2015: The Shelf of Shame

on Tuesday, December 22, 2015
And now for the next instalment in my very own How To Lose Friends and Alienate People: Books that were noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. Feel free to cross me off your Christmas lists.

The Most Overrated Book of 2015
Seriously you'd have thought it was one of the great moments in world history. Believe the hype and the last 3000 years went something like this: The discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, Moses, Jesus, man walks on the moon, Go Set A Watchman. Ok, so we had collectively given up hope on ever reading another word from Harper Lee but 2015 saw us finally get our hands on her apprentice novel, a sequel of sorts, albeit written before To Kill A Mockingbird. Those expecting something of same quality need only have looked to the rather shady story behind its publication for a dose of expectation management. Alas, the world went apoplectic and forgave the book's every failing. Critics scrambled to find redeeming features in a work that ought not ever have seen the light of day. Which isn't to say it was crap - it was an interesting glimpse into the making of a perfect novelist - but it certainly wasn't the Third Testament either. Also, those who had named their children Atticus were given pause to rethink their decision. Word has it the name will make a resurgence in trailer parks across the midwest in 2016.

Dishonourable Mentions
I'm a massive fan of Andrew O'Hagan but his generally well-reviewed (and Booker longlisted) novel, The Illuminations, left me cold. A plodding story with an unlikely denouement, it did little for the world of war literature and even less for me. Critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on The Sellout by Paul Beatty but I struggled to find my way into its web. There were some hilarious set pieces (pretty much every time the narrator talked about his father) and the general premise of a black man trying to reclaim his hometown by re-instituting segregation and slavery was as funny as it was nuts but I'm not convinced the book actually worked as well as most people would have you believe. Or maybe I just didn't get it. That was certainly the case for The Sympathiser by Viet Thanh Nguyen, about a double (or triple) agent who comes to America just after the Vietnam War, gets involved in Hollywood and the odd political assassination then ends up under arrest in his homeland, enduring all manner of tortures for insufficiently helping the cause. A dense, beautifully written novel (seriously, the prose is stunning) with which I simply did not connect. And, of course, I can't go without giving a nod in the direction of Marlon James's Booker prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. Perfectly executed Jamaican Patois, complex plot lines shooting out in every direction, a polyphony of engaging voices... much like the works of David Foster Wallace I was in awe of it while not really getting or liking it.

The Biggest Disappointment of 2015
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. When word leaked out last year that there was a new Ishiguro on the horizon, his first since the magnificent Never Let Me Go, I was about as excited as a grumpy book nerd gets. That this literary polymath would be venturing into the world of fantasy had me perplexed but hey, it's Ishiguro, the sane man's Georges Perec, what could possibly go wrong? Well skewer me with a dragon's tooth, I trudged through The Buried Giant with the courage and determination of Bilbo Baggins and for what? A bodyslam by Fezzik? A kneecapping with the Sword of Shanarra? Heck, the only ring I found was a boring (sorry). Yep. Despite some lovely moments, a bit of delicious intertextual play and a couple of charming characters The Buried Giant was a massive letdown. Slay me now you dragons of literature.

Dishonourable Mentions
Occasional flashes of the utter brilliance that was Milan Kundera in his prime could not mask the sad fact that his offering for this year was very aptly titled The Festival of Insignificance. Meanwhile, David Vann seemed to be treading water with his latest work, Aquarium. Alaska's answer to Cormac McCarthy, his attempt to venture into something a bit more mainstream felt heavy handed and unfocused. Patti Smith wowed me with Just Kids but her follow-up, M Train, packed little of the emotional punch of its predecessor despite some stunning prose. Smith is a an artist in the truest sense and I'll always find something to like in whatever she does but riffs on the corner coffee shop and Frida Kahlo's bed aren't a patch on the New York she created with Robert Mapplethorpe.


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