Two lists, before 2012 can go unjudged

I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.

For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.

Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.

  1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life?
  2. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve.
  3. Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right.
  4. What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter that we may have reached our quota on raves about this book by now, but I’m not so sure. Expect more in future, though I’ll spare you for now—except to say: read it!
  5. Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. I’m going to try to keep mum on Gardam until I’m really ready to talk about her. Except…
  6. Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. …I read so many good books by her this year. Read them all!
  7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. My first McCarthy, and not my last, this was a beautiful book. Bleak and beautiful.
  8. Wuthering Heights the Emily Brontë. This just can’t help being on a winning list in any year I happen to read it. I’ve lost count of re-reads at this point but it never fails to completely absorb—and reveal more secrets.
  9. Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was a relatively “light” book, airy and fast and witty and not exactly earnest. But it was a completely turn-on to Compton-Burnett, and I like my light and airy with a bite.
  10. Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj obsession is not the only reason I loved this early Kipling; he is simply a master storyteller, and I love stories. His humor, both light and black, is just the kind I enjoy most, and he may not be what you think he is at all.

This was a strange year for me, aside from writing less. I seem to have read far more contemporary—or almost-contemporary—fiction than usual. In my top 10 (really top 11) above, I have no fewer than three novels by a single woman—and those contemporary as well. And my top-10 list is more than half written by women.

In some cases, the books I read by my favorite writers simply weren’t my favorite books. This year’s Conrad and Stevenson were just not their best. And Jane Gardam really was a discovery of the kind readers like me wait years for—finally, someone still writing who I really, really care to read! The same goes for Cormac McCarthy and Alyson Hagy, though I’m less driven toward those two.

And I left out from this list a few Latin American works that I truly enjoyed, aside from the Bolaño: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, and Machado de Assis will all get more attention in future, though Cortázar is not quite to my taste. Good, most assuredly, but not quite to my taste. I also had an interesting time reading a couple novels of the Iraq War, Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both of which I hope to write about in a larger context relatively soon.

Before I look too gushy, let me also list the worst of the year—the airing of grievances!

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If you’re new here, you may not know that I hate Tolstoy. Or that I still read thousand-page novels by people I hate. Here’s just a little bit of why.
  • The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy. Hardy had me, he finally had me, with The Madding Crowd, but then he lost me once again (though not permanently).
  • The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. I think I liked this novel the first time I read it, many years ago, although now I have a hard time conceiving why. Like Tolstoy, I see Greene here toying with his characters. If all goes well, I’ll have much more on that at some point.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It feels unfair to put this on a list with the other three, because it doesn’t really rise to their level. It was actually enjoyable to read, for the most part. But if I do write about this one, expect it to be complainy.

4 comments to Two lists, before 2012 can go unjudged

  • I’ve missed your usual blogging frequency this year, Nicole, but I can’t say I don’t understand the many reasons possible why. I myself find it harder and harder to find the time or interest these days. In any event, glad to see that I was at least marginally associated with one of your best (Bolaño) and worst (Tolstoy) reading experiences of 2012–what critical range I’ve demonstrated as a cyber reading companion, ha ha! That The Savage Detectives reread was one of my favorite parts of the reading year as well, and–don’t hate me–but with less than 200 pages to go, War and Peace still has a chance to wind up there for me as well. P.S. You and Kevin from Interpolations and Tom from Wuthering Expectations have all convinced me that Middlemarch should be one of my dehumiliation titles for 2013. Thanks for the push and for your blogging in 2012 to boot. Happy Holidays!
    Richard recently posted..The Cameraman’s RevengeMy Profile

  • Thanks, Richard. In my case I must say that I have the time, I definitely have the interest, but I also have debilitating writers’ block. Not really writers’ block, maybe, but some kind of terminal laziness. Maybe something along the lines of, “If everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority,” so I spend a lot of time thinking about laundry and dishes and cleaning bathrooms and writing blog posts and doing relatively little of the above. The only way out, of course, is to Just. Do. It. So we’re going to try that now.

    I won’t hold it against you if you like War and Peace; some of my favorite people like Tolstoy. And Dostoevsky! But I hope you will at least agree that Tolstoy needed a much firmer editor. I have nothing against long books, and W&P should certainly be long, but it could have lost about 1/3 of its length and not suffered, I’d say—very repetitive.

    But I’m pleased you’ll be trying out Middlemarch. I’m actually kind of freaked out by how often I think about it; it’s far too relevant to almost any life situation. Happy holidays and a good new year if I don’t talk to you again first!

  • Look at all of this writing – welcome back!

    Your list makes me regret the posts you did not right, but I am sure their invisible influence will soon permeate the blog.
    Amateur Reader (Tom) recently posted..The Wuthering Expectations Best Books of 2012, in a certain narrow senseMy Profile

  • Thank you! It will, but some of these posts still need to be written. And I’ll get back on that in 3, 2, 1…