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…..