I'm always wryly amused by those Books of the Year features in the broadsheets (or slightly-less-narrowsheets as I suppose we ought to define them). It's not only the slappity-backity chumminess, where all of literary London votes for their pals, rather like in the Eurovision song contest (and without an exasperated Wogan to berate the Baltics and Scandinavians for setting up their own little cartels). Bless lovely Jeanette Winterson for always voting for herself, in a manner that would cause the Eurovision computer to crash, but enlivens many Decembers.
It's also the fact that, because of the bizarre way many books are published, especially biographies and lit fic, by the end of the year of publication, many tomes are still only available in hardback. And how many people really spend 15 quid on the latest McEwan or Amis or Barnes, when they know they'll be able to get the same thing for 6.99 in a few months? So, to a great extent, these people, the exalted recipients of proofs and comps and review copies, are just talking to themselves. It's all done in the earnest hope that a few more readers will splash out on the high-fibre versions of the books, maybe as desperate Christmas presents for those difficult relations.
So here are my Bs of the Y. Because of poverty and lack of connections and distance from the London/NY axis (do you know what Amazon charges to send to Bangkok?), very few of these were published this year. The only thing that unites them is that I read them for the first time in 2005.
In no particular order...
Like A Fiery Elephant by Jonathan Coe
B.S. Johnson, the experimental novelist who opened his veins in 1973, comes over as a chippy Mr Toad in this biography; moreover the examples of his journalism, when he's not playing at being the next Joyce/Beckett, seem to suggest that the guy couldn't actually write that well. His account of the 1966 World Cup final makes this epochal event in postwar British history sound like a knockabout on Hackney marshes. But Coe, whose own fiction would have been dismissed as dishonest and pedestrian, rips open the very process of biography, admitting to his gaps and guesses, opening up the relationship between author and author that developed over 7 years of research and writing. Not the biography Johnson would have expected, and maybe not the one he deserved.
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Narrators from different ages, genders and nationalities combine to create a wry commentary on the collision of power, sex and money that makes modern Thailand. What Thai writing I've read veers from the ordinary to the excruciating. But of course, Rattawut isn't a Thai writer, any more than Rushdie is Indian or Ishiguro is Japanese. It's in the mix, which gives him the moral authority to 'become' the pubescent daughter of a desperate Thai cockfighter, but he's really an American, playing with authorial voice and perspective and able to dodge accusations of cultural imperialism because of his race. But at the same time, the story that works least well is the one where he becomes an elderly, disabled American, exiled in Bangkok...
Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami (well, had to be, innit?)
Japan’s wartime trauma expressed through murder, falling fish and a global whisky icon that eats cats’ hearts. Murakami back to his bonkers best, after the by-numbers self-parody of Sputnik Sweetheart (with added travelogue - ooh, let's go to Greece for a change). It's the combination of deadpan observation with a bubbling sense of weirdness; like Garcia Marques recited by the woman who does the Shipping Forecast.
Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds
An unashamedly personal look at what was worthwhile between the Pistols and the Smiths (ish); Reynolds justifies his exclusions with the explantion that certain acts "aren't my bag of spanners". At the same time, he lacks the stylistic idiosyncracy that a Savage, Marcus or Morley might have brought to the project. It's telling that the best line - describing Scritti Politti's Green Gartside as "an unwashed pope" comes from Ian Penman. But Reynolds is very good at evoking time and place (the early 80s Liverpool scene, for example) and it's great to have as a record of a neglected era - and of course it coincides with the period when I was first poking my nose over the pop parapet.
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw
Among other things, the saga of Johnny Lim, the Verbal Kint of Malaya, as colonial rule stutters to an end. Again, more than one authorial voice here, with the structure (dead, ethereal female narrator bookended by living, perplexed male) reminiscent of Wuthering Heights. Great on atmosphere... sweat, sweat, sweat....
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
More stories-within-stories excitement, taking the idea of linked narratives that he used triumphantly in his first book, Ghostwritten, and making things even more exciting and complex.
The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian
The corrupt stupidity of post-Mao China gets an absurdist kicking, while the ghosts of Orwell, Kafka, Kundera and Bulgakov hold the coats and cheer the author on. Blood, shit and bits of goose. I think the word is 'rollicking'.