Friday, December 28, 2007

Highlights from Year-end Book Coverage

I love book lists! I love hearing about the books people recommend, so year-end lists delight me. This year, however, I got tired of reading 3 names over and over again (Diaz, Ferris, and Johnson...Diaz, Ferris, and Johnson) and seeing too many lists without a single female writer. Lest you think my complaint delusional, someone culled a dozen of the most prominent lists and charted the 5 most common titles (along with some much-needed caveats). I actually want to read the Bolano, but the Diaz I put aside in disappointment (hopefully to finish later when I'm in a less jaded mood). The rest, meh, maybe one of these days.

One of the more interesting, surprising and diverse lists (relatively speaking) ran at Entertainment Weekly (which has a surprisingly good book section), and Kirkus had the bright idea of covering books that got overlooked in the rush of did-they-really-read-them book lists (their selection is a little weird, but it's interesting). Of the super-sized lists, Library Journal's list is fairly smart (if circumspect).

John Freeman put the top ten to fresh use in his look at the notable 2007 happenings in the literary world.

Some of the more interesting, individualistic coverage happened at Slate, The Guardian, and the Voice (though not in their disappointing official best of the year). This grabbed my attention from the Voice article:
For younger (or older) readers still seeking closure from Harry Potter, Ysabeau S. Wilce's debut novel, Flora Segunda, is the first volume in a trilogy evocative of fantasy classics such as T.H. White's Mistress Masham's Repose and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast sequence. Flora, Wilce's endearingly off-kilter heroine, deals with family dysfunction in Crackpot Hall, a vast ruin with "only one potty." The subtitle sets the scene with no spoilers: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House With Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. The White Tyger by Paul Park is book three in a series that began with A Princess of Roumania and The Tourmaline. Gorgeously written, the books combine alternative history and dark fantasy reminiscent of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, with an antagonist—the unforgettable Baroness Ceausescu—who could easily stand her own against Pullman 's maleficent Marisa Coulter.

J.R.R. Tolkien's bleak, spare The Children of Húrin—part of The Silmarillion, now published for the first time as a stand-alone volume—harks back to the Norse Eddas and Icelandic sagas that helped shape The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics" put that epic's monsters front and center, thus setting the stage for Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery by Dick Ringler, a renowned scholar of English and Icelandic studies, gives the ur-superhero his due in a brisk retelling that doesn't stint on the grue.

Prospect Magazine's staff considered, "Which cultural events have been most overrated and underrated this year?" So, more than books under consideration. Some excerpts:
Underrated [Peter Bazalgette]

The Rebels by Sandor Marai (Picador) is the second republished work by this pre-war Hungarian novelist. He died in obscurity in California in 1989, more ignored than underrated. The recent reprinting of the magnificent Embers (a sort of central European The Leopard) rekindled interest in him. The Rebels is a beautifully written story about the intensity and surrealism of late adolescence. It ranks alongside Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Cocteau’s L’Imposteur and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Underrated [David Herman]

1. Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert ( Jonathan Cape ) is one of the most fun and ambitious works of literary criticism in years and almost everyone hated it. 2. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (4th Estate). Forget late Roth and the late Mailer, Jewish-American writing is on a roll and there’s a new generation in town.

Underrated [Alexander Linklater]

The HBO drama, The Wire, which has been discreetly showing on Sky’s FX channel, has passed largely unnoticed in Britain . Yet it is the most brilliantly achieved and sophisticated drama ever made for television—leaving The Sopranos in second place. To call it a cop show would be to describe Dickens as a thriller writer. The Wire is a Dickensian portrait of an American city— Baltimore —revealed as a complete urban ecosystem of political and institutional struggle, crime, race and power, character drives and economic determinants. The eponymous wire tap is an analogue for the complex connections between people, and it generates the most multidimensional drama of social organisation ever to have been squeezed into the small box.

In a similar Salon piece, I liked these two bits (the latter because I think McBrayer is 30 Rock's secret weapon of comedy):
Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, author, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," and musician)

Movie: The best film of the year is the two-minute thing on YouTube of Doris Lessing learning she's won the Nobel Prize. I watch it over and over. It's an inspiration.

Jack McBrayer (actor, "30 Rock")

Book: "Ant Farm" by Simon Rich. This book is insanely funny. I am such a fan of Simon Rich. Plus it's broken up into small pieces for easy, short-attention-span reading ... that's what I'm talking about.

Music: "Odessey and Oracle" by the Zombies. My brother-in-law turned me on to this one. It's from 1968 and has stereo and mono versions of the songs. My only regret is that I wasn't as familiar with them earlier. They are a phenomenal group.

Movie: "Knocked Up." This Apatow fella I've heard so much about can do no wrong. I loved the story, and all of the performances were so hysterical. I must say, though, that Kristen Wiig could just sit there and still crack me up.

By the way, I read elsewhere that Simon Rich is the son of Frank.


Post a Comment

<< Home