The challenge at this time of year is, well, entertaining the in-laws (or the spouses, to be fair to in-laws). In this week’s Ragged Claws column, I mention Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History. But let’s not go there unless we need to. First there is an even greater challenge, one I face each December: choosing books for this summer reading/Christmas gift guide.
It’s something I like doing but I do fret about forgetting books that should be remembered. As you read this, I’m at home waiting for an email that blasts “How could you leave out X?!” I also want to cover books that will appeal to different readers, not just myself. It can’t all be about horseracing, I understand.
So, as usual, the following is based on books I’ve read, reviews of ones I haven’t, prizes and sales, talking to friends and checking “books of the year” lists here and there. I’ve also peeked at our own best books wrap-up, the picks of local writers and critics, which we will run next week.
I want to start, however, with my two books of the year, a decision I found easier than usual. Both are international. My favourite novel was Imagine Me Gone by American writer Adam Haslett. It’s a beautiful, moving exploration of a fractured family shadowed by the father’s suicide. My favourite nonfiction book — and indeed my book of the year — was one Peter Carey brought to my attention: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by London-based Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. It’s a complex, aching memoir of his decision to return home to try to learn, 20 years after the event, what happened to his father, who was an opponent of Muammar Gaddafi.
There was a row two months ago when an Italian journalist published a piece revealing the “real” name of bestelling Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante. Well, whatever her name is, most of us think of her as Elena Ferrante, and I think will do so even more if we read Frantumaglia, a collection of her correspondence with publishers, readers and journalists. It’s an absorbing explanation of why this writer insists on anonymity, and also reveals a lot about the inspiration for and thinking behind her remarkable novels. Even more authors go about thinking in The Writers Room, in which novelist Charlotte Wood collects the interviews she has conducted with fellow authors. In Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson, there are museum and gallery tributes by authors such as Julian Barnes, Aminatta Forna, Margaret Drabble and Tim Winton. Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller, is a “journey through the greatest fictional worlds ever created”. Beautifully illustrated, it’s a critical consideration of works from The Odyssey and The Tempest to the works of authors such as Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood. David Foster Wallace, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie. George Orwell is in Literary Wonderlands but the book I want to read about him is John Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography. Sutherland had the idea for this book after he lost his own sense of smell, permanently. Rereading Orwell, he was struck by his focus on smells. He started thinking of the “scent narratives” in Orwell’s books. Considering a passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith, in a flat, smells the “sharp reek of sweat” of “some person not present at the moment”, Sutherland writes: “You need a nose a bloodhound would envy to track the perspiratory reek of someone who has been out of the house for hours.”