Books 2016

Scan

The reading year for me began more or less as the last one ended, re-reading my way through Virginia Woolf – soon to be joined, looking for a little balance perhaps – or is that ballast? – by Don DeLillo. By midway, I was convinced of the excellence of Libra and the brilliant assurance of Underworld‘s first 270 odd pages;  pleased to (re)discover that Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves are every bit as good – as groundbreaking – as I thought when I read them previously and to hope that if I’m still around and compos mentis in another five year or so’s time I’ll enjoy reading them again.

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I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson before this year. Since when I’ve read The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, in which she follows and comments upon the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering her aunt; Bluets, comprising 240 paragraphs containing her thoughts and memories devolving from the colour blue; The Argonauts, part-memoir, part-intellectual disquisition on the linked subjects of pregnancy, mothering, gender and sexual identity; and – still not finished – Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions, which does more or less what it says on the tin. Of these, The Red Parts, while being in no sense an easy read, is the easiest to read and The Argonauts, though hard work in places, is the most distinctive and the most rewarding.

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know how impressed I was by Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of (mostly) linked short stories The Pond. As I said before …

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

Pond

Along with The Argonauts, The Pond is  my book of the year. But there were other good things, too. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a nice fat collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, contains a good few of them. James Sallis’ short novel, Willnot (he doesn’t do big novels, not Jim) is a perfectly pitched story of small town American life that somehow doesn’t seem to owe much to anyone else, save Jim himself. Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (soon to be on your TV screens) is an expertly and tightly-wound story of sexual attraction and betrayal that dares you to set it aside and wins hands down. Otherwise, I’ve read and really enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge,  three of Anne Enright’s novels set in Ireland – The Green Road, Yesterday’s Weather and The Forgotten Waltz – and happy submitted to the charms and excitements of Mick Herron’s series about the Slow Horses, a bunch of only oddball and occasionally competent spies put dangerously out to pasture.

And, right now, thanks to Bromley House Library, I’m about half way through Emma Cline’s The Girls, which is pretty compulsive reading and could turn out to be almost as good as many people say it is.

 

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Last Batch of Books I Read

  • Willnot : James Sallis
  • Point Omega : Don DeLillo
  • The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial : Maggie Nelson
  • The Waves : Virginia Woolf
  • White Noise : Don DeLillo
  • The Crime Writer : Jill Dawson
  • The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson
  • Libra : Don DeLillo
  • Slow Horses : Mick Herron
  • Black Water : Louise Doughty
  • Apple Tree Yard : Louise Doughty
  • The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright
  • The Glorious Heresies : Lisa McInerney
  • Fortunes Neck : Kevin McDermott
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin
  • My Katherine Mansfield Project : Kirsty Gunn
  • Intruder in the Dust : William Faulkner
  • White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World : Geoff Dyer

Poetry :

  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream
  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them
  • Plus lots of Frank O’Hara and, always, Robert Hass

Currently reading :

  • Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett
  • Billie’s Blues : John Chilton
  • Austerity Britain 1945-51 : David Kynaston
  • Pierre Reverdy : NYRB Poets in Translation [Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery et cetera]

As the above suggests, I’m continuing to make my way back through Virginia Woolf’s fiction (aided by her diaries and Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, which nicely links her life to the novels) while working rather haphazardly back through Don DeLillo. (Nearly succumbed to the latest in Foyles this afternoon, but, after looking a the price – £17 almost for a slender book with largish print – opted to wait for the paperback. Writing as good as DeLillo’s doesn’t date, right?)

I’ve avoided reading Louise Doughty for a while; she’s a friend of a friend and frequents some of the same North London cafés as myself – she’s usually working at her laptop or correcting proofs when I see her – and if she doesn’t look too engrossed I’ll say Hi and we’ll chat a little – all of which means I ought to have read her before now, but look, suppose I did and didn’t like what she’d written … ? But the thing is, I did. Read and like. Very much. The most recent novel, Black Water, is largely set in Indonesia, with a background involving the CIA, the Cold War and Civil Rights. If it reminded me of anyone else, it was Graham Greene – partly for the Asian setting, partly the mix of excitement and adventure with the questioning of an individual’s morality. Straight after that, I read Apple Tree Yard, a very cleverly plotted book about latter-day lust, obsession and  betrayal, told within an absorbing courtroom framework and – as it says on the jacket – absolutely unputdownable once you’ve begun.

When she saw me absorbed in Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (more court room stuff here), the barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee told me it was the best book she’d read for ages, and that absolutely the best book she’d read since was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which was strongly recommended also by the nice chatty guy who works in the fiction department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, and since he’d put me on to Lucia Berlin’s stories, I took him seriously. They’re both right: the stories are interestingly off-the-wall and surprising, self-indulgent but in  way that’s oddly acceptable and written in a style that doesn’t remind me of anyone else at all. Not only that, it is a lovely book to look at and to hold, beautifully published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Finally, the most delightful and unexpected book in the bunch was James Sallis’ Willnot.
Mainly known as the author of terse and elliptical crime novels, Drive amongst them, Willnot simply will not be pinned down. Woody Haut writes about it clearly and enthusiastically on his blog and I commend that to you.

Happy reading!

Penwith Peninsula

Katherine Mansfield hated it, couldn’t wait to get away, but for us the north coast of that far stretch of Cornwall is just about perfect – this year, especially, when the weather was kinder than is often the case and there was only one day in which the mist refused to rise off Zennor Hill from dawn till late afternoon. So we walked along the coast and up to Zennor Quoit; Sarah swam in the sea and the newly restored Jubilee Pool in Penzance; we ate well at the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives, the Gurnard’s Head, and both branches of Mackerel Sky (Newlyn & Penzance); made two visits to the new and pretty wonderful Newlyn Filmhouse (Maggie’s Plan and an excellent documentary, Fire at Sea); read a number of books, notably a pair by Louise Doughty, Black Water and Apple Tree Yard – both different and very good – and two Irish novels, Ann Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies; and very much enjoyed two exhibitions by Imran Qureshi at Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Penzance. What more could you want of a holiday?

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