Human spirit triumphant in our writers' and critics' favourite reads
Published 14/12/2008 | 00:00
Three Irish novels really impressed me this year. Carlo Gebler's A Good Day For A Dog (Lagan Press) is a remarkably compelling novel about a career criminal who lives within the strict code of his own peculiar version of morality.
It takes huge insight to make us care for such a figure, to not glamorise his deeds, but to frame them in the context of a life where he needs to grasp the only moral code that make sense to him.
Peter Cunningham has reinvented his native Waterford, which he rechristens Monument, in a rich series of novels. His latest is the wonderfully intriguing The Sea and The Silence (New Island), where he gives us a compelling account of his central characters from 1945 to the present day and -- in an act of storytelling mastery -- gives us as a pre-sequel that turns our assumptions about them on their head by revealing their lives in a different light.
Like Cunningham, Sebastian Barry is a master of the linked imaginative universe. His impressive The Secret Scripture (Faber) is the story of an unquenchable soul, who suffers great hurt but refuses to be bitter or twisted by a narrow society, no matter what wrongs it inflicts upon her. This superb book continues Barry's exploration of figures from Irish history.
Dermot Bolger's latest book is 'Night & Day: 24 Hours in the Life of Dublin City'
I loved Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus). He writes comic thrillers and is often called the Scottish Carl Hiaasen.
He's very funny, sharp and his books are always a comment on society. This one's about a psychic and it seems as if he is the real thing. He agrees to undergo scientific tests, so it's about science versus the spiritual. The way he writes, there's a great energy and verve with ideas flying fast. High expectations surrounded Zoe Heller's The Believers (Fig Tree) and I loved it. It's about a dysfunctional Jewish family living in New York, about a patriarch who as a Jew defends Arabs. The characters are very believable and recognisable. It's very un-PC which I love, unputdownable and shockingly funny.
A Life's Work On Becoming A Mother by Rachel Cusk (Faber) is actually a re-issue. People went mad for it when it first came out. It's her story of becoming a mother, the absolute shock, the death of her old self and, even when she was pregnant, how she felt she had become public property. If she had a glass of wine in public, people would practically stone her. When she had the baby, people just expected that she would be loved-up and not utter a word of complaint.
It's about how the child is king in society, how the mother ceases to exist, she's just an adjunct to take care of the child. She's really honest about the resentment and the guilt. I thought it was a great thing that she tried to reclaim womanhood -- that you can still be a mother and still be yourself.
Marian Keyes' latest book, 'This Charming Man', is now out (Penguin)
The best read I had in 2008 was The Secret Scripture (Faber) by Sebastian Barry. Barry's exquisite prose explores the relationship between history and truth, musing on how accounts of the past inevitably conflict.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury) won her the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. The eight stories tell of characters from the Bengali community in the US and how they navigate unfamiliar landscapes, both physical and emotional.
Wolf Totem (Penguin) is Jiang Rong's engaging saga about the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Stories of the interdependence of nomads, their livestock and wild wolves as each struggles to survive unfold into an argument about how modernity can destroy the wisdom of ancient simplicity. Wolf Totem won the first Man Asian Literary Prize and mirrors Rong's experiences in the Seventies.
Sean Rocks is a broadcaster and journalist
My three books of the year are all Irish. Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields (Faber) is from 2007, but I only caught up with it this year. Her short stories hang mysteriously between the bleakly enclosed Ireland, that gave us generations of literary tradition and today's Ireland with its eyes firmly fixed on the jet streams shimmering their way to thrusting lives as far apart as the US and the Far East. They feed from both, and diminish the force of neither.
David Park's The Truth Commissioner (Bloomsbury) is possibly one of the most important and one of the best novels to come out of the uneasy truce that is Northern Ireland's self-loathing society. Park's eye is uncompromisingly pessimistic. It is also rigorously judgmental: he portrays an eternally ugly cauldron that can never be a melting pot; tragically, his writing is so convincing you can only agree with him. A moral tract for the sentimental morons who blather on about "building on optimisim".
Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture haunts me. The alternately told memoirs of a 100-year-old woman immured by her husband's family in a mental hospital for the sins of joy and beauty, and the psychiatrist registrar who battles with his own sorrowful life while trying to unravel that of his patient, are Barry acting as judge and jury on post- independence Ireland, his poetic lyricism undimmed, but his anger an increasing drum-beat: a masterpiece.
Emer O'Kelly is theatre critic of the Sunday Independent
Great Irish Lives (Harper Collins) edited by Charles Lysaght is a selection of 100 obituaries of famous Irish men and women published in the Times of London since 1820.
Apart from political leaders from Daniel O'Connell to Haughey, it includes writers such as Beckett, Yeats and Molly Keane; theatre personalities such as Mac Liammoir and Siobhan McKenna; as well as artists such as Sir John Lavery and my own great grand-aunt, Sarah Purser. A great book to dip into and an excellent Christmas buy.
My next choice is Duncan Hewitt's account of life in the new China, Getting Rich First (Vintage). He gives poignant examples of how development has bulldozed its way through art deco houses and the old lanes of Shanghai to provide multi-storey car parks.
John Julius Norwich's autobiography Trying to Please (Dovecote Press) is an entertaining account of his achievements and combines the simpler pleasures of country life with travel -- including annual trips to Wexford's Opera Festival.
Jane Blunden writes Brandt travel guides to Mongolia
Anne Marie Scanlon
This Charming Man by Marian Keyes (Penguin) centres around a handsome and charismatic politician. In private, Paddy has a darker side, revealed by the stories of four women linked to him. Despite the controversial subject matter, this is Keyes at her best, making us laugh and think simultaneously.
Although a fantasy, Nation by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday) is a departure from his Discworld series. Even though this book is aimed at young adults, this touching, life-affirming story never resorts to tweeness and will warm the heart of readers of all ages. Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly) is a collection of wonderfully-written short stories. I'm not normally a fan of the short story, but these beautifully-observed vignettes made me laugh.
Anne Marie Scanlon is a freelance columnist
David Park's The Truth Commissioner imagines a future in which a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been established in Northern Ireland. It is a brave writer who ventures into such territory, but this is a tour de force. Ultimately, it is not a novel about politics at all. Its preoccupation is the private, the battleground of the self, and it approaches the mysterious with an unsparing simplicity that yields moments of heart-shivering beauty. A magnificent, important book.
Tim Robinson's Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (Penguin) is written with passion and scholarly scruple, but also with extraordinary grace. Nobody in Ireland writes about landscape as Robinson does, hauling in ideas about mathematics, map-making and language, and rubbing them together until the sparks fly. He's a dizzying, mind-expanding writer, yet he never loses clarity of focus.
The John McGahern Yearbook, Vol 1, the most handsome volume that came my way this year, is a magnificent collection of writings about that genius whose work is so cherished by Irish readers. Edited by John Kenny at NUI Galway, the book is full of beautiful photographs, highly readable essays and facsimiles of McGahern's own corrected typescripts. A beautiful limited-edition hardback, it would make a treasured gift for any admirer of McGahern. For details of how to obtain a copy, email fiona.dwyer@ nuigalway.ie.
'Redemption Falls', Joseph O'Connor most recent novel, has been nominated for the IMPAC award
The Snake Stone (Faber) is historian Jason Goodwin's sequel to the Edgar Award-winning The Janissary Tree, a literary thriller set in 19th-century Istanbul and featuring Yashim, formerly a eunuch at the sultan's court and now a private investigator. Beautifully written, Goodwin's tale is engaged with exploring the exotic fleshpot of a teeming, multi-cultural Istanbul even as it uncovers the mystery Yashim is persuaded to solve.
In The Truth Commissioner, David Park uses a fictional device to examine the political hinterland of contemporary Northern Ireland. Three characters, all of whom were connected with the murder of a teenage boy during the Eighties, are called to account by the British civil servant appointed to helm the commission. Another literary thriller, this is distinguished by exquisite prose and its ambition to be considered the first great post-Troubles novel. Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (Cape) is a picaresque exploration of two great cultures, that of Renaissance Florence and its equivalent at the court of Akbar the Great, emperor of the Mughal empire. Warm and funny, by turns tender and brutal, its epic scale provides the framework for a tour-de-force in storytelling. A shimmering jewel of a novel.
Declan Burke is a journalist and author. His latest novel is The Big O
I was transported by The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry's haunting story of an old woman, betrayed, abandoned and incarcerated in a mental asylum. This novel succeeds on many levels: Barry's shining prose, the evocative backdrop of our tangled history and the novel's central truth: the endurance, dignity and courage of the human spirit.
The Spare Room by Helen Garner (Cangonate) was an exquisitely-crafted novel which dealt with death -- and the indignities and injustices of cancer -- delicately and unflinchingly with humour and humanity. An overlooked gem. In a different vein, Zoe Heller's The Believers was a funny and perceptive take on New York Jewish liberals. She effortlessly comes up to the high standards set in Notes on a Scandal with her priceless dissection of a dysfunctional family.
Madeleine Keane is literary editor of the Sunday Independent
JG Ballard's autobiography Miracles of Life (Fourth Estate) is hugely enjoyable and offers an insight into the mind of a novelist and how the events of a life are subtly transformed by the needs of fiction. Admirers of Empire of the Sun will be intrigued to read that when the teenage Jim was in the Japanese-run internment camp for the duration of the war, his parents and sister were there too, but were written out of the novel. Post-war England horrified Ballard, but he bounced back to write 30 books.
Paul Theroux is in top form in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Hamish Hamilton), in which he retraces the journey he made more than 30 years ago for The Great Railway Bazaar. A wiser, more mellow voice is heard here, and the ability of one of the world's best travel writers to get to the heart of the country he's in is undimmed. A civilised and witty book.
The American novelist Richard Ford edited a fine anthology of his country's short stories in 1992: now he's back with The Granta Book of the American Short Story: Vol 2 (Granta), with some names that will be familiar to the aficionados -- Eudora Welty, John Updike and Raymond Carver -- others that will be new to many of us. A treasure trove; and Volume One has been reissued too.
Ronan Farren is a freelance book critic
It's never easy to narrow a list of favourite books, but here goes. Swimming in a Sea of Death (Granta) is a biography of the Sixties academic and activist Susan Sontag by her son, David Rieff. His careful portrayal of his mother is chilling in its absence of his voice around the brilliant, wilful close friend of photographer, Annie Leibowitz. The book might have been more accurately titled Drowning in a Sea of Death referring to his suffocating experience of his mother -- in death as in life.
The Grass Arena (Penguin), is the reprint of an award-winning title from 1988. This searing autobiography is chess champion John Healy's account of living as a park bench alcoholic. It's a riveting, repulsive, gripping and grotesque account of life on the frontline which wakes every cell in the body -- a beautiful poem. But my favourite title was The Death Of Sigmund Freud -- Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the rise of Fundamentalism (Bloomsbury). Mark Edmundson distills Freud's complex theories and personality, while telling the story of the grandfather of psychoanalysis's forced exile from Austria. The author's juicy writing style and deep understanding of his subject made this read like a page-turning thriller.
Christina Reihill is a poet and psychotherapist. Find out about her work at www.soulburgers.net