Failures? Easy. Gordimer’s The Conservationist, Borges’ Collected Fictions, Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, and Allen Ginsberg’s Selected Poems. Yep, four of the most highly regarded writers of the 20th century make my Meh list for 2012.
Sure, sure, Gordimer’s heart is in the right place. The Conservationist is a piercing critique of apartheid, and of proprietorial masculinity. But it’s also a bit boring. And not terribly engaging. Overly intellectual, emotionally distant. And you don’t hyphenate adverbs. Or at least you don’t these days. Maybe you did back then. The ’70s, after all, was a foreign country.
Borges’ short stories are, for the most part, undeniably the work of a genius. Borges’ intellect shines through, from cover to cover. It’s just that, again, they are sometimes quite boring (although not always). They’re not at all emotionally engaging. In fact Borges’ intelligence might be these stories’ greatest weakness – they are just too damn clever. I’m sorry, but that’s not always a good thing.
Ginsberg’s Selected Poems? Forget it. Watch James Franco in Howl instead.
And Richard Ford’s The … Oh, sorry. I’ve lost my train of thought on this par. And I can’t be bothered finding it again.
So anyway. On to the good stuff.
And where to begin? Waiting for Godot – spectacularly absurd, sublimely rational, funny, profound, depressing, all at the same time. American Gods – an Englishman dissects America’s obsession with religion, and the appeal and futility of spiritual belief in the modern age. And also spins a ripping yarn. Gaiman was apparently a Doctor Who fan as a kid and these days occasionally writes scripts for the show. His first one, The Doctor’s Wife, was one of the best since the series’ reboot. The Virgin Suicides – a witty satire of suburban America and a sometimes moving portrait of adolescence. Flaubert’s Parrot – barely a novel, really, but hugely entertaining and enlightening. Beloved – a brutal portrait of American slavery and what black Americans endured even after the system had been abolished.
So, what’s left? Oh yes…
My top three for the year are:
It’s Raining in Mango – Thea Astley’s magnificent tale of a fictitious Australian family, from rough-as-guts Queensland in the mid-1800s through World War II to environmental protests in the 1980s, beautifully melds the settlement experience of white Australia with the impact of that settlement on the indigenous inhabitants. This book should be as highly regarded as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, one of my favourite books of all time.
Peter Robb’s M. I love Caravaggio’s art, and I loved Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio movie, and I am intrigued by the story of his life, so it’s no surprise that Robb’s superb biography – as much guesswork as it is fact – should feature highly in my year’s reading. And it’s interesting to see that in six months it has easily become the most read post Netty and I have written in five or six years.
But…. Drum roll, please…. Look, OK, we did only read it last month so maybe I’m a little overwhelmed but seriously. Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. How awesome a book is this? A novella, sure, but what a novella. Episodic, impressionistic, lyrical, searingly personal. I would recommend most of the books on last year’s list but realistically no one’s going to read them. The Lover is short. And amazing. Read it.
Of the books in the “side” challenge, books Netty had read that I hadn’t, only D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel failed to impress. Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems was probably the standout but Less Than Zero, The Road, The Mosquito Coast and After Dark all wowed me as well.
A good year, all in all.