Pick of 2013: books

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I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. Seems to me like setting yourself up for a fall. Having said that, I do keep a list in the front of my diary entitled ‘things to do’. Last year’s list contained thirteen items, and, while I got closer to some of them, I achieved only four.

One that I did do was to ‘read more modern books’. By which I didn’t particularly mean the latest bestsellers, but just more stuff from the 80s onwards. There are so many classics I feel like I want to (or ought to) read, that I end up never getting round to giving newer works a chance, which is a pity because it’s only through trying new things that you discover ones you like.

Here are three favourite finds from 2013:

1. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

In its most basic form it’s the story of a hermaphrodite called Cal, but really it’s the story of her family, from their days as silk farmers near Smyrna through their migration to Detroit and each generation’s search for their own skewed version of an American dream. Cal’s narration is wordy but witty and engaging, and as a saga it spans most of the 20th century, and unfolds about a thousand times more easily than A Hundred Years of Solitude (a great book, but not an easy read). There’s a mythological, epic quality in their everyday lives, choices and chances that I loved.

2. 92 Acharnon Street – John Lucas

Most travel books I read tend to be accounts of intrepid adventure, absurd comic undertakings, or the forging of a new life in some idyllic yet gently idiosyncratic land. But 92 Acharnon Street is set in the grimy chaos of Athens, written by an academic who got a lecturing job there in the 80s. Through anecdotes of his life and friends there, it ends up being a sort of portrait of Greek national character: stormy, creative, loyal, corrupt, politically passionate, endlessly frustrating and capable of frequent, extraordinary humanity and kindness in the face of all the above. It’s set in the aftermath of one of the most horrendous periods in modern Greek history (first the civil war and then the junta), and if lefty preaching will grate on you then Lucas is probably not for you, but his writer’s eye feels wise and perceptive, and the chapter on modern Greek poetry is a revelation.

3. The Neon Rain – James Lee Burke

I’ve listed The Neon Rain, but actually I read three of JLB’s novels this year, all part of his famous Robicheaux series. Crime fiction is one of my great pleasures, and Dave Robicheaux, the Teflon-tough former New Orleans homicide detective living out in the Louisiana bayou, was one of my great discoveries of 2013. The writing is gritty but evocative, reminding me of a sort of slightly more understated Norman Mailer, the pace is fast and Robicheaux himself, a former alcoholic with a contrary character and a set of Jesse Custer morals, is brilliant. What really makes it though are the incredible depictions of life and landscape in New Orleans and New Iberia. The novels are love letters to Louisiana, and while I’m reading them I feel like I need to borrow a Cajun cookbook and listen to La Jolie Blonde.

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