Thursday, 17 January 2013

My Top Fifteen Reads of the Last Thirteen Months by John Greenwood

I realise I haven't been all that active on the Theaker's blog recently, so I thought I would take a break from accumulating rejection slips and put together this very rough round-up of some of the better books that happened to drift through my transom over the past year and a bit.

1. "The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories" edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

I'm less than halfway through, but at over a thousand pages of weird short stories, I think I've done pretty well. I've discovered some of the most interesting writers through this anthology: Algernon Blackwood, Margaret Irwin, Hagiwara Sakutaro, Leonara Carrington, William Sansom, Shirley Jackson. Authors I would have never come across in my normal reading habits. Many of these writers have been translated for the first time for this volume. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with some favourite stories (Borges's "The Aleph" and Kafka's "In the Penal Colony") and confirmed to myself how much I have grown to dislike the writing of H.P. Lovecraft (such fussiness, so much needless verbiage disguising his unique ideas). But above all, Bruno Schulz's "Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass", Robert Aickman's "The Hospice" and Thomas Ligotti's "The Town Manager" were some of my most stimulating reading experiences for years, and have led me to reconsider my attitude towards what is possible in fiction. All three have led me to explore these writers further.

2. "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens

Sometimes the choir need to be preached to, and there are few more entertaining preachers than Hitchens in his stride. There were too many favourite moments to mention, but in particular I recall his repeated insistence on religion as a medieval mindset. He points up the absurdity of taking at face value the metaphysical gropings of pre-scientific tribes engaged in vicious local political struggles. He introduced me to the useful and neat word "discrepant" too.

3. "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel C. Dennett

Dennett is my intellectual hero, and on the subject of religion he is a wittier and more discriminating a thinker than Dawkins (which is saying something). "Breaking the Spell' and "Consciousness Explained" have influenced my thinking hugely. One of the most difficult books I have managed to get to the end of, and there were still some chapters I didn't feel I understood fully. If only I had time to reread it! I'm now on the lookout for "Freedom Evolves".

4. "Mr Norris Changes Trains" by Christopher Isherwood

Extremely amusing novel about a charming, bumbling, entirely venal English con-man in Berlin in the thirties. I was recommended this on the strength of my love of Evelyn Waugh's books. They have their similarities, but Isherwood (or his narrator, also called Chistopher Isherwood) seems totally un-judgmental.

5. "Goodbye to Berlin" by Christopher Isherwood

More of the same, wonderfully funny. Less of a novel than a series of sketches.

6. "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower

I picked this up in a charity shop in Brighton just before Fantasycon, purely on the strength of the title of the book, never having heard of the author. I loved this from start to finish. Such vigour, such inventive language, such harsh wit. And this is his first collection of stories. Apparently he's been in McSweeney's, The New Yorker and elsewhere. He doesn't do the internet. He's working on a novel, it's rumoured. That's all there is to know about him. All but one of these stories are about modern Americans making squalid catastrophes of their lives. The title story is a Viking raid told in a modern American vernacular, which shouldn't work, but does. It's a little depressing to measure just how far I am from being able to write anything like as good as this.

7. "Runaway" by Alice Munro

8. "No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1966" by Samuel Beckett

"Impotence and incompetence" as Beckett once said, were his central concerns. In a moment of madness last year I donated most of my Beckett novels to charity. Now I am trying to buy them all back. He's such a funny writer, and his humour was my way into his writing, which can sometimes seem forbidding, all those pages of dense text without even a paragraph break. "The Expelled" is such a funny story, which is not to belittle it. I have started to wonder whether I have ever really loved a book that was not, in some way, a comedy. All my favourite novelists: Flann O'Brien, Beckett, Waugh, Proust, Sterne, Austen, Eliot, etc., all refuse to take themselves or their worlds and characters entirely seriously. It was instructive too to come across the first of the "Texts for Nothing", first introduced to me by a sympathetic English literature teacher when I can have been no older than 14. I remembered it very differently. I had a very strong visual image of the narrator, trapped in a peat bog on a moor, but I think some of these details were imagined by me rather than given in the text.

9. "Amsterdam Stories" by Nescio

Nescio was a Dutch writer, beloved by his countrymen but little known outside Holland (at least little known by me!). He wrote under a pseudonym in the period just before the First World War (Nescio is Latin for "I don't know"), little stories about a group of young, idealistic, penniless artists and intellectuals in Amsterdam. Then he joined the establishment, ran a commercial export company, and wrote nothing for twenty odd years until the Nazis occupied Holland, when he wrote one or two more stories, rather elegiac. "The Freeloader" was one of my favourite stories of last year. I think the New York Review of Books Classics edition is the only English translation available - they have a very interesting list which I am keen to explore further.

10. "The Unsettled Dust" by Robert Aickman

Having discovered Aickman in "The Weird" (and heard Jeremy Dyson's documentary about him on Radio 4), I was extremely pleased to get two volumes of his stories (from the Faber Finds reprints series) for Christmas presents. They are not very carefully edited, I have to say. Question marks in square brackets pop up in odd places where they don't belong, and in one story a child is called Agnes, then changes to Agnew part way through. I don't think these have been proofread by Faber. But the stories themselves are startling and odd and frightening, and yes, funny sometimes too. From this collection I was most struck by "Ravissante", in which a rather snobbish English artist is debauched by the elderly French widow of one of his artistic heroes. There's a hysterical moment in which the narrator sees a black poodle come into the room, and afterwards cannot be sure that what he saw might actually have been a spider. "The Next Glade" is also fascinating as an exploration of madness. There is something about Aickman's typical protagonist that both attracts and repulses me: the sort of competent, buttoned-down, salaried Englishman who was just old enough to have lived through the sixties and missed it all. In most of these stories Aickman puts these men into situations where they begin to unravel.

11. "The Man in My Basement" by Walter Mosley

12. "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James

13. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

14. "Out of Sheer Rage" by Geoff Dyer

An amusing account of Dyer's utterly dilatory and hopeless attempts to discipline himself into writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. By the end, however, it began to feel like there was a trick to writing this sort of thing, a trick that could be learned, which is never a good thing for a reader to discover.

15. "Teatro Grottesco" by Thomas Ligotti

Probably, along with the Aickman, my most keenly anticipated read of the year, and so hardly surprising that I was partially disappointed. I still think "The Town Manager" is the best story in this collection, partly because it is so funny, and almost perfect in its self-contained, demented universe. "Gas Station Carnivals" and "The Clown Puppet" were also very memorable. In fact, I enjoyed them all, but I have begun to enjoy the online character of Thomas Ligotti even more, which I see as a fictional persona created and elaborated for various email interviews. In one interview he mentioned that he'd just re-read the whole of E.M. Cioran's oeuvre. Having once encountered the Romanian philosopher's works many years ago, this made me laugh out loud. To read Cioran was absurd enough, but to read him again...

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