2013 draws to an end. This post, featuring my best of 2013, has existed in draft form for a couple of months now while I chewed over my choices. And here’s the final list–the best of the books I read:
Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck. This German book is an extraordinary document. The author, a member of the German elite, a conservative Prussian landowner, was appalled by the Nazis, and he says it all here, writing in a diary which he kept hidden by burying it. He was in the same room with Hitler on a few occasions and regretted not killing him when he had a chance. Reck also made some uncanny predictions, but even he, in spite of the fact he seemed to understand the Nazis, was ultimately blindsided by their venom. He died in Dachau in 1945. This was my non-fiction read of 2013
Best German fiction:
Transit by Anna Seghers. Another German book on the subject of WWII. This is a fictional story of a POW who first escapes from a concentration camp, and then escapes from a work camp and finally makes it to Marseille where he assumes the identity of a dead writer, hoping to get the necessary funds and papers to leave Marseille. Transit is a marvel of intense pacing and desperation.
Best French Fiction:
Climates by André Maurois. A wonderful book that charts two very different relationships. Maurois is another great find for 2013. I loved this book and its descriptions of two very different relationships. Climates says a great deal about what we need in relationships and sometimes what we need just isn’t good for us….
Best 19th Century Fiction:
The Odd Women by George Gissing. My respect for this author increases with every Gissing book I read. This is a story of feminists, a couple of women who run a school to train genteel young women for adequate employment. The feminist ideals of both of the women who run the school, Rhoda and Miss Barfoot, are tested in different ways. Also woven into the story is the fate of the Madden girls, sisters who struggle to survive in a world in which women hope to keep afloat through marriage. Gissing has made my Best-of lists now for 2 years straight. Will he make it for a third?
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was re-read for me, and I loved this novel just as much this time around. Maugham is, and always will be, a great favourite. This is the story of a husband, father and office worker, who tosses his life aside and in middle age, decides to pursue an artist’s life. Inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin.
I wanted to stick with categories, but these are all British:
Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. Hoban is another discovery of 2013, and he wrote a good number of novels, so I’ve some catching up to do. Turtle Diary is a wonderful novel–the story of animal and human liberation, and guess what, as it turns out the two are tied together. As a “turtle freak,” I wallowed in the images of the turtles endlessly swimming in their small tanks and two people becoming some concerned, so morally involved with these giant sea turtles, that they decide to do something about it.
My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes. A classic tale of Hollywood. This is the story of a married screenwriter who becomes involved with an unstable actress. Some people you just can’t step away from fast enough…
A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam. Looking over my choices for the year, this one stands out as quite different. I’m a long-time Gardam fan and have read most, not all, of her books. I tend to steer away from child/adolescent narrators so it’s telling for me to say that I loved this book, and that Gardam’s narrator, a 13 year old girl was witty, refreshing, and so non-conformist, I hope she never changes.
Great Granny Webster a largely autobiographical book by Caroline Blackwood. This is a wicked little book, recommended by commenter, Leroy (eternally grateful). This is essentially a search for identity through rifling through the stories of one’s immediate family. The young narrator is sent to live with her dour Great Granny Webster, and gradually the narrator pieces together family history, including a ramshackle Anglo-Irish estate, and all the pieces come together to make sense.
Best Debut Fiction:
A is for Angelica by Iain Broome. With its clever structure and unusual narrator, this debut novel swerved in an unexpected direction and took me by surprise
Now to crime….
Best American Noir:
River Girl by Charles Williams. I’ve read a number of novels by Charles Williams now, loved ‘em all, but this one, River Girl, is going to be hard to top. This is the story of a corrupt small town deputy who falls in love with a mystery woman and then comes up with a plan to dump his old life and run off into the sunset….Sheer brilliance here.
Best British Noir:
Kiss The Blood Off My Hands by Gerald Butler. This is the story of a rather unpleasant character who finds redemption through love. No, it’s not soppy; it’s dark, desperate and harsh. OOP.
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas (Eric Knight). Who would have thought that the mind that wrote Lassie could have written this dark story….
Well there you have it. Most of my choices are very dark. No surprise there I suppose. But one thing I noted as I looked over my choices: there are no less than 5 books from NYRB.