For a long time I was put off reading Wolf Hall by the several pages of Tudor family trees and dramatis personae at the beginning; trying to hold this information in my head before even starting the book reminded me unpleasantly of cramming for a history exam. It took a rained-out summer for me to overcome my prejudices and find out just how wrong I was. Hilary Mantel's multi-layered, multivalent, cracklingly intelligent recreation of Henry VIII's tortured Britain, told through the rise of political operator Thomas Cromwell, reminds you just how much reach and power the novel as an art form can have. My two favourite novels this year, though, were debuts. Leaving the Atocha Station is the story of a gifted but disillusioned young poet on a fellowship in Madrid, supposedly researching an epic poem on the Spanish Civil War, but actually smoking weed and entangling himself in various webs of untruth in the course of trying to persuade young Madrileñas to sleep with him. That this monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner's dazzling prose, which switches effortlessly from deadpan to ironic to salty to tragic and back again. No one could argue that the Nazis are underrepresented in literature, and Laurent Binet spends much of the first part of his novel HHhH agonising about why he's adding to the pile. Thankfully he gets over this, and the story he tells is totally compelling. Reinhard Heydrich was Himmler's right-hand man -- or as the SS put it, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich -- and a vicious character even by the standards of the Nazis. Binet's novel recounts the bid by two Czechoslovakian resisters to assassinate him. It's completely electrifying, and in an age when our concept of courage has been overtaken by cliché, it manages nevertheless to evoke the astonishing selflessness of its heroes. Right now I'm reading Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, by David Graeber. Graeber was heavily involved in the Occupy movement, and here he uses his background in anthropology to dismantle the foundational myths of classical economics, and illustrate just how weird, anomalous and downright antisocial contemporary capitalist society is in the light of the foregoing 5,000 years. His accounts of money's ancient association with violence (e.g., the invention of coinage to pay conquering imperial armies) and our morality's roots in the language of debt are revelatory. It's brilliantly done and far funnier than any book on economics by rights ought to be. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I read so much great fiction this year – David Bezmogis’s story collection Natasha, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, Chris Binchy’s Five Days Apart – but the book of the year for me was without doubt The Rehearsal, by the preternaturally gifted New Zealand author Eleanor Catton. She apparently wrote it when she was twenty, which suggests a childhood spent reading Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. It centers on an affair between a teacher and pupil, and the drama-academy setting allows all kinds of opportunities for narrative games, which Catton takes full advantage of. At the same time, the characters are intensely real, and the cruelties, joys and disappointments of growing older are handled with striking empathy and intelligence. Perverse, erotic, complex, funny, experimental, and written with the confidence and courage of a true artist. I’d been interested in the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze for a long time, but I found Anti-Oedipus, written with Felix Guattari, hard going. A friend recommended that an earlier work might be a better way of getting a handle on him. Nietzsche and Philosophy is regarded as one of Deleuze’s most approachable and also his best books, especially by people who regard Guattari as a bad influence (in Deleuze and Guattari: The Movie, Guattari would be the louche hippie who introduces the brilliant but unquestionably nerdy Deleuze to paisley shirts, sitar music, the argument that if you stop washing your hair it eventually "starts cleaning itself"). First published in 1962, it transformed thinking about Nietzsche, who prior to that had been dismissed as at best a fragmentary mystic, at worst a slavering anti-Semite. While accessible compared to Deleuze’s other work, I suspected it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, so before attempting it I checked out a few of Nietzsche’s own books. I had read or at least carried around a couple of these as a teenager but forgotten most of them, and was astonished on revisiting him to discover just how radical a thinker he is. With a linguistic elan that as a former student I can confirm is exceedingly rare in philosophy books, he attacks every form of received opinion of his day. Religion, morality, science, the pursuit of truth, the concept of the self, German nationalism, British cooking – it’s striking just how ahead of his time he was. What’s even more astonishing is how potent many of the regressive, repressive forces he identifies remain today. Religion, for instance, he regarded as too benighted to survive far beyond the end of the nineteenth century. (For the record, he’s as scathing about anti-Semitism as he is about every other form of human stupidity and "baseness.") Nietzsche compared the thinker to an arrow, which when it falls can be picked up by another thinker and fired somewhere else. Deleuze’s project is to show that Nietzsche’s aphoristic thought is in fact one coherent philosopy, and that while he’s often regarded as a purely critical and therefore negative thinker, his work is ultimately about affirmation and creation. "Philosophy" literally means "friend of wisdom," but as Deleuze says, a true friend doesn’t simply agree with everything you say; instead she challenges you, pushes you, in order to help you get the best of yourself. Nietzsche wanted people to think for themselves, to take control of their own destinies, and most importantly of all, to love life. Some of the ontological stuff (the becoming of being, the affirmation of affirmation) can be tricky, but at the heart of the book is a breathtaking exposition and development of Nietzsche’s concepts of resentment and bad faith – the tropes of thinking that encourage us, respectively, to blame others for our own situation, or to blame ourselves for our situation as opposed to doing anything about it. We’re encouraged, by religion, by science, to focus our attention, efforts and hopes, on worlds that don’t exist – the afterworld, the future, ourselves but with ten million dollars – and to regard our own situation, and life itself, as inherently fallen, toxic, evil. This is pretty sweet for us, because we get to do nothing and also to feel good about it. But this world, our own lives, are all that we know, and rejecting them is not, in the end, of much succour. Instead, Nietzsche wants us to think, to feel, to laugh, to go to the limit of our potential. Creating for ourselves, letting ourselves be affected by other people are what he considers to be the true meaning of power – not amassing empty wealth signifiers and tyrannising waiting staff in expensive restaurants. Deleuze’s book not only illustrates this brilliantly but is itself genuinely inspiring: that rarest of things, a philosophy book that wakes you up. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions