A rare behind-the-scenes look at the hub of this blog.
A rare behind-the-scenes look at the hub of this blog.
It’s been a strange year.
I reread many novels, burned my way through Garnier, abandoned Proust because he gave me sleepless nights, and didn’t read as much Balzac as I’d intended. Anyway here’s the best books I read this year; I make these categories up as I go along.
Best Russian novel:
Anna Karenina. I loved this novel the first time I read it but for this rereading I appreciated its cinematic qualities.
Best South American Novel:
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Someone… please make a film out of this.
Best British fiction:
Incredible, brilliant–a state of the declining nation book: Jonathan Coe’s The Winshaw Legacy.
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. Incredible. Thanks to New York Review Books for republishing this.
Pascal Garnier (he gets a category all of his own).
Moon in a Dead Eye . A look at the hellish life of a bunch of retirees in a ‘safe’ gated community
Most Surprising novel:
Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson. A horrible title but the book was wonderful–this is a tale of a nomadic life of extreme poverty seen through a child born to a woman who makes terrible taste in men.
Best Short Story Collection:
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson. Not a loser in the bunch
Best American fiction:
During the Reign of the Queen of Sheba by Joan Chase. This is one of those books you read and marvel that you never heard of before. An American classic of mythic proportions. Don’t miss this.
Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara. A quintessential American novel of small town life: hypocrisy, power, money and the ruling class as seen through the staidly predictable life of a man who never did anything wrong but neither did he do anything right.
Best Crime Novel:
The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette. No contest.
Best Irish Fiction:
Time Past and Present by Deirdre Madden. Time and memory in the lives of Irish siblings.
Best Non Fiction:
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik. I always wondered why on earth Zweig killed himself after successfully escaping the Nazis. Now I understand.
Best WWI Novel:
Fear by Gabriel Chevallier. Always tough to read about WWI, but I loved the anger in this.
Best Psychological Study:
The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster. I’ve passed over this author numerous times as I had the impression that I wasn’t the right reader for her books. This is the story of a strange little girl, shaped by childhood events, who grows up to be a strange woman. The sort of book to gather many interpretations of its main character.
Writing is Easy by Gert Loveday. Through a colourful cast of characters, Gert Loveday shows that writing isn’t easy, and while it’s hard to keep a novel consistently funny, Gert Loveday creates a laugh on every page.
Best Australian novel:
This was the hardest category as I read so many great Australian books this year. While there are several titles I won’t forget, two stick out:
Amy’s Children by Olga Masters. This is the story of a young woman who abandons her children and seeks employment in the city. The reader may forgive Amy, but her eldest daughter doesn’t.
Julia Paradise by Rod Jones. Initially hard to read due to the subject matter of incest, I ended up loving this morally complex book which is not at all what it first appears to be.
Roll on 2015….
“Look at me. I did one exciting thing in all my life. I married you. That’s all. And it looks like the excitement hasn’t even begun yet.”
You can’t read vintage crime without coming across the name Harry Whittington (1915-1989), and lucky for readers, epublishers are reviving many vintage titles that were previously only available in old, sometimes pricey and frail, paperbacks. Of course, you can’t beat those vintage covers if you’re a collector, but all too often the price of these little gems is not-for-the-average-reader.
According to the introduction to You’ll Die Next!, written by crime author Mike Dennis, Whittington “churned out over 200 novels–though the exact number has never been determined.” Dennis adds Whittington, known as the “King of the Paperback Originals,” used “over a dozen pen names” and “at his peak [he wrote] seven novels a year.” His record output was “seven in one month.” You’ll Die Next! is short (123 pages) and manages to keep up a breakneck speed of action. This is definitely pulp but it’s merged with noir–our Everyman hero is a very average man, who lives in a modest house and works a boring job, but fate puts him on a collision course with murder, revenge and deadly violence, and this all happens after he opens his front door….
It’d always worried him. He knew what he was, a guy making $65 a week take-home pay from a government vet administration office. She had guys paying sixty-five bucks for flowers she sniffed maybe once and dropped into the waste basket. At twenty-three Lila had everything. She could have married mink, Cadillacs, Bergdorf-Goodman accounts.
They’ve been married now for six months, and part of Henry, the part that can’t believe his luck, is waiting for something to go wrong, but so far, married life is idyllic. Lila may look slightly out-of-place in a tiny, drab house, wearing an apron and cooking meals for her husband, but she insists that she loves being a housewife. The novel opens with a scene of domestic intimacy–Lila in that apron, cooking for Henry when the doorbell rings. It’s one of those moments, when you want to urge the character not to open the door, but Henry answers this call from fate, and his life begins to spiral out of control….
Within just the space of a few short nightmarish hours, Henry Wilson has lost everything that he worked so hard for. Suspicions about Lila drive a wedge through their married life, but that’s only the beginning. Soon Henry has lost his job, can’t go home, and can’t even seek help from the police. A fugitive from both the cops and the insane crooks bent on retribution, there’s nowhere to turn and no place to hide. The big question here is what can Henry Wilson do to save himself and Lila?
Once Henry opens that front door, the action doesn’t stop, so this is a quick read, pulp action with noir undertones. There’s not much time spent on character development as most of the plot shows Henry reacting to nightmarish adversity, on the run, trying to recoup some of his old life, but since he doesn’t know his enemies, he’s always at a disadvantage. Henry has to somehow turn around the action, so that he’s no longer a victim, so that he’s no longer reacting to the violence and actions of others–no easy feat to think and act like a criminal when you’re a low-level government paper pusher.
The nice touch here is the domestic, idyllic beginning and the way in which Whittington shows that everything Henry values is destroyed once he opens that front door to the outside world. Henry’s life with Lila is threatened by some very unpleasant characters seeking revenge, but Henry’s marital bliss is also threatened by his doubts about who Lila really is. At one pivotal point in the novel, Henry meets a stranger who senses trouble involving a female. The strategic placement of this character, who is superfluous to the plot, serves to echo Henry’s doubts about Lila as he offers comments that gnaw at Henry’s psyche:
“I can tell you this, friend,” the stout man said. “women are all trouble. Good ones. Bad ones.” He shook his head. “They don’t mean to be, some of ’em. But they are.”
While Whittington cleverly structures the life of an Everyman for readers to identify with, he also accentuates subconscious fears that a desirable woman is really just stringing along her sucker of a husband until a better gig turns up. And this is the power of this pulp novel–Whittington taps into those fears, and it’s fairly easy to identify with Henry, a man who’s led a life of boring predictability, always taking the safe road. Before Lila, Henry was “a guy in a rut. A guy digging a groove into a grave.” Lila is Henry’s one deviation from his staid life, and that’s why he expects something bad to happen. Now finding himself beyond the safety net of society, and relying on his own resources, he must somehow rescue his life before it’s totally destroyed.
Punks, pimps and prostitutes–all were wearing the uniforms of their trades. A Salvation Army band added to the din, playing with all its strength at two bums watching from the kerb: Neons glittered, rose red and bile green, and reflected kin the dirty puddles at the kerb.
Time to pull another Trollope novel randomly from the shelf. This time it was Lady Anna, and on the back cover of my Penguin edition there’s a snippet: “Trollope pronounced Lady Anna (1874) ‘The best novel I ever wrote.’ ” And after finishing it, I cannot understand that statement at all–what about his beloved Barchester Towers (1857) or my personal favourite to date The Claverings (1867)? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Lady Anna, and it certainly had its merits, but at just over 500 pages, Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.
Lady Anna revolves on a legal case, certainly not an unfamiliar backdrop for Victorian novels, but here instead of fusty old legalities, there’s more than a touch of scandal and a heavy dollop of debauchery. The case involves a woman known as Josephine Murray who married Earl Lovel, and from the small parish church the 24-year-old bride was taken to Lovel Grange, an “ill-omened looking place.” Trollope tells us that she did not love her much-older husband and that she married for ambition; “she wanted to be the wife of a lord.” Thus he sets the stage for us to have some, but not too much, sympathy for this character.
Unfortunately Josephine Murray made a very bad choice. While the Earl is an extremely wealthy man, he’s also rumoured to be quite mad. That’s as good a term as any for the Earl’s strange, antisocial behaviour
He had so lived as to teach himself that those men who devote themselves to their wives, as a wife devotes herself to her husband, are the poor lubberly clods of creation, who had lacked the power to reach the only purpose of living which would make life worth having. Women had been to him a prey, as the fox is a prey to the huntsman and the salmon to the angler. But he had acquired great skill in his sport, and could pursue his game with all the craft which experience will give. He could look at a woman as though he saw all heaven in her eyes, and could listen to her as though the music of the spheres was to be heard in her voice. Then he would whisper words which, to many women, were as the music of the spheres, and he would persevere, abandoning all other pleasures, devoting himself to the one wickedness with a perseverance which almost made success certain.
So the wicked Earl is a seducer of women, but this time, with Josephine, his best efforts fail, and he “could be successful on no other terms than those which enabled her to walk out of the church with him as Countess Lovel.” With a lecher for a husband, you’d expect Josephine to be unhappy, but her misery goes far deeper. Six months after the marriage, the Earl announced that he committed bigamy when he married Josephine as he had a wife still living (who has since died) in Italy. He refuses to remarry Josephine and tells her that he’s back off to Italy and that she can chum along as his mistress. The Earl, now supposedly a widower, departs for Italy … alone.
Josephine, with debts mounting, lives in precarious circumstances and the only person who offers to help her is a humble tailor named Thwaite. He takes Josephine and her daughter, Anna into his home, devoting his time and money towards Josephine’s restoration as the Countess of Lovel. It’s acknowledged that the Earl went through a marriage ceremony with Josephine, but the big unknown is whether or not the Earl is lying when he belatedly revealed himself to be a bigamist. There’s some evidence that points to the fact that the woman was already dead when the Earl married Josephine, but the Earl, who’s buggered off to Italy, argues otherwise and proof, one way or another is sketchy. It doesn’t help matters that some Italian woman, alive and well, claims to be the Earl’s first wife, but she may be the sister of the deceased first Countess, simply after money.
Josephine now has a dilemma: should she choose to pursue prosecution and win the case against the Earl for bigamy, she will, in reality, publicly acknowledge that she was the man’s mistress and that her daughter is illegitimate. Both Thwaite and Josephine expect the case to fail, but it’s the necessary first step in proving her likely-legitimate claim to the earl’s title and fortune. The Earl (in absentia) is acquitted of bigamy and then the case is slowly fought to establish Josephine’s claim. Decades pass, and the death of the Earl throws the issue of inheritance back to the fore. Suddenly it’s Josephine’s claim to the estate vs the claim of the new young handsome Earl ….
Lady Anna reminded me of Is He Popenjoy?–another novel about illegitimacy and a mysterious marriage that may or may not have taken place in Italy. The characters in Lady Anna were not as satisfying however, and our hero, Daniel Thwaite, the son of the noble tailor, and Anna, Josephine’s daughter are not particularly interesting characters. Daniel, a capable serious young man, seems a little on the self-righteous side while Anna is entirely overshadowed by her mother, Josephine–a far more interesting, damaged, character.
Josephine is a woman obsessed. She married a blackguard for money and position and she’s spent her life to its pursuit–all in the name of her daughter, but this devotion becomes questionable as the novel wears on and we see that Josephine loves her daughter in as much as Anna can fulfill all the latent longing for titles and social position–even though these things have proven to be useless, empty ambitions. Josephine nurses her grudges against those who refused to help her when she was abandoned by her husband, and while that’s certainly understandable, she also, in a manner which shows her true nature, turns her back on the Thwaites. It’s one thing to remember your enemies, but it’s another thing to forget your friends
While there’s romance here, one of the underlying theme is legal vs. moral justice. Josephine seeks legal justice against her husband and yet when she finally gains that, she’s not too interested in moral justice–she ascribes her own desire for money and position to Daniel Thwaite when he seeks to marry Anna, but he’s challenged by the new Earl. Who will win Anna’s hand?
Lady Anna drags on past its due date, and events could have been wound up much sooner, but even so this is a Trollope novel, and he always has some wonderful observations to make about human nature. Here’s Daniel a radical who longs for the eradication of nobility;
Measuring himself by his own standard, regarding that man to be most manly who could be most useful in the world, he did think himself to be infinitely superior to the Earl. He was the working bee, whereas the Earl was the drone. And he was one who used to the best of his abilities the mental faculties which had been given to him; whereas the Earl,–so he believed,–was himself hardly conscious of having had mental faculties bestowed upon him. The Earl was, to his thinking, as were all Earls, an excrescence upon society, which had been produced by the evil habits and tendencies of mankind; a thing to be got rid of before any near approach could be made to that social perfection of which he fully believed.
In Lady Anna, Trollope creates some subversive situations in his observations of class distinctions. Daniel believes that nobility is an antiquated fetish of the society in which he lives, and we see, through Trollope’s characters, that Daniel is right. Josephine is twisted by her dreams of regaining the long-elusive title, and through her daughter, she plots, along with the two opposing legal teams, to reestablish the status quo of titled society.
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.
For Emma from Book Around the Corner.
I had a difficult time narrowing the choices down to just two, but in the end (on Xmas morning), I selected these two:
Straight Man by Richard Russo
No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker
For Brian from Babbling Books:
Brian likes his books to contain a bit of philosophy to chew over so…
Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three
The Plague by Albert Camus
For Lisa from ANZ Litlovers Litblog:
For Lisa’s love of French culture:
La Première Gorgée de Bière et Autres Plaisirs Minuscules by Philippe Delerm
For Stu from Winston’s Dad:
Stu likes books in translation, and as he’s read this author before, he should really like this one (we hope it gives you a few laughs)
All Yours by Claudia Piñeiro
Merry Xmas to all my readers!
For a refresher, this is an event in which participants select virtual Xmas gifts, two books, for another participant.
Emma and I also plan to “exchange” virtual book selections, and we will also select one book per participant.
Since this is a virtual exchange, participants will buy the books selected for them, so keep costs and availability in mind when making your selections.
Thanks to everyone who decides to take a chance and join in. And sign up either on my blog or Emma’s.
Let the games begin!
Happy Xmas to all my readers. This is the day that those participating in the 2012 Virtual book exchange make the announcements of their selections. Let the games begin!
For a refresher, participants select a partner, or as Emma states a copinuate for a virtual book exchange. Emma and I also planned to “exchange” virtual books with participants and so we selected a title for each participant with both Tom and Leroy landing two apiece as they were not exchanging but still wanted to join in.
For Himadri from Argumentative Old Git, we picked Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev. Emma pointed out that Himadri loves Nabokov and should like this choice. There’s a theory that Nabokov actually wrote this book. I’d argue not, but let’s see what Himadri has to say on the subject.
For Brian from babblingbooks, Emma and I select Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. Brian likes books that contain philosophical ideas, so he should love this novel. It’s one of my top books of all time.
For Gummie from whisperinggums, we selected Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home. Gummie, I think, likes the quirky, so she should really like this. Well I hope she does…
For Lisa from ANZlitlovers, it’s The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantes. Emma’s pick on this one, but I must say that it looks good.
For Tony from Tony’s reading list, we select Father Goriot by Balzac. No more visiting my blog and telling me that you’re going to read Balzac one of these days…
For Stu from Winston’s Dad. It’s The Pets by Bragi Olafsson. Stu reads a lot of books in translation, and he wasn’t easy to pick for. Let’s hope this one is a hit.
For Leroy, an avid reader and commenter, Emma selected: In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson and The Chatelet Apprentice: The First Nicolas Le Floch Investigation.
For Tom from A Common Reader: A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée (we both loved it) and The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante (I haven’t read the latter, so that was Emma’s pick).
Emma and I also agreed to select two books for each other, so for Emma:
E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Selfish on my part as this is one of my favourite novels, and I’m sure Emma will love it too.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
Both of these have been made into excellent film versions, and they were both alternate choices from last year’s virtual book exchange. I’m hoping that Emma hasn’t read either of them and that she will find these two books as wonderful as I did.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who has stopped by during the year. Happy reading!
Another year over, and there’s been some great books along the way, and this brings me to the Annual Wrap-up. The categories are purely arbitrary, and since I haven’t read every book on the planet, these books are not the best of everything, but simply the best I read in 2012.
Best Classic Noir:
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze.
runner up: The Burglar by David Goodis
Best 19th Century Novel:
There was a lot of tough competition for this title. On one hand, George Gissing’s New Grub Street showed me how far money went in the 19th century, and just how much you needed to live like a gentleman. On the other hand, I loved The Claverings largely in part thanks to the hilarious character of Sophie Gourdeloup.
Best Australian Novel:
First place: Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
Runner up: Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley
Best New American Fiction of 2012:
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
Runner up: Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman
Best New British Fiction:
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Best New Crime Novel of 2012:
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Best Book Made Into Film:
Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Man of Straw by Heinrich Mann (plus this is the best German book I read this year)
Biggest Reading Surprise:
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Two Wonderful Books in Translation:
Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabata
J.Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Scardellati.
Thanks to all my readers and subscribers. Here’s to some great books in 2013!
It’s December the first and time to get things rolling for the Virtual Book Gift Giving Extravaganza. So here’s the line up for those few brave souls who decided ‘what the hell’:
Emma and I decided to
pick on select Tom from A Common Reader, so we’ll pick two books for him. In addition, we will choose one book for each participant, and since this is all about give and take, Emma and I will also select two books for each other. All selections will be announced Xmas day.
Thanks to everyone who decided to take a chance and join in.