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.