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Books of the Year 2010, Part One

January 17, 2011

These are the most noteworthy ‘published before 2009’ books I read in 2010. Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas is a rollicking Victorian potboiler, full of wicked governesses, dubious inheritances and fearful intrigue, and is perfect for holiday reading. I read three Helen Garner novels, all of them highly enjoyable, though Monkey Grip is far and away the finest — of the others, Honour and Other People’s Children is a pair of novellas exploring some of the themes of Monkey Grip but less all-engrossingly, and her much-celebrated recent short novel The Spare Room is emotive and, aptly, spare in its writing. Garner’s dialogue is second-to-none, deft and closely observed.

Other fiction highlights: the first and last stories in Sigizmund Krzizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future are, almost literally, deliriously good, mucking about with physical reality in a way which anticipates postmodern filmmaking. Tim Gautreaux’s short-story collection Waiting for the Evening News contains some of the hands-down best short stories I’ve ever read. I greatly enjoyed not-quite-the-first-time-travel-novel, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, whose satirical targets remains current today. Rupert Thomson’s Death of a Murderer, a hallucinatory book about the imprisoned Myra Hindley, is neatly unsettling. I read a clutch of books about gulags, including Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Gyorgy Faludy’s excellent My Happy Days in Hell. Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and its Head, an acidic take on the nineteenth-century comedy of manners and marriages, is at once wince-inducing and utterly unputdownable (mostly because, reading it, you can’t quite believe what the characters are saying to each other, nor that Compton-Burnett’s going to be able to sustain this level of vitriol throughout — which of course she does). Similarly nerve-shredding is Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, the best ‘old’ book I read this year, an evisceration of family life that’s hilarious and appalling: think Cold Comfort Farm taken to bizarre new extremes. (A third comedy of terrors, Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, is less uncomfortably skewering but just as fun, and made Mary McCarthy’s The Group go to the top of my to-read list.)

I enjoyed dipping into D.H. Lawrence with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the three-novella collection The Fox/The Ladybird/The Captain’s Doll, but Lawrence’s psychosexual obsessions and interest in alienation are trounced by Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano which amplifies and exhausts them such that you don’t quite feel you’d need to read either author ever again. Bohumi Hrabal’s riotous I Served the King of England is a delightful picaresque, loose in its structure where Alison Lurie’s equally pleasurable Foreign Affairs is meticulously constructed. The first section of David Grossman’s See Under: Love is one of the most devastatingly affecting things I’ve ever read: the scenes where the young Jewish protagonist, living in postwar America and misunderstanding his parents’ mentions of the ‘Nazi beast’ to mean a monster living in his house’s cellar, lures his grandfather and other Holocaust survivors into the cellar to conjure this beast, are properly nightmarish and almost unbearably so. In a case of either very good or very bad timing I was reading this at the same time as Grass’s The Tin Drum, and felt like I might have to go and lie in a darkened room for several weeks on completing the pair.

Less anxiety-inducing was Somerset Maugham’s retelling of Gauguin’s life in The Moon and Sixpence, which is insightful as well as highly enjoyable. Also highly readable, Adam Roberts’s Soviet-themed science fiction Yellow Blue Tibia, which is very much boys’-own, and made an intriguing counterpoint to reading Robert Service’s exhaustive biography Stalin — a not-quite-realistic version of whom appears, as a historically plausible UFO-obsessive, in Roberts’s book. I had long resisted Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, being rather snootily under the impression that it would be trashy — an impression, based on precisely no facts, which duly proved incorrect, since The Reader is instead beautiful, clever, reminiscent of Philip Roth (a high accolade) and at times, as a whole lot of books are described and which has never quite rung true for me, erotic.

In non-fiction, I loved Graham Farmelo’s biography of physicist Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, Paul Trynka’s of Iggy Pop, Open Up and Bleed, and Patricia Morrisroe’s of Robert Mapplethorpe (these three in order of outrageousness, though neither Pop nor Mapplethorpe ever, at least to their biographers’ knowledge, ever sent their friends a baby crocodile through the post, so Dirac wins on points). And Geoff Dyer’s typically unclassifiable memoir/biography/travel journal Out of Sheer Rage is certainly the best book of its type — category ‘Other’ — I read all year, so good I never wanted it to end.

Hands-down worst book of the year, as previously blogged about, is The Other Hand, a book which so totally fails on every possible level that it almost disqualifies itself as a book. Charles Webb’s The Graduate reads more like a poorly novelised film script than a novel, containing no interiority whatsoever, and is bland and throwaway as a result. Capping off the year, I read William Golding’s vexing Pincher Martin, which offers rather too much interiority in its story of a shipwreck’s lone survivor making his way on a deserted island. Halfway through the reader starts to fear that we’re veering towards a horribly predictable ‘twist’ ending which will render the foregoing pointless. There’s a touch of B.S. Johnson (especially his maritime novel Trawl) in our narrator’s obsessional new lifestyle, but Johnson would never have gone for the easy option Golding does here.

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