The best books of 2007
So who are 2007's literary winners? Our critics nominate the novels, histories, polemics and biographies that have captivated and enthralled them. It's been a great year for humour and fiction, but it's not looking good for God...
Sunday 30 December 2007
The Claude Glass by Tom Bullough (Sort of) is the account of the relationship between two small boys in the Radnorshire mountains. The still young author beautifully suggests the cultural heritage and encumbrances of each while setting them against an intimately evoked landscape and a subtly complex rural community. Morten Ramsland's Doghead, translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally (Doubleday), has been a huge international success. The story of three generations, beginning in Norway before World War Two and ending in present-day Denmark, it combines rambunctiousness, salty humour and poetic imagination. I hope Britain will give it full hospitality.
I was utterly captivated by Ali Smith's reworking of the myth of Iphis, Girl Meets Boy (Canongate) not least for its vivid realisation of Inverness and of a contemporary business there, the Pure Water Company, both contexts for its touching, rhapsodic love-story. Black Mass by John Gray (Allen Lane) is outstanding for its sanity in its analyses of contemporary movements singularly lacking in this. "The myth of the End has caused untold suffering," he warns, exhorting us to steer our lives by those myths which value humankind rather than encourage division within it.
For anyone who feels choked by the creepers of anti-religious polemic, Darwin's Angel: An angelic response to 'The God Delusion' (Profile) by John Cornwell should prove a keen machete. So incensed was the prickly prof on reading this wise and surprisingly gentle rebuff that he accused its author of a lack of integrity. What a surprise.
Rarely does a modern translation of a Celtic classic surpass its predecessors, but Ciaran Carson's superb version of the great Irish epic The Tain (Penguin) soars above even Thomas Kinsella's, an acknowledged classic. Blood and gore galore abound, and it is as funny as it is poignant.
My two favourite novels were Darkmans by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate) and My Tango With Barbara Strozzi (Bloomsbury) by the gloriously prolific Russell Hoban. I have a theory that funny books never win the Man Booker and Barker is very funny as well as darkly observant. Russell Hoban is quite simply a wizard, as all right-thinking readers know.
Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill (Serpent's Tail): Andy McNab couldn't have invented this prescient tale of the private army of mercenaries run by a Christian conservative millionaire who, in turn, bankrolls the president. A chilling expose of the ultimate military outsource.
Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (Viking): the repetitious horrors of office life, American-style, written in first person plural. Nothing too profound here, but it makes you want to fire yourself and run far away to live on an island.
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (Orion): Detective Dave Robicheaux searches for a vigilante in the devastated remains of New Orleans after the destruction of Katrina has replaced law and order with anarchy. This is Burke's finest hour, although a little prior knowledge of his hero is required.
Britain's Lost Cities by Gavin Stamp (Aurum): What the Luftwaffe couldn't do, the town planners managed. This coffee-table chronicle of the destruction of Britain's city centres is less about nostalgia than corporate ineptitude on a national scale.
Joshua Spassky by Gwendoline Riley (Cape) was my favourite book of the year. Riley is a contemporary Carson McCullers, whose dissections of the difficulties of romantic love between creative autodidactics just get better and better. Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson (Bloomsbury) was passed over by the Man Booker committee but acknowledged by the Costa prize. A powerful account of a policeman watching over Myra Hindley's body during one long lonely evening, it's his most powerful novel yet. Memphis Underground by Stewart Home (Snowbooks) was the funniest literary novel I read all year, and the most enjoyable. In spite of his reputation as an avant-garde prankster, Home's work is growing increasingly accessible, and wickedly entertaining.
The acclaimed novelist Tessa Hadley shows that the short story is thriving in Sunstroke (Cape), a delicately observed collection of memory and accidental desire, written in her habitual cool, elegant prose. Eagerly awaited, the Letters of Ted Hughes, ed Christopher Reid (Faber), are a revelation: visceral, tender, slightly barking, yet endlessly fascinating and quotable, whether Hughes is recounting a recent fishing trip or dissecting the corpus of a poem. Catherine O'Flynn's debut novel, What Was Lost (Tindal Street), a poignant tale of urban disaffection, has justifiably won critical plaudits and been shortlisted for several major awards. It reads as freshly as it did at the beginning of the year. Lastly, War and Peace's newest translators, the peerless Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage), do for Tolstoy what they have already done for Gogol and Bulgakov.
What's happened this year? Literary bright young things continue to reinvent the wheel only more squarely. Dull books about sharks are described as shockingly clever. But all is not lost. Nicola Barker's spiked prose and narrative experiments may not be to everyone's taste, but Darkmans is a big, brave novel. A book full of ghosts; a haunting, haunted story that's far too uncanny for any panel of prize givers. If you genuinely love exciting, passionate writing, Helene Cixous's Insister of Jacques Derrida (Edinburgh) has just arrived in the UK. A refusal to mourn her very close friend Derrida's death, it begins with a telling of a dream in which Derrida and Cixous feature as footballing mice. Should these titles look too much like hard work there's always Nikki Sixx's The Heroin Diaries: A year in the life of a shattered rock star (Simon & Schuster). Read what happened when the bassist/songwriter of Mtley Cre forgot to say no.
On grounds of sheer pleasure, Robert Harris's satirical thriller The Ghost (Hutchinson) is one of the few books I've read this year that I've wanted to press upon other people. My other choice, Skylark by Dezso ' Kosztolanyi (Central European University Press) is a tragic-comic portrait of small-town life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century, and the misery of having an ugly daughter (and being one). As painful as it is funny.
Confusingly titled, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone (Bloomsbury) is Rajiv Chandrasekaran's completely credible, almost unbelievable account of the American-led calamity of post-invasion Iraq. Certain writers are said to raise criticism to the level of art; in the hands of J M Coetzee criticism never attempts to be more than a rigorous and unforgiving scrutiny of the author or book under review. His latest collection of essays, Inner Workings (Harvill Secker), is both dry as dust and absolutely compelling.
Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton (Chatto) delivers her subject from Bloomsbury sniffiness, but also offers larky anecdotes about EW's motoring holidays with Henry James. (There's a sit-com format in there somewhere.) Daniel Kehlman's Measuring the World (Quercus) was a huge hit in his native Germany. It should have been here, too it's the funniest novel about a Swiss mathematician that you'll ever read. But the one that will stay with me is Arkady Babchenko's One Soldier's War in Chechnya (Portobello), the memoir of a Russian conscript who, on the battlefields of Grozny, saw open slave markets and crucified comrades, and learned to suck the marrow from dog-bones.
Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Picador): named after the famous photograph of a man forced to make the unimaginably horrific decision to jump, rather than burn to death in the World Trade Centre, this is a powerful but surprisingly subtle examination of lives in turmoil and freefall in the aftermath of 9/11.
In Defence of Atheism by Michel Onfray (Serpent's Tail): I found Dawkins's best-selling The God Delusion intellectually unsatisfying, since it appeared to be aimed at people who had never previously given much thought to the possible absence of a deity - Onfray takes a far more rigorous, philosophical stand against the modern resurgence of mass hysteria.
Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thomson: a brave delve into the depths of personal and societal morality, which leaves the reader, like a pot-holer, desperate for the hope of light or human contact.
Graham Robb's The Discovery of France (Picador) was one of the best books about France written in any year. It tells you everything the French themselves do not know about their own country. The closest I could find to a British version was by holding David Kynaston's excellent Austerity Britain (Bloomsbury) in one hand and a marvellous spoof, Le Dossier: How to survive the English (John Murray) by "Hortense de Montplaisir" in the other. My favourite new novel was Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey (Atlantic). Her study of a president's retainers held captive following a revolution is a delight and an education.
Jon Savage's magisterial Teenage: The creation of youth culture 1875-1945 (Chatto) marshalls and cajoles a huge body of research towards a shatteringly poignant and dramatic climax. David Kynaston's gloriously vivid Austerity Britain flavours its democratic vision of post-war Britain with tantalising foretastes of celebrity culture, by supplementing Mass Observation-style oral history with snippets from famous people's diaries (I especially liked the young John Betjeman's insistence that dwarfing St Paul's cathedral with two dozen new skyscrapers "would not take away from its beauty if they were beautiful themselves"). Finally, Julian Cope's life-affirmingly ludicrous Japrocksampler (Bloomsbury) illuminates the axis perspective on peacetime reconstruction, via some of the most gloriously gonzoid music journalism ever written by a musician.
Diary of a Bad Year by J M Coetzee: part autobiography, part novel, part polemic, and wholly intriguing.
Penguin's Poems for Life, ed Laura Barber (Penguin): a very good anthology around the stage's of life, thoughtfully collected
Weimar Germany: Promise and tragedy by Eric D Weitz (Princeton) explains in unexpected ways a lot about the rise of Nazism.
I loved Carol Birch's novel Scapegallows (Virago), with its vivid evocation of 18th century Suffolk. It's a beautifully written, lively and moving account of the life of Margaret Catchpole, a ploughman's daughter of legendary recklessness, passion and misplaced loyalty, who twice escaped the hangman's noose. Moving up the coast to Norfolk, and 200 years on, Jeremy Page's flavoursome debut novel Salt (Viking, 14.99) burrows into the loamy secrets of a half-crazy family of marsh dwellers near Blakeney. Deborah Robertson's elegiac first novel Careless (Sceptre), longlisted for the Orange Prize, examines grief and how we remember the dead, in a delicately penned story about lostchildren that's extraordinarily perceptive and somehow uplifting.
The gargantuan length of David Kynaston's Austerity Britain appears paradoxical given the book's subject matter: a study of postwar British austerity in which paper, among other things, was in short supply. But Kynaston writes brilliantly and readably. Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants (Fig Tree) was enjoyably innovative, turning Bloomsbury's famous households on their heads, and looking at them from the perspective of those who served, cleaned and cooked. Orlando Figes' The Whisperers (Allen Lane) is one of those books that's almost too painful to read. A haunting, pathbreaking study of what it was like to be an ordinary Soviet citizen under Stalin's regime.
Christopher Reid's selection of Ted Hughes's learned, eccentric, intense and sometimes just plain bonkers Letters was blockbuster readable, though we could have done with more about love affairs and less about Crow. Paper Houses (Virago), Michle Roberts's memoir of the free-spirited '70s, was deliciously fresh and funny, the story of a fledgling writer making her mark among the bra-less hordes. Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army (Faber), equally feminist but more fierce, was one of the stand-out novels of the year; the other was Scarlett Thomas's headspinning The End of Mr. Y (Canongate). Finally, Being Shelley by Ann Wroe (Chatto) was a brilliant experimental study of this quicksilver poet.
Alice McDermott's After This (Bloomsbury, 10.99) was unsurpassable in the beauty of its writing, a great work of art. A portrayal of the working class Irish-American Keane family that begins during the war and carries on through Vietnam, it's nevertheless a universal story, one that captures both the intimacies of family life as well as the distances. Two non-fiction books attracted me after the sudden death of my father this year: Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria (Oxford University Press, 18.99) and the erudite and touching Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve by US academic Sandra M. Gilbert (Norton). An attempt both to understand and come to terms with a loved one, as well as a magnificent cultural overview of the "death industry" and the apparent loss of the public elegy, this was by turns comforting and disturbing, but always fascinating.
Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin (Doubleday): some fans of Maupin's earlier Tales of the City books were put off by the first-person narrative, but for me it was perfectly tailored to this story of a gay survivor forced to choose between his biological and "logical" families.
Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett (Serpent's Tail): Beauty and the Beast re-imagined as a sexually repressed furrier and the Adonis who gets under his skin.
Fangland by John Marks (Vintage): the Dracula myth stalks Manhattan in a very modern tale of online terrorism and anxieties about the Old World.
Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs (Headline Review): More monsters than you can shake a flaming torch at as Never the Bride's Brenda and Effie uncover more dark secrets in Whitby.
Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End (Viking 14.99) usurped all other pretenders as the book I most wish I'd written. Everything about it was perfection: funny, moving, smart and proof that novels can be narrated in the first-person-plural. Will anyone ever try it again? The Song Before it is Sung (Bloomsbury 16.99) should have earned Justin Cartwright a place at Man Booker's top table. It's almost unbearable reading, but wonderful with it. Finally, Carcanet have published Eavan Boland: A sourcebook (ed Jody Allen Randolph). It's a reminder of her greatness as a poet, and of why she beats the pants off Famous Seamus.
Breaking the Spell (Penguin), a book about the evolutionary origins of religion by the American philosopher Daniel C Dennett, is akin to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, except that it is rigorously logical, impeccably argued, full of careful distinctions and subtle logic, and conciliatory wherever it can be. It is an extremely worthwhile challenge of a book.
As far as imaginative writing goes, it would be hard to imagine a more moving, funny, hip or downright peculiar collection of short stories than Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners (HarperPerennial). Steve Heighton's Afterlands (Penguin) is a rip-roaring but very intelligent meta-historical novel based on the true story of 19 people cast adrift on an Arctic ice floe for six months in 1871, trapped together and yet still coming apart. Dan Rhodes's Gold (Canongate), meanwhile, is set in a Welsh coastal village but isn't really about anything. Which makes the fact that it is acutely moving seem all the more impressive and something of a marvel.
Asking for Trouble by Patricia Craig (Blackstaff): for those who have forgotten, or would like to know about the strange disorders afflicting convent schools in 1950s Northern Ireland, I commend this accomplished Belfast author's marvellously readable memoir.
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic): this brilliant book makes one want to, alternately, laugh, cry and rend one's garments at the amoral sneakiness, intellectual impoverishment, sublimation of reason, induced or voluntary gullibility and genocidal tendencies that have surged in the wake of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other absurdities known as "faith".
What's Left by Nick Cohen (Harper Perennial): this nicely constructed tirade saddens and stimulates, educates and entertains as it rages against emotional and ideological claptrap masquerading as liberal thinking. It's a cry of outrage at what leftwingers have done and failed to do since the collapse of Communism and the rout of what used to be called the Fifth Column.
Exit Ghost by Philip Roth (Cape): this most perspicacious of US novelists at his best. Nathan Zuckerman, a wrinkly writer with prostate cancer, swaps his New England house for the downtown apartment of a young couple. With willing mind and weak flesh, age competes with youth, sidles up to beauty, thwarts sharp-elbowed ambition, puts on a fresh diaper and embarrasses itself ingloriously.
Fantasy fiction leaped from the anorak section on to literary shelves of bookshops this year. The best was Scarlett Thomas's mind-bending The End of Mr. Y, a perfect riposte to those weary claims that women novelists are "mired in the domestic". It's packed with so many ideas, you'll feel your head is about to explode. Fantasy also fuelled Marcus Sedgwick's Blood Red, Snow White (Orion), an imaginative retelling of Arthur Ransome's time in revolutionary Russia. Sedgwick is one of the best-kept secrets in children's books, but Blood Red finally marks his cross over into the adult market. Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin (Weidenfeld) debunks many myths created around the dictator, while revealing some startling secrets. Incredibly well researched, it crackles along and manages to humanise the monster without trivialising his crimes.
Three first-time authors made excellent debuts this year, each in a different field. For biography, Tracy Borman wrote about Henrietta Howard: King's Mistress, Queen's Servant (Cape) and produced a pacey and convincingly opinionated account of the frequently appalling behaviour of the early Hanoverian monarchs. For social history, Jenna Bailey mined a very rich seam. Her book Can Any Mother Help Me? (Faber) begins with the correspondents of a long-lost women's magazine who developed into lifelong, trusted friends, sharing much of the drama, tragedy and high comedy of their lives in letters of remarkable intimacy. Olivia Lichtenstein is a novelist of whom much more will be heard. Mrs Zhivago of Queen's Park (Orion), ostensibly about a mid-life crisis in north London, is magnificently funny: just the thing to see you through to spring.
Genuinely funny books don't come along all that often, so it was particularly gratifying to find three in the same year: Michael Chabon's glorious slice of Chandlerian-Jewish noir The Yiddish Policemen's Union (Fourth Estate), Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End (a cross between The Office and The Borg) and Gary Shteyngart's scabrous post-Soviet farce Absurdistan (Granta). Almost as rare are consistently novel and informative books on Shakespeare, but both Charles Nicholl's sly and surprising The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (Allen Lane) and the late A D Nuttall's panoptically wise Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale) ought to send the reader fizzing back to the plays.
A delightful surprise was Paradise With Serpents (Harper Perennial), Robert Carver's quixotic and very funny ramble through surely the world's oddest country, Paraguay. Robert MacFarlane chose nearer at hand for his second work, The Wild Places (Granta), and this deserves all the praise it's already had how reassuring in 2007 to know we've not really explored even our doorstep. For those who prefer to take their romps at -70C, what better to tuck into your woollies than the twin little anthologies together entitled The Ends of the Earth (Granta). Elizabeth Kolbert (who edits the Arctic book) and Francis Spufford (the Antarctic) clear a path through the familiar Polar tales with charm. Gathered together here are witnesses ranging from classy storyteller Jack London to the ruthlessly competent Amundsen and adroit modern eye-witness Sara Wheeler.
D J Taylor
First published in the US sometime in 2005, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica has had to wait over two years for a UK publisher. Hats off to Serpent's Tail for sponsoring this edgy account of the Manhattan-Paris fashion world of the early 1980s, in which Gaitskill's trademarked psychological acuteness has rarely been better displayed.
Starting a new publishing firm must stand high on the list of risky endeavours in these uncertain times, so it was pleasure to receive the first two offerings of the newly-formed London Books: James Curtis's The Gilt Kid and Gerald Kersh's Night and the City, both immensely hard-bitten reports from the London underworld of the 1930s, first publication dates 1936 and 1938 respectively, and gamey to the point of purulence. Elsewhere, Michael Horovitz's A New Waste Land (New Departures) was an intensely felt clarion call from the radical underground.
Letters of Ted Hughes must be a book of the century, not just of the year. It's no joke to compare them to those of Keats. I never met Hughes but the letters make you feel as though you have.
When On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Cape) came out in the spring I read it in one greedy sitting. Without being remotely sentimental or mawkish, it's almost unbearably sad. I still find it completely haunting.
The other novel which really stood out for me this year was Esther Freud's sixth, Love Falls (Bloomsbury). Set in Italy, it plays with the Jamesian theme of a teenager's disastrous inability to read either her own feelings or the behaviour of adults. Though at times dazzling, Freud's style doesn't draw attention to itself. That's partly why she's so good. It seems baffling that this wasn't nominated for any of the big awards.
The election team must have been appalled when Carl "Watergate" Bernstein announced his plans for a biography of Hillary Clinton. A Woman in Charge (Hutchinson) is quite simply a brilliant piece of journalism impartial but packed with minute, telling details. It's also a fascinating portrait of a marriage: the gloves are very much off, but Hillary still emerges as an exceptional, complicated figure in her own right.
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