2011 was my personal best year yet for books – 55, although that includes four graphic novels and two quarterly essays. Here’s my annual list of the best books I read for the year (not the best books that were published in the year).

10. A Little History of the World

What we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.

History is a huge, complex and difficult subject, which is why we often prefer to learn about it from blockbuster films or period dramas and thus come away somewhat misinformed. You are never going to get a comprehensive understanding of human history unless you dedicate your life to it, but if you have a merely casual interest, A Little History of the World is not a bad place to start. Commendable for his understanding that history is more about opinions, attitudes and how societies relate to each other than it is about dates and battles, Gombrich brings this book to life with the air of a scholarly grandfather telling his children a story by the fireplace.

A Little History of the World at The Book Depository

9. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

“Welcome to England!”

The concept of having thousands of fictional characters stuffed into one world didn’t greatly appeal to me as much as I thought it would, but the second volume of Alan Moore’s thought experiment is largely a retelling of War of the Worlds, and is terrifyingly brilliant. That means it’s largely piggybacking off the success of another work, but whatever. I do intend to read the original someday.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at The Book Depository

8. The Testament of Jessie Lamb

I felt as flat and heavy as if a steamroller were on top of me. I just wanted it to end.

It can be diffcult – almost impossible – to writte a novel from a teenager’s perspective without it becoming an insufferable moanfest. And indeed, The Testament of Jessie Lamb features all the uncertainty and naivitie and foolishness and foot-stamping that one would expect from a novel narrated by a teenage girl. Yet it’s also a much darker novel, about the intersection between our acknowledgement that sacrifices must be made for the greater good, and our hostile unwillingness to actually let our loved ones make them. There’s also a darker, implicit undercurrent running through this book – or at least I thought there was – about Jessie’s real motives.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb at The Book Depository

7. The English Patient

Give me a map and I’ll build you a city. Give me a pencil and I’ll draw you a room in South Cairo, desert charts on the wall. Always the desert was among us. I could wake and raise my eyes to the map of old settlements along the Mediterranean coast – Gazala, Tobruk, Mersa Matruh – and south of that the hand-painted wadis, and surrounding those the shades of yellowness that we invaded, tried to lose ourselves in.

A difficult book to read after seeing the masterful film, since the scenes are often identical and the visual version plays itself out in your mind as you read. But Ondaatje’s novel is undoubtedly one of the finest of the last decade (I cannot understand why it shared the Booker with Sacred Hunger), a melancholy tale of desert exploration and forbidden love and Italian castles and bombs raining down on England. His lyrical prose style is, quite simply, beautiful.

The English Patient at The Book Depository

6. The Road To Wigan Pier

On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way that they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost forever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole.

Lord knows how a book about the miserable conditions of the working class in Depression-era North England managed to be funny, but somehow Orwell managed it. He also manages to be a spoilt Southern lad turning his nose up at the characteristics and mannerisms of the wretched poor without ever seeming like a jerk. The Road To Wigan Pier is, as always with his books, “both an excellent book and a valuable social document,” and the fact that Orwell can keep your interest even when discussing the vanished political situations of the 1930s is a testament to his ability as a writer.

The Road To Wigan Pier at The Book Depository

5. Homage To Catalonia

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal Weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

George Orwell went and fought for something he deeply believed in. As so often happens with things we deeply believe in, it became corrupted, and he became more gradually disillusioned with it until it came to the point where he was actually a fugitive and was forced to flee the country. Homage To Catalonia is a deeply political book, and can be difficult going for the modern reader, but like A Road To Wigan Pier it is well worth the effort. It contains not just an account of its own time, but a deeper examination of human experience. Being a stranger in a foreign land, watching your beliefs be compromised and corrupted by the subversion of powerful forces, and the final prescient remarks mixed in with the nostalgic joy of returning home.

Homage To Catalonia at The Book Depository

4. Maus

“I know this is insane, but sometimes I wish I had been in Auschwitz with my parents, so I could really know what they lived through.”

We have reached saturation point with the Holocaust – with all of World War II, in fact. At least I have. The sights and sounds and facts and feelings have bombarded me my entire life, and the generation before me as well. It holds about as much reality to me as the War of the Ring, and stirs no emotion within me. This is a sad thing, but the answer is not yet more Holocaust and world War II stories.

The reason I found Maus to be so engaging was that it is not simply a Holocaust story, relying on its own historical weight for emotional punch, like so many Oscar bait movies. I’s about growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor, about spending your whole life hearing about the horrors of something you can’t even imagine. It’s about dealing with someone who, despite being a victim of a terrible crime, is a bit of an asshole. It’s about coping with the long and far-reaching ramifications of something as huge and terrible of the Holocaust. It’s about having creative and financial success after writing a series of comic books about a genocide you never experienced. It’s about many, many things, all of them ripple effects of the 20th century’s greatest crime. Maus is an elegant, thoughtful and profoundly sad masterpiece.

Maus at The Book Depository

3. The Sisters Brothers

He stood there weeping and watching us go, while behind him Lucky Paul entered and collapsed the prospector’s tent, and I thought, “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.”

A very, very weird book, flippant and off-beat and darkly humourous and however many thousand adjectives various reviewers used to describe it. The best word, I believe, is “”unique. It is certainly a funny book, a dark comedy, and yet it is also entirely serious and, towards the end, even touching. It is undoubtedly a literary book, and one worthy of Booker shortlisting – better than The Sense of an Ending, certainly.

The Sisters Brothers at The Book Depository

2. The White Tiger

Now, what happens in your typical Murder Weekly story – or Hindi film, for that matter? A poor man kills a rich man. Good. Then he takes the money. Good. Then he gets dreams in which the dead man pursues him with bloody fingers, saying Mur-der-er, Mur-der-er.
Doesn’t happen like that in real life… The real nightmare you get is the other kind. You toss about in the bed dreaming that you haven’t done it – that you lost your nerve and let Mr. Ashok get away – that you’re still in Delhi, still the servant of another man, and then you wake up.

There are seven billion people in the world. One billion of those live in luxury in the developed regions of Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. Seven billion of those live in the less developed regions of Asia, Africa and South America, in circumstances ranging from the reasonably comfortable middle-class of China to the crushing, squalid poverty of Sudan.

This is not fair.

It’s an issue entirely separate from that of political oppression. If you were to pick the most wretched nation on Earth, you might well choose North Korea. But even in India – the world’s largest democracy, albeit a corrupt one – millions of people live in their own filth, with no hope of anything better. They live in an almost medieval world, which we cannot even imagine in our world of skyscrapers and frappucinos and iPhones.

The White Tiger is a novel about those worlds colliding. It’s not what I’d call an enjoyable story; it’s an allegory, a book with a definite point to it, and a book that I believe is absolutely essential reading, but which I will probably never read again. It’s a book about a man born into dire poverty who realises how bitterly unjust that fate is – and who, after much agonising soul-searching, murders an innocent man in order to lift himself out of that fate. I can’t sum it up any better than I did in my review:

Who among us truly knows what horrible things we would be capable of doing to escape Balram’s fate? Who among us has the right to judge him?

A dark and gripping novel about the greatest injustice that exists in our world.

The White Tiger at The Book Depository

1. Jamrach’s Menagerie

A mess of them like eels slipping wormily over one another in a muddy tussle over a foul carcass, a red and pink rag trailing festoons, the grinning head of which, half severed and hanging back, revealed it to be one of their own. Another watching, a huge thing, solid and impassive as a rock, huge, trunk-like legs planted before it.

Jamrach’s Menagerie begins on an exciting wave of youthful exuberance, adventure and discovery, and plunges into an abyss of horrific misery. Eight-year old Jaffy Brown is rescued from an escaped tiger in Dickensian London, and is given a job tending to the menagerie of the tiger’s owner. A few years later he finds himself enlisted on a sea voyage to capture a Komodo dragon, forming bonds with his fellow teenage sailors and his best friend Tim as they get up to all manner of exciting escapades. The Azores, a whale hunt, tropical islands, the prize of the dragon…

…and everything collapses. Jaffy and his friends are embroiled in a living nightmare, every step and every page dragging them further along a hellish path of survival. In the hands of a lesser author this would seem like an incongruous twist. In the hands of Carol Birch, it struck me as realistic. We go through our lives, we enjoy ourselves, we have fun, and then disaster and terror and the explicit, visceral nature of the physical world we live in looms up out of nowhere. The routine of life masks that reality like our skin masks our organs.

I have never read a scene more heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching than that which occurs between Tim and Jaffy at the climax of this novel. I literally couldn’t put it down. Carol Birch was robbed of a Booker prize.

Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository

Advertisements