2009–It’s a Wrap.

2009–an interesting year…bookwise well I read some good, some bad.

I made some significant progress in my goal to read all twenty volumes of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. I dreamed up this goal in mid-2007 when it dawned on me (with considerable horror), that I’d never read the Rougon-Macquart series. I started thinking: ‘what if I died and I hadn’t read them?’–a silly question, but you get the idea. In 2009, I read seven more of the twenty novels:

Nana

Pot Luck

The Ladies Paradise

The Joy of Life

Germinal

The Masterpiece

The Earth.

Of the lot, Pot Luck, Nana, and The Earth were the most enjoyable.

With any luck, I should manage to finish the last five titles in the series some time in 2010. Then I’ll make some other long-term substantial reading goal–but not until I’ve finished the Rougon-Macquart.

As for other 2010 reading goals–more classics and more New York Review Books. I read a few of their titles in 2009 and was so impressed, I plan on watching their new releases via the electronic e-mail updates (as well as perusing some of their older titles). And on a final note, I read 106 books in 2009. Obviously I can’t mention them all, so I’ve selected a few titles as the highlights of my reading year:

What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn. This is an updating of Anna Karenina to modern New York . I was a bit skeptical at first  as I get a bit annoyed when writers pinch the ideas of other writers (especially when the ‘other writers’ are phenomenally successful). But here months later I find myself still thinking about this novel. This is the tale of a woman who realises that she’s aging and who marries a wealthy man for security. A few years later, facing the bleakness of a loveless marriage, she plunges into a reckless affair….

Mucho Mojo by Joe Lansdale. If you haven’t read any of The Hap & Leonard novels and if you like a character-based crime novel, then give these East Texas noir novels a spin. Rude, crude, and lewd–these books are just my sort of thing. 

The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy & William Hobbler. If you are interested in the crime scene of 19th Paris, then this non fiction book is a must-read. The authors are obviously well-versed in the period and the subject matter. With an emphasis on personalities, the book concentrates on some of the most infamous crimes of the period (including the theft of the Mona Lisa) and the development of crime detection techniques. I didn’t read much non fiction in 2009, and I hope to remedy that in 2010.

Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant. I’m leaning towards calling this his best novel. I still think of Bel Ami’s duel against a rival newspaper man. The duel was a farce but after many embellishments it becomes a narrow brush with death. Anyway, a splendid characterisation of a mediocre man who climbs the social ladder over the bodies of his female conquests.

  

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond–a discovery thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal. I have a soft spot for noir–the darker the better. This was my first Raymond novel and it certainly won’t be my last. He Died With His Eyes Open is a bitter tale of a murder investigation that reveals an abyss of lost illusions, cruelty, and destructive, poisonous relationships. It was really wonderful to discover Max’s blog in 2009 as we seem to have some reading tastes in common, so I plan on raiding his blog (and avoid a reading rut) for more ideas in 2010.

 

Colony by Hugo Wilcken thanks to John Self over at the Asylum. I doubt I would have discovered this author on my own and that’s depressing. The novel is set in the French penal colony in French Guiana. Another illustration of the handy-dandy uses of colonies. It’s a superb novel that explores issues such as identity and freedom.

 

 

The Duel by Alexander Kuprin. Kuprin isn’t much read any more outside of Russia, and that’s a shame. This gem of the Silver Age is set in Southern Russia. The story of Second Lieutenant Romashov examines the horrible, constricted lives of the army officers who amuse themselves by dueling, boozing and engaging in petty affairs with the wives of their fellow officers. Read this and you’ll understand why there was a revolution.

 

The Charmer by Patrick Hamilton. I watched the television series and finally got to the book. Hamilton doesn’t spare his characters one bit as he explores their vanities and nastiness and then introduces a canny villain who’s ready to exploit those weaknesses. I still think of the snotty Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce and laugh. The Charmer is the second part of The Gorse Trilogy. I need to read the other two volumes soon.

 

This was a great year for funny books. Augustus Carp esq. by Henry Howarth Bashford–one of the marvellous Prion Humour Classics, this is the story of an insufferable, sanctimonious prig brought up by a father who’s made of the same material. This is the story of how one individual can sail through life with no clue about how pathetically nasty he is. Very, very funny. Get a copy and give yourself a laugh.

 

A Melon for Ecstasy by John Fortune and John Wells–This is the story of a man who has love affairs with trees. I bought a few copies for friends for Xmas and got funny looks in return. No it’s not porn. It’s the story of  middle-aged, sexually repressed Humphrey Mackevoy, a man who runs a bookshop and lives with his insufferable mother. This is so very well done that Humphrey comes off as the best, most balanced person in the book.

 

 Ladies From St Petersburg by Nina Berberova. This is a collection of three novellas which effectively place characters in three stages of the Russian Revolution: before, during and after. The language is subtle; the drama downplayed, but a sense of chaos, loss and displacement echo long after the book’s conclusion. Excellent. Berberova has to be one of the greatest Russian emigre writers.

 

Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin. This book ends up as one of the most intriguing of the year. It’s short, simple, plagued by coincidence, but at the same time it’s elegant and tragic in its exploration of the materialistic vs love and romance. The book smacks of 19th century but was written in 1951. Good thing I didn’t know that when I bought it as I usually avoid historical novels. I’ve yet to see the film version of this….

 

 Any excuse to show this cover again:

How The Light gets In by M.J Hyland. This book gives me faith in modern fiction. It’s the story of an Aussie exchange student who leaves the slums of Sydney for an upscale Chicago suburb. The teenage girl is well… a bit wild, and she’s living with a family run by an uptight class perfectionist. Do you sense trouble ahead? Well you’d be right, but this is so well done. Very low-key with unspoken tempests right under the surface. Great stuff.

 

Dr Haggard’s Disease by Patrick McGrath. I’m a sucker for the unreliable narrator. Just point one out to me and I’m likely to trot off and buy the book. That said, I think you’d have to go a long way to find a writer who is quite so skilled with the unreliable narrator as McGrath. Don’t take my word for it! Read it! Thanks to John Self from The Asylum  for pushing me on this one. 

 

Wish Her Safe At Homeby Stephen Benatar–a middle-aged spinster decides to ‘reinvent’ herself after she inherits a run-down house in Bristol. With shades of Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, the heroine Rachel Waring leaves London, moves to Bristol and starts ogling all the men, including the vicar. Left to her own devices and without the structure of employment, her imagination runs wild…..A very surprising, refreshing and delightfully funny read.

  

Always The Sun by Neil Cross was probably the unexpected read of the year. I thought I was getting some sort of family drama but this novel is much darker, much bleaker. In many ways. Always The Sun reminded me of Sean Doolittle’s Safer through its exploration of the horrors of suburbia.  Always The Sun is another Booker Prize loser which just goes to show I always seem to have better luck with the prize losers.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “2009–It’s a Wrap.

  1. I’ll print off the list, my main wish was that it were shorter, as your recommendations tend to work for me pretty well and I’m trying to cut back.

    Prize losers are in my view generally more interesting than the winners, I don’t have much truck with ideas of a “best book” but I do think the most interesting books tend to get knocked out before the end.

    I don’t think I caught your original reviews of all of these, certainly I’d missed that you’d reviewed Colony, I’ll have to check those out.

    Glad to be reminded of The Duel too, I definitely want that one.

  2. When it comes to the Booker prize, it’s as if the so-called best is swept up and these include some really interesting choices. These interesting titles are knocked off along the way for some reason or another. Popular choice? Concensus opinion? I don’t know but bottom line, I take a good hard look at the losers.

    Neil Cross’s Always the Sun is your kind of book, I think. As is Colony too.

    The list is a bit long, but it was longer. Just think of it as something for everyone.

  3. My personal theory is that the daring books, the ones that take risks and that try to do something new, will often alienate as many as they inspire.

    Not remotely Booker level, but I read a while back an SF novel called The Execution Channel. It contains a huge twist and has a dazzling level of misdirection while plainly setting out the truth. Lots of folk hated it, thinking it overclever (I was one of them to be honest), lots of others loved it.

    Whichever, it was original, and it was trying to push the boundaries a bit. I think the best literary novels can find themselves equally splitting their audiences, so making it very hard for them to win a prize.

    Or perhaps not, not having sat on a panel I can’t be sure.

  4. Daring works as a theory. Always the Sun wasn’t what I expected at all. It was brooding…disturbing, and not, I think (although I’m no expert) what you’d expect from Booker. I think it might be a book too (as you mentioned) that splits audiences.

    Anyway, I’m committed to the losers.

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