Scotland’s leading writers and critics pick two books – one published in 2016 and one published in the past – that they most enjoyed reading in 2016. There’ll be new selections every day until Christmas Eve. 5th December features picks by Christopher Brookmyre, Dorothy Alexander and Iain Bamforth.
Far more than a star-studded and unflinchingly honest memoir, I’m Not With The Band by Sylvia Patterson (Sphere, £20) was a book that gloriously illustrated Blake’s contention that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Proceeding from the Eighties days of light-hearted pop innocence on Smash Hits, Patterson’s recollection views decades of cultural and political upheaval through the lenses of rock and rock journalism, always retaining her infectious optimism about music’s capacity to inspire.
It’s always doubly pleasing when you read a great crime novel and discover there are already several more in the series. Slow Horses by Mick Herron (Constable, 2010) introduces the magnificently unquantifiable Jackson Lamb, the endearingly obnoxious spook in charge of the oubliette to which the intelligence services’ misfits and screw-ups are banished. I intend to put more Lamb on the reading menu.
Of the books published in 2016 that I read, my favourite was James Kelman’s Dirt Road (Canongate, £16.99). Poignant and feelgood, for me it also reignited fond memories of visiting close family friends who had emigrated. An older book I enjoyed immensely this year was the Canadian classic Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse by Paul St. Pierre (1966, Douglas & McIntyre). Directed to it by Annie Proulx’s description of it as brilliant and funny in her afterword to Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog, I wasn’t convinced at first but as soon as the Chilcotin Indians, Ol Antoine and Gabriel Jimmyboy, appeared I was hooked. Seldom have I felt so physically in the presence of a character as much as I did with Ol Antoine. The story is told slant with a wry, earthy humour that implies great affection and respect for the peoples of the wild country in which it is set.
After a decade working on his brilliantly orchestrated biography of Franz Kafka (three volumes, Princeton UP), Rainer Stach sat down for some five-finger exercises. Is That Kafka? – 99 Finds (WW Norton, £19.99) explores the margins of Kafka’s life in word and image. In those swarming margins, as Walter Benjamin sniped, we find Max Brod, the friend with questionable literary taste who nonetheless preserved Kafka’s letters and writings. The two of them so enjoyed their trips abroad they wrote a proposal to a Prague publisher to deliver a series of what look like early Rough Guides. The Kafka who emerges from these cuttings is a charming, worldly character: film buff, loss adjustor (with an interest in reducing workers’ accidents) and consoler of little girls who lose their dolls.
I greatly admire NYRB editions and come back every year to read a classic: Robert Burton’s great (big) remedial study The Anatomy of Melancholy (1632). A book to be sounded again and again for its subterraneous contribution to English prose style.