2012 — KfC’s 10 best

As the year draws to a close and without any further ado, here are 10 books that both impressed and entertained me in 2012. Click on each title to go to the original, extended review.

judtThe Memory Chalet, by Tony Judt. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but historian Tony Judt has been a favorite for many years — like many, I was heartbroken when it was revealed he was suffering from ALS and its inevitable result. The Memory Chalet consists of 26 essays (most published originally in the New York Review of Books) that he produced between the diagnosis and his death. The first three dispassionately discuss the progress of the disease (the body slowly stops to function; if anything, the mind becomes more active) and Judt’s response: building a “memory chalet” of what is going on in his mind (visions from a life lived) as his body shuts down. The essays are grouped in three parts: memories of growing up in London, his student days in both England and the continent and experiences from his later years when he was based in the United States. Judt was born in 1948 (as was I); this collection reads very much like a “novel” of what it was like to grow-up, mature and intellectually prosper in the post-World War II western world. I returned for a second read of the book as soon as I finished it the first time — I know I will be returning to it again in the future.

perlman2The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman. On one level, The Street Sweeper is the story of a black American who gets sent to prison following a teenage escapade and ends up sweeping the streets of New York after his release as he fights to recover a normal life. On another, it is the story of a struggling history professor, the son of a legendary figure from the civil rights era. And on yet another, it is an account of what happened in Holocaust concentration camps — told in horrific detail. Perlman is an Australian so he brings an observor’s eye to these three streams and succeeds in weaving them together in a wide-ranging novel that is as compelling to read as it is thought-provoking. Perlman is a new discovery for me (I read the very good Seven Types of Ambiguity earlier in 2012) — I very much look forward to exploring his back catalogue.

lanchesterCapital, by John Lanchester. The professional critics did not rate this book highly so take its inclusion on this list as an indication that I think they overlooked a very good book. Capital is a “London” novel, set in 2007 and focused on Pepys Street in South London, a block of nineteenth century dwellings originally built for trades people but now gentrified in the extreme. Lanchester covered the 2008 financial crisis for the London Review of Books (and produced a non-fiction volume from that experience) — this is his fictional version of what life was like leading to the crisis. I love London and its characters and this novel features versions of many of them — a City banker who can’t survive without a six-figure bonus, the last resident who was actually born on the street and an illegal immigrant working as a traffic warden whose beat includes Pepys Street are just a few of the extensive cast. The novel is not a masterpiece by any means, but it is an engaging portrait of what might still be the world’s most interesting city.

fraynSkios, by Michael Frayn. Frayn is not just an outstanding novelist, he is perhaps even better known as a playwright (“Noises Off”, “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” were all box-office hits). In both novels and plays, some are very serious, some pure fun — Skios is a perfect illustration of the latter (think a novel-version of “Noises Off” if you know his dramatic work). Skios is a Greek island that annually features a Literary Grand House Party for the rich, powerful and famous (who are expected to contribute handsomely to the Foundation that funds it). The slapstick plot is set in a motion when a cad who is arriving on the island for a dirty week with a woman he had met briefly just a few weeks before mistakenly picks up the luggage of this year’s distinguished lecturer and decides to have some fun by adopting his identity. Skios is a richly entertaining farce — as much as I enjoyed the book, I was as surprised as anyone when it made the Booker longlist since it is the antithesis of the “typical” Booker book.

margoshesA Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. I read a number of excelllent short story collections in 2012, but this volume stood above the rest. It features 13 literary “pieces” — while the author calls them stories he acknowledges they are also an homage to the memories he holds of his father, a lefty journalist in 20th century New York City. Margoshes not only brings his father to life, he does the same to a memory of the America of the times, ranging from working as a farmhand in the Catskills to starting journalism on a Jewish Cleveland newspaper to covering the Hindenberg disaster. The author’s mother told him as a child to “listen to your father” — this collection is an excellent example of what happens when a talented writer heeds that advice.

warner2The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner. This would have been KfC’s personal choice for the 2012 Booker Prize — the real jury did not even include it on the longlist. The story focuses on an isolated, coastal Scottish community and the struggles faced by those who live there (an Irish version of this theme can be found in a John McGahern novel further down this list). The community is still tied to “metropolitan” Scotland by a railway spur line that supplies the novel’s title (the deadman’s pedal is a safety device in train engines that cuts power if the engineer releases it, e.g. by suddenly dying). The characters are both interesting and complete; Warner succeeds in placing the reader at the centre of both the community and their very ordinary daily lives — until a dramatic catastrophe brings the novel to a close.

amis3Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis. This is the second “London” novel to make this list in a year that featured a number of them (I have yet to read Zadie Smith’s NW and Keith Ridgwater’s Hawthorne and Child, both highly regarded). I am a fan of Amis’ early works but have felt in his more recent ones he was more interested in showing his “enfant terrible” side than in producing readable books — for me, Lionel Asbo was a stunning return to form. The title character changed his name to Asbo (UK shorthand for Anti-Social Behavior Order) and is determined to live up to his new name. While awaiting trial in prison, he wins £140 million in a lottery which adds significant challenge to that objective. Amis uses those unlikely circumstances to produce a laugh-out-loud satire of contemporary London at both its poorest and richest extremes — the result alternates between the bitter and sweet, but is always hugely entertaining.

richler4The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler. Anyone who read and remembers my review of The Imposter Bride is probably surprised to see it included here — I’d just finished a string of Giller longlisted novels that all seemed to feature abandoned children searching for their mothers and my initial response to Richler’s novel was rather grumpy since that is its central story line. A Jewish refugee arrives in Montreal for an arranged marriage that allows her to come to Canada. Not long after, some shady aspects of her history cause her to abandon her infant daughter — the novel is the story of that daughter and her curiosity about her mother. My opinion of the novel has grown steadily since reading it (the Shadow Giller Jury did award it this year’s 2013 prize) — Richler’s portrayal of post-WWII Montreal and the struggles and concerns of those who inhabit it matures like fine wine as time passes.

Gift from Kimbofo

Gift from Kimbofo

That They May Face The Rising Sun, by John McGahern. John McGahern is the second most-reviewed author on this blog with five titles (Jean Echenoz is first with six) and every one of them has been excellent (you can find reviews of all five here). Having said that, this novel (his last) would be my favorite of the bunch. A couple who have recently moved to rural Ireland from London are at the core of the book (for Joe Ruttledge it is a return to the area where he was born and raised) but it is the complete cast of well-developed, heart-warming characters that is responsible for making it excellent. Ireland has produced many novels which feature its “challenged” communities — of those that I have read, this is the most accomplished of the genre, a perfect gem of a book.

highsmith The Boy Who Followed Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. Including this one does seem a bit of a cop-out — volume two of Highsmith’s five-book Ripley series was on KfC’s 2011 top 10 list. It seemed even more unfair to leave it off, however. Tom Ripley is one of literature’s most interesting and charming rogues — a truly amoral scoundrel on the one hand, but a fascinating character study on the other. Actually, I read two Ripley volumes this year (Ripley’s Game as well as this one) and still have one to go in 2013. The link will take you to reviews of all four that I have read so far — to appreciate Tom, you need to read them in order.

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28 Responses to “2012 — KfC’s 10 best”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Some interesting choices there, Kevin. I want to read Deadman’s Pedal (don’t own it yet) and have yet to get to Skios and Capital, so thanks for the nudge.

    I’m pleased to see LIONEL ASBO make the list. It didn’t make mine, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it a great deal.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I suspect Lionel Asbo is a little too mainstream for a lot of bloggers’ serious list of favorites (and Amis hardly needs the bit of publicity a blog recommendation provides) — I had so much fun with it that I couldn’t leave it off. I hope you enjoy the other three when you get to them.

  3. anokatony Says:

    I remember reading ‘Malvern Callar’ by Alan Warner. It was an outlandish Scottish novel that I much enjoyed. So I’m interested in ‘Deadman’s Pedal’. I’m also interested in Perlman’s ‘Street Sweeper’, but I do wish they’d write shorter books.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Tony: I hadn’t thought about length when I did the list — Judt is short, Perlman longish and all the rest are in the conventional 250-350 page range. I have to admit that when I do my reading planning a 500-page-plus work (particularly one from an author whom I don’t know well) often sits on the short list for quite a while simply because of the commitment that it requires.

  4. David Says:

    Interesting list, Kevin. I very much agree with you about ‘The Deadman’s Pedal’ – it or ‘The Street Sweeper’ would have been my ideal choices for the Booker too, though I was happy with Mantel winning. ‘Capital’ wouldn’t make my top ten (or even top 50), but I did find it enjoyable and a quick read.
    I have had a copy of the McGahern on my shelves since it came out ten or so years ago and your review has convinced me to dust it off and read it soon. I’m also very tempted to order a copy of ‘A Book of Great Worth’ based on your high opinion of it.

    I’m still pondering what my top ten of 2012 would be (purely for fun, since I don’t have a blog) but it’d probably look something like this:

    Journey to the Stone Country, by Alex Miller
    Conditions of Faith, by Alex Miller (Miller is my ‘discovery’ of the year – I read five of his in 2012!)
    The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner
    The Catastrophist, by Ronan Bennett (one I’d had on my shelves for over a decade but finally got around to. Stunning. Why wasn’t this on the Booker shortlist in 1998?)
    The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman
    The Merry-go-round in the Sea, by Randolph Stow (an Australian ‘classic’ first published in 1965, this really deserves to be far better known. Just a lovely lovely book)
    Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (the story might be yesterday’s news to Canadians, but I found it surprising and very powerful)
    Sleeping Funny, by Miranda Hill (my favourite story collection of the year. The opening story – more a novella really – is alone worth the cover price, but all of them are great)
    Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (reminded me a bit of ‘The Art of Fielding’ and just as good)
    The Infinite Tides, by Christian Kiefer (the one that has grown most in my memory this year which is always a sign of a very good book)

    Only two Canadian books, but there were several others that I read this year and really loved – Daniel Griffin’s ‘Stopping for Strangers’ and J. Jill Robinson’s ‘More in Anger’ I’ve mentioned before, but I also read Caroline Adderson for the first time recently (her story collection ‘Pleased to Meet You’) and have bought three more of her books as a result; and both ‘The Age of Hope’ and ‘See the Child’ by David Bergen – I know you’re not so keen on him, but I thought both novels were very good, especially ‘See the Child’.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Many thanks for sharing that list here — for visitors who get to comments you have doubled the value of this end of year list and I appreciate it. Even more important for me, I’ll be adding some authors from it to my 2013 reading as a result. Miller for a start — I don’t know why I haven’t heard of him since I do try to keep an eye out for Australian titles. And I’d heard of the Kiefer before, so I will add that one as well.

      I do know Wagamese well — we hired him as a columnist at the Calgary Herald when I was managing editor and he won a National Newspaper Award for that even before he started publishing fiction. He is a very distinctive voice.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      David: I forgot to say in my first response that I do fell you would enjoy A Book of Great Worth — you know Canadian short stories well and it is a valuable addition to the genre, even if there is not much “Canadian” about it.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting list, Kevin. Glad to see McGahern on there! :-)

    I really must dust off Skios, The Street Sweeper, Lionel Asbo and the Highsmith — all of them are in my TBR.

    Can I also second Alex Miller (as mentioned in David’s comment above) — I’ve tried to champion his work on my blog this year and while I’ve only read two novels, I have the rest of his quite extensive back catalogue in the queue (or, to be more specific, sitting on the top of my wardrobe). I was fortunate enough to meet him earlier this year, when he travelled to London for the UK launch of his latest novel, and he was the most delightful man. He very kindly agreed to do his Triple Choice Tuesday for me.

    I must also second David’s choice of The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea — a wonderful, wonderful Australian novel, and very much in the vein of McGahern actually. I think you would like it a lot.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I ordered Miller’s Autumn Laing this morning — only that one and Lovesong seem to be readily available here so I am starting late in his quite-long list and will retreat back if I like it. (And included The Infinite Tides in the same order.) I had Randolph Stow booked as an order for later in the new year.

      As for the four from my list that you have on hand, I’d say the issue of which to pick first depends very much on your mood (which I think my original reviews point out for all four). Each is very good in its own way; each also has some limitations. And don’t overlook The Deadman’s Pedal — it brought to mind comparisons with McGahern when I was reading it.

  6. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis Says:

    Kevin, I love this list! I have most of the titles on my TBR list already, from reading your reviews throughout the year, but it’s still interesting to see them rated in the top ten of the year. That will move them up the list some :-)

    David, I picked up a number of interesting titles from your list, including the Kiefer, Bennett & Stow. Miller was already on there but, again, your recommendation will move them closer to the top.

    Thanks, both.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Debbie: I’m glad you like the list — I would characterize 2012 as a year that didn’t have any masterpieces for me but one that had some very good books with their own special appeal. And I must say that David’s response has made the list more than worthwhile for me, since he has pointed me to a number of authors whom I am sure I will appreciate.

  7. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Thank you for a year of excellent and thought provoking reviews which as usual have influenced my reading and sometimes sent me off in directions I hadn’t previously thought about. I don’t think I can stretch to a top ten as lots of things I read were enjoyable but not especially memorable. I find I’m reading more and more non fiction and can recommend Terry Castle’s essays entitled The Professor, anything by Daniel Mendelsohn as well as Robert MacFarlane’s Wild Places and Matthew Hollis’s All Roads lead to France though I disliked Edward Thomas intensely.. As far as fiction goes I thoroughly enjoyed Ha Jin’s novel A Free Life about Chinese immigrants in America, Andrew Miller’s Pure and for sheer unputdownable readability Stephen King’s 11.22.63.

    • Lee Monks Says:

      Mary: the King book is compulsive. It’s certainly one of the better things he’s written I’d say. MacFarlane is a tremendous writer as well, hadn’t read anything until ’12.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for your thoughts — I can’t really comment on any of your non-fiction thoughts since I know the writers only by reputation. When I reviewed my 2012 books read list, I thought that perhaps I was a little too “conventional” last year — I hope to take a few more chances in 2013.

  9. SANDRA KEATS Says:

    Hi, Kevin My book club has decided to read all the Canada Reads books (CBC radio). Are you planning on reviewing any of the books or commenting on this years Canada Reads concept? Happy New Year to you and your readers. I love your blog. Sandra

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Sandra: It is a quirk of timing that I was writing the post announcing my 2013 project to re-read 12 Canadian novels that influenced me when your comment arrived. Given that I intend to again run a Shadow Giller competition and read that longlist as well, I think you will agree that is as full a schedule of full Canadian lists as I can contemplate.

      I have read three of the five Canada Reads books. February is already reviewed here and you will note from my 2013 project post that I will be re-reading Two Solitudes (although too late in my schedule for Canada Reads). And I do think very highly of Away — just not ready for yet another read of it at this stage..

      I am not a David Bergen fan, although some positive thoughts of The Age of Hope by readers whom I respect suggest I should suspend my bias and try it. And I have promised myself that I should get to Indian Horse sometime (Richard Wagamese was a columnist at the Calgary Herald when I was managing editor).

      Good luck to your Book Club with the project. I’ll admit to not being impressed with the Canada Reads lists in past years, but this one seems to be quite worthwhile.

      • Sandra Keats Says:

        I haven’t been impressed with past Canada Reads choices, in past years, either. I might not have looked at the list this year except for my book club membership.
        I wish you had moved Two Solitudes up to Jan or Feb. I am not looking forward to rereading it, so am eager to know why it’s on your list.
        I think you might enjoy Indian Horse. I thought it was beautifully written – even though I am a bit jaded about the subject matter.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Hugh MacLennan was a “founding” voice of modern Canadian fiction so I wanted to include one of his early novels — either Barometer Rising or Two Solitudes. I chose the latter because I think most critics regard it as the more important of the two — I’ll admit that I remember Barometer Rising somewhat better, so that was another reason to revisit the one that I don’t remember as well.

  10. Kerry Says:

    As always, you present a feast of choices for the TBR. I will only pick one from this list for now, however, and it will be McGahern. (I may not start with this particular book, you’ll have to let me know if starting at the beginning of his output is a better idea than starting with his best). I have been meaning to get to him, but haven’t.

    As with The Tin Flute, your kick in the pants should get him from the TBR to the “Read and Enjoyed” shelf in 2013. If it doesn’t, I would appreciate you giving me grief about it at year’s end. (And though I only pick one for now, your year-end lists are long-term treasures to which I return for ideas much, much later. So, look-out Margoshes and Perlman.)

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I started reading McGahern with Amongst Women which many people would argue is his best, so I am probably not the right person to ask. I would say that Rising Sun is perhaps a little more optimistic than some of his other novels. He is such a good writer that I think you could start with any book.

  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I should reconsider that Warner, it tempts me much more than Morvern Callar did.

    Interesting to see the Lanchester on the list. Interesting and slightly unwelcome as I hadn’t planned to read it but am now reconsidering that too. God knows when I’ll find time for it, but his analysis of the financial crisis in the LRB was the best I read so he knows the territory.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I haven’t read Morvern Callar but did read The Stars in the Bright Sky — and The Deadman’s Pedal is very different. The writing was more than competent in Stars, but the story was more fun and cheap satire than anything else. This one is quite serious in a very sympathetic, character-driven kind of way. I expected to be entertained and I was, but I was even more surprised by the depth that Warner showed.

    I am pretty sure you would find Capital entertaining (especially the banker thread of the story since I am sure you have met several versions of that character). And given your own life experience, I think the story of the “street” where the characters live or work would strike some bells. Alas, I suspect it might be a little long for you, given your restricted reading time. I too appreciated Lanchester’s crisis coverage — and I found this a good complement to that.

  14. Lee Monks Says:

    Great list. Morvern Callar I loved a few years ago: must get to the new one now. Delighted to see Asbo on an end-of-year list: wouldn’t quite get on mine but it’s great fun. Skios is pure joy. I’ll have to get The Imposter Bride now as well.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was a little surprised how quickly this list came together for me. Since the year had no obvious standouts for me (and I did take a couple reading holidays), my impression was that there wasn’t much of quality. That was quite wrong — no 10 out of 10s (except perhaps for the Judt) but quite a few 8s. Asbo and Skios are good examples for the year — thoroughly decent books, but restricted in ambition.

  15. leroyhunter Says:

    No arguments from me about Judt, Highsmith or McGahern! Nice to see some variety as the year-end lists can often coalesce into orthodoxy.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      My list is pretty conventional this year. None of the more experimental works that I read really impressed me and I seem to have had a taste for farce (Skios, Asbo, even Capital to an extent) that isn’t usually enough to put books into the top ten.

  16. Charlotte Self Says:

    I just finished The Imposter Bride as it was on both your and Reading Matters’ top ten lists. Thank you for such a wonderful choice. I loved its intensity and intelligence.

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