My Favourite Books of 2014

I have to say, people: this year has been a real s.o.b. in a lot of ways, but not where my reading has been concerned. I’m usually very secretive about the books that make an impression on me – it’s all to do with what an unnerving number of people have recently labelled my self-centeredness – but today, in the (ever-expanding) seat of the Season of Goodwill (and eating; I mean seriously, you should see me: this is G-force engorgement over here), I would like to share, in the spirit of giving, ten books that I loved this 2014:

10. ‘U & I’ (1991) by Nicholson Baker

In essence an extended essay, but what with its enlarged font, its binding and its going-price of $19.99, it earns its place on this list. Here, Nicholson Baker, a fairly obscure American writer with a score of experimental novels under his belt, comes head-to-head with his literary hero, the twinkly then-elder but now-late statesman of U.S. letters, John Updike. For the avid reader or fervent writer there is much to relate to in Baker’s bacchanal-cum-stream-of-consciousness crisis-of-confidence, not the least of which is the reassurance that even published writers, those envied accomplished, can be plagued by the feeling that they’re just not good enough.

9. ‘Double Fault’ (1997) by Lionel Shriver

I was reading this when I had it signed by the author, Lionel Shriver, who has written two of my favourite novels: ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and ‘So Much for That’. She seemed surprised to have been handed it. “Have you read this?” she asked me with the ominous wryness which infuses both her speech and prose. I told her I was halfway through and, after signing it, she seemed to be almost tentative in handing it back. “Pay close attention,” she said, or something like it, “this is a cautionary tale.” And is it ever.

8. ‘Never Mind’ (1992) by Edward St. Aubyn

St. Aubyn has done something really strange here: recast his experience of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his monstrous father as a scabrously dark comedy-of-social-manners, like Evelyn Waugh by way of ‘The Lovely Bones’. His finest achievement with this book – the first in a quintet which spans the life of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose, from traumatizing childhood to fledgling fatherhood – is not just the genuine hilarity of the mannered prose as it grapples with these ill-mannered (or, in the case of the father, outright amoral) toffs, dandies and debutantes, but that the prose and the humor spring so easily from the characters’ pettiness and avarice – and how, by stark contrast, young Patrick’s experience is conveyed with sobriety and terrible sadness.

7. ‘Lolita’ (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

After many false starts trying to read this book – I hate Humbert Humbert, as well as abhor how the novel’s now packaged, with its prim pink borders, like an Austen romance: he’s a paedophile, damn it – I have to concede that I’m glad to have read it, if only to be able to see its influence on American literature post-the 1950s. Turns out it’s considerable.

6. ‘The Magic Kingdom’ (1986) by Stanley Elkin

It might just as well have been the other Elkin book I read this year, ‘The Dick Gibson Show’, in sixth place: both have bursts of the outright hilarious and both are outlandishly verbally dexterous. But this has a stronger pathos underpinning it, being, as it is, about a father who, after his terminally ill son passes on, arranges to chaperone a group of sickly tykes on an overseas excursion to Disneyland. The sentences are long and labyrinthine and set-pieces inspired – the scene in which a disgruntled actor dressed as Pluto threatens, ineffectually, the coterie of kids in a clandestine hotel room is a brilliant flight of fancy, sublime comic writing – but what makes the novel as a whole even better is the fact that it stands as a testament (as does ‘Never Mind’) to literature’s power to restore and transcend: Elkin himself was suffering from M.S., but produced, from his experience, this masterpiece.

5. ‘The Old Devils’ (1986) by Kingsley Amis

Being such an ardent fan of Kingsley’s son, Martin, it was inevitable that I would acquaint myself with this, Amis Snr’s late musing on the indiscriminate ravages of time. This is a lovely, wistful and leisurely-paced book, but shot through, too, with the satirist’s disdain, and these tones sit in such perfect harmony that it’s something of a wonder; unprecedented, really. I read it because I’d read ‘Lucky Jim’ and liked it a lot, but more specifically because Martin had averred in his memoir, ‘Experience’ – perhaps not quite impartially – that it “stands comparison with any English novel of the [twentieth] century”. I can’t speak for that, but this story of a famous poet who returns to Wales, its rolling hills and his now-rotund friends, is so humane, funny and finely-observed, it might be that Martin is right.

4. ‘A Fan’s Notes’ (1968) by Frederick Exley

An unflinching portrayal of an depressive-alcoholic’s unstinting battle with his self-destructive streak, this book is even more remarkable for being, by all reports, a thinly-fictionalized autobiography. That Exley survived at all is an impressive feat, but that he wrote this book – in such limpid prose and with such saving self-deprecation – is nothing short of an act of heroism. Exley is something of a cult icon now, and his legend is entirely understandable.

3. ‘1982, Janine’ (1984) by Alasdair Gray

This novel charts the mind-patterns of a severely depressed man as he lies in a hotel cot somewhere in Scotland, and it is blissfully insane, incandescent, inconsolable. At one point our not entirely likable hero chooses to overdose on booze and pills, and Gray, ingenious typographer he is, splits the man’s experience into two wavering columns – one for his body, one for his mind – and, in a struggling, fine-print margin, has God try to reason with His gasping charge. These three pages alone are exhilarating, but then Gray goes into heartbreaking, traditional detail as to how the man got to where he is. This is just the best kind of experimental fiction: one in which the innovation, rather than come to the detriment of feeling, acts instead to enhance it. Brilliant.

2. ‘The Zone of Interest’ (2014) by Martin Amis

I’ll readily admit: I obsessed over this book. I read pretty much every review and opinion piece about it pre-, mid- and post-my reading it, and took, moreover, my sweet time doing so, all the while reveling in those Martin Amis standards: his eccentricity, sheer wit and incantatory style. Having heard almost exclusively good things, I had hoped that this would be Martin’s chance at winning the Booker, coming as it did after a stretch of ignominy comparable to his father’s before his ‘The Old Devils’ took out the much-touted prize. No dice: Martin Amis has always been divisive, and no doubt the book’s conceit – put crudely, a “Nazi love story” – did nothing to endear him to the non-aficionado. But a book like this lives or dies on its risks, and this one thrives in its three distinct voices: that of the nephew of the secretary to Hitler, that of the spineless camp commandant, and that – in spare and somber tones – of the Sonder, a Jew recruited to dispose of the bodies of his fellow Jews (tragically, a role that actually existed). Martin Amis has always been a keen purveyor of the comedy of self-delusion, but here he has addressed his talents to the mass delusion responsible for an awful atrocity, and the result is of a work of mad genius.

1. ‘Something Happened’ (1974) by Joseph Heller

Thirteen years after writing the seminal anti-war novel, ‘Catch-22’ (which – full disclosure – I haven’t read), Heller wrote this, an almost-600-page wail from a chronically disaffected business and family man. This book is incredible for its multi-faceted audacity: it’s the soliloquy of the stultified, self-centered Bob Slocum, wherein nothing, besides his neuroses, happens – until, with the deftest and darkest of ironies, something suddenly does – and all of it unspools in repetitive but perfect sentences, increasingly broken, sometimes for pages, with asides which delve further into Slocum’s insecurities. But this book is so honest, so beautifully constructed, that it actually burrows straight into your brain. A brilliant and haunting work.

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An Extract from the First Chapter of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Purity’

What follows is an unofficial leak of the very first parts of Franzen’s ‘Purity’. Behold how our Great American Novelist works magical realism in with his social commentary, all the while retaining his personal probity:

It was autumn, and Purity was feeling that unambiguous melancholy at the base of her neck. Yes, she knew of its heritage: how her Yale professor father had sired three daughters with a predisposition to be down-at-the-mouth. But what none of the Smerthson family knew, including, for the moment, she herself, was that Purity possessed a sort of superpower: the power of complete transcendence over mood.

Purity had, as it so happened, been recently embroiled in the Enron scam, this being the autumn of 2001. She and her notably effeminate husband, a slight-of-build, begrudging young tech-head, had both been shown the door the day previous and currently sat at a breakfast table of marmalade jam and toast.
“Purity,” said her husband, Egwitt, while squinting in her general direction, “but why do have that simpleton’s simpering look of elation all over your face?”
“Because…,” and Purity paused. She didn’t know it, but was on the precipice of discovering her true ability and strength. Egwitt was displeased by what he heard next: “I’m happy because Enron was America, dear, and America is rotten through. We are all complicit in an unjust war; our art is no more than a mass commodity; our politicians lie and do it badly and still, as a people, we do not care. Why, Egwitt,” she said, redoubling her napkin, “we don’t even know what truth is anymore. And you’re as much America as Enron is.”

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Book Review: ‘It’s OK! I’m from the Daily Mail: Tales of a Foreign Correspondent’ by Richard Shears

As foreign correspondent for Britain’s Daily Mail, Richard Shears has seen and done many remarkable things. As a memoirist, though, Shears shares his extraordinary life experience in a collection of ‘tales’ whose punch is dulled exactly where the Daily Mail has profited – it globe hops, it investigates, it’s the kind of sensational the masses lap up, but it’s also written with an objectivity that leaves many questions about the deeper truth. On book’s close, all the reader knows is that Shears – and this is the sole motif with which he tries to unify the book (and his life?) – has been extremely lucky.

But like all good tabloid journalism, there are genuinely exciting and scandalous moments to be had (by?). Throughout, Shears appears as a lucky and plucky PI: see him stake out fraud and philanderer (and British MP) John Stonehouse, then tail him and his mistress to a remote rural lookout where he snaps the lovers’ kiss in a photo that leads to Stonehouse’s eventual arrest. Its thrills, it’s true, are undeniable.

Still: though such stories, in no short supply, are full of intrigue and daring-do, close calls and timely coincidences, the events recounted seem nowhere near as phony as Shears’ own self-representation. Is he really just the unwitting recipient of some whiz-bang fortune and a jolly good time to boot? There is ruthlessness here, and for all his efforts at likeability, Shears lets slip on the odd occasion: witness, for example, Shears snaffle a former Miss India from under an old friend’s nose, then convince her to renege on her contractual agreement with the old friend’s paper, a rival to the Mail. Shears should really give himself more credit.

In short: those looking for no more than a ripping yarn will probably enjoy It’s OK! For those after the real scoop, though, ‘It’s OK’ is precisely how you’ll feel about this book.