Here's To The Herd Mentality (The 2009 Wrap Up)

on Sunday, December 13, 2009
There is nothing more artificial than an end-of-year book list. Yet whilst I scoff at the the editors of various litrags upon whose recommendation many of my fellow book-obsessives will either pat themselves on the back or, well, scoff I can't help but weigh in on the topic. So, with the caveat that my reading this year has been both very selective and rather limited (less than 90), here's my top five.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Column McCann. It might have taken eight years and an Irish expat to do it, but finally we have the great New York novel for the post-September 11 era. Reminiscent of the wonderful movie Crash (the one by Paul Haggis, not Cronenberg's woeful Ballard adaptation), it swoops and swirls with poetic grace and brutal realism.

2. Heliopolis by James Scudamore. The dark horse of the Booker longlist, this fantastic novel set in an over-commercialised Brazil of the future was a savage parody on consumer culture and capitalist scheming. Brett Easton Ellis with a sense of humour.

3. Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow. A true modern master brings his gentle touch to the story of New York twins Homer and Langley Collyer. Doctrow plays fast and loose with the truth but the tale he weaves is stunning, tender and pretty darn funny.

4. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. Comparisons to Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go abound, but Holmqvist takes the people-as-organ-incubator theme to a new level. Brilliantly realised.

5. The Hollow Tree by Jacob Rosenberg. When Rosenberg died recently, Australia lost its last great fabulist. The Hollow Tree is a fitting swan song. Some of the metaphors are a little heavy handed, but overall it is a great allegory for the plight of the artist in a totalitarian world.

Special Mentions

The Solitude of Prime Numbers Paolo Giardano
American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Legend of A Suicide by David Vann

Book I'm Sure Would Have Made the List Had I Gotten Around to Reading It

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Biggest Disappointments

Invisible by Paul Auster. I still cling to the belief that Paul Auster is one of the greatest living writers. Unfortunately, my grip on the cliff's edge is growing ever weaker. Pity my fingernails!

Ice Cold by Anna Maria Schenkel. Murder Farm was the best crime fiction debut of the past five years. Ice Cold paled next to it. I'm holding out hope that third time will prove lucky.

The Tale of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. His lyrics are incredible, his music still haunting. But after the brilliance that was And The Ass Saw The Angel, this stinker was an embarrassment. Someone needed the guts to tell this cultural messiah that even he requires a good editor.

Books That Were Generally Panned but Really Weren't That Bad

The Humbling by Phillip Roth. Cringeworthy sex scenes aside, this short tale of a man suddenly devoid of his artistic powers has the ability to completely devastate the reader. It's no Plot Against America or Indignation, but it isn't too bad an addition to Roth's later canon.

The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov. It was a draft folks. A first draft. Don't expect the world. It had some beautiful passages, and the narrative that was there was, in Nabokov's inimitable style, still rather moving. Extra props to Knopf for the stunning edition. I might have to buy a second copy so that I can punch out and shuffle the index cards.

Books That Were Generally Lauded But Really Weren't That Good

Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. Sorry Steven, you are not Cormac McCarthy. No matter what the critics said.

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. It was big. It was pretty good. But it was not the 'new War and Peace' as some would have it. Seriously, reviewers need to expand their points of reference. Long should not automatically invite a comparison to Tolstoy.

Lowboy by John Wray. Boy in sewers. Futuristic. Woohoo. Big deal. A minor distraction at best.

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. Suddenly he thinks he is James Ellroy. I read this immediately before Denis Johnson's Nobody Move. I love Pynchon but next to Johnson's attempt at the hard boiled crime schtick, he really came up short.


AndrewM138 said...

You weren't that big on Bunny Munro? Man, I seem like the only person who dug that book. By the third act it had become an existentialist dirge, I feel.
Good list though, I'll be sure to check out your top 5.
Also, it was Cronenberg who did Crash

The Bookworm said...

Ah good point on the Cronenberg. Thanks. Fixed.

As for Bunny Munro, I just found it cheap and silly. It had none of the near-biblical power of Angel. He has already proven himself an amazing writer but this came across as Cave on autopilot. It was just a subpar effort in terms of both its conception and execution. I wish someone had told him to put the manuscript in his top drawer (or fireplace) and start over. I really wanted to like it, but alas...

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