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the “really really great books I read last year” list
January 6, 2010, 5:58 am
Filed under: Literature

… and the only reason they’re not on the Top 10 List is… because basically they’re pretty hard to get or were published originally some years ago, but no matter, they are all true remarkable works that sent me to many spectacularly exotic places and states of mind…

by Andrei Makine
US hardback

Oh my god, Makine left me staggering in awe of his perception and facility for evoking not only a place of extremes, but also that particular moment of youth on the cusp of adulthood, when many things are still possible. Once Upon the River Love follows the imaginary and other adventures of three friends from Siberia, who dream of love, adventure, and different world after seeing a film starring the French matinee idol, Jean-Paul Belmondo. My synchronous moment came during last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, starring none other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, and accepting that, though long past any notion of ‘cusp’, I too could catch a whiff of dreaming…

by J.M.G. Le Clezio
pb $24.95

One of numerous titles by the 2008 Nobel Winner for Literature, now available locally. My choice of Terra Amata was entirely arbitrary but not in the least disappointing. Le Clezio reminded me of the great European literature I used to read, from the Surrealists to the Existentialists to exponents of the Nouveau Roman. Terra Amata make me both think and weep, a brilliant combo! Currently I’m reading his most recent novel, Desert, which looks like it will be available here in May. Can I say “oh my god” again? Set in Morocco and the North African desert, it is as slow, repetitive and unrelenting as the sand, the sun, the wind — utterly mesmerising!

by Roberto Bolano
US hardback

I’m getting all my non-Anglos out of the way first because these works in translation were my strongest revelation of 2009. I had been concentrating so long on Anglo writing I’d forgotten how dazzling it could be to read from other cultures. Of Roberto Bolano, I’ve read The Savage Detectives which I regard as a work of genius, combining the classic hero’s journey/road trip with the literary roman à clef with a great raucous call to revolution. I’ve read Amulet, which tells the story of a minor character from The Savage Detectives. I thought at first it was a minor work, until I got to the end and understood the meaning of “amulet”. That was the cue for the waterworks! I intend to read his magnum opus, 2666, but have not yet been able to commit to 898 pages. And I did read The Skating Rink, a much smaller (in length) work, both thriller and love story, and peopled by Bolano’s usual cast of crazies, depressives and savants. I would read anything by Bolano!!

by Shirley Hazzard
pb $22.99

Sadly late (or better late than never) in concurring with everyone else’s conclusion that this woman is a stylistic genius. I mentioned in an earlier post how great I thought this contemporary classic was, and at least it is still in print!

by Pete Dexter
US pb $32.00

A total must for any fans of the TV series Deadwood by David Milch. Though not specifically based on Pete Dexter’s version, Milch must definitely have been aware of it. Dexter’s is equally well researched and his language is definitely just as ‘fruity’!! I loved it, being a bit of a western fan and enjoying another sojourn to the Dakota Territories with Wild Bill and Charlie Utter, whose friendship, amongst other things, is so movingly related.

by A.M. Homes
pb $23.95 (available but has to be ordered in)

So great! This lady is the genius of contemporary angst, kind of like a literary Seinfeld Show, if you know what I mean. What I wrote in my diary at the time: “Total breakdown material! How I feel and behave A LOT; sick of being adult and responsible. Homes’ ‘adult’ characters acting out of childish ‘want’. She has such awesome insight into human relations.” And if you can’t get hold of Music for Torching, there’s always her brilliant depiction of man-on-edge-of-breakdown in This Book Will Save Your Life.

The “ones that didn’t get 3&1/2 but probably should have” list!
January 4, 2010, 6:22 am
Filed under: Literature

Ok, so in answer to your question, the “not quite 3&1/2” books are all really really great and terribly well written and realised, but had perhaps something just “not quite” about them, for example:

parts of Dog Boy are really really gross;

Homer and Langley is not nearly as great as Doctorow’s Ragtime or The March;

Byatt’s didactic presentation of her research for The Children’s Book can get really really irritating;

even I, who am a HUGE fan, got a little tired of Occupied City‘s stylistic repetitions;

Geoff, Jeff and Death, I thought was really really funny and I loved the first part in Venice, but the second part in Varanasi I wasn’t so convinced by at the time, though now, it seems to me, that it too was very very good;

Sunnyside was a great sprawling larrikin of a book but lacked the cohesion of a central character to impel the narrative;

and the poor old Anthologist I read after the baroque genius of Shirley Hazzard, so it took me a while to appreciate the joys of contemporary American minimalism again, though I was completely inspired by Mr Baker to pursue my poetic ambitions…

So there you have it! for what it’s worth…

Dog Boy
by Eva Hornung
pb $32.95

Homer and Langley
by E.L. Doctorow
pb $29.99

The Children’s Book
by A.S. Byatt
pb $24.95

Occupied City: The Tokyo Trilogy Part Two
by David Peace
pb $32.99

Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer
pb $32.95

by Glen David Gold
pb $32.99

The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker
pb $32.99

PS The real real list is yet to come; the list of books that equal or outscore my best of best list, and the only reason they’re not on it is… TBC… Rata x

Rata’s top 10 of 2009!
January 3, 2010, 6:22 am
Filed under: Literature

I seriously wonder whether my ‘star’ system is actually working when I think of some of the books I’ve had to leave off this list because they only scored a 3 instead of 3 and 1/2! It really does depend on “where your mind is at” at the time… That said, Anne Michaels was the only one to score 4 and 1/2 out of a list of extraordinary novels, several of which I could say I adored, not least of which is Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America. The other odd thing you may not notice is the 50/50 breakdown in the top 10 between male and female authors. Purely coincidental I do assure you! And, how the majority of male authors are Australian, but none of the females… Does any of this mean anything? Probably not.

Rata’s Top 10 in not too particular an order:

The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels
pb $32.99

Oh to inhabit a world of such acute memory, beauty and erudition!

Parrot and Olivier in America
by Peter Carey
hb $49.95

Two great characters; two great voices; fabulous setting; brilliant!

by David Malouf
hb $29.95

Superb evocation of the strictures men impose on themselves and what happens when the masks are lifted.

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout
pb $22.99

A Pulitzer Prize winning portrayal of an irascible ageing woman and her small-town life. We all cried buckets at the end!

The Lost Life
by Steven Carroll
pb $29.99

Rhythmic and poetic portrayal of youth, first love, lost opportunities, memory, peace and moving on.

The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver
pb $35

A moving and spirited story about living a life: passion, revolution and righteous action!

The Song Is You
by Arthur Phillips
pb $32.95

Beautiful meditation on the conjunction between grieving and music: the crazy things we do to cope.

The Tricking of Freya
by Christina Sunley
pb $32.99

The only debut novel in this list provides an awesome combination of Icelandic folklore, Canadian history and the tragedy of families secrets.

Blood’s A Rover
by James Ellroy
pb $32.95

Brilliant and tragic indictment of both right-wing and left-wing violence and all the damaged crusaders. A wild wild ride!

American Wife
by Curtis Sittenfeld
pb $24.95

An insight into the workings of a liberal conscience, the American political system and the reasons a woman might choose a man who is so clearly her intellectual inferior.

PS Writing up this list I’ve just realised how romantic all these novels are, even the Ellroy(!), and how nostalgic, for moments and people lost and for opportunities missed. Makes you wonder what was going on with me last year… LOL Rata x