December 8, 2010 by markstani
Okay, here’s my top five books of 2010. It’s a strange list, heavy on politics, and maybe the only 2010 ‘best of..’ to include two books based around Chechnya. Not that I have a Chechnya fetish; it just happened that way.
Generally, I’ve struggled to find truly stunning fiction this year. Is it just me, or is it a swerve (intentional or not) by traditional publishers towards more thumpy literary stuff in the face of the all together more disposable e-book revolution? That’s not to say there’s not great, kinetic fiction around. Maybe there’s more than ever, only most of it’s bite-sized (or in the year I first got a Kindle, maybe that should be byte-sized). I’ve read a load of it on on-line sites – the best being Fried Chicken & Coffee and Red Fez. Others I’d like to mention are Lindsay Hunter’s haunting, harsh micro-story collection Daddy’s, and Kevin Sampsell’s coming-of-age collage A Common Pornography. I wish publishers would take more gambles on stuff like this. In my opinion these kinds of short, sharp, tightly written tales are just made for the e-book market.
Stuff I hoped might make it, but couldn’t quite: Lights Out In Wonderland by DBC Pierre – good stuff, just never quite engaged like his mighty Vernon God Little; In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut – fresh and sparse, but petered out into a bit of a drudge by the end (still should have won the Booker off that short-list though); Stars In The Bright Sky by Alan Warner – superbly readable but, like the characters themselves, took too long to get nowhere much.
The five below invited that engagement at the first page and kept it to the last. They would all have been, given the chance, one-sitting reads. I don’t suppose there can be much greater praise than that.
First off, I Am A Chechen! by German Sadulaev, translated from Russian. It’s pretty unforgettable – brutal war and beautiful peace swirled up in a series of fragments which sometimes almost border on the hallucinatory. It’s part memoir, part folk tale, part dream. It adds up, somehow, to one of the most vivid testimonies to the futility of war – and to the pride and resilience of a people – I’ve read in a long time.
Next, Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick, which is so much more than simply a revealing insight into a closed society, in this case North Korea. Where Demick’s account rises about the rest is in the strength of her character narratives, which can’t help but grip you as you follow their daily lives through unimaginable repression. Immensely readable.
Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle takes a preposterous premise involving a lead character with a condition that makes him smell like rotting fish, a gay Jewish boxer, a eugenics expert and a Slovenian beetle with swastikas on its wings, mixes it with copious quantities of sex and facism, and comes up with something quite unlike anything you’ll have read before – all cleverly plotted and written in a spare, fresh style.
Not a whole lot ever happens in Willy Vlautin’s fiction: Motel Life and the especially brilliant Northline involved doleful yet exquisitely described trudges across the American hinterland. Lean On Pete isn’t much different – it’s the story of a boy and a racehorse, and their journey across the States to find the one person who can save them from their messed-up lives. It’s a beautiful, slow-burning tale.
The second Chechnya-related book on my list this year is Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough. Maybe it’s not your bag. But anyone with an interest in modern European history will be fascinated by this exhaustively researched account into some of the most volatile, repressed and misunderstood people on earth. What it lacks in Sadualaev’s poetic prose, it makes up for in the sheer magnitude of its achievement in making such a broad, complex subject so eminently interesting.