my year in books

It feels like it’s getting a little bit late for a book round up of last year, but one of the things I’m most looking forward to this year is taking the time to read as many good books as I can – however quality over quantity because I find that when I’ve attempted to read as many as possible (I think a few years ago my highest total was 92 or so) I’ve chosen shorter books and not spent as long digesting them as I should. So I’ve decided to pick and record a nice quote or two from each book I read this year in order to remember them better in the future. I’m terrible at book reviews, pretty much every review I’ve ever written at work uses the word “lovely” or “bleak”, and on Goodreads I only really give a star rating and pointless comments like “I dropped this in the bath” and “bloody love <this person>”.

I read some cracking novels this year. From a quick Goodreads tot-up it seems that I read 42 books, less than I’d hoped but what with getting married and an extremely busy craft Christmas, not too bad. This breaks down into 7 short story collections, 3 Granta magazines, and the remaining 32 were novels. It’s interesting to see what I read in the first half of the year as it seems so long ago that I would probably have estimated that I’d read them more than a year ago. It seems to be most useful and interesting to summarise my top ten, so from star rating a vague memory here they are (although there will be a cheat of lumping together a few at number 1)

1. Carson McCullers. Carson McCullers. Carson McCullers. Oh how I love you. I love developing obsessions with authors in a totally teenage pop-star way (in previous years Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace have been the subjects of my undying adoration). ‘A member of the wedding’, from what I can remember, was absolute perfection. She captured the raw emotions of a 12 year old girl beautifully and without unnecessary flourish or sentimental prose, and also without being at all condescending about the at times nonsense of a young person’s logic. I loved it. And I especially loved then going on to read more of her work and see how wonderfully different her narrative voice was in each. I love Americana, especially this small town, poverty stricken, southern American juicy stuff, so I guess I’m the perfect audience. ‘The Ballard of the Sad Cafe’ was brilliant, and totally totally different. ‘Reflections in a golden eye’ was again so, so different, and hugely plot based in a completely different way. And I also read and loved ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’, which I thought was much closer to Steinbeck’s style/characters than the others. I love her. I’ll be so sad when I’ve read everything she’s ever written.

2. Willy Vlautin – The Free. My favourite Vlautin novel so far. Characteristically bleak/heartbreaking. He captures ordinary, contemporary America, and the sad desperation of these masses of people. But mostly he’s just a beautiful writer. I used to think that Franzen was good at characters, Vlautin has absolutely put him to shame.

3. Ernest M. Gaines – A Lesson Before Dying. I cried a lot particularly during one particularly harrowing chapter. I loved the sparse, simple, but beautiful, style of writing, and the tragic plot. Excellent characters, excellent stuff.

4.  Ross Raisin – God’s Own Country. I loved the first half/two thirds much more than what happens as the plot unfolds, but still a brilliant book. A must read for any Yorkshire dweller (or fan), who loves Yorkshire sayings, phrases, and country ways. I read it as we’d begun to settle into small town life, and Dan and I both found some of the first chapters so funny in Raisin’s absolute nailing of the Yorkshire spirit and before Dan read it I kept reading bits aloud they were so great. The narrator’s internal dialogue is brilliant, really really funny.

5. Maria Venegas – Bulletproof vest. I read a proof of this, perks of being a bookseller, and it is probably the best proof I’ve ever read – certainly this year. It was really well written, really emotional, and I found the subject super interesting too. I suppose the most similar author I’ve read is Junot Diaz, and his family are from the Dominican Republic not Mexico, and he’s a man, so its probably vaguely offensive that I even find them similar. I hope she writes more, I can’t wait to read it.

6. Dorothy Parker – The Collected Dorothy Parker. O.k. I didn’t read every poem but wow, I love her stories. It’s a cliché but her voice captures the age perfectly, and they’re all marvellously atmospheric and evocative of the 20’s/30’s. I love the often raw desperation of her female characters, which seem, at least to me, so heartbreakingly honest. And funny too.

7.  Annie Proulx – Close Range. Insanely good cowboy stories. Some of them are shockingly bleak. You would never guess that they were written by a woman in the way that someone like Alice Munro’s stories unashamedly immediately let you know. Really good, I’m so pleased that I’ve looked back over my year and remembered to seek out more of her short stories in charity shops.

8. Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son. Took me a while to realise that these stories follow one central character. It’s a really brilliant book, not hugely dissimilar to Willy Vlautin in tone, and manages to be centred around drugs without being hugely cringe-worthy. I hate that I can’t remember anything about specific sections of this book, apart from that some parts, at least, were so perfect that I would stop to read them again.

9. Tao Lin – Taipei. I wouldn’t have put any of his previous books in a top ten, even though I have found them enjoyable and “hit the nail on the head” perfect portrayals of “my generation” in the same, horrifically cringe-y way the series GIRLS does. But Taipei was infinitely better than anything I’d read by him before. So much cooler than anything Douglas Coupland has written, and will date as awfully (sort of in a good way) as Bret Easton Ellis’s best stuff. Privileged young people with empty lives, taking too many drugs, worrying about too many things, but sort of brilliant. And the writing is just really great.

10. Per Peterson – In Siberia. I got this out as a library book, and it was brilliant. I seem to love young protagonists, and the rawness of the emotions this brings, but not in a badly written teen fiction way. Poetically written. Really nice.

I’m also annoyed that in December of 2013 I finished ‘Nip the buds, shoot the kids’ By Kenzaburo Oe, so I can’t include it in this list. It’s BRILLIANT. Read it.

I think that’s it. I gave an uncharacteristic high proportion of books 4/5 this year. I’m usually a tough marker. So a few didn’t make top ten which maybe should have. ‘Bastard out of Carolina’ was probably better than at least half of the books on this list, but I found it so harrowing that I’d have to take a break between chapters to read other books. This was mostly due to being a parent and struggling with any child-pain story, but also due to being such a brilliant book at building a horrible feeling of dread. I can’t make it top ten because it just made me feel so uncomfortable. So maybe that’d be number 11.

Roll on 2015.

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