Thursday, December 22, 2016

Books of the year

Because I get most of my books from op shops and from the withdrawn bins of public libraries, I tend to be a few years behind most of the reading public. I can't post a list of the top books of 2016, because I have hardly read a book published this year. Here, though, are the ten best books I've read, or in some cases reread, this year.
Olivia Laing, To the River

Like all the best psychogeographers, Laing knows how to make a relatively short walk into a big story. Her week-long ramble down the banks of Sussex's Ouse River turns into a journey through time, to battles of the eleventh century and then to the fragile utopia that Virginia and Leonard Woolf established beside the waterway in the 1920s. Virginia Woolf praised the Ouse's beauty in her journals and letters, and eventually drowned herself in the river. Laing emerges from the past to let readers into her own emotional life with a frankness that made me suddenly aware how repressed and dishonest my own writing is.

Chad Taylor, Departure Lounge  

I read Taylor's novel for the sixth time last week. When the book was published a decade ago reviewers praised its cool, noirish tone, and thereby missed Taylor's achievement. Departure Lounge is full of hardboiled sentences and has the wheezing machinery of a crime novel, but it is really a long love letter to the Auckland of the author's childhood - a city that was being erased, even in 2006, by real estate developers and town planners. Where more conventional noir novelists use short, concrete sentences to push their plot along and sketch their characters quickly, Taylor piles sentence on sentence until his paragraphs swell and shimmer with detail. He keeps his sex scenes cool, but makes burglary erotic.
Raymond Firth, We, the Tikopia

Long before Bob and the Wailers, dreadlocks were made famous by Raymond Firth's massive book about a tiny island. Tikopia sits amidst the Melanesian archipelago of the Solomons, but its people are Polynesians whose ancestors journeyed from Tonga or Samoa millenia ago. Despite the fact that their island covers only five square kilometres, the Tikopians have maintained a complicated and very hierarchical system of chiefs and kings and commoners reminiscent of classical Tongan society. When Firth arrived on the island almost a century ago its people had not completely converted to Christianity, and had only begun to accumulate Western commodities. Many of Firth's readers have seen his book as a sort of a wormhole through which they can travel to ancient Polynesia.
James Salter, Solo Faces

I began reading Salter's novel about anarchic mountaineers - it was apparently adapted from the script of a canned film in which Robert Redford was to star - whilst sitting comfortably on a couch. After a few pages I had to lie down carefully on my back. The couch had become a ledge a few inches wide, on the side of a French mountain. Salter's prose is so precise that it causes hallucinations.
Sigrid Nunez, Sempre Susan: a Memoir of Susan Sontag

If you think you have problems with your mother-in-law, then you ought to read the delightfully bitchy Sempre Susan. The young Sigrid Nunez should probably have been suspicious when she learned that her boyfriend David Rieff still lived with his famous mother Susan Sontag. Before long Susan had asked Sigrid to move in with her, so that Ingrid could see David without taking the boy away from his mum. Things got more fraught, and more hilarious, from there. In a better world Woman's Day would be this entertaining.
Graham Greene, Getting to Know the General

As Chavism implodes in Venezuela, it might be a good time to read Greene's memoir of his friendship with General Torrijos, the left-wing leader of Panama in the late 1970s and a model for Hugo Chavez. In between reviewing Panama's restaurants and draining its bars of whiskey, Greene reports on Torrijos' experiments in direct democracy and his confrontations with the United States, which in the 1970s still controlled strips of land on either side of the Panama Canal.
Gerd Koch, Songs of Tuvalu

Half a century ago a German ethnologist sloshed ashore at Niutao, one of the nine atolls that today make up the nation of Tuvalu, and unpacked his hefty and clumsy recording gear. He was soon prompting the island's elderly men and women into singing and chanting old poems about half-forgotten subjects - magicians, and ghost ships, and immortals. Today the unfashionable songs Koch recorded are played on Tuvalu's national radio station. When I first sought out Songs of Tuvalu at the Otara Public Library, I found that an earlier patron of the library had removed the poems about magic from the book. I eventually found them intact in a copy fetched from the basement of the central city library.
Craig Harrison, Broken October

Another reread. If CK Stead's Smith's Dream is an austere, elegant parable, then Harrison's dense and dirty novel - which was published at about the same time as stead's novel, but has never had the same renown - is a how-to guide for dystopians.
Roderick Finlayson, The Schooner Came to Atia 

Unlike any other Pakeha writer of his generation, Finlayson spoke a Polynesian language and lived in both Maori and Pacific Island communities. He's best known for the book Brown Man's Burden, which collected his short stories about the inhabitants of a marginalised and impoverished Maori village, but this coolly written account of New Zealand misrule on a Cook island also deserves to be read today.
Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

Like Don De Lillo's The Names and Tobias Hill's Hidden, Cold Earth is a fine novel about archaeologists gone mad and murderous. Moss follows her group of archaeologists to the shore of one of Greenland's gnarled and ice-strewn fjiords, where they dig up the bones and the memories of doomed Viking colonists of the late Middle Ages. Then a mysterious virus spreads swiftly across the warmer parts of the globe, and the aeroplane that was due to pick up the diggers is delayed...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


4 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

I haven't read anything (I just looked again and I have read some Graham Green) by any of these writers. I've seen that book by Firth. Not sure if I kept a copy. Actually I may have seen or owned a dictionary he did on Maori-English.

But I am a big fan of Susan Sontag's writing. I don't always concur but she writes well. Her essay on Barthes is a great example.

Well is Christmas again. Best wished for Xmas and the New Year!

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