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ANRC2009: Andy’s Verdict

January 17, 2010

It’s just occurred to me. If we’d called it Netty and Andy’s Reading Challenge it’d be NARC. Ho ho ho.

I’m not a fan of the summing up. Netty’s forced it on me, basically. She did it last year too. Pushy cow. Anyway here we are at the end of another year of the Reading Challenge (actually the beginning of another year of the Reading Challenge, but never mind that) and I’m supposed to give you my rundown of the year’s books. Netty will give you a list. Netty likes lists. I won’t. I don’t like lists. I’ll just… You know. Ramble a bit. A lot.

There is only one total and utter and complete and incontrovertibly dismal waste of time on this year’s list and it was Netty’s choice and she insisted it be included despite my reservations and she has since apologised to my on innumerable occasions. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, take a bow. The Black Swan is without question one of the biggest pieces of shit I have ever read in my life. Sure Nick, you’re probably much more intelligent than me, absolutely, your brain like Marvin the Paranoid Android’s may be the size of a planet. Fine. So how about you use that massive intellect of yours and make your ideas, which apparently are earthshattering and groundbreaking and epoch-defining and blah fucking blah, how about you make these blindingly stupendously brilliant ideas of yours COMPREHENSIBLE? And if you can’t do that fuck off and die. You’re a waste of space and so is your book. Netty, you owe me another apology. Now.

Weeee. That was fun.

It’s the other end of the spectrum that stuffs me up. Because there was a lot of really good stuff on the challenge list this year. For sheer escapist enjoyment, particularly in the weeks after the horrors of the Swan, Poppy Z. Brite takes the cake. Liquor isn’t great literature but it’s well written and funny and it has poofters and booze in it and that’s always a good thing. Delta of Venus did not fill me with the desire to pop down to my local secondhand bookshop and pick up a copy of one of Anais Nin’s novels that happened to be sitting in the window but then it didn’t fill me with the desire to vomit, either, and given that the whole book is about flange that is genuinely surprising and also a good thing. The White Tiger was not the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read but it was scathingly funny and gave a viciously satirical insight into the workings of one of the 21st century’s economic superpowers. These three books probably sit somewhere in the middle of my ’09 Challenge reading – obviously not as excretally awful as the Swan but not really in the league of some of our other books.

From here on though it gets painful. I guess there are another four books I’d say where really good but not as good as some of the other stuff we’ve read this year and in that group would be the poems of Miller Williams (Some Jazz a While), Dennis Johnson’s labyrinthine exploration of the Vietnam War (Tree of Smoke), Henry Reynolds’ polemic on Aboriginal land rights (The Law of the Land) and John Updike’s Rabbit Run – but only just. I have every intention of reading Updike’s other three Rabbit novels and quite possibly some of his other books as well. I was much more impressed with Rabbit Run than Netty was, but…

Actually now that I think about it Voss might sit on the same ground as Rabbit Run. Patrick White, like Updike, is a self-consciously important writer. White’s worse, I suspect. Oooooh, look at me, I’m writing literature. The two of them are as bad as each other, it’s just that I think White is a better writer and so he gets away with it a bit more. Just. Also he’s Australian and that gets him extra points. Voss is an astonishing novel but White’s arrogance is at times as nauseating as his main character’s.

Somewhere long ago I read the phrase “so clever it winks at you” on the back of a book. I’m pretty sure it’s on my bookshelf but I can’t remember which book it is and frankly it’s probably been used more than once. Anyway, it definitely applies to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. I pretty much despise postmodernism and there’s not a lot about metafiction that I like these days; the fact that Auster can win me over with his interlinking novellas is pretty impressive. I’m told his more recent work simply goes over old ground, which is disappointing. He’s another writer I’m looking forward to exploring more deeply.

Ralph Ellison is not one of those writers, not because I don’t want to read anything else he’s written but sadly because he wrote very little other than Invisible Man. What a novel it is, though, Huge, rambling, visceral, eviscerating, brutal, enlightening, depressing, uplifting… Well, barely uplifting. Occasionally uplifting. But certainly enlightening. It was written, what, 50 years ago? Longer, I think. And I suspect it gives us insight into the way race relations work in the US today, from Hurrican Katrina to the election of Barack Obama. Yippee-ki-yay, motherfouler.

Our final book of the year tussles with Auster for my pick. For Whom the Bell Tolls is just astonishing. I didn’t do it credit when I blogged about it. It is such a finely crafted narrative, told in such carefully honed language, propelled with such superbly controlled energy towards a devastating conclusion. Even the elements of Hemingway’s personality and experience that I find odious – the hunting and the bullfighting and the machismo and the homophobia – either don’t appear in this novel or appear only in support of the story itself. Maria’s whole I-exist-for-no-reason-than-to-make-you-happy-Robert-Jordan thang shat me a bit but it’s more than balanced by Pilar’s protofeminist fiestiness.

Look, there’s a bunch of other stuff I could say but Netty and I have recently been instructed to keep our blogs shorter. Ooops. Fucked that one up. Anyway, I am looking forward to the Challenge of 2010. Netty and I decided on the books this year slightly differently, which I’m sure she’ll tell you about at some point, and the result, I feel, is pretty impressive.

But enough of literature. My boyfriend’s got a lamb roast in the oven. Yumma.

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