Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2011

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.


  1. Thank for a year of stimulating reviews despite the demands and delights of very young children. I haven’t read any of your `best of 2012 ‘ yet but I’m very attracted by your reviews of Burnside, Enright and Haushofer.
    My best reads of 2011? Probably the re-reads of The First Circle and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For sheer enjoyment I loved T C Boyle’s The Women. Perhaps he’s not seen as serious enough to merit the attention he deserves. David Vann’s Caribou Island was chilling in every sense and made me pleased I live in Brittany and not Alaska. As for non fiction Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital was a rich dense and unclassifiable exploration of London’s hinterland though best read in small installments

  2. Thanks Mary. Thanks for the recommendations. I did review Caribou Island but it didn’t quite make the cut (I preferred Legend of a Suicide, which I didn’t review here). I’ve read Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, but have never felt tempted to pursue him further. Iain Sinclair is one of those writers I always mean to read, but I feel I would need to set aside about a month to get through one of his books. Perhaps this is based on the little distance I made it through Lights Out for the Territory, years ago. Small instalments are probably best where small children are concerned too! I must reread Fowles again too. As for The First Circle, I admit I had to google to be sure that I knew who it was by (I did! Phew).

  3. I think I’m about to take the path you have taken next year, read books which are less than 200 pages. I am not surprise that Enright’s The Gathering was the lowest-selling Booker winner of the last decade because I didn’t like it. Then with your favourable take on Forgotten Waltz, I may change my mind about Enright. Jeanette Winterson is my favourite author. Since “Orange is not the only fruit” I long to read another book from her, her recent one will be one that I’ll salivate upon. Great shelf picture and shortlist. Thanks.

  4. Superb list as ever. Haven’t read some but Winterson, Tyszka, Beard, Weil, Sjon, Johnson are all tremendous. As you say, there surely can’t’ve been a stronger year’s end round-up. And if I had to pick one, even from such a strong line-up, I’d have to go for Burnside. Whatever boxes I want ticking when picking up a book, A Summer of Drowning covered them all and proposed one or two I’d forgotten about.

  5. What an interesting, unusual list. It includes a few books I got as review copies and didn’t read (although I did try Quilt, and gave up very quickly… I thought it very much crossed the line from experimental to self-indulgent, but I’m glad you thought otherwise.)

    From these, The Loft sounds like the one I’d most value reading. Onto the wishlist it goes.

  6. Thanks, Simon. Quilt self-indulgent… perhaps – though don’t all authors indulge themselves to an extent? Provided them also indulge me, I don’t mind!

  7. I always look forward to this list, John. I have read exactly zero of these, a third of the titles are on my shelf already — your end-of-the-year imprimatur is what I need to get them down. My best wishes, as always, for the end of this year and the coming 2012.

  8. An interesting and provocative list, as always — I’ve only read the Iyer and Enright and certainly appreciated both. And I can certainly understand why a new son and new job have slowed blog entries — rest assured they are still much appreciated when you do have time. Happy holidays.

  9. Fine list John. I’ve read two, have two on the shelf and 5 more on the wish list. As always, thanks for unearthing such fine works and hosting such illuminating discussions. Who knows – maybe Kapuscinski will sneak onto 2012’s version? Well, I can hope….

  10. Thanks for so many consistently interesting reviews this year; I’m often amazed by how many of the books you review never seem to merit a mention (or publication, for that matter) here in the U.S.. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but picked up John Burnside’s book thanks to your review (and simultaneously picked up, also as a result of your review, an introduction to and a tremendous appreciation for Harald Sahlberg’s fantastic paintings). I’m also intrigued by your top choice. So far, though, the only work on your list that I’ve read is the Sjon novel, which I enjoyed much but ended up putting on the bottom of the stack of three Icelandic novels I read this year – under, in order of appreciation, Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s “Rosa Candida” (or “The Greenhouse” in English – I read it in French) and Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “Heaven and Hell.” Whatever’s going on up there, there sure seems to be a lot of terrific literature flowing south. Anyway, great list.

  11. Thanks Scott. Funny you should mention Heaven and Hell – the publisher sent it to me unsolicited, clearly thinking it was something I’d like. I have it here but haven’t read it yet. If you rate it above From the Mouth of the Whale (if I understand you correctly…), then I’ll pull it out as soon as possible. Not least because it’s short!

    I hope you enjoy the Burnside too.

  12. Thanks too, Leroy, Kevin and Trevor. To the latter, I look forward to seeing your own lists (and leroyhunter, even though you don’t have a blog, why not? What were your treats of the year?). Please be assured, by the way, Kevin, that I don’t seek to be provocative in my selections. I just scan the list of books I’ve reviewed this year and note the ones that make my eyes light up as I see them mentioned again. And then, when the list is closer to twenty than to twelve, the culling must begin. (Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas: that’s another one… And William Golding’s The Inheritors…)

    1. John, in terms of the pleasure they gave me, my top reads this year were:
      The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
      A Legacy by Sybille Bedford (I know you didn’t get on with this in the past)
      On Elegance While Sleeping by Lascano Tegui (thanks to the redoubtable N Lezard)
      Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – almost absurdly pulpy, but brilliant all the same
      Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson – hilarious and appalling all at once
      Post Office by Bukowski
      Incandescence by Craig Nova
      Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (thanks, Trevor!)

      I’m nearly finished Life & Fate just now, so that has to go on the list as well – quite an incredible book. How nice when something lives up to expectations!

      1. Thanks Leroy. I have Hell’s Angels at home, which I picked up in the Penguin Magnum Collection edition, but haven’t read because I’ve always felt a faint (and entirely unevidenced) distaste for Hunter S Thompson. Like A Legacy, Incandescence failed to win me over (in fact, if you bought a second hand copy in Belfast, it may well have been mine!). I must read more John Williams now that you’ve reminded me. Thanks for the other tips too.

        Linda Grant will be delighted by your response to Life and Fate. Alas, I gave up on it last year (or was it earlier this year?), about halfway through…

      2. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (thanks, Trevor!)

        You’re welcome! And I’ll keep the chain going by thanking Kevin, who pointed it out to me in the first place 🙂 .

  13. The books I’ve read which you have reviewed (The Long Song; The Imposter; Pigeon English; The Fifth Child plus others) didn’t make it to your list probably because you reviewed them over a year ago or they are current but you didn’t select them. Nevertheless, they were excellent reviews. I take it that you are always buying books. Are you planning to build more shelf space?

    1. That’s more or less right, Plantain. The only one of those I read this year was Pigeon English, which I thought good but not among my favourites. I read The Impostor in 2008 and I am pretty sure I selected it in my list of the year back then.

      No more shelf space: under orders from Mrs S! We now have a one-in, one-out rule. *gulps*

  14. A very nice list. You have had a good reading year, even if not as full as you might have liked. Like Trevor I own a few of these, but haven’t read any of them yet.

    I’ll be doing my own version of this soon and my instinct (hopefully wrong) is that this hasn’t been as great a reading year for me as some I’ve had. Certainly not this good. Having to make hard choices about what to read clearly hasn’t served you too badly.

    One in-one out isn’t a bad rule. My current rule is that I don’t buy anything unless I’ve read or chucked at least an equal number of books. The “read or” bit though means the shelves still expand. Perhaps I should adopt one in-one out too.

  15. Great list, I have read a few of these and really enjoyed them, and have others in my ‘to-read’ pile. I agree that Caribou Island didn’t quite reach the heights of Legend of a Suicide, and I hope you get round to writing about the Julia Leigh – a book I seem unable to stop rereading. Any plans to read Teju Cole’s Open City? – I would be interested to hear what you make of it.
    Happy xmas.

  16. Intriguing list, John. I have the Burnside on my TBR and The Sickness and hope to get around to both of them some time in early 2012.

    Glad you liked the Enright — I, too, enjoyed it and felt it was certainly more “accessible” than The Gathering, a book I also loved but found quite confronting. I think she’s an amazing writer — honest and brave.

  17. Your blog is essential reading, whatever its frequency. So many thanks for this post and others. Since other people are chipping in – and why not? – my top three books of 2011 were ‘the Enright’ (as we seem to be calling it – and I loved ‘The Gathering’ also), followed by Philip Hensher’s ‘King of the Badgers’ and Penelope Lively’s ‘How It All Began’. All three are sly and mischievous and deeply moving. Merry Christmas, John!

  18. John – 

    i see a couple of Cynthia Ozick books on your shelf – both of which i’ve read, along with The Shawl, and i wonder what you think of her.

    yes, off topic.

  19. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Jay, I rate Cynthia Ozick highly, and have reviewed The Shawl and The Puttermesser Papers on this blog (use the Author Index in the sidebar). I did also read her new novel Foreign Bodies earlier this year, but didn’t review through a combination of lack of time and feeling that it wasn’t quite up there with her best. Still, at the age of 83, I think you’re entitled to have your best work behind you.

  20. I like these lists. I got round to reading a lot of books that everyone else who reads has read years ago. Crimson Petal and the White which i loved.Donna Tartt’s The Secret History which i also very much enjoyed tho’ flagged a bit.I liked James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still while reluctantly agreeing with Ian Bell’s very qualified admiration of it in Scottish Review Of Books.I enjoyed very much Jonathan Coe’s BS Johnson book Like A Fiery Elephant. Also read the Max Hastings world war 2 history – superbly done and almost justified its existence!

  21. I meant to include a really superb book – William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.This is a set of non fiction stories that explore the spirituality of modern India through the lives of individuals that include a Jain nun; a Buddhist monk attempting to atone for violence committed while resisting the Chinese army; a labourer and prison warder who for a couple of months a year is a temple dancer who is treated as a god; almost social outcasts who through the lives of a Tantric skull-feeder and a Baul wandering singer find meaning and love.This is a beautiful and non sentimental book that is almost perfectly done.

  22. TY for another year of fine books, John.
    Of your top twelve, I’ve only read 2..
    Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft was a very interesting read & Georges Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood I’d already read a few years ago. A great read.
    Bought Lars Iyer’s Spurious on your advice. I plan to read it right after I’m done with Keith Ridgway’s Horses and Cees Nooteboom’s All Souls Day..

  23. Thanks Atlas. I hope you like Iyer and Ridgway. I have read some Cees Nooteboom but not All Souls Day. In fact I think I have one of his books here unread, which I must pull out to have a look at…

  24. Well, you persuaded me on the Beard John, with a little help from Will of Just William’s Luck, so I hope to read that this year. Thanks for championing it. I’m also planning to give Dennis Johnson a try, though I may start with some of his noir given my fondness for the black stuff.

    I have Perec’s Things yet unread (apparently it’s very dull, oh well), so no new Perec purchases for me until I’ve read that. The Jack Robinson dare I’ll probably take though.

    Quilt’s already on my shelf, thanks to your review, and looks like it will be excellent. I have The Blue Fox from Sjon, which sounds distinctly fun. I also have Spurious, reminding me why I should never accept review copies (I take far too long to get to them, the poor author has his second book out, I didn’t take up the review copy offer on that one, I didn’t really have the heart given the first is yet outstanding).

    Otherwise, I need to reread your review of The Sickness, and I don’t recall The Loft at all. Must check that out.

    Winterson I do want to read, but I may start with the wildly more obvious Oranges. It looks, if nothing else, an easy entry to her work.

    Thanks for the reviews and the occasional steers. Happy reading for 2012.

  25. Dear John Self,
    I wish very much you’d review my own book, Liar Dice. Being an Enright fan (and I can’t believe that bizarre factoid, having turned the book round to re-read it the minute I’d finished it) I’d value your opinion.
    Liar Dice, published in Nov 2011 by independent Cinnamon Press, made the list of Guardian readers’ recommended reads but has never been properly reviewed by anyone at all. Howl from the depths of my heart!
    Sorry to be so abject. Best wishes Rebecca Gethin ( as well)

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