Right. Books of the Year. Or rather, the books published this year that I read this year.
I’m confining myself to books released in 2006, in order to keep retailers, publishers, recently-published authors and their accountants happy.
I didn’t read that many books published in ’06, and most of them were pretty good. This is either because I have no taste, or because I have loads of it when it comes to buying books. One solid conclusion that can be drawn from my purchases is that if you’re a major book retailer, you’ll sell more copies of new releases if you give them a prominent display.
The only stinker I read this year was Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In short: Miss It.
The first ’06 published book I read was The Sailor In The Wardrobe, by Hugo Hamilton. And I liked it a lot. It doesn’t seem to have received the same degree of public attention as Hamilton’s previous memoir, The Speckled People, and this may be because it tackles the same Big Issues – identity, language, memory, history- with a more complex narrative voice than that of the naive child used in the first book. Yet in many ways I found it to be a more satisfying and profound work. I read it in Finland.
Then came Unspeak, by Steven Poole. It is difficult to escape Orwell’s influence these days, which means putting up with, among other things, lots of self-righteous ex-public schoolboys. Yet despite the allusion in the title, there is little of the Orwell bore in the writing. The author has put together a nifty little tome on the deliberate misuse of English language in political discourse. All such misuse he places under the rubric of Unspeak, a neologism which does exactly what it says on the tin. I read most of this in the middle of the night, sitting on the toilet of a boutique hotel room in Paris. Not that there was anything wrong with me; my wife can’t sleep with the light on, so the salle de bains was my only man.
‘Jaw-dropping’ and ‘economic history’ rarely appear in the same sentence, but Adam Tooze’s thumping The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of the Third Reich, may change all that in years to come. Whilst not clued-in enough on the historiography to know exactly what myths Tooze has set out to smash, I can tell you some of the things I learned: that Hitler’s preoccupation with the economic power of the United States was a key factor in his grand strategy for racial war; that his obsessively eliminationist anti-Semitism was in part driven by a view of Roosevelt as the head of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy – there was an overlap between anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism; that the genocide of the Jews was in part a functional component of Hitler’s plans to colonise the east, an undertaking that was intended to entail the starvation of some 30 million people; that far from the tortured soul of popular myth, Albert Speer was an out-and-out Nazi responsible for the death of millions. And there is much more. Horrifying as all this is, this is probably my book of the year.
The basic plot of Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me is a familiar one: man of God narrates his own story about how he was led into temptation. Here, the temptor is a spiky youth called Mark, and the tempted is an Ampleforth and Oxford-educated Catholic priest, who has sought for himself a dreary and apparently uninspiring parish on the east coast of Scotland. (Update: Actually, it’s the west coast. But it’s due east from here, so that’s like, east as far as I’m concerned.) As ever, O’Hagan has absolute control over his prose, intertwining all the Big Issues -history, geography, politics, memory, identity, religion- in an evocative love story, yet he makes it all seem as easy as wandering out for a pint of milk.
Then there was The Damned Utd by David Peace, a novelised account of Brian Clough’s only season with Leeds United. Peace’s Clough was the most compelling literary character I met this year – working class hero, tortured genius, chaotic drunk and quite the bastard. It would be all too easy to consign this to the realm of football literature, but this is a great book about Britain in the 1970s.
Philip Roth’s Everyman fell foul of my ‘three books by the same author in a row’ syndrome. I read the first ten pages, liked it, put it down and picked up another book, Douglas Coupland’s JPod. I read (if reading is the right word) the first 30 pages or so of JPod, didn’t like it, put it down and bought Fidel Castro’s biography with Ignacio Ramonet. That was pretty good, as far as these things go.
I’ll be back to Everyman some time before buying the farm. The outlook for JPod, however, is not good. Other 2006 books I bought but didn’t get around to read are Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen, although Franzen is in with a shout to make it before the year’s end, since I’ve got two plane journeys to make between now and then – one to Spain, and the other back to Ireland again. Unless something catches my eye in the airport on the way back, his will be the last book I read in 2006.
Read about what other Irish bloggers have been reading and recommending here.