I didn’t read a lot of books in 2014, fewer than ever I suspect, but I did read some damn good ones and a fair few chunksters so the year certainly wasn’t all bad. The biggest impact on my reading in 2014 was from #readwomen2014, so I’ve divided this post into two parts first considering how that campaign affected me and then setting out my personal best books of the year.
As best I can tell that poster was inspired by the film, rather than being used to actually market it, but who cares? It’s a wonderful piece of design. It also bears no connection to anything in this post.
I posted originally about the #readwomen2014 campaign here, back in April when it first caught my attention. It made me realise how disproportionately I read books by men, with only 14% of the authors on my kindle being female. A statistic that stark demanded a little reflection on my part, and my goal with #readwomen2014 was to try to rebalance my reading and to find some hopefully new favourite authors who I’d been unconsciously overlooking.
On a personal level #readwomen2014 was a huge success. I finally read Eleanor Catton, whose work I loved. I read more Abbott, Winterson and Didion; my first (but I hope not last) of each of Martha Baillie, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Enright, Amy Sackville and Claudia Piñeiro. I read literary fiction, crime, SF, essays, there wasn’t a single time when I felt like a particular type of book and couldn’t easily find an example of it by an author I could trust.
None of that surprised me. What did surprise me though was that as the year progressed I started to feel slightly left out of what I tend to think of as the literary conversation. By that I mean the world of newspaper reviews, twitter, the blogosphere, the places I go to read about and discuss books. For me there’s an ongoing discussion between readers, publishers, authors and critics where we share our sense of achievement or excitement at new reads and new discoveries.
Women are well represented in that conversation, though perhaps more often as bloggers than as professional reviewers. Women authors though began to seem less so. The books that were getting the most attention, the most hype, were mainly (Jenny Offill being an obvious exception) by men. I was trying to read books by women, but to do so meant relying less on newspaper and journal reviews because they didn’t seem so interested in what women were writing.
What I’m reporting here is really a sense of distance, a feeling that the more I spent time reading books by women the less I was part of a conversation that was largely about men. It’s an odd feeling, and not a particularly pleasant one. It’s a sensation though that has some statistical backing, thanks to the US campaign Vida. This page shows a US-focused pie chart for 2013 showing reviews of books by men (red) against books by women (blue). 2013 was actually a pretty good year for women in this sense, the chart for 2012 is much worse.
I think we are seeing some progress in this area, not least because of campaigns like #readwomen2014 and Vida, but not enough. It’s noticeable if you spend any time on the blogosphere how much more diverse it is than the literary pages. Women writers aren’t sidelined and books in translation get covered far more with the overall result being that significantly more voices are heard.
The blogosphere though, much as I’m fond of it (and I am after all part of it) is vastly less important than the newspaper and journal review pages, and is completely ignored by the bulk of the reading public. Professional book review pages still matter, but there’s scope for most of them to be a lot better.
My favourite books of 2014
These are in a very, very rough order of increasing preference, though no great weight should be put on exact positions and on a different day I’d probably swap some of them around. The further down the list, the more it’s stuck with me.
Best novel about adultery and economic collapse featuring a protagonist who’s more likable than she has any right to be: The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright. I hummed and hawed a bit about whether to include this one or not, but in the end I thought it captured something of the feeling of living in a boom time that few novels manage, and at the same time it managed to make that most tired of literary subjects adultery actually interesting. Suggestions for other Enrights to try would be welcome.
Best piece of sheer and utter schlock that really shouldn’t be on this list if I have any pride in myself or this blog at all but I still liked it so here it is: The Devil Rides Out, by Denis Wheatley. What can I say? There’s a reason this man sold so many books. This isn’t remotely literary. It’s dated, the style is meat-and-potatoes plain writing with no frills and it’s snobbish to a level that makes Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust look like Marxists.
Despite all those actually fairly serious flaws I really enjoyed this. It’s preposterous, yet somehow while you’re reading it Wheatley makes you suspend a mountain of disbelief just long enough for it all to be a lot of fun. I’ve always loved pulp, and this is good pulp.
Best essay about getting a Kindle: I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant. This is a slightly odd inclusion, but Linda Grant’s essay about how she came to dispose of most of her books and grew to love her Kindle struck a lot of chords with me and got me thinking about my own relationship with books as objects and the way how I’d like to buy books differs from how I actually buy them. I think it’s an interesting read for anyone who loves books, which is anyone reading this, but perhaps fittingly it’s only available on Kindle.
Best novel using crime as a vehicle for social critique: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France. A tremendous examination of social tensions in Argentina and quite how ugly things can get when the money’s gone, all through the lens of a prestigious gated community. This is a fascinating novel in a great translation and one I’m really grateful to Guy Savage for pointing me towards.
Best melancholic novel which I found quite sad even though it’s been widely reviewed as a biting black satire: Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen. This fell into my period when I just got swamped in work and fell badly behind on the blog, so I haven’t written it up yet.
It’s in part a satire on the UK publishing scene and the sheer oddity of promoting books by having authors, generally not the most outgoing of individuals, read out bits of their books to audiences mostly composed of people either already in the publishing business or wanting to be in it; in part a series of comic interactions between Paul Ewen’s drunk and slightly delusional Francis Plug alter-ego with various Booker-prize winning novelists; and in part too a critique of contemporary UK culture and the utilitarian value we place on art.
Best novel by Eleanor Catton that’s not The Luminaries: The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. I loved this. I loved its tricksy nature, the absolute skill with which it’s put together and the fact that I never knew quite what I was reading. It’s an exceptionally accomplished first novel, and on its own catapulted Catton into my personal “writers to watch” category.
Best novel that if I didn’t like it I’d be thrown out of the Modernist-novel-liking community: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Being honest, this is a novel I respect more than love, but I do respect it a great deal. It’s tremendously well written and structured, has passages of great beauty and power, and could repay reread after reread with more to find each time.
It’s also though written in the context of a social and historical milieu so specific that chunks of the novel are fairly hard to understand without having first read some background notes. While I don’t think this would ever have been an accessible novel, its connection to such a specific place and time has made it now fairly difficult for reasons largely unconnected to its style, which perhaps helps explain why it’s a book more studied than read.
Best what exactly was that about again?: The Yips, by Nicola Barker. The last book I read in 2014, but definitely a good one. This is one of those Marmite novels which either resonate with you immediately or which will be extremely annoying. I find myself reaching not only for the obvious words like funny, but also for words like luxurious, abundant, fecund even. I’m not quite sure what that means I’m saying about it, but since I’m not quite sure what it was about either I think that’s ok.
Best novel I can’t help but love and why would I want not to?: Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell. This is just an utter delight. It’s a spoof crime novel with possibly the worst amateur detective in the history of fiction as its lead. It’s warm, funny, charming, skilfully written and observed and just generally an absolute joy.
Truth be told I probably have more affection for this than any other book on the list – it’s that sort of novel. It’s also the second Argentinian novel on this year’s list which is interesting. Looking back it reminds me slightly of Szerb in style, which is about as high praise as I can imagine.
Best clean-lined novel filled with empty spaces: Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion. Ok, we’re into the seriously good stuff here. Didion’s novel is a cocaine-blast of light and nothingness, a marvel of haunting and arid beauty. As I think about it now my mind’s filled with imagery of deserts, identikit motel rooms, snakes, a car racing down highways insulated from heat and life and mess but never insulated enough. This is intensely cinematic; a book that’s learned the language of film in an utterly different way to that used by Döblin in his Berlin Alexanderplatz but which is just as effective, perhaps more so.
Best novel featuring over a 100 pages on a single dinner party, observing it in slower than real-time glory: The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright. This was a serious challenge. The first half, while necessary, is a slog. It pays off, but you work to get there.
Proust continues to have moments of incredible insight. The depiction of the narrator’s grandmother’s death is awful because it’s so ordinary and so sad as she becomes lost to her illness long before she’s actually gone. Equally, the dawning realisation that the Guermantes and their world may not hold up to close scrutiny, that what was worthy of worship from a distance seems all too human close up, is brilliantly realised. Proust remains for me among the greatest of authors, not least because his subject matter is so very specific and yet somehow within it he finds all humanity.
Best ancient Greek epic which I’ve read now three or four times and yet which never pales in interest or excitement: The Iliad, by Homer and translated by Richard Lattimore. This is another one that fell into my review black hole when work swallowed me, so the writeup’s still outstanding. This though is a high quality muscular translation with a real feel for poetic rhythm and a genuine sense of the epic. It’s a fluid and rewarding read, powerful and resonant and while I can’t say if it’s the best translation out there (views differ) it’s a bloody good one on any account.
If you’ve not read The Iliad you really should (and it’s the only book on this list I say that of). Even after 3,000 years this remains an exciting and essential text packed with humanity. The older I get the more tragic I find this, the senseless waste of years and lives for so little point or gain.
Best faux-19th Century novel undermining its own narrative concepts and also my best novel of 2014: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Just wonderful. This is an intricately structured novel capable of being read on multiple levels every one of which is rewarding. It’s filled with rich characters and descriptions, the prose is dense and satisfying and the whole book just shines with intelligence and the comfort that comes from reading an author absolutely in control of their material.
And that’s it! Not a bad list even if it wasn’t the best year. 2015 currently promises to be much better though, getting off to a roaring start with incredibly impressive books like The Good Soldier and Jacob’s Room. I enjoyed Hamid’s How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and look forward to his next, and so far at least I’m hugely impressed by Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.
I’ll end though on a book that I think I read in late 2013, but it’s hard now to tell. For some reason it didn’t get included in my 2013 list, so I’ll mention it here as a final category at the end, a sort of lifetime achievement award. Here it is:
Best novel set in a roadside diner: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. Classic noir, tautly written and effortlessly quotable. If you have any interest in noir fiction at all then this is just a must-read. Also a strong contender in the best novel about people making truly bad choices category. No idea why I overlooked it last year.