The year in books: who read what in 2005
Some of Ireland's most avid readers tell Belinda McKeon which fiction, biography, history, poetry et al has excited them this year
Brian Lynch's novel, The Winner of Sorrow (New Island, €14.99), a fiction on the life of 19th-century English poet William Cowper, is at once moving, instructive and slyly funny - that rare thing, a recuperation of a poet by a poet. Christmas gift of the year is surely EH Gombrich's re-found classic, A Little History of the World (Yale, £14.99). This is a magical work for children, written in six weeks when Gombrich was a young and impecunious scholar. Perfect for bedtime reading. Sourest read of the year was Elias Canetti's Party in the Blitz: The London Years (Harvill, £17.99). Canetti, born in Bulgaria into a family of Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, settled in London in 1938. He knew everyone, and in this final instalment of memoirs published after his death, he takes his revenge on most of them - in particular, and most scandalously, Iris Murdoch, with whom he had an affair. Do not read this one in bed: it would burn a hole in the blankets.
John Banville's novel, The Sea (Picador), won this year's Man Booker Prize. His thriller, Quirke, will be published by Picador in autumn 2006 under the pseudonym Benjamin Black
Lyn Smith is one of the earnest English historians recording for posterity the memories of those who have endured wars and massacres - and the extremely dangerous and dodgy task of witnessing history. I myself have submitted to the questions of the Imperial War Museum's Middle East archives (a humbling experience) for the future, and I can think of no more powerful volume than Smith's Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women Who Survived (Ebury Press, £19.99), a devastating account of the suffering of the European Jews, recollected today - long after the Jewish Holocaust - when those survivors, who have never felt able to talk before, at last bear their souls before death. Nothing can compare to this tragedy save for that of the Armenians of 1915, who lost 1.5 million of their people more than two decades before the murder of six million Jews. Read this book, and wonder how humour survived amid hell.
Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East was published by Fourth Estate in October
One of the best novels I read this year was Barry McCrea's The First Verse (Carroll & Graf, $14.95). This novel, a debut by a young Irish writer and professor at Yale, is not a cat's cradle of sophistication, as you might suspect. Instead, it is a passionate story of young love and confusion set against a phantasmagoric background of a fog-swept Trinity College haunted by obsessive young bookworms. The prose is masterful, the plot is unrelentingly fascinating. For a hundred years, Ireland has provided the English-speaking world with its most eloquent writers; bizarrely, the latest addition to this pantheon is as yet unavailable in this country.
I'm someone who is very wary of the dogmatism of psychoanalysts, but Adam Phillips is a true exception. In Going Sane: Maps of Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99), he announces: "The sane, kind person believes that getting on with people (including oneself) is more important than knowing or understanding people." That places Phillips in the same league as Emerson, not Freud.
Edmund White's autobiography, My Lives, was published by Bloomsbury in September
As a Beatles fan I couldn't wait to get stuck into John, by Cynthia Lennon (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), and it didn't disappoint. I'd heard all the stories about her finding Yoko and John together, but to read it all from Cynthia's side put a new perspective on the relationship and its somewhat inevitable demise. Speaking of relationships, Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, by Kate Kerrigan (Papermac, £12.99), was a book I picked up at the airport and this mouth-watering girl-meets-boy read with an Irish-American flavour was perfect plane material. More recently I was blown away by The Rooms, by Declan Lynch (Hot Press Books, €14.99), the story of a former rock star who is a recovering alcoholic. Lynch has an intimate and honest writing style that really got under my skin. The best novel I've read this year by far.
Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times journalist. Her Pieces of Me: A Life-in-Progress was published by Hodder Headline in September
Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Fourth Estate, £12.99) sounds, on paper, like one of those diabolical confessional memoirs so popular these days: how to navigate the dangerous waters of grief after the death of your husband of 40 years when your only child is in a coma in hospital. But Didion's ferociously controlled, brilliantly wrought disquisition into life's terrible happenstances is a small masterpiece - a book about the wilder frontiers of emotional bereavement which succeeds so brilliantly because it refuses to embrace all the easy melodramatic options, and instead casts a cold eye on the random nature of tragedy.
And being one of those curious sorts who believes that serious fiction can also be popular (and readable), I hugely admired Ian McEwan's Saturday (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), a novel which says more about the way we live now than assorted navel-gazing posturings from that dubious summit called High Art.
Douglas Kennedy's novel, State of the Union, was published this year by Hutchinson
Faced with the issue of Turkey's membership of the European Union, Orhan Pamuk's Snow (Faber, £7.99) told me more about this candidate country than myriad reports. It is a well-written and fascinating tale full of insights. Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way (Faber, £12.99) continues his family saga of engagement with the birth pains of the modern Irish State. Barry's style catches the complexities that conflicted so many people in Ireland between 1916 and 1922. France has been much in the news these days. Understanding this country is never easy. Rod Kedward's history, La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900 (Allen Lane, £30), is particularly good. He takes a comprehensive view of the great republic from 1900 to the 1950s. Highly informative, it gives the reader a new insight into the dilemma presently facing France.
Ruairi Quinn's memoir, Straight Left: A Journey in Politics, was published by Hodder Headline Ireland in September
This year I read three outstanding works of European history. Zara Steiner published the first volume of her long-awaited history of inter-war Europe, The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 (Clarendon Press, £35). This is an exemplary work of narrative history: encyclopaedic in its scope, impeccable in its scholarship, sober and thoughtful in its assessments. Ivan's War: The Red Army 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale (Faber, £20), is a marvellous book. Prof Merridale has interviewed hundreds of survivors and witnesses; she writes in a clear, unpretentious style and shows rare compassion for her subject - and her subjects. This year also saw the republication, in a single volume, of Leszek Kolakowski's 1978 three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism (WW Norton & Co, £30). It is still the best book ever written on its subject. It is also a reminder of the matchless intellectual reach and moral engagement of the 20th century central European intelligentsia. Kolakowski is the last of his kind; we shall not see his like again.
Tony Judt is professor of European studies at New York University. His Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was published by Heinemann in October
Among the Irish books that stood out this year were John McGahern's Memoir (Faber, £16.99), a brilliant account of his childhood and young manhood in an Ireland that seems at once remote and all too recognisable, as when the banning of The Dark leaves him "a little ashamed that our own independent country was making a fool of itself yet again". The Dark was published in 1965, the year in which Robert Lowell fired off a letter to Lyndon B Johnson to say that he could "only follow our present foreign policy with the greatest dismay and distrust". The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (Faber, £30), makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in this most heavily engaged, and heavy-gauge, of mid-20th-century poets.
Paul Muldoon was awarded the Aspen Prize for Poetry in June. His 10th collection, Horse Latitudes, will be published in 2006, as will his Oxford lectures in poetry, The End of the Poem
Joan Didion and John McGahern, both brilliant novelists and serious stylists, produced remarkable memoirs this year. Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking deals, in painstaking and heartbreaking detail, with the death of her husband and the illness of her daughter. McGahern's Memoir describes - using calm, perfectly pitched rhythms and cadences - the death of his mother and his upbringing at the hands of his father. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber, £16.99) is by far the best recent book on the Bard, dealing with the year in which he wrote both Julius Caesar and Hamlet. In poetry, Derek Mahon's Harbour Lights (Gallery, €11.50 pbk), Conor O'Callaghan's Fiction (Gallery, €11.50 pbk) and Nick Laird's To a Fault (Faber, £8.99) were the most exciting books of poetry published anywhere in 2005.
Colm Tóibín's novel, The Master (Picador), won this year's Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France) and is longlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for 2006
I found Don't Wake Me at Doyles, Maura Murphy's simply told story of her life (Hodder Headline, €10.99), to be one of the most gripping I have read in ages. Though dealing with the familiar themes of the miserable Irish childhood and harassed mother, I really felt I was inside her world. Conor Brady's Up with the Times (Gill & Macmillan, €24.99) deals with the rapid changes of the past two decades in Irish society and has plenty of tidbits for those interested in how news coverage has evolved. Other favourites were Dervla Murphy's Through Siberia by Accident (John Murray, £18.99), a magical revelation of the hidden corner of the world that is post-communist Russia, and Born Fighting, by James Webb (Broadway Books, $14.95 ), which explores how the Scots-Irish who emigrated to America in the 1700s have shaped today's US.
Carole Coleman's Alleluia America! An Irish Journalist in Bush Country was published in September by The Liffey Press
What cubism is to painting, Alan Bennett's Untold Stories (Faber, £20) is to literature - by writing about himself from many perspectives, Bennett shows himself in the round. In Women's World (Atlantic Books, £15.99), Graham Rawle uses only text lifted from 1950s women's magazines to narrate the story of a selfish transvestite in an English midlands town. Unique. Two Lives by Vikram Seth (Little, Brown, £20) is a resolutely unfashionable and deeply moving account of the marriage of the author's Indian great-uncle and his Berlin-born Jewish wife; it is also a micro-history of the 20th century. And not since Salinger wrote about the Glass family has anyone written as well or tenderly about a large rumbustious family as Emma Richler in Feed My Dear Dogs (Fourth Estate, £17.99).
Carlo Gébler's The Siege of Derry, A History (Little, Brown) will be published in paperback in March. The Bull Raid, a new version of the Táin or Cattle Raid of Cooley will follow from Egmont Books in July
Ruth Padel's Tigers in Red Weather (Little, Brown, £17.95) is a story of personal exploration as captivating for the beauty of the writing as for the drama of the narrator's adventures in pursuit of tigers. Padel trails an endangered and elusive species across a whole planet. I was mutinous at first, as I am not a natural worrier about animal ecology, but I was convinced by the end of the book that something must be done to check the ravages of human greed. The most extraordinary novel I have read this year was Orhan Pamuk's Snow , a political thriller about the spiritual ambiguities of the non-Western world, set in a part of Turkey we know far too little about. The book is at once alarming and tender about the situation of women, and the conflicts between secular and extremist Islam. Of the many books of poetry I have enjoyed this year, Alan Jenkins's A Shorter Life (Chatto & Windus, £9.00) is both the most poignant and the least sentimental, while Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture (Picador, £12.99) is a triumph: more intense and more lyrical than anything else in her recent work.
Elaine Feinstein's Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova was published in June by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Our sense of the past is shaped by the tension between dispassionate research and imaginative sympathy. Given the revival of competing political claims to the legacy of the Irish revolution, it is perhaps just as well that this has been a very good year for lucid, accessible accounts of what happened in the early years of the 20th century. Charles Townshend's Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (Penguin, £20), Peter Hart's Mick: The Real Michael Collins (Macmillan, €30) and Donal Nevin's James Connolly: A Full Life (Macmillan, €29.99) all move beyond either hagiography or demonology and seek to restore the complexity of real, flawed people trying to make history. Sebastian Barry's novel A Long Long Way, with its interweaving of horror and beauty, animates that humanity with a deeply moving compassion. Hovering somewhere between these factual and fictional approaches is Don Akenson's funny, playful and richly suggestive An Irish History of Civilisation, Vol I (Granta, £30), which raises, in a brilliantly entertaining form, profound questions about nationality, identity and historical narrative itself.
Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist. His White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America was published by Faber in August
Charles Townshend's Easter 1916 : The Irish Rebellion achieves what might have been thought impossible: a dispassionate account of the rebellion that enters into the minds of those who conceived and participated in it. T Ryle Dwyer's The Squad (Mercier, €12.99) is a gripping account of the operations of Collins's men in Dublin, which draws heavily on interviews conducted by the Bureau of Military History. It is haunting and atmospheric: the streets connecting Dublin Castle and the detective division headquarters in Great Brunswick Street - now Pearse Street Garda Station - yield up their ghosts. There You Are: Writings on Irish and American Literature and History (New York Review Books, £16.99) is a collection of the beautifully-rendered essays of Thomas Flanagan, the Irish-American novelist and critic who died in 2002. The finest are on the relationship of Yeats and Joyce - a tale of two towers, Ballylee and Martello - and on Joyce and Irish history, a rhapsody on knife blades. William Laffan's handsome edition of Samuel Chearnley's Miscellanea Structura Curiosan (Churchill House Press, €85.00), disinterred from Birr Castle, is a delight.
Frank Callanan edited The Literary and Historical Society 1955-2005, published by A & A Farmar in March
Peter Hart's Mick: The Real Michael Collins demythologises Michael Collins. I found it challenging and provocative. It's also very well written and would be accessible, I think, to younger generations. The two Irish Booker contenders - John Banville's The Sea and Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way were wonderful summer reading. Utterly contrasting themes but both entirely absorbing. Also, Neil Belton's A Game with Sharpened Knives (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £10.99). Karen McGlinchey's Charades (Macmillan, £10.99) places the Donegal Garda scandals in their political and social context. The book got little profile and deserves a wider readership. Paul Carson's Dublin-based crimethrillers run on improbable plots. But they carry the reader along. His latest, Betrayal (Heinemann, £10.99) is set in a Dublin prison. Aeroplane reading but a bit of fun. Don't Believe It - How Lies Become News (Disinformation Co, £9.99) by Alexandra Kitty should be compulsory for anyone in the media business.
Conor Brady's Up with the Times was published by Gill & Macmillan in October
In March I read The Accidental (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) by Ali Smith and was fascinated by how she got such propulsion into what could have been an experimental novel; absolutely instinctive, deeply pleasurable prose. John McGahern's Memoir was upsetting and perfect; but also in places severely funny, which is a great victory in face of the subject matter. I read Dermot Bolger's The Family on Paradise Pier (Fourth Estate, £17.99), amazed at its historical and emotional range, and all of it wonderfully interesting and empassioned. Bill Kissane's The Politics of the Irish Civil War (OUP, €58) enters authoritatively into an area still shrouded in trauma and a particular sort of silence.
Sebastian Barry's novel A Long Long Way was published by Faber in April and shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. He will take up the Heimbold Chair in Irish Studies at Villanova University, Philadelphia, in January
Fearghal McGarry's Eoin O'Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (OUP, £25) is a superb biography. Absorbing and convincing, it illuminates far more than its nominal subject. Fergus Campbell's Land and Revolution: Nationalist Politics in the West of Ireland, 1891-1921 (OUP, £55) represents the best kind of history: argumentative in its approach and challenging in its conclusions. In Hurling: The Revolution Years (Penguin Ireland, €14.99), Denis Walsh artfully frames the words of the players to lay bare the emotional dynamics of their teams.
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (Perennial, £7.99 pbk) makes brilliant use of the supernatural to depict ordinary good and evil. Who else writing in English can match the range and intimate power of her work? Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (Harvill, £14.99) brings us, step by step, into the black hole at the heart of modern European history. Moving and numbing, it is a very great novel.
Peter Hart is the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His Mick: The Real Michael Collins was published by Macmillan in October
The R Crumb Handbook (MQ Publications, £14.99) is a half-century retrospective on cult cartoonist Robert Crumb, well blended with autobiography and Crumb's never ponderous critiques of commercial junk-culture. Ever since going to San Francisco for some free love and ingesting some chemicals, Crumb has been stimulating those who like their obscenity hallucinogenic, humorous and sometimes reflective. Another retrospective, Heaven Lies About Us (Cape, £11.99), forms a collection of some of the highlights of Eugene McCabe's shorter fiction from over the last 30 years. And a translation into English (by Raymond Stock) of Naguib Mahfouz's The Dreams (AUC Press, $19.95) offers surreal short sketches and fragments from a master of the historical epic. Mahfouz is to Cairo what Joyce is to Dublin, but is practically unread outside the Arab world.
Philip Ó'Ceallaigh's debut collection of short stories, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, will be published by Penguin Ireland in February
The adjective "Chekhovian" is often a patronising shorthand for a kind of naturalistic, plain-vanilla fiction. Pevear and Volokhonsky's new translation of The Complete Short Novels (Vintage USA, $15) is a reminder of how hard, sorrowful and strange Chekhov really is. Many established writers published the literary equivalent of video games this year - badly-drawn parodies of the real thing. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (Virago, £14.99) was different, a novel of religious scruple, theological argument, jealousy and old age.
Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Heinemann, £25) is written with the omniscient tone that fellows of King's display like tail feathers, but it is vigorous, brilliant and persuasive.
Neil Belton's novel A Game With Sharpened Knives was published in May by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and will appear in paperback in March
Two of the books I really enjoyed in the past year were Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Aimee Bender's book of stories, Willful Creatures (Doubleday, $23). Even though the two books are very different at first glance - Gilead is a meditation on life, responsibility, history and future, Willful Creatures a collection of playful and whimsical stories about the most neglected corners of human hearts - I admire the two books for the same reason: the way their authors distill life into fine fiction with their unique wisdom and insights. Reading them side by side, I am amazed at how much fiction represents the complexity of us as human beings and the world in which we dwell; and fiction is considered by some as no longer of any importance.
The Beijing writer Yiyun Li won the first Frank O'Connor International Short Story competition - inaugurated as part of the Cork 2005 celebrations - in September for her first collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In January, Fourth Estate will publish the collection in the UK
Two books in particular have irritated me this year in a very positive and challenging way: Cruthú na Gaeltachta 1893-1922 by Caitríona Ó Torna (Cois Life, €16), which examines the idea of "An Ghaeltacht" from many different angles, and Trén bhFearann Breac by Máirín Nic Eoin (Cois Life, €20), a complete re-assessment of modern Irish literature that was published earlier in the year along with Michael Cronin's equally stimulating parallel essays An Ghaeilge san Aois Nua/Irish in the New Century (Cois Life, €12). These and Darach Ó Scolaí's new play, Ag Coinneáil Orainn (Leabhar Breac, €9), have showered me with new perspectives.
Two other books that moved me this year were Feis na nGleann: A Century of Gaelic Culture in the Antrim Glens, edited by Eamon Phoenix, Pádraic Ó Cléireacháin, Eileen McAuley, and Nuala McSparran (Feis na nGleann & Stair Uladh, €11.83) and I Met Murder on the Way: The Story of the Pearsons of Coolacrease, written and published by Alan Stanley (€13.99).
Liam McCóil's novel, Fontenoy, was published this year by Leabhar Breac
This year the books that have really appealed to me are ones that are set in reality but with universes in which the rules and laws are changed, the boundaries blurred. Examples of this are The Olive Readers by Christine Aziz (Macmillan, £14.99) and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber, £16.99). Another theme in my favourite reads of the year is the main character's deep love for books and their respective sacred, secret libraries. This theme is in The Olive Readers, but another stunning example is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Phoenix, £7.99 pbk). Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Kate Kerrigan tells the tale of how the character's unearthing of her grandmother's recipe book helps her to find the ingredients to help her marriage.
Cecelia Ahern's third novel, If You Could See Me Now, was published by Harper Collins last month. Her novel PS, I Love You has been longlisted for the 2006 Impac prize
Ready or Not (Macmillan, £9.99) is the latest book from Meg Cabot. What's great about Cabot's writing is that, although she puts her heroines in outlandish, crazy situations (Sam, first seen in All American Girl, is famous for saving the president - and is now dating his son), they deal with these situations in extremely realistic and identifiable ways. Funny and astute. Secondly, in Prom (Hodder, £5.99) Laurie Halse Anderson - who brought us the fantastic Speak in 2001 - spins a modern-day fairytale about an average girl who intends to avoid the prom and move in with her unambitious boyfriend after graduating, but finds herself being the one who'll end up saving the day - and the dance.
Claire Hennessy has written six novels for young adults, most recently Afterwards, published by Poolbeg in September
For poetry, as well as excellent new collections by Alice Oswald and David Harsent, there is Carol Rumens's Poems, 1968-2004 (Bloodaxe, £12). It brings together the work of a generous, passionate, virtuosic poet whose work should be far better known. Geoff Dyer's book of essays on photography, The Ongoing Moment, (Little, Brown, £20) is as brilliant and idiosyncratic as you'd expect from him. And two splendid books of short stories: Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Robert Chandler (Penguin Classics, £9.99), is a must, containing two stories by Platonov as well as by the famous and less famous, and Rose Tremain's stories in The Darkness of Wallis Simpson (Chatto & Windus, £14.99) are a gift: I can't think of a better sentence-to-sentence writer of fiction. Darkness, as the book title says. And wit.
George Szirtes's collection Reel (Bloodaxe) won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry in January
The books I enjoyed this year were all novels, except for John McGahern's beautiful evocation of his formative years in Memoir. There was to it an honesty and clarity that we can all only hope to some day possess. My favourite novel was Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I had a notion of the big revelation due to the advance publicity but that didn't spoil it for me. It was a lesson on how to throw out crumbs of information to the reader. Ian McEwan's Saturday wasn't up there with his best but I still enjoyed it, except for the raid on the protagonist's home near the end. As he says himself, he can't help adding a bit of the fear factor into his books.
Pure Mule, written by Eugene O'Brien for Accomplice TV, aired on RTÉ in September and won five IFTA awards