Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Books Read in 2019

Again, because of time constraints, I've limited the year-end review to specific parameters. Concentrating here on poetry and fiction, I've also excised rereads and books ranked 1-4 on a scale of 5, where 5 (all books here)is exceptional, 4 is very good, 3 is fair-to-middling, 2 is subpar, and 1 is irredeemable. Just including books from rank 4 (very good) would have ballooned the reviews to a number too big to take on.

1) Bernardo Atxaga, Nevada Days (tr. M.J. Costa), 2013. Categorized as a novel, Nevada Days is presented more accurately as a journalistic memoir with surrealistic interludes. Atxaga, with wife and two young daughters, and on a writer exchange in 2007-08 from home Basque country to the University of Reno, sets down an amazing array of adventures, Spanish reminiscences, phone conversations to and from his mother, Nevada histories, and geological explorations, all of them lively and strangely moving, while also maintaining a subdued, even accepting, tone in the face of (often) violent foreboding or remnant evidence. The lynchpin to the book is the rape and eventual murder of 19 year-old Brianna Denison in January 2008, the abduction situated catawampus from the Atxaga digs in Reno, but other highlights (if I can put it like that) include attending the optimistic auditorium carnivals (with frenetic retinue) of presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and (later) Hilary Clinton, the funeral (in deep woods) of an overseas Basque-American army soldier, the historical recounting of a heavyweight boxing match in 1931 between Paulino “the Basque Woodchopper” Uzcudun and Max Baer, poisonous spiders and snakes, encounters with state prison road crews, and a particularly frightening loss of bearings during Atxaga's drive through desert with his family. Costa's translation, as with many of her projects, brings colour, vividness, immediacy, and transparent thought to the fore without undue linguistic awkwardness. I've thought often of this book throughout the half-year since I read it, and themes, if you will, are many and interlocking: awe and non-judgement in the face of overwhelming cultural shock; asserting oneself into whatever experience is undertaken, but not as star or solipsistic focus; elemental bleakness, without the opposing sins of sentimentality and tragic hopelessness; loose ends that can never be satisfactorily tied together; and a relentless low-key tenacity in observation and diurnal confrontation.

2) Leslie Thomas, Dangerous Davies The Last Detective, 1976. I usually read about one crime novel a year, foregoing more because of the genre's limited engagement with character complexity, attention to writerly panache, and off-beat or meticulous description. My own take on plot is that it should only be the focus for the lowering of coffins, but I'm not your typical genre reader. Lately, though, I've been delighted with a new (to me) discovery: comic crime. I should have been more intuitive long ago, what with many comic movie adaptations of crime novels. Thomas' Dangerous Davies series of four begins with this book under review, and it nails so many elements, and with an astonishing ability, of what I look for in a 'literary' novel: individual vision; quirky, finely delineated, believable characters; moral complexity; descriptive prowess; emotional versatility; authoritative (and appropriate) information; lexical surprise (and general stylistic brilliance); and, yes, though it's not always needed, especially in those 'literary' works, an interesting and surprising plot. Davies is the 'last' detective because he takes on moribund (actually, buried) criminal cases that have gone 'unsolved' for decades. Somewhat of a physically maladroit Clouseau, Davies nevertheless proceeds with an underappreciated doggedness and guile, eventually (with the sometimes-help of his Babe-in-Arms bar room philosopher friend Mod) putting 2,418 and 654,774 together to solve the case. Steeped in Brit vernacular, and punctuated with the wit of black comic dialogue and situational physical highjinks (though with a touch more wistfulness than bite), the novel packs more 'meaning' into its wild yarn than a warehouse-filled remaindered stock of ponderous literary fare.

3) Patricia Beer, The Estuary, 1971. This slim poetry collection is a (pardon the pun) high-water mark for Beer, balanced skilfully between classical structures and interpersonal history. Marriage, severe illness, local history, house interiors – whatever the level of emotional charge, Beer creates a proportional art that avoids outsized declaration or obscure dullness. Rereading rewards one with layered ‘facts’, but also fresh perspectives without easy accusations, or even a sense that taking sides ultimately matters. Her imagery recalls Patrick Anderson’s approach of mating common nature word choices – rain, sun, shadow, grass – with unusual adjectival juxtapositions which act as both compliment and contrast. Classical allusions are expertly inserted into contemporary stories, sometimes dramatically, sometimes humourously.

4) John Updike, Rabbit is Rich, 1981. The best novel of Updike’s tetralogy – more mature than Rabbit, Run, much more believable and less politically simple-minded than Rabbit Redux, and less cynical and fatalistic than the final Rabbit at Rest – received generally high acclaim when it came out, though now, like so much else earlier than ancient 2000, it’s been downgraded in certain academic quarters because of its perceived sexism and middle-class complacency. The last charge is hilarious when considering the ambiguously considered wife-swapping, the long and final (and brilliant) encounter with protagonist Angstrom’s first-ever fuck, and the many family decisions Angstrom makes in regards to the car dealership. The first charge misunderstands, in a sadly common recurrence, the difference between the author’s views and that of any of his character’s, and, even were he to be ‘guilty’, has little if anything to do with the aesthetic force of the work. And that the often “too much sex” charge is even given credence is itself puzzling. There’s too little sex in most novels, or, if a major factor, it’s often written as a craven or jejune or obfuscatory sandbagging exercise. Updike depicts sex, in many encounters, as joy, disappointment, lust, boredom, disgust, tenderness, and mortal reminder. You won’t get that kind of all-encompassing wisdom from sexual experience when it’s relegated to a ‘cleaned up’ academic room visited every hundredth page. Aside from sex, Updike’s other great themes are money and natural efflorescence and decay. For someone personally sheltered from many of life’s economic difficulties, his knowledge of money’s complexities – from many characters up and down the class ladder – is deep and on-the-ground convincing. Many reviewers and critics have lauded – rightly so – Updike’s facility and expertise with language. But they stop there. What makes it so? A large vocabulary is often cited as the, or a, chief reason. But Updike’s not so very different, in that regard, from many other excellent writers. He can write long, elegant, sinuously gorgeous sentences, but what really stands out is his stylistic virtuosity. Dialogue, descriptive passages, and philosophical musings are seamlessly interwoven without losing any narrative or meditative thrust. Nature metaphors are exceptional, often, as in classical or jazz music, with repetitive thematic material turned over like jewel light from different angles, or, to keep with the musical analogy, in tonal variations.

5) Shen Congwen, Border Town, (tr. J. Kinkley), 1932. This classic Chinese novel was banned during the Cultural Revolution. It’s unbelievable because Congwen’s focus is on the socialists’ supposed dream: manual labourers unencumbered by, and unconcerned with, intellectual concerns and counter-measures. A traditional story of two brothers competing for marriage to the daughter of a poor widower who operates a riverboat all day, the novel lacks even the undertones of political allegory or critique, instead steeping itself in the surrounding natural elements, those acting as metaphorical emotional forces in (mostly) the na├»ve and yearning young woman. A terrifically crafted and subdued tragic tone is maintained throughout, and if the ending lacks surprise, the climax matches the fatalistic cues and forebodings at every turn in the story.

6) Daniel Cowper, Grotesque Tenderness, 2019. (Reviewed for an upcoming issue of Hamilton Arts & Letters.)

7) Marjana Gaponenko, Who Was Martha?, (tr. A. Spencer), 2012. Another novel in a long line of exceptional European depictions of the guilt- and depression-ridden residues left behind after two, three, four generations of WWII experiences (Erpenbeck, Tokarczuk, Sebald). Unlike the other novelists mentioned, Gaponenko’s tone here is light (with pensive, even profoundly tragic, underpinnings), humorous, witty, farcical. It’s quite an achievement to make that complex tone register against the arthritic psychological backdrop of an old man having a determined adventure outside his formally steadfast mundane existence before cancer shoots its final tendrils into him.

8) Nicholas Bradley, Rain Shadow, 2018. (Reviewed in subTerrain issue #83.)

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