chapter is named for the locations where it takes place, heightening the sense of theatricality. The buildings dwarf the characters and it is as if they can only lose their way in their dark spreading shadows: "After a few months, these last scraps of proof that the shipyard existed in the real world, for someone apart from the phantom managers it still sheltered, trailed off altogether. So Kunz gradually lost his faith, swept up in the universal scepticism. The huge derelict building became the abandoned temple of an extinct religion." And when characters leave the shipyard, they don't seem able to survive away from it....

What a Carve Up! - Jonathan Coe
How do you package anger and disgust, at yourself and the world you live in? Here is one answer, with a mixture of bile and belly laughs. Coe's book goes straight to the top table of comic novels that I have read, and is also one of the best political novels I have read. That's the gush done with, for now at least.

Ghosts - César Aira
Ghosts gives the sense of being improvised and contains the mundane and the supernatural living comfortably together. It takes place on New Year's Eve in a building that is under construction and seemed to me to be a reflection on how we construct spaces, stories and cultures. It explores choice, inviting us to consider the choices that are always being made by the writer. As the novel progresses the focus moves from the builders of and future owners of the apartments to the family of one of the builders, the alcoholic, Chilean Raúl Viñas, who is also night watchman. His family live with him in an apartment "no more finished than the rest of the building".

Roseanna; The Man who Went Up in Smoke - Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö
Martin Beck, the lead character seems like a character shipwrecked on his own awareness of the seam of crime that runs through the world. He listens and waits for the snapping twig in the undergrowth that will give away the presence of his prey. The policemen in a way remind me of Eliot's Hollow Men, caught waiting between the here and now, lost somehow in the interregnum.


  1. I don't mind the delay at all as there are great suggestions here.

    I gave up on the same Onetti title and now I wonder if I should get another copy. I'm most curious about Roa Bastos since I am very receptive to rants, especially extended ones.

    1. Thanks, Rise. I think you'd like the Roa Bastos - it's pretty unique. I found The Shipyard more accessible than A Brief Life and am looking forward to the sequel, which I have.

  2. A great list, and a lot of things to add to my own. I've only read the Yates novel (years & years ago) and Ghosts. if you're comparing the Dermot Healy novel to That They May Face the Rising Sun then I really have to read it. I also have the Roa Bastos in the queue, and the various recommendations from your group read of the Jonathan Coe have pushed that one off the shelf (where it's been sitting unread for years). Happy reading in 2015!

    1. Thanks Scott! I wasn't quite comparing Long Time, No See with That They May Face the Rising Sun; just noting that others had done so.There are many similarities, though, especially the focus on an area and the relationships between the people and their neighbours and neighbourhood. You should read it though, as I would love to hear what you thought.

  3. As you know, What a Carve Up made my best of year list, so I have to thank you for suggesting the read-along. Garnier's Moon in a Dead Eye also made the list. I have another Garnier here yet to read-A 26 and then there's another recently translated.

    If you like Garnier, you'll like Manchette--or have you already read him?

    1. Hi Guy, no, I have yet to read Manchette but will certainly do so on your recommendation! I also have Moon in a Dead Eye on my shelves, so that's lined up for this year. I also intend doing a Martin Beck blitz at some stage as I have now got the whole ten books. Although I know you were no fan of Roseanna's big box, one of the more memorable comments on my blog this year..

  4. What a fantastic list, Seamus! Where to start...well, Revolutionary Road would make my all-time list, and I'd like to reread it one day. Pascal Garnier is a favourite and you have a real treat in store with Moon in a Dead Eye. (Incidentally, I read The Front Seat Passenger over Christmas, another good one - I just need to write it up.) I'm going to second Guy's recommendation of Manchette - I've read a couple (Fatale and Three to Kill), and I'm sure you'd like him.

    I loved your review of Ghosts, and it left me keen to try another Aira later this year. The What a Carve Up! Readalong was great fun so thank you for suggesting it. Nice to see it on your end-of-year round-up.

    Moving on to the others, the Elizabeth Bowen sounds fantastic, right up my street, and I love how you've likened it to a symphony. I have her Heat of the Day in my TBR so I'll have to tick that one off the list before buying another. Have you read that one? Muriel Spark is another author I'd like to explore this year. I read Miss Brodie many years ago, but that's my only encounter with Spark so far. Any suggestions on a good re-entry point?

    I recall your reviews of the Roth and Onetti, both are of interest to me although I've also got my eye on Roth's The Radetzky March.

    Wonderful stuff. I'm so glad to have discovered your blog, Seamus. Wishing you all the best for 2015, and I'm looking forward to following your posts.

  5. Thanks Jaqui, I'm sure you'll enjoy reading Bowen. I haven't read Heat of the Day but have read and enjoyed The Last September and The Little Girls as well as The Death of the Heart.
    There are a number of Muriel Spark books that would make a good re-entry point. However my personal recommendation would be The Girls of Slender Means which is totally delicious.
    I would unreservedly recommend The Radetzky March.
    I'm glad you discovered my blog, and that I discovered yours. I look forward to following you through 2015.

    1. That's great, thank you. Adding that Spark to the wishlist right now.

  6. Only read the Yates. More for the pile then Thanks Seamus.
    Btw, I have found a CD of 'to the Bone' in a padded envelop and addressed to you.
    Was I intending to send you a 2nd for a 3rd party?
    If so I'll post... It's all becoming... foggy...

    1. I had suggested you send a copy to a friend of mine in London (which may explain the fog) but, I have a copy and sent out a few copies elsewhere already. No need to send it. This reminded me to forward you a mail from Spotify which promised me a new Miracle Mile song but it turned out to be from another Miracle Mile...

  7. How can people stand to just read books that are sent to them? This is so much for interesting. Looking forward to next - well ,this - year.

    1. Thanks Tom! I often think that what you read is a sort of reflexive self-portrait, and I think you should draw your own! I do enjoy the odd readalong but I can't imagine having to read what is sent to you. They used to pay people to do that. I also enjoy the sheer chaos of my book buying and am continuously surprised by the books I find on my shelves when I go looking.

  8. Such a good looking list both for the books I've already read and the ones I've yet to read. Was perhaps most pleased/relieved to see that you liked that Marguerite Duras omnibus so much since I'd heard that you were reading it and then heard...nothing. Roa Bastos, what a book that guy wrote and how good it was to read with you! Also pleasantly surprised to see those two Martin Beck books here. I'm about halfway thru the series but skipped reading it last year b/c I'm trying to pace myself so I don't finish it off too soon. Anyway, I second what you and Tom say about reading your own books rather than promos. Cheers!

    1. I really enjoyed the Duras books but they have suffered from my current inability to keep my blogging up to date with my reading. I have actual paid work to get through which is impacting on things. One of these days.
      As I said to Guy above, I intend doing a blitz of the Martin Beck books. Although I can see your point in holding back on them, too.

  9. It was certainly worth the wait: you have so many of my personal favourites here! A wonderful and very varied selection indeed!