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Friday, December 26, 2008

No explanation needed.

Best of 2008: Books

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow is a terrific read, a 300-page epic poem about werewolves living in Los Angeles. Against all odds, it's emotionally engaging as well as viscerally thrilling, and deserved much of the hype it received. Every so often, a book comes along that is genuinely daring in regards to form, and this is one such; when the dare pays off, as it does here, something unique can be created. The jarring, staccato lines of verse are a perfect fit for the story of wolf-people who might, after all, be expected to have somewhat limited attention spans.

I also loved Absent by Betool Khadairi, an Iraqi woman writing (in French, I believe) about life in Baghdad in the 1990s, in between the two American invasions. The story is obviously "political" in the sense that you can't write about life in an invaded/sanctioned country without incorporating elements of this into the milieu; but the book isn't out to make political statements in the conventional sense. It's more concerned with the narrator, a teenage girl who is growing up in these difficult situations and is concerned with relationships, with boys and her parents and how she looks and what she's going to do with her life. With the same concerns as the rest of us, in other words, but in an especially poignant setting.

I also loved Delirium by Laura Restropo, a Colombian writer whose ornate, long-winded sentences perfectly matched the subject matter of her book: a young man finds his fiancee in a state of near-catatonia following her return from a visit to her home town. He spends much of the book trying to figure out what has happened to her, and so do we, as Restropo doles out the story, and the history of several key characters, a little at a time. This was the first book I had read by this author, who apparently is much repected throughout Latin America, and I'll be looking for more.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips came out a few years ago and it's a shame I didn't get to it sooner. It's a big, funny, sinister, mysterious, multilayered book about archaeologists digging in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century, and it's fantastic. Phillips pulls off the trick of having several different narrators involved, either speaking directly or through their journals and letters, and it gradually dawns on you that not all of these people are entirely trustworthy. Or maybe none of them are... By the time you figure out what's going really going on, you're in so deep there's no turning back. Did I mention it's funny as hell? Besides, it's about Egypt, which for me--as I think for many people--holds an enormous appeal. Tombs and sarcophogi and heiroglyphics and all that. Great stuff, great book.

Finally, Watch Me Disappear by Jill Dawson was a very powerful evocation of childhood, of the unreliability of memory, and of the difficulty we have facing up to unsavory events in the past. A British scientist living in the US returns to England for a family gathering, only to be confronted by something that happened to her as a child, when one of her friends was apparently abducted and killed. The body was never found. Dawson avoids all the easy expectations in this book as she writes about something that, sadly, has become so common that we barely even spare a thought for the missing children when they show up on milk cartons or wherever. It's a heavy book, and an emotionally intense one; not a lot of laughs here. But she's a great writer, and like her earlier book Wild Boy, this is deserves a far wider readership than it has gotten.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best of 2008, part one (Tunes)

Here's a fairly random sampling of The Best of 2008, in the form of:

Music. The Black Angels are still my new favorite band, with new album Directions to See a Ghost only marginally inferior to their 2006 effort, Passover. Droning guitars, occasional organs and other keyboards, thudding bass and percussion, gauzy stoner vocals. Love it. Love it. They manage to edge out The Black Keys for Best Discovery of 2008 honors, even though the BK and their guttural, fuzz-heavy, blues-from-the-swamp sound is, more or less, what I tried to invent for myself during 20-odd years of guitar noodling. (Especially true on their earlier records Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness.) Honorable mentions include Bettye LaVette's Scene of the Crime CD--her best yet; Brightblack Morning Light's Motion to Rejoin, which features ultra-stoner, ultra-mellow but layered sonic soundscapes; Crooked Still, a Massachusetts-based country/bluegrass band whose third album, Still Crooked, is pleasantly morbid and grim (imagine The Handsome Family with an ethereal female singer and acoustic instruments); Sasquatch, a power trio that channels Alice in Chains but with better guitar playing; and Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter, a compilation of Ike and Tina Turner from their late-70s rocking heyday. I never knew Ike could play guitar like that, but he could--and Tina could sure holler. This is nothing like the soul music I've always associated with Tina; this is rock & roll, sure as Janis is. Meanwhile, Senegal's Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba came out with Segu Blue, the best African music I've heard in quite a while, featuring bouncy kora playing, multilayered vocals and propelling basslines. And let's not forget Junior Kimbrough, inspiration for the above-mentioned Black Keys, whose record Most Things Don't Work Out is a standout. But really, any of his collections of swamp-boogie-trance-groove music hit the spot just fine.

Please note: not all these records came out in 2008. Some did; others I just didn;t discover till recently.

Coming soon: 2008's best books, movies and, like, experiences, man.

One last dystopia The Army of the Republic, which came out in September and features the best blurb I have ever written: "Read it now, while it's still fiction." Yes, I can be clever.

Seriously, though, this is a pretty great book by a guy named Stuart Archer Cohen, who lives "up in Alaska, there" and posits a USA maybe 10 or 15 years into the future, when the corporations have taken over everything (more than they already have), a private army named Whitehall works for the government (more than Blackwater already does) and natural resources like water and forests are being carved up for the private sector (more than than they already are). Cohen raises some interesting questions about how far one should go to resist such developments, and what the difference is between a revolutionary and a terrorist, and to what extent violence is justified in acquiring/defending freedom. It's all wrapped up in lively thriller-esque plot, too, which makes it go down mighty easy. He doesn't have the "high lit" cache of Crace or Thomson but I like his book a lot better. It has both the big picture and a lively plot. Imagine!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dystopia Tour

Okay, I'll admit it: novels about horrible future societies/lack thereof have always grabbed me. Whether Farenheit 451 Italic(Ray Bradbury) or The Sheep Look Up (John Brunner) or A Boy and His Dog (Harlan Ellison), I've always been a sucker for the "Here's the way the world is going to shit" school of storytelling. All the above-mentioned books are science fiction novels in the traditional sense; but I've also always enjoyed it when "literary" writers try their hand at it, and end up with Brave New World or 1984 or We by Eugene Zamiatin (1929, and arguably the foreunner of them all, though HG Wells's Things to Come predates it by a good 20 years).

Which brings us to these past few years, and this sudden raft of dystopia novels by "respectable" lit-fiction writers. There is of course The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which well and truly rocks, and also Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe, Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson. They're all men except for Atwood (who tried a different riff on the future-disaster idea with The Handmaid's Tale, years ago) and everybody is white; but Crace and Thomson are Brits, and Atwood's Canadian, while MacCarthy and Sharpe are Americans. So the interest continues to cross national lines, at least, even if it continues to apparently mainly interest men, and white men at that. (If you'd like to write your thesis about this, please feel free.)

So anyway. I'm in the middle of reading all these books, and what have I learned?

I've learned that McCarthy leaves everyone else in the dust. At least, everybody I've read. The Road is relentless in its grimness, it laconic linguistic power, and its mood. It's like reading the blueprint of a story, with all the embellishment burned away. (Appropriate image, that, given that the landscape itself is utterly incinerated.) There are two characters, a man and his son, and a few others who come and go. Everything is horrible to being with, and gets worse. It's a great book, in its totality of pessimism. He also writes like the Dickens, which keeps things from getting dull.

On the other hand we have The Pesthouse. Jim Crace wrote a couple great books, Being Dead and Quarantine--which is problematic in itself, but for other reasons--but he really falls down on the job here. For me, one of the joys of dystopian fiction is the way it frees you up to explore the big picture, the oh-shit-I-can't-believe-it's-come-to-this-ness of things. Unfortunately, apart from a few suggestions, Crace really doesn't take you very far. Essentially the story follows--like The Road--a road, as characters walk from west to east, hit the shoreline, and turn around. Then they head back. The story never strays very far from the road, which maybe helps the forward momentum (of which there isn't a great deal) but it also means that the big-picture view is pretty much forgotten. There's an interesting bit with a religious cult, which is for me the most interesting part of the book, but that's about it.

Currently I'm reading Divided Kingdom, a story in which the UK has been broken into four quarters corresponding to the four humours of ancient medicine--sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholy. The population has been forcibly relocated to live in these quarters. In my world, that's what I call an ass-kicking premise. Then in the course of the story, the main character contrives to visit all these different quarters, and see what's been developing in each of them, which turns out to be... hmm, somewhat underwhelming. I mean it's sort of cool, and it's just the kind of big-picture stuff that Crace's book lacks altogether. But it feels like a lot less than it could be. I mean, given the premise, he really could have taken it to extremes. But apart from a few cases (the melacholics' Museum of Tears, for example), he doesn't do it much.

So anyway, that's where I am now, about 20 pages out from the end. After this I'll read Jamestown, which seems a wackier book than any of these others, and give a full report. Somewhere in the hazy distance lies Oryx and Crake, but I'm not a huge Atwood fan so that may take a while. And after that I guess I'll read some different stuff. But you want to know something, none of these high-profile books can hold a candle to We.