/ 19 December 2013

Best of 2013: Books

The right reads: John Grisham was a top seller but Julian Barnes and Donna Tartt pleased the critics.
The right reads: John Grisham was a top seller but Julian Barnes and Donna Tartt pleased the critics.


CRITIC'S CHOICE: Darryl Accone

For me, every year sees as much re-reading as reading. This was even more marked in 2013, perhaps because of the imminent 20th anniversary of 1994, that year of miracles and wonders in South African history.

I enjoyed hauling off the shelves Albert Luthuli's Let My People Go (Collins, 1962), Stephen Clingman's Bram Fischer (David Philip/Mayibuye Books/University of Massachussets Press, 1998), Slovo – The Unfinished Autobiography (Ravan/Hodder and Stoughton, 1995) and Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom (Macdonald Purnell, 1994). The fourth edition of Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom by Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana, 2013) saved me from trying to find where I'd shelved the previous three.

It's true that there are many stodgy bits in Long Walk, and the often-present question of where and how Mandela's collaborator Richard Stengel (now the honcho of Time magazine) contributed. 

That aside, there is wonderful prose, maybe none so poignant as on the second-last page, where Mandela writes: "I was not born with a hunger to be free, I was born free – in every way that I could know … It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it." 

The rest is history as detailed in Long Walk, which is my reread of the South African political memoirs, biographies and autobiographies listed above, just edging out Clingman's work on Fischer.

I took another approach to Fischer in rereading Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter (Jonathan Cape, 1979), in which Lionel Burger and his daughter Rosa can be read as analogues of Fischer and his daughters Ruth and Ilse. Lionel and Rosa led, irresistibly, to reading once more Gordimer's The Conservationist (Jonathan Cape, 1974), which speaks to South Africa today every bit as much as it did in the year of its initial publication. In the early 1970s The Conservationist was remarkably prescient, which it remains, because its portrait of the disintegration of a man who wishes everything to remain the same illuminates a particular psyche.

Of books published this year, my picks are:

1. LEVELS OF LIFE by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Barnes writes movingly about life and love – specifically, his life with and love for Pat Kavanagh, the South African-born genius of a literary agent.

2. THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 2013)

Tartt is so good that she sent me back to her debut, The Secret History (Knopf, 1992), a final reread in a year of grand encores.

3. Clive James's translation of Dante's THE DIVINE COMEDY (Picador Poetry, 2013)

James's rendering is a poet's, daringly using quatrains rather than terza rima.

4. CAT SENSE: THE FELINE ENIGMA REVEALED by John Bradshaw (Allen Lane, 2013)

Bradshaw, the anthro-zoologist whose In Defence of Dogs (Allen Lane, 2011) illuminates the intertwined lives of dogs and humans, examines cats and what they need from us.

Top-selling adult fiction books

1. Command Authority, Tom Clancy (Putnam Adult)
2. Cross My Heart
, James Patterson (Little, Brown)
3. Sycamore Row
, John Grisham (Doubleday Books)
4. The Gods of Guilt, Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
5. Takedown Twenty, Janet Evanovich (Bantam)

Source: Nielsen Ratings