December 22, 2010
Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2010
This year’s blogger’s dozen comes from a shorter longlist than usual, since I read fewer books this year than in recent memory, owing to ongoing symptoms of parenthood. My main regret this time is that there are books which could have made it but for the fact that I haven’t reviewed them here (yet), such as Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was for its first half at least, the best debut collection of stories I’ve read in years. Or Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still, a boon and a hazard for the practising hypochondriac. Or Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a book of essays which was simultaneously enlightening and reassuring.
The list is in alphabetical order by author. As usual, I have exercised my right to include one more than is strictly proper, because frankly, who gives a damn?
Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death
I like to think this book would have impressed and delighted me just as much even if I hadn’t approached it with no expectations. I believe it probably would have, not least because it understands and articulates that in the world “it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial [...] than to become imcomprehensible,” and is also aware of its own – of every piece of writing’s – fatal limitations. “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.”
Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters
For years I had intended to read Thomas Bernhard, and had been fearful of doing so. All the frightening things – the paragraphless pages, the famous ‘rants’ – turned out to be both true and misleading. Old Masters may be entry-level Bernhard, but it could hardly have been a more addictive or joyful experience. I reiterate my recommendation of it here despite the protests of my own sense of ‘art selfishness’.
Karel Čapek: War with the Newts
Another one I’d heard great things about, without ever believing that a 75-year-old book could be so funny, relevant and modern as this one. It’s so nimble that it manages not to fall over its own feet despite the breakneck pace of the satire – satire of capitalist society that covers many bases in many forms, from newspaper journalese to academic discourse.
Daniel Clowes: Wilson
A perfect marriage of content and form, Wilson is as funny as its six-panel cartoon form might suggest, but with exceptional timing and emotional weight added in. Clowes both respects and disrupts the comic strip format, giving us a character who is misanthropic but pathetic, and a book which is like a stiletto hammered into the reader’s heart.
Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge
Mrs Bridge has the appearance of a gentle character study, but has ambition in its structure – one hundred brief scenes showing aspects of our heroine in a way that is as quietly devastating as anything Richard Yates wrote. Perhaps there is time, yet, for Connell to become belatedly famous without having to die in penury as Yates did, though someone had better put him back in print in the UK first. “They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?”
Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man
A rare re-read for me these days, and this book – widely and rightly regarded as Isherwood’s finest novel – has only improved in the decade or two since I first encountered it. It is a study of one day in the life of one man – and also of how the firings of our consciousness come together in the form of an identity. Who am I? It is also a painful account of 1960s homophobia. “Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably warped.” I’d rate it warp factor ten.
Tom McCarthy: C
A book which was surrounded by the sort of buzz and static which it contained and described, C was an unusual, teasing, beautifully written novel, difficult to sum up but impossible to get out of your head. Its themes of technology and communication, and their symbiotic relationship with humanity, make it a novel for our blogging, tweeting times, and its literary qualities make it one good reason to mark down the Booker Prize as not yet a complete dead loss.
Bernard Malamud: The Magic Barrel
The Magic Barrel is one of those little masterpieces which has been knocking around for fifty years or so just waiting to be read. It is a sympathetic, harrowing and comic portrayal of the Jewish immigrant experience in America in the 1950s; a world in 150 pages.
Joe Moran: On Roads
Whether or not he’s responsible for the irksome coinage ‘everydayology’, Moran is brilliant at extracting the juice from our daily grind with wit and aplomb. The roads which circle our lives but are unregarded in themselves are a perfect subject matter for him, seasoned with tasty cultural references from Patrick Hamilton to Black Box Recorder. This book untangles a spaghetti junction of social history into a funny and illuminating narrative, a page-by-page pleasure.
Andrew Rawnsley: The End of the Party
This is the only story of New Labour (well, its second and third terms anyway) that anyone could wish for – unless you’re a real glutton for punishment. It gives believable and depressing accounts of all the major crises (if there were any periods of calm between the crises, history has already forgotten them) and provides either a reminder of how difficult government is, or an affirmation of how power corrupts, etc. My review is so detailed that you may not need to read the book afterwards anyway.
Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling
A timely reminder of one of the most talented but least appreciated novelists now working in English, The Long Falling, Ridgway’s debut novel, is less ambitious than his later work, but just as fully achieved. It’s a straight story about a straight society struggling to accommodate challenges to its orthodoxy, and of one woman at a time of crisis. Also read his blog, where he writes about books like Alone in Berlin much better than I do.
Judith Schalansky: Atlas of Remote Islands
A perfect jewel, a work of art, and a work of literature all at once. Atlas of Remote Islands is a high concept, a simple idea, and a frightening challenge to our expectations of atlases as books which connect countries and make the world a smaller place. This atlas defamiliarises and isolates, in the most bracing and stimulating manner. When I wrote my blog post, Schalansky’s book had had no coverage in the mainstream press; now expert reviews like this one show my own effort as sadly surface-literalist. So read it instead, but more importantly, read the book.
Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles
My thirteenth choice tips the balance of this list in favour of old books rather than new ones. And this is the oldest of them all (just about) and the strangest (for sure). Schulz’s florid, flighty prose feels like a new way of looking at the world, and expands in imaginative fancy even as its subject matter closes in on streets and rooms and members of a family. Sorry to make this a theme, but once again the mainstream press proves much better than I am at explaining why Schulz is so good. So start here.