Having been mentioned so frequently in yesterday’s blog as the source of excellent book recommendations, I finally succumbed to Layla’s suggestion that I do a guest blog of my top ten books of the year. Flattery gets you everywhere…
It’s been horribly hard to narrow it down to a top ten, since this has been my best year for reading for as long as I can remember – due not least to a challenge from the lovely Thomas of My Porch to see who could read 100 books first. (To my chagrin he won, but I had a lot of fun anyway.)
The first book I read this year, I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe also has the first spot in my list of top ten books of the year. I loved Charlotte as a character, and even more I loved seeing a slice of American life – an a Ivy League university – that I’ll never experience.
The second book that makes it into my top ten is Rose Tremain’s The Colour. It’s the story of a couple’s emigration to New Zealand at the time of the gold rush (along with the husband’s mother). I love her writing (her book Sacred Country is probably one of my top 50 favourite books of all time) and very much enjoyed reading both this and Music and Silence this year. But The Colour wins out for me because of the book’s ability to really communicate obsession and because of the complexity of the relationships. And I like a pioneering book…
Which leads me very nicely onto my third book of the year: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Published this year, I do not understand why it hasn’t received more attention. Again with a strong interesting female character (I’m starting to notice a pattern here!), it’s the story of a Quaker girl’s emigration to America in 1850 at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law. But more than that, it is a story about an English girl becoming American but keeping some of herself. And it is a tale of complex compromises. If you read just one book off this list, I would make it this one.
My fourth book is very different: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. It’s hard to explain how touching and interesting this book is without making it sound a bit sentimental – which it isn’t. Ultimately it’s a book about friendship – our main character is an teenage epileptic science nerd who befriends an aging American Vietnam War vet. The tragi-comedic undertone reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and I would guess that those who like one will probably like the other.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene is my fifth book and probably needs little introduction to most of you. I’m not quite sure what made me finally get round to reading it – other than a job will come up at our Embassy in Havana around the time I leave here… But I completely loved it (though am not absolutely sure the book convinced me that a job at the Embassy is necessarily for me!). For those who haven’t read it, it’s political satire and thriller combined, with characters so vivid that I felt I should invite them over for a cup of tea.
My sixth book is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. I just loved this for absorbing me in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community that I’ll never be able to access myself. I really cared about the choices the characters made – almost unable to read on when they made the “wrong” choice. Despite being on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, this also hasn’t received as much attention as I think it should. (And so if you are going to read two books off this list, this should be your second!)
My seventh book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s a story of a number of overlapping lives, all affected by a walk that a man does on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. I loved it for showing me 1970s New York, for McCann’s ability to make stories converge and for his ability to make me care a lot about a character in just a few lines.
My eighth book of the year is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I can’t think why it took me so long to catch up with the rest of the world and to read it. It’s speculative fiction of the best kind and I was unable to do anything other than read once I picked it up. It’s about the role of women, the role of Government and what compromises a society – and an individual – can be talked into for their own protection. It’s completely dazzling.
My ninth book of the year is a cheat: it is the Madaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood (a cheat because I ought to choose between the three or give them three spots on the list of top ten – ah well, it is my list so I shall cheat if I wish). I’d been deterred by Layla who originally read Oryx and Crake and wasn’t an enthusiast (she has now entirely revised her position as her review shows!) but was lured in nonetheless because The Handmaid’s Tale was so good – and because of some persuasive blogging by Thomas. As complex as Dickens, as compelling as a thriller and as thought provoking as a philosophy lecture, this trilogy has it all. I possibly liked the last, Maddadam, the best but even as I typed those words I thought of all the reasons why I loved the other two just as much. Certainly, Madaddam was one of the only books to make me cry in public (twice) this year.
Since I have got into the routine of cheating, my last spot will go to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald AND The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt jointly. They do have something in common: a flawed character who may (or may not) be the architect of his own doom. They are also the two books which spring to mind when I think of the phrase “tour de force”.
Best re-read of the year goes to Dickens’ Great Expectations and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And my worst book of the year goes without question to Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. Nonetheless, it has been an excellent year’s reading.
(This is my lovely wife reading at a floating temple in Burma/Myanmar – Layla)