Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The best books I read in 2013

If you’ve read the Listener’s ‘What New Zealand Reads’ articles, you probably have a fair idea about the top ten books I read in 2013. I’m a bit sick of ‘best of’ lists myself (as I’m sure you are too), as they seem to start appearing earlier last year than ever before. But here’s my idiosyncratic list, may it be lost in the hubbub (until I need to refer back to it)...

26662666 – Roberto Bolano (novel, audiobook)
Did I enjoy every second of it? No way. That’s partly the point. I endured the ‘Part about the killings’ and felt better and worse for doing so. But I loved all the Archimbaldi stuff, the boldness of dealing with something real and ongoing (the murders in Ciudad Juarez, only slightly fictionalised), the outsized ambition and the loose, asymmetrical but finely balanced structure. Finishing 2666 unlocked an appreciation for the three other Bolano books I’d read (all of which I wasn’t that enthused by at the time).
Three Contemporary German Novellas:
Runaway Horse – Martin Walser (novella)
This is a weird book. Like the script of a psychological thriller starring Kim Basinger written by Nicholson Baker. Or not. It’s intoxicating in a way that things that might otherwise occur in a bad book (chance meetings, poorly explained returns from the dead) are lapped up. It's both kooky and serious and I'm still not sure if it's only meant to be one, but then, that's a kind of triumph in itself.
Tenth of December: Stories
Tenth of December – George Saunders (short stories)
I’d already read seven of the ten stories as they appeared in the New Yorker between 2009 and 2012, so it was a bit hard to judge this as a collection. But it’s Saunders and he’s in fine form. The best time to judge it will be in about five years when all the stories have a bit of dust on their shoulders. Until then, Tenth is good enough for my top 10

We Others: New and Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)We Others: new and Selected Stories – Steven Millhauser (short stories)
Some great stories in here. Mightn't hang together as well as a proper one-off collection, and some of the stories (like the Sinbad one) go on too long, but the good stories worked their way into my brain and refuse to budge.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (novel)
The LuminariesWhat can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said? Plenty. Such is the richness of it, and its incompatibility with the rushed culture of reviews. I received my copy shortly before it (and my own historical second novel) came out in early August. I read the first sentence and had to put it down for the bout of envy it caused. It was physically painful. But that kind of envy is short-lived. It has been strange and thrilling to see a New Zealand book (and such a NZ-y book at that) become a phenomenon – all built sentence by sentence…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson (novella, audiobook)
Train Dreams: A NovellaThe 2012 Pulitzer Prize jury is a bunch of drongos. Yes, Swamplandia was overrated. And I haven’t read The Pale King, but I can see how DFW + unfinished manuscript might not meet some people’s expectations of a Pulitzer-worthy book. But the only thing against Train Dreams is it’s length (a novella) and perhaps the fact it was originally published as a story in the Paris Review in 2002. And if these things bother you, then you’re a drongo too.

SomeoneSomeone – Alice McDermott (novel, US)
I heard Alice read a long section (it felt like an hour, but I can’t be sure; when she stopped, people murmured pleas that she continue) from Someone in Washington DC in November. Wow. At the time I tweeted that the reading was “amazeballs”. And the whole book – slender, disjointed, profound – managed to sustain the power evident in the reading.

Portrait With Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked – Ivan Vladislavic (non-fiction)
Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg UnlockedThis book was given to me by a publisher in NYC who claimed it was the best book he’d ever been associated with as a publisher. I can see why. One of those books that seems easy to imitate, but is much harder to pull off that it first appears.

Two Girls in a Boat – Emma Martin (short stories)
Two Girls in a BoatHaving read and loved the title story as an anonymous entry in a short story comp, I was looking forward to reading a heap more from Emma Martin. VUP obliged with a full collection in 2013 and made me very happy.

Selected Poems – Mary Ruefle (poetry)
Selected Poems(The only book I didn't mention in The Listerner thingy.) I hadn’t read any Ruefle before she came to Wellington in April. Even after her Writers on Monday’s appearance it was a few months before I got hold of one of her books. Funny, nimble, full of non-sequiturs and a kind of lonely/friendly dynamic that rare poets can roll with.

Some observations
  • This time last year I set myself the target of reading books by writers from 12 different countries, including three countries I'd never read books from. Well, I read books from US (heaps), NZ (lots but not as much as previous years), UK (some), Germany (3), South Africa (2), Ireland, Nigeria, Russia, France and India. That's only 10, and no new countries. I kinda forgot about this challenge during the year (and may have forgotten one or two foreign books), so it's certainly no excuse not to have read any Australian books in 12 months! Minimum six Aussies in 2014 -- you heard it hear folks.
  • One reason my usual reading flow (and target-seeking) got derailed was my time in Iowa. It exposed me to some great writers and writing from other countries (many would have made the 'never read anything from this country before' column), but most didn't have an entire book in English translation yet. In the end, I gorged on US books, including a lot of personal essays, which was something a bit new for me, even if their origin was not.
  • I lost my iPod when I left for Iowa and found it when I got back to NZ (it actually came with me to Iowa, but it's a long story), so I listened to a third-less audiobooks than I would normally in a year. If I'd used my iPod in Iowa, I probably would have plowed through more than I would in an average three month span, given how much free time/wandering I had. But then I think walking around unencumbered was probably useful. I did listen to a lot of podcasts on my iPad while away, especially BBC Radio's In Our Time, which is kinda sorta like reading, but not.
  • There's a backlog of NZ books that came out while I was in the US that I need to read. It's funny how a few months away from Unity Books means I'm suddenly out of the loop. Gimme a few months to catch up, k?

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