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Birkbeck's Best of 2010


Jonathan Kemp

 

Mad for FoucaultLynne Huffer - Mad For Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory

A fascinating book for anyone interested in Foucault and/or queer theory. It's beautifully written and persuasively argued, going to Foucault's History of Madness rather than his History of Sexuality to stake out the radical claims of queer theory.

K. R. Moorhead - First Law of Motion

A tense, tight debut novel about a teenage girl spinning out of control in the wake of a break-up. Controlled prose keeps you reading as she disintegrates.

Edmund White - City Boy

A fascinating memoir of White's time in/relationship with New York City, with a star-studded cast of literati. The section on Susan Sontag I found particularly riveting.

Pascale Petit - What the Water  Gave Me (Poems After Frida Kahlo)

A beautiful, moving, elegant collection of poems inspired by Kahlo's paintings.

Sam Selvon - The Lonely Londoners

This was actually published in 1956 but I discovered it this year. A wonderful novel of the lives of Caribbean immigrants.

 

 

Julia Bell

 

What To Look For In WinterCandia McWilliam - What To Look For In Winter
An extraordinary memoir, shot through with luminescent moments of poetry. Written while she was suffering from blepharospasm which causes blindness, McWilliam looks back on a life blighted by her own alcoholism. Impossible to put down and completely unself-pitying this is an 'anti-misery memoir'.

Per Petterson - I Curse the River of Time
What all great novels should do - leave us winded by the emotional truth of the story. Arvid's life is collapsing around him - his marriage has failed and his mother is dying of cancer - this novel traces the week that he spends in their holiday home in Denmark. Not as hopeful or as elemental as Out Stealing Horses, but a masterclass in the virtues of a simple writing style.

Jonathan Franzen -  Freedom
Even if it is a little baggy in places, the sheer exhilarating maximalism of this is oddly refreshing: for having the scale of a C19th novel without being historical, for trying to tell us something truthful about the contemporary moment, for writing characters who are utterly failed by their freedom of choice. Although I don't like this as much as The Corrections, it is still up there for me as one of the novels of the year.

Elizabeth Taylor -  all of them, but especially - Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, In A Summer Season, Blaming, A Wreath of Roses.
I caught on this year. The 'other' Elizabeth Taylor was the delight of my summer. Pithy, witty, clever prose, which sparkles with sharp observation and glittering truths. Although her books are written in the 40s/50s/60s her characters are our contemporaries. She cuts to the quick on motivation, especially in the later novels - her last novel Blaming is one of my favourites.

Veronique Olmi - Beside the Sea (Bord De Mer)
This simple but chilling novella, translated from the French (rather badly in places) has a powerful, culminative effect. A mother takes her two children to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate and go to the funfair, but all is not well in the relationship between the mother and her sons. It has the paranoid and unsettling tone of a psychological thriller. To be read in one sitting.

 

 

Russell Celyn Jones

 

Parrot and Olivier in AmericaPeter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey is a wily and gifted storyteller on a grand scale. This novel re-imagines the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century sojourn in a newly minted nation from which he produced his still-revered Democracy in America. But now that democracy is being eroded in contemporary USA, Carey’s project is to tell – and distort for the fun of it – an historical tale, by way of commenting ironically upon his “alien and mad” adopted country, under the rule of neo-conservatives like GW Bush. A complex, possibly too omniscient, tour de force.

 

Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room

 This South African writer grows in stature with every book he writes. A haunting novel about drifting, its style – a chapter-less form, voice oscillating between third and first person – is as restless as its young hero. A man makes three journeys through Greece, India and Africa, meeting along the way strangers who make indelible marks upon his soul. It is a novel without sexual or topographical borders; very intimate and moving.  

 

Tom McCarthy - C

 You cannot say of Tom McCarthy’s C that it is either intimate or moving. This author is writing in the opposite direction to liberal humanism, informed more by post- structural theory. His extraordinary gifts are evident here, as in his previous novel Remainder, and what you get for your money are stories of early wireless communication, deaf school education, World War 1 and archaeology. But this is the striking thing: McCarthy’s hero, Serge Carrefax does not, or cannot, express feeling about any thing or anyone. Interior life holds no interest for McCarthy it seems; only empirical knowledge does. This corpse of a book is worryingly good, worryingly cold; the sort of novel Albert Speer might have written, had he not been an architect.

 

 

Benjamin Wood

 

FreedomJonathan Franzen  - Freedom

The National Book Award judges might not have thought so, but Franzen’s epic story of the Berglunds is vibrant, intelligent, vivid, thoughtful, compassionate, heart-breaking, and easily the best novel of the year (if not the decade). Deserving of the hype? Yes - if you can get past the ponderous opening chapter.

 

 Edward Hollis  - The Secret Lives of Buildings

A fascinating, elegantly structured history of thirteen buildings, from the Parthenon to the Berlin Wall and the Las Vegas strip, detailing our changing association with architecture.

 

Tony Judt  -The Memory Chalet

The late, great Tony Judt’s inspiring collection of personal essays are born from an impossible feat of memory. Paralysed by Lou Gehrig’s disease, the author files the personal and political recollections of his life into the imagined rooms of a Swiss chalet in his mind.

 

Darrin Strauss - Half a Life

Fiction writer Darrin Strauss’s heart-rending memoir of the aftermath of a tragic road accident for which he was responsible. His gathering awareness of the wider impact of the event is deeply moving.

 

Ann Beattie - The New Yorker Stories

Beattie’s diverse collection is worth close attention for two very good reasons: the charmingly low-key story ‘Janus’ and the charmingly hyperactive story ‘The Rabbit Hole As Likely Explanation.’

 

 

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