Sunday 30 December 2007

Top Reads of 2007

As everyone's taking the time out to have a retrospective on the last 12 months, here are the ten best novels I've read in 2007, in no real order.

Time's Arrow - Martin Amis got himself into hot water over comments he made about Islam, but he did used to write good books, and this is one of them. It opens with the death of an old man and manages to work its way backwards to his birth. Superficially it sounds daft and pretentiously experimental, but it somehow works and the result is probably the most unusual novel to have interesting things to say about the Holocaust.

The Bonfire of the Vanities - the blurb says Tom Wolfe's masterpiece is the timeless classic of the 80s, and I'd have to say, its canonical status is entirely justified. Wolfe's meditation on executive culture and the interests that feed off media-inspired witch-hunts manages to hit home without sounding at all preachy. It's probably even more relevant today then when it was published 20 years ago.

The Custom of the Country - Edith Wharton's creation, Undine Spragg is an unscrupulous social climber prepared to manipulate and trample on others as she worms her way into the heart of New York society. Her ruthless pursuit of fortune sees three divorces, a suicide, and plenty of scandal. Imagine Paris Hilton with a back bone. Truly excellent, and justifiably caused a stir when it was published in 1913.

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne's best known novel is about Hester Pyrnne, a young woman who causes a scandal by giving birth while her husband remained behind in England. Unfortunate enough to live in a puritan community, an A for adultery is embroidered on her clothes as public penance for her sins. Meanwhile her unnamed lover undergoes severe guilt while her husband plots his revenge. Extremely hard hitting for the time, but gripping.

The Brooklyn Follies - A bit of a departure for Paul Auster. Famed for gloomy, postmodern novels about lonely men who are writers, usually writing about writers, this is probably his most "conventional" work to date. Nathan Glass returns to Brooklyn after breaking up with his wife and overcoming lung cancer, and manages to redeem his wasted life. This is probably the best way in to Auster's output.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan may write about "Mercedes-driving cunts", to quote an Urban 75 wag, but he can write nonetheless. His most recent novel is no exception. He details the sexual awkwardness of two virginal newlyweds on their wedding night with painful precision that you almost feel as if you've got vested interests in the outcome, which is no mean feat for a novel well under 200 pages long.

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro's character, the butler Stevens, is a foil for a meditation on duty, dignity, vocation, and ultimately the price excessive devotion to them can extract. As a take on masculine crisis, other books seldom come as moving.

Alias Grace - Marget Atwood's fictionalisation of a real double murder in mid-19th century Canada is a superb psychological portrait of one of the perpetrators, Grace Marks. Her being a woman meant she was deemed incapable of committing such a crime, and was therefore spared the gallows in favour of life imprisonment. How she recollects the murders and the attitude of wider society toward her allows Atwood to explore the hypocritical gendered mores of the time.

Delta of Venus - Anais Nin's collection of semi-interconnected erotica is a must for anyone who doubts the evocative power of literature. See what I said about it here.

Sophie's Choice - Masterpiece is the only word that can adequately summarise William Styron's magnum opus. Stingo is drawn to the passionate, but violent coupling of Nathan and Sophie when he rents a room beneath them in 1947 New York. As he gets to know them, the tragedy of Sophie's life is gradually unveiled. I very nearly didn't read this on the strength of a radical feminist review I'd read a few years back, but I'm glad I did. There may well be some dodgy things said about women in there, but nevertheless it is one of the most powerful, most moving novels ever written.

What have been your best reads this year?


Louisefeminista said...

I see you are reading Watership Down. Must admit that seeing that film when I was 8 or 9 I blubbed all the way through it, desperately upset for the cute ickle wabbits. Actually 30 yrs on, I probably still blub through it desperately upset for the ickle wabbits!!

Anyhows, 'nuff of sentimentality...but Alias Grace is a truly great bk and Margaret Attwood is one of my fave authors.

I also miss the late great Angela Carter as her works were creative and imaginative esp. her feminist re-working of the Grimm fairytales by turning gender roles upside down. I have re-read her bks so many times.

Phil said...

Lol, soft sod. I haven't seen the film either - I tend to make a point of missing the weepies out in case I make a spectacle of myself!

Re: Atwood, I find her very much hit and miss (going by the five books of hers I've read). Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaid's Tale, yes. Moral Disorders and Life Before Man, errrrmm ... Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin are supposed to be really good aren't they?

And Carter, I've got The Bloody Chamber but have yet to have a butchers at her other stuff. Recommendations?

Louisefeminista said...

Soft sod, indeed!... Cute ickle cuddly wabbits.

Persevere with Margaret Attwood, and Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin are good.

Angela Carter: Wise Children, Night at the Circus, Magic Toyshop, Watward Girls and Wicked Women, Company of Wolves...and I would really recommend, The Sadeian Women

Phil said...

Looking back on the list, I'm surprised I didn't put any sci-fi on the list as that used to be my reading staple not that long ago. Well, come to think of it I haven't read much sci-fi this year. Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, Iain M Banks' The Player of Games, and Richard Morgan's Black Man are the only ones I think! There hasn't been much in the way of new sci-fi that has caught my eye either. I do fancy Peter F Hamilton's latest (his Night's Dawn trilogy and The 2-part Confederation Saga are simply brilliant).

Anonymous said...

Your blog showed up in a Google daily web-search I set up for stuff relating to The Scarlet Letter. I lead a discussion group at my library, and this year we're covering American authors from the mid-1800s to the early part of the 20th century.

Since you've read the novel, I had a couple of questions for you to answer, if you were at all interested:

(1) Was this your first reading? Did you read this in high school? If you had read it before, what was your experience like this time as opposed to the first time?

(2) What is Hawthorne trying to say, exactly? Because I'm still not 100% clear. This has been my second reading of the book, separated by something like 20+ years. I had always thought it was a simple novel about sin and redemption. However, this time through the whole novel seemed a lot more...complicated? And I'm trying to work out why Hawthorne would write this particular novel.

Of course, I'm not expecting an answer -- but if you find you've got a couple of minutes to spare both for thinking and a quick answer back, I'd appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

Am reading Ted Grant's 'Unbroken Thread' at the moment to try and get my head around the state cap v degenerated workers state theories.

Also read E.P. Thompsons excellent 'The Making of the English Working Class'

Any suggestions for what to spend my book tokens on?

Phil said...

Depends what you're looking for, Bluenose. Fiction or theory?

Fiction-wise I'd recommend my top novel of last year, Sophie's Choice (see list). Theory-wise, David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism is very, very good, though I'm not entirely comfortable with some of the figures he uses to show declining global growth rates. But it is very readable and it hardly detracts from the narrative.

If you're ambitious, Capital's always worth a stab.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comment on my site. I came here looking for an email address, but wasn't confident I had the right one. Am I just supposed to remove the words NO SPAM?

Anyway -- yes, we're definitely reading "The Custom House" as part of The Scarlet Letter. Most editions publish it as sort of a prologue to the novel. And once upon a time, before Hawthorne knew he was writing a novel (The Scarlet Letter was only supposed to have been a short story), "The Custom House" was to have been the introduction to the collection.

Lady novelists were having a tough time of it on both sides of the pond. If it wasn't Hathorne railing against them here in America, it was George Eliot writing her essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists."

I'm sure your wife has already mentioned that Hawthorne married a very prominent Transcendentalist, Sophia Peabody. They appear to be a very happily married couple. I think Hawthorne is contemptuous of women fiction writers, maybe; domestic novels were probably not much to his taste.

I think some of Hawthorne's progressive views of women are fostered by some of the friends he kept -- Walt Whitman, H.W. Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau. This was an exciting time in America, I think; it's antebellum, it's the North, it feels like a truly free and equal society is in reach. Of course, Hawthorne had a terrible time living on a commune himself, and he makes gentle fun of it in The Blithedale Romance.

And I've gone on way too long again.

In closing, thanks again for writing me back. I really appreciated your thoughtful answer.



Imposs1904 said...

Favourite new novel of the year would be the latest Paddy Meehan novel by Denise Mina.

Favourite old novel of the year would have been 'Standing Fast' by Harvey Swados. The novel dates from the early 70s and is the fictionalised account of the Shachtmanite Workers Party building a branch in Buffalo from the late 30s up until the early 60s. (yep, I know the WP was no more by the early sixties.)

Swados himself was a Workers Party member from the period under discussion, so of course it's a meeting of fiction and fact.

I know it sounds a bit dry, but it's an engrossing read. Shame it's out of print, but I got my copy via Amazon.

First heard about the novel via this article on the AWL website.

Phil said...

Mike, yes, just take the NOSPAM out.

Darren, I've often fancied reading a novel about lefties, but they seem a bit thin on the ground (there was something published a few years ago about anti-capitalist kids, but it was pretty dire. My review of it is here
Has anyone ever read the Tariq Ali one?

One book that I expected much more of was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Everyone I know who's read it when gaga so I was expecting something really shit hot. But I felt a bit disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it is a good novel with writing to die for, but it didn't knock me for six in the same way Sophie's Choice, The Remains of the Day, and Alias Grace did.

Imposs1904 said...


Tariq Ali's Redemption is very funny, but I'm sure I missed a few of the in-jokes.

Funny you should link to Alison Miller. I saw her speak last year in the KGB bar. (It's a literary bar in the East Village.)

She was in New York as part of the Tartan Week, which is happens every year and helps boost Scottish business, tourism and arts etc etc.

I was actually disappointed by the book, 'cos I had the wrong expectations when approaching the book. From Alison Miller's reading at the event, I actually thought it would be more political than it actually was.

And - even for a workerist bastard like myself - I thought it was a bit of cliche to have the posh types acting out the revolutionary politics bit. I know it happens, but I don't have to have it shoved down my throat.

JRD168 said...

I tend to stick to non-fiction. To that end Tony Benn's latest diaries made fascinating reading, as did Kenneth Morgan's biography of Michael Foot. Richard Pipe's concise history of the Russian Revolution was a clear account of those events (though originally published a few years ago I think).

Douglas Coupland's Gum Thief is developing well (I'm only half way through!)

Anonymous said...

Sophie's Choice is an amazing book but read it years ago will have to read it again and Alias Grace gave me nightmares for months afterwards -must have touched something in my psyche. I recommend you read Clara by Janice Galloway - I gasped out loud on the beach in Benidorm reading that. I read Atonement by Ian McEwan this year and I can honestly say I absolutely HATED it.

Hope to read more in 2008.

Anonymous said...

I have always avoided sci-fi, it has never really held any appeal for me. Richard Morgan's book does sound appealing though and may give it a go.
As for Richard Pipes, there is only one thing worth doing with his books and it ain't reading them!!
I will be doing my book token shopping tomorrow so will let you know what I ended up with.

Phil said...

Ok Bluenose, be warned Richard Morgan's stuff is utra, ultra violent. I can't decide if he's being serious or sending up the whole quasi-militaristic "books for boys" thing.

JRD168 said...

Depends what view you want of events Bluenose, I think it's worth seeing different sides to every story. As long as you've also read something by Sheila Ferguson then you don't go to far wrong.

Anonymous said...

I guess jrd, but I find Pipes hard to stomach as he is a nasty right-wing neo-con, a proven liar and his history of Russia is motivated by his wish to attack the 1917 revolution. I have read Sheila Ferguson. Much better!

Phil, I took your advice on the David Harvey book and also got Seeing by Jose Saramago and autobiog of Stokely Carmichael. Should keep me going for a while and still have more tokens!

Anonymous said...

My read of the year has to be The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. A compelling mystery story with some of the most fantastic descriptive writing I've encountered in a long time.

I found myself dissapointed after finally reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Enjoyable as it was, I'm not sure it lived up to all the praise that had been beaten into me for years prior to reading it.

As for non-fiction, Chomsky's Failed States gets my vote.

My goal for the new year is to finally finish a Doystoevsky novel. I'm curently using The Brothers Karamazov as an extremely efficient paperweight, so that's probably a good place to start.