Ian Curtin’s end of year list – guest post

I recently saw Ian Curtin post some highlights of his reading year on Twitter. It was a really great list and it occurred to me that it was easily missed by anyone who didn’t happen to be on Twitter when he posted his thoughts (or at all) which seemed a shame, so I asked Ian if he wanted to write a guest post so people had another chance to see them. Everything that follows the sub-header below is Ian:

Ian’s 2016 end of year list

My contribution to the end-of-year book list is more in the line of highlights rather than a “best of” – things that made a particular impact on me, that still resonate, or that have lead me off in a particular (hopefully new) direction. Things that surprised or delighted.

I tweeted these out a few days ago, and Max very kindly offered me a guest post here at Pechorin’s Journal to share them in maybe a little more of a thoughtful manner than Twitter allows. I won’t alter the list (much) but I am conscious that there’s an element of unfairness – some fine, very high quality books don’t get mentioned that perhaps would if this was just “best of”. Can’t be helped. I guess if I want to opine on everything through the year I’ll have to start my own blog.

Short Stories

I have fallen into the habit of reading a collection as my first book each year, and I knew when I bought it a few months previously that A Manual for Cleaning Women would be my first of 2016. It was a marvel that did not disappoint. Two elements make Berlin’s book stay in mind – the writing, which is by turns harsh, unsparing, funny, gentle and melancholy; and the context, which is of such a fine writer labouring in relative obscurity before a seemingly miraculous rediscovery. The latter is something I find both immensely depressing but also pleasing. The work is so transparently wrung from her own life, with such skill and need, that you wish she had been able to see the pleasure her rediscovery has given to readers.

A couple of other collections stood out for me: The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald, because she produces such seemingly effortless and controlled writing, which very precisely describes situations of immense drama and turmoil; and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh which was so unsettling and fractured in its style and tone. I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed Vertigo, or not all of it, but it’s the most original and challenging thing I came across this year (and recalls Pond for anyone who has read that).

Honourable mentions must also go to the playful Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan and the marvellously ominous Pre-War House & Other Stories by Alison Moore.

Novels

Most of the books I read are novels – in some form. Some flirt with memoir and biography, some are angrily denounced as pseudo-short story collections, some up-end form and convention, some are just “long single stories told to the end.” What makes them memorable? I think for me they have to have something different about their form, something tricksy, or a game the writer plays, something that forces me to trust and go with the writer. That said, I will always enjoy a good tale as it scrolls past the reading mind. But what I wanted to pick here were things that jumped out at me and made me think.

First I chose The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkhai (translated by the marvellous George Szirtes). This is my second foray into the dense, complete worlds created by K’s early style (his more recent books seem to be quite different) and as with Sátántangó this is a book that the reading of is a genuine experience, something that “happens” to you. It’s impossible not to get wrapped into the folds and slithers of the vast tranches of text that K unrolls, the bleak landscapes, the obsessed and unstable characters, the ambiguous and threatening situations. When I think back to reading this book, the picture in my mind is of me staring off into space, following the writing somewhere in my own thoughts. What a rare state! And yet it is by turns also extremely funny, and despite K’s reputation for endless convolutions of sentence and paragraph, I found I flew through it. Even if his other books fail to land entirely with me, these two will always be part of my evolving canon.

Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is a very different book – and Kang has been so widely read and praised that is seems a little superfluous to add my own small paean. It’s a really affecting novel, about power and survival, and I loved it for two reasons. Firstly, it did give the vaunted “window into a new world” of an event in Korean history that I was entirely ignorant of. Secondly it is told in a manner that is itself arresting, and marries form and intent in a manner that is very satisfying. (Perhaps an unfair comparison: I finished the similarly constructed Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and thought – great, but so what? Whereas I finished this and thought – wow.) It is also in places harsh, unflinching and tough to read.

Final mentions for 10:04 by Ben Lerner and Outline by Rachel Cusk. Everyone in 2016 has moved onto to Cusk’s next book, Transit, which following this I am immensely looking forward to. Of this book, I must admit its chief value (for me) is that it has totally flipped my view of Cusk, to the point I want to read all her stuff (and, I suppose, make my own judgement on the books that attracted so much negativity earlier in her career). This one is fabulous: judgemental, revealing, honest – perfect. Lerner’s book seems to me to be both sly and knowing and warm and personal. It’s brilliant – funny, immensely interesting about his writing life, has an engaging plot (of sorts), is a New York novel par excellence, and has shed the sneer that I thought was a key flaw in Atocha Station. Recalling the episodes and tone makes me want to re-read it.

Honourable mentions to David Szalay’s noxious blast of consumerism and hangovers, London and the South East, and to a title rescued from an “unjustly neglected” list about ten years ago, The Balloonist by Macdonald Harris, which covers the tired old ground of polar exploration and identity-swapping in the 19th century.

Crime

Is it fair to separate “crime” from “novels”? Probably not. But good crime does something different from the whole other family of novels I read – and I allow things in it I wouldn’t swallow elsewhere. Black Wings Has My Angel was the standout here – incidentally, another book “rescued” after its writer, Elliot Chaze, had slipped into disgruntled obscurity. Guy alerted me to this one, and as with so many of his recommendations, this hits the mark – the crime is just a framework for a tale of cruelty, mistrust and strange, violent love.

History, Reportage….Other Stuff

Can’t bring myself to say “non-fiction” somehow. Anyway.

Two books immensely relevant to the events that have unfolded in the US this year – Battle Cry of Freedom, a single-volume account of the Civil War; and Ghettoside, a monument through reporting to the epidemic of black male gun violence and how US society perceives and handles it. Appreciate people are sick of all this stuff by now, but these are both magnificent and sadly illuminating books.

Two accounts of crime and aftermath – This House of Grief by Helen Garner, about a terrible domestic murder (as these all are when a light is shone on them) and how the legal process struggles to put order on our messes; and One of Us by Åsne Seierstad, which documents Breivik’s appalling hate crime and incidentally makes a pretty compelling case for why unacceptable racist propaganda should not be allowed roam free across traditional or digital media.

Finally, a book that veers between comedy, farce and ultimately something much darker, The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons, a biography of the vexing Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo and a writer and personality of unusual extremes.

That’s it – thanks to Max for letting me ramble on – thank you to all bloggers and tweeps for the suggestion, inspiration and discussion – hope 2017 is a rich reading year for everyone.

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8 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

8 responses to “Ian Curtin’s end of year list – guest post

  1. This really is a brilliant list so thanks both for it!

  2. It is, isn’t it?

    I liked Atocha, but it’s fair to say not everyone did. I’ve read Cusk’s Arlington Park which I actually thought rather good. It’s fair to say Cusk has her critics, but I was a bit surprised how many given she clearly does have real talent.

  3. Big time. Ghettoside, One of Us, Manual For Cleaning Women, Outline, 10:04…all books I really appreciated. And a few others to add to the list.

    It still surprises me how much antipathy there is for Lerner, but there you go…

    I think Cusk is a very interesting writer indeed and her last two books are nothing at all like the rest of her work (should any of it put anyone off).

  4. I’m very glad you did this, Max. I briefly saw the list and wanted to know more. It’s a terrific list. I read one if Cusk’s earlier novels and loved it. It was so much better than critics said. I got Manual for Cleaning Women and I’m pretty certain I’ll love it. I gave to finish a couple if other collections first but then I’ll pick this. Black Wings Has My Angel is another one Inwantbto read. Thanks for the post, Ian.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this! Always happy to see Brautigan getting some love – he’s one of my all-time favourite authors!

  6. Agreed: terrific list. Appreciated the point about Lerner’s sneer: that’s the reason I couldn’t finish Atocha. I get it’s the character’s and not the author’s, but it just wasn’t working for me, even though I also appreciated aspects of the book. Makes me think I need to check out 10:04.
    Basically, these all sound great. I’ve got the Fitzgerald on my TBR pile: sounds like I should move that up.

  7. A most enjoyable post – thanks, both. I have the Chaze just waiting to be read – one for a dark winter’s night, I think. The Fitzgerald sounds excellent too. That might have to wait a while as I already have a mini pile of her books at home, but it’s good to know there’s more to look forward to. I’m sorry to say that I bailed on Cusk’s Outline when I tried it earlier this year as it just wasn’t flying for me. Maybe I wasn’t in the ‘right’ frame of mind at the time – it was someone else’s choice for our book group, so I had to read it in a particular month whether I wanted to or not! Anyway, your comments (along with high praise from other trusted readers) leave me feeling that I may have missed out on something special there…

  8. Thanks for the mention Ian. Black Wings Has My angel is something very special. The film is supposedly in development. Don’t know if it will ever see the light of day–let alone be worthy of its source material

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