So many Best Books of 2013 lists circulating around; so here’s my version.
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton.
I loved this book and believe it thoroughly deserved its Booker Prize win. Initially put off by the size, I eventually bought it on my iPad Kindle – disguising the task ahead. But it turned out to be no task at all. I loved every word and was sorry when I’d read the last one. Great characters, sympathetically drawn and realistically – all with good and bad bits about them. A diverse bunch – old timers, newcomers, the newly native born white New Zealanders, a Maori, two Chinamen, two women. The diggings an interesting back drop. The mystery a beguiling one. The ending quite satisfactory – unusual in a novel. I read somewhere that the chapters all become shorter – indeed half as long as the preceding one. Like the waning moon which fits in with the (very beautiful) jacket design. I didn’t notice that. Although I recognized that at the end the chapters were very short. These drew together all the loose ends – all the clues that have been strewn before us in earlier chapters are finally explained. All very credibly. It’s really the opposite of a waning moon as in these chapters everything is becoming clearer. It’s more like a full moon under which all is revealed. The mysteries that have been lurking in the dark illuminated. I didn’t find the astrological references particularly beguiling or necessary. I loved the story, the characters, the setting and overall the quality of the writing. Thoroughly recommended. And, as was said to me, don’t be put off by the size.
I immersed myself in the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor this year and am so glad I did.This was started with A Time Of Gifts, followed by Between The Woods And The Water.
I’d read a bit about Paddy Fermor in various memoirs over the years- including those of a couple of the Mitford sisters (he was a great friend of the youngest) and of the Duff Cooper set. So I’d heard of the diary of his walk across Europe but thought it couldn’t possibly be as good as was claimed. I also thought he was probably a crabby old conservative politically. So I wasn’t inclined to read him Then I read the biography by Artemis Cooper Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure.
This told a wonderful story of a derring do life that was amazing. Including how his retelling of his travels through Europe to his fellow partisan on Crete during World War II led to his writing about it. This is beautifully acknowledged in the Intoductory Letter to Xan Fielding at the start of A Time of Gifts. And described in these two interviews published in the Paris Review.
The first two volumes, were written years after the actual travel took place. He clearly worked hard at incorporating historic, cultural, geographical and architectural detail into the original descriptions of the places he travelled through and the people he met. The writing is compelling. Clear and graphic. You can visualize every aspect of what he’s describing and almost smell and taste what he’s experiencing. It’s all written contemporaneously in the present tense and has an immediacy and freshness about it that is amazing given how long ago it was written.
The descriptions of people are vivid – physical characteristics, personalities and personal circumstances. And he encounters so many great characters. From all walks of life. So are the descriptions of natural phenomena encountered. He’s taken by the birds he sees wheeling overhead on their great migrations and the storks clattering noisily into their nests atop houses in the townships. He is an intent observer of all that he’s seeing and experiencing – and how fabulous it all is! Scenes straight out of Breughels paintings in Holland of people skating along the frozen canals. Ceremonies marking both religious and civic milestones – people in traditional costumes, clerics in full regalia and military officers in dashing formal dress uniforms. Citizens parading along boulevards at dusk. Peasants at work in the fields. A leisured aristocratic class enjoying their last moments of pomp and privilege.
Fantastic landscapes – the great rolling plains of Hungary, pastures and farmlands, mountainous ranges, dense woods and forests, treacherous ravines. In all sorts of weather – snow, rain, sunshine and storms. He describes it all. Following alongside and criss-crossing the great rivers of Europe, especially the Danube. He walks along country roads beside horse drawn carriages, up and down isolated and sometimes impenetrable mountain paths, alongside rivers and then through bustling urban centres. Taking refuge in warm bars and cafés where he is welcomed by patrons and proprietors. Or bunkering down in isolated huts with lonely forest workers or shepherds or travellers like himself. Sometimes under haystacks or in barns. Or under the stars. All so evocative of another age.
He describes himself with great candor – naive, feckless, politically unaware – this at a time when Europe was moving inexorably towards war. Even in Germany he was oblivious to the political turmoil happening close by. Letters of introduction by friends and acquaintances gave him access to local people wherever he went. But it’s his charm that deepened these encounters into real friendships. And there are romantic episodes either hinted at or acknowledged in full.
There were also lovely drawings by the author in my folio edition of the first volume. The author reading from his diary to an attentive crowd. Or the lonely walker with his walking stick, pressing on through the mountains.
Both of these two volumes contained great descriptions of everything – I know I’ve said that before – but that’s what makes them masterpieces. They also contained the biggest vocabulary I’ve encountered outside of Shakespeare – which is where the eBooks came into their own. I loved being able to press a word and get the definition – which mostly accorded with the meaning I had deduced from the context. Sometimes these were archaic words, but usually they were contemporary. Including architectural terms and correct geographic terminology words to describe different landscapes, or correct expressions to describe industrial processes and so forth. All the more amazing because he was largely self taught, having been a less than diligent student. But perhaps that accounts for the erudition!
The only thing missing was a really detailed map of the journey – there was just a very basic map inside the cover of both books – to which one is drawn again and again seeking to understand exactly where he is. And getting only the barest idea. As can be seen here – these are the only two maps provided for us to follow this epic journey. I found it frustrating not being able to find the cities he was describing let alone the towns and villages. All made more confusing because names of cities and of countries had been changed between the time of his trip and the writing. And have often now changed again. It all merged in my head as somewhere in middle Europe.
Having loved the two volumes published in his life- time I was extremely wary approaching the third one, never finished to his satisfaction. The Broken Road was edited by his biographer Artemis Cooper and Colin Thurbron. They describe their contribution as being to lightly edit Fermor’s own words It was great, but quite different from the earlier two volumes against which it was interesting to compare. It was more immediate and without the additional research that he’d included in the other two. Just as compelling. Some reviewers have noted discontinuities with anecdotes contained in the earlier volumes suggesting artistic license about particular incidents. But I didn’t care about that. I just loved the writing and the stories he told.
One of the great mysteries is the absence of any descriptions of Istanbul (or Constantinople as Fermor continued to call this wonderful city). Apart from a few diary entries he’s silent on the subject. The editors conjecture as to why. But that’s all we have – conjecture. What was included in this book – whether by design or not – were some of his darker moments. Of loneliness and fear and even, it seems, periods of depression. His doubts about what he was doing with his life manifesting in sleepless nights in claustrophobic, dark, rooms. A good foil to the boys own adventure tone of preceding tomes. Two wonderful episodes stand out – he’s alone in the mountains with a dog and the full moon in a ruined church. Later he’s clambering desperately over slippery rocks along the Black Sea, in the dark, beside sheer rock cliffs, seeking safety. And finding it in a cave full of fishermen where drink and singing and dancing restored his spirits. This volume finishes, we are told by the editors mid-sentence. So there is no real ending.
Instead it concludes with a coda to his book on monasteries – a description of time spent on Mt Athos. I wouldn’t normally want to read about monastic life, but found A Time to Keep Silence interesting enough. I read it because I wanted more of Fermor’s work and did so before The Broken Road was belatedly published.
Interesting because of the vivid descriptions of the men he meets. He’s very succinct and captures the look of a person and there character in a couple of sentences. Sometimes he includes a back story – especially about the leaders of these communities. He also describes, sometimes in great detail the buildings including particular rooms – libraries, chapels, refectories – they inhabit. The rhythm of daily rituals intrigues him and ideas about penitence and deprivation. He’s a secular observer and you wonder what drew him to these places. Another glimpse into a vanishing world.
In any event I enjoyed all of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. The great trudge was a wonderful experience and I’m pleased I finally got to it.
Questions Of Travel, Michelle de Kretser.
I heard the author give two lectures at The Wheeler Centre during the year; one on Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and one on Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Both were great and are worth getting hold of on the Wheeler Centre’s website if you can. Clear, intelligent and interesting. With a beginning, middle and end. So I was interested when this book hit the shelves. But a bit wary. I’m so often disappointed after rave reviews of novels. No need to be in this case. Beautiful writing and interesting characters. I’m not sure the linking of the two stories worked and I was a little disappointed in the ending which I’d foreseen. But these are mere quibbles about a great read. The depiction of Sri Lanka with it’s undercurrent of violence and repression was skillfully done. We see the effect of this violence on those caught up in it and what’s required to escape it. The immigrant experience – both the middle class expatriate seeking something else and the refugee’s daily struggle to survive past experiences – is beautifully observed. Anyone can be footloose – or un-anchored to life. For different reasons, in different circumstances. It’s a novel with something to say – about how we live, what’s important in order to live well. Whether we can escape our past. Lots of bits remain with you.
The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning.
I’d read and loved her The Balkan Trilogy some time ago and wanted to see what happened – to Harriet mostly, but also her self-obsessed husband Guy as well. So was pleased when I saw this was an eBook. I loved this volume just as much. Fantastic description of wartime Egypt and along the way you learn about the conduct of the war in the Western Desert (about which I had an inkling but now feel much better informed). What is striking is how much information is conveyed in such a succinct way. Characters and their circumstances are conveyed in a couple of sentences. And you understand the psychological motivation of people through asides and overheard remarks rather than by being told about them. And it is all so interesting! Lots of different people come into the Pringles’ orbit – major and minor figures in the drama – and we are interested in what happens to all of them. Loved it.
Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Maria Semple.
This book but has stayed with me long after reading it. I loved it (and the cover). Quirky characters. Great family at the centre of it. Mum (Bernadette) a frustrated artist, at war with her middle class, straight laced neighbours, neglecting white picket fence mothering. Dad a former Silicon Valley whizz kid embroiled in the cut throat high tech corporate world. Daughter – through whose eyes we observe what’s going on. A sassy, independent minded girl if ever there was one. Managing a potentially life inhibiting condition through which everyone other than her family judges her. All great characters, muddling through life, trying to look after each other and failing in various ways. A quirky tale – about a house, nosy neighbours, expectations, fitting in (or not). Told in a variety of ways – as straight narrative, diary excerpts, school reports, police investigations, letters. These devices can be messy and distracting but here they worked really well. No completely unsympathetic figures. A whodunit with a difference. A great ending.
May We Be Forgiven, a.m. homes.
This was an easy read and with something important to say – in an engaging way. Essentially about the perils of parenting. Hence the title I think. An Uncle finds himself in loco parentis to his niece and nephew. At first they seem to be spoilt rich kids but when we (and Uncle) get to know them better they emerge as nice, rounded characters trying to manage their different issues. Through a series of misunderstandings and misadventures they build a family. Nice idea. Nicely done. I thought throughout it was written by a man. And it wasn’t so that’s an interesting aside. Some weird characters and episodes – that sometimes jar. Interesting view of atomized American suburban life. A few digs at psychiatric treatments. Overall, and including the ending, quite heart-warming.
Levels Of Life, Julian Barnes.
More beautiful writing. I have enjoyed other books by the author better I think. But some of the writing is really memorable. I didn’t think the bits about ballooning worked that well. Or at least they seemed to belong to a different book. The parts dealing with his response to his wife’s death were almost unbearably sad. He comes at grief sideways – in unexpected ways – and illuminates how alone a person is in dealing with this feeling. Highlights how we respond to it so badly – in our individual responses and as a society. So inadequate! I wonder whether reading about grief prepares you for the experience. If so, this small book is a primer. Elegeic in the true sense of the word.
Young Romantics: The Shelley’s, Byron and Other Tangled Lives, Daisy Hay.
The story of the Shelley’s and Byron and their crowd – mostly when they were in Italy. I know the story and the characters – I think primarily through a number of books by Richard Holmes, especially Shelley:The Pursuit. I loved Shelley’s poetry when I was in secondary school. It lends itself to tortured teenage years – especially those esconsed behind convent walls. So I have a soft spot for these tortured souls. I thoroughly enjoyed this account of these famous lives. Although it didn’t reveal anything new. I’m not sure whether you need to know the back story or whether this is enough on it’s own. Amazing people. Ridiculously complicated relationships all round. Chaotic, impractical, sometimes insufferable. But wholly engaging and certainly romantic.
The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane.
This is quite a dense book describing various walks around Britain. I really enjoyed it. Lots of geographical and historical detail. Having no knowledge of the places described is no impediment to enjoyment. The lack of photos is frustrating. And I am not inclined to take to the highways and byways described. But interesting to read about the exploits of those who do. This article gives the flavour of the writing. He writes about this part of the world in the book.
I finished this list and was sure I had read other books. Which I had! And have already described here. This one from my holiday reading would be included in my best books list. Fawkneresque in its language. I describe it as the book version of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Heart rending depiction of a family living on the edge – as Hurricane Katrina bears down on them. Beautiful depiction of sibling relationships. Emotionally heart wrenching. I cried. A great read.
Another that was on lots of best book lists was this.
Not just a thriller. Hard to talk about without ruining some pretty amazing twists and turns in the plot. Suffice to say, a story of a marriage, some great, angry feminist ranting (unfortunately not carried through to the end). A great shared experience with my daughter.
Some also rans now. These are other books I read that don’t quite make it to my best of list.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walters.
I really loved his Citizen Vince and this was not as good, but it was still an enjoyable read. A nice portrayal of Richard Burton who plays a central albeit brief part in the story. The other characters are nicely drawn and you sympathise with them and want things to work out. There’s a nice snapshot of the movie industry – in the 1960s and in our own time. The sort of industry that eats you up and spits you out. It takes place in Italy and later moves tomAmerica – California. I’m not sure what it is saying. How dreams whilst delayed can be fulfilled. How, if we follow our hearts things will turn out? Not sure. Our characters take circuitous paths to the final denouement. Another good ending – perhaps they are not as rare as I think.
A Family And A Fortune, Ivy Compton Burnett.
I read this because Hilary Mantel recommended the author. I remember enjoying it and appreciating the economy with which it was told and the truth in the psychosocial motivations of the family. But I have very little recollection of the story! I love the fact you can get these early novels as eBooks.
Both of these were fine but not great. I love John Banville but this novel was not his best. A nice story buried under a mountain of adjectives! A third could have been removed and you would have had a poignant story of a first time, illicit love affair. The hippy commune in Arcadia was convincingly rendered but I wasn’t keen on any of the characters and didn’t care what happened to any of them.