Best fiction, non-fiction and television for 2011

I’m going to do my best ofs in two parts, the first, this one, is about books and television, the second one, which will, in the strange world of blogs, be above this one, discusses several posts I’ve come across during the year that have fired up my mind.

Best novel: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. No competition. It’s a novel told in, if I recall correctly, twenty-three parts, each of which functions as a short story, each one told from a different perspective, jumping forwards and backwards through time, creating, piece by piece, a world that is larger than its parts. I don’t normally like this sort of thing. The change in perspective, I find, has a tendency to rob the reader of their ability to connect with any given character, but Egan does something (I’m not sure what, but I want to find out) so that, rather than getting a fragmented collection of stories, we get an overlap that pierces to the core of both the characters’, and our own, lives. An exceeding beautiful book.

A safe choice you might say, in that it won the Pulitzer, but sometimes the prize givers get it right, as they did, I believe, with Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I was reading some quite heavy non-fiction and came to this slim novel as a palate cleanser. What a delight it proved to be, the narrator winding us back down through the past, finding different meanings and interpretations with each turn of the staircase. It seems barely possible to have squeezed so much into so few words and yet have it feel clear and concise.

Several other books deserve mention. Organising and interviewing for Outspoken I have to read a lot of books during the year in a way that I have not been accustomed to, sometimes three or four novels by one person (previously I’ve allowed books to come to me, as it were, now I have lists). I particularly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Run. In this novel, Patchett stays with an event for a remarkable amount of time, she uses a single incident to introduce and develop a rich cast of characters, promiscuously shifting perspective between them, and yet, like Egan above, giving them all lives I found myself caring about. Patchett was, by the way, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever encountered, never mind having the pleasure of sharing a stage with. I also read a lot of Alex Miller and can recommend Journey to the Stone Country and Autumn Laing, his new novel. Further afield I loved Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petersen, set in the mountains on the border between Norway and Sweden, as well as Mortals, by Norman Rush. Talk about richness and density of prose and staying in a scene, milking every last drop from it. A remarkable novel indeed, set in Africa.

Non-fiction: I can’t really separate out one and say it’s the best. I’ve recently read the first two volumes of Thomas Keneally’s The Australians, a very different way of relating history. I’ve heard it said that it’s a novelist’s view and this might be the case but many historians try to weave a narrative through the events they describe. Keneally spends time with individuals, not necessarily the Great Men, and through their stories hopes to illustrate the development of the nation. I found it fascinating, but the two books together, at 967 pages, are a big read and they’re heavy, too, to hold up in bed at night. A good argument for the ebook, although the hardbacks are very handsome. I was very taken by The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands, and the last book from Tony Judt, that great historian of our time, Ill Fares the Land. Somewhere in there I managed Life by Keith Richards and friend, which also presents a stark picture of our time, or his time in the early years of the Rolling Stones. Beside my bed right now are two other non-fiction works, impatiently waiting for me to finish Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (struggling a bit here Patrick, sorry, these long diversions into punctuation-less prose make me drop off to sleep): How to Live, about the life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell and The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, in which he discusses how and why violence has declined. I’ll drink to that.

Television series also deserve a mention. The longer series give writers and directors an opportunity to develop character in a way that is novelistic, but also its own form. I watched several this year: Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, (Peter Brandt Nielsen) that dark tale from Copenhagen with the wonderful Sofie Grabol as the detective lead, although surely almost equally important was Bjarne Hendriksen as the brooding father.

Taken with the female detective lead and wanting to practice my French I also went over to look Engrenages, or Spiral, (Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert) but while loving Caroline Proust’s fiery detective I was put off by the crimes on which it focused. The French seem to love the gritty reality of violence, they relish bringing the camera in close on the dismembered bodies. Across the Atlantic there were two very different shows: Treme, Series Two, from David Simon, which I think was better than series one. One of the things I love about this drama is that it’s not interested in violence as a plot driver, the concern is music in its many and varied forms. Lastly can I recommend Community Series One and Two, (Dan Harmon). Fifty half hour sit-com shows of tremendous energy and humour starring Joel McHale and Danny Pudi. I came to these full of cynicism about American humour and found myself laughing out loud, delighting in the freshness of their approach. I particularly recommend the episodes about playing pool and the first series paintball.

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