Tuesday 15 December 2009

Best Books of the Year Part 3 [Not About Covers]

(Continuing from here and here...)

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Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver
NYRB, 2009 (also Sort Of Books, 2009)

I’m gratified by the way my favourite writer as a child has also ended up becoming one of my favourite writers as an adult, for a different set of books. Tove Jansson, for it is she, wrote the wonderful Moomin books. In her later years she turned to novels and short stories for adults, and they are great. Back in the mid-1990s, when I first had a credit card and internet access, one of the first books I tracked down was Jansson’s The Summer Book, then long out-of-print in English, but now available from both NYRB in the US, and Sort Of Books in the UK. If you haven’t read it, I demand that you do. It’s a perfect evocation of childhood and old age, and the strange relationship between the two.

The True Deceiver (first published in Swedish in 1982, and now translated by Thomas Teal) is another small masterpiece. In less than 200 pages, Jansson tells the story of two odd women in a remote Swedish village. Katri is something of an outsider, yellow-eyed, brutally honest, no observer of social niceties, and always accompanied by an enormous, nameless dog. Anna, much older, lives alone in ‘the rabbit house’, where she paints illustrations for a wildly successful series of children’s books. Katri sets about moving into Anna’s life and home, motivated by both selfishness and altruism, trying to scrape together enough money to buy a special gift for her “simple” brother, Mats.

It is a brilliant, beautiful book. And for another side of Tove Jansson, 2009 also saw the publication of the fourth (and probably final) volume of her collected Moomin newspaper comic strips. Light-hearted, anarchic, humane and satirical, they’re also highly recommended: see more here.

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry from Kensington
Virago, 2008

A 20th-anniversary republication, this is probably the best of Muriel Spark’s later novels. Given the incredibly high standards Spark set in her fiction, that’s saying something. Like Tove Jansson, Spark worked almost exclusively at short novel or novella length, with no wasted words and beautifully clear, tight prose. Kensington is the story of Agnes Hawkins, a war widow in the 1950s, living in a boarding house (a frequent Spark setting), and working at a publisher’s. A mixture of bad temper and pride see her sabotaging her career, and becoming involved in a long-running feud with a hack journalist and womaniser called Bartlett. Black humour, death and diabolism ensue. (Weirdly, both this book, the Tove Jansson and two other bloody good books I read this year all have introductions by Ali Smith, who I don't even like much, and yet she obviously has excellent taste.)

I go on about Spark and some of her other great books here.

Miriam Toews: The Flying Troutmans
Faber & Faber, 2009

The set-up for Toews’ third novel is simple: Hattie, a woman fleeing a bad relationship in Paris returns to Canada to see her suicidal, institutionalised sister. The sister has two children, and desperate, to offer them hope, Hattie takes them on a road trip to find their estranged father.

That simple description gives no idea of how deeply funny and moving—as well as frequently alarming—this book is. It’s told mostly through the dialogue between the three characters in the car as they cross the border and roam the US, and it’s mostly in the dialogue that the humour of this book is found.

No a fifteen year old cannot live on his own, I said.
Pippi Longstocking wasn't even fifteen, said Thebes, and she -
Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.
And she was Swedish said Logan.
So there would have been a solid safety net of social programmes to keep her afloat, I said. It doesn't work here.

(Quoted text stolen from Dovegreyreader’s excellent blog, as my own copy of this book was loaned to a friend several months ago, and is yet to return (Are you reading, Trish?).)

Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings
Library of America, 2008

Porter is one of those writers I was vaguely aware of, but had read nothing by. To be honest, I’m not sure why I suddenly decided to buy this 1100-page volume, except that it was on sale and I have no self-control. Whatever the reason, I’m very glad I did—it was a revelation. I have a particular fondness for short stories and novellas, and Porter must be up there with William Trevor and Alice Munro as one of the great English-language short story writers. This book (half of which is short fiction, half of which short non-fiction) is superb. Hell—the final story, ‘The Leaning Tower’, a 75-page story of pre-WWII Berlin, is reason enough alone to get this.

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery and Other Stories
Penguin Modern Classics, 2009

Somehow, despite hugely enjoying those novels of Jackson’s which I have read, I’d never got this famous short story collection. Like the Porter book, though, this was a serious treat. First published in the 1950s, this collection demonstrates a range of mood and subject I really hadn’t expected: I knew Jackson could do creepy and mad and supernatural, but I had no idea she could do so much more. Having said that, though, the creepy and famous title story is one of the highlights.


Matthew Adams said...

Moomin is bloody wonderful, never knew Tove Jansson wrote short stories as well.

We read Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' for highschool. Probably (apart from 1984) one of the only decent things we had to read. After we read and watched 'My brilliant career' we actually got to read something worthwhile and with a bit of meat to it (I suspect my views on 'My brilliant career' might not be the norm for the others who read this blog, but i was a rather stupid teenage boy when forced to read it).

the hanged man said...

I read Jansson's The Summer Book this year and enjoyed it a great deal. Here's hoping more of her work will be translated in English.

Deb said...

Library of America has published any number of very good collections by prestige, but not always tremendously popular, writers. The Dashiell Hammett and Dawn Powell collections are particularly good. Now I'll be on the lookout for the Katherine Anne Porter collection.

Also, thank you for the love for A Far Cry from Kensington, one of Muriel Spark's best novels.

JRSM said...

Matthew: A Finnish friend tells me there ARE more Moomin strips, but they were done by Tove's brother Lars, so I'm not sure if they're being reprinted. I DID like 'My Brilliant Career', but I was 30 when I read it--it does seem like exactly the sort of book not to force on schoolkids.

Hanged Man: All of her fiction is excellent. One book, 'Sun City', was published in English in the 1970s and not yet reprinted--well worth tracking down, though.

Deb: I got one of the Powell collections too--some really great writing. I loved 'Angels on Toast'.

Guy Savage said...

Thanks for the mention of the NYRB version of the Jansson novel. I passed it over when eyeballing NYRB's recent publications. Now I will rethink this.

Brian Busby said...

The LIbrary of America is truly a gem. Would that my country had something similar.

If I may, I recommend their Frank Norris volume, Novels and Essays. I bought this back in 1986, mainly to replace a crummy paperback copy of McTeague (perhaps best remembered as the novel upon which von Stroheim's Greed is based), and in doing so discovered Vandover and the Brute. A cautionary tale for procrastinators like myself, it rings terrible truths.

JRSM said...

Guy: Rethink!

Brian: I know what you mean--Australia, too, needs something like this. And weirdly, the Frank Norris collection was the first LoA book I ever got, too. I LOVE 'McTeague', and the other work collected there too was fantastic.

Deb said...

In the States, Norris is mostly remembered for "The Octopus," which is still on many high school and college required reading lists, but I think "McTeague" is his best--the characters are so finely drawn. My favorite is the woman who is constantly talking about the gold plates her family lost back in the mists of time. Great stuff.

JRSM said...

She was the 'Had-a-flying-squirrel-but-it-flew-away!' woman, too, wasn't she?