December 28, 2008

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2008

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 8:00 am by John Self

A slightly different approach to this space-filler essential roundup this year. My aim is to try to shine a pencil torch of attention on books that might otherwise be overlooked, whether old books deserving new attention, new books which lost out to undeserving rivals in prize lists, or titles that might be left to languish in genre hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though his Patrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How Late hardly needs my imprimatur, fourteen years and a Booker Prize later). My guiding principle has been to pick the books which have stayed with me most strongly this year, even if they weren’t the ones I immediately loved at the time. I’m also detecting in myself a growing taste for books which aren’t quite as neat and clear as the ones I typically favour, so no Patrick McGrath (Trauma) or David Park (The Truth Commissioner), even though I loved both. It seems with this introduction that I am gradually working my list up into the twenties, so I’ll say no more. The list below is in alphabetical order by author and is not ranked. And yes, there are thirteen. Sorry, couldn’t cut it any further.

Andrew Crumey, Sputnik Caledonia : “gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart.”

Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme : “a substantial book despite its page count … the ‘narrative’ looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.”

Damon Galgut, The Impostor : “a magnificent achievement … feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this.”

Patrick Hamilton, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky : “all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key.”

W.F. Hermans, Beyond Sleep : “a rich and strange book … both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.”

Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path.”

Emanuel Litvinoff, Journey Through a Small Planet : “the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing … gives me hope for mainstream publishing.”

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant : “He writes … with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it.”

Adam Mars-Jones, Pilcrow : “an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways [with] peaks of brilliant wit.”

Patrik Ourednik, Europeana : “hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing … a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.”

Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl : “pitched perfectly from start to finish … [proves] that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics.” (See also The Puttermesser Papers)

Richard Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.”

Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length.”

Please share your own favourites of the year below.

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47 Comments »

  1. Your reviews have gently nudged me towards Crumey and Galgut this year John, and positively forced a copy of Wolff’s stories into my hands, for which I shall always be grateful. Dyer is ready and waiting for 2009 and after our previous exchanges on Hermans I’m so pleased to see Beyond Sleep with a place on your list. Those which I haven’t read I will certainly keep an eye on.

    My only regret is that I failed to pick up a vastly reduced copy of Lush Life. I think I was put off by the cover which made it look like a.n. other crime novel. Doubly stupid not to realise that it was written by the same Richard Price who helped make The Wire such essential viewing for me this year. And to pile up the mistakes, why didn’t I put it on my list for Santa? Doh!

    Thanks again for all your thoughts. I’m looking forward to 2009 being another enriching year. See you there…

  2. Oh, and as for my own favourites, you’ve seen them on my site already (anyone else reading this please come and see) but I thought I’d also mention The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page by G B Edwards once more. A true original and deserving of a wider audience, if I was Santa I’d make that a stocking filler for fellow bloggers.

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks William. A Tim Smith in the Guardian yesterday listed The Book of Ebenezer Le Page as a favourite of the year too (I see you didn’t make it to the list yourself this year!). I will pick it up on your recommendation: no hardship anyway, as it’s a lovely NYRB Classics edition.

    As to Dyer, I am currently reading his new novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. My review won’t go up until closer to publication date in April, but on the strength of the first 60 pages or so, I’d recommend it.

  4. [...] John Self picks his books of 2008. [...]

  5. nico said,

    Hi John, thanks for the list! What happened to Bellow? I am now re-reading Seize the day, propelled by your post, but Ozick is my pick! Last week I read ‘The tenants’ by Malamud and found it somewhat farfetched, i’ll give it a try to the one you suggest. I hope you have a wonderful end of the year. I send you all the greetings from Chile, where the summer is incredible! Hope that 2009 comes with lots of recommendations, keep them coming!

  6. John Self said,

    Hi Nico – I haven’t read any Bellow this year (Seize the Day was in the last few days of 2007), but Ozick was certainly one of my favourite new discoveries of 2008 – in fact, of the thirteen books above, only six were by writers new to me, and Ozick definitely tops that list. I hope you like The Assistant – I read The Tenants many years ago and, from what I can remember, rate it below The Assistant.

  7. Paul Raymont said,

    My favourite novel this year is Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, published in 1970 by Robertson Davies.

  8. KevinfromCanada said,

    I have been eagerly awaiting this post and it certainly meets my very high expectations. Without being too selfish, here is how it hits my interests:

    1. We share a very high opinion of three of the books/authors — Dalgut, Malamud, Ozick. I’m heartened to see all three on the list.
    2. Your reviews have already introduced me to three others, with books now in hand or soon to be ordered — Wolff, Hermans and Hamilton (who I have certainly heard of but your endorsement moves him up my list).
    3. Three other reviews have tended to confirm previous impressions that these books/authors probably are not to my taste — Price, Kertesz, LItvinoff. (I’m not saying they are bad, just that all signs suggest the current reading agenda would be better served by other books.)
    4. Two others I expect to get to in 2009 sometime — Ourednik and Dyer (thanks for the early warning on the new book — I think I’ll start with that one when it comes out).
    5. And one where we totally disagree (Crummey) so I can exert my independence. I abandoned Sputnik Caledonia after 200 pages (which I think is a very fair effort) and can say it is one of the few books in 2008 that I thought was topped by Child 44.

    So, with this reader at least, your goal of drawing attention to books (and I presume authors) that might otherwise be overlooked has definitely been achieved. I think that I am pretty up to date on fiction authors — being introduced to five out of a list of 12 is a wonderful gift (I’m pretty sure it puts you ahead of the NY Times Book review for 2008 and I do scan that every week). Thanks very much for 2008 and I look forward to exchanging comments and opinions — and even the occasional disagreement — in 2009.

  9. John Self said,

    Paul, I loved Fifth Business when I read it a few years ago; the second and third volumes in the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders didn’t quite live up to it, in my recollection. One concern I had was that Davies’s narrative voice, while seductive and one of the qualities that drew me through the book, seemed to vary little between the three books, and it’s this fear of more of the same which has put me off reading others of his. Maybe someone can let me know whether I should try more of his stuff? Tempest-Tost was recommended to me recently.

    Kevin, I’m glad my list was up to expectations! I certainly look forward to knowing your thoughts on Wolff, Hermans and Hamilton – I intend to read Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles soon.

    Crumey is an interesting one: I can’t remember if 200 pages would have taken you into the second part of Sputnik Caledonia but I do remember finding that section much too long. Nonetheless, unless you are absolutely satisfied that he’s not for you, I would recommend considering his 2004 novel Mobius Dick sometime: for me it’s his best.

    As for Dyer, stick to The Missing of the Somme for now: I’m almost halfway through his new book now and veering between finding it maddeningly brilliant and just maddening. But further bulletins as events warrant.

  10. [...] Book Worm and the Asylum show me a more literary [...]

  11. KevinfromCanada said,

    The Deptford Trilogy is on my list of 10 books for the island, so I obviously like it — although I do agree it tends to tail off as the trilogy unwinds. I also quite enjoyed The Cornish Trilogy, but your concerns about the narrative voice are quite legitimate and you have to be a Davies fan to truly like it. Tempest Tost is definitely amusing but not much more.

    On the Dyer front, I was trolling around last night and became quite intrigued with Paris Trance. Since it is in stock at chapters.ca here, I’m thinking that’s where I’ll start. I’ll look forward to continued reports on the new book.

  12. KevinfromCanada said,

    On a tangential front, John, you have mentioned Harvill Secker a couple of times and I’m very impressed with the picture of Beyond Sleep in your review. My own inexcusable book snobbishness comes from a love of well-made hardcover books and I have not heard of this publisher — but your comments seem to indicate that is a fair description of what they produce. Are there any titles which you would recommend? I did go to the Book Depository site for Beyond Sleep so I could get that hardcover edition — if it is physicallly as impressive as it looks from your picture, I certainly will be looking for others. Not that I don’t care about the content, but I do love when my hands are enjoying a book as much as my mind is.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks for the Davies advice, Kevin. Paris Trance was Dyer’s last novel before the forthcoming Jeff in Venice… (those terrible puns!) and from what I remember of it, was similar in theme and subject to the latest: attempts by the central character to achieve contentment without thought, and by Dyer to have happiness not ‘write white’ on the page. Also a good deal of obviously autobiographical stuff on the subject of loafing about blagging drinks, taking drugs, going to rock concerts and other activities which to my mind are not entirely dignified for a man now in his 50s. He is nonetheless a very witty writer; but I will say no more for fear that I am sketching out my review of it before I’ve even finished the book.

    Harvill Secker is an esteemed imprint, or was when it was the independent Harvill Press (now subsumed into the Random House family), and still one of the UK’s leading publishers of literature in translation. They also do a lot of higher-end crime (again in translation): Mankell, Vargas etc. Go to advanced book search on Amazon.co.uk and enter ‘Harvill’ in the publisher space for a full list of their books. On this blog I have reviewed the following Harvill books: Clara’s Tale by Pierre Péju, Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg, the Hermans and possibly others which elude my memory at present. Harvill hardbacks are always well produced, with tight binding (though sadly not often fully stitched these days), square spines and solid covers. I think it’s worth taking a punt on almost anything (in translation) they publish; it’ll be interesting even if not to your tastes.

    Books which are pleasing to the hand as well as the eye are a fetish of mine also; I’m sure there are other publishers we could highlight on that score.

    As an aside, I see from your chapters.ca profile that you have recently read Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City. I read it a couple of weeks ago and will be reviewing it next week, so I look forward to comparing notes.

  14. KevinfromCanada said,

    Thanks John. I’ve spent a most enjoyable hour scanning Harvill titles — and did discover that they do represent a number of their authors in Canada with the UK editions, so I’ve ordered a couple (the Peju you reviewed and Murray Bail’s The Pages).

    I look forward to commenting on The Holy City — happy to see you found my profile. I’m experimenting this year with keeping my list of books read on that site because I can add a sentence or two commentary (and I have proven in previous years that I am hopeless trying to keep it up to date on my own computer). We’ll see.

  15. Skooter said,

    That is a great list, I want to read a lot of them now!
    Also, I can’t believe Willem Frederik Hermans is on it! I didn’t even know his work was translated (Dutch writers rarely are). That was a nice surprise.
    Some authors I enjoyed this year are Ali Smith’s The Accidental, the Brontë sisters’s Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Alain-Fournier’s le Grand Meaulnes. I am still in an early stage of discovering literature though.

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks Skooter, I hope you discover something here to please you! Only two of Hermans’ novels have been translated into English: Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles (which I hope to read soon). I have written about Le Grand Meaulnes here too, and also enjoyed The Accidental (but read it before I started this blog). Wuthering Heights I must admit is one of my literary pet hates, but I am willing to be give it another go … just not for a few years!

  17. lizzysiddal said,

    Not a single title in common! But 3 of your 13 are in the TBR. (Galgut, Hermans, Kertesz) and 1 more in the VTBR (Price). Perhaps they’ll figure in my 2009 list.

    And because “Beyond Sleep” made it into your 2008 list, you must now read “The Dark Room of Damocles”. Really, you must!

  18. John Self said,

    Yes, I have Darkroom lined up next, Lizzy – and anyway it was your recommendation of it which made me read Beyond Sleep in the first place!

    We may have no titles in common, but from your list, McGrath’s Trauma and Koeppen’s Death in Rome were borderline favourites for me last year too, and Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl would have been in my list in whatever year I read it. It’s superb.

  19. Rob said,

    Pilcrow was on my list to read, but I’d completely forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder!

  20. John Self said,

    Another one for your own best of year list then, Rob? Glad to have been of service!

  21. Rob said,

    You’re right, John! I think that list is just going to keep growing…

  22. nico said,

    Highsmith reference reminds me… did you read ‘Edith’s diary’? Being a Highsmith fanatic (I devoured all her novels and story collections, plus the sleazy book by Mary Jane Meaker, a while ago), I must tell you that ‘Edith’s’ is her novel i like best

  23. John Self said,

    Yes, I’ve read Edith’s Diary, nico. It’s not my favourite, but it is very good indeed, and certainly the most successful of her novels where she writes outside her comfort zone (the others of those that I’ve read being The Tremor of Forgery and Those Who Walk Away).

    I’ve read about half of Highsmith’s novels, limited by my prissy insistence on waiting for Bloomsbury to reissue them in the UK in their handsome retro design paperbacks. Unfortunately the next three due – Found in the Street, People Who Knock at the Door and A Game for the Living – have been put back several times. They were originally scheduled to appear in October 2007, then 2008 and now 2010! Admittedly I tend to have more faith in her work of the 1950s and 60s than her later novels, so the only one of those three I have high expectations for is A Game for the Living. The others I think are from the 1980s. Then again, Edith’s Diary was a relatively ‘late work’ (1976) and, as we’ve discussed, stands up very well.

    Oh, and who’s Mary Jane Meaker? A pseudonym for Highsmith?

  24. Stewart said,

    Oh, and who’s Mary Jane Meaker? A pseudonym for Highsmith?

    An old lover of lover of Highsmith. Marijane Meaker, author of Highsmith; A Romance of the 1950s.

  25. John Self said,

    Ah, thanks Stewart. All has become clear!

  26. nico said,

    Gossip!!!! Yes, that lover’s book. Marijane was a writer herself, but never made it to the hardback editions. It was fascinating reading that book. There you see Highsmith’s antisemitism and alcoholism. Full of trivia and stuff. Anyway, John, let me dissapoint you: ‘A game for the living’ is Highsmith’s worst novel, even according to her. I read somewhere that in an airport she was standing by a book booth or bookstore and saw a woman picking one of her books: ‘A game for the living’, and Highsmith herself adviced her against it. She admited that the narration wasn’t accomplished. For me it was like a long story, not worth a novel’s lenght. Despite the location and the quaint descriptions of colorful Mexico and environs, it was a real disappointment. Later then!!

  27. Lee Monks said,

    Great list, a few surprises (and surprise exclusions: I would’ve slammed a few notes down on the William Hill counter for McGrath being a dead cert) and some things to help me redeem my Border’s credits!

    No Netherland, either…that’d be up there, for me. I think Wolff, though, for Two Boys And A Girl (not to mention the others) alone might well top any list. Wroblewski, Crumey, Vollman, Roth and Nabokov were other notable mentions (not all releases in the past 12 months, of course) and Bolano (not read 2666 yet but The Savage Detectives I thought was absolutely fantastic) fairly impressed. A pretty good year, then, and new Pynchon and Ellroy novels out soonish, not to mention Mr Amis…

  28. John Self said,

    Thanks for sharing your own favourites, Lee. Wroblewski? Is that Edgar Sawtelle? I am afraid I reneged on my intention to read 2666 over Christmas. In the end all I got through were a couple of average-sized novels (the new Geoff Dyer and Colm Tóibín) so a 900-pager of small type and few paragraph breaks would have been a no-no. But I hope you enjoy it – if you look at my blogroll, you’ll see a review on Trevor Berrett’s blog, The Mookse and the Gripes.

  29. Lee Monks said,

    Yes indeed, and Edgar Sawtelle is a ‘thumping good yarn(TM)’. I do love Geoff Dyer so I shall look forward to foraging at Borders for that, I must have all the others; Out Of Sheer Rage tops my Dyer list on quick reflection. Toibin is a fine writer and I found The Master and The Blackwater Lightship very good indeed. I will get onto that review, cheers. I must say in brief addition that I found Bolano to be a particularly engaging ‘voice’ and that I’m fairly aquiver at the prospect of 2666, but I certainly understand your trepidation. The Savage Detectives must run to around 500 pages and was over in a thrum and a riffle, so it felt.

  30. John Self said,

    The reviews of Dyer and Tóibín won’t go up until closer to publication date (April and May respectively); I’m trying to build up some posts in advance in the likelihood that I will find myself with less time to blog this year. I’d say the Tóibín was my most anticipated book of the year, nosing ahead of Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, which I have mixed feelings about.

  31. Lee Monks said,

    Is it the subject matter that prompts such unease or the fettle you feel Amis is in?

  32. John Self said,

    The latter (though Amis on Islamism rarely sees him at his very best. I am looking forward to the autobiographical parts more). Also the fact that publication was put back from last year to this year, suggesting he has been having trouble getting it into a publishable state.

  33. Lee Monks said,

    I could read him ‘autobiographically’ all day: Experience is brilliant, as you know, and he is an exceptional essayist and commentator (on most matters!). And you never know, it may be a return to form (though the publishing date switch does not augur well as you mention). I thought Vonnegut was finished and then Timequake and the superb (if painfully slight) memoir (of sorts) arrived. Wait and see, it could happen…

  34. John Self said,

    Well I did like The Second Plane more than most, but even I have to acknowledge that Yellow Dog was not Vintage Amis (whatever the publishers might say on the covers when they classicise him). House of Meetings I need to reread, but it did at least get a fair bit of praise in the press.

    …OK, now I am keenly anticipating The Pregnant Widow!

  35. As for books published this year, my favourites were Galgut’s The Impostor and O’Neill’s Netherland — particularly the former.

    As for my personal “book of the year” — that’s easy. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I discovered it in June and I can’t name a better book published this decade. It’s amazing. My other highlight was Roth’s The Human Stain.

  36. Lee Monks said,

    I actually have a copy of ‘The Impostor’ that a friend lent to me (and then promptly moved away within a couple of weeks) that I had a stab at and, for whatever reason, it didn’t work its’ charms on me (and the more I hear about it the more it seems likely to be entirely my responsibility). I will try again soon.

    That’s the thing about Amis, John: like Tarantino, you know his best days are probably well behind him, but he always gives you THAT something unique…

  37. Joe said,

    Just scanning through all these comments, is Tobias Wolff’s book the only short story collection mentioned. That seems a shame so I’ll throw one in there: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock. Utterly brutal and brilliant stories about smalltown America; full of violence and degradation and the most guilt-inducing black humour. It’s also published by Harvill, mentioned above, and is a lovely-looking little book.

    I could also throw in a couple more but they’re by who I work for and that hardly seems in keeping with the fairness of the blog; I don’t want to be accused of partisanship.

  38. Sam said,

    I think I’m in agreement with Jonathan Birch: the ‘The Impostor’ and ‘Netherland’ were my two favourite new books of the year. I also really enjoyed ‘The Lost Dog’, and, though I think they were published in 2007, ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ and ‘Then we came to the End’.

    On the non-fiction side, I was kept awake reading at night by William Dalrymple’s ‘The Last Mughal’. Finally, ‘The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul’ shone a cone of light into the dark corners of Naipaul’s mind: a pitliess and pitiable genius.

  39. John Self said,

    Jonathan, it’s a while since I read Austerlitz, but I must admit I didn’t like it as much as The Rings of Saturn, which remains my favourite Sebald. Your exceptionally high praise makes me want to revisit it, though.

    Joe, thanks for the heads-up re Knockemstiff, which I hadn’t heard of. I must admit that Chuck Palahniuk is one of those writers whose quote on a book is more likely to put me off than egg me on (Irvine Welsh is another, as is Michael Ondaatje, even though I like his books), so your recommendation is particularly welcome.

    I think now that you’ve made full disclosure you can feel free to mention the books published by your employer. We’ll treat the recommendations with due scepticism. ;)

    Sam, I (more or less) hated Then We Came to the End, as you may recall. (So I mention it again just to get you back for Asylum, you understand.) I really have missed the boat on Netherland. If I’d held onto my copy, I’d be sorely tempted to give it another go, though of course now that it’s made Richard & Judy’s list, I will be able to pick up another copy along with my weekly shop.

    • Mary said,

      Sorry this is completely out of time and out of sequence but I just had to write and say how much I loved `The Rings of Saturn’ – even to the extent of buying copies for my friends’ birthdays. ( Yes I like to force my preferences on others!) Have you read `Passage to Juneau’? Jonathan Raban is another writer who combines travel with historical background and philosophical musings – I thought it was wonderful and plan to read `Coasting’ soon – although I thinkit was written 20 years before the Juneau book. I’m so glad you hated `Then We Came to The End’. I bought on the basis of very favourable publicity, started it on Eurostar and then left it there having read for an hour – not funny, not interesting and totally over-hyped.

      • John Self said,

        Thanks Mary. I haven’t read any Raban at all, so I’m grateful for the recommendation. And as you’ve seen, I’m a fan of The Rings of Saturn (if ‘fan’ is the right word).

        I will probably read Joshua Ferris’s next book, The Unnamed, though with low expectations rather than high ones. Which might help.

  40. Sam said,

    Then We Came to the End was probably the last book to make me consistently laugh out loud, and, talking of Sebald, The Emigrants was probably the last book that had me weeping really quite unnecessarily.

  41. KevinfromCanada said,

    I too liked Then We Came to the End, so I think John’s opinion might be his fault, not the book’s. Austerlitz is also the Sebald that I remember best — since all of his books are so good, he is one of those authors where I decline to name a favorite since it would be more a reflection of my mood at the moment than of the value of the book.

  42. Joe said,

    Well, as John has given me carte blanche, I’ll go for two books that haven’t been mentioned here, as far as I can see.

    First: God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, which is impeccably, mesmerisingly written, to my mind; to find a modern British novel that delights in playing with language, perspective, and narrative voice, and do it as well and as enjoyably as this, is a special thing.

    Second: Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir If you Don’t Know Me By Now. This story of growing up in British-Indian Sikh family had me completely gripped over Christmas. It’s the perfect antidote to misery memoirs or celebrity books: an autobiography by someone you’ve probably never heard of that tells you things (genuinely) you didn’t know and that you can’t put down.

    Those are my two. You have my sincere promise that neither have been picked for the sake of sales but I still accept any scepticism!

  43. John Self said,

    Thanks Joe. I’m happy to accept your word on this one (big of me, eh?) as I’ve seen a lot of praise for Ross Raisin and the only reason I didn’t read him last year was because of a silly prejudice over his even sillier name. I will probably pick up God’s Own Country in paperback. And will have a look at the Sanghera too.

  44. Sam said,

    I’ve picked up both the Raisin and the Sanghera so many times, but then I always look into my wallet, hear my poor stomach growl, and decide that I’ll just have to wait for the paperbacks.

  45. Lee Monks said,

    It’s insane, but my reluctance to read the Ross Raisin was the fact that he sounds so ridiculous, like some modish wacky stand-up fresh from the Edinburgh festival with his ‘quirky’ material…nonsensical I know, but that’s why I have yet to look at his book…if he was called Steve Sultana I might’ve overlooked such trivial matters…


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