Top 50 Books of the Century (so far …)

 

DruryLike all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.

Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000)
Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000)
Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001)
The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002)
That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002)
Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003)
The Master : Colm Toibin (2004)
Runaway : Alice Munro (2004)
Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004)
Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005)
The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005)
The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006)
Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006)
This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006)
Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007)
So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007)
Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008)
American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009)
The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009)
Truth : Peter Temple (2009)
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009)
The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009)
Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010)
How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010)
The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011)
The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011)
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012)
May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012)
N-W : Zadie Smith (2012)
The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012)
Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012)
Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013)
10th December : George Saunders (2013)
Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013)
Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014)
The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014)
Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014)
Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015)
Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015)
Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015)
The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015)
Willnot : James Sallis (2016)
Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)

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Back in the Park with Geoff …

The fascinating and comprehensive exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs and films currently at the V&A – in particular, the fence photo below – got me thinking about a piece of mine that appeared on my earlier mellotone blog – Sittin’ in the Park with Geoff Dyer (well, almost), which riffs on benches, park and otherwise, fences, and Dyer’s (excellent) book on photography, The Ongoing Moment. For those of you who missed it the first time around, here it is again.

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Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916

For all that my recent visit to the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the William Morris Gallery has to be counted something of a disappointment, let it not be thought my journey to the furthest reaches of Walthamstow was wasted. For there, behind the gallery, resplendent in early Spring sunshine and calling to me, as it were, was the newly redeveloped Lloyd Park.

Infiltrating myself between the mums-and-buggies crowding out the gallery tea room, I quickly purchased a pre-wrapped sandwich and bottle of water and headed down to the park in search of an empty bench. More mums; more buggies; more small children than you could shake a stick at. (A strange idiom, but, in this context, perhaps appropriate.) Then, just when I’d come close to giving up and entertained risking my new black jeans on the Lloyd Park grass, there, opposite the tennis courts, I spied an elderly couple slowly vacating a bench.

No sooner had they stepped away, than I had slipped into their place, divesting myself of coat, hat, scarf and shoulder bag and spreading them liberally to either side. This bench is occupied.

After a burst of hefty thwacking, the two young men on the court directly across from where I’m sitting pack up their things and go, to be replaced immediately by an almost identical pair – sun glasses, sports gear, Nike trainers, high slashing serves and wild returns. The sandwich is smoked salmon and avocado on seeded bread; not a combination I would have immediately thought of (something of a Resnick sandwich perhaps, putting on, for a moment, my other hat) but excellent and at £3.50, these days not too bad a deal. A couple more bites and I lean back and take out my book, which happens to be The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, which I last set aside, exiting the tube earlier that morning, at page 129.

Though it can serve as one, a bench is not a bed. Nor is it a chair. Chairs move around, congregate in different ways, reconfiguring themselves according to the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. In their limited way they even enjoy a bit of travel – chairs on the terrace of a Paris café go inside for the night – but the bench has no inner life like this. The bench sits it out, waiting for dawn. As such, its nocturnal life is potentially more romantic than the chair’s

Yes, here I am, sitting on a bench in Lloyd Park, reading Geoff Dyer’s thoughts about a bench. The bench. Famous benches that, thanks to photography, we have known. A coincidence? Of course. And true. (You don’t, for a minute, think I make this stuff up?)

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Brassai’s bench, for instance, a solitary figure sheltering from the Riviera sun in 1936 … and it’s companion, Dyer suggests, taken by Lartigue just a few years earlier, just a short way along the coast, Renée at Eden Roc. All right, they don’t exactly share a bench, but railings, umbrellas, the same Mediterranean sun …

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This is one of the ways in which Dyer takes us through the history of photography, not in a clinical way, nor in a manner that is a ready prey to theory, but by a tracing of image, the images that so many photographers share, sometimes in what seems like conscious nods in one another’s direction, sometimes as if unaware. The bench, the open road, the window, the car, the beggar, the musician, the naked woman, the hat.

This is André Kertesz in New York in 1962, photographing a man, a broken bench, some background.

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Like so many photographs, a chance moment? What did Cartier-Bresson say? Something about the held breath, the captured moment of fleeting reality. The man, what is he doing, standing there with his hands clasped behind his back? His gaze, where is it directed? At the broken bench? The two women sitting on another bench in the background? The line of cars? The line of our vision, I think, takes us through a slight curve from front to back; a line that follows those lines already trod, the uneven line of benches to the right; the line of sight of the man, presumed from the angle of his neck, towards the first of the women, the woman in white.

We don’t know, until we are told, until Dyer tells us, that the man, a friend of Kertész, is blind; nor that the women on the bench are Kertész’s wife and the mentally unstable younger woman she has befriended. The man is seeing nothing: the scene is one that Kertész has staged. Knowing none of this, are we are tempted, nonetheless, to see the bench, in part, as metaphor? And knowing everything , knowing the truth, something of the truth, behind the photograph, does it become less of a great photograph – if that’s what it is – or more?

So many questions. So many benches. Benches in Budapest, the French Riviera, Central Park. As it sit reading, I become more and more aware that everyone – everyone, it seems – the tennis players, the couples passing by, the young woman talking excitedly into her mobile phone – is speaking in a language that may be Russian. Polish, possibly, or Russian. Some Eastern European language that evades me, as most languages do, and for a moment it would not be difficult to imagine myself somewhere else, some other bench …

But, of course, the moment passes. I finish my sandwich, close the book. Page 139, Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. Just time before moving on, getting off the fence, as it were, for a bench or two of my own … oh, and a fence …

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Books of the Year, 2014

The major discovery for me this year has been the work of the American writer Paul Hendrickson: having started with Hemingway’s Boat, his most recent book – a brilliant, spiralling accumulation of stories about Hemingway and, yes, his boat, but, more importantly, his family, friends and acquaintances – I read through his other work with equal enjoyment and fascination.

This was part of a tendency, unusual in my past reading history, to get more pleasure from non-fiction rather than fiction. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, for instance, an account of being embedded with a battalion of American military personnel in Baghdad, I found utterly compelling, humane and, where individual soldiers were concerned, non-judgemental. Thank You For Your Service, in which Finkel follows some of those same people back into civilian life, is high on my list of books to read in the New Year.

Finally, to note that this list doesn’t include books I’ve re-read during the year and which, since they include such as Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mrs Dalloway, and a pile of Hemingway short stories, would have just about taken over.

The list is organised in order of reading.

  • Tenth of December : George Saunders
  • Benediction : Kent Haruf
  • Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson
  • The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt
  • Dare Me : Megan Abbott
  • Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer
  • Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson
  • The Good Soldiers : David Finkel
  • The Living & the Dead : Paul Hendrickson
  • Lila : Marilynne Robinson