Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 6 reads for 2008

I thought I would end the year by sharing my favourite reads for the year. (I started with a top five, but felt guilty not including the title that’s made number six, so decided to go with an even number.)

What follows doesn’t represent books published in 2008, just my favourites among those I happened to discover this year. (Feel free to leave your own.)

1. The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day
Without a doubt, this is the book that's stayed with me longer than any other this year. I read it back in January and can still vividly recall how I felt reading it.

The Patron Saint of Eels is a unique and beautiful book. It is gentle, evocative and deeply Australian. Set in a coastal Victorian town, it's the story of Noel and Nanette, two life-long friends saddened by the changes occurring in their town, and the loss of their community's connection to the landscape around it.

When spring rains flood a nearby swamp, hundreds of eels are washed downstream and become trapped in a ditch near Noel's home. Coming to their rescue is Fra Ionio, a Franciscan monk who has travelled a long way to save the eels - and remind Noel and Nanette about the important things in their lives.

The novel offers a profoundly contemplative look at life and spirituality.

Original review

2. The Arrival by Sean Tan
This is another story that’s stayed with me since I read it back in June, and now sits on my desk at home. I feel calmer just knowing it’s within reaching distance.

The Arrival is a beautiful story without words about a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.

It’s a tribute to anyone who has left their home behind in search of a better life in a foreign land.

Tan’s narrative magic is woven two-fold: through his imaginative, evocative and detailed drawings, and the story (and stories within stories) of a man finding his place in a new world. And it’s the nature of this man's struggle - to understand his environment without sharing the language of its inhabitants - which makes the absence of words all the more powerful and appropriate.

Original review

3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of those great books that reminded me what good literature is all about.

The Remains of the Day is a story told in the first person by Mr Stevens, an esteemed butler of a once renowned house, now in the latter stages of his career. In this sad and moving story about repression and self sacrifice, it is what’s not said in the narrative voice that has the most power.

Beyond the words on the page, lie the regrets and longings of a man whose true feelings are hidden even from himself, under layer upon layer of discipline, reasoning and “dignity”.

And it’s discovering those poignant truths – which even the narrator seems oblivious to - that make The Remains of the Day such a remarkable and memorable novel.

Original review

4. Chenxi and the foreigner by Sally Rippin
This is one of the many excellent young adult novels I’ve read recently, and makes the list because of Rippin’s narrative style, sense of place, and the ironic history of the book itself.

Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.

Ironically, this story about artistic censorship was censored by the author herself when it was first published.

Rippin says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.

This new version has all those aspects intact, and is a much more powerful read because of them.

Original review

5. Bad Debts by Peter Temple

I’ll remember 2008 as the year I discovered Australian literary crime writer Peter Temple. I read a number of his books, with Bad Debts (the first in the series featuring world weary lawyer Jack Irish) being my favourite.

In it, Jack does some digging into the case of former client who contacts him on release from prison, only be gunned down police before they can meet. Jack soon suspects the excon might have been a pawn in a plot that reaches to the highest levels of government, and discovers there are those willing to resort to brutal violence to keep that plot hidden.

Temple's grasp of voice and place is mesmerising, his characters are Australian without being stereotypical, and he creates pervasive, slow building suspense.

I particularly liked that the narrative is first person, and Jack is a complex character whose morality is clear, even if the company he keeps is often murky.

Temple's writing has its own rhythm to it. His humour is dry, his violence graphic, and his physical descriptions wryly amusing.

The basis of his novels are crimes that eventually will be solved, or resolved, one way or another, but what you find yourself more interested in are his characters, the choices they make, and the seedy worlds they often inhabit, or must venture into.

Review of Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore

6. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
While I still have some issues with the second and third book of this four-part series, I still stand by my admission of really enjoying this first instalment. Given how quickly I read it (and how much I enjoyed the film version last week), it would remiss of me to pretend this wasn’t a highlight for me this year.

The core of the story is the romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll devour her if he loses control in her proximity.

Their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. As the story progresses, particularly in the third book, the focus shifts to Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire, which Edward opposes.

Meyer, a practicing Morman, uses the story as a metaphor for sexual restraint, which is at once fascinating and effective.

Twilight review
Series review

In case I don’t get a chance to blog again before December 25 (highly likely given the high number of visitors in my house for the festive season) … Merry Christmas!

I’d really love to hear everyone else’s favourite reads for the year (can more be more or less than five – I don’t mind!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The duality of human existence

Can there be life without bloodshed? Can sense be found in a world where violence and serenity co-exist?

Cormac McCarthy explores these questions in his classic coming-of-age novel All the Pretty Horses and his answers seem to be no and yes, respsectively.

It tells the story of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who rides across the Texan border into Mexico with two companions, searching for purpose.

John Grady encounters a world that is at once beautiful and desolate, promising and threatening, serene and violent, and by the time he returns – less than a year later – he's irrevocably changed.

Although his new life in Mexico seems to offer an idyllic existence, there’s a pervading sense of underlying danger. But, like John Grady, I hoped the threat wasn’t real, and – like John Grady – when it the violence arrived, I realised had always been inevitable.

Perhaps one of the interesting insights into this novel is the idea that John Grady is ultimately heroic not because he stands by idealistic beliefs, but because he learns to put them aside when necessary to survive or seek justice.

He learns to accept life is both serene and violent – with little warning of which he will face each day – and while he loses his innocence, he does so without becoming disillusioned.

Through his experiences, he doesn’t simply grow up; he begins to understand the world in all its pain and glory and feels no less connection to it. John Grady gains a self possession that many philosophers and social commentators believe can only be grasped after great sacrifice.

Critics have debated whether this is a story without hope, but I tend to agree with those who feel McCarthy is more ambiguous than nihilistic. How can there be no hope when John Grady himself has learned who he is, is wiser for it, and still retains a gentleness in his soul?

All the Pretty Horses was my first foray into the world of the reclusive McCarthy, and I was immediately drawn into the story by his rhythmic prose and evocative sense of place.

The frequent conversations in Spanish were appropriate in the narrative, but a tad frustrating for a reader who doesn’t speak the language. Although, I could generally guess at the meaning through context, and when I couldn’t, the language barrier served as a reminder of how far John Grady and his buddies were from home.

All the Pretty Horses was an excellent read on a number of levels, not least of which was the question about the nature of the duality of human existence – serenity and violence – and whether you have to be able to accept that both exist before you can attempt to understand and accept the world.