January 20, 2013

My Top 10 Books of 2012

Oh my god. I read a horrifyingly small number of books this year. I really need to knuckle down, or I'm never gonna finish my stupid list (though on the plus side, that would mean I'd never have to read Proust...). It's a bit ridiculous doing a Top 10 this year, given how few books I've got to choose from, but I'm gonna do it anyway. And maybe the knowledge that fuckin' Sons and Lovers made the 2012 list will give me the kick up the arse I need to read a hell of a lot more in 2013.

The title of each book will link you through to my original review. Here goes:

10. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Despite my many misgivings, Lawrence's windy oedipal drama sneaks into the top 10 on the basis of its handful of brilliant passages. Too much of it was way too airy and pseudo-philosophical, but when actual events were actually happening, it was pretty good.

9. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

Again, there was a whole hell of a lot about this book that didn't work at all. But in brief glimpses --- notably in the first and last sections, when the satire is directed at the kind of 'cosy English village' that a bunch of BBC miniseries have idealised --- Orwell's biting wit and sharp, cruel prose are in evidence. In those moments, it really comes alive.

8. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Ah, now we're getting to the good shit. Gulliver's Travels, despite one weak section, was really good fun. The targets of Swift's satire are pretty much lost to history at this point (unless you know a hell of a lot about early 18th century Irish politics), but the inventiveness and wit on display here is what keeps this book alive in reader's imaginations. The section in the land of the Houyhnhnms, in particular, is a pretty extraordinary piece of writing, hilarious and savage all at once.

7. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Mitchell is one of the most interesting, and most daring, writers working in English at the moment. What's most exceptional about him (apart from his audacious use of narrative structure) is how big-hearted he is: some might argue his conclusions are simplistic, but I kinda love that he's always wholly unironic and unaffected. Ghostwritten has its faults, but they're far outweighed by its pleasures ... and in a novel as diverse as this, nobody will ever agree which is which. You'll just have to read it and decide for yourselves.

6. Aboriginal Stories of Australia & Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales collected by A.W. Reed

I have a real thing for fairy tales and folk stories (the Brothers Grimm rock my world), and these collections were no exception. I've always felt there's a lot to learn from studying early stories, and the main lesson I took from these books was that it's remarkable how similar in structure, style and content they are to the myths and legends of other, entirely disconnected cultures. It's truly incredible how similar we all are, and these stories --- as well as being entertaining in their own right --- are compelling evidence of that.

5. The Untouchable by John Banville

I love a good spy story, and The Untouchable was very good indeed. Banville's narrator is a man who barely has any personality of his own, instead adjusting himself to act any part that his changing life requires. Always showing a false, constructed face to the world, he was a spy long before he was ever recruited by the Soviets. Banville delves right into the emptiness at the heart of that way of being, and though his prose could be a bit overdone, it perfectly suited the character's voice. A real achievement.

4. The Iliad by Homer

Barbaric, savage, and beautiful. Homer's gift with metaphor and simile is incredible, and makes his epic poem (which covers a mere few weeks towards the end of a decade long war) seem like it encapsulates the entire world of its time. As ferocious and thrilling as it is, the main things that linger in my mind are the stark clarity of the language, and the alien morality that Homer forces you to accept. There's a reason we're still reading it, 2,500 years later.

3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This book manages to feel like a titanic epic, yet it's almost entirely about the thoughts flying around inside one man's head. I'm not sure how Dostoevsky manages that, but I suppose it's to do with the exquisite, minute detail we're given of Raskolnikov's thoughts, and the heart-breaking universality of Raskolnikov's concerns. It also doesn't hurt that it's bite-your-knuckles tense, and read-that-sentence-a-second-time-just-to-savour-it beautiful. An astonishing, devastating novel.

2. Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas

I think this book is going to haunt me. It works brilliantly as a spooky, horrifying ghost story, but its true genius is in the way that Tsiolkas, at the same time as he's scaring the crap out of you, is also exploring fascinating issues to do with identity, history, and diaspora. It's a marvel, a perfect marriage of plot and theme, and it left me breathless with admiration. It's the best Australian novel I've ever read, and one of my favourite novels full stop.

1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

So if I liked Dead Europe so much, what novel could possibly beat it into top spot for 2012? Les Miserables. God, how can I put this? Les Mis felt like more than a novel. It was a history, and a manifesto, and a philosophical text, and it was impossible not to be awed by the scale of its ambitions, nor to be floored when it achieved them all. It was the biggest, grandest reading experience I've ever had, and I know I'll be revisiting it again and again in the future for as long as I live. It was Everest, and everything else is just a foothill. It was incredible.

There you have it. If I'm being completely honest, those top three could be switched into pretty much any order and I'd be perfectly happy. All three of them were remarkable, brilliant books in their different ways. This order is how I'm feeling today, but tomorrow, who knows?

What were your favourite books of 2012? Read anything that blew your mind? Let me know ...

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen
books to go: 76


  1. I really can't recall a great deal of what i read last year! Did the first few of the Game of Thrones series, which were enjoyable.

    But stand out for me personally was Vanished Kingdoms of Europe by Norman Davies (i think it was 2012 book!). While a fair few are just interesting and long forgotten historical odditities, I still can't believe what happened to Montenegro after WW1!

  2. Alright, I think that's the last plank of evidence I need to steel myself to read Crime and Punishment.

    My list >>