Monday, 9 December 2013
Books of the year: one more list
Preamble: the one different thing about this gathering is that the recommendations come from people who don’t get asked by the broadsheets but whose replies I was truly interested in. In the mix: some writers/readers, some booksellers, some publishers. All quite random (I sent off invitations to contribute one hour after thinking of the idea), though I tried to keep m/f, and interests in poetry/fiction, in rough balance. It’s not intended as an ‘alternative’ list, whatever that might be, nor was I asking for ‘best’ books – simply books that people have enjoyed, that they’d like to recommend, that may have flown under the radar of general attention. The very few rules: publishers were asked to steer clear of books they had published themselves; books published by CBe were not eligible; recommendations didn’t have to be for books published this year, or in the UK.
Astrid Alben (poet, editor, translator): My favourite book this year was The Notebook by Agota Kristof. First published in 1986, this almost-forgotten masterpiece is narrated by a set of preadolescent twins sent to a remote village for the duration of World War II. The story is stark, brutal and devoid of sentiment. The style is stark, brutal and devoid of sentiment. It reads like a goshawk examining the open wound on its prey. This is what makes it a masterpiece: aesthetics and ethics come before beauty and morality; style is inseparable from content. The Notebook is so good I shouldn’t even be sharing it with you. (Ed.: this doesn’t quite break rule 2, because The Notebook is not yet a CBe book; but it soon will be.)
Charles Boyle (CB editions): The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman (Dalkey Archive). Rarely is reading so much fun. Mimi turns to her lover in bed and he’s looking a little grumpy so she teases him by saying ‘Oh god you look like that phrase Charles said your grandfather says is the style most novelists write their novels in: “Henry shook his head thoughtfully”.’ They do indeed write in that plodding style, those ‘most novelists’; Spackman doesn’t.
David Collard (writer/researcher; blogs at Salvete): Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, published by Galley Beggar Press. Winner of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize earlier this year, this is an astonishing first novel by a writer who has created a new form of prose from scratch. A harsh, spartan, rich and intensely moving account of a nameless protagonist's growth to maturity in rural Ireland, it's a book I've now re-read twice with increasing wonder and respect. Look out for McBride – she's a fully-formed talent.
Ken Edwards (writer and musician; runs Reality Street): Three books I discovered this year:
Miquel Bauça, The Siege in the Room (Dalkey Archive) – ‘three novellas’ it says here, actually three inspired rants by this Catalan writer who died in 2005.
William H. Gass, Omensetter’s Luck (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) – I had Gass down as a perceptive theorist, but neglected to read his novels until now – my mistake. This account of the small-town conflict between an imperturbable innocent and a demented preacher is a classic.
Georges Simenon, Banana Tourist – yes, and I finally got round to reading Simenon. The Maigret books are entertaining, but best are his ‘romans durs’, of which this Conradian tragedy of a young man who flees to Tahiti is a particularly fine example.
Gareth Evans (writer, editor, curator): The emergence of new small presses committed to the book as artefact has provided an enduring excitement this year. While remarkably savvy about the role of the internet in promotion and distribution, they share a profound commitment to all aspects of the material process, from design to paper and binding, while also relaying an enthusiasm to circulate often overlooked or obscured texts. The activities of both Corbel Stone Press and Test Centre across all forms (journal, book, chapbook, pamphlet, vinyl, cd, cassette …) have been a particular pleasure; the former passionately concerned with the arts and ethics of place, the latter re-energising the countercultural nexus around Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit, Stewart Home and others (they have put out a sizeable majority of the 18 publications Sinclair has released this year).
In the same vein, a delight to find Ken Worpole and Jason Orton’s important text / image collaboration The New English Landscape (Field Station), Vagabond Witness (Zero), Paul Gordon’s beautifully written advocacy of the life and work of the great Victor Serge, and the wondrous book-length concertina poem / portrait collaboration Correspondences by Anne Michaels and painter Bernice Eisenstein (Bloomsbury; pictured above); striking evidence that mainstream publishers have not abandoned the making of remarkable books when the situation demands – impossible to imagine this working on Kindle.
Katy Evans-Bush (writer, blogs at Baroque in Hackney): Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English (Picador): lusciously satirical, funny and moving. In the boiling summer of 1989, an impoverished, laconic, and brilliant Scottish boy is a carer for a Hampstead literary lion who's had a stroke.
Steve Ely, Oswald's Book of Hours (Smokestack): in which time, language and the folk history of the North of England are tumbled together. An utterly gripping and very masculine book. This is the first time I've seen a poet make plausible – and readable – use of Anglo Saxon!
David Kynaston, Austerity Britain (Bloomsbury): a big, fat, solid, teeming book of social history, published in 2008 and more prescient than Kynaston could have dreamed. The story of Year Dot. Lifeline reading.
Lorna Scott Fox (translator, editor and journalist): Two women’s books delighted me this year. Susana Medina’s Red Tales/Cuentos Rojos (Araña): as sexy as it is brainy. And funny. Nine tumbling imaginations of hunger, flux, and estrangement – and the fetishism of the ordinary – that you can also savour in the original Spanish. Full of contrasting reticence, Chloe Aridjis’s Asunder (Mariner): its mysterious knitting of quietude and potential explosiveness in the life of a solitary museum guard builds echoes upon echoes. Two utterly different female voices, yet both fragmented, interior and speculative; both an antidote to the plot-driven realism of much writing in English these days.
Naomi Foyle (writer): First up, two new poetry collections to sing about, both tackling, in their inimitable ways, work, love, psychogeography and the process of aging irascibly. In Woman’s Head as Jug (Arc) Jackie Wills fixes a sorceress’s eye on home, hot flashes, and Brighton history; with a steady hand she crafts poem-spells from garden dirt, iron, rat fur and bone. In The Wolf Inside (Hearing Eye) Donald Gardner prances a high wire between butoh and bathos, Amsterdam and London, late Yeats and the dark urban forest of late capitalism: all with the air of the eternal child peeking out from behind the final curtain. For those who haven't read it, I must also say I was glued to The Gulag Archipelago (abridged version, Harvill Press, 1985) this summer. Furious, absurdist, deeply compassionate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'Experiment in Literary Investigation' is no mere essential historical tome, but a vital key to the human heart – and Putin's neo-Stalinist agenda.
Muna Khogali (bookseller, Book and Kitchen): This book was hard to get but we reviewed it for our African Reading Group that is held in the bookshop once a month: Andrew Eseimokumo Oki’s Bonfires of the Gods (Griots Lounge). A debut novel by a very talented young Nigerian writer and refreshingly not yet another novel from the diaspora but one of the crop of homegrown Nigerian writers. This is a really raw story of war and love. What elevates it is the superb use of tone and diction. Highly recommended.
Sophie Lewis (translator from French and Editor at Large at And Other Stories): L'homme qui savait la langue des serpents by Andrus Kivirähk (Editions Attila, 2013, translated into French by Jean-Pierre Minaudier; English, roughly: 'The Man Who Spoke Snakish'). This Estonian novel has shaken up my ideas about what books do today. It tells the story of the last Estonian to learn 'snakish', to live by choice in the forest and consort with snakes, rather than moving to the village and adopting the Christian God. More than simply dramatising an era's ending, Kivirähk both creates a vivid old world and shows the pain of its sliding, merging into and crumbling beneath the habits and mores of a new one. More than this, he sustains a biting satire on all ideas of golden ages, mistaken nostalgias for older ways and beliefs, and the damage such wishful fabrications can wreak. The book gently built into something so close to a novel-length allegory while still absorbing me as a novel that I was shocked. And rival languages at the crux of it too. Also, the translator's postface is an invaluable explanation of the Estonian context.
Ira Lightman (writer): This year I enjoyed Letting Go by Angela Topping (Mother’s Milk Books) for flights of word music and whimsical playfulness just where I didn't expect it in some very earnest and plain poetry of love and ageing and the work of supporting people; Ian McMillan's Ah've Soiled Ma Breeks! (The Poetry Business) for a narrative plainness again with some unexpected imaginative privacy and strangeness to it; and Gregory Woods’s The District Commissioner's Dreams (Carcanet, 2002), again for plainness and great chopping line breaks and sculpted verses of joyous un-PC acceptance of sex just as it comes and kicks against public policy, like the Latin poets at their most crisp.
Jonathan Main (bookseller, The Bookseller Crow): After much thought the two novels that I have enjoyed the most this year are: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Cape) and Pacific by Tom Drury (Grove Press).
Steve Mitchelmore (Britain's first book blogger): Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher (Routledge) and T. J. Clark's Picasso and Truth (Princeton) changed for good my relation to both writing and the visual arts, which is not a common occurrence. Both are sensitive to the spirit and detail of the works themselves while also maintaining a focus on the philosophical horizon. Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Two / A Man in Love (Vintage) does this for life itself and suggests why critical writing – even in the guise of autobiography – appears to me the most vital genre.
Stefan Tobler (publisher at And Other Stories): ‘Strange Tracks’, Modern Poetry in Translation, no. 1 2013, the first under Sasha Dugdale's editorship, for introducing me to Toon Tellegen's poetry, especially 'An Essay'. I'm looking forward to these poems appearing in a new Carcanet collection soon. And there's a great interview with Tellegen and his translator Judith Wilkinson.
Two other books I'd mention, of many that have been extraordinary reading this year: Bluets by Maggie Nelson (Wave Books) and Selbstporträt mit Zwerg by Volker Sielaff (Lux Books). A US and a German import. Both very much of import, it feels to me.
David Winters (co-editor in chief, 3:AM Magazine): Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous (OR Books) was perhaps the most pioneering work of English-language fiction published this year. Simon Jarvis’s latest long poem, Night Office (Enitharmon), was characteristically dense and difficult, but deeply rewarding. Two recent reprints of neglected yet seminal short story collections – Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division (Dzanc) and Gary Lutz’s Partial List of People to Bleach (Future Tense) merit special attention. In translation, László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below (New Directions) was a landmark that I wish I’d had the time (and courage) to review.
Meike Ziervogel (writer and publisher, Peirene Press): Hill of Doors by Robin Robertson (Picador) – a stunning poetry collection by one of the best living poets. The brutish, the human and the divine. If you only read one book over Christmas, it should be this one.
The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot (University of Nebraska Press) – anyone interested in the art and mystery of reading and writing, should go on a journey of discovery with this book.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Penguin Classics) – On the surface this classic novella might be about colonialism. But ultimately it's about the dark and haunting power of language.