the books of 2012 ~ part two

In case you missed yesterday’s post, here’s a quick recap.

Due to my complete failure to read and review a reasonable number of books this year, I emailed a few of my favourite bloggers, tweeters and people I admire and asked them to contribute a couple of their most memorable books for the past twelve months.

With that out of the way, allow me to introduce part two of the Books of 2012. Enjoy!

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I’m a huge fan of Read in a Single Sitting. Stephanie writes witty, discerning reviews of novels she can read – as the name of her blog implies – in a single sitting. She’s also a freelance writer, as well as a YA and middle grade author. I don’t know how she finds time! Go and take a look at some of Stephanie’s other favourite reads for 2012 here – and make sure you click on the links below to read Stephanie’s reviews!

theglamourI’ve had Christopher Priest’s The Prestige on my shelves for years now, but for some reason I haven’t yet got around to reading it. One of the dangers of watching the film adaptation first, perhaps. But although The Prestige has languished on my shelves for ages, when I picked up a copy of The Glamour on sale a few months back I started reading it right away.

There are books that entirely change the way that you think, and which also influence the way that you read. The Glamour is one of them. It’s a strange narrative focusing on a man recovering from an accident and his interactions with a woman called Susan, who professes to be his girlfriend—even though he has no recollection of her. Slowly the man begins to recall various aspects of the events leading up to his present state, and yet, when Susan relates the same, the stories differ in many, many ways.

The Glamour is a novel that takes the unreliable narrator idea to a devastating extreme, and it’s a chilling, frankly terrifying book that has had me questioning the truth of any fictional character’s experiences. It’s a book whose strange half-truths and fancies see it re-write itself as the story progresses, and there’s a twist at the end that does the same again. Perhaps fittingly, Priest himself rewrote the ending to the book some years after it was first published, giving the book yet another layer of possible subterfuge. Just what is real and true, and how can we possibly tell? This is a question that has tapped me on the shoulder during my reading many times this year.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which I read not long after The Glamour, looks remainsofthedaysimilarly at the strange beast of truth and how readily anything can be twisted to ring true to ears that want it to be so. This is a novel that’s very much an embodiment of that old saw of history being an argument rather than a series of facts, and which eerily examines the idea of where culpability should rest.

Our protagonist Stevens is an ageing butler who is becoming increasingly irrelevant both personally and in terms of his career. He clings desperately to ideas of dignity and service, desperately averring how a true butler must always go along with their employer’s wishes, no matter how odd or transgressive. And yet, as the narrative begins to unfold and Stevens reflects on his past service, we begin to see the astonishing degree of self-deception that is on display here. Stevens’ employer turns out to be a man whose political sympathies are abhorrent, and although Stevens is aware of the issue, does nothing, telling himself that it is not his place to do so.

It’s a beautifully written and extremely quiet book, and yet under its thick veneer of dignity and respectability is something truly eerie: the denial of personal responsibility in a terrible situation. It’s a book that will leave you thinking about all of those times when you’ve avoided speaking out, or when you’ve been removed enough from whoever’s making the decisions that you feel safe and without guilt. Like The Glamour, it’s a book that lingers and haunts, and any book that does that is well worth the read.

My second guest today is Jeremy Earl. He’s a Perth-based librarian who blogs about books over at Excelsior, and his love of records at Closed Groove. Here are his choices – click the titles and go and read his reviews!

Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the most fully realised novels I lonelyhunterhave ever read. The writing is economical but engaging and the ensemble of characters are perfectly drawn and psychologically nuanced. The novel tackles big issues, but is subtle in the rendering of its underlying subtext.

Ostensibly the tale of a lonely mute called John Singer, the novel expands to cover racism, isolation, sexuality, alcoholism, politics and small town prejudice. The book has hardly dated, despite being set during the mid 1940s. Its themes are universal and its humanity is profound. I thought about this book for weeks after finishing it and recommend it to anyone who is yearning for a novel that is both technically perfect and emotionally engaging. Definitely the book of the year!

The Magus by John Fowles is one of those books that can polarize readers. Some regard it as pretentious and indulgent, others, like myself, regard it as fascinating, adventurous themagusand beautiful. I did not merely read this book; it took a hold of me and I became drawn into it and had difficulty putting it down. I don’t regret one moment I spent with this intense novel and although it didn’t provide me with any answers, it made it clearer as to what questions to ask.

The Magus is the tale of an Englishman called Nicholas Urfe who takes up a teaching post on a remote Greek island post-WWII and becomes involved with master manipulator Maurice Conchis. The Magus takes you on a journey to who knows where and doesn’t let go till the very end. Mystifying and existentially expansive, it’s a novel best read across hot afternoons when you can give it the attention it deserves. It took Fowles ten years to write and I can tell you that it was worth the effort. Only the perfection of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter beats The Magus as the book of the year.

Rose Powell has excellent taste in books, as evidenced by her eloquent guest appearances on Channel Ten’s Breakfast Show this year. Rose is the driving force behind the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Best Australian Blogs competition, which will be returning for its third year next year. With a new job and her studies, Rose is super-busy, but managed to find time to send me the titles of two of her favourite reads for the year. Click on the images below to find out more about each title:

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Next up is James Tierney. James writes about books and art and more at A Long, Slow Goodbye. His reviews are breathtaking…and, to my delight, they’re beginning to pop up all over the place, including the Wheeler Centre, as well as the Newtown Review of Books. I’m looking forward to discovering what treats James has in store for us in 2013!

There’s a half-serious argument that I try and rationalize to myself in quiet moments. It goes a little something like this: as an art form, the character-driven literary novel is almost uniquely suited to the introverted experience.

OK, yep – you got me. A glass of good red wine is likely to be my co-theorist in these moments, but just go with me here –

What other art form so precisely takes the intelligences of life, under-tussled by conversation, and pins them to a truthful, effecting narrative?AnimalPeople

Two of my favourite reads during 2012 each looked at an introverted man and woman

Charlotte Wood’s Animal People (published in 2011 but a book I returned to again in 2012) is a tactile and beautifully paced novel focusing on Stephen, a man whose first strategy is the mistaken simplicity of withdrawal. Animal People is a portrait of masculinity that plays one of the best tricks of fiction: netting those many, oscillating thoughts about ourselves and others into a tightly inflected story, bringing a wisdom hazily at the back of our minds into a sharp, present focus.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is a complete contrast in form. A graphic novel that comes in a Monopoly-sized box, it contains 7 separate pieces: an SMH-sized broadsheet, two hardbacks, a large board-game fold-out and smaller booklets. They are in no determined buildingstoriesorder. The stories within spiral out of the inhabitants of a three-story apartment building in Chicago, with most focus on an unnamed woman struggling with a life of quiet disconnection. Pieces of hers and other character’s narratives throw different contrasts depending on the path the reader picks amongst the fragments. In this, Building Stories replicates the approximate way of memory, in that events otherwise insignificant and perhaps years apart, may be drawn together by a creative remembering.

Writing is a social act, one that reaches out, but exactly how it is experienced varies slightly with every set of eyes. Whether shy or showgirl, every type of reader matters – whatever my glass of red says.

They call Booktopia’s John Purcell the Book Guru for a very, very good reason. As the voice behind @booktopia, John’s one of my favourite people on Twitter, He’s also a stellar blogger. His book recommendations are like a treasure map: when John recommends a book, I add it to my collection, no questions necessary. In fact, I was so curious about John’s favourite books for the year that I pestered him constantly and unashamedly until he agreed to write this for me (sorry!). Click on the titles to find out more. 

My Hundred Lovers. I recommend it to anyone who feels a little pale and dusty. It is a great tragedy this gorgeous book was published in our year of fifty shames.NW

NW. I read this twice in a year when I seldom found time to read the books I was meant to read once. Why? Because it seemed to say on its first page – fuck off if you’re too lazy to think. Sadly this included the entire reading public. NW sold very few copies. Which is a testament to its quality.

Love and Hunger. Puts food back in its place as the means and not the end for people coming together.

The Hanging Garden is a story of adolescent love, with all of its latent complications, its beauty and its disquiet. There is a startlingly raw truth to this story which conjured up in me long forgotten memories. This is great writing for our time.

The Conversation. This is a book for lovers of ideas, of good conversation, of impossible loves and for those intellectuals who still enjoy having heated arguments in cafes.

My final guest is novelist Charlotte Wood. She’s the author of The Submerged Cathedral, The Children, Animal People and more. This year, she published part-memoir, part-cookbook Love and Hunger, and Animal People made the shortlist for the Kibble Award, as well as the Miles Franklin longlist. She blogs about food at How to Shuck An Oyster. Earlier this year, I saw her deliver a brilliant speech on writing, which I now have stuck to the wall next to my desk.

Damon Young’s Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free was a real find for me at philosophyinthegardenthe start of this year, so when I heard about his new one, Philosophy in the Garden, I was excited. Part philosophy lesson, part literary companion, it’s a contemplative stroll through writers’ relationships with their gardens. It might sound beautiful and it is, but it’s also more challenging than that – there’s as much war and decay in a garden as fruit and flowers, and Young doesn’t shy from the darker aspects of philosophy’s relationship with nature.

A writer friend, Tegan Bennett Daylight, led me this year to the bitingly sharp, intimate works of the late Alice Thomas Ellis. I have devoured four of them now – The Birds of the Air and Unexplained Laughter first; then The 27th Kingdom, my favourite so far, and the strange beast of The Sin Eater. Thomas Ellis is weird, very funny, acutely observant and black as black. They’re mostly out of print but I ordered a second-hand stash from the UK and am eking them out for the rest of my life.

thewatchtowerSpeaking of black, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower is my other favourite from this year. Re-released after more than 40 years, it’s an incredible piece of work. She sure does know how to harrow – and how to write.

The most satisfying re-read of the year was the brilliant Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, which I read for the third time and, I am enormously proud to say, led a sales revival for this book by choosing it for the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV. Every single panellist adored it, and it’s been going gangbusters since, I am told. I have even had booksellers hug me in the street because of it. So my work on earth is done.

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Now that my guests have all discussed their favourite books of the year, that means it must be my turn. I love writing about books, but I hate having to choose between them!

While I readily admit 2012 has been a slow year, I’ve never claimed it was dull. I’ve had the fortune to read some stunning novels over the past twelve months.

As I’m allowing myself only two choices, I’m justifying my decision by selecting two very different novels. One is a classic from the Sixties; the other was released earlier this year.

mateshipwithbirdsMy first choice is Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds. I have to confess – I’ve read it three times this year.

Mateship with Birds is like its own perfect, self-contained little bubble. It’s set in the Fifties, on the outskirts of Cohuna, a small town in the north of Victoria. Harry, a middle-aged farmer and birdwatching enthusiast observes a family of kookaburras that’s taken up residence in a gumtree by the dairy…but his binoculars also seek out Betty, a single mother with two children who rents the house next door.  As the seasons change, the fledgling attraction between Harry and Betty cautiously begins to take wing.

I loved the pace of this novel, its slow, subtle – but unmistakably relentless – seduction. From the hypnotic opening passage to the final sentence, Tiffany’s writing is sure-footed and perfectly understated.

revolutionaryroadFor my second choice, I’ve selected Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates’ first novel, published in 1961. There’s nothing subtle or shy about Revolutionary Road – it’s brash and bold and gets straight to the point – and that’s precisely what I loved about it.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a marriage held together only by the vaguest promise of happiness that always remains conveniently out of reach, Revolutionary Road is more than three hundred pages of constant discomfort. There’s an unforgettable scene towards the beginning of the novel in which Frank and April Wheeler, Yates’ main characters, abandon their car during a night drive and argue by the side of the road – a scene that tore me to shreds to read. This visceral novel left me stunned in its wake. Its a good thing I’ve always had a soft spot for the books that leave me with scars.

I can’t resist a few honourable mentions. Charlotte Wood’s Animal People – though I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have read this in the final days of 2011. I devoured Zadie Smith’s NW over the course of a single weekend, unable to do anything else until I’d turned the final page. NW is clever and devastating and I uttely adored it. I’m adding my voice to the chorus who read and adored Wallace Stegner’s sublime Crossing to Safety this year. And I can’t forget Patricia Highsmith’s amazing The Talented Mr. Ripley – or Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which struck me like lightning and ‘m afraid I haven’t been quite the same since.

ornamentFinally, I’d like to express my thanks to all the talented writers who have helped me put this post together. An odd thing happens to time around Christmas – it disappears at a staggering rate, slipping between fingers and pouring through the cracks between hours. You’ve all taken a moment out of your hectic schedules to help me, and I’m grateful to you all.

I write because I love to read – it’s that simple. The fact that other readers have joined me along the way never ceases to amaze me. To everyone who’s read one of my reviews, written a comment, connected with me via Twitter, sent me an email, my heartfelt thanks.

Have yourselves a bookish little Christmas!

Michelle

PS. Which books made an impression on you this year? Let me know in the comments below!

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

11 thoughts on “the books of 2012 ~ part two”

  1. Good to see Crossing to Safety mentioned – we are reading it next year for the book clubs at my library. Some great books here, some of which I’ll have to get on to. Nice idea you had here Michelle – well done.

  2. Thank you for the review of both Revolutionary Road and Mateship with Birds. I’ve been thinking I should read Revolutionary Road for a while now and will bump it to the top and Mateship with Birds sounds really interesting but the topic is one I thought would have ben difficult to find a publisher for. Loved to know how she did!

  3. Hi Michelle, this is a grovelling apology for not getting back to you with my choices. The Year from Hell at school finished so late this year (3 shopping days left till Xmas *gulp*) that I simply ran out of time.
    But what you have here and in your first post is a wonderful resource anyway, so thanks to you and all who contributed.
    I hope you had a lovely festive season,
    Lisa

    1. Hi Lisa! No need to apologise – in fact, I think I’m the one who should be apologising for emailing you with such short notice! Next year, I’ll be more organised.

      My Christmas was a welcome break from the chaos of the past few weeks. I have my fingers you managed to get your Christmas shopping under control in time!

  4. Hi, Michelle.

    I’m not sure how I missed this post till now, seeing as I check your blog quite regularly (!) A link from James’ Twitter stream led me here (thanks, James).

    Interesting list – reminds me that I really should make time for Revolutionary Road this year (although I think I’m still recovering from Easter Parade which I read 2011). Dog Boy has been swimming in and out my vision for a couple of years too, and I have wondered if I could finally crack the Zadie Smith nut with NW. Problem is Will Self’s Umbrella (not mentioned here) is also out there, waiting for me to chase it down. I have a feeling if I’m going to read Umbrella, it should be now. It may not be one that can wait 5 years.

    My “top reads” for 2012 were:

    Fiction: Married Love by Tessa Hadley. Short stories. Brilliant. In the best tradition of English women writers – Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen. How had I never encountered her before?

    Non-fiction: A tie between Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux and Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. Both highly accomplished creative memoirs, to be read for their craft and expression of emotional truths, rather than as a “tell all” on their subjects.

    Anyway, thanks for all the good reading so far. Look forward to more BooktotheFuture in 2013.

    Happy New Year.

    Samantha

    1. Funny you should mention Yates’ The Easter Parade – I ordered a copy a while ago and it landed on my doorstep today! Not that I’m ready to start reading it yet, though – I’m still getting over Revolutionary Road.

      I haven’t read any of Self’s work yet, but from what I’ve heard about Umbrella, I’m very eager to take a look. (I hope you’re able to get to NW one day though – I really loved it)

      It’s taken me an hour to write this comment because I got distracted halfway through looking up Tessa Hadley. She sounds amazing! Not only have I not encountered her – I don’t even recall having heard of her before. Next time I’m buying books, I’ll look out for Married Love.

      Thanks for reading Samantha – have a lovely 2013!

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