Thursday 16 December 2010

2010 - A review of my year

Well I started this year with the aim to read more translated fiction and more titles from independent publishers and I'm pretty pleased with how that turned out, exposing myself to books I would never normally have come across and still making room for some of the big titles too. In a year when new books from Franzen, Amis and Roth have gathered headlines and Howard Jacobson finally landed the Booker Prize my fondest memories have been books that haven't had anything like that kind of blanket coverage and may have struggled to get mentioned in the mainstream media at all. You don't need me to confirm the worth of Booker nods to David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Tom McCarthy's C or Damon Galgut's In A Strange Room. They're all worth a read. It's just not possible for me to pick a single book of the year, or even a top three so here is a selection of the best.


Easy Reads

Tony and Susan - Austin Wright

You may notice that this title is missing from the picture above and that's because I lent it to someone at work who then passed it on to someone else and it still hasn't come back yet. I think we can call that a word-of-mouth success and that's exactly what this book needed. Originally published in 1993 when the author was 70 years-old the book garnered positive reviews but never really took off. Wright died ten years later leaving behind a body of work but Atlantic Books reissued this literary thriller earlier in the year to more positive reviews and hopefully many more readers. A novel within a novel that plays on the very act of reading it combines the guilty pleasure of a pulpy thriller with something far more high-minded.
(original review here)

Nourishment - Gerard Woodward

Another book which has proved popular at work, Woodward's follow up to his impressive trilogy about the Jones family is easily the oddest book of the year and one of the funniest too. During the Second World War, a time of rationing and 'make do and mend', we follow Tory Pace as she deals with living with her mother again, her husband's internment as a POW and his request for dirty letters. The theme of nourishment is expressed in many ways and I'll eat my hat if you can find a more enjoyable novel that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences.
(original review here)


The World Of Yesterday - Stefan Zweig

It may not have been to all tastes but I loved reading this memoir from an author who crops up time and again on this blog. A must read for any fans of Zweig and indeed anyone who wants an insight into the passing of a golden age in Europe. Zweig's intelligence, political acuity and deep connection to the cultural life around him make him a fascinating guide through inter-war Europe and the poignancy of the ending, given that we know he was to take his own life shortly afterwards, unavoidable.
(original review here)

Footnotes In Gaza - Joe Sacco

If anyone wanted to make the case for comics being taken seriously they should move away from the serious sounding 'graphic novels' and take a look at the reportage of artists like Joe Sacco. His previous books on Palestine and the war in Bosnia helped me to understand those complicated conflicts in a way that no serious article or news item ever had. Using personal testimony to tap into the human stories behind the fighting he helps us to understand that large scale conflicts are often about very personal feelings and a sense of grievance passed down through generations. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his latest work which brought to life two historical massacres that have everything to do with the tensions that still exist in Gaza and showed that Sacco essential reading.
(original review here)

The Lost Gem

The New Perspective - K Arnold Price

Discovering a book that hardly anyone knows about and yet which deserves praise and a wider readership is one of the many ways I get a major kick from reading and blogging. I have Colm Toibin to thank for this slim debut novel which was written when the author was 84 years-old. It is a perfectly distilled portrait of marriage that had it been written by a new writer today would surely be being hailed as a masterpiece and nominated for awards all over the place. Subtle, intelligent, sensitive and painfully honest it is a novel that took a lifetime's experience to write and yet takes just a small portion of your day to read. It's finding a copy that's the tricky bit.
(original review here)

The Wildcard

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Only just reviewed and making it onto the list purely because it's too bonkers to leave it off is the 700 page, self-published leviathan that channels the spirit of Pynchon, Melville, Gaddis and Price; combines boxing, both sides of the law and even the laws of physics into a vast, sprawling, digressive monster that probably scared off any editors who looked at it but deserves to be read by far more than the handful who can have made it through to the final page. If you fancy a challenge then I dare you. I double dare you...
(original review here)

Looking Back, Looking Forward, Looking You Right in the Eye

Stoner - John Williams

NYRB Classics have done a quite incredible job of resurrecting classic books that might have remained in obscurity if it weren't for their endeavour. This book has received ecstatic praise from bloggers, reviewers and even A-list celebrities and if you don't believe any of them then please believe me when I tell you that it is a masterpiece. The kind of novel that if you were forced to pitch it today would probably be considered un-marketable, it is quite simply the life of a man called Stoner. Everything you need to know about a man's life within the pages of book. That is a gift. I feel under no compulsion to say any more. You really should read this book at some point in your life, it's fine if it isn't right now, it will be ready for you when you are.
(original review here)

The Canal - Lee Rourke

One of the few novels I've read recently that feels as though it's talking about the world I live in right now, Lee Rourke's debut has won the Rising Stars award on Amazon and was also joint-winner of the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, taking some pretty hefty flak along the way. It won't be to all tastes but who cares about that? A novel about a man who embraces his boredom that is never boring is something to cherish and the fact that it has lots to say about how we live, connect, and deal with everyday terrors makes it a vital read, filled with an energy that a novel about ennui aught not really to possess.
(original review here)

Beside The Sea - Veronique Olmi

I've read some amazing books this year, books that haven't even made it onto this list for a mention, but if I was to pick one that knocked me about more than any other it would have to be this one. Pound for pound this is easily the hardest hitting piece of fiction I have encountered in the last twelve months. There are so many reasons why we should be championing it. Peirene Press is a new indy publisher bringing literature in translation to an English-reading audience in handy novella-sized portions, and have already made themselves essential reading with just their first three titles. The first of these is still the best for me, containing the kind of ambiguity that makes fiction as a medium such an exciting place to be. In only 120 pages Olmi manages to make the reader complicit in the judgement of what they read and whilst dealing with similar themes to the much vaunted and Booker-nominated Room, she manages to knock that novel into a cocked-hat without resort to sensation, gimmicks or whimsy. If you can think of a decent excuse as to why you shouldn't go out (or online) and buy a copy right now I'd like to hear it...
(original review here)

Not Book Of The Year

Room - Emma Donoghue

You know why.


BiRd-BrAiNs - tUnE-yArDs

Two close runners for album of the year were The National for High Violet and Deerhunter for Halcyon Digest. What do these artists and albums have in common apart from being excellent? They all come from the same label: 4AD. This is no fix and it's not really a matter of taste; these albums aren't particularly similar. Their only common attribute is excellence. Oh, and excitement. So before I get into the specifics let me first heap huge amounts of praise on a label that produces consistently amazing work of a wide and varying nature and that got behind an album that might have remained an obscurity without them. tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus who has a past as a puppeteer but used a digital voice-recorder and shareware mixing software to entirely self-produce this album. Defiantly lo-fi this is an album for those who are bored by polished performance, style over substance and the general sheen that comes with a lot of modern music. By concentrating on lyrics, original instrumentation and a genuine need to express through music you get an album whose very flaws are its strengths. A word I find myself using again and again to describe works of art that I admire is 'genuine'. It is worrying that it is a word that you can't use more often to describe the artistic output that we consume but I guess the 'c' word is the important one there. In an age of easily consumed and forgotten art it is refreshing to hear an album that doesn't sound like another, doesn't want to seem like another and stands or falls by its own standards. All of which is far to poncey a way of describing one of the most enjoyable albums you're likely to hear.
(original review here)

Not Album Of The Year

20Ten - Prince 

It was given away free in the Daily Mirror.
(original review here)


Ok, so this year the LoveFilm subscription was cancelled as there just wasn't the time to meet even the minimum requirements. Therefore I haven't had the chance to watch many films at all this year but what I have seen has been great. Three films played in different ways with the notion of cinematic truth. Duncan Jones made a striking debut with Moon, a film that put British sci-fi back on the map, Christopher Nolan cashed in on the success of his Batman reboot by making a good-looking, intelligent cinema experience in the form of Inception and from the left-field came the intriguing Certified Copy which still has me confused today about what the real truth might have been.

One film still haunts me though and that is why I will raise it above the others.


Lars Von Trier is not an easy man to like and I had some great debate with friends about his previous work after watching his latest. I have no doubt after Antichrist that the man is an artist and a serious one at that. Dark, difficult, disturbing and very adult (in the mature sense of the word rather than the sensational reaction to the pumping penis on display here) it is a film difficult to watch in many places but which challenges you to watch it again. Beautifully filmed and acted, if you think you're up to the challenge then I really recommend it (and would welcome the opportunity to discuss afterwards).
(original review here)

Not Film Of The Year

The Da Vinci Code

I'm not even sure of the weakened mental state that placed me in front of the TV watching this one but it was nothing compared to the vegetative state the film itself reduced me to. I haven't read the book but the film was so stupid in its need to explain everything and leave the audience nothing to do that I could feel myself getting stupider by the minute. Every actor in it was appalling and looked uncomfortable, the script was laughable and I can't think of a less thrilling thriller. Give me the X-Factor over this any day.

So, there's a quick look back at some of my 2010. How was yours?


Jeff 16 December 2010 at 13:28  

William, hello.

Interesting selection of books. My 2010 contained two very good translations of novels, or so they seemed to me: Mati Unt's _Brecht At Night_ (trans from estonian by Eric Dickens, 2009) and _Primeval and Other Times_ by Olga Tokarczuk (trans. from polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, 2009 or 2010).

Further in fiction, I also read _The Canal_, and reviewed it here --


-- in case you're curious.

Two very good non-fiction titles are _The Novel_ by Steven Moore and Gabriel Jospovici's _What Ever Happened to Modernism?_

I'm ending the year by reading _Slut Lullabies_ by Gina Frangello, and look forward to starting 2011 with the latest fiction titles by Josipovici and the latest by Joseph McElroy.

You may be interested in my own novel, _Verbatim: A Novel_, which came out in October. It's a satire of legislative life told in lists of members, letters between bureaucrats and political debates set out in dual-column format. Enfield & Wizenty is the publisher, and you can get the book from them or Amazon.

Jeff Bursey

Anonymous,  16 December 2010 at 20:22  

I didn't start 2010 with the goal of reading more translated or small press fiction, but, like you, my year-end favorites tilt in that direction. As you note, there were a lot of A-list, established authors who produced novels this year -- and in my opinion most of those were pretty average. I've only read two on your list, but we have similar themes in the gems we found -- new (or relatively unknown) authors, translated work and books that just plain had been overlooked provided the special surprises. I am heartened by that, actually. While the mainstream press is preoccupied with predicting the end of the physical book, these are the kind of works (be they new or re-issues) that I am confident will still be published in traditional form by smaller publishers, probably in even better physical volumes than we see from large publishers now. I find it interesting that both the Giller Prize winner, Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimantalist, and the National Book Award winner, Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, had initial press runs of only 2,000 books. Skibsrud's publisher has two employees, Gordon's one. Both books are impressive physical volumes. And I am pretty sure that artisanal publishers like these two will continue their craft -- we are just going to have to count on the blogging world to discover these treasures for the rest of us. Many thanks for your contribution to that task.

Anonymous,  17 December 2010 at 00:07  

I ve had a great 2010 read over 120 books from 60 countries which was the goals plus for year ,I ve most enjoy circus Bulgaria will put together a list ,music wise deerhunter was a great album just grooving to springsteen promise which is strange love his stuff and hearing slightly different version of his classic is jarring ,film well not seen Alot this year a single man was quitew good ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 17 December 2010 at 15:39  

Jeff - thank you for such a detailed comment. There's been lots of debate around Josipovici's WEHTM but I'm going to start off with his stories after having read a great recommendation here. I'm off to check out your other recommendations now and your thoughts on The Canal. Many thanks again for the comment.

Kevin - A great comment, thank you, and I agree with you entirely. It has been fantastic to see small press titles contending with the big boys for the awards and triumph (I didn't realise the close connection between the two you mentioned). I also like your use of the word artisinal, spot on for describing the quality, attention to detail and clear love for the printed word that comes through in their publications and almost transfers itself to the reader by osmosis when you have the book in your hand. Try getting that on an e-reader!

Stu - I look forward to reading your list but let me say straight away what an amazing achievement your reading challenge has been. Your dedication to translated fiction is laudable and I know you had thoughts of calling it a day but I'm very glad you've simply set yourself a further challenge. Good luck!

Max Cairnduff 22 December 2010 at 19:23  

I'm delighted to see Moon getting a mention.

One of the nice things with these lists is they flag posts one might have missed before. I hadn't seen either Tony and Susan or The New Perspective. I'll print them off.

Sacco is brilliant, I quite agree.

I really like tune-yards, but it's not quite an album of the year for me. Hm. It's very recent but Jane's Berserker blows me away and new to me if not new the first Go! Team album is also just marvellous. Really though I've had such a good musical year it would be hard to get to a top ten let alone a top two or three.

I have to read Stoner, but I've another Williams to read first that I already own.

Oh, and however much you dare me I'm not reading 700 pages.

No theatre best of? For me it's probably Enron and Black Watch (which I saw last night). Both use a range of innovtive(ish) techniques to bring complex stories to life. Both are marvellous. I love the theatre. At risk of saying something bland, there's something very special about that kind of artistic intimacy.

William Rycroft 23 December 2010 at 08:44  

I'm afraid that the only drawback to performing in the theatre every night is that it severely limits the opportunities one gets to go to the theatre oneself. Those midweek Matinees that might be possible are usually ruled out as I'm looking after two little ones. I heard good things about Enron and Blackwatch, was sad to miss After The Dance and Jerusalem, and predict that Thea Sharrock's production of Cause Celebre will be one to look out for next year. I was in the first major revival of that play at the Lyric, Hammersmith just after I left drama school and it's an absolute belter.

Max Cairnduff 23 December 2010 at 10:53  

Eek, thank god I was never drawn to the stage. Who knew my total lack of talent in Drama at school would turn out such a benefit?

I missed Jerusalem too and was most annoyed to do so.

I'm seeing The Rivals tonight, which given the cast I'm sure will be a lot of fun. Dealer's Choice come to think of it was another recent standout.

Thanks for the Cause Celebre tip, I'll look out for it.

Lee Monks 23 December 2010 at 11:11  

Great list and I accept your dare!

William Rycroft 23 December 2010 at 11:37  

Thanks Lee.

And good luck.

(small print: this dare does not come with a moneyback guarantee!)

Simon (Savidge Reads) 23 December 2010 at 22:37  

Great post William, nice to see music and film as well as the wonderful books that you have rad during the year (though we are polar opposites on Room lol). I love theses end of year posts for pointing out the books that I should have given a whirl and can in the next year.

Sigrun 26 December 2010 at 13:15  

Totally agree on The Antichrist, such a beautiful, gruesome and alluring film.

There is something in the very end of the story: The man descending through the woods and the figures coming to greet him - or rip him apart, it made me think of a Greek tragedy ... but I'm not sure which.

I should really go back to the movie, but to be honest, I fear watching it again, even if its one of the best I've ever seen - .

William Rycroft 27 December 2010 at 08:53  

Simon, thank you, I'm loving the blogger's end of year lists too (far more than the newspaper equivalents) and am busy compiling a list of new books for the TBR pile. Generally speaking I found this year to be a really rewarding one for reading, I hope 2011 matches or even surpasses it.

William Rycroft 27 December 2010 at 08:59  

Sigrun - like you I'm not exactly rushing to watch Antichrist again but I'm sure that when I do I will spot more and more detail to admire. That rather enigmatic ending does have something rather Greek tragedy about it. They're all faceless which makes them look a bit like a mask-wearing Greek Chorus for a start. I'm struggling to remember one now but I'm sure there's a play that involves a man being torn apart - it sounds very Greek!

Tom C 29 December 2010 at 08:48  

Its fascinating to read these lists isn't it. Amazing the variety - but also occasional commonality

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