Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Best Books of 2016ish (3 of 3)

(Parts one and two: there were going to be four of these posts, but lack of time means I've crammed more books into this one and made it the final)

Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent, by Mircea Eliade (2016)

Described by the publisher as "an early 20th century Catcher in the Rye", but to many readers this book will seem more like a pre-WW2 Romanian Adrian Mole: a funny-in-its-seriousness heavily autobiographical book about being young and clever and book-obsessed and nerdy and only faintly aware of one's own ridiculousness as an angsty adolescent with pretensions to genius. Found after the philosopher author's death and newly translated; highly recommended.

The House of Fame, by Oliver Harris (2016)

This book is the third--and presumably last--in a series, and frankly you need to read them all (start with The Hollow Man): not because you'll be lost without reading the first two, but because the three-part descent of the corrupt, astonishingly self-destructive London police detective Nick Belsey is an amazing work of crime fiction. This book's cover comparison to Stieg Larsson is ridiculous, because Harris actually writes really well, and Belsey's sardonic wit is a pleasure to read. Book two, Deep Shelter, was like Patricia Highsmith writing 1980s TV nuclear paranoia thriller 'Edge of Darkness', and if someboody described a book like that to me you'd need handcuffs to stop me rushing off to buy it straight away.

The Door, by Magda Szabo (2005)

This translation came out in the UK more than a decade ago, but got a new lease of life when NYRB republished it this year, and deservedly so. A portrait of a decades-long friendship/power struggle between two Budapest women, one a housekeeper/cleaner and one a middle-class writer, this is a quiet, dark, very rich book.

The Liars' Club, by Mary Karr (1995)

I resisted this book for 20 years, until it got Penguin Classic-ed with a great cover by Brian Rea. I must have mentally shelved it with all the other misery memoirs, which was a mistake, because despite the awful things that happened to Karr in her childhood (and rarely have I so wanted to reach into a book to strangle someone as much as I wanted to with Karr's parents) this book has an amazing sense of humour and a vibrant, boisterous prose style that is entirely infectious.

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood (2017)

This is a bit  of a cheat, because the book isn't released until next May, but I was lucky enough to get an ARC earlier this year, and it is such a great book that it needs to be praised. A skilled and lauded poet, Lockwood and her husband moved back into her family home with her strange mother and her frankly deranged gun-toting Catholic priest father. The memoir is about growing up with these parents, and then living with them again as adults, and it combines a poet's prose with a great comedian's way with a story. Again, it may cause a desire to strangle a writer's parents, but that's the world we live in now.

The Assault, by Harry Mulisch (1986)

When writing about Dutch novelist Mulisch, it's customary to note that his Jewish mother's family was killed in Auschwitz, while his Austrian father was jailed a Nazi collaborator. This horrible tension plays out in a lot of his fiction, and especially so in this brief but gripping story about murder, collaboration, revenge and resistance that sprawls over decades from the starting point of a gunshot in Holland near the very end of WW2. The book is a masterpiece, and it's a shame that, even though it's been in print in English for three decades, and more than 30 printings, nobody at the publisher, Pantheon, has noticed that the illustration on p117 is missing. (It's also missing from the ebook, though there isn't a big space there to show you that something SHOULD be there.)

How Many Miles to Babylon?, by Jennifer Johnston (1974)

Another book I never paid any attention to because I was a fool and the previous covers were uninspiring, it wasn't until this stark and dramatic design by David Foldvari caught my eye that I actually picked it up. An understated tragedy about two friends from Ireland who end up in the midst of the WW1 trench fighting, it has set me on a Jennifer Johnston binge, which has measurably improved my life.

When Mystical Creatures Attack!, by Kathleen Founds (2014)

A collection of stories in the form of essays, pyschiatric evaluations, transcripts, letters and diary entries that make up a sort of bitterly hilarious novel about the lives of a teacher and her students. Among the institutions in which Founds has worked are "a nursing home, a phone bank, a South Texas middle school, and a Midwestern technical college specializing in truck-driving certificates", and if this seems to have been the perfect foundation for sharply observed, surrealist and deeply engaging looks at institutional life and its many, many failings.


Emma said...

Thank you for posting this list! You're one of my favorite book bloggers, and I can't wait to check out some of these picks (the Mircea Eliade and the Kathleen Collins especially). Hope your holidays are happy!

JRSM said...

Thank you! You too. I mean to do these every year, but I am hopelessly disorganised.