First of all, my apologies to my friend Mark Sampson. I know he does a yearly round-up on his own blog, but because I only started blogging in early 2015 I also couldn’t resist doing something similar by looking back at what I read and enjoyed and which otherwise inspired me this year. So in chronological order here’s what I read in 2015:
1. Denton Welch – The Stories of Denton Welch
2. Barbara Pym – Quartet in Autumn
3. Norman Doidge – The Brain’s Way of Healing
4. Barbara Pym – No Fond Return of Love
5. Denton Welch – A Voice through a Cloud
6. Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited
7. Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
8. Edna O’Brien – Mrs. Rheinhardt
9. Marcel Proust – Within a Budding Grove
10. Colin Barrett – Young Skins
11. Mark Sampson – Secrets Men Keep
12. Kevin Barry – Dark Lies the Island
13. Tibor Dery – Niki
14. Edna O’Brien – Saints and Sinners
15. Robert Reinhart – The Consequence of Sex
16. Kate Caley – How You Were Born
17. Don DeLillo – Mao II
18. Thomas McGuane – The Bushwacked Piano
19. Marcel Proust – The Guermantes Way
20. The Journey Prize Stories 27
21. Edward St. Aubyn – On the Edge
22. Alejandro Zambra – My Documents
23. Aleksandar Hemon – Love and Obstacles
24. Russel Smith – Confidence
25. John Valliant – The Jaguar’s Children
26. Kevin Hardcastle – Debris
27. Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
28. James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room
Favourite book this year:
The judges are unanimous. Without a doubt the winner is Colin Barrett’s Young Skins. This is a book of incredibly well-crafted stories and stunning language—not language that’s poetically beautiful, but language that’s completely conscious of itself and never ceases to surprise. Barrett employs a unique "maximalist" prose style that combines formal and informal diction, archaisms, profanity and Irishisms—language that’s “knuckly” as he himself describes in interviews. His stories prove a long-held theory of mine that it’s not so much what the story is about but what the story does that’s the important thing—and what Barrett does is simply magical and captivating. I can’t say enough about this book. You can read my review here.
2015 was also the year I began tackling the Mount Everest of English lit: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a meditation on time and memory that doesn’t just recreate a world that’s long gone but builds an entire universe by virtue of Proust’s rumination on so many aspects of life that is also profoundly vast in scope. And although I’m officially at the halfway point (I plan on starting Volume IV in the New Year), it’s the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, that is my favourite so far. More so than Volumes I and III, Within a Budding Grove is chock-full of Proust's trademark labyrinthine sentences that are some of the most beautiful and memorable I've ever read. You can read more here.
I also read a lot of Denton Welch in 2015. As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, Denton Welch has somehow managed to capture a certain timelessness to his writing in the sense that it continues to feel fresh and contemporary, hardly at all sounding like it was written more than 70 years ago. The solitariness, even loneliness, of his male protagonists, the autobiographical nature of his writing, the unstated homoerotic current that runs through his work—not to mention the sheer beauty of his writing—are qualities that greatly attract me to his fiction, so much so that I feel a strange sort of kinship with Welch that I can't say I feel with any other writer. If asked which dead writer I’d most like to meet, I’d unequivocally answer Denton Welch (although something tells me he’d recoil at the request). His unfinished novel A Voice through a Cloud is one of the best things I read this year.
And then there’s Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I only just recently read. It’s one of those canonical books one feels obliged to read at some point or another. I expected it to be about an unconventional schoolteacher in an all-girls school who leaves a lasting impression on her young charges—something of a Dead Poet’s Society. Well, that’s not exactly what I discovered. Jean Brodie is definitely unconventional. She likes for her students to hold open their history textbooks in case the headmistress should walk by, and for a math formula to be conveniently on the board, but what she really likes to talk to her students about is her former lovers, about art and music, and about Fascism. But what makes this slender novel so great is its structure (again: it's not so much what the story is about but what it does). This is not a linear telling by any means, but more of an onion, a gradual peeling away at what’s really going on at Marcia Blaine School, while seamlessly jumping back and forth between decades in a way that’s redolent of Alice Munro. We know from the outset that the administration is keen on trying to get rid of Brodie; we also know from early on that one of her students effected that dismissal by betraying her, but which one? Midway through, we learn who betrayed her, but it isn’t until the end that we learn the precise details of that betrayal. We also learn that Miss Brodie isn’t just unconventional, but that there is something more insidious happening here, that she has an agenda, and her students are pawns in the game she plays. I love it when a book exceeds expectations, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of them.
Thanks for reading and all the best for 2016!