Don’t you love the critics’ “Best of the Year” lists? I pore over them and enjoy them immensely.
But I don’t make my own list till after Christmas, since I am not writing for commercial purposes.
No, I wait till New Year’s Eve.
This year, however, I have made the list early, because I am in training and dutifully going to bed early. I plan to get up at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day to listen to Radio Four’s presentation of War and Peace. (We’ll believe it when we see it, right?)
So here is My Top Twelve List of 2014, arranged in no particular order. The first six are “new” books, published between 2009 and 2014. The last six are books of the 19th and 20th century.
1. The Stories of Jane Gardam. Gardam’s extraordinary short stories are elegant and witty; and her portraits of offbeat, independent characters brilliantly drawn. Whether she is describing a family who mocks their annual Christmas guest, whom they dub a “parasite” and nickname Miss Mistletoe (in the story “Miss Mistletoe”); or depicting the peculiarities of an elderly woman who queues for Shakespeare tickets (in “Groundlings”), her prose is pitch-perfect.
2. D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice. You may be surprised when I categorize the English writer D. J. Taylor’s novel, Ask Alice, as an honorary Midwestern novel. Though most of this novel is set in England, it begins in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, and we first meet the heroine, Alice, traveling on a train through Kansas with her Aunt Em. And, yes, if you’re thinking of Oz, so you should. This is the beginning of Alice’s journey from sweet Midwestern girl to successful English actress to London society hostess in the Jazz Age. He pays homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, and J. B. Priestley, among others.
3. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. In this transcendent coming-of-age novel, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the narrator, Rosemary, a psychologist’s daughter who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, was twinned with a chimp, Fern, for the first five years of her life. When Fern disappears, Rosemary doesn’t understand why, and her brother Lowell goes berserk. Finally, as a college student, Rosemary explores the mystery of why Fern was sent away. (This is very much a feminist novel, so I am not surprised it didn’t win the Man Booker Prize.)
4. Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things. In this lyrical, moving novel, Hoffman interweaves the stories of two protagonists, Coralie and Eddie, who eventually meet and fall in love. Coralie is the daughter of the cruel owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a museum of “freaks” (Siamese twins, dwarfs, giants, and the butterfly woman, who has no arms and fake wings attached) and gruesome artefacts he has collected or fabricated. He forces Coralie, who has webbed hands, to swim long distances in the Hudson River to prepare for a mermaid act in a tank. She is kept at home, so she will keep his secrets. The only people she knows are his employees; especially influential are the housekeeper who has raised her, Maureen, who has burns on her face from acid; and Maureen’s lover, the Wolf Man, a man born with hair all over his body, who was imprisoned for years in an attic by his family in Richmond, Virginia, and finally escaped, inspired by Jane Eyre.
5. Michelle Huneven’s Off Course. In this short, graceful novel, set in the ’80s, the heroine, Cressida, cannot write her dissertation. Cressida moves to her parents’ A-frame in the mountains to write, but after falling in love with Quinn, a married, semi-literate carpenter, she works as a waitress and procrastinates writing for four years. If you have ever hesitated about your future after school (or some other pivotal time in your life), you will identify with Cressida. (You can read more about Off Course in my post here.)
6. Tim Winton’s Eyrie. The Australian writer Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie, is a literary page-turner. From the beginning, his spare, tough prose swept me away. The hero, Tom Keely, an environmentalist activist, has been unemployed for a year, his reputation slashed by a powerful politician. The divorced, impoverished Keely has moved from a lovely middle-class house to a hideous highrise. Though we hear about his fury over the impact of the mining industry and his concern for endangered birds, we don’t learn much about his former high-profile work. That’s because he has fallen several class es, despite his mother’s attempts to help him. Nowadays Keely drinks, does drugs, and blacks out. And he tries to save a lower-class woman he knows from his childhood and her grandson.
7. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. My reasons to read Anna Karenina are here.
8. Proust’s Swann’s Way. Although little happens, there are moments of wild joy. Proust is for those who revel in lyrical, sensual language rather than traditional narrative. Three thousand pages pass while the narrator Marcel meditates on the subject of memory and describes the visual and sensual cues that evoke the past. Reading Swann’s Way is like falling into a luxurious feather bed of exquisite language. Marcel, the narrator, remembers as a boy he couldn’t sleep unless his mother kissed him. He describes every detail of life at Combray, where the family lives in the summer with his great-aunt, from his Aunt Leonie’s two rooms to the hawthorns he admires on walks to the emotions evoked by the joyful reading of his favorite author, Bergotte, and the joy of his first serious writing.
9. Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life. Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955, centers on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. John and Martha Sinnott, an unconventional couple, have an idiosyncratic relationship to the village of New Leeds. Martha used to live here with her violent first husband, Miles, but ran away from him seven years ago after he locked her out of the house in her nightgown. Now she and her second husband, John, are back in New Leeds. And, as you can imagine, relationships are awkward when they return. This novel is far, far better than her best-seller The Group.
10. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. I recently reread this stunning novel about financial fraud, desperate aristocrats, calculated courtships, and literary corruption. According to John Sutherland in the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.” A financial scam is at the heart of this novel, and I was faintly reminded of the financial collapse in 2008. Finance is not always based on real money (and that’s as far as my financial knowledge goes). Trollope’s book revolves around Melmotte, a wealthy financier of mysterious origins who suddenly moves to London with his family. He directs the board of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, and whether or not the railroad actually exists, shares are briskly bought and sold.
11. Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor. I reread this splendid novel this year, but didn’t blog about it. In 2012 I wrote at my old blog, Frisbee: A Book Journal:. In 1975, novelist Maureen Howard in The New York Times enthusiastically praised The Memoirs of a Survivor as a “fable.” In the New York Review of Books, reviewer Rosemary Dinnage rather snottily acknowledged it as science fiction, and patronizingly said that SF suited ‘the very flatfootedness of her style… ” Jane Rogers in The Guardian has called The Memoirs of a Survivor a “cozy catastrophe” in the tradition of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. I very much admire Lessing’s post-apocalyptic novel of societal breakdown, narrated by an intelligent, independent middle-aged woman who confronts the problems of the demise of her city calmly. She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, and only the rich are still on the grid. Her apartment house, once solidly middle-class, is now inhabited by new lower-class families and squatters.
12, Constance Beresford-Howe’s The Book of Eve. I didn’t blog about this lovely Canadian novel, so am copying this description from Goodreads. “First published in 1973, The Book of Eve has become a classic. When Eva Carroll walks out on her husband of 40 years, it is an unplanned, completely spontaneous gesture. Yet Eva feels neither guilt nor remorse. Instead, she feels rejuvenated and blissfully free. As she builds a new life for herself in a boarding house on the “wrong” side of Montreal, she finds happiness and independence — and, when she least expects it, love.“