Sunday Salon

Books for the festive season

sundaysalonNewspapers in the UK pay scant attention to books normally but there are two occasions in the year when the question of book purchasing moves way up the agenda for their publishers.

Half way through the year we start seeing features recommending the books we should take on our summer holiday. For some reason newspaper arts editors seem to think we are interested in knowing what books actors and politicians will be reading. I’m always suspicious when I see the titles chosen by the latter —they sound so dull and worthy that they’ve probably been scrutinised by political advisers desperate to make their chap (or chapess) seem intelligent.

And then we get to the second point in the year, the one we are in right now. In the run up to Christmas you can be sure to find articles giving you suggestions of what to buy as gifts for grannie, little James and Agatha and impossible-to-buy-for brother.

This week saw the Daily Telegraph publish their ‘Books for Christmas’ annual feature which promised to bring a selection of ‘the year’s best books’ to the notice of readers. There are the usual autobiographies of minor actors and pop stars and the kind of compendium books that only ever make an appearance this time of the year. I’m going to cross every finger and toe I possess that no-one in my family follows through on some of their recommendations ; I absolutely do not want a biography of Beyoncé, nor can I imagine myself whooping with delight upon unwrapping 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Maths or 101 Two Letter Words which apparently sets the dictionary words of two letters in a rhyming quatrain.

The fiction selection promises far richer offerings. The columnist Tim Martin bypasses many 2014 published books by big name authors or that we’ve seen popping up in fiction prize lists. So Ian McEwan is out as is David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, as Martin looked instead for titles that “took little for granted, questioned established structure and kept the reader perpetually off balance.'”. The resulting list is a blend of lesser known names with some that will suit people who like a challenge.

Here is his selection

  • Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill: charts the breakdown of a marriage using fragmentary narrative style
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer: described as “a doomy, hilarious, thoughtful Cambridge comedy”
  • Shark by Will Self: a prequel to last year’s novel Umbrella
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsworth: this was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s written in a pseudo-Saxon form of English so might be best read after a few glasses of ginger wine
  • Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets Do They Live For Ever? by Dave Eggers: a novel about a lunatic who kidnaps his way up the American chain of command.
  • Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: a tale of a Russian prankster, author and politician
  • How to be Both by Ali Smith: shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize (and should have been the winner IMHO)
  • Tristano by the Italian writer Nanni Balestrini: this has to be the oddest title on this list. Each copy is unique since the sentences forming the text are shuffled, giving unique variations running into 16 digits. Nevertheless Martin says it is oddly compelling.
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustevedt: a multi voice novel about a female sculptor who publishes her work under several male aliases
  • Look Whose Back by Timur Vermes: I think he is a German author. This novel is a comedy in which Hitler is reincarnated in modern-day Germany where he becomes a You Tube sensation
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk: a short debut novel about a writer teaching in Greece
  • End of the Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: a story based on the concept of one-life-multiple-outcomes
  • Orfeo by Richard Powers: mixes current themes like bio-terrorism with a passion for classical music
  • In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman: Martin describes this as the year’s most interesting first novel, a ‘gobbling up of ideas around the financial crisis, war, terrorism, philosophy’

Do any of these pique your interest? From this list I think I’d be most inclined to go for the ones by Zia Haider Rahman and Jenny Offill. Which reminds me that I haven’t put my request list into my family yet. I’d better get going…..



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

25 thoughts on “Books for the festive season

  • Addendum………I took a punt, and downloaded Orfeo. Number 118 on my weak willed growing, Kindle TBR.

    I’m delighted to say the Beyonce autbiog won’t be numer 119, or even, should i get that far (likely, given the tempting power of bloggers) number 1119

  • I’m hesitating over Siri Hustvedt. I adored, absolutely adored, What I Loved, she did for visual art what I guess the other one which made me pick up my attention on your list – Orfeo – is doing for music.

    I requested the Hustvedt many many moons ago on an ARC from NetGalley – but it was formatted so very badly that it was completely unreadable, and I struggled for about 30 pages, not quite sure if this was Hustvedt being even more experimental, and doing something very difficult with maths (!) or was it the formatting. I kept waiting for change, but it didn’t happen. I may have to try again, hopefully once properly published they sorted the formatting, but why on earth they thought anyone would be able to read a book in that state I don’t know (skipped lines, typographical marks, numbers in every line between the words and sometimes within words – it really looked like clever post-modernism gone feral!)

    I’ve got The Wake in the Kindle, which various people have said ‘stick with it, it really does work – and I tried a couple of times, but had to stop as I was huffing like a steam train, emitting clouds of suppressed irritation. If I start again, I think your ginger wine tip is probably the way to go.

    Now Limonov is very very……..irritating, angering,……..and deeply engaging. One of those books which makes you stomp around a lot, shouting at the subject matter (Limonov the man) but seeing him through the eyes of the author, who engages with his own response to Limonov a lot, so it isn’t a conventional biography – is also helpful. I was very disturbed by the book, and absolutely fascinated, too

    As for Self………….I can’t engage. Is he one of those authors who can’t appeal/engage women.? My ‘gut’ finds him too left brain for me. I agree absolutely with what you say about his intellectualism, but, I don’t know, maybe I’m doing that dreadful argument against the person stuff, but his persona/voice, I experience as having a certain contemptuousness about it, cerebral, chilly, and somehow without joy. It’s like someone cleverly sneering all the time. But then…….I say this without ever reading a Self book through, because that ‘gut reaction’ of mine makes me drop the book. I like a challenging book, but I do need to be wooed by a little milk of human kindness. That’s what I like about the unsettling Carrere book, – Carrere himself looks at the world through wanting to connect and understand, rather than to categorise and dismiss.

    Gosh what a rant this is!!!

    • I had to grin at the idea of reading while puffing away like a steam train… That sounds a particularly bad experience with Net Galley. I’ve had books from them where they clearly haven’t done a full proofread but they shouldn’t have released anything with so many issues. Hope yiu get to read a proper copy.

      • Ah hah!!!! It WAS you, BookerTalk, as I suddenly realised, who brought Orfeo to my attention. Thank you so much, this was a fabulous read for me, and leapt to the front of the TBR pile.

        Siri Hustvedt is also impatiently waiting in the queue………..

        • I had to give my copy of Hustvedt back to the library before I’d got much further than 100 pages and now I am well at the back of a long list of other readers all wanting the one copy that is available. I suspect you’ll get to the head of your queue long before I get to mine

  • C’mon, how could you turn down a Beyonce biography? 😉 I read Offil’s book and Liked it. . The Rhaman book came up my turn at the library a month ago and I was so busy with other books I only managed 5 pages before I had to return it. Will try again another time on that one. The papers do the same thing here, summer reading and Christmas gifts. It’s like that is the only time of year people read or something.

    • I had the same difficulty with Blazing World, got as far as 50 pages and then had to return it by which time I went to the bottom of the list again.

  • As I read the list three things occur to me – 1. I’m glad to hear someone else fell at an early hurdle on Blazing World. 2. I like the sound of Orfeo but I’ve no idea why. 3. Does everyone else recoil at the idea of reading ANYTHING by Will Self or is it just me he annoys the sweet life out of?

    • I’ve tried reading a few articles by Self but his intellect is far beyond mine so I get to the end and find I can’t easily summarise what his point was. I’ve never tried his novels though Umbrella seemed a tough one . I do like the fact he is trying something different but fear he is rather too intellectual for me to enjoy the book

  • joyweesemoll

    I feel less in touch with the current offerings than usual — I may be making use of lists like this for my holiday purchases! But I’ll try to stay away from books like 101 Two Letter Words.

    • Oh dear and I went and bought this especially for you Joy 🙂

  • I’ve only heard of a few of those. Most of them, I haven’t, which I guess was his point. 🙂

  • I really enjoyed Orfeo–it might seem off-putting to people who aren’t musically inclined, but Richard Powers is talented enough to describe music so that you feel keen to run out and buy it (or listen to it online…) at once!

    I edit and write for a literary review, Quadrapheme, and our reviewers have really enjoyed both Wittgenstein Jr. and The Wake, as well:

    • ORfeo seems to have had vey mixed opinions as did the Wake. Maybe that’s one of the hallmarks of a good novel, that it provokes a reaction?

      • Certainly one of the hallmarks of a memorable novel! I’m not especially inclined to defend Richard Powers, but I did really enjoy his work in Orfeo. Despite his protagonist’s apparent arrested adolescence with regards to emotional decision-making.

  • I’ve got Orfeo, The Blazing World, and How to Be Both on my TBR. Will Self kind of scares me. Not really sure. One thing, it’s refreshing to hear someone talking about different writers

    • I liked the piece for that reason Didi, it would have been so easy just to take the prize winners.

  • Not sure why I had to DNF Dept. of Speculation, usually I love that type of books with different style. Staying way from Ali Smith, There But For The didn’t work for me at all, but I may have made the mistake of listening to it instead of reading. I Limonov has been on my TBR for a while

    • Pity about the Ali Smith experience but I’m wondering whether there is a different reaction depending on which version of the book you got.

        • Sorry – I got confused. I was referring to How to be both

  • I’ve come across many readers who really liked the Dept of Speculation, but that one doesn’t appeal to me at all. I want to read the Limonov bio and have actually been waiting for it to be translated. I also really liked The Blazing World (another book mentioned on THE LIST). It was a complicated read but all the more fascinating for that very thing.

    • I started reading Blazing World but had to give it back to the library before I’d got further than about 50 pages. I’ll give it another go sometime…


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