Hilary Mantel, Jonathan Franzen, Mohsin Hamid, Ruth Rendell, Tom Stoppard, Malcolm Gladwell, Eleanor Catton and many more recommend the books that impressed them this year
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate) is a brilliant, sprawling, layered and unsentimental portrayal of contemporary China. It made me think and laugh. I also love Dave Eggers’ The Circle (Hamish Hamilton), which is a sharp-eyed and funny satire about the obsession with “sharing” our lives through technology. It’s convincing and a little creepy.
By strange coincidence two of the most intriguing art books I read this year had the word “Breakfast” in their titles. They were Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig (Jonathan Cape) and Breakfast at Sotheby’s by Philip Hook (Particular). Greig’s fascinating, intimate biography of Lucian Freud was a revelation. Every question I had about Freud – from the aesthetic to the intrusively gossipy – was answered with great candour and judiciousness. Hook’s view of the art world is that of the professional auctioneer. In an A-Z format, it is an entire art education contained in under 350 pages. Wry, dry and completely beguiling.
The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis (Allen Lane) is an elegantly written, unexpectedly gripping account of how scientists painstakingly unravelled the way in which a small group of genes (known as MHC genes) crucially influence, and unexpectedly interconnect, various aspects of our lives, from how well we fight off infection to how skilfully we find a mate. Lab work has rarely been made to seem more interesting or heroic. But my absolute book of the year is Philip Davies’s hefty, gorgeous London: Hidden Interiors (English Heritage/Atlantic Publishing), which explores 180 fabulous London interior spaces that most people know nothing about, from George Gilbert Scott’s wondrous chapel at King’s College to L Manze’s eel, pie and mash shop in Walthamstow. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Derek Randall and worth every penny of its £40 price.
My discovery of the year was Eimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): in style, very similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, but the broken ellipses never feel like a gimmick or a game. I was utterly devastated by Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth (Granta), and utterly delighted by Elizabeth Knox’s sly and ingenious Mortal Fire (Farrar Straus Giroux). My favourite novel for children published this year was the marvellously funny and inventiveHeap House (Hot Key), written and illustrated by Edward Carey.
Helping to judge this year’s Samuel Johnson prize meant getting stuck into some serious non-fiction. The six books that made the shortlist – Empires of the Dead (David Crane, William Collins), Return of a King (William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury), A Sting in the Tale (Dave Goulson, Jonathan Cape), Under Another Sky(Charlotte Higgins, Jonathan Cape), The Pike (Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate) andMargaret Thatcher (Charles Moore, Allen Lane) – are among my favourites from 2013.Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of the first Afghan war had an eerie modern-day relevance, whileHughes-Hallett’s portrayal of the fascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was a sombre reminder of the perils of political extremism. On a completely contrary note, Goulson’s case for the importance of bumblebees will live long in my memory for its sheer passion and scientific detail.
Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts (Granta) provides a masterclass on the art of the essay from one of its most formidable living practitioners – often, as with the title essay, by sharing object lessons in failure. These occasional pieces offer glimpses into the creative process, the writer’s constant search for structure, order and consonance. Even when individual essays did not live up to Malcolm’s rigorous standards, the collection as a whole shows how connections emerge from the workings of one memorably searching, restless, ruthless mind.
The four non-fiction books I most valued this year have an unusual strength and depth in common; the single themes they profess to focus on are also the Trojan horses through which their writers smuggle in a whole wide world of instruction, knowledge and contemporary significance. They are: Spillover, David Quammen‘s investigation of animal-to-human viruses (Vintage); Falling Upwards(Harper Collins), Richard Holmes‘shistory of ballooning; The Searchers (Bloomsbury), Glenn Frankel‘s account of the 1836 abduction by Comanches of Cynthia Ann Parker and its unending aftermath; and Mark Cocker’s loving and magisterial Birds and People (Jonathan Cape).
George Saunders’s collection of stories, Tenth of December(Bloomsbury), is spectacularly good. The stories are clever and moving, and the title story is the best piece of fiction I’ve read this year. The Searchers, by Glenn Frankel, is about the stories behind the story that became the classic John Ford film. It’s a history of America, an exploration of racial intolerance, an account of how, and why, real events can become legends. It’s also hugely entertaining – as well as huge. My favourite book this year is Paul Morley’s The North (And Almost Everything in It) (Bloomsbury). History told backwards, a memoir, a love letter to Liverpool, several to Manchester; the book pushed me to go to the Lowry exhibition at the Tate and made me listen again to George Formby and the Buzzcocks. The book filled my head. It was much too long and occasionally irritating, but when I got to the end I wished there’d been more of it.
James Salter’s novel All That Is (Picador). Not in my (admittedly failing) memory have I read a novel that, at its crucialest moment, made me just stand straight up out of my chair and have to walk around the room for several minutes. Laid into the customary Salterish verbal exquisiteness and vivid intelligence is such remarkable audacity and dark-hued verve about us poor humans. It’s a great novel.
My vote is for Eric Schlosser’sCommand and Control (Allen Lane). Do you really want to read about the thermonuclear warheads that are still aimed at the city where you live? Do you really need to know about the appalling security issues that have dogged nuclear weapons in the 70 years since their invention? Yes, you do. Schlosser’s book reads like a thriller, but it’s masterfully even-handed, well researched, and well organised. Either he’s a natural genius at integrating massive amounts of complex information, or he worked like a dog to write this book. You wouldn’t think the prospect of nuclear apocalypse would make for a reading treat, but in Schlosser’s hands it does.
The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave (Hutchinson) is an engrossing study of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge. A double biography is an intricate pattern to achieve, but Waldegrave brings it off triumphantly: she also brings compassion as well as scholarship to her aid, so that at times the story is almost unbearably moving. After reading this book, I went right back to the paternal poetry and read it with fresh eyes. Olivier by Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press), published appropriately enough as the National Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary, is another narrative that sweeps you along. While in no sense a hagiography – there is plenty of discreet criticism when necessary – it enriched my sense of this amazing multi-faceted, multi-talented man. When I watch Henry V, for the umpteenth time, I shall gaze into those brilliant enigmatic eyes with even more awe, and a certain amount of apprehension.
Best read of the year was Into the Silence (Vintage), Wade Davis‘s account of the three unsuccessful Everest expeditions, through the back door of Tibet, culminating in the death of George Mallory in 1924. Men from the first world war showing endurance and a capacity for suffering beyond my comprehension. Maybe the prime minister should read it before he makes an idiot of himself. Oh and Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe (Viking). But I would say that since it’s about my ex‑wife and our children. Letters from their Leicester nanny. Very funny and sharp.
I read so many books this year that I loved – Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Albert O Hirschman,Worldly Philosopher (Princeton University Press), David Epstein’sThe Sports Gene (Yellow Jersey), and Jonathan Dee’s magnificent A Thousand Pardons (Corsair) – but my favourite was a novel I picked up entirely randomly, in an airport bookstore: The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure (Sourcebooks Landmark). It is a beautiful and elegant account of an ordinary man’s unexpected and reluctant descent into heroism during the second world war. I have no idea who Belfoure is, but he needs to write another book, now!
Adam Phillips’ One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays(Hamish Hamilton). Writing of Ford Madox Ford’s hero Tietjens inParade’s End, who in the middle of a conversation suddenly wondered if he was in fact the father of his child but “proved his reputation for sanity” by going on talking without any sign of distress, Phillips comments: “As though sanity for this Englishman was about being apparently undisturbed by one’s most disturbing thoughts.” Witty and somehow liberating, it’s a comment that could only come from Phillips. Covering a wide variety of topics – “On Being Bored”, “First Hates”, “On Success” and “The Uses of Forgetting” are just a few – these short pieces from the psychotherapist and critic will confirm him as the best living essayist writing in English.
The Great War edited by Mark Holborn, text by Hilary Roberts (Jonathan Cape). A collection of photographs from the vast holdings of the Imperial War Museums. I have never seen or read anything that brings the first world war quite so vividly alive. Some of the events of 1914-1918 have been told and retold so many times that the whole conflict has, for many people, acquired an obscuring antique patina. This book strips it all away. It will make me seem a fool, perhaps, but I kept turning pages and thinking, my God, these are real people. These things actually happened.
Those unfamiliar with the American short-form master George Saunders should go out immediately and pick up a copy of his latest story collection, Tenth of December. Wow. Sharp and fun. Also, we should all be grateful for the New York Review Books Classics series, which this year has brought us Frances Pritchett’s English translation of Intizar Husain’s famous Urdu novel,Basti. Husain was nominated for the 2013 Man Booker International prize, and this, his best‑known work, deserves a UK publisher.
In 1983, the 50-year lease on a safe deposit box on the island of Mallorca expired. It was opened and found to contain tens of thousands of pages of the diary of a minor German aristocrat, Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937), covering the years from 1880 to 1918. These have now been meticulously translated and edited by Laird M Easton, and the result is Journey to the Abyss (Vintage), a 900-page marvel. Kessler, an aesthete and amateur diplomat, travelled relentlessly between Paris, Berlin and London before the first world war and the list of his friends and acquaintances, each vividly described, is staggering: Bonnard, Cocteau, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Ravel, Rodin, Renoir, Gide, Monet, Mahler, Matissee, William Morris, Richard Strauss, Strindberg, Rilke, Verlaine, George Bernard Shaw, Hofmannsthal, Gordon Craig, Munch, Sarah Bernhardt, Max Reinhardt, George Grosz, Nietzsche (whose death mask he helps make), Walter Rathenau, Gustav Stresemann, HG Wells, Augustus John … And then comes August 1914 and Kessler – hitherto the most cultured companion – joins the Kaiser’s army and briefly becomes a swaggering German nationalist. An important, underappreciated, unforgettable book.
Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf (William Heinemann) tells the story of how a young German Jewish refugee serving in the British army – the author’s uncle – was responsible in 1945 for tracking down and arresting Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz and one of the most dreadful mass murderers of all time. Harding sketches the parallel lives of the SS officer with notable skill. The book is a moving reminder of what an extraordinary amount Britain gained by the Jewish flight from Europe in the 1930s – it could have been still more had we offered a warmer welcome to a host of German scientists who moved on to the US.
Volume one of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher (Allen Lane) is an extraordinary reconstruction of a political way of life now completely vanished, written with a clear eye and full of incidental pleasures. (Not least about the surprising number of adoring gay men surrounding her at all stages.) The novel I enjoyed most was Richard House’s sensational pile-driver, The Kills (Picador). Catching-up reading brought me Tapan Raychaudhuri’s superb memoir, The World in Our Time(HarperCollins India), not yet published in the UK, but full of the tumultuous life of the Bengal delta – a masterpiece.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Hutchinson). Hard to imagine a thriller where you know the ending before you pick up the book, but Harris’s retelling of the Dreyfus case is as taut and exciting as anything by Forsyth or Follett. The tale is told through the eyes of Col Picquart, the head of “the statistical section” within the French secret service, who witnessed Dreyfus’s degradation but gradually came to realise that another officer was the traitor. The story of how he went over the heads of his superiors, none of whom wanted to rock the ship of state, is gripping, the evocation of turn-of-the-century France appealing, and the ending is magnificently downbeat, a terrific anticlimax – if that’s possible.
Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty: Greystone Park State Hospital Revisitedby Phillip Buehler (Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc) is a hauntingly beautiful book about the five years the American folk legend, songwriter and activist spent as a patient at the Greystone Park State Hospital in New Jersey. Guthrie, who had Huntington’s disease, lived among the mental patients on ward 40. It was here that he was introduced to the 19-year-old Bob Dylan. Photographer Phillip Buehler, who has made a career of exploring 20th-century ruins, first climbed into Greystone through a window. The beauty of the decaying building, thick curls of paint peeling off the walls, light seeping into long empty narrow patient rooms like cells, spurred his curiosity. He located Guthrie’s files and, working with archivists and the Guthrie family, was able to put together a portrait of a man, a place and a point in American history when large state hospitals were all too often warehouses for humanity. There are notes from doctors indicating they had no idea who Guthrie was; or they saw him as a wanderer a vagrant, and thought his claims about songwriting were delusions of grandeur. A particular quote from Woody’s son Arlo stayed with me – a patient tells Woody that he loved his bookBound for Glory. “You read my book?” Woody asks. “No, I ate your book,” the patient says.
I love surprise finds, so I’ll recommend two debut novels that swept me away. The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker (Blue Door), has the detailed realism of historical fiction, the haunting feel of a folk tale, and is one of only two novels I’ve ever loved whose main characters are not human. (The other was The White Boneby Barbara Gowdy.) And Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings, Bad Kings (out in March 2014 from Oneworld Publications) is a ferociously honest, funny, completely unstoppable trip through an institutionally corrupt home for disabled teenagers. I had no intention of going where they took me. That’s the thrill of fiction.
Kenneth Roy’s The Invisible Spirit: A Life of Postwar Scotland 1945-75(ICS) is by someone who lived through the period but is admirably unsentimental. Well-informed, highly readable, slightly prickly, often opinionated – not least about the seriously flawed Scottish establishment – this feels like something that needed to be written. Ian Nairn: Words in Place (Five Leaves) by Gillian Darley and David McKie – I am far from alone in having the awkward, melancholic architectural writer and broadcaster as one of my heroes: partly for his deep conviction that the built environment mattered, partly for his insistence – in defiance of modernist orthodoxy – that people mattered more. One day no doubt Nairn will get a heavy-duty biography, but for the time being this elegant, rather slighter treatment does the job with charm and just the right degree of critical affection.
Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, a collection of letters to her sister from the period in the mid-80s when she was working as a nanny, is funny and sharp and has a distinctive streak of wildness: no book this year made me laugh more. Also funny and sharp, though in a darker vein, is ASA Harrison’s he-said, she-said psychological thriller, The Silent Wife(Headline). Finally, the last entry in the funny-sharp stakes are the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I’ve been reading thanks toHermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Chatto & Windus). The odd thing is that Lee’s book has had more influence on my reading than anything else this year, even though I’m not going to read the biography itself until I’ve finished the novels. That’s because I don’t want prematurely to spoil the mystery of how Fitzgerald could have known so much about so many worlds, from pre-revolutionary Moscow to 60s theatre-school London to German Romanticism. (I think I can guess how she knew so much about houseboats and bookshops.) Last recommendation: Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (OUP USA), an extraordinary and very controversial intervention in the current ructions about science and religion, from one of the world’s most respected philosophers.
On either side of the Atlantic, two octogenarian grand masters of espionage fiction were on high form: John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth(Viking) and Charles McCarry’s The Shanghai Factor (Head of Zeus) dramatise the cumulative consequences of decades of spying and lying by the victors of the second world war. Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and defying several life-threatening conditions, Clive James translatedDante: The Divine Comedy (Picador) into punchy, theologically serious and frequently funny verse. Julian Barnes reformed the conventional autobiography in Levels of Life (Jonathan Cape), combining essay, fiction and memoir in reflecting on the death of love, while Hermione Lee rethought the conventions of biography in a compelling account of the life and work (and overlaps between) of the until now underrated writer Penelope Fitzgerald. And, as readers migrate to the ebook, two lavishly produced volumes made the case for the physical book: a new edition (including the Olympic Flame bowl) of Thomas Heatherwick’s thrilling design compendium Making (Thames & Hudson) and JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (Canongate): an astonishing interactive project that encloses secret books and secret readers within what seems to be a 1949 library book.
Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is literary biography at its best – a masterly discussion of the work of that fine novelist and an illuminating account of the life of a complex and elusive person. I thought I knew both the work and the writer pretty well but have learned much – new insights into the novels, aspects of her life of which I knew nothing. Nobody does elderly men better than Jane Gardam. Last Friends (Little, Brown) is the concluding volume in her trilogy about the legal pack – Feathers, Veneering, Fiscal-Smith – that began with Old Filth. Throughout the series Jane Gardam has switched viewpoints with extraordinary dexterity. Elegant, funny, unexpected – Last Friends ties things up. I am a long-time fan of Adam Thorpe. His versatility is remarkable – historical novels, shrewd forays into contemporary life. And now a thriller, Flight (Vintage). It zips from the Middle East to the Outer Hebrides – brilliant plotting, a mesmerising read.
Never a man to take a straight line where a diversion was possible, Patrick Leigh Fermor spent almost 50 years not-quite-finishing the final book of his trilogy describing his walk across Europe in the 1930s. It appeared this autumn as The Broken Road (John Murray), two years after his death, brought to publication by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron. I opened it expecting disappointment – how could it be as good as its sibling volumes? – and ended it amazed. I read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta) three times in my capacity as Man Booker judge, and each time round it yielded new riches. It is a vastly complex novel about investment and return, gift and theft, value and worth, which – in performance of its own ethics – gives far more than it appears to possess. Finally, in minimalist contrast to Catton’s maximalist novel, I loved Wolfhou by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton, another exquisitely produced pamphlet of place-poetry from Corbel Stone Press, who work out of a cottage in the western Lake District.
Indulge in a big and richly satisfying literary biography, from an artist in the form: Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. It will send you back to the subject’s own piquant and elusive novels. But perhaps a book of the year should be a mirror of the times? If so, feed righteous indignation on Damian McBride’sPower Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin (Backbite). Bankrupt of morals and bankrupt of style, it is a nonpareil of peevishness, and self-delusion shines from it like a Christmas star.
The most remarkable discovery for me this year was Kirill Medvedev’sIt’s No Good (Ugly Duckling Presse), a collection of poems and essays, a brilliant artistic and political response to the depredations of the Yeltsin and Putin era. Italo Calvino’s Letters: 1941-1985 (Princeton Press) andCollection of Sand: Essays (Penguin Modern Classics) remind us of a type of writerly mind almost extinct in Anglo-America: worldly, invariably curious, quietly passionate and elegant. Julia Lovell’s translations of Zhu Wen’s stories in The Matchmaker, the Apprentice and the Football Fan(Columbia) yet again affirm him as one of the most interesting Chinese writers today. This was a particularly rich and exciting year in literary translations from Indian languages; the stories in Ajay Navaria’s Unclaimed Terrain (Navayana Publications), and the novels by Sachin Kundalkar (Cobalt Blue, Hamish Hamilton) and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton) hint at the yet unrevealed depth and diversity of Indian literatures.
Adelle Waldman’s first novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P(William Heinemann) is memorable for its Austen-like wit, humour, social astuteness and scarily accurate insights into men. Rather than condemn the protagonist (a young New Yorker) as misogynistic and self-obsessed, Waldman sends him up, to devastating effect. Lucy Hughes-Hallett adopts a similar strategy in her terrific biography of the poet, seducer and fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike. The pace is hectic, as befits D’Annunzio’s life, and I enjoyed the quote from the ex-lover who said his ideal would be an octopus with a hundred women’s legs – but no head. Helen Mort’s Division Street (Chatto & Windus) is an excellent first poetry collection – lucid, intelligent, politically aware, and loyal to the northern landscapes that inspired it. Dave Eggers’s The Circle, about the abolition of privacy in the age of social media, is a must-read dystopian novel – the future it envisages has all but arrived.
Tim Dee’s Four Fields (Jonathan Cape) belongs in the tradition of “nature writing”, but works with it too – putting its beautifully written sentences in the service of description and evocation, but using them to frame a serious conversation about environmental preservation and its opposites; it’s a deeply attractive book and also an important one. Inside the Rainbow (Redstone Press), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, is a survey of Russian children’s literature from 1920-35, and the subtitle tells us what to expect: “Beautiful books, terrible times”. Indeed. But brilliantly clever, seditious, amusing, brave and delightful books as well; their illustrations and jackets are all reproduced here to wonderful effect. JO Morgan’s long poem At Maldon (CB Editions) is a riff on the Old English poem, and owes something to Christopher Logue’s War Music and Alice Oswald’s Memorial – but it is its own thing too: inventive, striking and memorable. And a reminder that Morgan is one of the most original poets around.
La Folie Baudelaire by Roberto Galasso (Allen Lane) is a brilliant kaleidoscopic rendering of the tormented poet, his times and the city of Paris that “breathes” in his prose and poetry. We meet Baudelaire the dandy, his indecorous mistress Jeanne, both muse and vampire, his mother Caroline and his hated stepfather General Aupick, who, in the bloodshed of 1848, Baudelaire asked one of the insurgents to shoot. It is one of the most satisfying biographies I have ever read. Sylvia Plath: Drawings (Faber), lovingly compiled by her daughter Frieda Hughes, shows Plath’s observation of everyday things – a thistle, a horse chestnut, the willows near Grantchester. It is also salutary to compare the austerity of her poetry with the rapture in her letters to her husband (included here), in which she envisages his presence “come day, come night, come hurricane and holocaust …” Dear Boy by Emily Berry (Faber): from the evidence here, this poet’s imagination is rich, playful and restless, with the occasional note of anguish, which Plath would surely approve of, like a glimpse of the first crocus. Last, but by no means least, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland) is funny, moving and beautifully written.
Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible is a wonderful account of trying to learn a complex piano piece while running the Guardian at the time of WikiLeaks and phone hacking. I had to skip some of the accounts of the fingering he is learning but he eloquently expresses the struggle to take up the playing of this piece – the Chopin Ballade No 1 – and segues into fascinating accounts of different historic pianos and the idiosyncratic manner individual musicians use them, and his various “teachers”, who mostly sound very strict, alongside the emergencies from the office. A parallel story of how newspapers can move forward in the digital age runs along the narrative. I am always curious about people’s daily lives and their curiosities. This book gives both in abundance.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Doubleday) is her most challenging, complex and compelling novel yet. A woman has the chance to live life over and over again in often surprising ways. No Booker listing: no justice. Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (Faber) is ostensibly a courtroom drama that asks how its sensible, intelligent middle-class heroine ended up in the dock in a murder case – beguilingly written, steely and plausible and occasionally shocking. Niccolò Ammaniti was a new name to me. Let the Games Begin (Canongate) is a wild ride with the fevered quality of Pynchon and Vonnegut as a party to end all parties sees the various characters vying to survive a grotesque uprising. It’s a satire on contemporary culture, Italian politics and the writing profession itself. Funny, sharp, and really quite rude. In a similar vein, John Niven’s Straight White Male (William Heinemann) is the story of a hugely successful Irish screenwriter and his gloriously incorrect behaviour. There are laughs aplenty, but Niven adds growing poignancy as his hero becomes self-aware. It is Niven’s best book, and the protagonist is easily the match of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money.
My choice isn’t a new book, but it was reissued this year. I’m ashamed that I had never heard ofStoner by John Williams (Vintage) until I found it in a bookshop three months ago. I was stunned by it, it’s so good. And yet very little happens in it except joy and pain and sorrow in the American midwest, love and passion and the mistakes everyone makes. It’s beautifully written in simple but brilliant prose, a novel of an ordinary life, an examination of a quiet tragedy, the work of a great but little-known writer.
Three novels stand out for me in 2013: Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda (Sceptre), set in Red Hook, Brooklyn; two girls venture out on a pink inflatable raft into the filthy East River and only one comes back. Great writing, great setting, beautifully rendered characters. The Son by Phillipp Meyer (Simon & Schuster): an epic set in Texas that uses, among other things, that white-man-raised-by-Indians routine, and yet incredibly it doesn’t feel tired. Totally engrossing. Lastly, Claire Messud’sThe Woman Upstairs (Virago), which teems with fury, and tells a tale of breathtaking betrayal. It’s a great study as well in the (possibly?) unreliable narrator. You keep puzzling over whether this woman is completely off her head.
Hermione Lee’s fascinating biography of Penelope Fitzgerald charts a life that travelled the full 360 degrees on the wheel of fortune – from early promise and privilege down to dramatic middle-aged doldrums then back up to a late-blooming two decades of literary productivity and success. I’m now reading Fitzgerald’s last four novels, which are every bit as breathtaking as Lee’s concluding chapters describe. I read Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer for the first time this year in a vigorous new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Admired by Chekhov, Gorky and Tolstoy, these stories seethe with picaresque unpredictability, outlandish but touching monologues and recklessly impulsive characters like the country girl turned femme fatale in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
This is the time of year when I try in vain to remember what I was reading up to 12 months ago, and end up choosing three books I’ve enjoyed in the last 12 weeks. In the present case, these are Nature’s Oracle by Ullica Segerstrale (OUP), a biography of WD (Bill) Hamilton, the evolutionary biologist whose insight into the operation of kin selection at gene level suggested how altruism might have emerged from natural selection; a hugely enjoyable novel, Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape), who, when he’s in his hardboiled vein, writes the most entertaining dialogue in any year; and The New York Times Book of Mathematics, which is what it sounds like: a century of news from maths written up for a general readership, and nobody does it better.
Titian: His Life by Sheila Hale (HarperPress) manages an intimate and careful study of Titian’s body of work, plus an intricate knowledge of politics and art in 16th-century Venice and in the Europe from which Titian received his commissions. She captures Titian’s vast ambition and does justice to his achievement, but also creates a portrait of an age. Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Decisive Years and Kafka: The Years of Insight (Princeton University Press) are the second and third volumes of a three-volume biography. Stach reads the work and the life with minute care and sympathy. He has a deep understanding of the world that Kafka came from and the personalities who touched his life, and this is matched by an intelligence and tact about the impulse behind the work itself.
The Guardian, Saturday 23 November 2013