Thursday, January 29, 2009

My booky wooks

I've never done a Books of the Year. Mainly because I don't read all that many newly-released books in a Calendar year, I think. I tend to read far more widely, lots of "classics", a bit of non-fiction, some genre stuff, then by the end of a year what I read and when all blurs into one long reading experience without beginning or end. I also tend to avoid writing at length about books, an English Lit degree and the hours of deconstruction and essay composition that entailed being at least partly to blame.

But this year I read a bit less, for various reasons. Still more or less a book every ten days or so, but thats well down on how much I used to read. And it means I remember what I read when more clearly. Including some fine novels published in the last year.
So, in no particular order:

The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
An intimate epic chronicling the life of an obese second generation Dominican immigrant in New York and the Dominican Republic, this masterpiece more than met the expectations of anyone hoping for great things after Diaz's extraordinary collection of stories, "Drown". Narrated by a friend whose cultural touchstones all emanate from geek culture (there are continual references to superhero comics, sci-fi movies and the Lord of the RIngs), Diaz demonstrates the richness of his talent in every facet of this book. The voice is vivid and original and utterly convincing, the narrative unexpectedly gripping and finally moving, the tone and sense of place perfectly judged and evoked. But it is the books scope and ambition, the way it includes a history of the Dominican Republic in the Twentieth Century and a torrid family saga while never losing its focus on Oscar and his search for love, that is most impressive.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
This was the favourite for the Booker until it failed to even make the longlist. Too good for the Booker, then. A rambling narrative concerning a Dutchman (spiritually and emotionally) lost in Manhattan after separating from his wife and young son and his encounters with a Trinidadian full of plans to make Cricket a global sport, the beauty of this novel is all contained in O'Neill's achingly lovely writing. His prose is luminous, poetic, and yet effortless in that inimitably American way best displayed by the work of Updike, Roth or Bellow, say. From a writer born in Ireland, raised in Holland and living in the US, the warmth and panoramic vision of a World still off balance in the years after 9/11 is impressively, even soulfully conveyed. O'Neill's voice is assured, measure, confident, precise. The kind of book I wanted to go on reading, not because I wanted to know how the story ended - its not that kind of book - but because the prose gave me so much pleasure.

Lush Life by Richard Price
Always the most literary of the "holy trinity" of Big Crime Novelists who work on "The Wire" (the other two being George Pelecanos and Denis Lehane), it finally struck me who Richard Price's writing reminded me of whilst reading this novel, his eighth.
He's like Jay McInerney with vastly different subject matter. And less pretension. This dense, telling novel is a police procedural, a portrayal of a couple of different strata of New York society and a political commentary on the state of modern America, focusing particularly on its racial politics and class tensions. Three drunken young men are robbed at gunpoint one night. Only one of them challenges the gun pointed at him and dies. Price then plunges us into the lives of the police investigating this murder, of the teenaged killer, and of the ageing hipster who survived and witnessed the violence. It never feels like a straight crime novel, with Price always just as interested in the milieu his characters move in as he is in their movements toward a resolution. New York is the main protagonist - its tenement walk-ups, its boho bars, its bodegas - and he paints it as vividly and completely as anyone ever has.
Price's dialogue is unparalleled - funny, realistic, brilliantly captured, with a rhythm all its own.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Bolano is probably the hottest author in the literary media right about now. Full page adverts for his (latest and final) novel 2666 in all the broadsheets, a three page article in the Guardian book supplement, mentions on every book-blog of note. Why? Well, he is dead, for one thing. The media loves a posthumous success. His life - arrested in Pinochet's Chile, a "literary Terrorist" in Mexico, a junkie/poet/odd job man in Catalonia before he gained any literary success at all - reads like a tall tale, romantic and fascinating. And then there is his writing. His sudden appearance in the English-language scene was startling, because he arrived fully formed, with a unique and brilliant style and his own themes and obsessions already well developed and fixed in place. I read his short story collection "Last Evenings on Earth" in hardback a few years ago and was stunned by it and its portrayals of poets and lost men in Mexico and Spain, obsessions and disintegrating relationships, all told in his sonorous, deceptively readable voice, and sought out his other early, short novels. "The Savage Detectives", originally published in Spain a few years ago, is another thing entirely, an epic novel with distinct sections, imposingly dense but breathtakingly brilliant. It begins as the diary of a young poet in Mexico City in the 1970s, then becomes a history of two of his friends - told by a host of narrators they have encountered as they travelled across the globe over the years - before rewinding to focus on their experiences of searching for a reclusive poet in Mexico in the 70s. I have not finished it. I read 100 page sections, its density exhausts me, and I put it down for a few weeks before returning to it. But what a pleasurable way to read a book, knowing its there, waiting for me all of the time, and that Bolano will never let me down. And I still have 2666 to read...

The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr.
A debut novel. Concerning a group of friends in their 20s in Las Vegas becoming involved in prostitution and smalltime crime. Written with a feel for mood and emotional chill which is stunning. The hero, the delivery man of the title, is a young Teacher with dreams of being an artist, slowly poisoning his own life through his old friendships and his inability to shake them off and move on. The sense of inertia and powerlessness are terrifying. The portrait of the MySpace generation is alienating and yet feels true. The prose - flat and precise, punchy and somehow blank - develops its own poetry, until it is almost hypnotic, the ending ghastly yet compulsive.

Everything by Grant Morrison
That "everything" would include "Final Crisis", "AllStar Superman" and "Batman", drawn by many hands, most notably Frank Quitely and J.G. Jones. All of them Superhero Comics set in the DC Universe, which has revealed itself to be the perfect toybox for Morrison to play around with. Lets start with "Batman", easily the worst of the three titles. Here Morrison's grand plan took an age to unfold, complicated by crossovers and general continuity issues. And continuity was his subject, really - his Batman was a man who had lived through all of the Batman's comic history - the rather primitive early years, the silliness of the 60s, the darkness of the 70s and 90s, all of it, every battle, every beating, every horrific sight and encounter with the supernatural or evil or ultradimensional - and it was beginning to take a psychological toll. Somewhat sabotaged by awful art, Morrison's Batman stories betray his usual problems. He tries to do too much, his plotting feels a little haphazard, his ideas are sometimes placed on top of the narrative rather than expressed through it, but it still had its moments of absolute, shining brilliance. Not least its ending, when Batman's plan was revealed. Batman also featured crucially in "Final Crisis", which still has one issue to go. Morrison has refined his technique over the years, when it comes to these massive crossovers. Now he makes them seem almost effortless, the way he juggles dozens of characters and plotlines, the bigger picture never slipping out of focus, the satisfying genre moments always delivered. Has anyone ever written Darkseid as well as he does, or made the Anti-Life equation seem so evil and horrific? I doubt it. And still he manages to smuggle in his interests, his ideas, hard science and physics, philosophy, all bubbling under the surface of his narrative about vigilantes and gods punching one another.
"AllStar Superman" may just be the best thing hes ever done, in a way. Pure and simple and beautiful, yet complex and demanding. It works as a sublime Superman story, yet also critiques Superman stories. Superman stories are not about Superman in combat, for as many who loathe - or just fail to see the appeal of - the character point out, there is no tension in that. Superman, as a character of near-limitless means and ability, opens up the universe to a writer. He can go anywhere, do more or less anything. Yet he is human in his heart, a midwestern farmboy raised by the Kents. A good Superman story should therefore be about wonder, about awe, cities in bottles, other worlds and dimensions and concepts that strain our imaginations. Morrison wrote such a story and Frank Quitely drew it absolutely beautifully. It is, finally, magnificently moving, and made me love Superman more than any story about the character has done since Alan Moore wrote him. Morrison is the finest writer working in mainstream comics.

Sway by Zachary Lazar
This cool, black novel traces periods in the lives of Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger and Kenneth Anger, connecting them thematically, bringing in Charles Manson and addressing the legacy of the 1960s and its dark heart. The writing is so good, so convincing, that we forget who the protagonists are meant to be, and it doesn't matter. What matters is this story, the evil in it, the energy and vigour.

Inventing the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson
I read a lot of books about football. This was the best one I read this year, a history of tactics by one of the Guardian's better football hacks, who was responsible for a great study of Eastern European football a few years back. Here he traces the games development from a no-passing, all-dribbling frenzy, through the W-M and catenaccio eras, up until todays high pressure possession game, by analysing specific teams and key games. And to anyone with any interest, it is riveting - well-researched, convincingly argued, often witty and nicely written.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow
A novel about werewolves in modern Los Angeles, who operate in little profit and blood-hungry clans. Told in verse. It works, beautifully. Because Barlow, who contributes to N+1, can really write. His work here is terse, lyrical, lovely, scary and stomach-turning when it needs to be. His characters are established and made convincing and real in short little stanzas. The pared-down feel makes it all more haunting and precisely envisioned. The plotting is simple, direct and effective. Against the odds, its a page-turner, but never a potboiler.

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple
Lethem has addressed his love of superheroes and comic book culture numerous times in his fiction and journalism, but this is the first time he's ever actually written a superhero story. And true to form its really a story about Aspergers Syndrome and its consequences. It is also one of the most indie and interesting things Marvel has ever published, partly because Dalrymple's art is so different from anything else in the genre. But it is strangely thrilling and utterly unique.

The Portable Frank by Jim Woodring
Frank is a Fantagraphics comic by Jim Woodring which concerns...well, its hard to describe. The stories, told in a deceptively simple style reminiscent of Disney comics if they had been printed with woodblocks, are about a protagonist in a fantasy world full of bizarre, surreal creatures. Only he too is a bizarre creature, a dog (or a cat) wearing gloves (and shoes) who walks on two legs. He has a pet (or companion) which is basically a mantle ornament with a face, legs and tail. And a humanoid slave hog. There is no dialogue. There is often unspeakable violence. The plots are comic parables of struggle with hidden depths. You could probably study them for a lifetime, write dissertations, long books about their meaning. They are hilariously funny, and often eerie and scary, disturbing in their content. Deadpan, never hyperbolic, Woodring is surely some sort of genius. This collection of some of the black & white stories was published this year, but there are many other bigger, more expensive collections of the many colour tales. Buy them all. Thank me later.

Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Catalan Pinol writes literary genre fiction. His first novel, "Cold Skin" was a horror story of amphibious humanoids besieging a tiny Island station in the South Atlantic, held off by two men. It is an amazingly creepy, strangely erotic book, full of metaphoric power and meaning, yet succeeding as a straightforward genre exercise too. This, his second, is a pastiche and critique of a certain kind of Victorian fiction. Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But it is written by a man who obviously loves those writers and the boys own glee of their best work. So it works, like "Cold Skin", on two levels - story of Victorian Explorers in the Congo and their discovery of an Alien world, and interrogation of Victorian attitudes to colonialism, race and fiction itself. It is superb.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
Benioff wrote "The 25th Hour" a few years ago. Its a pretty good first novel - assured in its voice and sense of place, full of sharp, memorable characters, and extremely tightly plotted. He adapted the book for Spike Lee's commendable film version and turned that into a well-paid career as a screenwriter which has never lived up to his novel (or the short story collection "When the Nines Roll Over" which followed it) on films like "Troy", "Stay" and "The Kite Runner". He also married Amanda Peet, the bastard. Well, just to prove he can still write, this year brought "City of Thieves," a novel set during the Siege of Leningrad, and following the desperate quest of two young military prisoners for some eggs to save their own skins. Again, that gift for voice and place was evident, again the characters were well-drawn and real. He is a natural novelist, and his ability seems to me to straddle the line between literary and popular fiction pretty evenly, meaning that he may struggle to find an audience. Which would be a shame. More novels, less screenplays - that would be nice though...

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Blogger Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Not so odd, really, as I took your recommendations! Just got Pandora in the Congo and Drown as well, so nice work.

Hmm...I should have really given you a link on that. I'll remedy that now.

8:19 am  

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