It would be wonderful, of course, to write an elegant in-depth review of every book I read, but that is an aspiration reserved for the more serious book bloggers out there. Instead, I have compiled a short, ascerbic and in no way particularly reflected selection of my leisure reading this year below. Kafka, Adler and my colleagues’ monographs predominate in my non-leisure reading, but on the train, late at night and in the bath, here’s what I finished and, mostly, enjoyed, in 2012:
Book of the year, of the decade: Open City, by Teju Cole. So wonderful and Sebaldian and cerebral and beautiful that I need to wait a year and read it again and make it part of my life.
Other runners-up: Traveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely whimsical romance set in Biedermeier Mitteldeutschland, full of the sounds of Schubert and the plots of E. T. A. Hoffmann and the daffy ideas of German idealists.
South Riding, by Winifred Holtby, which is completely absorbing, combining Brontëesque passions with some good solid Marxism. Excellent stuff.
Tales from the Mall, by Ewan Morrison: half Fast Food Nation anti-capitalist rant, half flash fiction set in Scottish malls. Wildly entertaining.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels, which I glugged down one by one in Germany, as thirsty as the aristocratic alcoholic protagonists. They left little trace, but were wonderfully biting.
The empty family, and A Guest at the Feast, by Colm Tóibín, who cannot write an untrue sentence.
Hope. A Tragedy, by Shalom Ausländer. Post-Holocaust, riotously impious novel. What would you do, dear reader, if you found an aged, filthy and spiteful Anne Frank in your attic?
Kraken, by China Miéville: squiddy fantasy fun from everyone’s favourite Socialist Worker
Pack Men, by Alan Bissett: aaaah, so brilliant! Masculinity tenderly filleted, with a side order of Manchester streetscape, Scottish culture and queer sex. Just: fab.
The Journey, Oh! What a beautiful Sunday and Literature or Life, by Jorge Semprún: amazingly sharp, moral literature by a Marxist philosopher who survived Buchenwald.
The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander: conventional but gripping and moving novel about disappearances in the Argentinian dictatorship.
HHhH, by Laurent Binet: Binet manages to pull off both a meta-reflection on the ethical pitfalls of writing historical fiction, and an utterly gripping and moving account of the heros who assassinated Heydrich.
Inoffensive: Disgrace, by Coetzee: very well-done, yes, and I certainly learned a lot about white people in South Africa. I suspect the correct adjective is ‘fine’, or even more dispiriting, ‘Booker-prize-winning’.
Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson: she really is gloriously unhinged at times, but such madness is ideally suited to Pendle witch fiction.
Thursbitch, by Alan Garner: Perhaps it is the Manchester hinterland that sends writers gloriously mad. More dark magic lurks in the Cheshire hills.
Stasiland, by Anna Funder: not the GDR I know from friends who grew up in the former East, but quite gripping, still.
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille: WELL GOSH.
Pleasured, by Philip Hensher: fun, well-done fall-of-the-Berlin-wall saga.
Gewalten, by Clemens Meyer: fantastic, foulmouthed prose fizzing with energy and intelligence.
There but for the, by Ali Smith. Wry, well-observed State of the Middle Classes epic in miniature.
Imperium, by Christian Kracht: rollicking adventures of a deluded German vegetarian in the South Seas before the outbreak of WW1. Enjoyable and not remotely racist, despite some odd fight on the matter in the media.
Entertaining Trash for those brainfree moments: Historical tosh by Karen Maitland, feminist chicklit by Mhairi McFarlane, scabrous Jude in Ireland by Julian Gough.
Not So Amazing: Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis: evidently initiated the manic, maximalist, magical voice–of-the-Nazi-perpetrator narrative that Jonathan Littell continued two decades later. I still think it’s a meretricious kind of achievement. Mass murderers are not interesting.
Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson: I loved the rants about middlebrow fiction, but not so much the creaking misogyny. Sigh.
Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits: I really wanted to love this, but in the end just couldn’t. Byron is horrible, and effete New York writers with midlife crises just too dull.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman: the premise of a self-conscious meta-magic-novel set in Narnia is brilliant, but why make the protagonist really miserable all the way through?
There were a lot of books that I ordered from the library and never read, including most of the Booker shortlist. Whoops. Perhaps I should call them up again. This was also the year I got a Kindle and, much to my surprise, I find I really dislike reading books on it, find it stressful and unsatisfying, and would far rather have the comforting heft of a paper book in my hand. It is wonderfully convenient for travelling, but I always look forward to picking up real books when I come home.
I always mean to read more history and sociology, but never do, and am sure I have missed some wonderful new gems. Readers, what have I left out?