Fiction: Part 1
Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.
For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.
The Dig, by Cynan Jones
This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.
The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi
I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.
Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis
I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.
The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!
Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand
A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.
The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst
Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.
World War Z, by Max Brooks
What a revelation.
Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.
A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride
Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.
There but for the, by Ali Smith
It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!
This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.