I have had such a busy year, travelling, writing, speaking and teaching. Which is my way of saying that I actually read fewer books this year than I did the year before, despite the professional obligations of reviewing. That means I am going to have to up the ante a little in 2013, and do more reading for pleasure and non-professional improvement.
But there are the six books I absolutely loved this year. I suggest you read them all:
1. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser - Big, ambitious and almost-perfect, this book kept me constantly surprised, and in awe of the author's skill. An "issues" novel that manges to avoid preaching, the story never takes you where you expect it to. Original and beautifully written.
2. Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood - This is a cookbook and a series of meditations on food and its place in our hearts, families and communities. It has inspired me to be a better and more patient cook, and to start cooking for the people I love, the way I used to. It's also the sort of book you could give to anyone. So many people I know have read this book on my recommendation, and every single one of them has loved it.
3. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson - The wonderfully neurotic Winterson turns her pain into exquisite art in this honest and loving book about her mother, a woman who did her best to destroy her. Winterson's reflections on her upbringing are morally complex and based in great part on an immense kindness and willingness to forgive. I loved this book for its subtlety and its refusal to give lazy responses or cliched points of view. Simply brilliant.
4. The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk by Justin Thomas McDaniel - You don't really expect a monograph about Thai Buddhist folklore published by an academic press to be a thrilling read, but this amazing book manages it. Quite simply, McDaniel is a masterful storyteller who knows so much about his subject - the magical practices of folk-Buddhism in contemporary Thailand - and can write about it in a thoroughly entertaining way. Anyone who has ever visited Thailand will find this book constantly fascinating, and anyone who has romantic ideas about Buddhism will be thoroughly challenged.
5. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux - What are the odds of having two books with "ghost" in the title on my list? I read this book while I was engaged in some serious travel, taking a train across Thailand, a plane across Vietnam and endless buses across Cambodia. Fortunately this echoed the patterns of this book, a recreation of Theoux's own original journey across Asia that made him famous when he turned it into a book, The Great Railway Bazaar. Cranky, grumpy and occasionally exasperating, you still can't help but be swept along in the really quite frantic pace of Theroux's compulsive journey.
6. Tennessee: Cry of the Heart by Dotson Rader - Yes, an out-of-print 1980s memoir of the great playwright. This is the record of a long friendship, a kind of sub-genre that I always enjoy. This book really charts the great man's twilight years, when he was frequently drunk, drug-addled and negotiating the services of young hustlers. Rader is a brilliant author, and this scandal-soaked memoir is actually quite affectionate, and ultimately illuminating. Made me love Tennessee even more.
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