My 2015 end of year write-up is divided into two parts. The first is some reflections on my reading habits and how they’re affected by time pressures, which you can skip if you just want to get to the list itself.
I don’t have an apposite image for this post as it’s not a review of a single book. I thought therefore I’d include the poster for what was probably my favourite film of those I saw in 2015:
When I wrote up my 2014 end of year review I found myself complaining once again of having read fewer books than I’d hoped. It struck me afterwards that while it had seemed to me 2014 had been particularly bad, in fact dissatisfaction with how much I’d managed to read was an annual refrain. A key goal for me in 2015 was fixing that.
One of the advantages of having a blog is it gives you moderately hard numbers on what you’ve read during its life. Only moderately, as while I blog pretty much every novel I read I only tend to write-up shorter works if I think there’s something interesting to say about them (I just don’t have time to write-up every short story I read much as I might like to). In addition, there’s been a couple of times I’ve had too big a review backlog and have had to skip a couple of reviews (though I keep note of them in case I get a chance at a later date). Still, overall, counting my posts gives me a pretty good sense of how much I’m reading.
Back in 2009 I read around 56 books. Skip forward to 2012 and I’ve slipped down to somewhere between 30 and 40 books. By 2013 I’ve only read 32 books and in 2014 again it’s 32 books. Admittedly some of them were chunksters, but even so that’s not great.
I carried out that analysis around the beginning of 2015, and it shook me up a little. I’m busy, but not more so than in 2009. The issue isn’t free time. The issue is prioritisation. What changed between 2009 and 2014 wasn’t how much time I had to read, but how much time I used on other stuff.
The decline in my reading dates roughly to when I got an iPad and started watching tv shows on my commute home. It aligns too with my getting into the habit, when tired of an evening, to watch an episode of a show I’m following rather than to read a little. Basically, it ties to my taking time away from reading and putting it instead towards tv. It’s pretty much that simple.
There’s nothing wrong with tv. It’s a valid artistic medium, and if (as I do) you actively choose what you watch then I don’t see it as necessarily more passive than any other art form one might enjoy. Still, since I found myself each year disgruntled at not having read more that did raise questions about whether I was using my time well.
The result was that in 2015 I tried to make a more conscious effort to make time for reading. That meant cutting back a bit on other interests, but the truth is if you’ve got a full-time job you just don’t have time for all the things you might enjoy. I don’t play computer games much any more – I didn’t have time for that and films and tv shows and reading and other interests all of which come after family time and have to come after work. Something had to give, and that’s ok.
At the end of 2015 I’d read around 50 books. That number could still be better, but it’s a hell of an improvement over 32. I’d made a choice over the past few years to watch more tv instead of reading without realising what I’d done. Once I noticed, I made a conscious choice to the contrary and the result is I’m a lot happier writing up this year’s list than in the past couple of years writing up the preceding lists.
2015- prize categories and winners
This year the books are in roughly chronological order based on when I read them, save for my favourite book of 2015 which I’ve put right at the end (which I guess tells you that I didn’t read it in December).
Best overlooked impressionistic Modernist classic that hardly anyone seems to actually read: Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. Arguably Mrs Dalloway is the better novel, but Jacob’s Room was my first Woolf and I loved it. Woolf seems to me a writer more referenced than read, overshadowed by the endless praise for Beckett and Joyce. Her prose though is exquisite, and yet her novels are still effortlessly readable and not precious at all. Woolf is one of my great discoveries of 2015.
Best wryly intelligent hyper-contemporary novel written in the second person: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Being honest this almost got cut, as with more books read this past year the competition is fiercer. When I looked back at the year though it still stood out as fresh, original and ambitious. Hamid doesn’t get the critical attention I feel he deserves and while I doubt one end of year blog post will do much to change that he still deserves a place on the list.
Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men was also a candidate on the hyper-contemporary front (if not on the second person front, but that’s pretty much Hamid’s thing). It’s a fascinating and enjoyable novel and on another day it could easily have squeezed out the Hamid.
Interestingly, both Hamid and Kunzru seem to me to be writing with an almost SFnal sensibility, which may in part be why both seem so good at capturing that sense of the contemporary that I think most novelists miss (usually in fairness as they’re not aiming for it). Both are fairly close to me in age, Hamid has a background in corporate law and Kunzru like me is a Londoner born and bred so perhaps it’s not surprising I find resonances in both their work. They’re both writing about worlds I recognise.
Best 500+ page novel structured around a train journey: Zone, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell). This was a candidate for my best novel of the year, but ultimately only came third in that category. It stands out however for its depth, its structural cleverness (without being off-putting), its rhythm and momentum and for its sheer bloody size. I’m looking forward to my next Enard, and I’m looking forward to it being shorter too.
Best absolutely delicious sun-washed novel somewhat reminiscent of a nouvelle vague movie: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (translated by Irene Ash, though apparently the Heather Lloyd translation is better). I just loved this. The image of Cécile eating an orange while drinking a scaldingly hot cup of coffee remains with me. A gorgeous novel.
Best Californian first person narrative: Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker. Dorothy Baker takes that old standby, the well-off family in crisis, and manages to do something interesting with it. There’s a lovely use of twins and parallels; subtle structural complexities that don’t need to be noticed to be effective; and a narrative drive which made me at least want to know how it would all turn out (impressive given the novel hasn’t much of a plot).
Best novel restoring my faith in Proust: Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust (Kilmartin and Moncrieff translation). I struggled a bit with The Guermantes Way, so it was an utter relief to find Sodom and Gomorrah such a wonderful read. It’s funny, yet as perceptive as ever. Only Proust can cover grief, sexual obsession, forbidden desire and garden party comedy all in the same book (though it helps he has so many pages in which to cover it all of course …) Looking back on my year, this was literally the only book I read in April 2015. It took me over a month to finish, but it was more than worth it.
Best short story collection featuring Cornish folklore: Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood. This is just a marvellously inventive short story collection, rooted in place and yet unconstrained by the puritan realism of so much literary fiction. It was one of the first books to come to mind when I started thinking what would be on this list, and while it wasn’t in the top three for the year it is so refreshing and so enjoyable that I couldn’t ignore it. Look for Karen Lord to occupy this spot next year, save that her book’s not a short story collection and isn’t set in Cornwall.
Best novel in which basically nothing happens and where everyone is really rather nice: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. Nice is such a damning word. When I was a teenager and later when dating the worst word you could ever hear applied to you from a woman was nice. Nobody wanted to be nice. Nice means safe, unexceptionable, unexciting. Nice is your ticket to indifference at worst, tepid friendship at best.
Blessings though is a nice novel, and it’s a nice novel filled with largely nice people. The challenges its characters face aren’t terribly serious and nothing too bad is likely to happen to any of them. Despite that it’s a wonderful read and a comic delight (it’s the kind of novel that asks for phrases like comic delight, I’m not sure why, tradition I guess). It’s charming, and charm isn’t something there’s so much of that it should be lightly disregarded.
Best reinvention of narrative: Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector (translated by Ben Moser). This did make it into my top three for the year, edging out Zone to take the number two spot. No small achievement given it’s literally less than a fifth the length of Zone. For all that size disparity Hour is ingenious, challenging, masterful in its command of language and generally is just exceptional. A truly amazing novel.
Best novel set in early 20th Century Vienna: Master of the Day of Judgment, Leo Perutz. Oddly enough, if I ran this category exactly as worded over the whole history of this blog it would probably be one of the most contested. An incredible place and time for quality literature. I found this wonderfully clever and even audacious. For much of it I wasn’t even quite sure what genre I was in: crime or horror (or both?) Pushkin have turned me into a Perutz fan, and I’m seriously looking forward to their next by him.
Best novel about being a woman in 1920s Paris with your looks fading and no certain income: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, by Jean Rhys. Rhys pretty much always wins this category to be fair. There’s a cold clarity to Rhys’ prose and an honesty to her gaze which makes Rhys just a marvel: you feel the impact but it’s hard to say quite how she achieves it. She’s easily one of my favourite authors.
And finally, drumroll please.
Best novel of 2015: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. This was actually the first novel I read in 2015, and here after the year’s ended it remains the best. It’s just extraordinary. A densely murky yet brilliantly written unreliable narrative where everything is “all a darkness”. This is a novel which not only could bear rereading, but which demands it (not that I have yet). Superb.
What else? I’ve not included Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon as it was a reread, but it was a bloody good reread. Otherwise, I’ve cheated a bit above by including links to the Kunzru but I was struggling between that and the Hamid. Even with that little bit of fudging I’ve omitted books which could easily in another year have made the list (Open City leaps to mind, which is genuinely excellent and might well have appeared above if I’d written this on a different day; similarly William Golding’s The Inheritors with its dazzling evocation of the internal experience of Neanderthal man).
In all truth Open City and The Inheritors probably have better cause to be on the list above than say the Hamid or the Wood. Both the Cole and the Golding are superbly well written: the Cole daringly undermines itself and risks entirely losing the reader’s sympathy; the Golding takes huge risks in terms of language and subject. In the end, however, it’s my list and an emotional response is as valid as any other. Perhaps it’s the best response.
Right, now that this is written I’m finally free to see what others put in their end of year lists. Hopefully at least a few books I overlooked, some of which will may end up on my 2016 list as I catch up. Thanks as ever to everyone who bothers to read the blog, and thanks too to all those who maintain their own blogs and keep my to be read pile ever longer than my managed to read pile.