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Posts tagged ‘Jennifer Egan’

Best Books 2017

sparsholt-affairIt’s nearly the holidays, so I thought I’d brush the cobwebs off the website and pull together a list of some of the books I’ve loved this year.

Two of the novels I enjoyed most – George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – turned up on the Man Booker shortlist, and while if it had been up to me I might have ended up handing the gong to Hamid instead of Saunders they’re both very fine novels. Interestingly though, I felt the Booker longlist was stronger than the shortlist, and while I was also very impressed by Ali Smith’s Autumn (and I loved the second part of her seasons quartet, Winter, which was published a couple of weeks ago) and Fiona Mozley’s visionary and charged Elmet, the book I wish had won, Jon McGregor’s thrillingly strange portrait of the unsettled landscape of an English town Reservoir 13, didn’t make the cut. Nor was it the only baffling omission: certainly I would have rated any of Sebastian Barry’s beautiful Days Without End, Kamila Shamsie’s deeply engaging reworking of Antigone, Home Fire, Elizabeth Strout’s quietly brilliant Anything Is Possible and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (both of which I mentioned in my 2016 round-up) over a couple of the shortlisted titles.

87146a_d6b6ad6e767249fa804d1bd126b757e6~mv2_d_3070_4653_s_4_2.jpgI also loved Alan Hollinghurst’s glorious The Sparsholt Affair, a book that is so gorgeously and wittily constructed sentence by sentence and so wonderfully well-observed I spent the whole final third being sorry it was going to end. I was also hugely impressed by Megan Hunter’s slim but beautiful story of a flooded England, The End We Start From, Philip Pullman’s triumphant return to the world of Northern Lights, La Belle Sauvage (a book that also, not coincidentally, I suspect, features an epochal flood), Jennifer Egan’s sleekly oblique Manhattan Beach and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing. And while we’re on the subject of floods, I very much enjoyed Daisy Hildyard’s elegant exploration of the infinite unboundedness of the Anthropocene, The Second Body.

33673959._UY585_SS585_.jpgI’m not sure it makes much dividing science fiction and fantasy publishing from literary publishing any more, especially not when the concerns so many of the best novels on both sides of the divide are exploring are so similar (and indeed, when so many writers move so fluidly back and forth), a point that’s underlined by the fact stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s hugely impressive Her Body and Other Parties were published in Strange Horizons (read it: it’s fabulous) and Tin House, while Sarah Hall’s gorgeous and deeply uncanny Madame Zero deliberately reject the notion they need to be one or the other (it’s probably not coincidental another of the books I admired most, Ottessa Moshfegh’s viscerally unsettling Homesick for Another World, features a photo of a flying saucer on its cover, but despite often having an affect that owes a little to the weird and horror fiction, has almost no fantastical elements). But it still seems a pity that a book like Jeff Vandermeer’s riotously inventive Borne (which I loved, and reviewed for Sydney Review of Books) is so much more visible to mainstream readers than books such as Adam Roberts’ joyously inventive mash-up of Agatha Christie, Hitchcock and Black Mirror, The Real-Town Murders, Paul McAuley’s deeply sad and tender Austral, Nina Allan’s brilliantly off-kilter exploration of the unresolvable nature of grief, The Rift, Kim Stanley Robinson’s sprawling and intellectually dazzling New York 2140, or even Ann Leckie’s sort-of sequel to her Ancillary Trilogy, Provenance. The other science fiction and fantasy title I loved, Garth Nix’s playfully subversive fairy-tale mash-up, Frogkisser, is YA, and so less troubled by these sorts of questions.)

From-the-Wreck_cover.jpgMy favourite Australian novel was Jane Rawson’s fabulously weird remaking of the historical novel, From the Wreck, but I also loved Krissy Kneen’s science fictional exploration of post-humanity and desire and intimacy, An Uncertain Grace, Ashley Hay’s delicate exploration of post-natal depression and the complex entanglements of place and love, A Hundred Small Lessons and Kathryn Heyman’s brutal but necessary Storm and Grace. I also enjoyed Shaun Prescott’s unsettling excursion into the haunted spaces of central west NSW, The Town, Sally Abbott’s powerful and deeply unsettling exploration of climate change and similar questions about Australia’s inland communities, Closing Down, and Jock Serong’s incredibly powerful excursion into the charged territory of Australia’s refugee policy, On The Java Ridge (a book that has one of the most viscerally intense central sections I’ve read in a long, long time). And while it wasn’t strictly a 2017 book, I also really enjoyed Mark Smith’s post-apocalyptic young adult novel, The Road to Winter, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, Wilder Country (which did come out in 2017).

MonsterCover_FINAL.pngOn the comics front I was hugely impressed by Emil Ferris’ extraordinarily dense and marvellously idiosyncratic My Favourite Thing is Monsters, and while there were fewer moments of excitement on the mainstream comic front, I’m completely in love with Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer (and its new offshoot, Sherlock Frankenstein) and I continue to be surprised by how much I’m engaged by Ed Brubaker’s reworking of the trope of the lone vigilante, Kill Or Be Killed. But the comic I loved most this year was one I should have read a decade ago but never quite got around to, Alison Bechdel’s astonishing Fun House (and which I’m going to mention here simply because it’s so good I think everybody should read it).

And finally, two non-fiction books. the first, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of the inner world of cephalopod consciousness, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, is a fascinating illustration of the ways in which philosophy can illuminate science in just the same way science can illuminate philosophy. The second, The Museum of Words, is the book my friend Georgia Blain wrote in the months before her death, and which was subsequently edited by her husband, Andrew Taylor, and while its range is circumscribed by the conditions of its composition, it is a wonderfully eloquent reminder of the clarity of thought, empathy and humour that made Georgia’s writing so special.

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Best Books 2010

It’s the time of year when people start publishing their best of lists, so I thought it might be fun to kick off a bit of discussion here about what people have (and haven’t!) liked in 2010. Because I review so much this is usually a pretty easy process for me, but in many ways the last twelve months have been a bit of disaster for me reading-wise: as well as all the chaos of a new baby I’ve been trying to get an anthology tied down and finish a novel, both of which have stopped me reading quite as much as I normally would.

It’s also been a bit of an odd year book-wise. If 2009 was dominated by huge, unclassifiable books like 2666 (here, here and here)and The Kindly Ones, and unconventional and brilliant historical works such as The Children’s Book and Wolf Hall, 2010 has been marked by a series of interesting crossover titles like Justin Cronin’s The Passage.

It is however one of those years where I have no trouble picking a favourite, a privilege which goes to Lorrie Moore’s wonderful A Gate at the Stairs, a book which seems to me to cover much of the same territory as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom but with considerably more elegance, wit and brevity (interestingly it’s also playing with some of the same tropes of the nineteenth century social novel Franzen deploys, and perhaps not coincidentally these moments are also the weakest in the book (except for the wonderful final line)). If you haven’t read it all I can say is do, immediately: it’s one of those rare books that left such an impression I found it difficult to read anyting else for weeks afterwards.

Besides A Gate at the Stairs, I loved Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete, a book of deceptive simplicity and considerable emotional impact and Sam Lipsyte’s gloriously scabrous The Ask. I also enjoyed Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (though I do wonder whether it’s as strong as a collection as Runaway), and was very impressed by Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter, Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam epic, Matterhorn, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Graham Robb’s wonderfully chatty and intimate Parisians.

There’s also the elephant in the room of Freedom. I’ve wanted to write something for a while about the slightly hysterical desire to anoint Franzen some sort of literary demigod, a desire which seems to me misplaced: he’s a very good novelist but he’s no better than a number of others (Lorrie Moore, for instance, or Hilary Mantel). I now suspect that piece probably won’t get written, but I also think it’s difficult to talk about the novel without coming up against the sense this desire sets up an implicit demand one’s responses to the novel be strongly positive or strongly negative.

Mine are actually neither. I think parts of it are very good: unlike many people I particularly liked the excerpts from Patty’s memoir, and thought the sequence relating her parents’ response to her rape was a thing of genius: horrible and funny and appalling all at once. But I also felt the novel lost energy badly in the second half, a loss of energy that was reflected in an increasing slackness in the writing.

Part of the problem is that the sort of large social novel Franzen wants to write is very difficult to pull off these days without a pretty high degree of contrivance. But I was also struck by the fact that in many ways the bits of Freedom that don’t work are largely those where Franzen steps away from the sort of domestic comedy he excels at (interestingly I would have said almost the same thing about The Corrections).

Of course none of this is to say I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t think it was good: I did. It’s just that I don’t think it’s the work of luminous genius many others do (if you’d like to see what seems to me to be a very fair take on it I’d point you to Ron Charles’ hilarious video review for The Washington Post).

Closer to home my reading was distinguished more by what I didn’t read than what I did, but I was hugely impressed by both Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight and Delia Falconer’s Sydney (just for the record Delia and Brenda are both friends, but I’d be praising the books whether that were the case or not) and I thought Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game was an impressive debut by a very interesting and highly engaged writer.

I also read a lot of SF, not all of which was new, out of which the real standouts were Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun, his strangely beautiful hymn to the worlds orbiting Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, a pair of books suffused by a sense of the inhuman immensity and hostility of space, and Margo Lanagan’s shimmeringly subversive fairy tale, Tender Morsels. On the graphic novel and comic front I finally got around to reading Warren Ellis’ entirely brilliant Planetary, a series that manages to reimagine the superhero comic from the ground up in much the way Watchmen did two and a half decades ago (though which, interestingly, is still rooted in the comics of yesteryear, suggesting the enervation Moore was responding to in Watchmen is no less real today.

There were also, of course, a number of books I violently didn’t like, or thought were wildly overrated, but rather than carp, I thought I’d throw it over to all of you and ask what your picks were, and why.