Best Books 2013
Because it’s Christmas Eve and I’m sure everybody’s mind is focussed on matters literary I thought I’d take a moment to pull together a list of some of the books I’ve most enjoyed over the past twelve months. As usual I’ve already made a start in my contributions to the annual roundups in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which also have contributions from Delia Falconer, David Malouf, Geordie Williamson, Felicity Plunkett and a lot of other people: if you have a chance I really do recommend checking them out.
As I said in my list for The Australian, I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that the best new book I read this year was Richard House’s 1000 page metafictional thriller, The Kills, a book I’ve been proselytising about ever since I read it back in August. In a time when it’s occasionally difficult to make a case for the novel House’s book (or books, I suppose, since it’s really four short novels) is a reminder of exactly why fiction matters: smart, savage, politically ferocious, it’s also technically and formally audacious, pushing the boundaries of what novels are by incorporating video and sound into its structure.
I was also hugely impressed by Rachel Kushner’s dazzling study of art and politics, The Flamethrowers, a book that’s distinguished both by its intelligence and by the electric energy of its prose, Margaret Atwood’s occasionally frustrating but ferociously funny Maddaddam, Karen Joy Fowler’s characteristically smart, self-aware chimpanzee experiment novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Philipp Meyer’s sprawling Texan saga, The Son and Patrick Flanery’s brilliant, angry and thrillingly unstable exploration of contemporary America, Fallen Land.
Another book I liked very much but which seemed to receive less attention that I would have expected was Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. Although I’m a big admirer of Barnes I was a bit underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending. But Levels of Life is a remarkable book, exhibiting both extraordinary control and a palpable sense of the raw, unprocessed (and largely unprocessable) nature of grief.
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is another book that seems to have found a while to attract the attention it deserves, so it’s pleasing to see it turning up on a number of best of the year lists. Warm, capacious and very smart about the nature of friendship and the way age and success alters the dynamics of relationships, it’s also one of the most consistently enjoyable things I’ve read this year. And while I suspect it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, I loved Yoko Ogawa’s splendidly sinister matryoshka doll of a collection, Revenge.
There are also a couple of books I came to late, but which blew me away. The first is A Death in the Family, the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical fiction, My Struggle. I’ve yet to read the second, A Man in Love, which was released in an English translation earlier this year, but I was mesmerised by A Death in the Family. The Sydney Review of Books has just published a brilliant review of the two of them by editor James Ley; if you only read one piece about Knausgaard it’s the one to read, not least because it’s very articulate about the reflexiveness of Knausgaard’s project, and about the Proustian edge to the books, which seems to me to have been mostly misunderstood. I suspect a lot of the impact of A Death in the Family is due to the power of the final third, and its unflinching depiction of the narrator’s father’s death of alcoholism and its aftermath, but the book is also fascinating for the way it explores the tension between mimesis and banality.
The other book I came to late was the late Ian MacDonald’s thrilling study of The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, which I read alongside Pete Doggett’s whip-smart account of the lead up to and aftermath of their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money and Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s huge but often fascinating biography of the band and its members, All These Years. While the others are all good, MacDonald’s book is hands-down the best book of pop music criticism I’ve ever read, although it’s given a run for its money by one of the other standout books I read this year, Bob Stanley (late of pop group, Saint Etienne)’s endlessly absorbing, occasionally problematic and constantly delightful history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah. I want to write something longer about Yeah Yeah Yeah at some point: for now I’ll just say that while Stanley lacks MacDonald’s deep critical intelligence he’s never less than engaging and his command of his extraordinarily diverse material is remarkable, and like many such works my arguments with it only added to the pleasure of reading it.
I have to confess I didn’t read as much Australian fiction as I should have this year, but of the things I did read a couple of books really stood out. One was Tim Winton’s Eyrie, a book that in its portrait of the contradictions underlying the West Australian boom was more explicitly engaged with contemporary Australia than a lot of Winton’s fiction, but the real standout was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan seems to have spent most of his career looking for a way to marry his family history to the national narrative; in The Narrow Road to the Deep North he’s done just that, with remarkable results.
On the genre side of things I very much enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Graham Joyce’s slyly unpredictable follow-up to the wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale, The Year of the Ladybird, and Ann Leckie’s terrific debut, Ancillary Justice, as well as Paul McAuley’s final Quiet War novel, Evening’s Empires and Madeline Ashby’s queasily acute exploration of the line between human and Other, iD, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Guy Gavriel Kay’s gorgeous, allusive sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. All Kay’s books are terrific but I suspect River of Stars is the best thing he’s written to date.
Of the non-fiction I read this year the best thing was Caspar Henderson’s prismatic exploration of our ways of thinking about animals, Nature and ourselves, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, but I was also dazzled by Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s astonishingly beautiful compendium of bird lore, Birds and People. I admired Cocker’s last book, Crow Country, very much, but Birds and People is a much more singular creation, and, interestingly, one that has more than a few resonances with The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. Other non-fiction books I enjoyed include Tim Dee’s deeply disquieting study of four spaces, Four Fields, Philip Hoare’s peripatetic exploration of the ocean and its meanings, The Sea Inside, psychiatrist Stephen Grosz’s wonderfully humane and psychologically sophisticated The Examined Life and John Ogden’s magnificent study of Sydney’s southern beaches, Saltwater People of the Fatal Shore (if you’ve got a moment the interview with Ogden on the ABC’s Late Night Live is well worth a listen).
And last, but not least, a book I came to late but loved quite immoderately, Stephen Collins’ delightfully weird contemporary fable, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. As I said in my piece for The Australian on the weekend, even if you don’t normally read comics please take the time to track one down; you won’t be sorry.
And finally my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season: I hope you’ve had a great year and the twelve months ahead are full of life, love and all good things.
I’ve been meaning to comment on this for a week now, mainly to thank you for recommending to me The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. In a desert island scenario in which only one book read in 2013 was allowed, that’s the one I’d choose. I also enjoyed The Flamethrowers and Levels of Life.
As is my wont, I’m massively behind in reading blog posts, never mind books. And now I have to add every single one of these to my TBR pile. *sigh* Thanks, James…