The 2015 Books of the Year!*
*(now with added Awards!)
I'm going to have to buy myself a new bookshelf for Christmas. That to me is the quite literal measurement of the quality and quantity of my book reading for 2015. As things currently stand with three weeks left in this year, the three foot shelf unit to my right is packed tighter than an air passenger's carry-on bag as is the shelf under the TV stand and its top shelf has a leaning plinth of paperbacks on which the glack Freeview box sits like a hungry and threatening raven. Yes, I am going to have to give all these a proper home.
My standard answer to anyone who asks me 'Have you read - ' is to cut them off with a fast 'No!' before they ever get to the title as odds are good I haven't read it. Even though I did read and well enjoy one hundred and forty-eight books this year, that is still only the teeniest-tiniest fraction of the nearly one million books published in English worldwide in 2015. Yes, that number is accurate: one million. If even one percent of those were actually, you know, good that makes for ten thousand which means that I only made it through at best one percent of those. But damn it all, I tried!
Now, if you look around on Google, on my archive at bythebookreviews.blogspot.ie or the pages of San Diego Book Review, Winnipeg Review or Writing.ie where I place most of my reviews, you still won't find one hundred and forty-eight of my bylines published this year. That's because when I started out reviewing I made a decision that except in the rarest of circumstances I was never going to waste anyone's time by writing a negative review. Oh I grant you that they're great fun to write, but I come back to those one million published books. It is hard enough for quality to get noticed, therefore why make it harder by taking up curious readers and potential buyers' time by shouting about junk?
When it comes to my annual Books of the Year I have to be even more rigorous. A friend and fellow reviewer in my old hometown of Thunder Bay, Canada has a great standard which I am cheerfully poaching. He defines a great book as a memorable reading experience. Note that word experience. What books did I read in 2015 that I truly and fondly remember in exactly the same way as a fine conversation with an intelligent and witty friend which in turn left me with a better brain than the one I arrived with? And so I forced myself to be even more ruthless, cutting down the books I reviewed to a rugby side of fifteen divided among four categories. New for this year are a few Awards which will you see, as well as an Interview category drawn from the Thoughts Comments Opinions podcasts I recorded with various writers.
The long and the short of it – although I think we left the latter behind about three paragraphs ago – is that I sincerely believe any of you reading this will have a wonderful experience with any of my chosen Best of the Best. As the erudite sportswriter of the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell once said, 'I have met some of my best friends in books.' Here are your new friends:
The Pacesetter (Jerry M. Fisher)
It is a rare, rare thing for an industrialist to have led a life interesting enough to qualify for any in-depth biographical treatment let alone one that isn't a long and wet-tongued ass-kiss. Carl Fisher was one of the pioneers of the American auto industry, the Indianapolis 500 race, the first Atlantic-Pacific motorway, and the key developer of both Miami Beach and the Hamptons. Regardless of what one thinks of capitalism as an economic policy, much like monarchy as a political model its leading figures make for some stonking good anecdotes an lesson. This book for some reason had to be privately published. Look for it.
Deepening Neoliberalism, Austerity and Crisis: Europe's Treasure Ireland (Julien Mercille and Enda Murphy)
Speaking of capitalism as an economic policy, this examination of the steady destruction that neoliberalism and its global monetarist policies have unleashed on the safety net of social welfare is a must-read. What is truly chilling is how major corporate media, bought and operated by the richest of the rich manipulate the news to make you, the citizen voter, actually believe that it is your responsibility to pay for monumental capitalist mistakes such as the banking crises of 2008-2010. This is a splendid wake-up call.
Women's Bodies as Battlefield (Susan Thistlethwaite)
It is shocking how deeply ingrained it is within our cultures that women are seen as usually inferior and even when not, they are a sex to be viewed as dangerous beings that ultimately deserve whatever horrors they get when they are victims of violence, rape or war. If you think that statement is massive hyperbole, I invite you to read the book. Professor Thistlethwaite is thorough, passionate and well-studied in her analysis of thousands of years worth of evidence. And incidentally, as the author proves, there is no such thing as a 'just war'.
Award Winner: The Pradip M. Sarbadhikari Award
From the First World War to the Arab Spring (M.E. McMillan)
This is a slight bit of a cheat, as this book is not being released until 2016, however I urge you to re-order it. The Pradip M. Sarbadhikari Award is given in the name of my political mentor from my student days, when this brilliant man encouraged open debate, a persistent questioning of perceived realities, and a love of teaching. M.E. McMillan has written a political history of the Middle East that is equal parts informative and readable. I suggest that before you make any loud or even muttered opinion about this region of conflicts or its battling religions, you take a few hours to inform yourself about the background.
An Irish Volunteer (Juliet Cardinal)
This first novel by American writer Juliet Cardinal makes the list for reasons other than it taking place in my adopted home of Ireland, although my familiarity with its subject matter certainly helps. In shaping the historical details of the Easter Rising of 1916 that directly led to the foundation of the Irish Republic and focusing them on the tragic romance of one of its key leaders Joseph Plunkett and his all too short marriage to his beloved Grace, Cardinal manages to touch the reader's heart as well as the mind. Entire forests are being felled for the printing of books commemorating the centenary of the Rising; none will be better than this.
Don't Jump (Vicki Abelson)
This was an evolutionary experience for me. Having been lucky enough to read a complete early draft of Vicki Abelson's roman à clef about her years as a Zelig-like figure in the rock, comedy and overall entertainment world of New York in the 1980s, I knew Don't Jump was an enormously entertaining novel. When the published version came to my door four years later I was delighted that her book had become an enormously entertaining and brilliantly written novel. Stories usually begin as a soul or an idea and then grow a body of words around that metaphysical core. Vicki Abelson's fictional memoir grew its soul around the wit and snap of her language; as such it is visible, tangible and moves the reader into tears of laughter and compassion. Simply beautiful.
Quicksand (Steve Toltz)
It probably stems from my reading absolutely everything Kurt Vonnegut Jr had written up to that point back in the summer I was thirteen years old, or maybe it was the result of watching Chuck Jones cartoons on Saturday morning TV; regardless of origin, my favourite genre in fiction is more a style than it is a formally recognized genre. I love novels that live in the sharp horizon that divides the plausible and the impossible. That's where Quicksand builds its house and in it is the home of a modern-day Lot named Aldo Benjamin. Toltz is an achingly exact writer, virtually pointillist with every word chosen for precise targeted impact.
Hurma (Ali Al-Muqri)
Set in Yemen, Hurma is a remarkably brave novel given that it exposes the hypocrisies and misogyny within certain Islamic sub-cultures to a tragically satiric light that it makes Salman Rushdie look like an apologist in comparison. As with any good work of fiction that chooses religion as its target, Hurma does not attack the actual faith; instead its barbs are aimed at what that faith's greedy and selfish inheritors do with it. Kudos to Darf Publishers for bringing this translated book to Western readers.
Award Winner: The Anton Chekhov Award
The Bones of It (Kelly Creighton)
This Award for my choice of the Novel of the Year is named for Anton Chekhov because in my opinion he was the first master of truly psychological story-telling both in his plays and fiction. The psychological aspect is used both with his characters and on the audience as both are exposed to stresses and twists that re-shape the very concept of what is normal, acceptable behaviour.
The Bones of It is a most worthy recipient. Kelly Creighton uses the Northern Irish culturescape as the background to a story that twists the meanings of narrative and truth like a Zen master of post-modern meta storytelling, but she does it without being boring. That last is no small praise for all too often writers who try to turn literary conventions into wordy origami forget that their first duty is to deliver an attractive story that makes the reader curious. There is something of J.D. Salinger to Kelly Creighton with clear echoes of The Catcher in the Rye evident within The Bones of It. However Creighton is no imitator. Hers is a unique, bold and deliciously shrewd voice that deserves a wide audience.
Fiction (Short Stories)
This was an absolutely spectacular year for short story writing and I for one am damn glad of it. May no one ever again look at a short story writer with that sort of hospital corridor gaze of lowered eyes while expressing the incorrect diagnosis of, 'I'm sorry you couldn't finish the novel.' That sort of thing is like believing sonnet writers are somehow inferior because they haven't produced epic ballads the length of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Young Irelanders is an absolutely spectacular collection of stories by present day Irish writers ably selected by the anthology's editor Dave Lordan. His goal was to show that Irish writing is more than melancholic tales of rustic families living five to a room before sailing out in the curragh to certain doom in a grey-walled sea. Modern Ireland is, well, modern and as full of protest, cultures and convention rattling as any other sophisticated nation. Through Young Irelanders I was introduced to a host of writers whose individual collections I have also vastly enjoyed. My thanks to all of them, my recommendation to all of you.
The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers
Mind you, Ireland has been producing terrific short stories for as long as narrative fiction has existed. This anthology goes back over two hundred years of story-telling to unveil the expanding mosaic of the life and interest of Irish women. One cannot help but marvel as the forms and subjects of the stories become more daring as the years pass by. Saying that, the stories from the 1800s are just as readable as those produced in our twenty-first century, but reading the modern pieces by writers such as June Caldwell or Roisin O'Donnell (q.v.) leave one excited to see what comes next.
Dangerous Obsessions (Bob Van Laerhoven)
This was very nearly the last book I reviewed this year before making this column's selections. Of the dozen or so stand-out individual short story collections I enjoyed in 2015, the Belgian author Bob Van Laerhoven's was the standy-outiest. There are only five stories in this hardcover, but then again a filet mignon is a lot smaller than a meat loaf and given your choice of fine beef, which would you pick? (I suppose for vegan readers there must be some similar comparison available involving lentils and watermelons, but dammit I'm a reviewer not a metaphor generator.) Van Laerhoven's stories always surprise without descending into the cheap thrills of fakery and he uses his journalistic experience to write about the cold and the cruel aspects of human nature with unflinching truth. Previous to reading Dangerous Obsessions the only author I have ever compared positively to my old favourite is Canada's Dan Vyleta. Now there are two.
This is where the Australian animals come to play. Some books just don't quite match with others – do children's books really fit in next to literary novels under the heading of Fiction? I was actually tempted to call this section Antipasto, but then you'd be thinking this was all about cookbooks, which (publishers take note!) no one sent me for review this year. I love cookbooks. I will, literally, review for food. Anyway, on with the inedible Antipasto platter:
The Shakespeare Audition (Laura Wayth)
Theatre not only is my first love, but given that I am sitting here in a small Irish cottage alone save for a snoozing border collie serving as a foot warmer it can equally be said that theatre is the only love I have ever had that lasted. Given that I became a playwright, which is a sort of marriage, I therefore look at a great new book about acting as a new dress or oil portrait of my beloved bride. Laura Wayth, a professor of acting at San Francisco State University has become a great friend of mine because she writes wonderfully about theatre. What is especially terrific about The Shakespeare Audition is that she manages to make those two words that stab actors twice in the heart with a dagger of fear – Shakespeare and Audition – seem not only friendly but actually rather fun. After all, why be intimidated by a Shakespeare audition? Look around you (these are my words, not Laura Wayth's), some of the dumbest clucks on earth manage to fool audiences on a nightly basis that they are intelligent artists and they make a damn good living at it. If they can do it, what's stopping you?
Weird Dublin: A Miscellany, Almanack and Companion (Reggie Chamberlain-King)
I remember back in the glory days of the old National Lampoon that sneakily anarchic magazine produced a collection with the title The Gentleman's Bathroom Companion. In it were lots of short pieces that did not demand starting at page one and continuing page by page until reaching The End. Rather, one could just dip in ... although the words 'dip in' may be misconstrued when it comes to bathrooms. For Weird Dublin, Reggie Chamberlain-King has combed through some four centuries' worth of magazines, newspapers and books in order to assemble the most incredible cornucopia of criminal trials, medical misbeliefs and general bizarrities of human nature that happened to occur near the banks of the Liffey. It all adds up to time well-spent wherever it is read.
Line of Drift (Robyn Rowland)
This was the one truly outstanding book of poetry I read that was published in 2015. There were others, but sadly they were all printed in 2014 or earlier. Rowland's was the one collection from this year that I found memorable. Her poems are mostly set in Ireland, although Rowland herself is Australian. I suppose much like novelist Juliet Cardinal (q.v.) sometimes an outsider has an advantage in that they find the incredible in what the native sees or hears as the usual and mundane.
Interview of the Year
I have been interviewing authors on a semi-regular basis going back to my very enjoyable time as the Book Editor of the Herald de Paris. It's a most satisfying hobby more than it is a profession. After all, who wouldn't enjoy the ability to call up highly interesting people and discuss highly interesting topics? I don't believe in over-preparation for the interview series, now called Thoughts Comments Opinions and found on the San Diego Book Review website. Instead, I approach each interview as finding one's self sat at a dinner party next to a new acquaintance who one has heard of. From there, chat normally, have a great conversation.
As I look back on the two dozen or so Thoughts Comments Opinions recorded this year, evert writer I spoke to was open, thoughtful and often quite witty. The pick of the litter, or I suppose pick of the letters, was Steve Toltz, author of Quicksand. Do look for that podcast. In it, Toltz says perhaps the most honest statement I have ever heard anyone say about their work. I asked him, given that he spent some four years writing Quicksand, how did he finally know when it was done? He said, “When I could read through every page of the manuscript without cringing.” Ah. If you are a writer, pin those words up above your desk.
Award: The Dorothy Parker Award
I give this, my highest award with its completely non-existent huge cash prize to the writer who gave me the most enjoyable reading experience of the year. The Award is named for Dorothy Parker because every time I sit down to write a review I say a sort of a little prayer to the gods of vitriol and violets that I might produce something close to the honesty, subjectivity and above all fun that Mrs Parker wrote in her salad days (even though her salad was composed solely of olives served in a dressing of gin with a hint of vermouth).
I have chosen a fairly new Irish writer named Roisin O'Donnell as the winner and that on the basis of just two short stories: How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps (found in Young Irelanders) and Infinite Landscapes (in The Long Gaze Back). O'Donnell writes the true modern melodrama – and before anyone thinks that's an insult, no less than Konstantin Stanislavsky thought melodrama was the highest form of storytelling. Her characters have open hearts and open thoughts. The situations they find themselves in ring true and best of all their creator knows exactly where and how to bring her perfect pitch for comedy to the forefront. She has her own collection of stories coming out in 2016. I eagerly await its arrival. Roisin O'Donnell, and all the other writers who gave me such pleasure in 2015, thank you.
Be seeing you.