Top 13 books for 2009: First 7
I usually do a Top 10 books post for the year but last year I managed to read 80 books, many of them were awesome so it’s pretty damn hard condensing them into a Top 10. Never having been a stickler for rules, I’ve decided to allow myself 13 books instead. In no particular order (well actually in order of having read them) here are the first 7:
Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger
Adiga came from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2008 with his debut novel, The White Tiger. It was a somewhat controversial choice, many considered the book to be inferior to some of the other shortlisted work, many were sick of what they felt was a strong obsession among the Booker judges with post-colonial (particularly South Indian) works. I can’t say whether the book was a deserving winner as I hadn’t read the rest of the shortlist but it was definitely a great read.
The book is written in a somewhat unconventional style, as a series of letters written by the first-person protagonist Balram Halwai addressed to Wen Jiabao, The Premier of China. In Balram, Adiga has managed to create a well-developed, interesting character that readers can’t help but like. Aussie readers especially will identify with Balram’s underdog status.
“As Balram’s education expands, he grows more corrupt. Yet the reader’s sympathy for the former teaboy never flags. In creating a character who is both witty and psychopathic, Mr Adiga has produced a hero almost as memorable as Pip, proving himself the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation.” – [The Economist]
The book provides more great literary insight into post-colonial India and all its contradictions, in the same satirical vein as Salman Rushdie (but without the magic realism). It’s an easy read and I recommend it to those that like the work of Rushdie, Manto, Shantaram and other popular novels set in the Sub-Continent.
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated
Another young writer who seemingly came from nowhere, upon publication of his first novel Jonathan Safran Foer was only 24 when the book was published in 2002. The book polarised readers, critics and writers alike, heralded as a work of genius when it was released but later criticised for being gimmicky and pretentious in its use of almost all the modernist literary devices one can think of.
I think some of the praise was overly hyperbolic and seemed to anoint Safran Foer as the second coming of James Joyce, comparisons were also made to Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for the novel’s innovative style of language (which is difficult to follow at first and a little annoying but gets easier towards the end).
I didn’t find the book as uproariously funny as some of the reviews I’ve read, amusing maybe but definitely not to the point of laughing out loud. It was much more of an emotional book for me, a powerful read that sucked me in with every few pages as it jumped between two separate narratives that, of course, came together in the end. It’s a complex book in some ways and a simple one in others. It tackles complex themes with a complex narrative strategy but, in the end, it’s a human book, onethat allows the reader to connect simply to the characters and to experience the emotion that comes along with its tragedy.
In fact, he’s got his sights on higher — much higher — things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the book’s concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship, what it means to be loyal and good and to practice what Jonathan has taught Alex to call ”common decencies.” And I’m not even mentioning a whole host of subthemes, including the confusions and collisions between American and post-Soviet culture. Perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated comic set piece in the book involves the Russians’ appalled response to ”the hero’s” vegetarianism — and a dropped potato. [New York Times]
Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Working the graveyard shift at a mental asylum and being on lots of drugs is apparently a sure-fire recipe for a great book. It was for Ken Kesey anyways, apparently the man ate a whole bunch of peyote before writing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it worked out pretty well for him.
The book is an authentic representation in many ways of the inner workings of a 1950s mental asylum in the US, many of the observations came about as a result of Kesey’s interviews with the inmates at his place of employment (and enhanced by the peyote, I’m sure). The book is clearly an allegory on government, particularly the totalitarian leanings of a society that does not tolerate people who step outside boundaries or think outside the box, or, as the the original 1962 Time review calls it, “a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them.” This is why the book was considered a seminal work of counter-culture and resonated deeply with 1960s and 70s America, a country in cultural upheaval.
Some of the themes I found most interesting are summed up succinctly here by wikipedia;
The novel’s critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censoraspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also critiques the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.
The book appears in Time’s 100 best English language novels from 1923 – 2005, and deservingly so.
Don Watson – American Journeys
I’ve been a fan of Don Watson since his amazing biography of Paul Keating (another man I admire) “Recollections of a Bleeding Heart”. Unlike the Keating biography, American Journeys is not a political book, though politics features at certain points, not something you can avoid when a deeply political man travels in a deeply political country.
Although Watson attempts to encapsulate America in this book, he fails, and since it was a Herculean task to begin with, perhaps it’s not one we should expect. What makes the book enjoyable is Watson’s quality as a writer. Crisp, elegant prose, witty observations, de Tocqueville and Twain quotes weaved in and out seamlessly along with current affairs. His chosen mode of travel, the dilapidated and forgotten Amtrak train system, is certainly unorthodox but makes for a very different perspective on the country:
Train travel gives Watson’s narrative a reflective pace, as he takes in the nuances of the landscapes and towns he eases in and out of – while digesting Amtrak’s woeful food. “When you’ve eaten it,” he observes of a microwaved bagel with cream cheese, “you have to sit quite still for an hour, like a cormorant after swallowing a salmon and let the thing dissolve inside you.” [SMH]
Watson is probably my favourite Australian writer and this book, as a travelogue and a cultural/political journal of observations is certainly worth a read.
Alain de Botton – The Art of Travel
If I had to choose which book of 2009 was my favourite, it would be between this one and Sartre (will be covered in the next post). This wasn’t my first time reading de Botton, I had read Consolations of Philosophy and Essays in Love and thoroughly enjoyed both. De Botton has a knack for making me relate swiftly and easily to his ruminations, like my version of Oprah but drawing more on the philosophers of the ages and less on corporate product promotion. The two earlier books were also fantastic in this way, Consolations was amazing at exploring the little troubles of life and Essays in Love was wonderful distillation of modern day relationships and how they really work.
Art of Travel though is, for me at least, his tour de force. I enjoy travel a great deal (hey who doesn’t these days) and do a fair bit of it but the beauty of this book lies not in his discussions of travel itself, but what travel reveals about individuals and their psyche. His chapter on Flaubert that talked about the French writer’s distaste for his native bourgeoise and his longing for the exoticism of the Orient resonated strongly with me. While my personal views on the East are, I hope, less Orientalist and condescending than old Gustave, my distaste for the Aussie bourgeoise (ah Cashed Up Bogans) is very similar.
One of the best things about de Botton’s writing is that he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. He writes on topics that have been written about for centuries by many before him but adapts them to today, to modernity. Well read and well researched, his useful asides about various pieces of art and borrowings from such writers as the aforementioned Flaubert, TS Elliot, Ruskin, Baudelaire and Nietzche give his books the backbone of history, written in language that is simple enough to understand but beautiful enough to enjoy. This is why he’s such a trendy writer among us Generation Yers. Many have called Michael Moore the “Chomsky for children”, perhaps De Botton is Hegel for hipsters… or Nietzche for n00bs. Plenty more alltierative analogies on famous philosophers are possible.
The Art of Travel seems to have a simple enough theme. What we seek by travelling may in fact be something we lack at home. De Botton is not the first to point this out, and he quotes many famous travellers who have discovered the pitfalls of seeking refuge, like Baudelaire, “Anywhere! Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!” All too often the traveller who escapes desperately may find himself equally bored in an exotic location, something de Botton discovered on a painfully ill- advised trip to Barbados. He is not a writer who revels in the opportunity to impart a romanticised sense of the tropics, being far more successful when he evokes the misery of a cheap hotel room in Madrid, the view from an airport car park or the fluorescent glare of a motorway service station. [guardian]
Fyodor Dostoevsky – White Nights
The disclaimer here is that I read this novella in Russian and I’m not entirely sure how Dostoevsky’s wonderful prose translates into English because I’ve never read him translated. Nevertheless, I’ve seen White Nights around as part of Penguin edition short story collections by Dostoevsky and I thoroughly recommend you hunt it down and read it if you haven’t already.
The protagonist, like many of Dostoevsky’s is a loner and a social outcast of sorts. A dreamer who wanders the streets of St. Petersburg romanticising the city and its inhabitants, his loneliness consuming him day by day. The story is a short and simple one, a boy-meets-girl tale with startling emotional depth, it’s almost a fantastical representation of anyone who has ever dreamt about falling in love with a beautiful stranger. The nameless narrator falls for a girl called Nastenka, a girl he describes as ordinary, but one who happens to be distressed and pursued by an assailant while he passes her on one of his many walks. The story follows the brief friendship-cum-unrequited-love until its end. Sad, beautifully written and insightful from Dostoevsky as usual – all bundled together as an anlogy on the day-night cycle:
“My nights came to an end with a morning. The weather was dreadful. It was pouring, and the rain kept beating dismally against my windowpanes.”
As an aside, interestingly, despite this not being one of Dostoevsky’s well-known works, it’s been adapted for film eight times (including Russian, Italian, Hindi, French, Tamil and American versions, more information on the wiki).
Aldous Huxley – Island
If Huxley’s more famous work Brave New World was his vision of a dystopian future then Island is his utopia. The last book he ever had published (in 1962), Island is the culmination of Huxley’s mostly liberal humanist philosophies with a deep Eastern influence, primarily Buddhist. In that sense, Huxley was part of the 50s and 60s literary movement of authors looking to Eastern philosophies for inspiration (including Hermann Hesse, the Beats and Robert M. Pirsig).
The book is not subtle, Huxley pretty much hits you over the head sledgehammer-style with his observations and criticisms. Unlike other utopian literature, the book is not wistful, it’s more an extension of Brave New World in that sense, a cynical lampooning of our society’s many problems, partly thanks to the cynical our-world narrator Will Farnaby.
One of Huxley’s main criticisms of the West (as this is largely what the book is essentially critical of, the West and the work it’s done via colonialism and neo-colonialism in creating copies of itself in non-Western cultures) is the over industrialisation, the breakneck development and the seeming lack of regard for the quality and purpose of life itself. The fictional island of Pala where the novel is set is an example of restrained development, and Huxley contrasts this with with the inferior and ‘insane’ neighbouring island of Rendang, which is ineviatbly going to attack Pala with its sophisticated weaponry and steal its natural resources. This war for natural resources is characterised as insane by Farnaby while he praises the restraint of the Palinese.
Huxley’s disdain for Western society often spills over into sharp but decidedly unrestrained prose, here’s an example of the acerbic attacks you can expect in this book:
“And always, everywhere, there would be the yelling or quietly authoritative hypnotists; and in the train of the ruling suggestion givers, always everywhere, the tribes of buffoons and hucksters, the professional liars, the purveyors of entertaining irrelevances. Conditioned from the cradle, unceasingly distracted, mesmerized systematically, their uniformed victims would go on obediently marching and countermarching, go on, always and everywhere, killing and dying with the perfect docility of trained poodles. And yet in spite of the entirely justified refusal to take yes for an answer, the fact remained and would remain always, remain everywhere — the fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion”
“History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma.”
For a utopian work, Island is not a novel that will leave you feeling happy, light and fluffy when you finish it. It will make you feel bitter and jaded about the world, but it is a valuable meditation on where our civilisation is and where it’s headed, and the 48 years that have passed since its publication have only served to make those views more pertinent.