A Book for Every Year…

I got the idea for this post primarily from the brilliant Christa over at A Voluptuous Mind who posed a list earlier in the year of her favourite movies from every year she has been alive.

I got to thinking what my favourite books would be and inspired by the 1951 Club, I thought I would list my choice for the best books of 1971 to 2015! The reason I’m stopping at 2015 is because I didn’t read any notable new releases in 2016 or so far this year given my on-going book ban. Some years were easier than others – 1971 was pretty tough, but I had to debate between several books for 1993! Some were read at the time (although obviously I wasn’t reading John Berger on my first birthday!) and some only recently, but they represent a selection of some of my favourite books!

So, let’s kick off and see if any of your favourites are here too!

1971 – 1980

1971: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

1972: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

1973: Deenie by Judy Blume

1974: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig

1975: American Buffalo by David Mamet

1976: Will you Please be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver

1977: Dispatches by Michael Herr

1978: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

1979: The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer

1980: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

1981 – 1990

1981: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

1982: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

1983: Fool for Love by Sam Sheperd

1984: Money by Martin Amis

1985: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1986: Perfume by Patrick Suskind

1987: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

1988: Libra by Don DeLillo

1989: A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

1990: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

1991 – 2000

1991: Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1993: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha! By Roddy Doyle

1994: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill

1995: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

1996: Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane

1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

1998: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

1999: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

2000: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

2001 – 2010

2001: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

2002: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

2003: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

2006: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

2007: Remainder by Tom McCarthy

2008: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

2009: A Scattering Christopher Reid

2010: A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

2011 – 2015

2011: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

2012: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

2013: Tenth of December by George Saunders

2014: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

2015: Tender by Belinda McKeon

Any of these take you back to a specific year? Or is anyone else tempted to make a list of their own? I’d quite like to do the same for music and movies, if I can find the time!

The Magic of A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing translates to the Stage

I went to see The Corn Exchange’s production of A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride back in February at The Mac in Belfast.

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I remember very clearly in the stunned silence that followed the last line of the production, the woman sitting next to me turned to her neighbour and whispered ‘Fucking hell.’ Indeed. I couldn’t speak for the tears running down my face and a few seconds later, actress Aoife Duffin was met with a standing ovation.

Aoife Duffin collecting her Stage Award at the Edinburgh Festival Photo: Alex Brenner

Aoife Duffin collecting her Stage Award at the Edinburgh Festival
Photo: Alex Brenner

This week I was delighted to hear that Aoife Duffin has been announced as one of the first winners of The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for her performance in A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing at the Traverse Theatre. The Stage critic Gerald Berkowitz described her performance as a

remarkable marathon and di splay of power as a performer

In Annie Ryan’s striking adaptation, there is nowhere to hide for either performer or viewer. The setting is almost Beckettian – an unspecified time and place – and Duffin assuredly leads us through the narration of the Girl’s life from the age of 2 to the age of 20. Once you hear it spoken, any doubts that Eimear McBride’s striking novel couldn’t be made into a play melt away. In fact, it seems like the perfect manner in which to tell this devastating story.

Written as an interior monologue, it flows easily on stage thanks to the assured adaptation and the marvellous central performance. Duffin inhabits the part of Girl, but also has an uncanny ability to bring the other characters to life with a change of inflection or a slight mannerism, from Girl’s controlling mother, to her dying brother and devastatingly her uncle and abuser.

By allowing the audience to focus more on Girl’s emotions and less of the intricacy of the text, the play centres on the impact of the sexual abuse Girl experiences and how it fractures her idea of her self. As Girl turns to degrading sex to blank out her pain the production becomes an unflinching feminist portrait of a young woman attempting to defeat the demons that have been forced upon her by her grandfather, her mother, her uncle, society.

The what of me is what he takes….

The play itself feels like it is being spoken directly to Girl’s dying brother and the poignancy of their childhood scenes is in direct contrast to the fates that await them. He is the one pure thing in her life and at the end of the play, with an immersion in water – a baptism of sorts – there finally comes a calm. A transition to the whole.

This was a difficult play to watch and yet Ryan and Duffin also captured the often surprising moments of humour in the story. That Aoife Duffin can believably bring to life a foetus,  then a child and then a young woman is testament to her skill, physicality and heart. It is a tour-de-force of a performance and I urge anyone in or around Edinburgh to try and catch it.

Trust me, you won’t forget it.

You can read an interview with Aoife Duffin in the Irish Times here and director Annie Ryan discussed adapting the book in last weeks The Guardian.

My Top Ten Books by Irish Authors

I thought I would kick Ireland Month off with a pretty impossible task – that of choosing my Top Ten Books by Irish Authors. This list has now gone through several revisions as I think of some other book I want to include, but as of now it will have to do! Included are books I read over 25 years ago alongside books I’ve only just read in the last few months.

In compiling the list I noticed that there are a lot of books that I read in the early 1990s that I love. This is probably the period in my life when I was reading the most, and definitely a time when I was reading a lot of Irish fiction and checking out authors I had never read before. Looking at all the books on my list, I wondered if there was anything particularly ‘Irish’ about them and the most I can say is that they all deal with a form of loneliness, dislocation and otherness – a sense of exile, even from those closest to you.

 

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1. Light A Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy
This was one of those, what I would call, ‘transition’ books, a book I read when I was moving from children’s books, through teen books to adult books. Published in 1992, all my friends in school read this story about two girls, one English and one Irish, thrown together in the aftermath of the Second World War and their friendship over the next 20 years. It’s a timeless, warm hearted book, and I still have my mother’s hardback copy from 33 years ago!

2. Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty
I sometimes wonder if a book like Lamb could be written today. The subject matter of a priest who befriends a boy he teaches would now be read under the shadow of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, but in 1981 that wasn’t the case. In this graceful and moving novel, Brother Sebastian, nee Michael Lamb, runs away from the bleak boarding school where he works, taking with him twelve-year-old Owen Kane. The media and the police call it a kidnapping but for Lamb, it is an innocent attempt to find happiness for himself and the abused boy, a rescue from a hopeless place. Lamb is a beautifully written book, which ultimately asks us ‘What would you do for love?’ and it has the most heartbreaking ending I think I have ever read. It has also been made into an equally powerful film starring Liam Neeson.

3. Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996, Reading in the Dark is a kind of metaphysical detective story, part memoir, part thriller as a young boy looks back on his childhood growing up in Derry in the 40s and 50s as he tries to solve the mystery of a family secret, which unfolds through lies, betrayals and long hidden wounds. This is a poetic and vivid evocation of childhood and a breathtakingly beautiful book that I have returned to again and again.

 

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4. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
“When I was a young lad, twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent”. So begins The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel which tells the story of Francie Brady and his descent into madness and violence following the breakdown of his family life. Told in a stream of consciousness that places the reader right inside Francie’s shattered brain, this is a darkly comic and often horrifying picture of mental illness, family breakdown and small town life. It’s not a book you will be able to shake. And I mean that in the best way.

5. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
What can I say about Skippy Dies? If you’ve read it you’ll understand. If you haven’t – what are you waiting for? It is funny. So incredibly funny and moving and heartbreaking. The clue is in the title. Skippy , Daniel Juster, does indeed die at the beginning of the book, during a donut eating race with his best friend Ruprecht. What follows is a wondrous ride through boarding school, adolescence, string theory and grief. It is a frothy page-turning wonder with a heart of very recognisable darkness.

6. A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
I only read A Girl is A Half Formed Thing last month, but the impression it has made on me has been significant. My review will be on the blog this month, but this pungent, pugnacious and heartbreaking book about a young girl’s coming of age affected me like a blow to the stomach. The themes are typical of Irish literature – a coming of age tale with an absent father, a cruel mother and an inappropriate sexual relationship and the narrative style, although lauded has been done before (it reminded me of The Butcher Boy in particular) but the marriage of the two makes for something entirely unique.

 

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7. Emily’s Shoes by Dermot Bolger
When I was 17, I read Emily’s Shoes three times in one year. It started to become a running joke with my parents when they noticed I was reading it again and again. I haven’t read it in about 20 years so I wonder if it would resonate so much now, but I adored this quiet, unassuming story of Michael McMahon, whose obsession with collecting and wearing women’s shoes stems from the loss of his parents at a critical moment in his teenage life. Bolger perfectly captures the joy and the shame that comes from Michael’s predilection and his examination of his past leads to the possibility of a healing and understanding. This is not an erotic, or titillating book, the subject matter is not there as a gimmick, but is used as a symbol of a young boy’s pain and loss.

8. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
I could have picked any one of Brian Moore’s novels for this list – Cold Heaven, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes, Lies of Silence – all completely different, but all particularly Irish in their own way. There’s a reason he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize three times! This is not a happy book. Judith Hearne, is a middle-aged Irish spinster and an alcoholic. This might be a book about an alcoholic, but it’s not about drinking, it is about what drives someone to alcoholism, the shame, the fear the loneliness and the longing. This is a short book, but it is unflinching in it’s portrait of a life half lived, but never devoid of hope.

9. Riply Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
Riply Bogle was published in 1989 when I was an 18 year old English student in Belfast. Robert McLiam Wilson was 26 at the time and something of a literary rock star in Belfast amongst us undergraduates – young, handsome and feted as the next great literary talent. The novel is set in London and follows our titular hero over four days as he wanders the streets of the city, homeless and musing on his life, directly addressing the reader. There are flashbacks to growing up in West Belfast during The Troubles, his move to Cambridge University and his subsequent decline into homelessness, all of which had an autobiographical edge. Hailed as a new Amis, McLiam Wilson produced a debut that is by turns angry, amusing and unforgettable.

Our author poster boy in the 1990s - Robert McLiam Wilson

Our author poster boy in the 1990s – Robert McLiam Wilson

10. Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor
William Trevor was always going to be on my list, the only question was which book. Love & Summer, Lucy Gault, the short stories, are all stunningly lyrical and quietly moving, but it is this story of a young pregnant girl who journeys to England to search for her erstwhile lover, that iI love most. It has everything I love about Trevor’s writing, but reads like a pyscholigcal thriller as Felicia comes to the attention of the unnerving Mr HIlditch, whose initial care and concern masks an entirely different intention. Trevor is a masterful storyteller and with Felicia’s Journey he is at the peak of his talent.

Now, I know that then moment I hit publish on this post,  will think of a host of other books that I’ll wish I had included, but for the moment, this is my Top Ten.

I have also realised that 4 of my Top Ten have been made into films – Lamb, The Butcher Boy, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Felicia’s Journey – all excellent movies and well worth checking out.

Do you have a favourite Irish book, or have thoughts on any of these novels? Have you seen the movie versions? Do any of these sound like your kind of book? Let me know what you think!