December 14, 2011

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2011

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

As the toad work squats on my life, and infant Self number two squats on my lap, shoulder, and every other free space, this blog has been updated less frequently in 2011 than before. I can’t promise better for the immediate future, but let’s distract ourselves in the meantime with a best-of-the-year selection which I think is as strong as any I’ve posted. One of the advantages of having less time to read and write is that I’m better at choosing which books are likely to delight me most. This list includes only titles I’ve reviewed, so apologetic nods go to fascinating books I never got around to writing about, such as Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, and James Kelman’s A Disaffection. Sadface too for the absence of books like Adam Mars-Jones’s Cedilla and Edward St Aubyn’s At Last. (No, I didn’t have a no aristos rule.) Oh, another note relating to the squeezing of time this year: more than half of these books have fewer than 160 pages. And yes, I’ve gone over the twelve. I always do.

Richard Beard: Lazarus is Dead
This list is alphabetical by author, but if I had to choose my favourite new book of the year, it would be this one; this one would be it. (Mirroring; that’s a clue, you see.) It ticked all my hard-to-reach boxes, with its straight face, twinkly eye, but untongued cheek. It’s a novel, it’s a biography, it’s a study in fiction and storytelling, and it’s got Jesus. It deserves to be massively popular.

John Burnside: A Summer of Drowning
I had lost my way with John Burnside’s early fiction (in truth, he says that he lost his way with it), but the clamour of praise for his latest novel became impossible to ignore. I read the book just to shut it up. It’s a whispering, creepy, insistent horror story, set in darkest northest Norway, which plays with what artists do and whether it is right or not that “to refuse oneself is exemplary.”

Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar
This was a book I never finished on my first love affair with Calvino 15 or 20 years ago. I now see why: it’s a tricky little thing, the oddest of character studies told in philosophical musings, with beautiful prose (thank you, translator William Weaver) that is not just decorative. It is also as intricate structurally as a Chinese puzzle ball. An Italian puzzle book, then.

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz
I was told this year, with apparent relish, that Enright’s The Gathering was the lowest-selling Booker winner of the last decade. This meaningless factoid (is it even true?) made me want to reread that book, which I know will give up more with every visit. Meanwhile, her new novel is immediately impressive and subversive, with its sly take on a grand universal – adultery – and a pin-sharp portrait of right now: the Irish property crash and financial crisis. This is how good ‘literary fiction’ can be.

Marlen Haushofer: The Loft
Straight from nowhere, drawn to my attention by the translator’s trusted name, comes the quiet, seething story of an Austrian housewife who discovers her old diaries. It is one of those looping, unified narratives that draws the reader in from seemingly innocuous beginnings: “From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we can never seem to agree about…” In a loft in central Europe in the mid-20th century, all human life is here.

Lars Iyer: Spurious
A blog I never got around to reading became a book I couldn’t stop. I’m glad it went that way, in the spirit of Geoff Dyer, who doesn’t read journalism by his favourite writers as it appears, so that he can read it all at once in book form. Spurious is the funniest book I read all year, and follows two frenemies (yep) as they fail entirely to make progress on anything, or even to agree on what form progress might take. “‘Go on, tell me,’ says W., getting excited. ‘How fat are you now?’”

Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son
This book of stories, due for reissue in the UK by Granta Books in autumn 2012, is linked by its drifting narrator: hyperbleary, all edges, semiconscious through illicit medication. But the writing is as tight as our man is louche, and the book provides a porthole I couldn’t tear myself away from, into a way of life I’d never want to go near. Like Spurious, it’s surprisingly funny – which is the only kind of funny that I like. Listen to Tobias Wolff read the best story, ‘Emergency’, here.

Georges Perec: W or The Memory of Childhood
Perec to me was the arch-trickster of European postmodernism, the homme who put the ‘Ooh!’ into Oulipo. His lipogrammatic novel La Disparition; his jigsaw-puzzle epic Life: A User’s Manual. But Perec reportedly wanted to write one of everything, and when Wikipedia describes this book as “a semi-autobiographical work that is hard to classify,” well, you can say that again. Don’t classify it: read it, with its jocular-sinister parallel world where Olympic ideals reign, and its dual title with one meaning. W is the sort of book which makes you (made me) rush off and buy all the author’s other books that you didn’t have.

Jack Robinson: Days and Nights in W12
Another unclassifiable wonder, written under a pseudonym (what a childish conceit). Above all it’s that rarest of things: a self-published book that is not just readable but essential. (Go on: I challenge you.) Robinson, aka Charles Boyle, brings a magpie eye and a big imagination to scenes of daily life in the streets that surround him, inventing, questioning, enlightening and confusing. It’s plotless, semi-fictional, fragmented, and touched with the brilliance of a man who, if he does know how to write a bad sentence, is keeping it to himself.

Nicholas Royle: Quilt
This novel is a not-quite-seamless blend of an affecting study of grief (a man deals with his father’s death) and an aggressive literary experiment. It, or its narrator, devolves into a sort of madness by the end, obsessed by rays (the flatfish). Then, after the end, there is an thrilling afterword which acts as an attack on complacent literary culture and as a manifesto for books like this. Can I join your club, Professor Royle?

Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale
Here is a book in a field of its own for sheer eccentricity and oddness – perhaps challenged by Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which narrowly missed my list. Sjon’s book wins by sheer force of charm and character. I struggled to capture it in my review, when I’d just read it, so the chances of my doing better now are slim. It’s full of enquiry, discovery and intellectual jeux d’esprit in 17th century Iceland. (I know!) Just read it.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka: The Sickness
If there’s a stereotype for the sort of book that appeals to me instinctively, it would be a slim, unflinching novel in translation about an ostensibly gloomy subject matter. How kind, then, of Alberto Barrera Tyszka to write me one. It’s about a doctor who cannot bear to share his father’s cancer diagnosis with him. (So, fathers and sons too: another guaranteed tickler for me these days.) Perhaps as I get even older, I will no longer care to be reminded that life is chaos which ends randomly; but for now, this is just the ticket.

Jiří Weil: Life with a Star
An addition to the great canon of Holocaust literature may not seem urgent, but as this book is 60 years old, I was already rather late to it. (When I wrote my review, it was out of print in the UK, but it will be reissued by Daunt Books in April 2012.) Life with a Star is brimming with irony and pathos, and the blackest humour that helps address the greatest enormities. Fearing extermination by the unnamed oppressor, one man points out, desperately, that the whole population of Earth is going to die anyway, so what does it matter? “That won’t help us,” replies another. “Even if everyone dies, we will be the first.”

Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
It was a joy to return this year to one of my favourite writers, whose invention and boldness even in the well-trodden genre of childhood memoir make every page sparkle and glow. A mature companion piece to Oranges are not the only fruit – and looking likely to match it in popularity – it is a love story, a family story, a comedy, and a call to arms for those who still give a damn about literature. That’s you.

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