It’s that time of year again. There are endless countdowns of top this, top that on telly, so why shouldn’t I join in and share the top five books I read in 2018. I should note this is not necessarily a list of books that were published in 2018 but in my typically subjective fashion, books I’ve read in 2018. But before we get to the top five, here is the full list of books I’ve read since 2017 became 2018 🙂
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
- Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab
- Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- Chasing Waterfalls by Laura Sweeney
- Complete Poems by Christina Rosetti
- Complete Poems by Lord Byron
- Complete Poems by William Wordsworth
- Complete Works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- Dead Air by Iain Banks
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (at last :-))
- From A Low And Quiet Sea Donal Ryan
- Generation X by Douglas Coupland
- Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland
- If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino
- In Our Mad And Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
- Joyce’s Revenge by Andrew Gibson
- Letters and Poetry by John Keats
- Libra by Don DeDillo
- Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake by Finn Fordham
- Lucia by Alex Pheby
- Milkman by Anna Burns
- My Brother’s Keeper by Stanislaus Joyce
- My Legendary Girlfriend by Mike Gayle
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Regeneration by Pat Barker
- Rejoyce by Anthony Burgess
- Rivers and Lakes by Laura Sweeney
- Snap by Belinda Bauer
- The Book of Dust by Phillip Pullman
- The Crow Road by Iain Banks
- The Famished Road by Ben Okri
- The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
- The Hunt for the Dingo by PJ Nash
- The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
- The Long Take by Robin Robertson
- The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
- The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
- Warlight Michael Ondaatje
- Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
And now, is traditionally suspenseful manner, I will count down in reverse order my top five books of 2018:
5. The Crow Road by Iain Banks
Nostalgic yet incisive in equal measure, Banks’ take on Scottish coming-of-age, wrapped up in a gently moving mystery portrays not just the author’s subtle wit but a majestic ability to paint scenes through moving sentences. When I read it I am drawn irresistibly into the world of disjointed families, broken relationships but endless, endless kindness.
4. The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Disorienting and disturbing, Mackintosh’s Booker long-listed novel seems slight and insubstantial on first read. Yet this tale of women trapped by forbidding male structures and desires haunts and lingers long after. Its narrative proclaims the beginning of a future authorship that will perhaps reframe feminist fiction in the 21st century.
3. Lots of Fun at Finnegans Wake by Finn Fordham
A wonderful inquiry into how Joyce constructed parts of his most enigmatic work. This book traces the different stages of genesis and revision Joyce undertook in the 17 year writing, and sheds shafts of illumination into the multitudes of ambiguous meaning Joyce baked into Finnegans Wake. A must for all serious Joyce scholars and fans.
2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
Beautifully written, monumental in scope, and a real love-letter for our climate-change times, The Overstory can be said to hark back to Romantic traditions in its appeal to nature to rescure us from our technological dependencies. This is not a short read, but its prose is often as light as air, or at least, as light as a gentle breeze blowing through the leaves of the trees it describes.
1. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
For many, Finnegans Wake, is a supreme act of literary pretension. An indulgence of a man who lived too much in his own head, and not enough for his family. A riddle with no solution, a puzzle that is unconquerable and the greatest literary jape of the twentieth century. They may be right. However, there are many more – and this number is slowly growing now Joyce’s opus is out of copyright – that disagree. There are many that look beyond the difficulty and challenge to embrace the new language Joyce often promised for himself – a language to help him escape the restrictions of nation, politics and religion. A language brimming with unsurpassed poetry and instinctive insight unparalleled in any of his own and contemporaries work.
My own journey to the Wake is necessarily circuitous. Like climbers scaling Everest quite often you need to ascend, then descend, then ascend again to acclimatise yourself to the heights, to the de-oxygenated forms of plot, character and narrative. I knew it was out there when I first read Ulysses, another peak to be surmounted at some unknown future date. I dabbled when my father presented me with my first copy one Christmas. But I knew I wasn’t ready then for its unique and potent wonder. So I read on, knowing that one day I would return to its barking prose, its quacking dialects and its unremitting originality.
I read the Ellmann biography. I read Ulysses again. I read A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. I read Ulysses and Portrait again. I read Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, knowing the great author was deeply inspired by Joyce’s innovations with language for his own famed book. I absorbed Adam Harvey’s wonderful video explanations over on JoyceGeek. I read Ulysses again. I established a Joycean book group. Finally, when there could be no more procrastination, and when I came upon a sublime visual-art project that uses part of the Wake, the moment of inspiration landed again, this time without a willingness to accept refusal or denial. It was time.
Aided by a brilliant audio recording I listened and read, recited and devoured the sumptuous meandering river of language again and again and again. It is a book for which I believe it is perfectly acceptable to read non-linearly. Read the ending first – it’s the best bit and will keep you inspired while you read the rest (and don’t worry it won’t spoil an understanding of the plot). Read the glorious lilting description of Anna Livia Plurabelle by the two washer-women, who metamorphose into trees, as does their language. Read it all, in its multi-faceted technicolour pyrotechnic glory. Read it without trying to understand it. Read it and let the words wash over you like wine. Read it to absorb the pungently incisive puns littered about the page like glitter, like an early beta of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’. Each endlessly innovative page restores the wonder of language and fiction and meaning and love and family and death and history and allusion and comedy and entwines them all in an inescapable embrace. Joyce’s wit was second-to-none. In this great comic novel the jokes and allusions come thicker and faster than a Frankie Boyle monologue.
For that is where we should situate this book – not as a remnant of a literary experiment gone wrong. Not as a faded, misguided attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of intellectual readers. But as a fulsome part of our own culture, as much as it is a reaction to it. An intrinsic part of our culture, of any culture, of any world, for at its heart is a subtle and moving exploration of human nature and family and love and guilt and loss and the bonds that bind us to each other, just as language is bound to culture.
Bono of U2 once said that what U2 try to accomplish with both words and music, Joyce manages to achieve with just words. So rejoice in the melodies Joyce gave us, in the harmonies of human gossip, the tunefulness of his soul and a thousand other human souls echoing through the pages. Each innovated word is testament to the infinite power of language, and literature, to renew and restore, what was once faded, into dazzling, shimmering light.