A Brief History of Seven Killings by MARLON JAMES
This is by a comfortable margin the most deserving Booker winner I have ever read, the winner in 2015. The attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 is the springboard, but this novel encompasses so much more. James fuses drug cartels, the CIA, Jamaican politics, and reggae into a sprawling panorama of life on and offtheisland. It is violent, profane, utterly beautiful.
Beatlebone by KEVIN BARRY
The major prizes were well-chosen in 2015. Barry’s Beatlebone took out the Goldsmiths with another music-themed novel. This time, the figure at its centre is John Lennon, whom we encounter en route to his private island (a barely habitable rocky outcrop off the Irish coast) where he intends to work out his demons with some primal screaming. Barry’s supremely convincing rendering of such a familiar figure is but one of the many delights of this strange, haunting book.
Collected Novellas by ARNO SCHMIDT
English readers owe translator John E. Woods a huge debt for bringing Arno Schmidt, undisputed master of post-war German literature, often compared to Joyce, to Anglophone audiences. His project, begun in 1980, is now completed with the translation this year of the gargantuan Bottom’s Dream, a coffee table book in the sense that you could actually use it as a coffee table. It was Schmidt’s masterwork, but the novellas in this collection are often regarded as his finest moments, particularly the affecting Lake Scenery with Pocahontas. Schmidt’s prose is intricate, alienating, highly idiosyncratic, and intensely rewarding. It also sports the largest collection of moon-metaphors outside Tom Waits.
The Mezzanine by NICHOLSON BAKER
Set entirely over the course of one man’s escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine level of his office building, this gem from 1988 explores a radically contingent landscape of thought and memory, but does so with verve and humour. The random questions and recollections that pop into the narrator’s head are treated essayistically with extensive footnotes that sometimes take up multiple pages (including a footnote on footnotes). Topics discussed include the relative merits of paper and plastic straws, the history of perforation, and chaos theory as applied to shoelaces.
The Obscene Bird of Night by JOSE DONOSO
Fusing Chilean folklore with religious thaumaturgy, Donoso’s tale of monstrous births and fractured identities is one of the landmark novels of the Latin American Boom that propelled Gabriel GarcíaMárquez to worldwide prominence. The crisscrossing storylines in this novel mirror one another subtly. Orphaned children and elderly inmates of a convent conspire to bring about a miracle birth; a young senator creates a cloistered world of naked freaks in which his deformed son can grow up without being ostracised. Through it all moves the mute, Mudito, with his shifting centre of self, and the myth of the Imbunche.
Nazi Literature in the Americas by ROBERTO BOLANO
I discovered Bolaño when The Savage Detectives appeared in English back in ’07 and he became instantly my literary hero. Bolaño had already been dead a while, so I rationed myself to only one of his books a year, thinking there would be no more. I needn’t have worried, as posthumous Bolaño releases have become something of a cottage industry. This is one of his best, very much in the Borgesian vein, a collection of capsule biographies of far-right writers in North and South America, all of Bolaño’s own invention.
Brideshead Revisited by EVELYN WAUGH
More a fan of Waugh’s earlier, funnier novels, to paraphrase the Woody Allen insult, and very familiar with the Granada miniseries, I continually put off reading this one, only finally resolving to get it out of the way when I set it for a course. Though the narrative surprises were few, thanks to the fidelity of the adaptation, the world Waugh evokes as only he can, is alive and compelling. It is remarkable (and annoying) that this elegy for a society built on privilege and inequality should be so moving.
Madame Bovary by GUSTAV FLAUBERT
One of those books I thoughtI’d read but hadn’t, I cottoned on to the omission due to my current fascination with Marcel Schwob, upon whom Flaubert was a key influence. I thought Mme B. might tide me over while waiting for Wakefield Press to bring out more Schwob and hoped for no more. Social realism is not usually my thing at all, but Flaubert does it with a virtuosity and formalist’s exactitude that left me awestruck and humbled. I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Gerard Hopkins – highly recommended.
A Confederacy of Dunces by JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE
A contemporary reworking of the picaresque novel, this riotously funny book cannot but be undercut by the sad history attendant on its publication. As someone currently hawking an experimental manuscript, I probably should have steered clear of this one but I’m glad I didn’t. Ignatius J. Reilly, the morbidly obese mama’s boy, spouter of neo-medieval pseudo-philosophy, and self-proclaimed campaigner against Vice and Modernity, is surely one of the great comic creations. The secondary characters are equally unforgettable, and the denouement in which Toole draws all his subplots together is nothing less than genius.
Lincoln in the Bardo by GEORGE SAUNDERS
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to read this ahead of its upcoming release in February and my review of it for Storgy Magazine is forthcoming. I regard Saunders as the satirist par excellence of contemporary society. His second short story collection, Pastoralia, had a tremendous impact on me as a writer and so it was with great excitement that I read this, his first novel. Without giving too much away,a fugue of ghostly voices narrate the story of Abraham Lincoln’s night-time visit to his dead son’s tomb. It is a true masterpiece.
Tune in tomorrow to see which books made Joseph Sale’s ‘Best Reads of 2016’ list!
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