Read about 45 again this year, not including all the dreary academic palaver related to my doctorate. Watched way, way too much film and television. I’ll stick to books here, other than to say I very much enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk at the movies, and for television thought The Good Place, Better Call Saul and Nobel were excellent. Glow was a guilty pleasure, and Twin Peaks was by far the best on the small screen in 2017.

In vague (but not exact) order, starting with my favourite of the year:

  • Dragonfish (2015) – Vu Tran

Vietnamese-American author Vu Tran, in his debut novel, masters the exceedingly difficult task of integrating a literary neo-noir with a backstory of refugee flight from Vietnam after the end of the American War.

The protagonist is Robert, an Oakland cop who has not gotten over his wife leaving him, two years before. His ex is a Vietnamese woman, Suzy, a refugee who arrived in the US after the end of the War. The novel is set in Vegas, and Suzy’s experiences of Vietnam are recounted through a journal. Nonetheless, the flashbacks via the journal are visceral and shocking. I don’t usually swear out loud while reading a book, but I did with this one (in a good way).

My particular obsessions with noir and Vietnam could well make me overly partial to this novel; however, its prose, structure, and execution are excellent. One of the best noir novels of the past ten years.

  • Ubik (1969) – Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick has always been hit and miss in the quality of his prose. While his ideas are always mind-bending, and wonderfully strange, his writing suffers under the time constraints much of his work was written in. Often several books a year, and often – according to many a story – under the influence of speed. Sometimes the reader feels as if they’re getting a first draft.

When he took his time, he was one of the greats of the literature of ideas, and of American writing full stop. The Man in the High Castle is one example of this, and another is Ubik, which I finally got around  to this year.

Ubik has all the hallmarks of PKD – the paranoia, the warped and nightmarish realities (and para-realities), the powerful corporate or even divine entities that may or may not be orchestrating it all – within a compelling narrative.

  • In Cold Blood (1966) – Truman Capote

This, apparently, marked the beginnings of the ‘True Crime’ category of books. If true, it’s a category that has declined ever since. Here, we have the story of the murder of the Clutter family in a small town in Kansas.

Given the reader knows the ending (the men confessed and were hanged), it is a riveting story, elegantly told, of greed, stupidity, and unnecessary waste of human life. Eloquent, psychologically acute, and sociologically closely observed.

  • The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971) – Charles Willeford

Out of print now, I got this second-hand from one of the online bookstores that isn’t Amazon. It’s a short novel / novella, unconventional neo-noir insofar as it is about an ambitious young art critic (I don’t believe I’ve ever read a noir novel with a critic as protagonist), who will do anything to get an exclusive interview with a reclusive French painter.

The manner of revealing the self-absorbed, even sociopathic charter of the protagonist Jacques Figueras is exquisite. There’s a parallel with the self-absorbed world of fine art, skewered by an author who apparently knows his stuff. But this isn’t about art. It is a novel – like all off the best hard-boiled – about human failing, a corrupt elite, and Hobbesian capitalism, all contained within spare prose sprinkled with dark humour.

  • Mildred Pierce (1941) – James M Cain

By one of the three founding fathers of hardboiled fiction (along with Hammett and Chandler), Mildred Pierce is fascinating for several reasons. One, is the female protagonist (unusual at the time); two, is there’s no real crime to speak of (not until the very end, and even then it is peripheral to the story); and three, Mildred has possibly the worst daughter in the history of literature. Good lord she is awful.

Mildred Pierce documents the challenges faced by women during the Great Depression – the shattered economy offered limited choices to regular people; even less if you weren’t a man. The titular character is tough, resilient, hard-working, forging her own way. Well, except where her horrible daughter comes in and fucks everything up.

An unexpected, brilliant, hard boiled novel.

  • When We Were Orphans (2000) – Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is my favourite author; the world apparently agrees, giving him the Nobel prize for literature this year. Not seen many mention that his last two novels were Fantasy and Science Fiction, respectively (The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go), nor have I seen anyone note that in his Nobel Prize lecture he said definition of ‘good literature’ had to be expanded to include other ‘genres and forms’.

When We Were Orphans is the only book of his I hadn’t read. While it didn’t affect me quite so strongly as say, Remains of the Day, or even his debut, A Pale View of Hills, it is nonetheless exceptional. Consistent with the themes explored throughout Ishiguro’s career, the novel looks at the fallibility of memory and the lies we tell ourselves.

The secret at the heart of the novel – and at the existence of the protagonist – revealed at the end, is monstrous and soul destroying; a revelation that equals, perhaps even exceeds, anything Ishiguro has written before or since.  The novel is handled with his usual deftness, subtlety, and elegance.

  • An Elegant Young Man (2013) – Luke Carman

There’s almost nothing written by working class Australians anymore. To be an author, increasingly, is to be already rich as a prerequisite in an era of declining books sales and growing inequality. So it was more than a relief to read this. It was a reminder of another Australia, forgotten, even though about half the population live in it; a doorway to a range of experiences almost never seen in print: those of the marginalised, outer-suburban, working class Australian. It shouldn’t be so rare, but insofar as literature reflects society, it also reflects the voices marginalised in our society. A truth often revealed by an absence.

Not all the stories work, they never do in collections like these. But the ones that do: his story of his father, a tough man now too fearful to leave the house; his experiences as an outsider in the inner-city, uni educated, latte crowd; the often funny recounting of his time as an amateur wrestler (as in, Hulk Hogan wrestling), are painful, crude, and powerful.

  • The Beautiful and the Grotesque (1916 – 1927) – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

An excellent collection of short stories from the Japanese master. Best known for his story Rashomon, and the movie it inspired, this book showcases the range of his thinking and ability.

In particular I liked The Kappa and the Robbers. The former being a surreal, alternate-universe novella telling the story of a man who travelled through a hole in the ground the realm of the Kappa. Where, through observing their society, builds a trenchant criticism of Japanese society at the time. It could be called the Japanese version of Gulliver’s Travels (which critiqued the English), or Xu Lun’s A Madman’s Diary (China).

The latter novella, The Robbers, is an excellent proto-noir featuring a femme fatale, a heist gone wrong, betrayal and blood. The collection is worth it for these two stories alone.

  • The Dead (1914) – James Joyce

In an Ian McEwen interview I stumbled across on YouTube, he discusses the short story and the novella, and his belief that they can be ‘perfect’. I’ve heard this before, but the basic premise is the short form literature lends itself to this possibility. The novel – unwieldy, big, multiple plot strands and characters, denies this opportunity.

But for the short story and the novella, line by line, holds out the slender hope of perfection. McEwen named Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and I’d suggest Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. McEwen also mentioned Joyce’s novella (approx. 18,000 words), The Dead, and after reading it I’d be inclined to agree. The language, the construction, the ideas, are beautiful. The final line is perhaps one of the greatest in literature.

  • Slade House (2015) – David Mitchell

Page-turning supernatural thriller from the excellent Mitchell. Devoured this in a couple of days. A series of stories set across time (as is his wont), involving soul-sucking vampires, doorways to pocket universes, the occult, and retro cultural references from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.

Mitchell is a talented writer who has long straddled the line between genre and literature. Even more extraordinary, he’s not been denounced for it by the literary ghetto-dwellers on either side. I haven’t read much Mitchell at all, but after Slade House, I’ll be sure to pick up more of his books.

Ok all, have a good 2018. Be healthy. Buy and read many books. Cut right down on social media. Use the new timeline you’ve therefore created for yourself to work in a soup kitchen, or spend time with the kids, or simply buy and read more books.

 

Categories: Reviews

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Sponsors

  • Cheap reliable web hosting from WebHostingHub.com.
  • Domain name search and availability check by PCNames.com.
  • Website and logo design contests at DesignContest.com.
  • Reviews of the best cheap web hosting providers at WebHostingRating.com.