2011 — KfC’s 10 best

The 2011 year may have a few days to go yet, but just in case you are looking for a last-minute book to put on your list (or to buy for a friend) or some volumes to purchase with the book tokens or gift cards you know will be under the tree, here’s the top 10 from my reading year.

Unlike many readers who have a comprehensive plan for their reading year, I rarely know more than two or three books ahead what I will be reading, so this annual exercise is always a revelation even to me about what my 12 months of books ended up being. A few observations now that I have made my choices:

– KfC’s 2011 list features far fewer unread or reread classics or older books than normal (eight of the 10 were published in 2011). I hold Adam Mars-Jones at least partially responsible for that (read on to find out why). It was also an unusual year in that it featured the publication of a number of very promising titles early in the year which is normally when a dearth of contemporary titles sends me back into the stacks to pull out some overlooked volumes from previous decades or centuries.

– I had the feeling as the year unfolded that it was an exceptional year for Canadian fiction and this list confirms that. Four titles here are new books by Canadian authors and those four don’t even include the Giller winner, the two Canadian titles that made the Booker shortlist and a number of other Canadian titles from the Giller longlist that were also on the KfC longlist (and all of those are worthy volumes). I have been reading Canadian fiction for almost a half-century now and I can’t recall a year that had so many high quality novels and collections.

– an indication of how dreadful this year’s Booker jury was is that four of my 10 selections were Booker eligible (and that doesn’t even include the eligible titles from Canadian authors) and only one of those four (the eventual winner) made their longlist. It was an exceptional year for U.K. fiction as well — and a very bad year for the Prize to have such a dreadful jury.

– three of my 10 are debut novels, another good sign for readers. I don’t consciously try to read first novels but neither do I avoid them so the fact that three are included is an indication we have much to look forward to in the future.

The list is arranged alphabetically by author; there is no way I would attempt to rank the top 10 because I allow myself the serendipity of putting books on the list based solely on “liking” them and I “like” books for a whole bunch of different reasons, as you will discover. I’ve tried to indicate my “why” with each book — rest assured, I heartily recommend all 10.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. In a reading year characterized by such a disastrous Booker jury, it is almost embarrassing to see their winner first on my list — but put that down to Barnes’ early appearance in the alphabet. There is no way that this exceptional, 150-page novel could be left off. Tony Webster is in his early 60s, retired from a working career where stablity and security were much more important to him than conventional notions of achievement, and entering the period of contemplating a life lived. The short novel opens with scenes from his school days but picks up dramatic pace when he receives notice of a £500 bequest which also promises the copy of a diary from an old school friend. One of the things that Tony is already thinking about is the difference between shame, guilt and remorse — and the strange bequest sends him off on a search that will bring that difference to life. If you check the comments in my post, you will find that some readers are perplexed by the unresolved confusion of some key elements in the novel: my explanation would be that while some (not all) younger readers may find that troubling, those of us who are of Tony’s age are only too aware of the uncertainty that comes with memory, even memories of important events in our own life. The Sense of an Ending should be regarded as at least a 300-page novel (and maybe 450) — you will want to read it more than once.

The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. The Free World may be David Bezmozgis’ first novel but it is not his first book — indeed, it could be characterized as a prequel to his 2004 story collection, Natasha, which made the Giller shortlist (and which I read pre-blog, so alas no review here). We meet the Krasnansky family on a railroad platform in Vienna in 1978, Jewish refugees on their way from Latvia to Rome, which will be a holding station for some months before they move on to a new life in the United States or Australia or (as was the case with the author’s parents) Canada. The storyline about the uncertainty of the months in Rome is good but the most powerful themes of the book are the memories of what the previous life was like. The grandfather was a Soviet hero, even if his recent time there has soured him on the whole experience, and not at all sure about this emigration. Polina, the wife of one of the Krasnansky sons, has even more conflict in her memories. The Free World is an impressive debut novel (and equally outstanding second book) — I look forward to reading more Bezmozgis in the future.

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise. My only criticism of the 2011 Real Giller jury is that they left this short-story collection off the shortlist (the link will take you to a guest review as well as my own). Blaise is a veteran master of the form and these 11 stories are an outstanding example of another Canadian fiction phenomenon: the “immigrant” novel. Okay, it is a story collection not a novel and they are set in the U.S. but still…the author is Canadian. The index page says they are meant to be read in order: in fact, the collection tells the stories of five Indian immigrants in two and three story sets. Blaise’s characters are not refugees or even middle-class: they have been very successful in their North American experience but all of them are trying to cope with emotions that draw them back to the land where they were born and still have strong family ties. The theme is powerful, the prose even more so. Blaise deserves to be ranked with Canadian masters of the short story such as Alice Munro and Carol Shields (it is a genre we are very good at) — this rewarding collection is ample indication of his talent.

We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant. When I read this book in January, there is no way that I thought it would make my year-end top 10 list — it is a testimony to Linda Grant’s novel, that it grew consistently better in memory as the year went on. The central character, Stephen, was born in 1946 which makes him one of the first baby-boomers, and is now on the verge of becoming a senior citizen (not unlike Barnes’ Tony Webster) looking back on his life. Born and raised of mixed ethnic parentage in California, the defining event of his life was winning a Rhodes scholarship — he met his wife during the turbulent 1960s at Oxford and has been in the U.K. ever since. The title of Grant’s novel captures her over-riding theme: those of us born in the post-war 1940s (KfC was born in 1948) really did have it “so good” and only now are coming to the realization that we wasted the opportunity to make a difference. Given the real-world events of the last few years, it is no wonder that We Had It So Good became more impressive as 2011 wore on.

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith. This selection probably qualifies more as a Lifetime Achievement award (and I have only read the first two of five Ripley novels and none of the rest of Highsmith’s extensive catalogue) but that is no reason to leave it off the 2011 list. If you don’t know Tom Ripley, he is one of fiction’s most interesting evil characters — and if you only know him from the excellent Ripley movies, rest assured the original books are even better because they contain so much more than can be captured in even the best of movies. As for other Highsmith fiction, let’s just say Hitchcock was a major fan. The link will take you to reviews of both this book and The Talented Mr. Ripley — make sure you read the comments, because many visitors here have read and recommend far more Highsmith than KfC has got to so far. She will be making at least one appearance on this blog in 2012.

Cedilla, by Adam Mars-Jones. As noted above, I am blaming Adam Mars-Jones for the lack of classics on this year’s top-10 list. Cedilla (733 pages) is volume two in his multi-volume chronicle of the life of John Cromer — I knew it was due out in March and had not yet read volume one, Pilcrow (525 pages), so a lot of first-quarter reading time which is when I normally return to the classics was devoted to Mars-Jones. It is hard to believe that 1,250 pages (the link connects to reviews of both books) could be described as a “quick” read but the author succeeds in making Cromer interesting on every page. Cromer has Still’s disease and is confined to a wheelchair — Pilcrow takes him to the end of adolesence, Cedilla is mainly about his days at Cambridge, with a fascinating global sidetrap. Cromer is not only an interesting character, Mars-Jones uses the setting of his confined life to offer some perceptive observations on the England of the mid-twentieth century. At least one more volume is promised — I assure you taking on the trilogy (or tetralogy if that is what it turns into) is worth the time and effort.

The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee. This is a highly self-indulgent pick but I hope to convince at least a few people to try it: I love newspaper novels and this is an excellent contemporary example. Honor Tait is “an old-school journalistic heroine” with a raft of achievements (e.g. interviewing Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Madame Chang Kai-Shek some years later) and awards to her credit. Honor spent her money as she earned it and is now reduced to recycling old news stories in book collections to finance her lifestyle. At her publisher’s urging, she reluctantly agrees to a promotional interview with a quality tabloid — which bring Tamara Sim, a “regular casual” at The Monitor, into the story. Sim spots an opportunity for scandal, lucrative from her young, ambitious perspective. McAfee has impressive journalistic credits from the quality English broadsheets — she is married to author Ian McEwan, so she also has experience on the “celebrity scandal subject” side. If you are interested at all in what produced the current Murdoch fiasco (the novel is set in 1997 London), you will find this debut book more than worthwhile — and have some very good chuckles along the way.

A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. There is a fair amount of self-indulgence in this pick as well — A Good Man is book three in the author’s loose Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing are the first two) and I have been an enthusiastic supporter for years. While the first two books were grounded in the conflict between invading white exploiters and settlers and the First Nations peoples, that conflict is in a “mop-up” stage in this book. The central character, Wesley Case, comes from a powerful Ottawa family and is a failed North-West Mounted Police member as the book opens — he buys a farm in Montana but runs messages between American and Canadian forces to help out with funds for the set-up. The direct wars with aboriginal tribes may be over — the white men have already found lots of grounds on which they can plot and fight with each other. A Good Man is another excellent example of Vanderhaeghe’s ability to capture Western North American historical fiction (you don’t have to read the trilogy in order, incidentally).

Montana 1948, by Larry Watson. Watson is my “discovery of the year” in terms of productive authors whom I have not previously read and I owe that to Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes whose enthusiastic review of this novel moved me to buy it a few years ago. The story of Montana 1948 is told by 52-year-old David Hayden who looks back on a sequence of events that took place in Bentrock, Montana 40 years earlier — the 12-year-old didn’t really understand what was happening with his sheriff father and family then, but the wisdom of age brings the dreadful experience into focus. Watson impressed me enough with this book that the preceeding post on this blog is a review of White Crosses, another novel featuring another Bentrock sheriff.

Touch, by Alexi Zentner. The fourth novel here from the 2011 Giller longlist and third first novel on this list, Touch is a fitting, closing example of the highpoints of KfC’s reading year: a new Canadian author with much promise for the future. The narrator of the novel is an Anglican priest who has just returned to the British Columbia gold rush town of Sawgamet (“founded” decades ago by his grandfather) to attend to his dying mother. The narrative moves between the three generations and is proof positive that the Canadian “frontier” novel is still alive: it features both native and Christian spirits, backbreaking physical survival and a 30-foot snowfall. The Canadian cover would be on my shortlist of “Covers of the Year” as well.

On to 2012. I hope you found 2011 as rewarding in reading as I did — and that the next year might be even better.

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52 Responses to “2011 — KfC’s 10 best”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Great to see your list, Kevin! I have mine drafted but I had to get my most recent review up before I could publish it since my most recent review is about what is probably my favorite book of the year. But since time has been a major issue lately, I have just now posted that review — which is a long way of saying my list will be up later this week . . .

    I’m of course thrilled you enjoyed Montana 1948 as much as you did. It still sits high on my all-time list, and I don’t imagine it will get knocked down anytime soon. And as usual your list reminds me of some holes in my own reading I’ve been meaning to fill in for some time. I’ve had Touch since it was published and I’ve had the first two volumes of Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy on my shelf for even longer. I was expecting to fill both holes when the Giller shortlist was announced, but since neither Zentner nor Vanderhaeghe was shortlisted, the gaps remain!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I can certainly understand that the time pressures of a newborn son (not to mention work) have cut into reading time — I’d say both Vanderhaeghe and Zentner will be every bit as good in a year or two as they are now.

    I very much look forward to your list as well.

    Happy Holidays to all of the Berrett family.

  3. Graham Says:

    This is a really interesting selection of books. I have had Montana 1948 on my books to read list ever since I read your glowing review. I’m going to have to try and get round to it soon!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks Graham. I feel a little bit guilty that there is so much contemporary fiction on the list, but that is a reflection that for my tastes it was a good year for that, particularly with Canadian authors. And that my commitment to reading the Booker longlist meant that I spent quite a bit of time in the summer reading a number of books that were ordinary at best. In 2012, I intend to make sure that I venture beyond the contemporary, at least in the first quarter of the year.

  5. Buried In Print Says:

    The Adam Mars-Jones’ volumes and also The Spoiler are now on my TBR list. I added all of Clark Blaise’s collections to said list when I finished The Meagre Tarmac (how did I miss his work before the Giller longlisting ::sigh::).

    I hope 2012′s page-turns hold good things for you!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: I think you will find them worthwhile. I should have mentioned that I intend on reading more Blaise in 2012 as well — while I have known about him for decades, I’ve never read any of his other collections. And my experience with The Meagre Tarmac reminded me that I should go back to some of the authors (particularly short story writers) that he hung out with in Montreal. Hugh Hood was one of my favorite authors when I was in my twenties — more than enough time has passed to make revisiting some of his short story collections worth another look to see how they have held up.

  7. anokatony Says:

    ‘A Good Man’ is on my soon-TBR list, and I’m currently reading Larry Watson’s newest. One thing your list says to me is that I should watch the Giller prize longlist and short list more closely. I usually find out about great Canadian novels and novelists only after a couple of years have passed.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: The Shadow Giller Jury has reviewed all of the Giller longlist on this blog for the last three years — usually only one or two of us get to longlist books but all four of us read all the shortlist. We will be doing it again next year, with the same four jurors as this year. I think the longlist is well worth looking at — except for a few titles from small independent publishers, most are available in the U.S. and almost all available as e-books if you have a reader.

  9. Mrs.B. Says:

    Great list. I’ll be including The Sense of an Ending in my end of year list too. If I had read any Patricia Highsmith this year, I’m sure she would have made the list too. She is excellent. You should also try her stand alone novels.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Mrs. B: I probably will save the stand alone novels until I have finished the Ripley series, although I may try some of her short stories along the way, It is nice to have an author whose works you can count on “on hand” for when you want a book that you know you will enjoy (usually after experiencing a few disappointments, if you know what I mean).

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: I bought:
    The sense of an ending (thanks to you and a friend who loved it–well I usually really enjoy this author anyway)
    The Spoiler (thanks to you)
    We Had it so Good (thanks to you)
    Already had the Highsmith

  11. Shelley Says:

    Since I will be getting on a plane soon to return to my writer’s stomping grounds of Texas, I’m going to Barnes and Noble to look for a book that will distract me from airport woes–your list helps!

    All readers should pause today too and say a word of gratitude for the life of Vaclav Havel. His historical stature is well known, but the other remarkable thing about this man is that: he can write. Really write. Try his essays, his letters, for a strange, grounded, egoless voice.

  12. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    I always enjoy your year-end top 10 list Kevin. The titles I do get around to reading (busy these days with work, a 19-month-old and baby #2 due in March) are always top-notch. Last year, your list led me to The Imperfectionists, which I enjoyed immensely. This Xmas, it’ll be The Sense of an Ending and hopefully The Meagre Tarmac. Thanks for enriching my reading and all the best for 2012

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Cherine: I think you will enjoy both those selections. And a few months down the road if you have time, give consideration to The Spoiler — your experience in the communications business you have dealth with versions of Tamara and you will find parts of it hilarious.

  13. David Says:

    Great list, Kevin – I’ve read only two of them but have five others. The Vanderhaeghe in particular keeps calling to me from my TBR pile, though at the moment I’m (rather perversely) reading a few books from that mountainous pile that I’ve for one reason or another kept dismissing. At the moment I’m halfway through Frances Itani’s ‘Requiem’ which I’d been putting off thinking it might be too similar to Julie Otsuka’s ‘The Buddha in the Attic’ (it’s not – well, not entirely – and I much prefer the way Itani has used similar material).
    Anyway, as a result of your enthusiastic reviews of Larry Watson I recently bought a copy of his new novel ‘American Boy’ which I intend to read before the end of the year.
    The two from your list that I’ve read (Barnes and Zentner) would probably make my top ten too.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      David: Given your extensive reading of Canadian fiction, I’m not surprised that you have so many on hand. Itani’s first book and I did not get along, so I haven’t tried Requiem (the reviews that I read indicated I would probably have the same issues with it).

      As for Larry Watson, I have Justice (an early short story collection) on hand and will probably dip into that in the New Year — off the two novels that I have read, I expect him to be a talented short story writer as well. All of which means that I seem to have fallen into reading Watson in publishing order, so I will probably move on to Orchard and Laura after that — American Boy probably won’t hit the agenda until a year or two down the road.

  14. Lisa Hill Says:

    Good to see I’ve already got one of these, so it won’t be so hard on my credit card LOL.
    Have a great Xmas KfC, and many thanks for all the great bookchat here on yoru blog.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Thanks for the comment and all the best to you and yours. I’m taking part in Kimbofo’s Australian reading January to knock a couple off my TBR pile (Seven Types of Ambiguity and Shiralee). And while I haven’t been commenting I have been following the deliberations of the Man Asian Shadow Jury — keep up the good work.

  16. leroyhunter Says:

    Good stuff Kevin. My own Highsmith highlight this year was Deep Water – it’s one of her best.

    I’m very taken with the Clark Blaise, but I’m not betting on it showing up in Dublin bookshops. So at some stage a Book Depsitory order will be required. Watson is one I want to get to as well, both the books you’ve reviewed.

    The Spolier sounds like fun, I think I missed the review first time around. And by Mrs McEwan no less! You’ve steered me right in the newspaper sub-genre before so this is one I’ll think about.

  17. kimbofo Says:

    Phew. My credit card can stay safely in my wallet. That’s because I’ve read most of these — or have them in the queue already! :-)

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Given the comments on Highsmith both on this post and previous ones, I’m considering that maybe I should alter stand alone novels with the rest of the Ripley series, so thanks for the Deep Water recommendation.

    And I was guilty enough about knowing about Blaise but not having read him until this year that I ordered three volumes of his collected stories today — Porcupine’s Quill here publishes them by the region they are about (Southern, Pittsburgh and Montreal).

    Mrs. McEwan puts both her professional and personal background to good use in the book — I personally believe that her “status” on both fronts meant more negative (or less positive) reviews than the book deserved. Having said that, you know when she writes about tabloid journalists persecuting “writing” celebrities, she has substantial experience.

    Happy Holidays and best reading in 2012.

  19. @AkA Says:

    Thank you for sharing your favourites here Kevin

    I remember your glowing reviews for ‘Montana 1948′ and the Clark Blaise stories …will get to both of those very soon.I see you will be going through the 3 regional story collections..look forward to your reviews : )

    Glad to see Vanderhaeghe’s work in your list. I really enjoyed ‘A Good Man’ and am sad that the trilogy is complete. Have you explored any of his earlier short story collections?? I think Guy Vanderhaeghe is a truly brilliant author and am quite mystified as to why his work is so under-appreciated?!??!

    Happy Holidays to you and your family Mr KfC

    Aleem from Toronto

  20. Lee Monks Says:

    AkA: I agree on Vanderhaeghe. Criminally under-rated.

    Kevin: great list, and I’m pleased Barnes is on there. (And I’m a huge Highsmith fan. I daresay John has already mentioned the exceptional The Cry of The Owl at some point?) As with Trevor’s list, there are a fair few on here that I haven’t got, so on the list they go. Clark Blaise particularly appeals, I must say.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      While I knew Blaise was born in the States and had spent a lot of time there, it was only within the last few days that I discovered he set so many of his short stories there — enough to fill both a Southern and Pittsburgh collection. In addition to reading the Montreal stories, I’m looking forward to the Pittsburgh one — Mrs. KfC and I lived there for three years so we know a little bit about it.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Aleem: I’ve read all of Vanderhaeghe’s novels but only one story collection (the first, I think) and that was some years ago and I don’t remember it at all. I may have to mark them down for a future look.

    My guess is that he tends to be overlooked because a) he is Saskatchewan-based (so outside Canada’s literary inner circle) b) personally-reserved if not shy (I was his host some years ago when he was at the Calgary author’s festival — he is as nice in person as his books are, but he isn’t a media-type personality) and c) a combination of “Westerns” and “historical fiction” describing his works tends to regionalize him even more in terms of reputation. Also, he doesn’t write the kind of books that become either book club or university course favorites. It is interesting that international readers like Lee Monks and Max at Pechorin’s Journal who do try him are impressed.

    I’m looking forward to my “Montreal short story writers” project in 2012 — not just Blaise but Hugh Hood (whose stories I read a lot of in the 1970s) and people like John Metcalf (who I have pretty much overlooked — don’t even think I own a collection). I believe I read Mordecai Richler’s collection, The Street, as a student but it too invites a revisit.

  22. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year Kevin and thanks for a year of excellent reviews. I often buy books on your recommendation and have the Bezmozgis and two Larry Watsons on the `read me’ shelf at this moment. I’ve been off on a Russian theme this year – they take a while to get through – and then there’s always the lure – for me anyway – of British novels set in or around the 1950′s so North America has been unjustly neglected apart from the couple I’ve mentioned on John Self’s Asylum. Although I’m prone to lofty hints about `themed reading’ the truth is that I tend to just read where my fancy takes me and what happenstance throws up and there’s such a lot out there…. your blog has helped to point me in some interesting directions including Vanderhaeghe

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks and all the best for the season to you as well. I too find that my reading “themes” tend to arise from books read pointing to others (e.g. one Brit novel in the 1950s points me on to others) rather than some grand plan.

    Linda Grant’s book misses that era by just a decade, but is worth considering. I do think Bezmozgis has some comparision to her previous novel (The Clothes on Their Backs) in the way that it explores the different reactions of different generations of immigrants to the “new” world.

    Incidentally, have you read an Nancy Huston? I’m interested in the thoughts on her work from those who have read her in the original French rather than her own English translations.

  24. alison Says:

    Thanks for a great list. Last night I started (and am now two thirds of the way through) the Julian Barnes and am loving it. I already want to read it again, but also want to circulate it among my reading friends.
    And I have added two more from your list to my library requests…

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: I hope The Spoiler is one of the two, if you haven’t read it already. Given your day job (Alison is an editor at the Globe and Mail for visitors who don’t know my fellow Shadow Giller juror), McAfee’s portrayal of the contemporary newspaper world will speak to your experience — one of Tamara’s tasks as a regular casual is developing the kind of “top 10″ lists that are a regular feature of the Globe’s ever-expanding Drivel section (agony aunts and uncles, Ask a Podiatrist, etc., etc.). It may be set 15 years ago, but I’d have to say her take is very present day.

  26. mfcrpittman Says:

    Kevin, thanks for another great list. I always enjoy reading your blog. Since it’s your blog, I’ll only list my top 5.

    In no particular order:
    The Stories of John Cheever
    To Kill A Mockingbird (good to get back to this one)
    The Sense of an Ending
    Half Blood Blues
    Enduring Love (finally read it)

    Biggest surprise of the year: Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (far better than I expected it to be)

    Least favorite book of the year (tie: Elle by Douglas Glover and The Testament of Jessie Lamb).

    Closing comment: I wholeheartedly agree that The Giller list was far superior to the Booker. This is saying something since two of the books on the shortlists are the same and the Barnes is so great.

    Have a great Christmas!

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: You have snuck in here under a different name (I’m assuming I know you better as RickP) but your thoughts are always most welcome here. I have read all five on your list, although I’m not sure about the complete Cheever and Harper Lee was decades ago. I do approve of them all.

    Best holiday wishes to you as well.

  28. shawna Says:

    I just picked up The Meagre Tarmac from my favorite book store (great selection, excellent service) and now I can’t wait to take it all in over the holiday season. Thanks, Kevin, for a great year in reading and reviews!

  29. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    A very fine and informative post which has introduced me to several new books – the Adam Mars Jones particularly which I have added to my amazon wishlist but which is unfortunately not available at my local library

    Thank you for your comments during the year. May you have a very good book blogging year in 2012.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Thank you and best wishes for a happy holiday to you and yours. I hope you have 2012 plans for a couple of European holidays — I like your book posts very much but your pictures from your tours are equally as unique.

    And good luck in finding a copy of the Adam Mars-Jones two books somewhere.

  31. Trevor Says:

    A very Merry Christmas to you and Sheila!

  32. Stephen Page (eudaimonia) Says:

    great list.

  33. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: We both wish the Berrett’s a Happy Holiday season as well.

    Stephen: Thank you — and welcome to KfC. Your comments are always welcome.

  34. Craig D. Says:

    Heh. My prediction that it would take you until the middle of 2012 to get around to “Ripley’s Game” grows closer to coming true each day. ;)

  35. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: Ha. I actually pulled the Highsmith off the shelf just a few days ago. We watched the movie version a couple weeks ago (it was excellent, but then her books seemed to be made to turn into good movies) and I hope to get to Ripley’s Game in January. Then perhaps one of the stand-alone novels as a start to the altering program.

  36. Craig D. Says:

    I have both “Ripley’s Game” films on DVD. I enjoy the 2002 version with John Malkovich, but I found it to be a pretty poor representation of the character, despite so many critics calling Malkovich the perfect Tom Ripley and other things to that effect. He’s a fine Hannibal Lecter, but he ain’t no Ripley. I much prefer the 1977 version (“The American Friend”) with Dennis Hopper. Not only is it a better overall film, it captures the character of Tom much more accurately, even if Hopper is walking around in a cowboy hat.

    I really should get around to all those non-Ripley Highsmith books that I bought so long ago. I found “The Tremor of Forgery” so intolerably dull that it’s been sitting on my shelf for months with a bookmark stuck at about the 75% point. I also left “Strangers on a Train” unfinished some time ago, but that had less to do with the quality of the book and more to do with my fickle attention span. My tastes grow more warped every day. Why read good, legitimate literature when you can waste your time on some crappy dime novel in which Sherlock Holmes fights Dracula?

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: It was the Malkovich version we watched, although I remember seeing The American Friend way back when (and not much more about it). I enjoyed the movie and obviously can’t compare it to the book — although there were points where it was quite obvious that the book would be better. And where the movie was better. Highsmith sets the Ripley novels in some very beautiful places but I would not say description is her forte. So movie directors get to capitalize on that — and we readers have the books for character. Both media have value for me at least.

    And to digress just a bit, Mrs. KfC and I watched another outstanding Italian crime DVD series last week that I have been looking for a chance to mention on the blog. Guy Savage put us on to Montalbano some time ago and we have that whole set and have now been through it three times, even if I have only read one of Camilleri’s books. That experience led us to The Octopus, Colliandro and Donna Leon’s Brunelli, all of which we found excellent (for different reasons). Last week’s new one was Homicide Squad (La Omicidi in the original) — I’d seen it described on-line some months ago but the title and description led me to think it was too much like American crime shows that don’t interest me at all. How wrong I was. It is five episodes, the first four of which have their own “crime” but with a larger one looming in the background — episode five resolves that one. I was reminded of Highsmith in some ways, although it has a hero as opposed to a central villain. All of the characters are excellent and it ranks with the best of Italian crime television — and I think Italians do that as well as anybody. Sorry about hijacking your comment, Craig — it was your closing remark about avoiding legitimate literature that brought Homicide Squad back to mind since it is almost as good as literature and long way from a dime novel.

  38. Crake Says:

    “Unlike many readers who have a comprehensive plan for their reading year, I rarely know more than two or three books ahead what I will be reading”

    So do I!

    Really great list – I’ve only read the Highsmith (a LONG time ago)

    Happy New Year, Kevin!

  39. Atlas Says:

    Intriguing list.. thank you KFC.
    I’d have to disagree with you your number one, though..
    Having read Barnes’ Sense of an ending, i found it quite mediocre..
    Ditto for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, another Booker runner-up, which was rather long and mostly tedious.. (and this is coming from someone who really liked The Line of Beauty..)

  40. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Atlas: I did not much care for The Stranger’s Child either (and I wanted to like it because I found the premise and structure quite interesting). I found it over-written and more and more self-indulgent as it moved along.

    As for Barnes, I do think by its very nature (introspective with characters who are badly flawed) there are going to be readers for whom it simply has little appeal. While I can understand that, I don’t think that reduces its worth as a novel at all.

  41. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Booker really was a shocker this year. The idea that the judge listened to the candidate books using the Kindle voice function while driving her car, I actually don’t think that would be an acceptable way to judge plot-driven genre titles let alone literary fiction.

    Just embarassing. I hope the organisers learn from that fiasco.

    The Sense of an Ending though has indirectly given me quite a bit of entertainment, mostly I admit from reading comments here and at The Asylum almost all of which seem to ignore the issue of memory and instead treat it as a whodunnit. I shouldn’t be entertained by that, but we should all probably be better people than in fact we are, however good we may otehrwise be.

    Putting Blaise up with Munro is strong stuff, but I suspect I should read Munro first and I haven’t yet. I have another Grant unread so tempting as that one is I’ll have to pass on that too for now.

    The Ripley I’ve read of course. I only really love the first of those, but Highsmith is a distinctly underrated author so it’s always nice to see her get some attention.

    The Mars-Jones novels I do want to read. Between you and John I’ve been distinctly sold. The only real issue is length. I want to read more Proust this year, I want to read Gravity’s Rainbow, and I want to get stuck into Miklos Banffy’s famous trilogy and three books clocking in post 700 or so pages (GR I think nearer the 1,000 mark) just won’t leave much room for another megatome, however good. I’ll have to think about that though as the writing does sound of the first order.

    The Last Crossing will probably be my next Vanderhaeghe, and that will probably next time I go to Banff. 2013 perhaps.

    Which leaves Montana, 1948, standing out particularly to me (not knocking the other choices, all are interesting, but some of course resonate more). Both you and Trevor have sung its praises which never steers me wrong, so I’ll pick up a copy and see how it goes. I’m sure it will be excellent.

    Thanks as ever for the reviews Kevin, and I wish you some great discoveries and rediscoveries in 2012.

  42. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I too am suprised at why readers want The Sense of an Ending to have a logical outcome when the uncertainty of memory is what the novel is really about. I keep wanting to remark “Now you see what Tony’s frustration is.”

    And given your “tome” agenda, I can see why Mars-Jones probably has to wait for another year or so. Proust takes a lot of attention and I’ll admit to abandoning Gravity’s Rainbow after about 300 pages — boring and self-indulgent would have been my descriptors and there was no reason to proceed further, despite how much others might like it.

    I do think you will like the Watson — it has a noirish quality to it that I think will strike a responsive chord. I have read another one since (White Crosses) and have four more on hand, so Watson has obviously become a must-read author for me.

    As for Highsmith, I think I will be reading one or two a year for some years to come. It is easy to see (from just two books) why so many film directors were and are attracted to her work — there is a very strong dramatic quality to it throughout, from my limited experience.

  43. Max Cairnduff Says:

    We can’t, and indeed probably wouldn’t want to, like everything. Despite loving it myself I can see how some might have found V boring and self-indulgent and I suspect Gravity’s is similar in terms of style.

    I recall your White Crosses review. Four more on hand? A must-read author indeed.

    Highsmith is a joy. One of those writers I can’t explain why I haven’t gone back to, if that makes sense. Time constraints I guess, but a definite talent.

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