The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet – David Mitchell
A brilliant, genre-bending, heart breaking, thrilling rollercoaster of a book. Part historic fiction, part thriller, part romance, part heist story, just when you think you have a handle on this book it surprises you again. Which isn’t to say it is a book composed of disparate, ill-fitting parts. The whole thing is crafted as if from a single piece of cloth and the story moves between its varied threads seamlessly. ‘Thousand Autumns’ manages to be that rarest of beasts, a literate and literary novel that manages to be a great page turner. It also has possibly the most dramatic first chapter ever written (which you can download to read as a pdf here) and an ending that will have you cheering and crying. I loved this so much I am already planning when I wil re-read it.
The Cheese Monkeys – Chip Kidd
A wonderful book recommended by Scott Pack over on his blog. This tells the story of a group of students as they attempt to negotiate an idiosyncratic design course under the guidance of their possibly mental tutor, Professor Sorbeck. What follows is by turns a touching and hilarious account of their ‘education’ at the hands of Sorbeck, easily my favourite character of this year’s reading. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling this book. Suffice to say that if you’d like to read a story about educating young people that manages to completely subvert the mawkishness of Dead Poets, then this is for you. I’d recommend buying the print edition too, it’s written by famous book cover designer Chip Kidd and the book really is a marvel of design.
Freedom – Jonathon Franzen
Great American Novel by the great white hope of American literature. It being one of my favourite reads this year doesn’t stop it from winning my special award for the most overrated book of 2010. Don’t get me wrong, this story of a family in freefall is a great read, but don’t believe the hype. It’s not the best novel ever written. Nor is the novel of the century. It isn’t even the best novel published in 2010 (for my money that goes to Mitchell’s ‘Thousand Autumns’).
In a Strange Room – Damon Galgutt
Another book that bends genres, Galgutt’s book is part-memoir, part short fiction collection, part travelogue. It was also up for the Booker this year which somehow makes it a novel. Whatever it is, it is a compelling read. I downloaded the sample on my Kindle when the Booker list was announced and read it only planning to have a taste. Once I got to the end of the sample I promptly downloaded the entire book. Galgutt’s retelling of three different journeys in the company of three very different people is gripping in its honesty and playful in its use of language, with Galgutt shifting pronouns, sometimes even midsentence, to make the reader truly reflect on the nature of memory and how we build stories of ourselves in our heads. This was the book I wanted to win the Booker after reading Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ left me a little disappointed.
In Search of Adam – Caroline Smailes
2010 was the year I discovered Caroline Smailes’ novels. While I have yet to read her more recent work, they are loaded on my Kindle ready, I did get round to reading ‘In Search of Adam,’ and it was easily the most harrowing and challenging book I read this year. It was also one of the most honestly heartbreaking stories I have ever read. The themes of the book (abuse, infant mortality, and the fragility of childhood) mean this book will not be for everybody, but it is a book that deserves to be read. Yes, it is an unflinchingly harsh world that the narrator Jude inhabits, but it is also a harsh world we live in. If writers avoid dealing with difficult themes then who will. This is an important, powerful novel that truly does what a good novel should, gives us a window into another world while telling a compelling and important story.
The best of my reading for my soon to be complete Short Story Challenge, in extracts from the reviews I wrote throughout the year:
The Girl In The Flammable Skirt – Aimee Bender
Marzipan – my favourite of the collection. A magical realist take on the effects of grief, we meet a couple, both recently bereaved, the husband having lost his father, the wife having lost her mother. He wakes up one day and finds a hole in his stomach, right through like a doughnut hole. She finds herself suddenly pregnant. What follows is narrated by their youngest daughter who watches everything with the clarity of a child. I won’t say more about the plot as it just gets weirder and more wonderful from this point on and any more details would spoil it. Oh and this deeply touching story has my favourite Aimee Bender metaphor in it:
‘…my father rested his hand on the top of my head – the heaviest, best hat.
The Exclamation Mark – Anton Chekhov
A recent translation of stories written by Chekhov in a six month period early in his career between the end of December 1885 and the end of Jun 1886. The stories are presented in chronological order and clearly show the rapid development of his short fiction writing during this time. What is most striking though is how contemporary many of the stories in this collection feel, despite describing Russian society and customs of well over a century ago. Chekhov’s timeless themes coupled with Rosamund Bartlett’s superlative translation help make this collection of early writings feel as fresh as the day they were penned.
My favourite Chekhov story, Grief, (the title usually translated as Misery) is included, a beautiful and haunting description of a man’s grief over the recent loss of his son.
Instruction Manual For Swallowing – Adam Marek
The often excellent and always interesting debut collection from Adam Marek. There are some absolutely blinding stories here, featuring such disparate subjects as robot wasps, a woman pregnant with 37 babies, a restaurant for zombies, and a pet shop where every pet is measured by volume.
The collection has many high points and largely manages to maintain this level of work, though, inevitably, a few stories fall short in the face of the truly exceptional ones. I suppose it says a lot about me as a writer as much as a reader that I enjoyed the more emotional stories, the most striking of which being those where the emotional core merged seamlessly with the more outlandish ideas; Belly Full of Rain, Testicular Cancer vs The Behemoth and Meaty’s Boys.
What We Talk About When We Talk about Love/Beginners – Raymond Carver
I read Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Love,’ alongside the original unedited versions of the stories published two decades after Carver’s death in the collection ‘Beginners.’ The level of editing of Carver’s stories undertaken by Gordon Lish has long been the subject of literary debate, but it isn’t until you read the stories in tandem that the effect of the changes truly becomes apparent.
The end notes of ‘Beginners’ reveal the extent to which Lish cut the original texts with anything from 27% to 78% cut from any given story. The minimalist, pared down style the stories were praised for upon publication of the original collection seem as much a product of Lish’s editing as Carver’s ability to carve ‘stark and unadorned prose-objects, paring away everything but the very core of human emotion’ (Tim O’Brien, Chicago Tribune).
As I read the stories in pairs, moving from the Lish edited collection to the original stories and back again I developed a preference for the leaner, meaner versions found in ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.’ The original stories contain all the elements of the edited versions, but the extension of certain passages and, in the cases of the more heavily edited stories, whole additional swathes of narrative action seem to dilute the power and point of the key sections focused on in the Lish edits.
Not So Perfect – Nik Perring
Absence is a key theme in many of the stories (Sobs, Say My Name, The Angel In The Car Park, Number 14 most notably) with characters yearning for some sort of connection (Watching/Listening, Bare and Naked in Siberia, My Heart’s in a Box, The Mechanical Woman) but these are not despairing tales of woe. Each story is garlanded with striking imagery and precise and often beautiful prose, creating something to be treasured in amongst the heartache, whether it’s the impermanent simplicity of a snow angel or the pure emotion that would drive someone to plaster a house in post-it notes.
The Nimrod Flipout – Etgar Keret
With such a large number of stories within its covers, it should be no surprise that I found some more enjoyable than others. Many of Keret’s tales feature wonderfully imaginative ideas and it just such stories that are my favourites. ‘Pride and Joy’ with the delightful conceit of parents shrinking as their child grows is a sparky, touching look at how parents give of themselves so their children can flourish and is easily the best thing of Keret’s I have read. ‘Bottle,’ ‘Fatso,’ ‘Second Chance,’ ‘Your Man,’ and ‘For only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)’ all benefit from a similar playfulness with realism.
And that’s the best of my year’s fiction reading. Is there anything you read this year worth recommending?