Listmania – Galey’s Best Books of 2013

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January 2, 2014 by brettdgale


Long before most of us know what Guinness is (a rather nasty medicinal concoction masquerading as beer) we know what the Guinness Book of Records is.  Particularly in our youth it’s a source of wonder and exotica.  But at its heart it is a list, and human beings are obsessed with lists.

One of my favorite books as a kid was The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace.  It was a veritable treasure trove of useless but intriguing information all bundled together in list after glorious list.  I mean what kid (or adult for that matter) wouldn’t drool over lists as eclectic as 25 Wonderful Collective Nouns for Animals or 7 Famous Men who were Full-time or Part-time Virgins, what about, 15 famous events that happened in the Bathtub or the 10 Rarest US Comic Books? Magic stuff when you are a kid and my inner kid came out when I found a copy of the 1978 first edition in a second-hand bookshop. Lists, lists lists.

In a fantastic 2012 interview with Der Spiegel the great writer and academic Umberto Eco called the human desire to create lists as the “origin of culture” and poignantly summarised why we love lists so much, “That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

Eco makes the point that lists and literature have often gone together dating back to Homer but I love NPR’s take on it in their Top Ten Reasons People Like Lists and that is that Shakespeare introduced us to the word list.

At this time of year of course we become obsessed with making lists – lists of New Year’s resolutions, lists of those we want to send Christmas cards to, lists of jobs to do around the house on our summer holidays and for those of us involved in the book reading business, lists of our favourite books of the year just past.

Those of us who compile such lists do so as a way of sharing our love for the written word with lovers, friends, acquaintances and faithful blog readers.  For instance The Largehearted Boy blog has compiled a list of all the best “best ofs”. 

Over the past couple of years my annual love has been Nick Hornby chronicling his reading life in a lovely series of books from The Complete Polysyllabic Spree through to Stuff I’ve Been Reading and More Baths Less Talking.  I’m a great fan of these compilations which have given me many inspirations for my own reading life.

My other faves at this time of year are the New York Times (including the top ten) and Guardian best book lists – giving me great inspiration for the reading year ahead, and this year I’m pleased to see The Guardian has done a critics and writers best of as well.

Of course those lists cover off on books published in 2013 and as readers of this blog will know my own reading preferences tend to jump from year to year so my annual list is not necessarily limited to things published in the last 12 months. Given we still have a few weeks of the school holidays to go and for most a lot of time sitting around on a beach just waiting for that book to read, herewith is Galey’s Best Books of 2013.

Book of the Year: The Orphan Masters Son – Adam Johnson

No other word can describe this book except brilliant.  Johnson has successfully transferred all our deepest fears of the dystopian nightmare that is North Korea into a spellbinding hero’s journey.  Along the way the book’s protagonist Jun Do (the “son” of a manager of an orphanage) is transformed from just another cog in the North Korean machine to a symbol of vital humanity in a land where humanity is routinely snuffed out and where fact and fiction are indistinguishable. As one of Johnson’s characters says, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

Equally in Johnson’s novel one doesn’t need to know where fact ends and fiction begins to enjoy the journey.  The truth is that the “Hermit Kingdom” is called that for a reason and only the dark recesses of our imaginations can really illuminate its goings on.   For those who think Johnson’s literary imagination is too far-fetched just ask Kim Un-jong’s uncle. That’s why perhaps the highest praise for Johnson’s triumph has come from old Korea hands who’ve spent time there.  To them Johnson captures the oppressive pantomime ambiance of the DPRK perfectly.  Johnson’s portrait of North Korea is an atmospheric tour de force.

Like all great works of fiction Johnson’s work has multilayered effect on our emotions – it bounces back and forth from the satiric to the harrowing, the frankly humorous to the elegiac and yet all the way through we catch a glimmer of what it truly means to be alive.  This may become a controversial call, but, this deserved Pulitzer Prize winner, warrants a place in the top shelf of dystopian fiction alongside two of my favorite books of all time Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

A close run second.  The best way to portray this (fantasy? magical realist? paranormal? Sci-fi road trip?) doorstopper is as mythology meets modern America. The incomparable Neil Gaiman taking us on a unique journey through the American way of religion. I feel some exposition of story is necessary here but that may only have you asking WTF? But here goes:  Our soon-to-be hero, Shadow, is paroled from prison just after the death of his wife. On his sorrowful trip back to his home town he meets a stranger who as it turns out is the Norse God Odin – brought over with the Vikings who discovered America and all but ignored as Americans began worshipping new gods indeed, as Odin says “There are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon.”.  Odin (or Mr Wednesday as he’s known here) enlists young Shadow in a mission – a war between the old gods and the new.

At least that’s the premise. Told you, there’d be a fair bit of WTF? Yet this is a first rate story from a first rate storyteller, and I’m not sure any review can quite do justice to this amazing novel, so take me on trust, do yourself a favour and grab a copy. The best thing to do is, hold onto your hat and go along for the ride and if you read only one book over the summer holidays make it this one.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

“Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge/Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner/Welcome to the new world order/Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest/No home no job no peace no rest/The highway is alive tonight/But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes/I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light/Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad” –Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad

Ol’ Brucey’s song performed live with an amazing guitar duo from Springsteen and Tom Morello (check out the Youtube video) finally got me off my butt to read this.  Like so many classics you suddenly say – geez why’d I wait so long. And there is a reason this is called a classic.  That’s because it may just be the perfect novel in every sense.  Written with a moral force and clarity of purpose very few writers could aspire to, let alone achieve, The Grapes of Wrath demands that you take its message seriously.  That message is a searing indictment of the iniquitous indifference of the institutions of power, be they governments or corporations, towards the starving masses in the Great Depression. It is message worth remembering over and over.

The story of the Joad family’s desperate journey from the dustbowl of Oklahoma seeking non-existent work in the lush fields of California is told in a brilliantly structured, propulsive narrative that shifts from polemic critique to heartrending tragedy and makes this one of the greatest American novels.

The Great, Great, Great Gatsby or East Egg boiled, fried and scrambled

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

My favourite novel.  Of course Baz’ movie prompted my own homage to the sheer genius of Fitzgerald in a blog post earlier in the year.  As a friend remarked my post may have been less a critique of the book and movie and more a critique of my own love affair with it.  Read it for yourself to find out why Fitzgerald stands head and shoulders above all others.

The Great Gatsby – A Graphic Adaption by Nicki Greenberg

When the Book Club decided to cheat on its own rules and read Gatsby, well, as discussed above, I’d already re-read it.  Thus, I turned to Nicki Greenberg’s humorously clever graphic adaption for comfort. This reimagining of Fitzgerald’s classic stays faithful to the original but the exquisitely rendered images bring a new life and depth to an old favourite.  I’m now looking forward to Greenberg’s adaption of Hamlet.

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby – Sarah Churchwell

Meanwhile, Sarah Churchwell has decided to examine not only the real life events that may have prompted the writing of Gatsby but Fitzgerald’s own dissolute life as well. This well written expose is a penetrating biography both of an author and his masterwork. There’s more than a little Zelda and Scott in Tom and Daisy.  “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. Amazing to recall that Gatsby’s greatness was only recognised long after its author’s death.

So this is what it feels like to be middle-aged? Whoever said that 50 was the new 20 was full of shit.  These two books encapsulate what it feels like to be a middle aged geezer.  As the clock ticks over on the downward slope of life, men’s two greatest fears become ill-health and unemployment. The loss of control and attack on the masculine sense of self identity caused by these ruptures in ordinary life are artfully captured in these two novels which are so different yet so alike – the stories of men on the verge of a mid-life crisis.

A Hologram for the King – Dave Eggers

For some reason the name Dave Eggers inspires a type of fear and loathing in certain of my book loving friends. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s the incredibly pretentious title of his first book – but to me he’s always delivered.  This is the story of 54 year old Alan Clay, struggling to make the most of the latest in a long line of temporary jobs since his permanent job collapsed as a result of the global financial crisis. His most recent involves hanging around a phantom city in the Saudi desert waiting to show King Abdullah the latest in communications technology.   The King, like Godot, fails to turn up day after day and thus begins another downward spiral for Alan in a place so alien he may as well be on the moon.

Eggers writes with a sparse style and a pace of narrative that keeps us as disoriented as Alan.  A Hologram for the King captures what it feels like to be dislocated by age and place, and can be easily read as a parable of post GFC America’s place in the modern world – dislocated, disoriented and grasping to find its way.

The Guts – Roddy Doyle

I’ve never read The Commitments, nor to my embarrassment have I ever even seen the movie. Therefore, when this (long after) sequel to The Commitments appeared in the Bookclub reading list I was a little apprehensive at starting a series midway through.  I needn’t have been.  One doesn’t need to know any of the backstory to enjoy this first class yarn. A warm story of family and friendship as 47 year old Jimmy battles both bowel cancer and a declining economy (that fooking GFC again) and embarks on one last crack with his mates.  The rapid fire dialogue (perfectly capturing the idiom and mannerisms of the Irish working class) and laugh out loud humour make The Guts a most enjoyable read.

I Love a Sunburnt Country Australian books get a relatively scathing treatment from the Canadian, Welsh, Greek and American/Irish members of the Boys Book Club. Yet these two bewdy’s inspired by the Aussie bush stand as tall as a river red gum.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

There was a time – particularly in movies but also in literature – when suspense and fear could be invoked by a word or a look rather than a splattering of blood and guts.  In the hands of the right author an atmosphere of unease can be made to slowly envelope the reader. Joan Lindsay is such an author in this tale of a girls’ school picnic gone horribly wrong.  By brilliantly evoking both a glorious summer’s day and the brooding menace of the monolithic rock in whose shadow the picnic takes shape Lindsay creates an air of suspense in what is arguably Australia’s most famous literary mystery.

Bereft – Chris Wormesley

Recently de-mobbed from World War One, Quinn Walker returns home to his small NSW country town to face not just the Spanish flu epidemic, but the lingering effects of an unspeakable crime he was accused of committing ten years earlier.  This is a gothic thriller whose characters and plot are literally shaped by the twisted nature of the Australian landscape.  The writing is taut and the tale so gripping that you will be finished before you even know you’ve started.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

This hauntingly beautiful children’s novel deals with the Holocaust in an arresting and unusual way.  In its telling of the unlikely friendship between a German officer’s son and a Jewish child prisoner it’s a heartfelt examination of how the innocence of the young can transcend, but never escape, the brutalities of war, hatred and evil.  The ending packs a punch to the guts that will leave you reeling.

The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

Now this is just plain haunting. As many long-time readers of this annual list would know there are perennial authors who pop up year after year as I work my way through both their back catalogue and, if they are still writing, their new stuff as well, – Chabon, Roth, Zola, appear perennially. Despite the fact that in many respects Ian McEwan has been perpetuating the same trick on readers for the past 40 years – sardonically observed, often twisted observations of the dark belly lying beneath the veneer of respectability, with a savage twist at the end – he constantly makes the cut.  Because, to me his sparse naturalist prose has the same allure as coke does to Nigella, I just have to keep going back for more. However, this book, McEwan’s first novel, may be one only for those with the acquired taste.   An oedipal examination of what four teenagers get up to when their parents die (other than bury their mother in the cellar). Weird, yet utterly compelling and morally daring, one glimpses the mature McEwan to come.



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