Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Best Books 2012



I finished my last book of 2012 yesterday a few hours before midnight: the first volume of the poetry of Álvaro de Campos. So I can finally do my Best List Post.

I only read 104 books in 2012. This was by no means a good year. I need to go back to 2008 for a year with a worse rating: 103 books. I myself feel I didn’t devote myself a lot to literature this year. This in spite of the fact I started keeping a book blog in 2012. But the first half of 2012 saw me rather lazy and feeling indifferent to literature. Instead I idled away many hours catching up with TV series, keeping up week-long marathons on Spooks, Romanzo Criminale, Psychoville, and more. I even found time to play a videogame, and I absolutely detest videogames; but for some reason the detective videogame L.A. Noir exerted a huge fascination on me for about two weeks. All in all, too many hours I could have employed reading instead. Fortunately on the second half I got out of this stupor and started making up for the lost time. I think another reason I read fewer books is because I tackled many books of the vulgarly denominated door-stopping variety: Moby Dick, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, La Saga/Fuga de J.B., The Sleepwalkers were all pretty long or longish books. Nevertheless I’m rather proud of the results of 2012.

What follows is a highlight of the best books I read, divided by categories:

Novels:

2012 was the year I read my final Eça de Queiroz novel, The Mystery of the Road of Sintra, which was also the first novel he wrote, a lovely parody of the nascent detective novel. Eça is one of my favourite novelists so it’s like a chapter in my life that closes. From now only his non-fiction, which is also rather delectable. After having read all his masterful novels, arriving at this careless and wild piece of juvenilia was very enjoyable. Margaret Jull Costa is currently translating it for Dedalus Books and I hope everyone reads it when it comes out in English. As I finished Eça I was discovering Raul Brandão for the first time, and his philosophical and oneiric novel Húmus continues to haunt me with its distillation of existential angst tempered with irony. Brandão wrote the novel Fernando Pessoa would have written if he were a novelist, in fact it’s the spiritual companion of The Book of Disquiet. I also the pleasure of reading two Franz Kafka novels, TheCastle and The Man Who Disappeared (or Amerika, a title I prefer), which, adding to The Trial, which I read years ago, means I’ve read all his novels: now that’s a feat I’m proud of. I hope to read his diaries in 2013. Another book I’m proud of having read but I’m not sure I loved was Moby Dick: I interrupted my reading because it was boring and in the interregnum I took the time to read the majestic War and Peace. After finishing this gigantic novel I realized I had no excuse to leave Moby Dick unfinished so I picked it up again, and I’m glad I did it because that book has some of the best pages in the whole of English-language literature. But what a chore sometimes! Definitely more entertaining was Wonderful, Wonderful Times, a caustic character study of a young sociopath is post-war Austria. Funny in a less deranged way was The Counterlife, a witty examination about the limits of truth and fiction. I also joined an African Literature Reading Challenge and had a lot of fun reading The Return of the Water Spirit, a very good portrayal of modern Angola. Likewise I did my own theme month and ended up re-reading the Kafkaesque novel All The Names, and it was better the second time. Not to ignore Saramago’s eternal rival, I also read Knowledge of Hell, which left me exhausted but delighted with its hysterical rage and dark humour. Reading La Saga/Fuga de J.B. in Spanish was a daunting experience but I think ultimately successful and rewarding, and I hope to repeat the experience in 2012. Finally, one of my absolutely favourite reads of 2012 was Italian novelist Leonardo Sciascia’s short detective novel Il Contesto, a novel I’m sure I mentioned here and there in other posts without deigning it with a proper review. The fact is that I loved it so much I’m still struggling with a review that can do it justice. Perhaps in the coming months I’ll finally post it.

Without exaggeration, this was one of the best years I’ve ever had regarding novels.

Theater:

On the other hand, 2012 was a poor year for plays.. Well, in 2011 I read Edward Albee’s three-volume collected works, and it’s hard to beat that unless, I don’t know, I read the complete works of Shakespeare or Ibsen next. Well, of Albee I re-read his first play, The Zoo Story, a short piece I absolutely love to re-read from time to time; and I also read the controversial prequel collected in At Home At The Zoo. Both were quite good and demonstrate why Albee is one of the best living playwrights. Then I re-read several Dario Fo plays: Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Trumpets and Raspberries, Can't Pay? Won't Pay! Fo is my favourite living playwright and I love the way he mixes humor with politics, and his irreverent and anarchistic side. And without forgetting his wife, the actress and writer France Rame, I also had the pleasure of reading A Woman Alone, a collection of her stage monologues. Vaclav Havel’s Leaving was a remarkable surprise. After being disappointed with some of the plays he wrote during the ‘80s, this final play, written after he left his presidential office, is one of the best works of his career, a gentle mocking of leadership and an attack on the dirt that goes on in the backstage of politics. Although Harold Pinter is not a playwright I readily enjoy, re-reading the nightmarish A Night Out was also quite good. Finally, I was surprised and astonished at how much I loved Raul Brandão and Teixeira de Pascoaes’ Jesus Cristo em Lisboa, a dreamy play about Jesus learning no one cares about his gospel two millennia after he died for ours sins.

Poetry:

This was a really poor year for poetry. I’m not only ashamed at how little I read but also at how I didn’t like most of what I read. Compared to last year, when I read Sophia de Mello Breyner, Alexandre O’Neill and Adam Zagajewski, 2012 was a nullity. The only saving grace was the poetry of Fernando Pessoa: I read Ricardo Reis at the start of the year, Alberto Caeiro in the final months, and spent the last day of the year finishing the first volume of Álvaro de Campos, meaning I’m also starting 2013 with Pessoa. His three heteronyms were great poets, each in their own unique way, and I still plan to write something about Reis and Campos in the future. As for 2013, I promise there will be more poetry.

Short-Stories/Novellas:

I didn’t read a lot of these this year. I had a great time discovering Luandino Vieira’s Luuanda, a collection of short-stories set in Angola during the colonial rule. By an unfortunate coincidence I finished reading Os Papéis de K. just in time to turn it into a memorial to this recently-deceased poet. The novella was bizarre and elliptic and very fascinating. I’m anxious to read his poems in 2013. But by far my favourite was the Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar’s collection of short-stories, Cidades Inventadas. It’s a delightful exercise in imagination in which he invents new cities of the past and the future while always talking about the situation of the modern city.

Non-Fiction:

Isaiah Berlin’s The Sense of Reality was an insightful collection of essays about politics, history and philosophy. Berlin isn’t a great philosopher, in my estimation, but I think he’s a great historian, especially of the history of ideas; he knows how to trace ideas back to their sources, to write their biographies, if you will, he knows where they come from, where they were born, how they moved through history and what their influence was and on whom. His thoughts about the history of philosophy or the origins or Marxism are always enthralling, even for a layman like me. No less remarkable was Mary Midgley’s The Myths We Live By, a sort of criticism of science since the Enlightenment and an attack on the misuse of reason and scientism, the doctrine that science can explain everything and that all forms of non-scientific knowledge are useless. A great book to read in tandem with Berlin’s because their themes overlap. Speaking of science, The Tell-Tale Brain is a very readable book for laymen interested in neuroscience and the new discoveries about the human mind. For those more interested in politics, I strongly recommend Deadly Spin, an overview of the history of marketing and PR in the United States and an exposé of the sinister public relations methods the big insurance companies use to derail the creation of a national health care system. One of those informative books that just makes you lose your faith in mankind. Speaking of pessimism, Fernando Pessoa’s The Education of the Stoic is a hilariously long suicide note written by a writer who’s going to kill himself because he can’t write books. Just a few days ago I also finished re-reading En Diálogo, a two-volume collection of conversations Argentine poet Osvaldo Ferrari had with Jorge Luis Borges, reminding me why the Argentine master is one of my favourite writers: literature, history, philosophy, friends, writers, even politics, he talks about everything here. Closer to home I read Cândido de Azevedo’s A Censura, a history of censorship in the Portuguese dictatorship, a fascinating and sober book. Speaking of censure, a writer who had to flee because of the regime was Jorge de Sena, who wrote two books I much enjoyed reading, first Sobre a Literatura e a Cultura Britânicas, an extraordinary book of essays that demonstrates his vast erudition about British culture and literature; and then his book about the United States, América, América. Finally I hope everyone in 2012 read something as insanely bizarre and hilarious as 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship.

For those interested, here’s the list of everything I read in 2012:

Agualusa, José Eduardo: A Conjura
Albee, Edward: At Home at the Zoo (re-read)
Albee, Edward: Me, Myself and I
Almeida, Germano: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo
António Pina, Manuel: Os Papéis de K.
Berlin, Isaiah: The Sense of Reality
Bessa-Luís, Agustina: A Sibila
Bessa-Luís, Agustina: Contos Impopulares
Bloy, Léon: Histoires Désobligeantes (re-read)
Brandão, Raul & T. de Pascoaes: Jesus Cristo em Lisboa
Brandão, Raul: Húmus
Broch, Hermann: The Sleepwalkers
Calvino, Italo: The Road to San Giovanni
Cardoso Pires, José: Corpo-Delito na Sala de Espelhos
Castelo Branco, Camilo: A Queda dum Anjo
Cesariny, Mário: Pena Capital
Cinatti, Ruy: Manhã Imensa
Cossery, Albert: Une Ambition dans le Désert
Couto, Mia: Jesusalém
Couto, Mia: O Fio das Missangas
Couto, Mia: Voices Made Night
da Fonseca, Manuel: Aldeia Nova
Dalí, Salvador: 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship
de Azevedo, Cândido: A Censura
de Melo Neto, João Cabral: A Educação pela Pedra
de Queiroz, Eça: The Mystery of the Road of Sintra
de Queiroz, Eça: Prosas Bárbaras
de Sena, Jorge: América, América
de Sena, Jorge: Sobre a Literatura e a Cultura Britânicas
Defoe, Daniel: Moll Flanders
Drummond, Carlos: Nova Reunião III
Duarte Silva, Maria Natália: Obra Poética
Ferrari, Osvaldo: En Diálogo I (re-read)
Ferrari, Osvaldo: En Diálogo II (re-read)
Ferreira, Vergílio: Alegria Breve
Fo, Dario & Franca Rame: A Woman Alone
Fo, Dario: Accidental Death of an Anarchist (re-read)
Fo, Dario: Cant' Pay? Won't Pay! (re-read)
Fo, Dario: Il Mondo Secondo Fo
Fo, Dario: Trumpets and Raspberries (re-read)
Gabriela Llansol, Maria: O Livro das Comunidades
García Márquez, Gabriel: Strange Pilgrims
Gullar, Ferreira: Cidades Inventadas
Havel, Vaclav: Leaving
Havel, Vaclav: Selected Plays: 1984-1987
Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
Kafka, Franz: The Castle
Kafka, Franz: The Man Who Disappeared
Lobo Antunes, António: Knowledge of Hell
Lobo Antunes, António: Memória de Elefante
Lobo Antunes, António: The Land at the End of the World
Lourenço, Edurado: Pessoa Revisitado
Luandino Vieira, José: Luuanda
M. Tavares, Gonçalo: Histórias Falsas
Mahfouz, Naguib: Children of the Alley
Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus (re-read)
Marques Lopes, João: Biografia: José Saramago
Melville, Herman: Moby Dick
Michaux, Henri: Ecuador
Midgley, Mary: The Myths we Live By
Nabokov, Vladimir: Mary
Ondjaki: Dentro de mim faz Sul, seguido de Acto sanguíneo
Papini, Giovanni: Gli Imbecilli
Paula Tavares, Ana: A Cabeça de Salomé
Paula Tavares, Ana: Dizes-me Coisas Amargas Como os Frutos
Pepetela: The Return of the Water Spirit
Pepetela: O Planalto e a Estepe
Pessoa, Fernando: The Education of the Stoic
Pessoa, Fernando: A Poesia de Álavaro de Campos I
Pessoa, Fernando: A Poesia de Ricardo Reis
Pessoa, Fernando: Os Poemas de Alberto Caeiro
Pessoa: Fernando: Histórias de um Raciocinador
Pinter, Harold: A Night Out (re-read)
Pirandello, Luigi: Enrico IV
Potter, Wendell: Deadly Spin
Ramachandran, V.S.: The Tell-Tale Brain
Ravikovitch, Dahlia: Hovering at a Low Altitude
Redol, Alves: Gaibéus
Ribeiro, Aquilino: O Homem que Matou o Diabo
Roth, Philip: Deception
Roth, Philip: Exit Ghost
Roth, Philip: The Breast
Roth, Philip: The Counterlife
Saramago, José: A Bagagem do Viajante
Saramago, José: Cadernos de Lanzarote I (re-read)
Saramago, José: Cadernos de Lanzarote II
Saramago, José: Cadernos de Lanzarote III
Saramago, José: Cadernos de Lanzarote IV
Saramago, José: Cadernos de Lanzarote V
Saramago, José: Clarabóia
Saramago, José/José Rodrigues Miguéis: Correspondência: 1959-1971
Saramago, José: Deste Mundo e do Outro
Saramago, José: Folhas Políticas
Saramago, José: O Ano de 1993
Saramago, José: O Que Farei com este Livro?
Saramago, José: All the Names (re-read)
Sciascia, Leonardo: Il Contesto
Soyinka, Wole: A Dance of the Forests (re-read)
Tabucchi, Antonio: O Tempo Envelhece Depressa
Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace
Torrente Ballester, Gonzalo: La Saga/Fuga de J.B.
Vargas Llosa, Mario: The Green House

I read books from Peru, Spain, Russia, Italy, Nigeria, Portugal, USA, Israel, Angola, England, Belgium, Egypt, Czech Republic, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Ireland, Mozambique, France, and Cape Verde. Reading from all over the world is really the only way of reading that makes sense to me. I believe my choices in 2013 will be even more expansive.

I also noticed I re-read more than usual this year. I don’t have an explanation for that. Usually I consider re-reading book a waste of time because I could be reading something new instead. But I also recognize that re-reading some of these books allowed me to discover new things about them that I hadn’t noticed the first time.

It’s no surprise that José Saramago was the writer I read the most in 2012: I wanted November to be as interesting and informative as possible for my readers: 13 very different books. The other writers I read with more frequency include Fernando Pessoa (6 books), Dario Fo (5), Philip Roth (4), António Lobo Antunes (3), and Mia Couto (3). It’s curious I read so much by these last two since I don’t particularly like them.

2012 was also a year of firsts for me: my first Raul Brandão, my first Gonzalo Torrent Ballester, and especially my first Leonardo Sciascia. I hope they’ll all be present again in my readings in 2013.

5 comments:

  1. Happy New Years Miguel!

    Your size and quality of your list ob books read is amazing!

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  2. Still read more than I (81 books, 24 nations)my excuse this year was a puppy & a wonderful new Race bike. My favourite Pessoa quote is "It is sometimes said that the four greatest Portuguese poets of modern times are Fernando Pessoa.". posted my favourites including the poetry.

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  3. When a friend told me that I was a bookworm for reading 72 books in 2012, I told him there are those who read more than that. And you're one.

    I read only one Saramago, Blindness. I enjoyed reading your review of the year. It's inspiring and gave me ideas for the non-fiction I want to read this year. I will look for Mary Midgley's The Myths we Live By... this is because yesterday together with three friends of mine had a discussion on development and it bothered on scientific knowledge and whether that's the only form of knowledge there is... or if we should measure development with our ability to invent, to create.

    I didn't know you don't like Couto. I see his writings are too refined... as if he was knit-picking, though I've not expressed it in my reviews. I'm however, blown by the magic realism of the Lusophonic writers even if I haven't read enough: Agualusa, Pepetela, Couto, and Momple (whose isn't magical).

    I hope to read that much this year or if possible better it. You've inspired me the more.

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  4. Brian, thanks! Have a great 2013!

    Parrish Lantern, you got me beat at nations: only 21 for me. I plan to improve this year.

    Nana, I've read too much Mia Couto not to like him, but he's not someone I'm crazy about. And you can expect more reviews of Pepetela in my blog this year, I have many of his books at home to read.

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  5. "the only way of reading that makes sense to me" - me too! I abstractly appreciate reading narrowly, for depth and specialization, but I would go crazy if I really did it.

    I guess some people would say 80% reading in the 19th century is specialized, but a hundred years turns out to be a long, long time, and the 19th century world a big place. Much like Saramago + Jorge de Sena + Pessoa + Pepetela + etc. turns out to be a big place even within a single language.

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