Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2014

This year, with fewer (I think) reviews published here than ever before, I’m going to include a couple of books I read but didn’t review, but which have left a good impression at the year end. What better recommendation could there be than that, anyway? Titles are in alphabetical order by author’s name.

(Some of) my favourite books of 2014

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest
Who’d have thought the old enfant terrible had it in him? The Zone of Interest is, I think, the best novel Amis has written in fifteen years – which may not be saying that much when you consider the other novels he’s written in that period. It is grotesque and horrible, relatively austere in tone (more House of Meetings than Yellow Dog), inventive but faithful, and riddled with bitter wit. It is – I can put it no higher than this – the first Amis novel I’ve looked forward to rereading since Night Train.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening
This novel, first published in 1899, is a widely taught classic in the USA, but seems little read here, despite being readily available. A handsome reissue from Canongate this summer gave it a push, and how grateful I am for that. Chopin’s novel is thoroughly modern and exciting, telling the story of a woman who dares to break society’s taboos with an extra-marital affair. It’s all thrillingly downhill from there.

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge
Gallant is one of those names that I had heard of for decades as a virtuoso of the short story, and finally I discovered that they were right. Her work is traditional in form, but so distinctly detailed and beautifully put that her tales of families in Paris, down at heel and on their uppers, are delightful to read. She can challenge, too, with density: the reader daren’t take their mind off the page.

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall
What a surprise and a charm it was to discover that Gibbs, a terrific critic, was just as good a poacher as gamekeeper. Randall (subtitle The Painted Grape: wait! come back!) was full of sentences that pleased me with their combination of elegance and necessity, like Alan Hollinghurst’s before he bloated. The book is also a fascinating analysis of the not-always-bumpy relationship between art and commerce.

Cynan Jones: The Dig
A slight thing from the other end of the year, The Dig has stuck with me throughout. It’s nasty, brutish and short, with an uncanniness which steers it away from the lip of the pit marked Cormac McCarthy that it veers so close to at times. In the end Jones is his own man, making authentically British – Welsh – myths with plenty of horror and muted emotion.

Agota Kristof: The Notebook
When I first read that the trusty CB Editions was reissuing this title, I read about it and immediately knew it was my sort of thing. I practically ran towards it. In the end it was not in my comfort zone at all, and all the better for that. It is very stark and entirely new, and I can finally put it no better than Steve Mitchelmore, who described it as a novel that “runs through the streets screaming.”

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing
Tricky to include a book so recently read, but I think Larsen’s two novellas – pretty much her life’s output of fiction – would have stood up in any event. They are books which tell us about the experiences of mixed-race women in America, but their strength is in the compact telling, which is efficient, affecting and unmistakably blunt.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories
If only more feted short story collections – *cough*LorrieMoore*cough* – were as good as this. Brought together with an undercurrent – an overcurrent – of loss, these stories mccrackle with off-kilter life. They are full of character and charm but never wacky or winsome. Lines and people from them are still bouncing about in my head, months later.

Bernard Malamud: The Fixer
I had high hopes for this, often cited as Malamud’s greatest novel. I was surprised by it: whereas I’ve previously found him a writer who needs to be read slowly to take in his just-so details, I found The Fixer to be a page-turner, practically a thriller. It reports on a man who suffers more than anyone might expect to in antisemitic Tsarist Russia, and it feels like a bomb under your chair.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea
God knows how many times I’ve begun Marcus’s first collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String. I managed to finish this, his second. In part that is because he has undoubtedly moved toward the mainstream with some of his recent fiction, but he retains an edge and a strangeness that sets him apart. The older stories in the collection, closer in spirit to his debut, are frequently baffling but surprisingly moreish.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood
This reissue from Pushkin Press – a little surprise – is simple and beautiful. A very controlled authorial viewpoint drops the reader into the life of a young boy in a certain place at a certain time. That gives it a power and directness that more substantial works on the same subject lack. I tease, and the setting is really no surprise, but this book deserves to be read fresh.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation
This is probably my favourite new book this year. Aphoristic, dazzling and inventive, Dept. of Speculation has more jokes in it than any other book I read this year, but doesn’t sacrifice resonance. Its approach – discrete paragraphs with no straightforward narrative flow – makes it sound a challenge, but purest pleasure is what I remember about it.

Simon Crump: Neverland (introduction)

Below is an introduction I’ve written for a new e-book edition of Simon Crump’s Neverland, a novel I found bewildering when I first read it, but quickly came to love. The new edition has been issued by Galley Beggar – of Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs fame – and also contains a new afterword by the author. You can buy it here.

Simon Crump: Neverland

“If I were born with a name like Simon Crump, I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”

– Chris de Burgh


At around 9:00pm on the evening of 25 June 2009, Simon Crump finished writing Neverland, his book – this book – about a fictional Michael Jackson. It had taken him three years. A few hours later, the real Jackson’s death was reported on gossip website TMZ.com. The internet went mad. Twitter crashed. CNN struggled. Crump’s publisher brought forward publication of the book.

The real Michael Jackson was – what? Funny. Eccentric. Pitiable. Exploited. So Crump’s Michael is a pixel-perfect replacement. He has “Disney music comin out of the fibreglass rocks in the rose bed.” He has an unpredictable relationship with his wife Lisa. “You’re going to put together a 1/32 scale model of Mac & Mike’s water forts whether you want to or not! Don’t fight me, baby, I’ve got a wicked temper and you are liable to get hurt.” He has long circular conversations with best friend Uri (“His eyes grew a shade darker”), which are funny, then not funny, then funny again. Most of all, he is forever seeking, forever lost, forever trying to fill a hole: right from birth, really.

Michael was born with gold in his mouth.

He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.

‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.

‘I love you more,’ he said back.

They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.

‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’

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.

That is the entirety of the second story in the book, ‘Gold’. Crump, in editing Neverland, cut out 60% of the material: “get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse.” This ruthlessness shows. Neverland is a short book but each story, or chapter, unfolds inside the reader’s head like an origami flower. Its lean and hungry look is welcome in a world where novels seem to be growing ever longer. Some stories recur or develop – Michael and Uri, Michael’s quest for gold – while others stand alone, isolated and seemingly unconnected to Michael except by a brotherly strangeness, such as a series of portraits of men which give just enough information to drive the reader into a flurry of imaginative empathy. Here is ‘Andrew’ (again, in its entirety):

I’ve been on six twelve-hour night shifts and sad as this may seem your party has been the end of my tunnel. Not everyone lives his or her life alone and for a little while it seems my whole world is all right.

He’s special and he doesn’t speak. Every day for sixteen years he leaves the flat and he gets a paper. One day he gets a paper and he also points at some mints.

The woman behind the counter finally cracks.

‘If you could talk, Andrew, what would you say?’

Unique, and uniquely odd, as Neverland is, it is not without precedent. Indeed, it is a natural(ish) progression from Crump’s first book, My Elvis Blackout, which drew the responses that top and tail this introduction. They are books of what Gordon Burn called the psychopathology of fame, or as Crump puts it, how “we all love our stars, but we much prefer them broken.” They are the cold shower after Heat-world. The bridge between the two books is Lamar, former Elvis lackey and “still 250lbs of fine-lookin hombre.” He is our guide to Michael’s world, having been “out cold” for sixteen years after Elvis’s death, and now gaining employment in Neverland. When they meet, Michael tells him, “I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas. And then I asked her to marry me. One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own.” This nudge-nudge stuff is as close as Crump gets to mocking Michael: elsewhere, the vision is of sad-eyed sympathy, perhaps with an occasional shake of the head.

Neverland is a book of contrasts. It is both absurdly silly and a work of serious artistry. It is a product of frightening imagination and originality, which turns whole pages over to extracts from Wikipedia. Its subject is all-American but it is full of quintessentially English cultural reference points, from Pulp’s ‘Common People’ to Cannon and Ball. Its author refers to it as a collection of stories, yet it is clearly much more coherent and unified than that. But it is the beautiful clashing sound made by silly jokes overlaid on a sadness that pervades every page that makes the reader marvel at Neverland’s starkest polarity, and ask: was there ever a book simultaneously so dark, and light?


“We do not know who is this Simon Crump but he is not welcome in our town.”

– German Elvis fansite

My Books of 2013

(some of) my books of 2013

It’s not ‘Twelve from the Shelves’ this year as I didn’t read enough books I really loved this year to hit those heights. Or rather: I didn’t read enough that I reviewed. For example, if I’d reviewed them, I would have included:

  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a gripping report on writers and alcohol (with special attention to Tennessee Williams and John Cheever);
  • Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation, which recounted the birth and growth of television in the UK with the same spark that he brought to our roads; or
  • Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, a powerful essay which combines biography, politics and a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Interesting – perhaps – that those are all non-fiction, where my reviewed choices below are all-but-one fiction. Do I find it easier to review novels? The books below were all read, or re-read, by me this year, and are listed alphabetically by author.

Martin Amis: Money
No surprise that I rate the book which gave me my online identity. This is the book which proved that Amis was not just a writer of short comic novels: he was also a writer of long comic novels. The voice he developed for John Self is a miracle of sustained attention to detail. Money is one of those books where it’s clear the author sweated over every single word. And it was worth it.

J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus
I expected this book to be all over the prize shortlists and end-of-year roundups, but it seemed to slip quickly from view after publication early in the year. Perhaps it was the conscious elusiveness of the story, screaming allegory from every page but never quite being nailed down. That was one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Andrew Crumey: The Secret Knowledge
New work from Crumey is always a delight, though he makes us wait – 5 years since Sputnik Caledonia. Once again he has evaded expectations with a novel which is less immediately lighthearted than most of his previous books, but just as provocative, containing parallel worlds, ideas on art and mass culture, and guest appearances from Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno.

William Golding: Pincher Martin
This is a book with an unforgettable twist or two, one in the very last sentence, but which only gains in power when re-read. It is full of strange wonders, not least how so much is packed into so few pages, and how a book so ultimately unknowable can at the same time be as clear as the water its ‘hero’ lives in. If the only Golding you have read is Lord of the Flies, try this.

Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life
One of two debuts on my list, and the only non-fiction title. The conceit is simple: a psychoanalyst tells us the stories of some of his patients. The results are simple and – to me – enormously affecting accounts of what can go wrong, particularly between parents and children, and how it can be possible to begin to put it right.

Chloe Hooper: The Engagement
Another book that I expected to conquer all this year, and which seems to have sunk without trace. Hooper’s second novel is not just a page-turning psychological thriller – though it certainly is that – but also an inquiry into sexuality, male-female relations, and the power of stories. I read it twice and it stood up brilliantly.

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar
Lennon, like Hooper, has the gift of telling stories so seductively that it’s easy to overlook how much he makes you think at the same time. Here we get a story of a woman who finds herself living a new life, everything suddenly and unexplainably changed. Perhaps, as with The Examined Life, it was the acute understanding of parenthood that so floored me here.

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Much-vaunted by critics and at least one prize jury, McBride’s amazing debut is worthy of all the praise. It is the sort of story you simultaneously want to read and to look away from, and the brittle poetry of the language is a perfect vehicle for the familiarly dark events in this Irish family’s life.

Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat
A short Spark shock which, like Pincher Martin, loses none of its impact when you already know its unforgettable ending. A comedy, like much of Spark’s work, but undeniably grim and odd even by her odd standards.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2012

In a year when I reviewed only 21 books (and one short story), you might think that I have a cheek in bothering to whittle them down to the dozen that I liked best. You might think I have even more cheek in still not managing to get it down to twelve. I suppose if it proves anything, it’s that when time is tight, it’s the chaff that gets discarded. I regret having no room for Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin (and was in my books of the year list in 2010). Mr Bridgewill be reissued in February 2013: go get it.

This list is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

Nicola Barker: The Yips
“That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her.” Well, sort of. Either this book is less demanding than Barker’s previous ‘big novel’ Darkmans, or I am more attuned to her style now. In either event, I loved this baggy, funny and discomfiting report on a certain thread of modern English life.

Greg Baxter: The Apartment
“A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.”

Maeve Brennan: The Springs of Affection
One of the best short story collections I’ve read, though to limit it by that description is wrong. It is in three sections, each section describing a family’s life in Dublin, and it is not a laugh riot. “They have the ring of truth, and they hurt.” Depressingly, if unsurprisingly, this book is currently out of print in the UK.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout
Certainly the strangest book of the year, and one of the few on this list (see also Baxter and Ridgway) that I read twice to appreciate better. It has to be read backwards, in the sense that it is only when it is over that its depths and subtleties are absolutely clear. It is “a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades.” It is sick, stupid, silly and very sad.

Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
This is, perhaps more than any other on the list, an entirely unforgettable book. Voice and subject – a sort of bizarre cliché-driven management-speak, and workplace sex, respectively – are so perfectly attuned that it is entirely sui generis. Like Barker and Crump’s books, it is extremely funny and also utterly serious. It is “sneaky, tendentious and deceptive” – in all the best ways.

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
This is a great – or almost great – American novel which doesn’t beat its own chest but just gets on with it. Riddled with bizarre and amusing details, and pretty straight beneath its colourful surface, it is “a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country.”

Joseph Heller: Something Happened
I read this book for the fourth time this year to check if its status as one of my favourite books is still justified. It is. What a bold step to take – and to take a dozen years over – after the success of Catch-22Something Happened is long, brutal, horribly funny (the humour only ever comes from sadness) and surely one of the most remarkable novels published in English in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bruno Jasienski: I Burn Paris
With its hypnotic cover design and obscure (to most of us) author, this screams cult classic. But it should have broader appeal: its tale of a man who poisons the Paris water system seems bang up to date with its satire on cultural division. It is “a mad, hyperbolic performance” and deserves your attention.

Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
I feel almost embarrassed to include this book. What more can I say about it that I haven’t already? Take the word, then, of the dozens of authors, bloggers and other bookish people who have listed it as one of the books of the year also. These include, intriguingly, Peter Stothard, who was chair of the Man Booker Prize this year (he also listed The Apartment). How close, I now wonder, did Ridgway get to the Booker longlist?

Zadie Smith: NW
Imagine my surprise when Smith’s new novel, problematic in places but enormously impressive, was not received with universal hosannas. This is a novel which “unfolds, like an origami water-lily, and contains multitudes.” I think it is Smith’s best novel by some distance, and it makes me excited to see what such a young writer (i.e. younger than me) does in future.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque
A very bookish book, the sort of book I would expect to love, this novel met my expectations and more. As well as being a bran tub of literary inspiration (note to self: reread Ulysses, and finish it this time), it is a work of originality and imagination in its own right. “One of the most pleasurable and joyous novels of the year.”

Robert Walser: Selected Stories
The version of this book that I reviewed is out of print (I bought it years ago), but has been reissued by another publisher. Walser is charming, knowing, naive and mischievous. Everyone who reads him seems to love him. He is also very hard to describe accurately, so do try him for yourself. “The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected.”

Chris Ware: Building Stories
To include this book – this box – in an end-of-year list feels like a rote nod rather than a full-throated roar – who hasn’t? – but its ubiquity has good cause. It’s fantastically rich, seriously beautiful, and, if the books on this list seem to fall into ‘sad’, ‘funny’ and ‘both’, it’s firmly in the former category. “Its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human.”

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.