2012: The Final Countdown

on Sunday, December 30, 2012
Let me start with a confession. Try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to read Telegraph Avenue. I say that because I figure you would be expecting to see it somewhere on my list. It isn't. Maybe someday I will read it. Michael Chabon still is one of my favourite writers of all time. And it is about my other great love. Alas...

Other books I ought to have read but didn't (and perhaps would have loved if I actually did) include: Hostage by Elie Wiesel, Accelerated by Bronwen Hruska, Mountains Of The Moon by IJ Kay, Hologram For The King by Dave Eggars, Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie and The Round House by Louise Erdich. Shame on me, I know.

But enough of the jibber jabber. Here are the first nine of my Top 10 for 2012:

10. The Flame Alphabet - Ben Marcus. Why Ben Marcus? Why? After kicking off with the most exciting, mind-bending and straight up breathtaking opening few chapters of the past two decades you went and ruined it all with an expedition up your own sphincter. But I digress. The Flame Alphabet has the best post-apocalyptic set-up of all time. The language of children as a life-threatening disease? Genius. Parents fleeing their own kids, rejecting the societal norm of protection and nurture to save their own arses? Spectacular. A rip roaring adventure that manages to channel both JG Ballard and Cormac McCarthy, yet told in a perfectly unique voice? I bow at your feet. And, just when you think you've found the best book ever, it all falls apart? Oh why, Ben Marcus. Seriously, why? (But you still make my Top 10)

9. The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vasquez. With this, his third novel, Columbian Vasquez firmly stakes his claim as one of South America's most important writers. Once again he mines the dark edges of his country's history in a tale of a young couple swept up in Escobar's emerging drug cartel. A novel about naivety, sacrifice, betrayal and the violence that sometimes puts paid to even the most innocent of intentions. Moving, yet brutal.

8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain. I'm not quite as convinced as everyone else that this is Catch-22 of the Iraq War, but it is undoubtedly an exuberant satirical roast of all that gung-ho, celebrity-obsessed, politically-absurd America holds dear. Just the image of a bunch of befuddled Marines being whisked back home and made to parade around the country at football matches and ticker tape parades before being plonked back in the war zone was enough to bring on a smirk. The absurdity of it all would have me splitting my sides if it weren't so damn tragic.

7. A tie. This Is Life - Dan Rhodes and What In God's Name - Simon Rich. I was juggling which of these would go higher on my list before taking the easy way out (and allowing myself to crib an extra book into my top 10) and declaring a tie. Rhodes continues to dish out the quirky charm in this ode to serendipity and the pretentiousness of the art world. Never before has a naked man shitting in front of an audience seemed so funny. Equally enjoyable was Simon Rich's novel about the almost-destruction of mankind. God has lost faith in his creations and decides to wipe out the world (he wants to concentrate on opening an asian fusion restaurant in heaven instead) but two lowly angels make it their mission to prove there is hope for humanity. The only problem - they must make the two most socially awkward people you have ever seen fall in love. It's cheesy and kind of loopy, but the gags work, making What In God's Name the most pleasurable read of the year for me.

6. Hope: A Tragedy - Shalom Auslander. Speaking of funny, this one takes the cake. A completely batshit crazy story of a neurotic city Jew escaping to the country only to find Anne Frank alive, old, cranky and living in his attic. She pisses in the heating ducts, bangs on the ceiling, does her level best to drive him nuts... That is when she isn't desperately trying to write a sequel to her worldwide bestselling first book. You know the one. Auslander skewers so many of contemporary Jewry's holy cows that he might as well open his own Kosher abbatoir. Insanely hilarious!

5. The Fall of The Stone City - Ismail Kadare. I thought he was dead. Or at least I thought his talent had dried up. Whatever, Kadare's latest is among his best (and that's really saying something). When Hitler's army rolls into Albania, the first town it hits is Gjirokaster. The invaders expect the red carpet treatment. Instead they get bullets. The city looks set for destruction but a mysterious meeting between the local doctor and the German commander changes its fate. For years afterwards the locals debate what happened that night. In saving the city did the good doctor betray its people? Told in whispers and spurts of rumour, this amazing novel challenges concepts of loyalty, friendship and national identity.

4. We Are What We Pretend To Be - Kurt Vonnegut. For a bloke who carked it half a decade ago, Vonnegut sure is prolific. Six books in five years, two of them in 2012. Most living writers would be jealous. Just to rub salt into the wound, We Are What We Pretend To Be is the best thing he's done since he died. Consisting of two previously unpublished novellas, one from the very beginning of his career and one from the very end, it just proves that Vonnegut was a bloody genius from go to woe. And don't worry if you're not a fan of his usual whacky hijinks - the first novella owes more to John Steinbeck than Spike Milligan. As for the second... Holy crap that guy was nuts.

3. Melisande! What Are Dreams? - Hillel Halkin. You don't spend a lifetime translating the great Yiddish and Hebrew masters without having some of their brilliance rub off on you. And sure, it might take you seventy three years, but when you do put out that first novel it's probably going to be a killer. This melencholic story of a marriage in decline is one of the most tender meditations on the nature of human relations that I have ever read. Sad yet uplifting, perceptive yet innocent, Halkin's belated debut is one that will linger in your heart as much as your mind.

2. The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers. I should put it out there that any of my top four books could have been number one, so close was the competition. I toyed with putting Kevin Powers's stunning debut at the very top but for reasons that will become clear tomorrow it was just pipped at the post. The Yellow Birds is the kind of literary revelation that heralds a new messiah. Powers draws on his own life as a poet and active soldier to craft a riveting tale of one man's struggle to come to terms with the death of his friend during service in Iraq. Not a single war cliche pollutes the perfect prose. The emotion is raw, the anger palpable, the depth of humanity staggering. If you are not torn apart by this novel, you have no soul.

Check back tomorrow for my Oh So Surprising Number One.


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