Gay love, cheese, the Romans, depression, the Third Reich, sexual politics and Peppa Pig — truly all human life is here. Liadan Hynes asked the great and the good to nominate their favourite reads of 2015.
Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (Picador, €19.50/€14.20) was a real surprise. Somebody gave it to me, I’d never heard of it, hadn’t read anything about it, had never heard of the author. And before I knew it, I’d read the whole thing.
It was such a calm, quiet book. At the core, it’s about the struggle of life, but in such a quiet, understated way.
A Little Life, (Hanya Yanagihara, Picador, €25.50/€14.20) was also a surprise. It’s a really extraordinary book. It was maybe a little long, but it’s a very unusual book; not what you expected, an amazing read.
I loved Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape, €25.50/€11.99). There’s something about her books – they reflect our lives back at us. You think ‘oh yes that’s a little bit of me, or my mother.’
And The Long Gaze Back (edited by Sinead Gleeson, New Island Books, €19.99). She didn’t take any shortcuts. There were women you’d never heard of. And even with the big names, she didn’t get the same old thing; she got something new from them.
In the food area, The Sheridan’s Guide to Cheese (Kevin Sheridan, Seamus Sheridan, Transworld Publishers Ltd, €18.99). It’s a beautiful book, and very beautifully presented. My next choice was out last year but it’s a timeless book, The Happy Pear (David Flynn, Stephen Flynn, Penguin Ireland, €22.99). It’s a very happy book, and it’s great for kids going off to college; full of very simple recipes.
The best book of the year overall was Me and My Mate Jeffrey (Niall Breslin, Hachette Books Ireland, €17.99/€13.50). He tells a story to a very vulnerable age group and I think it could save lives. We were both at the Irish Book Awards recently, nominated in the same category, and I had decided if I won I was going to give my award to him. My book is a joke but his is serious. They should have it on the school curriculum. He’ll save kids all over the country for years to come, because they wouldn’t read a self-help book, but they will read this. I think he deserves loads of praise.
The Maximalist (Matt Cooper, Gill & Macmillan, €24.99), I’m halfway through it and it’s a great read. Tony O’Reilly got a raw deal from Ireland.
A Pocket History of Ireland, (Joseph McCullough, Gill & Macmillan, €4.99). It wasn’t actually published this year, but it’s a book every home should have, especially for next year; it will tell you all about 1916.
I’d love to say my interest in Ancient Rome was triggered by reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin at school but it’s not true. It was movies like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. And all of that was reinforced by the modern movie Gladiator. In print, it was the historical fiction of Robert Harris in the Cicero Trilogy as well as in Pompeii that enthralled me. No facts could live up to this fiction. Not so!
One of my favourite books of the year was SPQR (Mary Beard, Profile Books, €29.99) – an intriguing title from Mary Beard, Professor at Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. She is already a proven storyteller in her BBC TV series Meet the Romans, and she’ll be back on television in the spring with SPQR – which, by the way, stands for Senatus Populus Que Romanus, literally the Senate and People of Rome.
She explains how Rome came to dominate the known world, how much of Rome is still with us, and what we can learn from its successes and failures. It’s a surprisingly modern book and I loved it.
I really enjoyed Girls will be Girls (Emer O’Toole, Orion Publishing, €20.65). It’s a considered, intelligent exploration of gender politics, but accessible enough for those wanting an introduction to feminist theory. O’Toole has an engaging writing style, which made it compulsively readable.
I became friends with Kate Harding on Twitter when we discovered that we were simultaneously publishing books that shared the same name.
She was kind enough to send me a copy of her book, Asking For It, (Kate Harding, Da Capo Lifelong, €16.50) and I was blown away. A clear, no-nonsense look at how pervasive rape culture is in our society today.
I believe this book could become an essential tool in fighting sexual violence against women.
Professor of Creative Writing, University of Limerick
I loved Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s The Apple Tart of Hope proved that novels engaging with contemporary issues can also be beautiful works of literature.
Anne Enright’s The Green Road has such poise and power. Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Chairs thrilled me, as did Dermot Bolger’s Tanglewood.
The renaissance of the Irish short story continues. Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, Donal Ryan’s A Slanting of the Sun, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets and Sifting: Uncle Ned and Other Stories, by Mike MacDomhnaill, are outstanding collections.
I loved Hilary Fannin’s memoir Hopscotch and two remarkable books about Irish history: Gene Kerrigan’s The Scrap and Joe Duffy’s Children of the Rising. Colm Toibin’s On Elizabeth Bishop is immensely skilful.
Recently, I read the proofs of a first novel coming in 2016, Vanessa Ronan’s The Last Days of Summer, a wonderful book from a major talent. I hope it has the success it deserves.
Satirist and commentator
It’s hard to tell who had the most cheerful book this year, it’s between Anne Enright and Joe Duffy. The Children of the Rising is on Fiver Friday special from Joe – for just five fivers you can get it in Eason. Anne Enright’s novel is a shoo-in for the Man Booker Most Miserable Irish Childhood Award. Cecelia Ahern had another colouring book out this year. I love cookery books and Rachel Allen’s latest tome features 500 pages on how to pronounce baaaahhtterrr like a Protestant. While Donal Skehan’s new book is called Add Boiling Water to the Fill Line, Wait three mins and Stir.
I’m a huge history fan, and Diarmaid Ferriter created a whole new sub-genre with Tim Pat Coogan known as ‘Historical Bitching’. I’m with the Big Fella on this one because the Long Fella is so obsessed with footnotes and facts it might even bore Matt Cooper to death. He had a great book out on Tony O’Reilly because he’s too scared to write about you-know-who. When you turn the pages of the hardback edition, you can literally hear Matt squeaking.
Actor, director, photographer
Eamonn Doyle’s photography book On (Eamonn Doyle, MM Artbook Printing, €70) is incredible. He’s on fire.
The most recent Irish novel I read was Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone (Canongate, €17.99) which is utterly fantastic. Kevin is also engulfed in flames. I am about to start Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape, €25.50/€11.99), which I’ve heard is amazing.
Between leading a party and dealing with a small child, the most high-brow material I have had time for this year is Peppa Pig. That is why I am particularly looking forward at Christmas to catching up on some reading.
In particular, I am anticipating reading Gene Kerrigan’s The Scrap (Transworld Publishers Ireland, €20.99) about 1916, AA Gill’s Pour me a Life (Orion Publishing Company, €29.50) and Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Caroline Moorehead, Chatto & Windus, €29.50/€15.80).
I also hope to read The Churchill Factor (Boris Johnson, Hodder & Stoughton, €37.50/€15.80); it might give me some inspiration.
Through the pages of The New Yorker, I had already read a handful of the remarkable, arresting poems contained in Clive James’s Sentenced to Life (Picador, €23.70) before the book’s publication this year. There are 37 poems in this heart-breaking collection, and all have been written in the past four years, while James has been facing life-ending illnesses: leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. These are sad and joyous poems, showing us life in its vigour and in its fragility.
The sheer pleasure derived from reading the novels of Anne Tyler sometimes threatens to eclipse the writer’s mastery of the form, and the profundity of her work. A Spool of Blue Thread, (Anne Tyler, Vintage, €20.55, €8.99) is a case in point: it’s an absorbing, page-turning multi -generational family saga that offers a moving insight into how we define ourselves, interpret our past and sustain a thing called ‘the family’.
The Collini Case (Ferdinand Von Schirach, Michael Joseph, €11.99) is fascinating because it’s truly a book that when you come to the beginning of each chapter you cannot put it down. I read it in one sitting. The fiction part is about a quiet responsible worker who kills a hugely successful, well regarded industrialist. He confesses, but doesn’t put up any defence.
A rookie lawyer is assigned the case. He is involved romantically with a relation of the industrialist. He discovers this highly regarded industrialist was involved in the murder of Italian partisans during World War Two. That’s the fiction part.
The fact is that the head of public prosecutions during the Third Reich was subsequently co-opted to the Ministry for Justice in Germany. And he was responsible for changing the status of legislation in relation to war crimes. The result of which was that persons involved in war crimes were allowed avoid collective guilt. It’s a shocking book. It’s interesting in that it’s fact and fiction.
The thing that interested me was related to the atrocities committed by the
Nazis – they are still real and applicable to modern life.