2016, despite being a bitch of a year for heroes and an ominous year for politics, has been a pretty good year for reading, even if my blogging muscles have largely withered away. I started this post on December 31st in order to try and have one final post before the years end and to clear the decks somewhat for 2017, when I hope to get back to writing a little more regularly. However, it has since been sucked into the purgatory known as the 'draft' folder.
Rather than group my reading as many have done, or select my favourites I thought it might be interesting/easier just to list the books in the order I read them and add whatever few thoughts (if any) come to mind as I go through them.
Perhaps when I get to the end I will highlight a few as my 'Best Books of 2017", but really I see all as part of the same book somehow, a larger sprawling multi-referential, oddly interlinked, post-modernist roman fleuve.
1. Beatlebone - Kevin Barry
Perhaps they brightest star in the current firmament of Irish writers Barry showed yet more of his range in this imagined journey taken by John Lennon to his real island off the west cost of Ireland. The epigraph is from the great John McGahern - "---the most elusive island of all, the first person singular." and Barry allows himself great freedom in creating his "John Lennon" secure in the knowledge that no matter how public a life a person lives that elusive island remains hidden and indistinct.
It's a novel about creativity. Lennon hopes to experience something on his journey that will help him to create a new album, the Beatlebone of the title. Barry, or at least a fictional version of himself, takes one of the chapters to describe some of the processes, journeys and ideas that led him to write the book, including a trip to the island.
I'll leave the last words to "John": "What's it about? Fucking ultimately? It's about what you've got to put yourself through to make anything worthwhile. It's about going to the dark places and using what you find there."
2. How Music Works - David Byrne
This was a present from one of The Knocking Shop, hoping, perhaps, to inspire in me some similarities with Mr Byrne, but other than a nagging sense that I share many of the traits that led him to acknowledge his Asperger's I fall far short in terms of focus, productivity, creativity and that vague fog known as genius.
The book isn't anything like a standard autobiography as Byrne turns his attention on various areas of "How Music Works" such as the rooms that the music is played and recorded in, the social context, the technology, the ability to survive and how collaborations can happen. However he draws on his own experience to illustrate all of these areas and I was left with a feeling that I knew him better than the authors of many straight autobiographies I've read.
Writing about this now, almost a year since I read it, I am drawn back to it and it is a book I am sure I will read parts of again, if not all of it.
3. Brooklyn - Colm Tobin
"She had never considered going to America. Many she knew had gone toEngland and often came back at Christmas or in the summer. It was part of the life of the town. Although she knew friends who regularly received presents of dollars or clothes from America, it was always from their aunts and uncles, people who had emigrated long before the war. She could not remember any of these people ever appearing in the town on holidays. It was a long journey across the Atlantic, she knew, at least a week on a ship, and it must be expensive." ---- "She tried to work out how she had come to believe also that, while people from the town who lived in England missed Enniscorthy, no one who went to America missed home. Instead they were happy there and proud. She wondered if that could be true."
Ellis Lacey is torn between the opportunity she is given(forced to take?) to leave Ireland and the desire to stay. It asks the question can freedom be a prison - the chance to change and embrace new things tell a story of lost identity? There is something here of the ache apprehended by Gabriel Conroy in Joyce's The Dead when he realises that a part of Gretta's heart is buried in a graveyard in Galway. Ellis will forever leave a knot of frustrated desire in Wexford.
4. Super-Cannes - JG Ballard
One of my books of the year. Ballard doesn't ever seem to have lost his ability to make you feel that you are on the crest of a wave slightly ahead of the time you are living in, somewhat strange yet unsettlingly familiar.
5. Signs Preceding the End of the World - Yuri Herrera
I managed to weave Kevin Barry into my review of this. "I was reminded of Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, which shares many traits with this book, not least a nod to sci-fi and a world run by crime bosses and borders that are hard to cross and more difficult to cross back again. And as Barry's novel is and is not set in the West of Ireland so Signs is and is not set on a journey across the border between Mexico and the US. Both books also share tough women protagonists who can dish out violence when required - "she let him get used to the idea that a woman had jacked him up and then whispered, leaning close, I don't like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it."
The fact that it was one of the few books that inspired a review says something, but not everything. Other books were just as good, but I remained silent. This is a timely and powerful novel and the subject matter only became more pertinent as the year passed.
6. The Invention of Morel - Adolfo Bioy Casares
This suffered somewhat from the weight of expectation. I had read a few extremely positive things about the book and wanted it to be life changing. Life changing it wasn't but still this is a haunting and memorable excavation of the sort of territory that Poe made his own. Perhaps on the second reading it will change my life.
7. A Wet Handle - Ivor Cutler
Small and relatively inconsequential yet filled with some of the moments only found in Ivor Cutler 's work.
8. A Weekend with Claude - Beryl Bainbridge
Not Bainbridge at her best but Bainbridge all the same. "there's plenty of fumbling and bedroom farce, broken antiques, attempted suicide and even a shooting. The three narrators have a rather ambiguous relationship with the truth and may romanticise their misery. But there is a ring of truth to their "rackety" lives, to the smell of mildew and disappointment. And there are plenty of suitably acid phrases:
"After a time one has to pretend that certain things matter in order to appear normal - it's all so feeble."
"I do understand her predicament - to be always missing the crucifixion she craves..."
"I get so irritated and my words are only a form of vomit.""
9. The Slaves of Solitude - Patrick Hamilton
The pall of WW2 falls across life in a dingy boarding house in London's outer suburbia. Hamilton reveals a world where the veneer of respectability covers a wriggling mess of fear, desire, racism, sexism, jealousy and whatever else you're having. Like Rising Damp without the laughs and with added world war. I'll be returning to Hamilton.
10. Heaven and Hell - Jón Kalman Stefansson
This one is fading into an Icelandic ash cloud. I remember being a little disappointed but not anywhere like the 'stop reading' stage.
11. The Carpenter's Pencil - Manuel Rivas (translated (wonderfully) by Jonathan Dunne from the Galician)
"He thought the voice would be thin and incoherent, locked in a pathetic struggle against Alzheimer's disease. He never could have imagined such a luminous demise, as if in reality the patient were hooked up to a generator."
The lasting impression of this book is the language, it is full of poetry and was a pleasure to read. However, the bones of the story beneath the seductive flesh of word have become indistinct. The Spanish Civil War, prison, death sentences fail to part Dr De Burca and Marisa. It starts with a journalist interviewing the old man, Dr De Burca, who is anything but old in his mind and who, although on his deathbed still has eyes"tattooed with desire" for his wife.
12. The Rain Before it Falls - Jonathan Coe
Like the only previous Coe I have read, What A Carve Up!, this novel is largely a reconstruction of a family history. However, it is a very, very different book. A woman and her daughter's listen to some cassettes left by a dead relative, telling the story of her life through descriptions of some photographs. Family secrets and tragedies are revealed in an emotional and poetic book. Left me looking forward to my next Coe.
13. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink - Elvis Costello
Lots of polished anecdotes from the long respectable once king of vitriol. I finished suspecting that the vitriol is still boiling away. For his friends and family I hope it stays underground. For the listening public I hope he blows the showbiz platitudes away in an unlikely return to the permanently sneering, dissatisfied, bitterness of his magnificent early years. Still, I enjoyed much of this while still feeling that the more Mr C revealed the more he found ways to hide himself away.
14. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
One of the many holes in my reading that I've been meaning to plug for quite a while. I think this was recommended to me by a pen-pal when I was around seventeen so it only took a few decades to get around to following their recommendation. Thanks Julia!
It would have made sense to have re-read Jane Eyre before reading this, which (in case you don't know) spins a tale from the trailing Carribbean roots of Bronte's novel. Rhys adds race and colonialism to the proto-feminist fury burning at the heart of Jane Eyre.
15. Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
This is quite an ornate confection, verging on the overwritten but delivering enough fun and memorable scenes to carry off the whole thing with some style.
16. Tres - Roberto Bolaño
"What is surprising (or not) is that the work fits seamlessly into Bolaño's oeuvre, and readers who have read a number of his works will find themselves again in that large reverberating echo chamber which all his books seem to exist in. Partly it is that the writer's life is stitched into his work and partly the language and the fascination with geometry."
17. The Literary Conference - César Aira
"Aira manages to make the very flippancy and even apparent failures of his work into a keystone of it's success. The world is an absurd and meaningless place but it must be taken seriously as we are stuck inside it, for better or worse. It is easy to see what drew Bolaño to him. He too, took. the absurd seriously without being serious."
18. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter - César Aira
"I felt while reading this that Aira had a vision of the novel complete when he started out and the wild imaginings are all in the service of a journey from craft to vision as Rugendas almost literally, absorbs the landscape into his own body and cuts some of the strings that tie him to 'civilisation' and allow him to enter more fully the world of the monstrous and savage..."
19. The Return of the Soldier - Rebecca West
This has been on my TBR lost for a very long time and it didn't disappoint. In many returning soldiers tales it is what they bring back from the war that dominates but here it is what is left behind that is key. West is a quite brilliant writer and she gets right under the skin of the class divide. She also gives us a wonderful portrait of a dependent woman, also our narrator and one who carefully balances her need not to make herself unwelcome with the curdled hopes and sceptic eye she turns to the perfect marriage and priviledge at the heart of this book.
20. & 21. Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo De Tormes and The Swindler
Lazarillo has to be one of my books of the year. When I was studying English Lit in college the influence of the Spanish picaresque form on the early English novel was regularly referred to but I never actually went back to the source. There is something primal about this book, sitting on the cusp between the oral and the written. It's gritty and irreverent, funny and tragic. It's at once old and new. It's easy to forget sitting here in the privileged west that life hasn't stopped being this hard for many across the world. Morality is partly a function of need, and opportunity.
"Pliny says there is no book, however bad it may be, that doesn't have something good about it, especially as taste very and one man's meat is another man's poison."
"I'd also like people who are proud of being high born to realize how little this really means, as Fortune has smiled on them, and how much more worthy are those who have endured misfortune but have triumphed by dint of hard work and determination."
At some stage, hopefully in 2017, I will follow this up with the rest of my reading from 2016. Don't hold your breath...