Here’s the problem I usually run into when I’m asked for a list of the year’s best books: most places want books that were published that year. And I don’t read all that many new books, because I do a lot of rereading. This feels slightly embarrassing to admit — my bedside table is jammed with new books that look amazing, and I’m putting them off to read stuff that I’ve already read half a dozen times? But there are some books that are either so intricate or so satisfying that I keep coming back to them over and over — because I know I’ll find something new every time, or just because I know it’ll be pure pleasure. I think this is a big part of the joy of discovering a really great book: you know that, even when you finish the last page, you’re not done. There’s more in there, waiting for you to come back and find it.
Maybe my best example of what I’m talking about is Watership Down, which I reread this year for maybe the eighth time. It’s about a group of rabbits who strike out from their warren when one of them has a vision of its destruction. The first time I read it I was a little kid, six or seven. Probably I only got about a 10th of it; all I remember is being enthralled by the idea of the rabbits’ world existing parallel to ours, equally real and vital, but utterly separate. We went on a beach holiday while I was reading it, and seeing wild rabbits in the garden early one morning was one of the most thrilling things that had ever happened to me — because all of a sudden they weren’t just rabbits, they were a whole other world made flesh. When I went back to the book a few years later, I was swept away by the sheer beauty of the writing, the lucid intensity of the images, the perfection of the rhythms. A few years after that, I was hit by the psychological horror of the warren of the snares, all the rabbits desperately blocking out the fact that they’re buying their comfortable lives by offering up themselves and their friends and families as potential sacrifices. A few years after that, I caught the incredibly sinister political undercurrent of the totalitarian warren of Efrafa, ruled by the ferocious leader who’s seized absolute power by putting everyone else in terror of outside dangers. And I know next time I’ll find something else.
This year I reread Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, all for that same reason: I know I’m going to find something new in there, even if it’s just a beautiful sentence or a nuance I missed before.
And then there are the books that I go back to because they have some element that I know will give me the same shot of pure satisfaction every time. This year I reread Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar for the deceptively economical characterization, just a few simple strokes and the character leaps off the page; George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax for the rich exuberance of the multiple voices; Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for the meticulous complexity of the structure, the way elements are reflected and refracted back and forth between the two narratives, transforming every time.
I did manage to discover a few new treasures (new to me, anyway) along the way. Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, a beautifully written, moving, darkly funny gut-punch of a book about small-town Ireland in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two young Jewish cousins who, in 1940s New York, create comic book superheroes from their own fears and dreams; Karen Perry’s Girl Unknown, about a university lecturer whose life and mind and family are turned upside down when a student claims she’s his daughter. I haven’t reread them yet, but I know I will, more than once. While the pile on my bedside table gets higher.
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The 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners occurs this month, and the occasion is being celebrated with the launch of Dubliners 100, a “reimagining and rewriting of the 15 original stories by a range of well-established and promising writers.” Among the modern writers lending their talents to the homage is Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Donal Ryan (The Spinning Heart), and Pat McCabe (Butcher Boy).
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced today. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It’s also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 12th) were mostly published in 2013, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There’s a distinct upside in this. By now, nearly all the shortlisted books are available in paperback in the U.S.
The IMPAC also tends to be interesting for the breadth of books it considers, and the 2014 shortlist is no exception, with each author hailing from a different country and four books in translation among the ten finalists. It is disappointing to see, however, that only two of the ten shortlisters are by women.
The Detour (published in the US as Ten White Geese) by Gerbrand Bakker (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction)
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
Absolution by Patrick Flanery (The Mutability of Truth: An Interview with Patrick Flanery)
A Death in the Family (published in the US as My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Devoutly to Be Wished: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Consummation“)
Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye
Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Nick Harkaway’s Year in Reading)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez