Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.


  1. Happy Christmas, John, and thanks for the list. As usual, that’s my Waterstones gift vouchers easily redeemed. Neverland, A Meaningful Life and Summertime are all brilliant in very different ways, so I’m pretty excited about the other nine (Hans Fallada is already sat waiting on the shelf, as is The Horla, though in a collection of stuff).

    Here’s a few others worth mentioning.

    Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower

    Genuinely new voice, though comparisons with George Saunders are inevitable. Hilarious and moving.

    Legend Of A Suicide – David Vann

    The second of three really fresh new voices I came across this year, though slightly more off-kilter and unconventional than Tower, perhaps due to a level of emotional detachment that makes the whole thing unfold in a strange atmosphere of impressively difficult poignancy.

    My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump

    Neverland is great but this is better, and is bizarrely moving considering it involves Elvis running around naked shooting beercans, for example.

    Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

    I STILL don’t really know what to make of this, but it’s stuck in my head and was totally convincing. Worth a mention.

    Let The Great World Spin – Colum McCann

    Exquisite and brilliant, and seems to have avoided the patchiness of other recent attempts at ‘great American novels’.

    The Big House – George Howe Colt

    Had never heard a thing about this, and am not sure how to encapsulate it briefly, other than to say: it’s about a house on Cape Cod, history, family and, somehow, everything else.

    Love and Obstacles – Aleksandar Hemon

    Fuses Junot Diaz and a fledgling Nabokov. Say no more. His novels The Lazarus Project and Nowhere Man are also the work of someone surely destined to be considered one of the greats.

    Await Your Reply – Dan Chaon

    Beautifully orchestrated and bleak as midnight snow, this felt a bit like Bret Easton Ellis’ early stuff. To be followed by…

    Thank You, Jeeves – PG Wodehouse

    …for a perfectly warped combo: wash out the dread and nightmares with sunlit buffoonery.

  2. Thanks for a fascinating list, Lee. I did mention the David Vann in the intro – very good, I agree. Brooklyn I didn’t think to include but it too has stayed with me (and in fact I read it last Xmas, so that’s a full year and I still have fond memories of it).

    Others have recommended the Wells Tower to me so I will probably get hold of it in ‘properback’ next year; I read one of the Hemon stories but got sidetracked, and must admit I had mixed feelings about The Lazarus Project (loved the 1908 bits, didn’t care for the modern day stuff). I have heard though that his next novel is going to be the biggie.

    Thanks for the recommendations of Chaon and Colt – I do have a Chaon (You Remind Me of Me) and your comparison with Ellis interests me (Ellis himself has a new novel out next year I think, a sequel to Less than Zero). I also have the Colum McCann on my heavy shelves, waiting like so many others for me to find the time…

    Wodehouse is always wonderful, though I must admit I like the Jeeves stories least among his output. Leave it to Psmith is my favourite.

  3. I’m exhausted after my attempt to recall and write a list of books for the last decade so my own books of the year, which will go up later this week, will be much shorter. I almost included The Seventh Well on it but had a sixth sense that you might mention it yourself, a truly brilliant book and one I shall be gifting. Vann’s stories are indeed marvellous and I have Summertime and Stoner on the shelf to look forward to.

    If I might mention Jayne Anne Philips’ Lark and Termite which is a fabulous book that sticks in the mind, modelled on Faulkner, writing that reaches out to the heights it aspires to and beyond.

  4. It’s rare to read something like the Vann book: like David Sedaris without the knowing expectation of mechanically-provoked guffaws (that are trying desperately to look artless and improvised). Something aiming for recognition laughter but in a skewed, ingenious way. Tower is not as original a voice but the punchlines and dialogue exchanges are simultaneously peculiar and familiar. Spot-on and uncluttered, like Saunders, but somehow unique and vital. Impressive.

    Hemon is someone getting into his stride, and the fact that I agree his best work is doubtlessly ahead whilst holding to my assurity of his brilliance thus far suggests perhaps he’s our best writer in waiting.

    Imperial Bedrooms, I think the new Ellis is called. I’m a big fan and can’t wait for that, and I felt that Lunar Park was overlooked. There are definite similarities there, and both are ploughing a specific furrow in accessible nightmares, as opposed to Danielewski or Denis Johnson, who use more elaborate, impressionistic strokes to deal with the same sort of things.

    Yes, you’re not alone in your Wodehouse tendencies, and I must take heed. I think I recall you mentioning Psmith before and I think that may be a new year purchase, so thanks again…

  5. William, Lark and Termite is something else I need to add to the list. Your advocacy is the final straw! I’ve heard great things.

    1. I’ve just ordered it! Thanks. I’ve just posted on Trevor’s blog and mentioned that I can’t remember a great deal about Machine Dreams, but that’s probably a question of timing etc.

  6. What a terrific list – I totally agree with you on the Coetzee and Fallada – two books that will stay with me for a long time. Aira keeps coming up as a recommendation from tons of readers with similar tastes to mine, so he is definitely a writer I need to read sooner rather than later. I’ve had a copy of the Solstad languishing in a pile at home but I’ve read almost no reviews or any commentary about the book, so thanks for mentioning it – now I definitely need to dig it up again. I’m currently making my way through NYRBs and have previously read both Stoner and A Meaningful Life both of which I loved — a good companion to the latter is Edward Lewis Wallant’s Tenants of Moonbloom, also set in New York but a different kind of relationship to real estate. It’s also been re-issued by NYRB.
    Here’s my list of favourite reads list (full disclosure – I work in publishing so many – but not all – of the books are published or distributed by my company – they just end up being a bigger proportion of what I read annually)

  7. Fallada has been sitting on my shelf for something like two months and I still (insert exasperated sigh) haven’t found the time or the mood to read it. And this despite just about everybody thinking it’s amazing. I really just need to set aside a week for it…

    I’ve been thinking over my best and worst of the year, but I’ve realized that I just don’t have a large enough sample… I mean, I’ve read some awesome books in 2009 – “The Master and Margarita” way (way way) back in January jumped immediately to the top of my favorites list (all-time favorites), I discovered the incredible writing of Primo Levi (“The Periodic Table”, “If This is a Man”, and “If Not Now, When?” all blew me away), and a couple of wonderful and varied novels. But every time I try to list them I get stuck on which deserves the extra praise, which I liked because they suited my style and which were “technically good”. Which I liked and others hated, which I hated but everyone liked… It’ll take a little longer until I can formulate these thoughts as neatly as yours.

  8. Thanks for offering a very stimulating list. I feel a bit cowed by the fact I haven’t even heard of many of them but then that gives me lots of interesting new authors and books to explore. I suppose that ‘s one of the best things about being a bibliophile there’s a lifetime of new discoveries.Some of my best reads of 2009?
    I had a bit of a Jonathan Raban year. His novel Waxwings and his journey up the west coast of the USA described in Passage to Juneau.
    Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land and my discovery of Wallace Stegner – The Big Rock Candy Mountain – were highlights.I also reread Sinclair Lewis’ Mainstreet. It should come under `guilty pleasure ‘. It’s badly written in places and he’s not good at plotting but it’s a book I’ve always loved.
    I enjoyed Richard Kelly’s book about modern Newcastle Crusaders despite the fact the opening chapter has some of the worst writing I’ve read for a long time ( what was his editor thinking?) . However, the narrative then develops into something much more interesting about inner city politics and the rise of new Labour
    Enjoyable rereads included David Copperfield and A Sentimental Education. The latter in particular is one of the greatest books I have ever read.
    I’ll allow that Wolf Hall was a tour de force but I didn’t enjoy it – ditto The Children’s Book.
    Funniest book I read in 2009 was Lissa Evans’ Their Finest Hour and a Half about film making in the 2ndWW. ( Funnier than Me Cheeta) I also reread Angus Wilson’s Anglo Saxon Attitudes – funny and a very British antidote to all the American books I read.
    I’ll try not to be too scathing but Robert Edric’s Siren Song was awful ( and he’s a writer I generally admire) and I could hardly get through Benjamin Markovitz’s novel about Byron. I think the fact that I `discovered’ Housekeeping and hated it has already been covered on this blog.
    The haphazard nature of my reading may reflect the fact that I get many of my books in second hand bookshops in Paris!

  9. Great to see your list, John. I’ve been waiting for it! And I fully support you in your new year’s resolution to read more Aira. Ghosts is particularly great. I know when I interviewed him in July, Chris Andrews’ next project was Aira’s Varamo, and New Directions is releasing a non-Andrews translation of The Literary Conference early spring 2010. I’m hoping the pace of translation quickens!

  10. Mary, your comments put a big smile on my face. Here’s why.

    ‘I enjoyed Richard Kelly’s book about modern Newcastle Crusaders despite the fact the opening chapter has some of the worst writing I’ve read for a long time ( what was his editor thinking?).’ – I picked this up in wherever it was and thought precisely the same. I thought at the time: ‘Why is David Peace bigging this tosh up?’

    ‘I’ll allow that Wolf Hall was a tour de force but I didn’t enjoy it – ditto The Children’s Book.’ – Marvellous. Yes, yes, we may respect a piece of work but it may still be DUUUUUUUUUL.

    ‘I’ll try not to be too scathing but Robert Edric’s Siren Song was awful ( and he’s a writer I generally admire)…’ Again, I read some of this as his name kept popping up. Tosh!

  11. Thanks for the responses and lists everyone. Maylin, I do in fact have The Tenants of Moonbloom so I must get it down off the shelves. It’s nice to meet a fellow admirer of the NYRB series! I see too in your list that you put down Ian McEwan’s Solar (as you read an advance copy). I must admit that I didn’t like the extract recently published in the New Yorker at all. Does it get better than that?

    Speaking of NYRB Classics, I believe one of Mary’s selections, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is available in the series… Also, Mary, you’re the third or so person to recommend Stegner to me – I did read Crossing to Safety a few years ago and thought it very good, so must try something else. And Raban too, whose name is familiar but whose books are not.

    Biblibio, go on, take that Fallada down off the shelf! You won’t regret it.

  12. Re: Solar – yes, I think it does get better than that extract. I don’t think it’s McEwan’s best book but he’s still such a darn good writer that I just enjoy reading anything he pens. This has a bit more of the commercial appeal of Amsterdam with a bit of the black comedy and poignancy of On Chesil Beach. Funnier than Saturday. I really like novels of academics behaving badly so it scores highly with me on that count (as does Anglo-Saxon Attitudes – I’ll echo everyone’s praises on that too). It’s also a bit of a satire on climate change, and the “industry” trying to solve it, which makes a change from the serious (though well-meaning) gloom and doom non-fiction books out there.

  13. Thanks Maylin. I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’ll read Solar – though it hardly matters, as everyone else will anyway. I fear that extract has prejudiced me against it.

    Anyway allow me to recommend, for anyone reading this, Maylin’s NYRB Challenge. It begins here (I can’t believe you have 184 of the titles!), and continues with these tagged posts. I couldn’t agree more with your words, Maylin, on the NYRB series:

    I can honestly say that I’ve consistently enjoyed every single NYRB book that I’ve ever read. Some have been more to my taste than others, but each has offered something unexpected and the line has introduced me to many new authors I would never have otherwise read – especially classic works by international authors in translation, a genre they excel in.

    The Penguin Modern Classics line in the UK has a similar hold on my affections.

  14. I know you started the year with a (soon-abandoned) goal of alternating works in translation with works originally written in English — so it’s interesting to see the Self dozen is almost an even split. I for one certainly appreciate the heads up on translated works that you provide since it is a “tentative” area for me. And all thoughts on NYRB works are valuable (the catalogue is simply too good and extensive to pursue without some help) — you and Maylin have convinced me that Davis and Wallant should be on my next order. In return, I’d highly recommend the NYRB versions of the New York short stories of both Henry James and Edith Wharton for anyone who likes their novels.

    I hope you find time for Stegner — in some ways his best known novels (Angle of Repose — reviewed by me here — and Big Rock Candy Mountain) can be compared to John Williams. Both those novels are very different from Crossing to Safety, but both authors write about the mid- and further-West of North America in a way that is very evocative for those of whose live there.

  15. I’ve tried to compile my own list of the best books I’ve read this year. I cheated and included books I read this year which were published before 2009 – if I hadn’t, I’d have had to miss some excellent books which I only discovered this year like Damon Galgut’s The Imposter, and Paul Morley’s Nothing. I’ve appended books which were published this year with ‘2009’, so you can concentrate on those if you want to ignore the oldies (though I may have got some of them wrong). So here goes:

    The Mulberry Empire – Philip Hensher ****0 1/2
    My fave of Hensher’s novels. A sumptuous feast relating real historical events involving Britian’s colonial past in the east which have been fictionalised.

    Trauma – Patrick McGrath ****0 1/2
    Taut psychological thriller showing McGrath at his intriguing best.

    Bright Shiny Morning – James Frey ****0 1/2 2009
    Compelling journey through the lives of a disparate group of people living in LA ranging from spoilt millionaires to street dwellers, peppered with nuggets of information about the city.

    The Spare Room – Helen Garner ****0
    Sharp, insightful story of a woman playing host to a friend with a terminal illness. How far will the ties of friendship stretch?

    Marry me – John Updike *****
    Sounds as if it should be a tedious tale of wife-swapping, but Updike’s genius with words transforms it into an engrossing social drama.

    Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates *****
    Classic story of disillusionment in a couple who ostensibly seem to have it all. The simple, lucid prose hides a savage awareness of existensial angst in middle class America.

    The Collected Stories – Lorrie Moore ****0
    Beautiful stories about people at all stages of life, encompassing parenthood, divorce, bereavement, dating and so on.

    If You Don’t Know Me By Now – Sathnam Sanghera *****
    Touching, funny autobiography of Times journalist who grew up in the north of England unaware that his father had a psychiatric illness.

    The Rain Before It Falls – Jonathan Coe ****0 1/2
    See review at

    Charlotte Gray – Sebastian Faulks *****
    See review at link given above.

    Legend of a Suicide – David Vann ****0 2009
    Raw, bleeding stories from an author coming to terms with his father’s suicide and its effects on him.

    It’s Beginning to Hurt – James Lasdun *****
    Brilliantly clever stories showing the breathtaking talent Lasdun showed in The Horned Man (and, to a lesser extent, in Seven Lies.)

    Collected Stories – Richard Yates *****
    Yates captures so much in his ostensibly sparse prose. Tales of failure, dejection, life and its disappointments.

    Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi ***** 2009
    Two linked novellas, the first a hilarious and sexy tale of an irascible journalist who falls in love at the Venice Biennale, the second about a journalist drifting through Varanassi, absorbing the colours, smells and rites that take place at the shore of the Ganges.

    How to Paint a Dead Man – Sarah Hall ***** 2009
    Beautifully written vignettes about the lives of several people who are linked, loosely or biologically, and who are all involved in the world of art. Luminous and evocative.

    The Wilderness – Samantha Harvey ****0 2009
    Harrowing story of an architect who is in the throes of losing his memory to Alzheimer’s. He remembers only snippets of his past life, some of which are just dreams, and tries to join these fragments up into a coherent whole.

    This Is How – M.J. Hyland ****0 2009
    Brutally sparse prose in this jarring tale of a man’s descent into murder and its aftermath.

    The Secret History – Donna Tartt *****
    A stunning story about college friends who become embroiled in a dark deed.

    The Kilburn Social Club – Robert Hudson ****0 1/2 2009
    Upbeat debut about a fictional north London football club following the loves, tragedies, feuds and business dealings of all involved with the club.

    Love and Summer – William Trevor ****0 2009
    Trevor conjures up the atmosphere of small-town southern Ireland perfectly in this story of an infatuation between a married young woman and a stranger.

    Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel ****0 1/2 2009
    Fabulous evocation of Tudor times and history in this rich novel about the life of Henry Vlll’s advisor Thomas Cromwell.

    The Bradshaw Variations – Rachel Cusk ****0 2009
    Sharp, funny family saga about a married couple who swap roles.

    The Death of Bunny Munro – Nick Cave ****0 1/2 2009
    Dark, disturbing tale of a selfish sex addict and his distressed son in the days following the boy’s mother’s suicide.

    The Glass Room – Simon Mawer ***** 2009
    Absorbing story centred around a distinctive Czech house influenced by Weimar architecture, following the people who passed through it around the time of WW2.

    Summertime – J.M.Coetzee ****0 1/2 2009
    Fabulous fictionalised account of the author’s life showing how memory and subjectivity colour every memory.

    Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain – Kevin Cummins ***** 2009
    Iconic photographs from ex NME photographer of Manchester bands from the late ’70s days of Joy Division, Buzzcocks and The Fall through The Smiths, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Oasis to present day performers.

    Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann ****0 2009
    Giddy tale centred around fictional events and NY dwellers on the day a French acrobat walked between the Twin Towers in NY. Takes in the lives of a characters including an enigmatic Irish clergyman who looks after prostitutes in a slum and a grieving,wealthy bereaved mother of a ‘Nam veteran.

    The Hungry Years – William Leith ****0 1/2
    Drole and absorbing story of a food addict’s battle with carbs and his trial of the Atkins diet. Irreverent, hilarious and intelligent.

    The Imposter – Damon Galgut *****
    Wonderful story set in post-apartheid South Africa centred around a man who digs himself into a hole with what he thinks are white lies. Shows that beneath the surface, corruption still rules.

    Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi *****
    Charming cartoon about a girl growing up in Iran around the time of the 1979 revolution, depicting the horrific consequences of the rise of Islamic fundementalism and the disappointment of middle classes who had hoped the revolution would bring much-needed democracy.

    Invisible – Paul Auster ***** 2009
    Gripping, shocking thriller based around the effect a shadowy individual has on a young, impressionable writer in NYC.

    The Good Parents – Joan London ****0 2009
    Quietly potent story of a young woman who disappears in Melbourne with her creepy middle-aged boss, and the subsequent soul searching her distraught parents go through.

    The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen *****
    Raucously funny family saga about dysfunctional family made up of bourgeois mother, faded father consumed by Parkinson’s disease, lazy chancer son, drivenhen-pecked older son, and professionally together, privately chaotic chef daughter.

    Nothing – Paul Morley *****
    Searingly honest account by ex NME scribe of the suicide of his father set amidst the story of the author’s coming-of-age in a working-class family in Stockport. Unexpectedly, laugh-out-loud funny and uplifting as well as poignant and moving.

  16. Thanks, John – another generously articulated list of good things to get hold of. Like you, I thought Summertime was sensational; same goes for Stoner; and your mention of Neverland reminded me that I once read – and almost imploded with laughter – My Elvis Blackout. I’ve read a bit of Maupassant – in fact I still have a weird, adolescent book-crush on Bel Ami – but not The Horla. I now know, emphatically, which edition to get. The Solstad looks really interesting and the same goes for Fallada, whose name keeps being whispered within my earshot. So much to read in 2010 – and I have a brother who just asked me what I want for Christmas…

    A handful from me:

    James Lasdun’s collection ‘It’s Beginning to Hurt’ is his best book so far – beautifully crafted stories (predominantly about middle age and the cracks that can start to appear) which seem equally adept at capturing both the internal and external worlds. The language is very fine, as you might expect from a poet. If I had to pick a single story, it would be Caterpillars, with the title story (although very very mini) not far behind.

    David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide – A very powerful book, as many will discover for themselves, with a twist that, rather than detracting from it, added to the power of the sentence-making. Made me shiver with envy…

    Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment has been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years. It’s an excellent, personal and meandering account of photography, which picks up on the elusiveness and suggestiveness of the medium as well as any book I’ve read.

    Another little book that’s been sitting around for a while is William Saroyan’s Fresno Stories. One of the (discontinued?) New Directions Bibelot series, it places four early stories alongside seven later ones, all set in the Saroyan territory of Fresno, California. They have a simplicity and directness that give them the aura of fables. Very sparky. I liked alot.

    Anyway. Enough for now. Happy Christmas…

  17. Thanks Philip. I’m a big Dyer fan though I haven’t read (or haven’t finished) The Ongoing Moment so I will bear it in mind. And I agree with you (and leyla) about James Lasdun: I wrote about It’s Beginning to Hurt here, and it only narrowly missed my list. Thanks for the Saroyan recommendation.

    Leyla, too much interesting stuff in your generous list to go into in detail, but I always wondered about Morley’s Nothing, and I agree entirely with you on Marry Me – a terrific book from Updike, who blows hot and cold for me. I’ve asked for Auster’s Invisible for Xmas, so I hope to read it soon. He’s always interesting.

    Kevin, thanks for the Stegner direction. Angle of Repose is available as a Penguin Modern Classic, so I think I’ll go for that one.

  18. Many of my favourites have already been mentioned, but end of year plaudits also to Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. The best debut I read this year, it was like being inside the fractals of someone’s looping mind. Can I be smug and say that this year I read both The Savage Detectives and 2666? I preferred the latter.

    I think I must be the only person on the planet that found Legend of a Suicide underwhelming. It felt quite a mannered performance.

    John, thanks for blogging on Stoner – I loved it!

  19. All old books- Sybille Bedford’s ‘Legacy’, I enjoyed alot.
    Zamyatin’s ‘We’ a much more interesting, strange & disturbing dystopia than Orwell’s ‘1984’ which it influenced.
    Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’ favourite new read of the year.

    1. Sybille Bedford is incredible – “A Legacy”, “A Compass Error”, and “Jigsaw – An Unsentimental Education” are all excellent novels by this British author. And I too like very much Bulgakov’s other novels besides “The Master and Magharita”.

  20. Thanks Sam. I actually had a proof of Atmospheric Disturbances from 4th Estate but never got around to reading it. Permission to be smug granted: and well done. I fear that Bolaño and I are a love affair never to be consummated: I tried two of his books this year, By Night in Chile which I failed to finish even though it’s barely 100 pages long; and Amulet, which I did finish but I had no opinion on whatsoever, so I didn’t blog on it. I do have a copy of Nazi Literature of the Americas, out soon in the UK from Picador (and already long since published in the US), which I will read and hope to have better luck with.

    I did like Legend of a Suicide but if I had blogged about it I would have written something like this: the first two stories were disappointing and overwritten, with essence of creative writing school (like the stuff about a relative who had only one eye, and the correspondence this suggested with one of Roy’s fish as a child), but the novella ‘Sukkwan Island’ I thought was terrific, a bravura performance – surprising and satisfying – and most definitely justified, as they say, the entrance price alone.

    Andrew, I think I have A Legacy somewhere, along with A Compass Error, so that’s another one for me to have a look at; thanks. The only Bulgakovs I’ve read are The Master and Margarita (I think I’m the only person on the planet who didn’t love it) and A Country Doctor’s Notebook, but I’ve seen The White Guard about – and I’ve had others recommend We also, one of those classics I’m always meaning to read, meaning to read, meaning to read…

    1. I forgot to mention Geoff Dyer’s Geoff (sorry, Jeff…) In Venice, Death In Varanasi and Invisible. Both excellent. The former, as is the case with so much Dyer, somehow combines an easy charm with formidable authority. The Jose Mourinho of writers. Like Graham Greene’s slightly anarchic offspring.

  21. ‘White Guard’ a very different kind of book John to M & M, & though it’s been a while since I read the latter. ‘White Guard’ right now I’d prefer. Beautifully but naturally written/translated, very humane, & it moves from the intimate to the broader historical setting in a way, or inducing a feeling, I don’t think I’ve experienced before – a little like Calvino & Borges but more subtle, interesting & deep.
    ‘Legacy’ actually a little similar in mood, if I’m not making too tenuous a link – a natural but unselfconscious sensuousness with language & a deep unforced humanity.
    Both books very different from the Zamyatin, which is much more interesting than you might imagine or dread – “Oh no, a book with a big pushy point I should read” – which is what I’d previously vaguely envisaged. A fantastic book, if at times, short though it is, it’s not exactly one you feel enticing you in welcomingly. Not a Christmas spirit book!

  22. I need to get on this Fallada.

    Some of my 2009 favorite reads were:

    Moveable Feast, Hemingway. I picked this up randomly — never really gotten behind the writer before — and was pleasantly surprised by its charm and its warmth and by its desultory structure. It also got me to finally pick up John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse.

    The Last Good Kiss, Crumley. Hilarious mix of Hammett and Hunter Thompson.

    The Age of Wonder, Holmes. Masterful take on Romantic science. My pick of best nonfic published this year. Could not put it down.

    The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald. Bought after finishing Netherland, mostly because of all the comparisons (which I don’t see). Skipped Gatsby in high school, but I’m glad that I discovered the book now, when it speaks more to me. I’ll be rereading this every couple years from here on out.

    The Ten-Cent Plague, Hajdu. Anyone into comics ought to get some good mileage out of this one.

    The Chrysalids, Wyndham. So ahead of its time. NYRB needs to publish more Wyndham asap.

    Omnivore’s Dilemma. Finally got around to it. Definitely life-changing. Related: I also enjoyed Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (but I still eat meat).

    Summer Will Show, Townsend Warner. Sophia rules.

  23. Thanks Tom and nicknick. Very interesting lists both. Tom, I’m keen to read Littell and Walser – eventually.

    nicknick, I have the three Sylvia Townsend Warner NYRB titles and can never decide which one to read first. (Keep your fingers crossed for more Wyndham from them, nicknick, though by starting with The Chrysalids they’ve set the bar pretty high, as it’s his best book by a country mile in my opinion.)

    What about The Original of Laura, nicknick? As a Nabokov fan, did you succumb? I didn’t, taking the master at his word when he said, “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.” I heard John Banville discussing it on Today, when he said it was “very pale fire indeed” albeit, in such a beautiful edition, a work of the bookmaker’s art.

  24. Banville’s become the resident go-to critic on Nabokov, it seems. I think I need to read more of him. Yeah, Original Of Laura: I have it; it’s on my shelf. I’ve read Dimitri’s sort-of off putting intro (too much hem and haw) and I’ve read around the book, mostly just admiring the entire Chip Kidd package — it’s rare for him to do both the dust cover and the innards — and it really is a lovely little book artifact (pic of my copy here). But I’m still not sure I care to read it. Sometime in 2010.

    1. Thanks nicknick. Nice pic, but I was hoping for a shot of those famous innards – all the copies I’ve seen are hermetically sealed so I haven’t yet seen this ‘work of the bookmaker’s art’.

  25. That silly pic was just the closest one I had at hand — I put a cap on my book spending, $50 per paycheck, and that was the Dec. 1st haul. Because I’m a dork, I usually take a pic for posterity.

    Because you asked, here’s some Laura porn:

    one, two, three, four, five, six, seven

    Incidentally, I’ve been irritated reading Moby Lives’ snarky-ass comments on Laura. I don’t really care about the ultimate reasons Original Of Laura finally came out, but as a Nab fan of 15 years I look it purely as a gift to fans.

  26. Great to see you posting again John. I’d like to echo everyone’s sentiments that the gaps between posts hardly matter when they’re of such good quality!

    When I finished studying in June I followed the strategy of selecting any book that looked interesting, so I’ve had a wonderful, if haphazard, reading year! I picked up a lot of acclaimed authors for the first time (e.g. James Kelman, Shirley Jackson, Agnes Owens, David Markson, Charles Bukowski, Bohumil Hrabal, B.S. Johnson, Jose Saramago).

    I’ll be honest and admit that I couldn’t get past the first hundred pages of Hugo Wilcken’s The Colony. I struggled to care much about Sabir and his life in the colony – it just wasn’t for me, I think.

    From 2009, like many here, I enjoyed Fallada’s Alone in Berlin very much. I also loved Lynda Barry’s graphic novel What It Is, a beautiful, instructive blend of memoir and creative activity book. Mariko Koike’s The Cat in the Coffin was a perfect gem of a thriller. And, although it received dismissive reviews at best, I thought Douglas Coupland’s Generation A was entertaining, inventive and a page turner.

    Finally, I’ll add that I will miss Borders very much following its demise this Christmas.

    Over the years I have had the great fortune to work with a wonderful group of people at Borders Glasgow and the store will be missed as a city-centre institution by staff and customers alike. I wish all ex-Borders UK employees the best for 2010.


    1. Thanks Eva, for your thoughts and recommendations. I’m sorry you didn’t like Colony, but am delighted you gave it a try anyway!

      I must investigate Lynda Barry. I’ve picked up a couple of graphic novels recently, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, and Logicomix, which tells the story of some of Bertrand Russell’s mathematic and philosophical investigations, and which has been highly acclaimed.

    2. Eva, I’ll have to agree with you on Generation A. It’s a bit of an unravelling and slightly misfiring novel as we reach the finale but contains some of Coupland’s most brilliant, maddeningly clever passages to date. A joy to read that doesn’t quite work…is still a joy to read.

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  28. I am currently reading “Stoner” after I’ve read your critique about it and so far it has been a hypnotic ride. I’ll definitely pick up a couple of books or maybe three from your list for my next books purchase as they appear to be right up my alley.

    If you are interested, this is my list. Not as many obscure ones I suppose but I’m still glad that I have gotten to read them, most of them at least.

  29. Thanks for your comment and your list, Angelo. I see you’ve been going big on Richard Yates last year. I recommend Young Hearts Crying if you haven’t read it; I think there’s a case to be made for it being his best novel.

  30. No, John, you’re not the only person who wasn’t wild about “Master And Margarita”.

    As regards some of the other comments above, I can attest to the excellence of Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply”. Definitely one of the better things I read this year. Marilynne Robinson’s “Home” and Galgut’s “The Impostor” were also right up there. Yes, Edward Lewis Wallant is very good, particularly “The Tenants Of Moonbloom” and “The Pawnbroker.” Nobody talks about him anymore. I like him a lot better than Roth.

    My nomination for a book that hasn’t gotten it’s due is “Belchamber” by Howard Sturgis. It came out in the NYRB series.

  31. Thanks John, and good to see you here again. I saw a review of Belchamber by Alan Hollinghurst in the London Review of Books, but like most things in the LRB, I didn’t actually read it. Nonetheless its status as an NYRB title piqued my interest, and you’ve now enhanced that.

  32. Many thanks for the list, and all the lists. John – I think your missing out with Bolano, 2666 warranted all the praise it received, although its certainly one of the most harrowing books I have read. I too am a big NYRB fan, I receive two from my wife each birthday. I’ll definitely track down Stoner, it looks suitably earnest for my taste. My favourite of the series, by quite some margin, and one I’ve not seen mentioned on these pages (although I may well have just missed it) is GB Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer le Page – a marvellous look at the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a loveably crotchety old Guernsey resident who never leaves the island. I read that in 2008 but its memory still lingers. And I cried bucketloads, always a mark of praise!

  33. Hi Joshua, no I haven’t mentioned The Book of Ebenezer le Page here, though I do have it in the very brown NYRB Classics edition – I think it was Will Rycroft, blogger and sometime commenter here, who first recommended it to me. Of course as soon as I bought it, I took a look at the (very small) type size, and blanched. However I’ll try to get to it soon and hope it lives up to your praise!

  34. As usual, one of the last to notice you’re back. Only one book in your ‘best of…’ coincides with mine (Summertime), but that’s all to the good. Some random comments generated by glancing through the posts:
    Currently reading Alone in Berlin and greatly enjoying it.
    Must now pursue Novel 11 Book 18 having read and liked Shyness and Dignity.
    I agree with your comments about some of the stories in Legend of a Suicide, but don’t you think they, rather strangely, give more power to the novella?
    Finally, I think you’ve been unlucky witn Bolano. I read Distant Star first and it’s certainly more likely to keep you reading than Amulet.
    That’s all for now. I will, of course, be checking in frequently again now to see what else I should be reading.

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