top books of 2013

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Disclosure: some of these books I read for work, but they only make it into the list on merit, not because I was paid to read them or received them for free.*

Sometimes, in the course of my work as a book reviewer, I’m asked to review reprints of classics. On the one hand, this is a fantastic job because the books are almost always really good (they don’t bother reprinting a 70-year-old stinker). On the other, what does Nabokov care about my opinions of his work, huh? Nonetheless, I hope that promising youngster Edith Wharton is glad that I thought her House of Mirth was bloody brilliant! Look out for more from her in the futurepast!

Seriously, shame on me for not having read House of Mirth before. It’s a big old class/gender/financial circumstances sucker-punch, in which every word counts; imagine a Henry James novel if only Henry James had been inclined to keep it snappy and not plump for 300-word sentences.

Next in the parade of novels set in New York: The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which follows five fresh-faced young women working for a NYC publishing house in the 1950s as – SPOILER! – they variously fuck up their lives. It’s a bit like a soapier, less drug-fuelled Valley of the Dolls, and if you haven’t read that, you’re missing the greatest trashy novel of the twentieth century.

Still in New York, but non-fiction this time: The Art of Being a Woman by Patricia Volk, intertwined biographies of the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the author’s mother Audrey. The women have little in common, because the conservatively immaculate Audrey would never have taken any the risks that characterised the avant garde Schiaparelli, but both are fascinating: Schiap because she’s Schiap; Audrey because she demonstrates the incredible effort and upkeep it took to be a Joan Holloway, before the late 60s ripped off women’s foundation garments and set fire to their matching hats, gloves and handbags. An utterly beautiful piece of writing about clothes, childhood and family relationships.

Next up: Murder in the Kitchen by Alice B. Toklas. I collect old and unusual cookery books and I love Penguin’s Great Food series. This book tickled me because a) it reminds me how lucky I am not to live in an era when dishes of food were routinely garnished with minced egg; b) Toklas only ever refers to her romantic partner of nearly four decades by her full name, ‘Gertrude Stein’. Never Gertrude, and certainly not Gertie, or G-dog. Includes recipes for Picasso’s fishy lunch, Red Cross nuns’ hot chocolate, and hash fudge – ‘an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club’, indeed.

More novels: Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, the tale of a teenage Mennonite in Mexico helping a 21st-century film crew capture the decidedly non-21st-century ways of her old order community, from which she has been recently alienated. It’s a terrific bit of first-person narrative, that’s for sure.

Jolly well done to Barbara Comys, who made this list in 2011 and repeats the victory this year with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The faux-naive tone of the young heroine marrying a flaky artist and raising two children in bohemian squalor between the world wars makes me think of a character Jo Neary might have written.

There’s more naïveté in Tin Toys by Ursula Holden, a trilogy narrated by three young sisters from that sort of crumbling aristocratic background that is often a very satisfying backdrop for a novel (or the real lives of the Mitfords). Although witty, the book starts with the death of a baby and goes downhill from there. Consider yourself warned.

Finally, a special mention for S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. It’s not the strongest plot or writing, but the book itself is a truly magnificent object, and the concept therein is so ambitious and intriguing I probably need a Venn diagram to explain it properly. Inside the cardboard sleeve entitled S. is a 40s novel Ship of Theseus by enigmatic cult author VM Straka, who inspires obsession to the point of death in his fans. Those include Eric and Jen, who meet in the margins of a library copy of the book and scribble notes to each other, trying to crack the mysteries of Straka’s true identity and final disappearance, and falling in love as they do. Stuffed between the pages are newspaper clippings, maps drawn on napkins, handwritten postcards… Thus there are plenty of distractions from the main narrative, which isn’t quite good enough to make one understand why Straka-fans are SO rabidly devoted to his work, but nonetheless: impressively meta.

Those were the books I most enjoyed this year; what were yours?

*Aside from a few freebies, I bought all these books from Bookseller Crow, independent local bookshop of dreams. I’d rather pay full RRP and support brilliantly curated local enterprises than give less of my money to the dark lords of Amazon or supermarkets, which are scuttling the publishing industry. A bargain is hard to resist, but vote with your money.

Top books of 2012

Top books of 2011

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