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In which Netty makes her first – but not last – list for 2011 …

January 13, 2011

New year’s resolutions. I don’t care what people claim otherwise – everyone makes ‘em. And of course I make them – anything with even the remotest scent of a list, and hey – I’m there, baby. Although you’ll be disappointed to know mine are always pretty damn mundane; eat better, exercise more (or at all, even), save cash, don’t drink as much (ahem) … I knew a guy once, eons ago, friend of an ex, actually, who I asked, one new year’s day, if he had any resolutions for that year. “Yeah,” he deadpanned. “I’m gonna take up smoking and ride an elephant.” Well, touché, my dear fellow, touché  …

However, there is one new year’s resolution I have made and  kept for nigh on three, going on four, years now. And that was – and is – to read more books; specifically to read all those authors I shoulda, coulda, woulda read, if only I’d … well, you know how it goes. And Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge has played no small part in that; certainly moreso than if I was going solo, or even in a book group, for that matter (some people who regularly read this blog also personally know Andy, but for those of you who don’t, let me tell you – he is a very, very big incentive to get these books read on time (or something very close to it!), every time. There are few things in life I would fear more than turning up to a drink ‘n’ dissect, only to have to admit, “Errr … I haven’t actually finished the book yet …” And face the wrath and potentially death by a thousand stares. But don’t tell Andy I said that … that’s just between you and me, yeah?)

Speaking of lists – and my self-professed great love for them – it’s that time of year (well, it was 14 days ago, at any rate) to look back on last year’s Reading Challenge and look ahead to this year’s. I personally thought it was a cracker of a list last year, and it’s shaping up as more of the same this year. So without further ado, here is, in descending order (just like a Countdown top 10 of yesteryear!), the way I saw ANRC10.

12. Johnno – David Malouf. Ah, Malouf – by far and away the biggest disappointment  of the year for moi. Unlike Marquez’s Whores or Updike’s Rabbit, I didn’t despise Johnno – I was just deeply, deeply disappointed in it. After all, Malouf is a literary lion in this country, but Johnno  – for me – is a bit of a lame cub. I really feel like I owe it to Malouf to give his oeuvre a bit more of a workout before I condemn him to the never-to-be-read-again pile, but quite frankly, I don’t know if I can be bothered. Life’s too short, and there’s too many books out there that I actually want to read, rather than to labour through those I don’t.

11. And The Ass Saw The Angel – Nick Cave. OK, Nick. Makes perfect sense that a lyrical wordsmith like yourself should try and turn your hand to something as ambitious as a novel. And yeah, I’ve taken into account the fact that you were basically a drug-addled smacky at the time. Angel certainly gets marks – and kudos – for its ambition, and there is some very promising characterisation, plot development and storytelling going on within its pages. But I can’t help thinking recoiling in distaste every time I recall the misguided Messiah wannabe Euchrid Eucrow. Have you ever thought about writing your autobiography, Nick? Now that would make me pick up a book with your name on the cover.

10. Possession – AS Byatt. Now, I am happy to admit that I’m a books snob. I’m the first one to turn my nose up at Dan Brown, Bryce Courtney, Stieg Larsson – hell, anything that is popularist and adored by the masses. Sorry. But I don’t think I realised there was such a thing as too literary until I tackled Dame Antonia Susan’s Man Booker Prize-winning opus. Maybe it’s an academia thing, and Byatt certainly has that downpat in spades. The story of Roland and Maud, Randolph and Christabel, was interesting enough, for the most part. But at the end of the day, I got to the last page feeling much the same way as I do when I get to the end of a workout – I know it’s good for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy it.

9. Fit To Print – Joris Luyendijk. Now, I really liked this book. The fact that it is lurking down the bottom of the list at No. 9 is more a reflection on the quality of the offerings we read last year. But at the end of the day, it’s a specialist subject for a specialist audience – besides the fact that journalist Luyendijk’s memoir of his stint as a Middle East correspondant was a best-seller in his native Holland. As I said at the time, if you’re not really quite interested in either the media or the Middle East, there’s probably not a lot in these pages that’s going to be a good fit for you.

8. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys. This was our last book of the year, and hence the one that is still the most fresh in my mind. Rhys is to be commended on many things – and foremost among them is creating a beautifully realised novel from someone else’s idea (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre) that stands alone as its own work. Would I appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea more if I was familiar with its source material? Perhaps, but I suspect not necessarily so. I’m not fussed if I never read Jane Eyre, but I will be making an effort to read more of Rhys’s canon.

7. Collected Poems – Thom Gunn. I really, really like poetry, and I never feel that I read enough of it. Unlike perhaps Andy, the fact that I don’t have a background steeped in the classics did not deter me from Gunn’s earliest offerings. But like Andy, I wholeheartedly agree that Gunn’s The Man With The Night Sweats suite packs one helluva emotional wallop. Some of the most searing, brutal, yet heartfelt and beautiful words ever committed to paper.

6. Our Story Begins – Tobias Wolff. Andy summed this one up perfectly. In another year, we both would probably have been raving about Wolff’s short stories. His mature, well-crafted, deftly constructed portraits of characters grappling with any number of troubling issues, be they physical, mental, or existential, were by and large a pleasure to read. But another author, a famed proponent of the genre, casts a very, very long shadow over the other authors in ANRC10. Read on …

5. The Drowned World – JG Ballard. I think Andy might be surprised that I have put this Ballard offering so high up my list, especially because I didn’t exactly rave about it at the time. But I think the two things that are most telling is that a) of all the ANRC10 books – even Black Water – this is the one that still resonates with me the most, the one that I still have dreams (and nightmares) about; and b) I went out and ordered another Ballard book within a fortnight of finishing The Drowned World (and yeah, OK, I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but still …) Oh, and it has opened my eyes to science fiction, a genre I now see that I have in the past been too quick to dismiss.

4. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner. Well, as it turns out, Faulkner doesn’t have his formidable literary reputation for nothing. As I Lay Dying is a masterful, intricate family saga steeped in the (American) southern gothic tradition. There was much in here that astounded me – also much that made me laugh out loud, even though I’m still not sure if that was deliberate on the behalf of the author. I like to think it was and that Faulkner was possessed of a sly, mordant wit, deliberately crafting a black comedy out of the misery and pathos that dogs the novel’s Bundren family. Basically it’s a cracking yarn set in a very post-modern structure, especially for a book first published in the 1930s. And overall a very worthy and worthwhile introduction to Faulkner’s work.

3. Post Office – Charles Bukowski. I still can’t believe it’s taken me … uh, way too many  … years to finally dip my toes into American cult writer Bukowski’s pool. His barely disguised debut roman a clef Post Office is a gloriously ragged, shambolic mess of a book – oh, and that’s a compliment of the highest order. It’s the literary equivalent of a wild, drunken all-nighter – you might stagger home at dawn more than the worse for wear and wake up the next day going, whoa, what the hell happened there? But when the hangover finally subsides, your existence is all the more richer for it. And hell, you might even get a book out of it one day.

2. Black Water – Joyce Carol Oates. Prolific Canadian author Oates’ fictionalised imagining of the drowning of a Mary Jo Kopechne-like character, who has been entranced and bewitched by a Ted Kennedy-like character in a retelling of the infamous 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, is writing at its most gorgeous, evocative and emotionally devastating. There is not a single word wasted in this slim novella, which puts the readers right there in the passenger seat, launches them into free-fall and finally condemns them to a horrific, watery death, along with its main character, the doomed Kelly Kelleher. Black Water is nothing short of absolutely superb.

1. Where I’m Calling From – Raymond Carver. We. Are. Not. Worthy. And you, you reading this – get thee to a book store, or a library. Right now. In fact, yesterday. You may never read anything else ever again.  You may never want to read anything else ever again. Because Carver is that. Damn. Good. And then some.

Oh, and the 2011 list? Ah, yes – stay tuned, boys and girls, it’s coming right up …

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