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.
The 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.
The 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.
Capital, 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.
Skios, 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Lionel 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.
The 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.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.
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.