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Posts tagged ‘Lorrie Moore’

Best Books 2014

The Golden AgeI’d hoped to get this up last Friday, but I ended up holding off because The Weekend Australian’s Best Books feature didn’t run until Saturday and I didn’t want to preempt my contribution to it. If you’ve got a few minutes I strongly suggest you take the time to check that list out, since it’s crammed with great stuff. You might also want to check out the lists in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, as well as the excellent Books of the Year feature in Australian Book Review (which I also contributed to but isn’t online and is available for the price of a couple of cups of coffee).

As I said in the Oz and ABR, two of the books that stood out for me this year were Ceridwen Dovey’s wonderful suite of short stories, Only The Animals and Joan London’s luminous new novel, The Golden Age. I suspect both sound like slightly odd propositions at first blush – the Dovey is a series of stories about animals whose lives cross over with literary figures such as Tolstoy and Kerouac and Lawson, and the London is about two teenagers in a polio hospital in the 1950s – but they’re both fantastic books, and I’d be very surprised if the London wasn’t all over award shortlists here and overseas in 2015.

Staying with Australian books for a moment, there were three others I enjoyed enormously. The first is Chris Flynn’s The Glass Kingdom. I loved Flynn’s debut, Tiger in Eden, but the often very funny The Glass Kingdom shows Flynn stretching himself imaginatively and technically as he interrogates the various ways men perform masculinity. I was also very impressed by Fiona McFarlane’s tautly written debut, The Night Guest, and the fabulous P.M. Newton’s gritty and brutally unsentimental take on Sydney and crime, Beams Falling.

I also loved two books I’ve already written about but hope to write something longer about soon, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I know I’m not alone in being deeply impressed by the Faber, which is both very strange and deeply affecting, but I was also very moved by the Mitchell, which seemed to be deeply and productively engaged with a series of questions about time and loss.

Only the AnimalsMoving further afield I also completely adored Ali Smith’s smart, sexy and very moving How to be both, Jenny Offil’s wonderfully fragmented and very witty Dept. of Speculation, and Will Eaves’ marvellous The Absent Therapist, and while half the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Bark had already been published in Faber’s Collected Stories a few years ago, even four new stories by Moore are something to celebrate. Something similar is true of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, almost all of which I’d read elsewhere (and sometimes as non-fiction, which gives the book an even more unsettling frisson) but gathered together the pieces form a powerful and troubling whole. And Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is exactly as smart, funny and wicked as you’d expect, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Whether Richard Ford’s new Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a novel or four short stories is an interesting question, but either way it sees Ford back on top form as he depicts the now retired Bascombe not quite adrift in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Next to Ford Colm Toíbín’s writing can seem deliberately unshowy, but his new one, Nora Webster’s portrait of a woman rebuilding her life after the death of her husband offers a reminder of just how good he is. And while it didn’t make the Booker shortlist Richard Powers’ new novel, Orfeo sees Powers interweaving classical music and biology and terrorism in typically brilliant fashion (just quietly, if I could write a novel like Orfeo I’d die happy).

As I mentioned the other day you can catch me, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe chatting about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books on the Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review special, but as I say there, I was enormously impressed by William Gibson’s new novel, The Peripheral, which is both brilliantly written and grounded in a fully lived social reality in a way his last couple of books haven’t been, and Adam Roberts’ darkly witty, deeply literate and very unsettling riff on talking animals, Bête. I also adored the second part of Sean Williams’ Twinmaker trilogy, Crashland (which has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I’ve read in ages), Simon Ings’ creepily visceral exploration of virtuality, Wolves, and although I think it’s an almost wilfully unlikable book, I was deeply impressed by Peter Watts’ chilly follow-up to the terrifying Blindsight, Echopraxia. And while I didn’t think Ann Leckie’s sequel to last year’s Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword was as successful at a narrative level as its predecessor it was no less thoughtful and uncompromising in its depiction of the nature of power.

Of the debut science fiction novels I read this year the one I loved the most was Monica Byrne’s jagged and sensual The Girl in the Road. And while I’m not sure whether it’s really a genre novel at all, I hugely admired Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle’s awkward and deeply distressing study of trauma and the possibilities of the imagination, Wolf in White Van.

And finally, turning to fantasy, two novels stood head and shoulders above everything else I read. The first was Garth Nix’s wonderful new Old Kingdom novel, Clariel, a book that comes at the world of the Old Kingdom from a new angle, and which doesn’t just provide a reminder of just how wonderful that world is, but of how rich and magical and funny Nix is when he’s working at full throttle. And the second was the emotionally expansive and deeply satisfying conclusion Lev Grossman’s fabulous Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land.

H is for HawkOn the non-fiction front I loved Iain McCalman’s passionate and thrilling history of the Great Barrier Reef, Reef, and slightly closer to home, Ian Hoskins’ wonderful history of the New South Wales coastline, Coast. I also very much enjoyed James Nestor’s descent into the world of freediving and fringe science, Deep (a book I want to write something more about soon) and . But the two non-fiction books I loved the most this year were Helen MacDonald’s sometimes strained, sometimes eerily beautiful H is for Hawk (and interestingly the third book engaged by T.H. White’s legacy I’ve read in the last couple of years) and Sophie Cunningham’s tense, terrifying and frighteningly prescient study of Cyclone Tracy and its aftermath, Warning.

Of the graphic things I read I loved a number of the quirkier titles Marvel has been producing, in particular Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire’s brutal and brooding Moon Knight, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s joyous Ms Marvel and Charles Soule’s now-sadly cancelled She-Hulk, but I think the thing I enjoyed most was Emily Carroll’s fabulously creepy collection of shorts, Through the Woods, a book that brilliantly marries a finely tuned affection for the pulp comics of the 1950s, an awareness of the cruelty of fairy tales and a wonderfully acute grasp of the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s great stuff.

Of course as always there are a number of things I haven’t got to yet but am looking forward to very much, in particular Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Boyhood Island, Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky, Jane Bryony Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Angela Slatter’s The Bitterwood Bible and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a number of which I hope to get read over the break.

On the subject of which I hope the holiday season brings good things to all of you, and the year ahead is full of good things. Peace and goodwill to you all.

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

Emily Carroll, Through the Woods

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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.

A Gate at the Stairs

I’ve spent the last day or so reading Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a book I’ve been meaning to knock over for a while. Besides a few of the more-anthologized stories I’ve not read much Moore until now, so she’s come as something of a revelation, not least because of the effortlessness with which she allows her characters to be at once sad, ridiculous and painfully real, a combination which lends the book a luminosity and a wit that don’t often go together. But the line that had me laughing out loud this afternoon was this, awful, hopeless, hilarious out-take from a marriage:

“You emptied the top rack of the dishwasher but not the bottom, so the clean dishes have gotten all mixed up with the dirty ones – and now you want to have sex?”

How can one not love this woman?

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