Our favourite books of 2011
ANNA CAREYfinds out what people have enjoyed reading this year
The Marriage Plotby Jeffrey Eugenides (Harper Collins, £14.99) made me laugh out loud. Twenty-two-year-old Madeleine earnestly writes her thesis on marriage in Victorian novels, positing that the traditional romantic “marriage plot” has been sabotaged by modern-day phenomena such as divorce and feminism. Ironically, much like a 19th-century heroine, Madeleine is forced to choose between two suitors. It’s a witty satire set in the 1980s in which characters listen to Talking Heads and ponder the mysteries of Jaques Derrida’s deconstruction theory while delivering killer lines. Eugenides pokes fun at the upper-middle-class characters and the “American formula for success”.
Next to Loveby Ellen Feldman (Picador, £12.99) charts the lives of three best friends in a small Massachusetts town during and in the aftermath of the second World War. This is an incredibly poignant, sometimes heartbreakingly sad but ultimately uplifting book that charts themes such as sexism, racism and anti-Semitism in a light but convincing way. It is also an anti-war book that had me silently crying in a cafe. I couldn’t put it down.
Sarah Harte’s debut novel, The Better Half, is published by Penguin
Those who travel west “to recuperate their visionary powers” can deepen their reading of the landscape by dipping into Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy. A Little Gaelic Kingdom(Penguin, £20) takes us around the Gaeltacht areas of south Connemara. This beautiful book marks the concluding instalment of Robinson’s 30 years of work in the west, meeting people and mapping places, making poetic connections between the culture and the complicated countryside. The west was further illuminated this year by Michael Longley’s A Hundred Doors(Cape Poetry, £10), where the wide world is narrowed down to focus on the transitory life patterns of the tiny townland of Carrigskeewaun, and 100 doors are opened out through 66 short poems written across the white space of 48 pages. These two are slow, meditative books. For a faster read, the Wild West finds fresh expression in the surprisingly formal voice of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers(Granta, £12.99). Two cowboys speak in fine sentences and endure strange adventures while their cruel plans for cold-blooded killing are hampered by slow horses and bad company.
John Tuomey is a director of O’Donnell + Tuomey architects. The firm’s design for An Gaeláras, in Derry, was shortlisted for this year’s Stirling Prize
Richard Beard’s Lazarus Is Dead(Harvill Secker, £14.99) is a brilliant reimagining of the Lazarus story – a young man thrust into a situation not of his making – and it is wry, incisive and surprisingly moving. I relished the intelligence and wit of Edward St Aubyn’s family saga At Last(Picador, £16.99), not least because it sent me back to the earlier books in his Melrose trilogy. And I was absorbed by Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, the story of an American research scientist lost in the Amazon jungle (HarperCollins, $26.99). In poetry, I’ve returned again and again to Michael Longley’s profoundly beautiful eighth collection, A Hundred Doors(Cape, £10). I was moved, too, by the poet Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye(Virago, £14.99), a narrative of personal grief, and riveted by Nicholas Grene’s memoir Nothing Quite Like It(Sommerville Press, €14.99).
Belinda McKeon’s novel Solaceis published by Picador
The second volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett(Cambridge University Press, £30) and the final part of Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy, A Little Gaelic Kingdom(Penguin Ireland, £20), seem less books than forces of nature, ungainsayable as a pair of boulders dropped by a glacier on a mountainside. Yet underneath the monumentality, these are endlessly cheering, quotable, companionable, wonderful volumes; books of a lifetime. In poetry, Ailbhe Darcy’s Imaginary Menagerie(Bloodaxe, £8.95) was a punky and creaturely debut, while John McAuliffe’s Of All Places(Gallery, €11.95) showed a fine cosmopolitan wit. I was slightly late catching up with, but also greatly enjoyed, Aifric Mac Aodha’s Gabháil Syrinx(An Sagart). Jennika Baines’s essay collection ‘Is It About a Bicycle?’: Flann O’Brien in the Twenty-First Century (Four Courts, €45) was a worthy tribute to O’Brien’s centenary. A no less important author, the French-Romanian EM Cioran, also turned 100 this year. This event appears to have slipped by totally unmarked – a sad but revealing indictment of the state of anglophone publishing today.
David Wheatley’s poetry collection A Nest on the Wavesis published by the Gallery Press
The memory of its power is everywhere palpable in Venice today and thrillingly evoked in its savageries and splendours by Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire(Faber and Faber, £20). Reading this book enabled me to imagine the low wooden houses that preceded the palaces on the Grand Canal, the triumph of whisking the body of St Mark out of Alexandria in a barrel of pork in 828 AD, the anguish as, by 1500, Venetian command of the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean loosened.
Also narrative in structure, Marie Bourke’s The Story of Irish Museums 1790-2000: Culture, Identity and Education(Cork University Press, €49) reinforced a sense of the deep knowledge museums provide. In its comprehensiveness, clarity and comparativeness, this well-illustrated and thoroughly researched book is one to own. I enjoy approaching it on the basis of learning more about museums I know.
Vera Ryan teaches art history at Crawford College of Art and Design. Movers and Shapers 3: Conversations in the Irish Art Worldwas published in 2010 by Galley Head Press
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter(Pan, £7.99) enthralled me this year with its shimmering prose and captivating sense of place. Two boys share a brief summer of friendship in Mississippi before their lives take very different paths, one becoming a small-town cop, the other forever tainted by the suspicion of murder. Franklin’s depiction of the American South is so seductive you can almost feel the heat radiate from the page.
Declan Burke’s Absolute Zero Cool(Liberties Press, €12.99) is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a cigarette paper. A story in which a character steps into the real world to guide a novelist through a rewrite of his own tale could easily veer into the realm of the pretentious in the hands of a less able author, but Burke manages to keep things just on the right side of ridiculous. I recently found myself trapped on a delayed train for six hours. Thank God I had this sublimely crazy book to keep me sane.
Stuart Neville’s novel Stolen Soulsis published by Harvill Secker
My sister Lilly’s book Make, Bake, Love(Gill Macmillan, €19.99) is a sweet dream come true for all you cake-lovers in the house; I am very proud of her for creating such a gorgeous affair. This year too I loved The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (Phoenix, £7.99). It is magical, sorrowful and exciting. Waterline, by Ross Raisin (Viking, £12.99), made me think about everything. It’s just so sad, though there are enough glimmers of hope to point toward a reprieve of sorts for Mick, the fragile, wonderful antihero.
The relationships between fathers and sons, and between guilt and redemption also form the backbone of Des Bishop’s My Dad Was Nearly James Bond(Penguin Ireland, £14.99), a thoughtful and humane portrait of a family trying its best to figure things out, written with a great sense of immediacy.
Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane(Jonathan Cape, £11.99) knocked me out, big time. The language he uses jangles around so brilliantly it makes real-life English sound totally uptight. The characters are demented but also weirdly familiar; an amazing book altogether.
Maeve Higgins’s new stand-up album, Maeve Higgins Can’t Stop Doing Comedy,is available on iTunes and maevehiggins.com
Ali Smith’s There But for The(Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is probably my novel of the year, and one that instantly rubbishes this stupid idea of readability versus literary quality. Fluently written, easily accessible yet also daringly experimental, it’s about what happens when a guest at a dinner party unexpectedly locks himself in the spare room and politely declines to leave. It’s funny, smart and incredibly moving, and it outclasses anything on this year’s Booker list, including the winner. However, that list did throw up my favourite discovery of the year, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers(Granta, £12.99), a delightfully dark and bloody Western that, in common with Smith, turns out to be surprisingly moving.
I also loved Stewart Lee’s rather brilliant dissection of stand-up comedy in How I Escaped My Certain Fate(Faber, £8.99), a fascinating look at what comedy means, how it includes and excludes, how it can force us to resee the world. Also, happily, Lee is very, very funny.
Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls,based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly
Three kinds of courage stayed with me in 2011. While her brother’s schizophrenia is the blazing orb at the heart of Molly McCloskey’s memoir, Circles Around the Sun(Penguin Ireland, £14.99) is also a wry and devastating account of the pain of family love and the writer’s struggles with alcohol.
Chester Brown’s Paying for It(Drawn and Quarterly, £16.99) is a comic-strip memoir about life as a john. Recounting his experiences with prostitutes, Brown teases out some problems inherent in society’s fixation on romantic love. Willing to demystify the “girlfriend experience”, he also dares to be funny about his weakness.
Lastly, for humour, moxie and a real love of the lingo, there’s Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane(Jonathan Cape, £11.99). Too often, people describe the place in which their story takes place as a character, but Bohane is a proper star: this future city is a riot of music, gang warfare and a hilarious patois. If, in future, we all end up talking like that, then bring on 2012.
John Butler’s novel The Tenderloinis published by Picador
For literate young fans of comic writing who have long grown tired of hearing about an older generation’s laughter-drenched teens in the company of Spike and Flann – or is it Myles? – here is an authentic voice of Irish comic literature for these times. Festive gifts of Julian Gough’s latest novel, Jude in London(Old Street Publishing, £12.99), and its predecessor, Jude in Ireland, will result in regular guffawing and a persistent knowing smile into the new year.
I declare a connection: I don’t know Gough, but we share a publisher. That said, I admire his proper understanding of classic comic writing. The faux-innocent narration makes Jude an endearing creation. I love his use of the long joke: reference to a passing doe culminates 30 pages later in a great Sound of Musicgag. And I cheer that, in these dumbing-down days, Gough is not afraid of his own profligate erudition, trusting his readers will relish the carefree brilliance of the perfect comedy storm he orchestrates.
Gerard Stembridge’s novel Unspokenis published by Old Street
Desmond McCabe’s St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 1660-1875(Stationery Office, €35) is a wonderfully illustrated and beautifully published book. The text gives a detailed account of the Green itself and fascinating background on the development of the city, the tradition of parks and public statues and the changing nature of urban space.
Roy Foster’s Words Alone: Yeats His Inheritances(Oxford University Press, £16.99) offers a superbly original analysis of what his 19th-century Irish inheritance meant to Yeats. The chapters on Young Ireland and the Gothic tradition are masterclasses in history writing.
In fiction, Belinda McKeon’s Solace(Picador, £12.99) has a subtlety and sympathy of vision, combined with a sharp eye for morals and manners in a changing Ireland.
Eavan Boland’s A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet(Carcanet Press, £16.95) contains essays both personal and public written in a tone urgent and wise, with astute observations on her own trajectory as a poet and the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Paula Meehan, among others.
In poetry, John McAuliffe’s Of All Places(Gallery Press, €11.95) displays an ability to write public poems about Ireland using tones filled with keen wit, and using cadences, forms and rhythms that have a timeless beauty and grace.
Colm Tóibín was awarded the 2011 Irish Pen Award for Literature. His short-story collection The Empty Familyis published by Penguin
This year’s reading casts up books from three countries, all in their different moods and fashions evoking the journey from childhood towards maturity. The Cat’s Table(Jonathan Cape, £16.99) by Michael Ondaatje vividly follows the passage from Ceylon to England of an 11-year-old boy on a liner full of eccentric, mysterious passengers, surprising adventures (including a murder) and sounds and images that would help shape his later life. Nothing Quite Like It: An American Irish Childhood(Somerville Press, €14.99) is Nicholas Grene’s charming account of his life as offspring of two eccentric academics, graphically capturing the adventures that take him from Illinois by way of Chicago, Drogheda and Belfast to Ballinaclash, where he is both professor and farmer.
Taking My Life(Talonbooks, $19.95) was discovered after the death of the novelist Jane Rule. Written while she came to terms with debilitating arthritis, this account of her American childhood tracks Rule’s confusing, adventurous first 21 years with the clear-eyed, wryly honest and compassionate attitude that marks the defence of gay rights and fearless criticism of injustice in her essays and fiction.
Ann Saddlemyer is the editor of WB Yeats & George Yeats: The Letters, published by Oxford University Press
This year, we’ve had a harvest of exceedingly well-written novels: Belinda McKeon’s Solace(Picador, £12.99) and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side(Faber, £16.99) are stellar examples. My favourite is Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Cold Eye of Heaven(Atlantic Books, £14.99). Technically inventive in its unravelling of time, and with an original use of simile and metaphor, it affirms a necessary truth: that no life is merely ordinary. I also enjoyed, from the other side of the Atlantic, The Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre, £7.99), a writer who imbues even the most sombre subject with a certain joy of life. And I found something of the same passion and playfulness in Of All Places, John McAuliffe’s new collection of poems (Gallery Press, €11.95).
Elizabeth Wassell’s novel Sustenanceis published by Liberties Press
I thought that 2011 was an excellent year for Irish fiction. I enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s gripping, well-paced and absorbing On Canaan’s Side(Faber, £16.99), an omission from the Man Booker shortlist, although The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), was a deserving winner. For me, Edna O’Brien’s short-story collection Saints and Sinners(Faber, £12.99) was my favourite book of the year, a powerful and assured work filled with rewarding echoes of her earlier fictions. In particular I admired Shovel Kings, in which she retraced the life of an Irishman in north London, reminding me of the best of Annie Proulx, a compassionate account of a working life. For pure enjoyment, I recommend Alan Bennett’s two short stories, called Smut(Profile Books, £12) and subtitled Two Unseemly Stories, two suburban tales of erotic adventure told with sly wit, moments of pathos and a real sense of fun.
Éibhear Walshe is the editor of Elizabeth Bowen’s Selected Irish Writings, published by Cork University Press
Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers(Granta, £12.99) is an exceptionally funny and stylish revisionist Western. The hapless narrator and his more naturally violent brother are a memorable pair of thugs for hire, and the historical detail – for instance, a first encounter with tooth powder – is spot on and lightly worn.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder(Bloomsbury, £12.99) is a scientist-in-the- jungle story that doesn’t allow its thoughtful wryness about culture clash and neocolonial politics to detract from its plain old narrative thrills. I defy any reader not to be gripped by the narrator’s search for an ageing and formidable colleague gone Awol, and moved by the story’s dramatisation of the ethics of having a child.
I was already a devoted Neal Stephenson fan, and Reamde(Atlantic, £18.99) – by far his most approachable, page-turning colossus of a novel so far – should win him many more. The man is simply smarter than anyone else, and great company: he makes the most complicated ideas clear and funny without losing his edge of crazy.
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letteris published by Picador
Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéad
Anthea Bell’s new translation of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity(Pushkin, £8.99) was an incongruous book to read on holidays, but I loved its unsettling tale of emotional blackmail on the eve of the Great War. The narrator is boxed in by the mores of the Austro-Hungarian officer class and his insatiable appetite for social climbing. Although psychologically suffocating, with few wholly sympathetic characters, it is a powerful exploration of nostalgia, disillusionment and regret.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child(Picador, £20) is partly set in that golden summer of 1914, and here, also, there is a fairly disagreeable cast. But the real central character is the intangibility of memory. The reader catches mere glimpses of the “truth” of Cecil Valance, as various hangers-on and biographers try to piece together his life and work. As a biographer, it was a sobering exploration of the limits of that discipline.
Finally, Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder(Harper Press, £9.99) was an enjoyable and clever romp through the Victorian fixation on crime, with some penetrating insights into the development of a tabloid culture around murder.
Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid’s Seán MacBride: A Republican Life 1904-1946is published by Liverpool University Press
One of the smartest commentaries on life inside American politics was produced by the idealistic Republican intern turned speechwriter Matt Latimer. In Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor(Three Rivers Press, $15) Latimer writes wryly about his time as the man who wrote the words for Donald Rumsfeld and President George W Bush. We get a glimpse into the sometimes inept and often cruel world of high-octane politics and see how President Bush was pretty much broken by it all at the end.
For night-time escapism, I enjoyed When God Was a Rabbit(Headline Review, £7.99), by Sarah Winman. The central character sees nothing wrong with calling her childhood pet God, and her innocence remains throughout the book, despite the rocks that life throws at her. It is clever and sharp and tells the story of a relationship between brother and sister with great skill.
An Irish book that I passed on to friends was the inspirational Who Dares, Runs(Ballpoint Press, €14.99), by Gerry Duffy. The Mullingar man takes us through his journey from overweight chain-smoker to ultra-athlete, culminating in his challenge to run 32 marathons in 32 counties in 32 days.
Claire Byrne presents The Late Debateon RTÉ Radio 1 and The Daily Showon RTÉ1
For those interested in why the Allies won the Great War, David Stevenson’s With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918is highly recommended. Told with verve and analytical vigour, Stevenson’s book is a compelling and authoritative study of one of the most significant turning points in 20th-century military history.
Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45(Allen Lane, £30) is a gripping history of the last bloody days of the Third Reich. Kershaw explores why, in the face of certain defeat, the Germans continued to fight with grim determination until May 1945.
Roy Foster’s Words Alone: Yeats His Inheritances(Oxford University Press, £16.99) is a brilliant re-examination of WB Yeats’s place in Irish literature and history. Challenging George Moore’s idea that “all begins in Yeats and all ends in Yeats”, Foster lucidly demonstrates Yeats’s debt to a complex of 19th-century traditions and precursors from Walter Scott to Thomas Carlyle. This book is a must for all those who enjoyed Foster’s prize-winning biography of Yeats.
Prof Robert Gerwarth is director of the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin. His book Hitler’s Hangman: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrichis published by Yale University Press
Revolutions are loud, and in loud times most of what I read is poetry. Since February I have not stopped reading Seamus Heaney. The Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa’s poem After 42 Yearsis an exceptional achievement. It shows how poetry can attend and respond to contemporary events. The poet read it on BBC radio and the Los Angeles Timesprinted it. (It is still up on its website.) It captures, among so much else, the horror and the hope of the final moments of the Libyan revolution. Also, Mattawa’s translation of the distinguished Syrian poet Adonis, Adonis: Selected Poems(Yale University Press, $30), which won a Pen award, is a gift to English readers. Peter Hobbs’s new novel will be published early next month: In the Orchard, the Swallows(Faber, £10.99) is like a jewel that emits more light than seems possible. It is rooted in contemporary Pakistan yet has the timeless quality of a myth.
Hisham Matar’s novel Anatomy of a Disappearanceis published by Viking
Christine Dwyer Hickey
The Sisters Brothersby Patrick deWitt (Granta, £12.99) takes place in 1851 during the California gold rush and centres on two hired killers as they trail across the Wild West in search of their latest victim. A touch of Deadwood, a whiff of the Coen brothers – funny, touching and beautifully written.
The Cat’s Tableby Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) is set on board a liner from Sri Lanka to England in 1954; this novel (somewhat autobiographical) is narrated by an 11-year-old boy named Michael. Ondaatje’s prose, flawless as ever, deals with loneliness, friendship and pre-pubescent love; life aboard serves as a taster for the postwar, class-obsessed Britain waiting on the shore.
In the memoir Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books, £9.99), all things – not least his own life – are covered. He kicks, quotes, punches and praises all round him. This is an extraordinary book written by an intellectual show-off and made all the more poignant by the fact that he happens to be dying.
Christine Dwyer Hickey’s novel The Cold Eye of Heavenis published by Atlantic Books
As a young father of an 18-month-old with a busy work schedule covering the financial crisis, my bedside locker tends to be piled high with nonfiction books relating to my day job. The FitzPatrick Tapes(Penguin Ireland, £16.99), by Tom Lyons and Brian Carey – a confessional account of Seán FitzPatrick’s role in the downfall of Anglo Irish Bank – was packed with colourful business deals and was a must-read for me as I was writing my own book. Likewise, in more recent times, How Ireland Really Went Bust(Penguin Ireland, £14.99), by Matt Cooper, gave a very useful blow-by-blow account of the political and financial failings leading to the EU-IMF bailout in 2010. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs(Little, Brown, £25), a biography of the Apple founder, was intriguing. I also enjoyed reading the experiences of the first-time dad in Belinda McKeon’s atmospheric debut novel, Solace(Picador, £12.99).
Simon Carswell was named journalist of the year at the NNI journalism awards. His book Anglo Republicis published by Penguin Ireland
Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment(Bloomsbury, £18.99) is an intriguing speculative and descriptive story of the unique political event that took place in the Spanish parliament in 1981. The coup failed, but speculation was rife, and still is, about who was really involved and why people behaved the way they did.
Dr Ed Walsh’s memoir, Upstart: Friends, Foes and Founding a University(the Collins Press, €27.99) is a great read of events long since passed. But their legacy is the wonderful University of Limerick, the determination and relentless energy of its founder and how he ultimately transformed the model of the Irish university. The author’s style is a written echo of his strong personality.
Michael Fewer’s Ireland: People, Places, Walking and Wildlife(Ashfield Press,€25) is a walker’s guide to many mountains and beauty spots across Ireland that can physically be followed by ardent hillwalkers or enjoyed, at leisure, from the comfort of an armchair. The author’s commentary on the annotated history of each location and his superb photographs are quite stunning. His architectural eye does not desert him in this beautifully designed book.
Ruairí Quinn is Minister for Education
The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956(OUP, £30) is a bit of a doorstop, but this second tranche of the letters, in French for the most part and beautifully translated by George Craig, shows a gradual but marked change from the Beckett of the first volume, as success and recognition begin to come his way after the publication of the great novel trilogy and the staging of Waiting for Godot. What a triumph of scrupulous scholarship the book is.
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, newly translated and with an introduction by Mark Harman (Harvard, $15.95), shows this most inward-looking of poets in responsive mode, as he replies to a young man who had written to him seeking advice on becoming a writer. Any hoary old penman similarly importuned might take a lesson in tolerance and generosity from these letters.
Stephen Mitchell, whose versions of Rilke have become the modern standard, has produced a marvellous new translation of The Iliad(Weidenfeld Nicolson, £25), with an indispensable introduction.
A Death in Summer, by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, is published by Mantle
Five of the best: The most mentioned books on these pages
Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, by Tim Robinson
City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry
Solace, by Belinda McKeon
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Of All Places, by John McAuliffe