Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Best Books of the Year Part 4 [Not About Covers]

 (Continuing from here and here and here...)

* * * 

Roberto Bolaño: 2666
FSG, 2008

I went on and on about the design of this book here. It was the look of the thing, and a heartfelt recommendation from book designer Michael Kellner, which eventually persuaded me to read 2666, six months after everybody else had already read it and raved about it. You probably already know whether you intend to read it or not, based on the hype, so I'm not sure what I can say that will sway you if you are in the NO camp, but I'll try.

Bolaño's posthumously published, 900-page doorstopper is an intimidating but thoroughly rewarding book. In fact, in some ways, it's five books. Though all are interlinked, and the whole tells one big, complex story, it actually consists of three short and two long novels. The first is an academic satire about a group of literature professors seeking an obscure German writer in Mexico. The second book is about a Spaniard and his daughter moving to Mexico, and getting mixed up in things they don't really understand. The third book follows an American sports writer to Mexico on an assignment to cover a boxing match. The fourth, and longest (and sometimes hard to endure) part takes a look at a series of hundreds of horrific murders of poor Mexican women, and the fruitless police investigation (all, horribly, based on reality), told with the clinical distance and alarming detail of a forensic report. And the final part, which brings all the others together, is the life story of the mysterious German writer from the first section, from his birth, through the front lines of WWII, to his Mexican fate. All five books stand on their own, but read together are like nothing else I've come across.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes
Virago Modern Classics, 2000 (and NYRB, 1998)

The Virago Modern Classics are one of the Lost Great Things of modern literature (see also the Harvill/Panther paperbacks of the 1990s). From 1978 until some time in the 1990s, Virago put back into print some 400 books, mostly by women, which had been undeservedly forgotten or neglected. With their characteristic apple-green spines, these books were a wonderful collection of great novels, short stories and autobiographies. But then Virago was sold to Time Warner, and the list was savagely cut back. Now it's a shadow of its former self, but a few great books have survived: Antonia White, Elizabeth Taylor (the fantastic writer, not the appalling actress) and Rebecca West still have a few titles in print, though not all. Another amazing author who had a couple of books survive the purge was Sylvia Townsend Warner, who is also ably supported in the US by NYRB.  

Warner's short stories are brilliant, but good luck in finding them. Luckily, her novels are brilliant too, and Lolly Willowes might be the best of them. It starts as what might seem a straightforward repressed-woman-in-the-1900s narrative, but opens out to become someothing much odder and richer. It even seems to be parodying (though with more depth than any parody normally manages) books and films that hadn't even been written back in 1927, when it was first published--everything from the Elizabeth Gilbert-style middle-aged-woman-finds-herself memoirs that have boomed in bookshops over the last decade, to The Wicker Man. To say much more would be to spoil it, so I'll stop here.

Ron Currie, Jr: Everything Matters!
Viking, 2009

Before he is even born, Junior Thibodeax is hearing voices in his head, telling him that the world will end in 36 years. What's worse is that he's not mad, and the voices are telling the truth. They tell him other things, too--things he could never know otherwise--but they don't often tell him what he wants to know, and he can't really share his gift/curse with anyone in a way that they'll understand and believe him. Growing up with the indisputable fact of global destruction hanging over him, Junior's life goes understandably awry. He's unable to share his gift.

Taking in the end of everything, parallel universes and time loops, teenage sex, powerless gods and domestic terrorism, this could have been an appalling mess. Instead, it's a funny, clever and deeply touching novel: the sort of energetic, all-encompassing book that seems as though it could only have been wrtten by a young writer, but which seems much wiser than such youth should allow.

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin
Penguin Classics, 2009 (also Melville House, 2009, as Every Man Dies Alone)

I collect a lot of books about great forgotten books (often themselves out of print), listing reams of wonderful novels that never got the attention they deserved, or which vanished into oblivion despite one-time popularity. One writer who keeps popping up in these lists is German novelist Hans Fallada, who died in 1947. After years of neglect in the English-speaking world, Fallada is suddenly back in 2009, with more to come.

Alone in Berlin, Fallada's last book, is a story of the Germin resistance to the Nazis, based on a true story. Given his own troubled relationship to Hitler's regime, Fallada could well have chosen to write an uplifting tale of moral, upright citizens, defiant in the face of horror, working together to fight fascism--the sort of book Germans might have wanted to read in 1947. Instead, he produced this gripping, bleak thriller of hopelessness and petty revenge. The husband and wife at the centre of the story leave subversive postacrds all over Berlin, trying to change the minds of their fellow Germans, turning them against their Nazi masters. Most books would have pushed the light-in-the-darkness angle, but Fallada seems to view hope as something of a dirty trick, and the postacrds go astray, are ignored, or handed over to the authorities--and so the hunt is on for the subversive couple. To mention that this book is translated by
Michael Hofmannis is to mention that it's translated masterfully.

Melville House also republished two other great novels by Fallada--Little Man, What Now? and The Drinker, both excellent--and are bringing out another, Wolf Among Wolves, in 2010.

Dash Shaw: Bottomless Belly Button
Fantagraphics, 2008

I can't add much more to what I already said here, but Bottomless Belly Button really is that good. And Shaw is only 26, which means he started writing and drawing this graphic novel when he was 22. It's depressing when other people are so talented and so young, and all you have to show for yourself is a blog and a series of foolish self-inflicted injuries.



StuckInABook said...

Isn't Lolly Willowes great? I've only read one other of her novels - Mr. Fortune's Maggot - which I didn't find anywhere near as good.

And I so agree with you over the VMCs - when they stopped using that beautiful and iconic green border, the series rather died.

JRSM said...

You have to read her stories--probably her best stuff! I've managed to gather quite a haul of old VMCs over the years, combing second-hand shops, but it's a shame that so many great things are now OP again.