It has now become a December tradition - as keenly awaited by my readers, no doubt, as the coming of Father Christmas himself - for me to post a list of my favourite books of the year. This year I did less reading than usual because of a new addition to the family; I seem to more or less invariably fall asleep within 20 minutes of beginning reading a book these days, in whatever circumstance and at whatever time of day. Hopefully this will resolve itself as the years go on and it's not the incipience of old farthood. But in any event, I did manage to finish some books at least. Here are the best 5 (cheating a little bit by including some from the same series) with exerpts from my Goodreads reviews:
1. The Third Reich at War, by Richard Evans.
Each of the three volumes of this trilogy is excellent, but this is probably the best, if only for the sheer feat that it represents - condensing so much historical incident into an (admittedly long) 760 pages. What is perhaps most notable is its insistence on the centrality of the Holocaust to WWII. Quite rightly, Evans eschews much in the way of military history; the war was lost as soon as the Nazis invaded Russia simply by dint of lack of resources. The real story is the way in which an entire society was transformed from the centre of European civilisation to a nihilistic, moral void in the space of less than a decade. Evans recognises this, and brings the sheer enormity of it home in a very calm and understated way.
2. Perelandra and That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis.
[On Perelandra]: As well as being a profound exploration and elucidation of the concept of the Fall, this is also a beautifully written and paced book, in which CS Lewis reveals himself to be a prose stylist of the first rate. I suspect that one has to at least be open to Christian thought and teachings to really enjoy it thoroughly, but I found the plot and worldbuilding riveting independent of the theology.
[On That Hideous Strength]: This is what being counter-cultural really looks like. A book utterly and profoundly at odds with all of the cultural developments of the past 100 years - and which, read in 2022, seems almost shockingly subversive as a consequence. It's brilliant, and the ending is second only to The Ill-Made Knight in its eucatastrophic beauty.
3. The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe.
[On The Sword of the Lictor]: I was entertained by, but a little sceptical about, the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun, but this third part has to rank in its own right as one of the greatest pieces of fantasy literature, full of invention, beauty, wonder, intrigue and - most importantly - emotional payoff. Where I felt in the previous two books that Gene Wolfe was using smoke and mirrors to create the mere appearance of depth, here the richness and subtlety of the narrative just can't be denied. But it's a flat-out page-turner to boot. A brilliant work.
[On The Citadel of the Autarch]: A supremely satisfying end to the series, which very subtly reveals the character's "arc" from callow youth to mature man in a way few writers could accomplish. It also shows that the four books taken together are probably one of the great Christian allegories, although one does not have to be a Christian to really enjoy them as one probably would, for instance, to appreciate CS Lewis's Space Trilogy or John Bunyan. Severian is a pilgrim for the late 20th century, and his tale ultimately one of redemption - but if you're not into that, it has plenty to bewitch and bedazzle even the most hardened SF/Fantasy fan.
4. Ports of Call by Jack Vance.
There may be something deep going on in this apparently largely 'plotless' book, but equally, it may simply be that Vance had reached the end of his career and had nothing else to prove, and decided just to write things he enjoyed writing. For a Vance fan, either way the result is a sheer pleasure - a funny, whimsical, at times beautiful, and at times disturbing, tribute to the wonderful feat of imagination that is the Gaean Reach.
5. The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola.
A lot of the symbolism, allusions and political satire present in this novel are lost on a modern non-French audience, but this is probably for the best, as it means one can simply enjoy a good story, well told - which, for the most part, it is. Zola's prejudices are obvious (like a lot of intellectuals, he clearly reserves a special place in hell for the petite bourgeoisie), and there are moments of hand-waving in order that the plot reaches its climax, but on the whole it is a captivating narrative full of intrigue and excitement.
So there we have it. Looking back, it was a year partly dominated by Christian allegory/apologia, for which I, no pun intended, do not apologise. I was glad to be converted (again, no pun intended) both to the Space trilogy and The Book of the New Sun, which share the same feature of a slowish and slightly dubious beginning before turning everything round in the second half. It was also a year dominated by Vance; I think I read in the region of 15 of his novels this year. Ports of Call is not his best book, but it was without doubt the book of his I read this year that I enjoyed most - especially the character of Dame Hester. It is sheer entertainment from start to finish, and full of laugh-out-loud moments. As for Zola, what can one say? These canonical writers - Dickens, Zola, Trollope, etc. - are still read for a reason. They're actually rather good.
I should probably also give an honourable mention to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which would have been number 6 if I'd had a Top 6 (my review: The introduction to the text in my Oxford World's Classics edition of this book calls it 'at once terrifying, pitiful and funny', and that summarises it well. Other reviewers play down the last of these descriptors, but the elements of dark comedy are important to mention - Hogg is by no means playing with a straight bat, here.
With all of that said, it is one of the strangest novels I have read, defying any attempt at easy categorisation, and constantly playing games with the reader - clear proof that 'post-modernism' was old hat even in the 19th century. Is Wringhim's companion Satan, or a figment of his psychotic imagination? I defy anybody to be able to make a convincing case one way or the other.).
A final nod also goes to Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History. Goodness knows I tried, but it remains on my shelf, a bookmark placed forlornly about half-way through its length. I'll get to the end one day, Thomas, I promise.
I read Zola for the first time this year and really enjoyed both Germinal and The Masterpiece, though the latter may require an existing interesting in painting and the art world to really enjoy. Glad you came around of Book of the New Sun, feel like next time I reread it I need to think more about the christian allegory aspect of it.ReplyDelete
I definitely want to press on and read the rest of the Rougons books though I think there are about 20, so it will take a while!Delete
Great list. I love love love Vance. Just so solid, comfort food for the day dreaming soul.ReplyDelete
Definitely. You reminded me I want to re-read Lyonesse.Delete
Perelandra is my favorite of Lewis's books (as well as his own favorite, tied with Till We Have Faces). Whenever I am asked, "If you could live in any fantasy world, which would it be?", I unhesitatingly answer, "Perelandra, no question about it!" Talk about an intoxication of the senses.ReplyDelete
Yes, the descriptions are stunning. I think CS Lewis's overt Christianity make literary critics snobbish about him, but Perelandra is really a prose masterpiece.Delete
I also read the Space trilogy for the first time this year, great stuff! Perelandra had maybe the creepiest depiction of a demonic possession I've encountered in fiction, and as you said, That Hideous Strength was deliciously/uncomfortably critical of much that is still going on in the "modern" world. I also thought That Hideous Strength did a great job portraying someone falling into worse and worse behavior as simultaneously sympathetic and entirely his own fault, which made how things turned out all the more compelling (trying to avoid spoilers here!)ReplyDelete
Totally agree. I really like that character's redemptive arc. At the end it makes total sense and you can see how Lewis has set the whole thing up, but he nonetheless keeps you guessing for a long time.Delete
Very nice reviews as always!ReplyDelete
Great to see one of Vance's late-period meditations get some love. In some ways I don't know that it matters if there's intentional authorly "depth" there, or whether it's just the inherent of depth of a wise old storyteller. Either way it's special.
I agree that Lictor is where New Sun kicks into high gear. I think I learned the word "bathos" on this blog. The end of the scene between Severian and Typhon is in my mind the greatest use of that tone I've ever read. Perfection.
I started that Hideous Strength, but I couldn't get into it. The message just felt too on bluntly straightforward and on the nose to me. Sort of the opposite of something like Ports of Call where the themes is important, but seem beyond articulation except through story. I'm probably under-reading it.
Carlyle took me close to two years to muscle through. A monumental achievement though. I was often deeply moved (and I say this as a staunch republican lol).
The whole Typhon sequence is just so brilliant. Love it.Delete
I get what you mean about That Hideous Strength but it is worth perservering with. You can see what's coming right from the start, but it goes in some very unexpected directions, and the characterisations are really excellent.
Don't get me wrong about Carlyle. It's stupendous. But it requires so much focus and concentration, and when you only have a maximum of 20 minutes before falling asleep as I do, that comes at a premium!
I'll give THS another shot, but it might be that Lewis's style just don't click with me. My loss.Delete
Hey did you get that copy of Wyst i mailed hopefully in your direction?