Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books of the Year

Its always difficult to sum up a year's literature, after all, much of what one reads will have been first published last year, or years before, particularly if its a new writer that one comes across.

If one book bestrode the year it has to be Cormac MacCarthy's 2006 novel "The Road". It got mentioned by Martin Amis in his debate on literature and religion in Manchester, and before then, by C.K. Williams at the New Writing Worlds symposia in Norwich. That debate, a 3rd panel discussion, which I had the pleasure to blog away at, looked at how writers were responding to nature, and, in particular the threat of global warming. "The Road", a writers' response to after-the-catastrophe is so clearcut in its disaster, so biblical in both its language and its themes, that it seems the clear book du jour. If the apocalyptic has been there in recent semi sci-fi novels from Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro, its also there in the mutually excellent "This Book can Save Your Life" by A.M. Homes and "The Book of Dave" by Will Self. A further hangover from the previous year, and the most enjoyable book I read all year, was David Peace's "The Damned United", without a doubt the best football novel ever - and, next year, hopefully the best football film ever as well.
I read last years prizewinner "What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn, and enjoyed it immensely - more than Anne Enright's intrigueingly complex "The Gathering." Those books by new authors that do get published - a little like first albums these days - are highly competent works, well structured, well written, but not necessarily that exciting. Its a long time since we saw the shock of the new. This year's Booker list looked very readable, without being particularly exciting. I'm a fifth through Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" - an immense state-of-the-nation novel, and so far its excellent. One novel I failed to finish this year, and had bought after glowing pre-release reviews, was Hanif Kureishi's latest, "Something to Tell You". With quite a number of good books to read, I can't quite see me finding the time to go back to a novel I was finding to be poorly written, linguistically baggy and emotionally overblown. In this Christmas period I am back to reading, and a real find has to be Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" which I'm enjoying immensely. Many people's book of the year, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz, was one of the year's most readable, seeing the horror of the Dominican Republic's history during the Trujillo dictatorship through the most unlikely of filters, that of a transplanted Dominican sci-fi geek. If it had a fault, it was that these contemporary characters felt two-dimensional compared with the richness of the rest of the novel.

Bolano I discovered through his poetry, and the late poets' recently translated collected "The Romantic Dogs" is a pleasure throughout. Its been an interesting year for poetry in the sense that the mainstream has lost any interest to me. I think the rise in small presses such as Eggbox and ifpthenq, let alone the juggernaut that is Salt, means that good looking, readily accessible books are being made available outside of the majors - often concentrating on their existing list of poets. Seren, of all the small presses, has had major showings in the prizes, but there's a feeling that the prizes/majors have quite a bit of a symbiotic relationship if only because there's a need for the "big names" to continue getting a mention. What seems to be the case is that the vibrancy previously seen only in the "performance poetry" scene is spilling over into more interesting and experimental poetic arenas. With no major retrospectives/anthologies since the millennium, it will be interested to see what the scope of Roddy Lumsden's forthcoming anthology encompasses. My best poetry of the year has been particular poems, either in collections or in magazines, and I'll see if I get a chance to look at these in the new year.

I've read very little non-fiction - 'cept on blogs and in papers - but Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" I discovered about halfway through its year or success - and it remains a wonder, even if, after about 3 months of devouring 20th century classical music I reverted to type (e.g. hip hop, electronica and indie.) I also read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" so there we have it - the most relevant critical essay of the year, and it was written in 1936! On the back of a remarkable essay in "Poetry" I bought Adam Kirsch's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, "The Modern Element" which I fully expect to be one of the best reads of 2009.

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