Friday, December 26, 2008

2008 reading roundup

Oh boy... the new year already... and I have been neglecting the blogging. Blame Hamlet, who has me in his terrible grip and is progressing nicely - I have now passed the half-way mark, and have a mere 200 pages still to do!

Hamlet is also responsible for the much shorter list of Books I've Read this year. Not because the drawing has been eating into my reading time, but because I've spent a lot of the page-turning hours with the extremely hefty (900-page plus) The Masks of Hamlet by Marvin Rosenberg. This is definitely one for the freaks and enthusiasts - it goes through every line and every moment in the play and looks at how different actors, directors, critics and academics have interpreted it, with a focus on performance. It's actually very conversational and readable, and allows a little peek into hundreds of performances that we'd never be able to see in real life. I'm still ploughing through it. But in between scenes, here's what I've been reading for fun:

The Other Boleyn Girl - Philippa Gregory
Holiday fluff which I read in Byron Bay. It was very drawn out and probably quite formulaic (hard to say as I rarely read this genre), but I have to admit - totally unputdownable!

Prochownik's Dream - Alex Miller
I enjoyed this, especially in the way that it explored the creative process of the main character, a painter. It was one of those books where I didn't like any of the characters very much (apart from the painter's deceased father, whom the painter is a bit tediously obsessed with), but the writing was beautiful and the evocation of Melbourne was great.

Heartland - Neil Cross
I met Neil Cross this year at the Perth Writers Festival, and all too briefly. He seemed like a fascinating person, and very modestly described his work as "just writing thrillers". Of course he's actually a superstar. As well as writing books, he also writes for the British TV show "Spooks". So when he told me that his latest book was a memoir about growing up with a very disturbing family - and particularly his sociopathic stepfather - I was intrigued. I haven't read any of the growing mass of "my terrible childhood" books, and wouldn't ordinarily be drawn to that side of the biography section, but I'm glad I read this one. The book was gripping, engagingly written and completely un-melodramatic, though it was certainly quite disturbing. Something that really impressed me was how the writer survived all this not as a self-pitying, "deserving victim", but as a compassionate person of humour and wisdom - and talent. This wasn't just a book by someone who'd had terrible experiences - it was a book by an excellent writer, and that surely makes all the difference. I was impressed by how he could realistically show and examine the reactions of a young child - not of an idealised little angel, but a real kid - to the truly incomprehensible behaviour of the adults closest to him.

Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones
Very good, deserving of all the accolades - and also very horrible. Recounts atrocities in a terrifying clear, simple voice.

Requiem for a Beast
- Matt Ottley
Extremely impressive - see here for more.

King Dork - Frank Portman
Well, I'm in two minds about this one. It was a very entertaining and funny and sharp-witted look at the hideousness of the teenage social jungle. It had a fuck-you smart-arsedness that I really liked, and a wild ride of a plot. But it was also horribly cynical, especially in the teenage narrator's sneering dismissal of anyone who happened to be a baby boomer. Ok, the boomers have plenty to answer for as a group, but the relentless lack of generosity of spirit in this book left a bad taste in my mouth. I really couldn't tell if the intended readership (alienated teens, which I suppose is most of us, deep down) was supposed to look critically at the narrator or to side with him wholeheartedly. I couldn't help feeling that we were supposed to love this underdog unreservedly in spite of his obvious flaws, and that if we should take exception to any aspect of his snotty dismissiveness, then we'd automatically be on the wrong side, along with those contemptible boomers. I do recommend this one though.

With Nails - Richard E Grant
Wonderful! Richard E Grant's film diaries are a fabulous read, even if you have no great interest in Hollywood gossip. The best part for me is of course the chapter on Withnail & I - my favourite film of all time, and the one that made REG's career.

The Hamlet Diary - Mark Kilmurry
An actor prepares for the role and takes us through his process. Interesting adddition to my Hamlet reading.

Archy and Mehitabel - Don Marquis (illustrated by George Herriman)
Gorgeous - an instant favourite. Marquis wrote these poignant and funny and sad little poems as a newspaper serial in the 30s. Archy the cockroach dives head-first onto one typewriter key at a time to give us his musings on life, reports of his gallivanting alley cat friend, Mehitabel, and requests for something better to eat than stale paste.

Tales from Outer Suburbia - Shaun Tan
Another masterpiece from Mr Tan. Love love, rave rave. My favourite is the story called "Erik" about a very little exchange student. Go out and get a copy of this stunning book!!

Justine - Lawrence Durrell
This is a hot contender for the most tedious, turgid, dull and irritating book I've read in years. It was almost as dull as Take a Girl Like You (last year's clear winner), but far more self-important, self-indulgent and muddy in its prose. I will be giving this Durrell a wide, wide swerve from now on.

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited - Harold Bloom
According to Hamlet expert Professor Boom, not only is the play a work of genius, but Hamlet-the-character is a genius beyond Shakespeare himself. Bloom reckons that the character has such a life and mind of his own that he goes beyond his author and becomes bigger, greater and smarter than the man who created him, with insights beyond the author's own. This is a tricky proposition, but Bloom is a persuasive kind of guy - and one with opinions to spare. No fence-sitting multiple interpretations (or "polyphonies", as Rosenberg nicely puts it) for Bloom: he is dead certain about every aspect of Hamlet's character and behaviour. Perhaps a teensy bit arrogantly so! A stimulating read, and good for an argument.

Awakenings - Oliver Sacks
Fascinating stuff, and another reminder about just how fragile and subjective our experience of reality really is.

The Red Shoe - Ursula Dubosarsky
Aimed at kids / young adults, but definitely not a "kiddy book". Written with a light touch, haunting and subtle. Great cover by the fabulous Zoe Sadokierski.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard - Dan Best and Eddie Campbell
Fabulous! Wonderful! See here for more.

Moab is my washpot - Stephen Fry
A terrific memoir, very funny and self-deprecating and witty. Stephen Fry is a hell of a smart guy. The memoir covers his school days, just up to the point of embarking on his further studies, and it leaves me wanting to know more. Gives us a peek into the weird, weird world of English public schools. The book is full of little asides where Fry gives us his opinions on all kinds of things, in no uncertain terms.

The City of Falling Angels - John Berendt
A look into the intrigues and mysteries of Venice, based around an investigation into the suspicious fire that destroyed the Fenice theatre. I read it during our visit to Venice, and it did confirm my feeling about the place: that it is a closed city, whose "real life" is completely barred to the unwelcome strangers who come to visit. We felt completely shut out in Venice - even belligerently so - a completely different experience from any other place I've visited.

The Scheme for Full Employment - Magnus Mills
Hilarious! A satire on schemes to keep people occupied and working - no matter how pointless that work may be, and on attitudes to working and shirking. Even funnier when we realised that half the staff at Heathrow Airport appeared to actually be on "The Scheme".

The Ministry of Special Cases - Nathan Englander
Very distressing, but very very good. Brace yourself for this one - it is about young people who are "disappeared" under the dictatorship in Argentina, and their families' endless attempts to find them.

The Broken Shore - Peter Temple
A really goood cop/crime story set somewhere on the rugged Victorian coast. A great plot with a social conscience. The protagonist has two beloved dogs - large black poodles - and I was relieved that there were no cheap attempts at terror involving the dogs being hurt or menaced.

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
Oooh yes, this was excellent. I loved it. Very smart, and very revealing of the flip-side of Indian society and its economic boom.

The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas
A fabulous read - and extremely close to the bone. I have no doubt everyone will be talking about this one. Set here and now, in inner Melbourne (quite near our place, actually) it starts at a suburban barbecue where one man slaps a bratty child, who is not his own. The consequences unfold through chapters each told from a different character's point of view, and the thing about these characters is that you know them all. Ok, not precisely, but they all show traits of thought and speech and behaviour that you will recognise from someone you know - maybe even from yourself, if you're honest about it. Tsiolkas is amazing in the way that he gets inside these characters and show us feelings and attitudes and reactions that we rarely own up to, but which often lurk inside us. Many of the characters are unlikeable and behave appallingly, but Tsiolkas asks us to suspend judgement just a little and try to see how they got to be that way. Really great stuff.

What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn
Another terrific read - I gobbled it up in an afternoon. Evil doings, loss and loneliness and a really skilfully constructed mystery around a horrible English shopping mall. I have an absolute loathing of shopping centres (richly confirmed recently by my third ever - and definitely my final - visit to the Monstrosity That Is Northland) and this book strips the whole edifice bare, showing us the grim service tunnels behind and beneath the muzak and gleaming storefronts.

Two Caravans - Marina Lewycka
A great note on which to end the reading year. This one begins with a bunch of not-quite-legal migrant workers thrown together on a dodgy strawberry-picking job in the English countryside. They are from the Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Malaysia, China and Nigeria, and England is out to use, squeeze, and exploit them - and otherwise pretend that they don't exist. A wake-up call about where our cheap food really comes from - and also a funny and touching story about people just trying to get along and pursue their hopes in a new place and with one another.