Page turners: the books we loved reading in 2010
From Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling ‘The Help’ and the final part of Stieg Larsson’s blockbusting Millennium trilogy to a chronicle of how Ireland went from rags to riches to rags again, ANNA CAREYfinds out what’s earned pride of place on some well-known people’s shelves over the past 12 months
Kathryn Stockett’s The Help(Penguin) made me cry in several public places this autumn. But actually, for a book about the emotive topic of black nannies raising the children of their white employers in early-1860s Mississippi, it’s subtly done. Stockett neither demonises anyone nor resorts to cheap tear-jerking. Not since Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells Allhave I read such an interesting study of the mistress-maid relationship. The Help also has an interesting metanarrative (in the form of a group memoir the main characters publish) about how books change their writers and readers. Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies(Hamish Hamilton), which inexplicably did not make it to the Man Booker shortlist, is an unforgettably exuberant saga set in an Irish boys’ school. The insulting repartee is Shakespearean, the minor characters (especially a suave Italian student and a business-minded principal) hilarious, and Murray negotiates the fleeting joys and lasting sorrows of adolescence perfectly.
- Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machineby Michael Lewis (Allen Lane) is a compelling account of the world of bond markets seen through the eyes of three hedge-fund managers and a bond salesman. Lewis concentrates on the characters as much as the events. He writes beautifully, with lots of dark humour and sufficient indignation to make this a modern parable. You really couldn’t make this story up. The Stray Sod Countryby Patrick McCabe (Bloomsbury) is a work of wild and wicked imagination set in Cullymore, a border town. The year is 1958, when the Russian dog Laika was sent into space and the Manchester United team boarded the plane at Munich for their ill-fated flight. Local events in Cullymore are no less dramatic. The Helpby Kathryn Stockett is a heart-warming account of the struggles of African-American housemaids in Jackson, Mississippi, at the birth of the civil-rights movement. I loved every episode and can’t wait for the film.
- Joan Burton is deputy leader of and finance spokeswoman for the Labour Party
The year for me was bookended with two magisterial poetry collections, Derek Walcott’s White Egretsand Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain(both Faber). In their different ways, each book is a recapitulation of the dominant themes that have engaged these poets over decades, each in its own way a testament to love, a gesture of grace in the face of mortality. Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family(Viking) is a fascinating bag of stories, tales deftly crafted or relaxed and capacious but always deeply humane. Ciaran Carson follows his late-2009 novel, The Pen Friend,with the loving austerity of the poems in Until Before After(Gallery Press), a remarkable testament to the enduring power of love, its prismatic irradiations of the heart. And, just in time for Christmas, My Flirtation with International Socialism(Dedalus Press), from the inexplicably under-rated Gerry Murphy. Here are poems of love, anger, pathos and humour, a voice like no other in Irish poetry.
- Theo Dorgan published two books this year: poems, in Greek, and prose, in Time on the Ocean: A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town
Kathryn Stockett’s The Helpis a powerful and poignant look at the interconnecting lives of three women in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. It is filled with the kind of warmth and spirit that makes a novel truly unforgettable. Richard North Patterson’s The Spire(Pan) is enjoyable and fast-moving, with enough suitably intriguing elements to draw any crime lover in: a US campus setting with spooky Gothic spire, brutal murder, possible wrongful conviction, successful lawyer alumnus and the passing of enough time for the case to be re-examined. Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs(Faber) is the expertly written, insightful story of a 20-year-old nanny who moves to a university town and is hired by a couple to take care of their newly adopted toddler. The family is viewed through the eyes of the nanny, who has her own life to lead but is unavoidably drawn into the complexity of theirs.
- Alex Barclay’s novel Time of Deathcame out in July
New books about Ireland and Lebanon deepened my understanding of two countries that are dear to me. David J Lynch’s When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out: The World’s Most Resilient Country and Its Struggle to Rise Again(Palgrave Macmillan) is a fascinating chronicle of Ireland’s transformation from rags to riches and back again. Lynch blames reckless bankers, weak regulators and a complicit political class for Ireland’s economic catastrophe. Through the experiences of Bertie Ahern, Sean FitzPatrick and Roddy Doyle, Lynch tells Ireland’s story. I lived through many of the events recounted in David Hirst’s masterful Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East(Faber). Hirst’s account of the tragic modern history of Lebanon is informed by scholarship and a half-century in Beirut. He explains how the great power politics of France, Britain and the US aggravated the region’s fault lines, then takes us through all the wars, with their unending litany of death, destruction and sorrow.
- Lara Marlowe’s The Things I’ve Seen: Nine Lives of a Foreign Correspondentwas published this month
I found Hugo Hamilton’s novel Hand in the Fire(Fourth Estate) a haunting read. The most powerful short story I read this year was Silence,by Colm Tóibín, from his wonderful collection The Empty Family(Viking). One Dayby David Nicholls (Hodder) presents itself as a beach read but is as brilliantly structured as a Thomas Hardy novel. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids(Bloomsbury) is a beautiful masterpiece, a book for anyone who was ever young, poor and in love. Fintan O’Toole’s Enough Is Enough(Faber) gave me hope in a very dark month. Miguel Syjuco’s first novel, Illustrado(Picador), is a virtuosic adventure in reading. The narrative is organised with immense confidence and daring, but Syjuco’s postmodernist bag of tricks also contains a whip-crack storytelling skill that’s as reminiscent of Dickens as it is of Roberto Bolaño. It’s a remarkably impressive and persuasive novel that fizzes with the effervescence a large book can have when its author is in total control of the material.
- Joseph O’Connor’s novel G host Light,which came out in June, has been chosen as Dublin’s One City, One Book novel for 2011
To resist economic growth is to risk collapse; to pursue growth is to endanger survival. This is the dilemma posed and somewhat resolved in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet(Earthscan). He examines the “ecological bounds” on human activity, the “illiterate economics” of relentless growth and the damaging “social logic of consumerism”. He sets out the frame for a new economic approach that respects ecological limits and acknowledges the importance of resilience, equality and work. An important agenda for making our current crisis a turning point for a safer and better future. Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light(Harvill Secker) puts Molly Allgood, lover of John Millington Synge, on stage as she makes her last journey through London to the BBC in 1952. The wealth of her memories transforms the poverty of her circumstances as she recalls a love affair of opposites by religion, class and temperament. A fascinating voice returned to a woman silenced when, on his death, her letters to Synge were destroyed by his family.
- Niall Crowley’s Empty Promises: Bringing the Equality Authority to Heelwas published this year. He was one of the organisers of Claiming Our Future at the RDS last month
Bored to death with the blockbuster novel (“The Corrections, say: I couldnt read that book if my life depended on it”), in Reality Hunger (Hamish Hamilton) David Shields puts together 618 numbered paragraphs freely mixing quotation and assertion in a dazzling collage that is both a critique of traditional fiction and a prototype of the kind of book he would like to see, one that exposes the tension between reporting and creating, making us constantly aware of the distance travelled between world and word. Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That(Harper Collins) offers a test case for Shield’s thesis. Just as Shep Knacker is about to escape his family for an exotic location his wife is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Paying all her medical expenses will destroy Shep’s dreams of ease. Shriver is over the top with her anger, her ferocious juxtaposition of value you can count and value you can’t. But it’s precisely the book’s fury that gets it past Shields’s “reality” test. This is the real thing.
- Tim Parks’s memoir Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healingwas published in July
Comfort reading is the essence of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agencyseries, and The Double Comfort Safari Club(Little Brown), like all the others featuring the traditionally built Mma Precious Ramotswe, is a comforting read. McCall Smith’s gentle prose, which can be cloying in some of his other books, is perfectly suited to this series, which conjures up images of Botswana so clear that you can almost feel the heat. Booker-nominated novels rarely find their way on to my favourite lists, because I sometimes feel they’re too clever for their own good, but Emma Donoghue’s Room(Picador) tackles a difficult and emotive subject in a truly brilliant way. The voice of the five-year-old narrator is superbly done. A novel about the Jamaican slave rebellion of 1832 could have been too bleak to read with enjoyment, but in The Long Song(Headline Review) Andrea Levy manages to bring both humour and sympathy to her multilayered story. The characters are vividly and sometimes cruelly drawn but immediately identifiable, making this an engrossing read.
- Sheila O’Flanagan’s short-story collection A Season to Rememberand novel Stand By Mewere published this year
Is it wrong to have a crush on a fictional character? Ren Bryce, conflicted FBI agent of Alex Barclay’s Time of Death(Harper), is a wonderful creation: tough, fragile, witty and flawed. Compromised situations are her situations, as she struggles to solve a murder while keeping her own name off the suspect list. She deserves her own TV show. I don’t read fantasy, but I make an exception for Joe Abercrombie. Best Served Cold(Gollancz), like his First Law trilogy, is a violent tale of violent people, brought to cursing, sweating, bloody life with wit and a way with a one-liner. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest(Quercus) was first published in paperback in 2010 (so it counts, honest). The first book was a murder mystery, the second was an adventure and the third is a court case – but what a court case. There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction as the villains’ lies are exposed one by one. Not the most subtle book ever written, but utterly, utterly addictive.
- Mortal Coil,Derek Landy’s fifth book about Skulduggery Pleasant, was published in September
Were those intrepid soul-travellers the post-Dada fluxists to be doddering about in these psychic shock days of stuttering, stammering, headless chicken republics, I submit they would be gleefully zealous in their approval of Paul Murray’s swirling quantum physic, giddy fusion of Arthur C Clarke and Animal House or, if you prefer, Finnegans Wake meeting Screwballs for Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Skippy Diesis one great high-octane fizz bang of a book. But something else is stirring in the basement: the ghost of Night in Tunisia perhaps,where Neil Jordan’s Mistaken (John Murray) is nothing less than a plangent, incisive poetic wonder of a book, where the Kinks meet William Wilson, in a fragile prose that is simultaneously diamond-hard. Did you know Bob Dylan loves Eileen Aroon? One of the many facts in Bob Dylan in Americaby Sean Wilentz (Bodley Head). But Murray kangaroo-jumps the lot, his intoxicating combination of innocence and operatically vertiginous daring flinging the door wide open again. Welcome back Swift, Laurence Sterne and Flann O’Brien. One can only wonder, where have you been?
- Pat McCabe’s The Stray Sod Countrywas published last month
As Ireland teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machinewon’t offer comfort, but it is the most compelling account of financial meltdown. Michael Lewis, who captured the spirit of the 1980s with Liar’s Poker, tells the very human story of greed and incompetence with great style and a full cast of characters we all recognise: the wise guys who saw it coming, the idiots who didn’t and everyone else who got burned. The House of the Mosque(Canongate, translated by Susan Masotty) follows an Iranian family from the flight of the shah through the 1979 revolution and the return of Khomeini. Kader Abdolah’s wonderful novel has the playful feel of a fairy tale, which makes its darkness all the more terrifying. Damon Galgut’s restless spirit goes wandering in Greece, Africa and India with In a Strange Room(Atlantic). As “Follower”, “Lover” and “Guardian”, the solitary writer-traveller charts the extremities of loneliness and the torments of intimacy with extraordinary grace and beauty.
- Aifric Campbell’s The Loss Adjustorwas published in February
Adam Sisman’s superb Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography(Weidenfeld Nicolson) surpassed anything I read this year. This army intelligence officer, historian and Oxford don was brilliant, snobbish, arrogant and perverse – and makes a wonderful subject for intelligent biography. Patrick Walsh’s The Making of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy: The Life of William Conolly, 1662-1729(Boydell Brewer) succeeds magnificently in reconstructing the life and career of an arriviste politician who rose to a level of political dominance that allowed a contemporary to refer to him as Ireland’s “prime minister”. Written with characteristic brio, Patrick Geoghegan’s Liberator: The Life and Death of Daniel O’Connell, 1830-1847(Gill & Macmillan) follows on from the author’s highly successful King Dan: The Rise of Daniel O’Connell 1775-1829.A lively and highly accessible biography, it combines a compelling narrative of O’ Connell’s career in the years following Catholic emancipation with an assessment that manages to be empathetic while not uncritical of O’Connell’ s personality and political modus operandi.
- James McGuire is editor, with James Quinn, of The Dictionary of Irish Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2002
This year it was Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic(Jonathan Cape). It’s 1951 and Henry Smart is back – with a wooden leg and the makers of The Quiet Man. This, the third novel in the series, is alive with Doyle’s brilliant, quiet risk. And don’t worry if you’ve missed the first two novels. His first chapter takes you right in and gives you swift flashes of the past and what you may have missed. So much of memory is explored here, and time’s passage, with an older Henry renegotiating the past. Doyle can’t write a false note. Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Roomwas also outstanding, and I was sorry it didn’t win the Booker. In Galgut’s hands strangeness becomes palpable, and he seems constantly to ask – and always in fresh language – what is there to be said? His publishers may have pushed it out as a novel, but between these covers I read three marvellous stories. Despite its Booker nomination this book could be reconsidered and sent out to contend for the next Frank O’Connor award.
- Claire Keegan’s novella Fostercame out in September
Anthony Cronin’s The Fall(New Island) has marvellous poems in it which are formally perfect, wise, surprising, filled with dark knowledge and animated by a glittering mind. The novels I enjoyed this year included Emma Donoghue’s Room, which has a way of turning difficult material into something life-enhancing, almost funny, but always engaging. Hugo Hamilton’s Hand in the Firemanages to capture our strange society via the eyes of a Serbian immigrant, a man on whom nothing is lost. Every detail in the book, indeed every piece of rhythm, has a funny and unexpected truth. I got enormous pleasure from Andrew O’Hagan’s The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe(Faber), which is ingeniously told from the point of view of the dog, who has read Montaigne and Plato, and can see into our souls. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes(Chatto Windus) is an exquisitely described search for a lost family and a lost time. From the moment you open the book you are in an old Europe fully re-created.
- Colm Tóibín’s short-story collection The Empty Familywas published last month
Siobhán Creaton’s A Mobile Fortune(Aurum) is a fascinating insight into the life and times of the businessman Denis O’Brien. We are left to wonder at the end of it will he ever escape the shadow cast over him by the Moriarty tribunal, no matter what philanthropic deeds he does. Trevor White’s The Dubliner Diaries(Lilliput) and Peter Cunningham’s Capital Sins(New Island) are books I thoroughly enjoyed, one dealing with the real-life travails of magazine proprietor White, the other with fictional property developer Albert Barr, his eccentric wife, Medb-Marie, and their fall from Celtic Tiger glory. Both books contain some very funny moments and remind us of that recently departed “golden age” when excess was all the rage. Damon Galgut’s Booker-shortlisted book, In a Strange Room,is most readable. I interviewed him on the radio show about his childhood cancer, and the trauma of that experience and the wisdom it instilled in him are evident in his writing.
- John Murray presents The John Murray Showon RTÉ Radio 1, Monday-Friday
Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel’s Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) tells how the son of penniless Roscommon emigrants became the most powerful voice on the US supreme court in the modern era. Appointed by a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, he became the most liberal voice on the highest court in the land. Brennan shaped the contemporary American landscape like no other figure and was the key justice in cases such as Roe v Wade and issues such as the death penalty, right to privacy, affirmative action and women’s rights. Jonathan Schneer’s The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab Israeli Conflict(Bloomsbury) is an inside look at the 1917 Balfour declaration by the British government, which created the conditions for the state of Israel to be established. In David Lynch’s When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out,USA Today’s global economic correspondent explains the Irish downfall in an easy, practical way for American audiences. It’s written sympathetically, and the confounding collapse is described not in dry economic terms but vividly through the eyes of people in Ireland who lived through it.
- Niall O’Dowd’s memoir An Irish Voicecame out in March
Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death(Harmony Books) is a disturbing but valuable antidote to the he-wasn’t-that-bad nostalgia that, in some American media circles at least, has accompanied the publication of George W Bush’s recent memoir. It tells the harrowing story of how US soldiers nearly got away with the rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, her murder and those of her six-year-old sister and parents in one of the most brutal and wicked crimes of Bush’s (and Blair’s) Iraq war. A sad and bloody metaphor for the whole thing. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machineis Michael Lewis’s account of the few bright sparks who made money out of the crash that also manages to explain CDOs and derivatives to simple souls like me. Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America (Spiegel Grau) traces the origin of the crisis to America’s mindless addiction to free markets. The better book of the two; riveting but depressing.
- Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Irelandwas published in March
Surely I will not be alone in choosing Seamus Heaney’s Human Chainas my poetry book of the year. In this latest collection the poet ventures into the land of the dead and, characteristically, finds it teeming with life. This is celebratory, joyful and gloriously accomplished work. Max Hastings’s Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord, 1940-45(HarperPress) is a wonderfully vivid account of Churchill at war, written with the meticulousness of first-rate history and the immediacy of old-hand reportage. Love Sex Death Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature– the title itself is irresistible – by John Sutherland and Stephen Fender (Icon Books), is an enjoyable and entirely arbitrary romp through a leap year of anecdotes, from January 1st and the vexed history of the copyright of Peter Pan to the December 31st publication of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, with stops along the way to visit Nietzsche at his typing lessons and Alexander Pope at his doctor’s. Good, clean, harmless fun.
- Elegy for April,by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, came out in April
In Chris Binchy’s new novel, Five Days Apart(Harper), two friends – sensitive, diligent David and silver-tongued wastrel Alex – fall out over the beautiful Camille. It’s an age-old story brought to electrifying life by Binchy’s taut, staccato prose and his ultravivid rendering of contemporary Dublin. Heartfelt and profoundly moving; read it, but, be warned, you probably will cry. The Askby Sam Lipsyte (Old Street Publishing) is a scathing, filthy, bleak novel set in New York, featuring overeducated deadbeat Milo Burke and his flaccid attempts to hang on to his wife and son. There is a character called Vargina; if you think that’s funny, you will love this book. On Kindness(Penguin), by the historian Barbara Taylor and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, is a short, brilliant account of the most mysterious and compelling of human qualities. We’re constantly encouraged to think of ourselves as motivated by selfishness, yet every day we encounter acts of generosity that totally contradict this notion. Why kindness attracts us, why it frightens us, why we need it – in the current climate of financial paranoia these questions couldn’t be more timely.
- Paul Murray’s Skippy Diesis shortlisted for the Costa Novel award
New Labour’s ejection from office in the UK has led to a rash of books. The memoirs of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have their strong points, but for my money the best account is Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party(Penguin) – witty and gossipy but revealing about the nature of power, and of the “project”, as they would say. Another eye-opener – and a cracking read – is Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (Penguin), about the 2008 US presidential race. Quite apart from its explanation of how and why Obama ran, it shines a powerful – and sometimes unflattering – light on some of the other candidates. It certainly changed my view of John Edwards. There’s a couple of books I’m looking forward to reading over Christmas, including Ryan Tubridy’s JFK in Ireland(Collins) and the latest Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, T he Oh My God Delusion (Penguin Ireland), but, among books I’ve actually read, my last pick is Tom Garvin’s News from a New Republic(Gill&Macmillan). Entertaining, illuminating and thought-provoking in equal measure, it uses newspapers from the decade to explore what life was really like in the 1950s.
- David McCullagh’s The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A Costellocame out last month
Fintan O’Toole’s Enough Is Enoughis a provocative assault on some of the notions we Irish hold dear. Insisting that we have yet to truly “declare a republic”, O’Toole reminds us that “Irish people have a very weak sense of ownership of the state, but a very strong sense of local belonging”. He quotes John McGahern’s observation that “news no longer local is of no interest”. McGahern is represented by his great short story The Keyin The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story,edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright. Enright includes work by everyone from Frank O’Connor to his namesake, Joseph O’Connor, who has managed to extend the purview of Ireland to include “Doc Martens and a Public Enemy T-shirt”. Leaving Chuck D and Flavor Flav to one side for a moment, the Irish song tradition was best represented this year by Len Graham’s memoir of Joe Holmes: Here I Am Amongst You(Four Courts Press), with its anthology of some of the great pieces sung by Holmes, including Come Tender-Hearted Christians,that majestic account of Roddy MacCorley on the bridge of Toome. One of the highlights of the poetry year was Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain, a collection that includes a beautiful poem called Eelworks, with its portrait of a young man coming “a-courting / In the fish factor’s house” and the test set by her family “to eat with them / An eel supper” in the vicinity of that same bridge of Toome.
- Paul Muldoon’s collection Maggotwas published last month
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Claire Keegan’s long short story Foster, published in a single volume by Faber, is vintage Keegan. Set in rural Ireland, it concerns a confused young girl negotiating the reticent adults who make up her extended family and a tragedy that is hidden by them. Foster unfolds at a majestically slow pace, and has beautiful detail and sparse, pitch-perfect dialogue. A moving and keenly observed story. Grace Wells’s When God Has Called Away to Greater Things(Dedalus) is an accomplished debut poetry collection from a writer of children’s novels. Wells’s poetry documents a journey from dark to bright times and, ultimately, to love. She examines domestic violence in all its unglory and finds comfort in the natural world. A strong, hopeful book. The singer-poet Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, about her intense relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is a compelling, lyrical read that documents their time as lovers and muses in 1960s New York. It’s headlong, sparky and intimate, and features Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Susan Sontag et al.
- Nuala Ní Choncúir’s novel Youwas published this year