It had to be 12, so you know this was a very good year. And I regret not including Etgar Keret's book.
Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson. The author makes the time and place come alive with a magical intensity. The narrator, now in his 50s, tells the story of events which occurred when he was 12 involving anguishing decisions his father made that were heroic. His father was a deliberate, conflicted hero, not an instinctive one.
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. This beautifully plotted book has luscious descriptions of what you could do with money in Manhattan in the 1930s. In fact the descriptions were were so lovely they reminded me of a very good martini with 2 big olives or perhaps a sidecar made with fresh lemon in a glass rimmed with sugar.
My Brother Jack by George Johnston. Here's what I loved best about this quintessential Australian book: there is the coming of age story, the complicated relationship of brothers, the revelation of a different world (Melbourne in the 1920s and 1930s), the masterful storytelling, the appreciation of beauty in the most unusual places. Perhaps the best part for me was the author's ability to look at himself and his life critically and write about it with blazing honesty. Or perhaps I most loved the fondness he showed as he brought to life an era in Melbourne that had ended.
Fly Away Peter by David Malouf. An excruciatingly beautiful account of the experience of an Australian who dies during World War I. While I try to avoid the most painful books, this one is worth the anguish.
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. When he was 11, Ondaatje traveled on his own from Ceylon to England by ship, just as the narrator of this book did. Otherwise the book is fiction, according to Ondaatje. The narrator is looking back on the adventures of this trip as an adult, the ricocheting around the ship with two other boys his age also traveling alone and meeting the interesting adults assigned to the cat's table, the least desirable table on board.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The concepts describing the basis for our actions seems pretty clear and fundamental, but the ideas in this book keep cropping up in my thoughts. The stories of how Target changes our habits and how Paul O'Neil changed a company by addressing worker safety are powerful.
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. Captain James Cook was sent to record the 1769 Transit of Venus, that rare moment when Venus is between the earth and the sun and shows up as a tiny dot on the sun. This beautiful book gives us three key individuals and near the end of the book, tells us facts which dramatically alter the positions of each relative to the others.
Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry. The tension between Americans' belief in freedom of religion and our fondness for the tight-knit loving community of believers can be traced to the ideas articulated by Roger Williams. Though his Puritanism was as strong as anyone's could be, he created a colony where individuals were free to believe as they chose.
Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. She has managed to remake the image of Thomas Cromwell from the evil toady for Henry VIII portrayed in film to the man trying to impose the modern state in the midst of the murderous royal families of England. There are countless gems in her writing; I like this reference to an issue of our day when she has Cromwell muse
But chivalry's day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.
Sword and Blossom: a British Officer's Enduring Love for a Japanese Woman by Peter Pagnamento and Momoko Williams. It was hard to remember that these two dramatic lives actually happened. The British officer wrote 800 letters over the course of 40 years to a Japanese woman he met when he was sent to Japan in 1904. The authors both let the letters speak and filled in the background of Japan and Britain at the time.
Autumn Laing by Alex Miller. A novel based on the lives of an actual literary group in Melbourne from the 1930s to the 1950s is told from the point of view of one of the central figures of the group. Autumn is the fictional name for Sunday Reed who had a tempetuous relationship with the well-known artist Sidney Nolan.
Possession by A.S.Byatt. This 1990 Man Booker Prize winner creates the world of two Victorian poets, their friends and loved ones, their poetry, and the dramatic story of their connection. The secrets of their romance were uncovered for us by a disparate group of scholars with competing interests who each have a piece of the puzzle. My favorite for the year.