It's so interesting to see what everyone's writing down as their best of 2008. The omnipresence of "Netherland" on lists frankly baffles me, but then I've
about my perplexity in the face of that book, and er, like, 18 out of 21 people agree with me, so, like, ner.
These are just done chronologically.
1. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)
The atmosphere is still with me, of this strange and haunting book about the power of music and the desire to be an artist at all costs. Reads also as a sort of allegorical history of the development of Nazism in Germany, but from the inside. Incredibly meaty, with beautiful prose in every sentence. Just what you would expect from one of the most famous German novels.
2. Romain Gary, La vie devant soi (1975)
This is incredible. A little boy, son of a prostitute who has long disappeared, is being brought up amongst the other children of prostitutes by a former sex-worker now too old to make her living. The book is told entirely from the child's point of view. Astonishingly touching. And incredibly "real". An act of stylistic ventriloquism that manages to make you cry too.
3. James Meek, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008)
I loved this book, though I reckon everyone who adored "The People's Act of Love" might have been a bit surprised to find it concerns Afghanistan, c. 2004, rather than snowy Imperial Russia. I love James Meek. A beautifully stylish writer. I would read anything by him. I think we haven't even begun to hear the best from him.
4. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (2008)
We have been waiting for Denis Johnson to kick our arses, by extending the subtle, slim books he writes - detailing losers and drunks and visionaries of a lost America - onto a larger canvas. Here it is, spanning the entire Vietnam war. Not for those who cannot manage without a strong storyline. Definitely for those who are looking for poetry, sincerity, human mystery.
5. Rosamund Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936)
The second of the back-catalogue reads. Gorgeous, delicate depiction of life in thirties England. My grandma remembered reading it when she was younger, and we both re-read it together, agreeing that the crap line on the cover "this book was the Bridget Jones of our day" was total, well, crap. But if you like shivering cold drawing rooms, taxi cabs, party frocks, iron baths and economy Spam sort of books, you will undoubtedly fall under this book's amazing spell.
6. Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (2007)
I honestly thought this was a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. A simple tale of office folk fighting over who is going to have the best chair. WTF was going on with all the people who didn't like it then?
7. Tim Winton, Breath (2008)
Tim Winton is a great writer about the open wild spaces of Australia, but when he turned his attention to surfing this year, one of his favourite hobbies... he blew my mind. A great book. Very slow, hardly anything happens, but with an extraordinary quality of paying attention. As always with him.
8. John Lanchester, Family Romance (2007)
I'm pretty much a family memoir denier. I just can't bear the whole genre. I don't know how I ended up reading this. But it's amazing! His mother was a nun but just forgot to own up to anyone... And many other bizarre turns of event. Yet of course it's the way it's written that's the treat and a half. He has the most beautiful, cool, translucent style, steering you through the wreckage of his family. Really great.
9. Anne Enright, The Gathering (2007)
I think I bought this because I was deeply intrigued by her terribly forthright opinions on the McCanns.
An astonishing book about families, grief, madness, secrets, oh my god, honestly I could be really tedious about it. All the people who have given it one star on Amazon have just read it wrong. Don't let me start ranting about it.
10. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)
I know this isn't fiction, but I don't think I said I was going to stick to made-up stories. I included John Lanchester, anyway.
This is just a gorgeous little read, that makes you think about how people decide how to live their lives, what powers them onwards, and also made me think a lot about how much grit you need to be a writer! Even though the book is ostensibly about running, you learn a lot about Murakami... and become, in my case at least, rather fond of him. Even though he depicts himself as a grumpy old loner. Lovely.
11. Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident (2006)
I had liked a short story she wrote in a Granta book of the best young American novelists, so I bought this. The book is great: a novel about China meeting America in the form of a young Chinese artist who comes to California on an exchange programme. Delicate, funny, daring, all the stuff you want from a novel, plus a good story and loads about modern China that was ... so evocative.