So we’ve finally reached the last couple of days of a busy, tiring, troubled year. May 2019 be merciful and kind and offer plenty of good reading at least, to distract us from the state of the world!
I’ve tried to hold off until now before making my ‘best of’ list, just in case some really good books that I read in December outweigh and outdazzle all of the others. In actual fact, only two of the December titles were contenders: two books about the war in Yugoslavia.
This is not a Top Ten or Top Twenty or any other systematic way of making a list. It’s simply a listing of all the books that really stood out and a brief quote or explanation to show why.
Most Pleasant New Author Discovery
Cesar Aira: The Lime Tree
How could we have changed so much, if everything was still the same? It all seemed too much the same, in fact. I felt nostalgic for time itself… I was no longer the small child who had gone with his father to collect lime blossom, and yet I still was. Something seemed to be within my grasp, and with the right kind of effort, I felt that I might be able to reach out and take hold of it, like a ripe fruit…
Book I Was Most Obsessive About for a While
Lin Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton The Revolution
Between Christmas 2017 and the time we went to see the Hamilton musical in April 2018, I had the soundtrack playing on repeat every single day, and these witty footnotes to the libretto and additional background on how the show came about was just what I needed. (Although I ostensibly bought the book for my son.)
Best Rediscovered Classic
J. L. Carr: A Month in the Country
I believe I can call this one a classic, although it was only written in the 1980s. Set in the 1920s, it has a very restrained, interwar novel feel about it, with a great deal of respect but no mawkish sentimentality for those who’d experienced the Great War. Also, a story of yearning rather than satisfaction, which reminded me of Brief Encounter.
Best Suspense Novel
Hanne Ørstavik: Love
To my complete surprise, it was not a crime novel which had me almost covering my eyes with fear and reading breathlessly, as if by putting this book down, I could endanger the characters in it, but this small, short story of a frustrated mother and a neglected boy on his birthday.
Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life
Not that I read an awful lot of biographies this year, but this one would stand out any year.
Best Political Rallying Call
James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
Best Regional Curiosity
Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods
Social and class differences, urban vs. countryside contrasts, and the whole atmosphere of Vienna in the 1920s form the backdrop for this not necessarily terribly original story of love, envy, greed, betrayal, disappointment, but which rises to the universality of human experience like Greek drama.
Most Recognisable Situation
Sarah Moss: Night Waking
Scratch a little deeper beneath the amusing surface of modern family life with lively children and not-quite-there husbands, and you get something much deeper: the tension between academia (or any work involving thought and creativity) and motherhood, tensions within a couple, gender inequalities, class and culture differences.
Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922
Because she continued writing even in the direst of circumstances. [I chose the pseudonym Marina partly as an ‘homage’ to her.]
Antti Tuomainen: Palm Beach Finland
Because it’s snort-out-loud funny, in the whole Fargo back comedy school of writing which I love. Speaking of which, Antti also features in the list below.
Best Crime Fiction
I had to choose my Top 5 Crime Fiction picks of the year for Crime Fiction Lover. Spoiler alert: one of them wasn’t fiction and one of them wasn’t a novel.
Best Book About the Yugoslav War
A topic that I will always, always find fascinating and emotional, so I saw a play and read two books about it this year. My favourite of those is probably Ivana Bodrožić: The Hotel Tito, because it is both a coming of age novel, as well as the story of displaced children.
Two compete for this category and they both still felt chillingly relevant today:
Tana French: Broken Harbour
George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London
Veronique Olmi: La Nuit en vérité
Olmi had already destroyed me with her piercing understanding of mother/child relationships, with all of its tender but also dysfunctional potential, in her masterpiece Beside the Sea. In this novel she returns to this theme, with a mother who is a housekeeper in a posh Parisian apartment with largely absent owners, and her lonely son who is being bullied at school.
Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater
This story of an unravelling marriage and mother is just the right combination of funny, ironic, detached, cruel and devastating. A tour de force, hard to believe it was published in 1962, it still feels so modern. You might also want to read this poignant article about Mortimer’s marriage and life. “The outside world identified me as ‘ex-wife of John Mortimer, mother of six, author of The Pumpkin Eater’ [in that order]—accurate as far as it went, but to me unrecognisable.”