As usual, this list is a purely subjective account of the books I most enjoyed reading this year. In each category my favorite is the first one, the others are in no particular order.
- Geoff Dyer, The Last Days of Roger Federer, and Other Endings. Impossible to adequately describe, a truly unique book–and how many of those are there? Not actually about Roger Federer but also not not about him either; it’s a series of reflections on late style, failure and decline in sport, arts and life. The writing is casual and the connections seem enjoyably free-associative and arbitrary at first, until the rigorous structure begins to emerge.
- After finishing it I went straight on to read more Dyer: the essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, from a decade earlier, covers a similar eclectic range of topics (photography, music, fiction and non, personal history) at greater length. Dyer has great taste and, as with the best critics, his enthusiasms are infectious.
- Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives. One of the many interesting books discussed by Dyer in Last Days; he has a particular interest in nonfiction of literary quality (he also champions Eve Babitz, who I too think is amazing). I don’t often enjoy biographies: too often they are neither analytical enough to be of intellectual interest nor well told enough to be of narrative interest. But Faulks’ treatment of three people who did not live to realize their early promise succeeds on both fronts.
- Harald Jähner, Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955. A fascinating exploration of German life during the end of one social order and the creation of another one; it covers everything from “rubble tourism,” mass migration and regional cultures to to jazz dance halls, sex toys, interior decoration and avant-garde art (here’s an excerpt for flavor).
- I read it together with Volker Ulrich’s Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich, a less thematic and more plainly narrative account of the period immediately before the one covered by Jähner that usefully sets the stage. Both books are great examples of how interesting the history of transitional and interstitial periods can be.
- Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. I had never previously cared enough about UK or Irish politics to educate myself on the Troubles of Northern Ireland, and I can’t remember why I decided to pick this one up. But I couldn’t put it down; the deeply reported detail is impressive and immersive, the stories compellingly told. I can’t speak to how better-informed readers might receive it, but for me it was eye-opening.
- William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist. A well-reported look at how working artists at the middle and low levels of fame actually make a living. The arts turn out to be an excellent lens through which to look at the 21st century service economy, and the lessons here are of broader interest.
- Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark. Is this the Great American Novel? It is, at least, a great telling of a classic 20th century American story, of someone from a small place who goes to a bigger place to pursue bigger dreams, and what they gain and lose along the way. Which is also my story and the story of so many people I know, American and otherwise.
- Gabrielle Zevin, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. Probably the most popular book on my list–I actually saw people reading it in the airport–and deservedly so: I found it utterly charming and free of cliché. What I enjoyed most was its combination of very contemporary material (video game designers) with a quite old-fashioned narrative voice, wry and opinionated.
- Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights. Not a great book, but for certain tastes a very pleasing one. The opening is awkward and the McGuffin around which the thriller plot revolves is ludicrously implausible. But the meat of the book is a very detailed process of solving desperate logistical problems in the Siberian winter. Great fun, in other words.
- Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land. What is usually called an “ambitious” novel, this yokes together quite different narrative strands written in modes of historical fiction, sci-fi and contemporary realism. Doerr pulls it off in a very satisfying way that is not at all gimmicky, in just lovely prose.
- Walter Jon Williams, Metropolitan. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future, but this 1995-vintage science fiction novel still seems fresh and strikingly contemporary: great technological power coexists with depressing social stagnation, its capabilities used mostly for bureaucracy and status-seeking.
- James Kestrel, Five Decembers. An excellent historical mystery revolving around the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with vivid evocations of wartime Hawaii and Hong Kong.
- Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room. A compact, concentrated novel about backpacking and missed connections. “He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.”