Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Best Books I Read in 2011

I know it's already five days into the new year, but here are the best books I read in 2011. As with my previous lists (2010, 2008), these books represent my best reading experiences of the year regardless of when they were published (for the record I read 13 books published in 2011 with three making my top ten).

1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
(novel, audiobook, 1838-9)

Nicholas Nickleby

I mentioned this book several times this year (such as here, here and here); perhaps this is natural when you listen to something for 30 hours...

What I said about it in October: "I can't remember laughing out loud this much when listening to an audiobook... M. is also listening to the audiobook on her iPod, though she's about ten hours behind me. We talk about the detours into the lives of the Kenwigses and the Crumleses, the lesser villians like Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby and the novel's great villain, Mrs Nickleby. It's all great fun, but is it great fiction? I think so. It's too flabby by modern standards. Far too many adverbs... But it's a pleasure to spend thirty hours of bus journeys and waterfront walks with Dickens' narrator (and Robert Whitfield, the audiobook's 'narrator'). The question is, what can I possibly load on my iPod next that'll be this much fun?"

2. The Prestige by Christopher Guest
(novel, audiobook, 1995)

The Prestige
Sometimes you read the right book at the right time, or in this case, you listen to it at the right time.

What I said about it in March: "Where Priest's novel trumps [Christopher Nolan's 2006 film adaptation] is the degree to which magic is inextricable from the story. The diary of Alfred Borden is built upon the concept of "the pledge" - the idea that the magician shows you what is up his sleeve, and you are willing to believe there's nothing, and that when something is produced hence, it is magic. So too, the writing of the diary exists on two levels: there's the prima facie truth and the between-the-lines truth... Great stuff."

3. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
(novel or linked short story collection - your call, 2010)

A Visit from the Goon Squad

What I said about it in July: "A Visit From The Goon Squad is about connections and disconnections, and the diffuse structure and disjointed narrative are how this is conveyed. Setting it in and around the music industry, which has always been fickle but over the last twenty years has seen drastic changes on the corporate side, the distribution and consumption of music, is genius.

"By the time I closed the book I had an appreciation for it, a respect even, and suspect it may creep onto my top ten list for books I've read this year...

"But it was a book I hated at several points."

You'll have to read the whole post to see what I hated, but it appears the passing of time has allowed it to more than creep into my top ten.

4. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell 
(novel, 2010)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

A real highlight for me in 2011 was my trip to Sydney in May the Commonwealth Writers Prize/Sydney Writers Festival and getting to hang out with some truly talent writers, including one Mr David Mitchell.

What I said about his book in April: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is both a leap back to the ambitious, imaginative feats of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas days, and a continuation of the use of more linear and focussed plots exhibited in Black Swan Green...

"There is still some unevenness in this novel... but one can overlook a couple of odd pages out when the novel is as entertaining and transporting as 1000 Autumns."

5. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts
(poetry/non-fiction, 2009)

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

I mentioned that I was reading this excellent book a few times throughout the year, but never summarised my thoughts because it's hard to feel like you've finished such a book. Green and Ricketts have sliced poetry up into various genres and movements and provided a chapter for each teeming with examples and places where to look next. A truly valuable introduction to poetry and New Zealand poetry that also functions like a Amazon-style 'If you liked this, you'll like...' set of recommendations for those who've read more widely but still have some gaps.

Special mention here to Harvey McQueen's anthology of New Zealand poems These I have loved (2010), which served both to bring new poems to my attention and remind me that I actually did read, study and enjoy New Zealand poetry at high school (early James K Baxter in particular, which I'd written off as imitative and easy to teach, but this is far too harsh a verdict for the likes of 'Wild Bees').

6. Tall Ships: The Golden Age of Sail by Phillip McCutchan
(non-fiction, 1976)

Sometimes you read the right book at not quite the right time, but still time enough for it to be of use...

What I said about it in November: “Since [buying the book two years ago] I've read over a dozen books about sailing ships and left McCutchan's languishing on the shelf. Sigh. I could have saved myself so much time leafing through books that weren't quite right.”

Do I think you should all rush out and buy a copy? No (even if it were that easy to find a 36 year old book). It's a niche interest. But in a year full of non-fiction reading and research, it stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of my reading experience.

7. The Larnachs by Owen Marshall
(novel, 2011)

The Larnachs

The first New Zealand fiction to appear on the list. All up I read ten books of fiction (novels and story collections) by New Zealand writers, after reading nine last year. While there were moments of great promise (Wulf) and polish (From Under the Overcoat, The Trouble With Fire) in other books, Marshall's novel was the most impressive for me.

What I said about it in October: "This is a marvellously written book. Marshall’s fiction has often employed a formal register, though this is his first attempt at an historical novel. The delight he has taken in the polished grammar of this bygone era is evident. I often read a sentence and paused to imagine Owen Marshall leaning back on his office chair, grinning, having just crafted it."

8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes 
(novel, audiobook, 2011)

The Sense of an Ending

It's a rare Booker winner that makes it onto my top ten...

What I said about it in November: "The Sense of an Ending worked magnificently as an audiobook. There’s a single narrator, Tony Webster, who recalls specific moments in his life relating to a particular strand of memory: those relating to his friend, Adrian, who committed suicide in his early twenties. Tony weaves in and out of memory, digressing often on just what memory is and how it changes with time, but also finds the time to muse about the modern world, retirement, divorce and self-delusion. This is the kind of novel some agents might describe as quiet or slow, if you were to query them as a no-name writer, but I found it a thrilling and engaging story – thrilling, I guess, because it felt so intimate and real."

9. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen 
(novel, 2010)


At the other end of the spectrum from Barnes' slight novel is Franzen's ambitious, self-important doorstop.

What I said about it in May: "... it took me a good while to get sucked into the narrative – in fact, I thought about giving up after 50 pages and again at 100. Ah, at least I finished The Corrections...

"It’s clear J-Franz has it, whatever it is we’re all looking for in our writers: cajones, verbal alacrity and something to say, a deep moral vein and a finger on the pulse of kids these days... but there’s always the push and pull of his fiction and his FICTION, of the story he’s telling and the book he’s writing, of the look at my characters and the look at me.

I went on to call it a good-to-great novel and a sure bet to make my 2011 top ten. Seems it just squeezed in.

10= Western Line by Airini Beautrais and Spark by Emma Neale
(poetry, 2011 and 2008)

Western LineSpark

I read twelve collections of poetry in 2011, which comes to one a month. No doubt I could and should have read more, but the cream of this year's crop were Beautrais' second and Neale's third collections.

I enjoyed Beautrais' collection of prose poems, Secret Heart, about as much as I can imagine enjoying such a book (don't get me wrong, I love a good prose poem, but find myself maxed out after half a dozen), but Western Line manages to keep that 'An odd thing I noticed today' feel while wielding ancient forms of poetry (curses, charms, love poems) with modern aloofness.

What stands out for me in Neale's collection in the crispness of voice. There are a lot of poems (and prose-y bits) about preganancy and motherhood, which in years gone by or in the hands of another poet might have left me completely untouched, but Neale manages to present her 'Odd baby things I noticed today' in such vivid and seemingly simple ways that I went along for the ride and enjoyed it.


Some other statistics:

In 2010 42% of the books I read were New Zealand books. In 2011 this dropped slightly to 40%. Anything between a third and a half sounds about right. Any less and you're either missing new books that come out or aren't chipping away at those classics you'll read one day. Any more and you risk become too cloistered in your reading.

I listened to 10 audiobooks, which is down from previous years, but when you consider I listened to both The Brothers Karamazov and Nicholas Nickleby, both very long books, I think I did okay. It's interesting to note that my top two this year were both audiobooks. I think after several years of listening and reading to books, the distinction between the two is now quite small.

I read one eBook on my iPad, Jack London's Call of the Wild. I have downloaded a bunch more, but there always seems to be other things to do with the devise besides reading Chekhov. Gimme paper, I say.

Finally, I read nine short story collections to 26 six novels, or roughly one short story collection for every three novels. In 2010 this ratio was slightly higher (13:21).


Reading targets for 2012

First, an excuse. I have to read between 120 and 160 short stories as a judge of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize between now and May. This is something like 5 to 7 books worth. And while this won't be the same as reading for leisure, I'll surely eat up some of my leisure reading time.

But here are four targets which I'll report back on at the end of the year:
  • Read 12 poetry collections (one a month): hopefully there's a new Geoff Cochrane collection coming out around Writers and Readers Week like in '09!!.
  • Listen to 12 audiobooks, including at least four non-fiction books.
  • Read at least twenty New Zealand books.
  • Read at least six Australian books of fiction.
  • Read at least six books I already own.

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