Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Favourite Books of 2012

Here it is: my top five of 2012. I read a tonne of books this year, at least, relative to last year, and I tried to read as many 2012 titles as I could. But I had a huge backlist of titles sitting on my bookshelf that I wanted to read - things like Alias Grace and Motherless Brooklyn, or catching up on Jasper Fforde. I did manage to read a solid number of new titles this year, which made me feel that I accomplished something: I could read the reviews as they came out instead of waiting until I read the book, and I could make recommendations based on the type of reader rather than going by other reviews or recommendations. Which brings me to my #5: In One Person by John Irving.

John Irving is not for everyone. He has a specific style, honed through 40 years of writing. Readers who like him, like him a lot. Those who don't, well, I don't think they ever will. In One Person is for those who like John Irving. It revisits many of the themes he uses consistently: New England, absent father, extraordinary coincidence, sexual discovery and, of course, wrestling. Irving takes on the AIDS epidemic as his main character, Billy Abbott, goes through a sexual discovery in a private high school in New Hampshire and becomes a novelist who writes about his experiences (another Irving theme). Billy then faces the AIDS crisis in the early 80s and watches helplessly as many of his friends and former lovers pass away. Irving writes in his usual blunt style, pulling no punches about the physical and emotional havoc the disease has on both those affected, their families and the survivors. Billy even wrestles with survivor's guilt after visiting hospice after hospice. Of course, the foreshadowing and repetition of both themes and phrases in the novel make Irving's characters seem familiar, since we've seen these things before in other novels. But it doesn't make this novel any less interesting, and a compelling read for those who know and love Irving. If you haven't read John Irving before, start with A Prayer For Owen Meany, then The World According to Garp. If you make it that far, your next read is your choice, and the world of John Irving will open up for you.

Now, when I look at top picks lists for a given year, or "the best books I've read this year" and that sort of thing, I am looking for recommendations for my reading list. I want to know what books I may have missed in 2012 that I should read. Or, alternatively, what books can I move from my "maybe" pile to my "tbr" pile - case in point, Gone Girl. I didn't really think it would appeal to me, and I avoided reading it for a long while. But after reading about it in several blogs and bestseller lists, I decided to give it a try, and it paid off. It's my number 4 book of 2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Gone Girl broke many of the expectations readers had for genre fiction: it's a suspense novel, it's a police procedural, it's a psychological thriller, it's a relationship book. It is all of those things put together, and it works. The book begins with Nick Dunne returning home to discover a tossed house and a missing wife. What has happened to Amy, and on their fifth wedding anniversary no less? Flynn uses an alternating narrator device to tell the story of Nick and Amy Dunne and the reader must piece together the story of their marriage and the current predicament. But who is telling the truth? Whose version of events can we trust? Can we trust either of them? The result is a challenging read and one of the better ones of 2012.

A pet peeve of mine when I read "best of" lists or more specifically "best books read" lists is that many blogs and sites will present you with a list of books that aren't from 2012 at all, but a list of books read in 2012; a reader catches up on a classic, or that award winner from last year that didn't make the cut in the calendar year. While I appreciate reviews of great books and I am always interested in recommendations, December is not the time to rave about Anna Karenina or Catcher in the Rye. I want to know what books from the past year I should read; I already know about classics that everyone else has read and written about. Perhaps January is the month for recollecting your reading habits, while December is the month to add to your to be read pile for 2013. Just remember to review them in January 2014, not the following December. Hence, my #3 pick for 2012 is not The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach but The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam.

Vincent Lam's first novel is a labour of love - five years spent researching and writing a book that has close ties to his own family's history. The novel focuses on Percival Chen, a Chinese citizen living in Saigon before the proper involvement of the American Military in Vietnam. We hear about how he came to Saigon before the end of the Second World War, fleeing Hong Kong just in time to avoid the Japanese invasion. However, the Japanese also made it to Saigon, and Chen must find a way to thrive in an occupied country. He manages to survive the Japanese occupation, as well as the French, and we follow as he struggles to make his fortune as a headmaster of an English Academy as the Americans arrive. The story continues through to the end of the Vietnam War, when the occupiers change once again from American to Communist North Vietnamese. Along the way, Chen is tortured, blackmailed, bribed, and pressured, but he continues to have his eye on earning enough to return to his native China and raise his son in a traditional way - that is, the China he remembers, before the war and before the Cultural Revolution. So much changes for Chen throughout the novel and the reader watches and he searches for ways to adapt - and often fails to do so quickly enough to save his dream for the future or prevent the ones he loves from getting hurt. Lam's prose is crisp and precise, as always, and in Chen, he has created a memorable character whom the reader comes to care for even though he is continually the author of his own demise.

Another trend in "best of" lists in 2012 was avoiding the big names in literature that published in 2012. Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, and Junot Diaz all published books in 2012. However, the majority of "best of" lists have left these authors in the cold, instead going for smaller presses, genre titles or obscure authors. This may or may not be warranted, as I have not read all of the aforementioned authors' books, but I did read Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her, and it is my #2 of 2012.

Diaz's book is a collection of short stories focused on Yunior, the narrator in Diaz's previous book, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao (which I still have to catch up with). We read about Yunior's arrival in New York City with his family, about his brother's death, about breaking up with his (many) girlfriends. The resulting snapshot of the Dominican community in NYC is Diaz's greatest achievement, as he brings his reader inside this insular world within a world. The stories are heartbreaking and poignant, and Yunior is by no means a sympathetic character. But we appreciate the view he provides.

Finally, the last trend in 2012 publishing was smaller titles making a big impact. First time authors or authors not accustomed to the international stage made a big impact in both awards lists and best of lists (Booker winner Hilary Mantel notwithstanding). In Canada, the three big awards were handed out to three different authors of thus far limited exposure or success. The Purchase by Linda Spalding won this year's Governor General's Award for Fiction. Although she is Michael Ondaatje's partner, she has not been a noticeable name on the literary scene. The Scotiabank Giller winner was Will Ferguson's 419. Even though Ferguson is a household name in Canada - he has won the Stephen Leacock Prize for Humour 3 times - but this is his first foray into "serious" literature. His look at the new Nigeria and its global impact struck a chord with readers and critics alike, and was a contender for my top five this year. My #1, however, was also the winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy.

Another short story collection, Dobozy's account of the Hungarian community in Toronto and the inescapable past of the Russian siege of Budapest during the Second World War is an incredible read. He takes the reader into the basements and sewers of Budapest during the ill-fated winter of 1945, and we follow as those same people make a new life for themselves in Toronto. A few of the stories focus on the children and grandchildren of these people, but all pay close attention to the irrevocable effect of the siege on an entire country. A brilliant read and deserving winner - of both the Writers' Trust Prize and my top 5 list.

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