I’m at my parents’ house in America now, which I call home because it is convenient and feels true, even though I have at least three places to which I now refer as “home”. I arrived home on Thursday night, and so far have had a wonderful if busy few days, including some cider mulling and an expedition to get a tree. I want to keep the promise that I made to write a post about the less successful books of 2015, however–even though the comforts and delights of home make me think I could never write another post, and live a life instead of pure indolence–so here are the books that didn’t do it for me this year. Fortunately, there weren’t many!
It’s always more depressing, I find, to be let down when you’re expecting great things. Perversely, one of the books I was most excited about at the beginning of the year, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, ended up being disappointing. It wasn’t a question of political difference; far from it; I just wanted more of Gay’s essays, both in the sense that I wanted a greater number of them and in the sense that I wanted the ones that did exist to contain more. They felt as though they were mostly skimming the surface of some really interesting issues–how so-called “low culture” can be more illuminating and innovative than supposed “high culture”; the intersections of race, class and gender–and I wanted them to be longer, to engage even more profoundly with the questions they were asking. I wanted footnotes, dammit! Footnotes! I filed the book under “give away”, and Gay under “pay attention to”, which was a good decision, I think.
The Baileys Prize shortlist was an interesting one this year; some of it I agreed with, while some of it baffled me. A particular misfire was Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees. You have to admire it on one level for its ambition, but Paull’s style is so unexceptional (and in places clunky), her characterization so perfunctory, and her plot so episodic, that I found it hard to understand how the book had managed to compete at all. Other people I know absolutely loved it, but I have to confess it did little for me; I prefer my anthropomorphized-animal metaphors for dysfunctional political systems a little bit more Watership Down in roundedness and scope.
Perhaps the greatest failure of the year was Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. I gave it a fairly vituperative review on this blog, with the caveat that I hadn’t actually managed to finish it. After 150 pages, Faber’s apparent dedication to sickening stereotypes of predatory, self-satisfied evangelicals, and his equal apparent disinterest in doing any serious world-building for his alien race, had driven me to paroxysms of irritation so many times that it was not worth finishing. A great shame, but when there are literary sci-fi writers like China Mieville in the world, why waste your time?
The next book that drove me mad came into my life a few months later, when I read and reviewed Soji Shimada’s murder mystery novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Apart from the fact that the murders themselves were gratuitously grisly, the novel’s tone and our narrator’s inexplicable insouciance made it clear that all the events were essentially the pieces of a logic puzzle. It’s not an approach that I find particularly interesting or enlightening–my own feeling is that the human motivations for murder are infinitely more fascinating than the logistical minutiae of crimes–and it felt especially distasteful because of how gory the details were, as though Shimada were being flippant about them. Not one for me, though I’m hopeful that another selection from Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint will prove a better match.
The final frustration of 2015 was the first book I chose to begin my Women’s Prize reading project: Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. It embodied, I thought, the worst excesses of modern poetry–imprecision, woolliness, a tendency towards the vaguely portentous–translated into prose. Its odd reliance on the Holocaust without actually portraying any of the Holocaust’s horrors directly was also off-putting. Fortunately, I chalked it up to changing trends in literature since 1997, and it didn’t stop me from continuing to read through the Women’s Prize winners. Again, this has received mixed reviews from other people whose judgement is generally impeccable; it’s obviously a divider of opinion.
The most remarkable thing is that there have been so few bad books this year–I’ve benefited from becoming more a part of the amazing community of books bloggers, and from having the opportunity to sample books for free through publishers. It’s been a brilliant twelve months, and I’m absolutely thrilled for the beginning of 2016, when I’ll be reviewing such work as Helen Ellis’s American Housewife, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Sunil Yapa’s The Heart Is A Muscle the Size of A Fist, and Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh!, among others.
I’m trying to avoid the laptop as much as possible this holiday season, since I see my parents and brother so infrequently, so this may be the last you hear of me til the New Year. Have a very contented Christmas, and I’ll be back in January with my customary anti-resolutions post.