Sunday, 25 December 2011

Books of the Year (those not published by Five Leaves)

It's been a decent year for reading, with two or three let downs by some favourite writers. Solar by Ian McEwan did not excite me, but was not as dull as the Booker-winning The Story of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which ending came mercifully soon. The year started off well though, with Colm Tobin's novel of migration, Brooklyn (Penguin), which I'd been looking forward to, followed immediately by the late Tony Judt's book of essays/memories Memory Chalet (Heinemann). One week of January gone and I knew these two would be in my top ten reads of the year. I'm a big fan of essays, or occasional pieces, which brought Ian Hamilton's The Troubles with Money and Other Essays (Bloomsbury) and Damn Fools and Utopia by the late Nicolas Walter (PM Press) into my top ten. I'll ignore that part of Hamilton's book which is about football. The last essay in Walter's book (thinking of Judt) was written while he was dying, and is about dying, and is worth the cover price alone, the rest are about the 1960s. Four of this year's top ten are related to East Europe. I re-read John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - probably for the third or fourth time - and it remains outstanding. This year's Booker longlist included two East European-based novels. Snowdrops by AD Miller (Atlantic) is set in the mafia state of modern Russia and is terrifying. This made the shortlist, while The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness (Seren) dropped out at the longlist stage, though I think it is a better book. The last hundred days are those of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, with the narrator being a young English lecturer living there. The publicity made a huge difference to the sales of this previously ignored book from an indie press, which is good news. The only East European book by an East European that made this chart was not new, the Complete Works of Isaac Babel (Norton). At 1,000+ large format pages this is not something for a quiet evening at home but it is complete, with different versions of some of his short stories. His murder, in 1940, makes me impotently angry.
The last two of the top ten, which is, by the way, in random order, includes that "travel writing" classic Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (Eland), which I'll re-read soon. It reminds me very much of Alexander Baron's writing on the British occupation of Italy. Finally, one large photographic book, Ida Kar: bohemian photographer (National Portrait Gallery) - the only book here with a Five Leaves' connection, as her subjects included our writers Laura Del-Rivo, Bernard Kops and Terry Taylor. Their images also appeared in a terrific Kar retrospective at the NPG.
I'd also like to give an honourable mention to Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs by DD Johnson (AK Press), a rollicking novel of life in the international anarchist direct action movement.
Seven of this year's top ten, plus the runner up, were from independent presses (hurrah!) but only one by a woman (shame). Most, but not all, were published this year.

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