Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Wrapping Up the Old and Anticipating the New. . .

I didn't finish as many books last year as I normally do.  I can't knit and read at the same time, and I was definitely more obsessed by the former. Still, looking through my reading journal last night, I was pleasantly reminded of many great reads from 2011.  So here, in alphabetical order are the ten books that gave me the most reading pleasure last year:

After Midnight  by Irmgard Keun, translated by Anthea Bell.  This is a little masterpiece of a novel, set during a few days in 1930s Germany where a young girl contemplates both the effects of growing Nazism and growing up in equal measure, while attending a party. As moving as Mrs. Dalloway.

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. As always, Ondaatje can paint such vivid and magical scenes. I was completely captivated by the unexpected people on board this journey.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal.  I'm already a big fan of Jansson, so I knew I would love this tiny but so astute portrait of two women friends and artists, over the course of their long-term relationship. How she can convey in such a slim volume all the complexity of female emotions mystifies me, but it is such a beautiful experience to absorb myself in her prose, especially when she's describing the Nordic landscape.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis.  This was the book that occupied most of my reading life in 2011 as each chapter is so rich with historical details and amazing stories that I had to take many breaks. I am in complete awe at his research and dedication.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley.  I loved this beautifully written novel which gets into the heads of two very different characters, on separate journeys,  linked by a chance meeting on a train. The clever construction of this novel is one of its most pleasurable aspects.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Definitely deserved the Booker.  A lovely little gem of a novel I will love to keep on rereading.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst.  A very interesting exploration of memory, literary legacy and the art of writing biography, told over several decades of the twentieth century.

There But For The by Ali Smith.  Wonderfully inventive, funny and full of playful language and narrative. This novel about a man named Miles who goes to a dinner party and locks himself up in a bedroom, refusing to come down again - for weeks - is told in four voices, neither of them by Miles, of people who barely know him and yet Smith makes it all work.  And it made me want to go and explore Greenwich.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  This wasn't published in 2011, but I only got around to reading it last May. I was really impressed by the originality of the storytelling and how engrossed I was with the characters.  And while I thought I would be rolling my eyeballs at the chapter told in powerpoint, it totally worked for that character's voice.

Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt.  This was the most overlooked Canadian novel last year and it's a shame because it was such an interesting portrait of a long-term marriage undergoing a crisis, told from the husband's harsh but honest viewpoint. I love a character that is flawed and unsympathethic and there were some interesting twists. And it has my favourite ending of all the books I read this year.

As always, there were tons of books that I didn't get around to reading and are at the top of the pile now.  These are the 5 books from last year I really, really want to read:

The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy
Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill
Open City by Teju Cole

And if you want to whet your appetite for what's coming in 2012, The Millions has this excellent overview.  I'm really looking forward to William Boyd's new one, Waiting For Sunrise, which takes place during WWI, and The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, a fictional account of the love affair between painter Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, set in 1927 Paris.

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