Monday, November 28, 2011

Books of the year 2011 - The Guardian

Books of the year, 2011
Photograph: David McCoy for GNM imaging
Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Side

Chimamanda Adichie

I admired the lovely sentences and moving story in Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber), about an Irish-American woman looking back at her life. Binyavanga Wainaina's One Day I Will Write About This Place (Granta) is a strange, allusive, tender memoir about growing up in middle-class Kenya. Tracy K Smith's poems in Life on Mars (Turnaround) are startling and exquisite.

Tariq Ali

Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor EnglandShifting alliances at home and abroad, ruthless accumulation of capital and endless court intrigues form the backdrop to Thomas Penn's Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (Allen Lane), a chilling and enticing portrait of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty that created a centralised English state. Well written and well researched, the book helps us understand why Shakespeare decided to give this Henry a miss. It would have been difficult to prettify him. The Royal National Theatre should seek to remedy this omission rapidly: Winter King has a very modern feel.
A winter nightmare is the subject of Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (Profile) by Rodric Braithwaite. Written largely from material obtained from Soviet archives, this account explains why the Afghans hate being occupied and each chapter offers a warning to the Nato occupiers of today.
Elias Khoury's latest novel, As Though She Were Sleeping (Maclehose Press), returns to a golden age. Beirut in the 30s, unoccupied Palestine and a love affair recalled through a set of dream sequences: an Arab spring of a very different sort.

Simon Armitage

Although most people knew him as a novelist and indeed a painter, Glyn Hughes had been quietly publishing poetry since the 60s. A Year in the Bull-Box (Arc Publications) is a poem-sequence detailing the turning of the seasons and the eternal processes of nature from the vantage point of a "bull-box" (that's a stone hut to you and me) in the Ribble Valley. It is also a meditation on mortality, written as Hughes succumbed to the cancer that was to take his life earlier this year. In those last 12 months he seemed to have found a grace and contentment that is both humbling and inspiring, and I don't ever remember being as moved by a book of poems. I also want to mention a pamphlet, Pages from Bee Journal (Isinglass) by Sean Borodale. A lot of poets seem to be writing about bees these days, but like the honey he describes, "disconcerting, / solid broth / of forest flora full of fox", these are poems so dense and rich you could stand a spoon in them.

John Banville

Eileen Battersby, Ordinary DogsEileen Battersby's Ordinary Dogs (Faber) must be the most reticent autobiography ever written, since the author is no more than a shadowy presence behind the figures of the two dogs, Bilbo and Frodo – "the guys", as she calls them – who shared her life for more than 20 years. It is a wonderful book, cleanly and honestly written, funny, wise and valiant, and entirely free of sentimentality. Writing Beckett's Letters by George Craig (Sylph Editions) is, strictly speaking, a pamphlet rather than a book, but it speaks volumes. Craig is the translator of the Beckett correspondence, the second volume of which was recently published, and his account of the joys and miseries of the task is elegant, exemplary and enlightening. In Harold Bloom's The Anatomy of Influence (Yale) the great American critic returns to an old theme – artists form themselves out of an agon with their illustrious predecessors – and, in his 80th year, is as provocative, as gloriously preposterous and as captivating as ever.

Julian Barnes

Alice Munro, New Selected StoriesIs there a better short story writer in the world than Alice Munro? In her New Selected Stories (Chatto & Windus) she gives the long story the meatiness of a novel, and moves through time with an ease few can match. The Wine of Solitude (Chatto & Windus) continues our rediscovery (in Sandra Smith's fine translations) of Irène Némirovsky's work: it's an unerring portrait of a neglected, baleful and punitive daughter. Among homegrown fiction, I most admired Edward St Aubyn's At Last (Picador), and Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador) – the most originally and brilliantly structured novel I've read in a long time.

Sebastian Barry

Ali Smith, There But For TheSeething with inventiveness, humanity, wit and language fit for the Big Rock Candy Mountain, indomitable and adroit, full of angelic swagger and pretend pratfalls, Ali Smith's gleaming There but for the (Hamish Hamilton) took the biscuit this year.
A book that moved the heart and soul and head down into a sombre gear, and recalled to some degree the purposes of Primo Levi – to shine a clear, bare light on what happened in historical darkness – Steve Sem-Sandberg's novel The Emperor of Lies (Faber) is both a remembrance of vanished evils, and a warning to modern kings and conquerors.
Belinda McKeon's subtle Solace (Picador) and Kevin Barry's rampaging City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape) put up two gallant new flags for the Irish novel.
More at The Guardian.

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