The Best Books of 2015

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January 6, 2016 by brettdgale

After a short hiatus I’m pleased to say that this blog is back!  For the first post of 2106 I’m going to start with the annual list of my favourite reads of last year.   Here’s the annotated list in no particular order although I would say my books of the year were Therese Raquin, Wolf Hall, The Sound of Things Falling and Black Mass – they are the ones I couldn’t put down for love nor money.

Therese Raquin – Emile Zola

On its release in 1867 Zola’s slim classic was described as a “putrid obscenity”.  If that’s not reason enough to read the book I don’t know what is.  Lust, betrayal, murder, guilt, madness – it sounds like the makings of a standard pot boiler, and would be if it were in the hands of anyone other than the great French naturalist writer.

The story centres around Thérèse Raquin an orphan married to her first cousin by a domineering aunt.  The choice of husband is not all that great, as Thérèse’s husband Camille, is sickly and egocentric.  Basically locked away from society working in a dingy haberdashery, Thérèse enters into a tempestuous and sordidly passionate affair with one of Camille’s friends, Laurent.  Together they murder Camille and reap the consequences of their guilt.

Zola deliberately set out to write an examination of the consequences of human actions, thus, extraneous sub-plots or detailed back stories have no place here – the novel is stripped back to its bare elements to starkly convey the brutality of human behaviour.  The writing however, is something else entirely it is beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.

Visceral and bleak as with the classic Zola Rougon-Macquart series, this is considered to be Zola’s first real work of genius. If you only read one classic per year make this next year’s choice – and then go play with a puppy to cheer yourself up – you’ll need to.

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End: the story of a crime – Leif GW Persson

It was only when I got to the end of this satisfying Scandinavian crime novel and began reading reviews of it that I found out it was the first book in a trilogy.  I haven’t yet read the next two, but ironically I found the book in itself a complete whole.  That might be because the central crime in the book itself was based on the unsolved murder of former Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme.  A crime that continues to haunt and define Swedish society to this day.

Although, the thing that I liked most about this novel is that the crime in question makes up not the opening of the novel but rather its dénouement.  It’s almost as if the crime is being solved backwards an effect that serves to enhance the tension rather than decrease it.

Persson proves that not all Swedish crime fiction is the same – this novel is much more richly layered (and therefore more intellectually rewarding) than the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy to which it has lazily and erroneously been compared (for a start it is not in as want of a good edit as Stieg Larsson’s books were).

The fact that Persson is Sweden’s most renowned psychological profiler shows in his treatment of his characters, a vast cast who on the whole are a rather unpleasant bunch and even our “honest cop” is not all he seems.

Almost as much a political thriller as it is a crime novel, the complex plot serves as a powerful indictment of the corruption and ineptitude of the Swedish security services.   Yet the story is delivered with large doses of dark humour and a suspense maintained over its 500 odd pages.

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

All hail the political adviser. As we ponder the fact of the downfall of yet another Australian Prime Minister, blamed by more than a few people on the actions of his key political adviser, now might well be an apt time to reassess the role of the adviser in modern political life. At the same time it might be a pertinent reason to revisit the story one of the first “modern” political advisers.   Because it seems to me that “all hail the political adviser” could well be the moral of this massive (and I do mean massive) history of Henry VIII’s reign.

The picaresque hero of Mantel’s novel is Thomas Cromwell born of low birth, yet, someone who rose to become a key adviser to the King (especially in the great schism between London and Rome).  All the political and religious manoeuvrings of Tudor England are laid bare in Mantel’s hands.

If that was the entire blurb Wolf Hall would still be a novel worth reading, yet what makes this book truly great is Mantel’s inversion of popular conception.  In most histories of the time Cromwell has been pushed to the side of the stage (if he’s not being treated as the devil incarnate).  Never before has he been seen as the central figure in the drama as he is here (with a tolerant, witty and compassionate humanity to boot).

It is hard to understate the degree to which Mantel has rewritten the history of Tudor England by putting the hated Cromwell at its centre and turning the venerated Thomas More if not into a villain at the very least into a vain bigoted conformist happy with torturing and executing those who’ve fallen from the true religious path.

To be clear though, despite Mantel’s depictions of Cromwell’s softer side, in this novel Cromwell practices what Machiavelli preaches.  He was excoriated for it at the time and ever since, but then in this humble writer’s opinion Machiavelli himself was equally unjustifiably maligned.

The Guardian called Mantel’s Cromwell an omnicompetent figure – I love that word so much and it’s so right in this reading that I’m going to use it myself – Mantel’s Cromwell is an omnicompetent figure – a genuine all-round expert at most things.

Mantel’s writing style does take a little getting used to at first particularly the present-tense narration.  Her world is dialogue more than description, which works wonderfully for this complex tale.  This is truly an epic novel dealing with epic themes but it has a wonderful poetic granularity to the individual incidents which make up the whole.

Justifiably viewed as a masterpiece in my view.

The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vasquez

In the multi-year history of the book club there have been very few books that unanimously had a verdict of “great read” by the assembled members – turns out this book was one of them.

Addicted as I was (if that’s the right word to use in relation to a show about Colombian drug lords) to Netflix’s Narcos I was gonna pretty much be a sucker for this book when it was suggested for bookclub as I was simultaneously finishing the last episodes of the show.

While Narcos brilliantly and graphically reminds us of the years in which the drug war raged across Colombia, Juan Gabriel Vasquez seeks to come to terms with this traumatic period by examining the impact on the innocents – those who grew up during the most violent years of the 70s and 80s.

And just as most Colombians may want to forget the past, the book’s narrator too wants to forget what has come before, until an incident involving an escaped hippo from Escobar’s long defunct zoo triggers his own repressed memories.  In this, the novel is an attempt to come to terms with Colombia’s bleak and violent recent history.

The book opens with young law professor Antonio Yammara befriending the mysterious Ricardo Laverde.  It is rumoured Laverde has only recently been released from prison – but whatever the mysteries of Laverde’s past, one day he and Yammara are shot at by a passing motorcyclist.  The event (as would be expected, I suppose) changes Yammara’s life, and he begins the search for the reason why.

Thus begins a meditation on memory (although not of the unreliable kind) and more importantly of fate. Throughout the novel Vasquez seems to be posing a question for the reader “What determines the course of one’s life?”  For the author the answer suggested is fate more than our own individual control.  “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions”, Vasquez writes in one of the many memorable passages of this beautifully written novel.

For a slim book this is a rich tapestry of character and story and stunningly evocative descriptions of the Colombian landscape.  I was thoroughly absorbed by the story, gripped in my own sort of drug mania desperately wanting to continue reading the perfectly constructed and paced plot.

This is literary noir of the highest order – a must read (except perhaps for reading it on a plane – the sound of things falling after all is more than just a title).

Time and Time Again – Ben Elton

Over the last couple of years it seems that one can’t turn around in a bookshop without knocking over a pile of new books about World War One. In 2014 it was all about the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the war and of course this year it’s been all about perpetuating and commercialising the cult of Gallipoli.

If Ben Elton (one time enfant terrible of British comedy and now writer of popular fiction) wasn’t at least somewhat cynically capitalising on this zeitgeist with this novel than I’d be surprised. Yet even if he is, this is excellent escapism even if the premise is a little clichéd.

Elton’s novel is basically one long historical hypothetical based on the age-old question “if you could go back in time and stop World War One from happening, would you?” Well of course you would, as soldier of fortune Hugh Stanton does here.  But then, “Oh, Hugh, did we forget to tell you about the laws of time travel that state that when you change one thing everything else also changes? – oops our bad.”

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

I love a book with an unreliable narrator.  This is novella explores the role of deliberately supressed memories and misinterpreted events from one’s past in shaping how one’s life has turned out.

As he approaches his late sixties the book’s protagonist Tony Webster begins to question whether his life is what he really remembers it as.  After suddenly receiving the diary of his childhood friend Tony is forced into a brutal re-examination of his past life and whether in the end it really amounted to anything – “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was”, he muses at one point.

This is a novel divided into two beautifully juxtaposed parts.  The first contains Tony’s “memories” of his own youth and early adulthood.  The second is a tantalizingly slow reveal of just how fraudulent those well accumulated memories actually were.

However it’s not just Tony’s memories that are suspect, so too by the very nature of the forgoing, is his understanding of what those memories mean.  Or as his former university lover says “you just don’t get it”.

The Magician King – Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s sequel to 2009’s The Magicians is a wryly satirical take on the classic fantasy novel.  A fantasy tale in its own right, it is not afraid to steal from, poke fun at, and in fact pay homage to, the classics of the genre. Allusions to Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper and J.K. Rowling abound and are knowingly incorporated into the story by the characters themselves – a bunch of world weary teenagers (is there any other kind) who after graduating from magicians’ school find themselves the rulers of a magical kingdom they thought only existed in the novels of their childhoods.

For all its metafictional savvy though, The Magician King can be read on its own merits as a   rollicking, sometimes dark adventure narrative – and sometimes that’s all you need to make a book worth reading.  If you are a reader of fantasy novels you’ll love this series.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

I still haven’t gotten around to reading The Commitments even though I read one of its sequels a couple of years’ back and was impressed by Roddy Doyle’s writing.  This book isn’t one of the Barrytown books but still contains Doyle’s warm heartedness, sense of fun and brilliant use of the Irish idiom.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the first person account of a Dublin childhood told by the eponymous hero of the novel a ten year old sometime troublemaker but mostly normal kid.

But in a sense this is not just a description of a Dublin childhood it’s a description of any number of childhoods, and very few books ring as true in their descriptions of, the trials and tribulations, the sights and sounds of pre-teen boys.

The book doesn’t really have a plot, rather it is a succession of boy’s own adventures told through the evocative eyes of a ten year old.  A series of scattered memories and experiences.

It’s both a celebration of, and a lament for, lost childhood, as Paddy slowly realises what’s happening in the adult world around him and the impact it will have on his life.

Engaging and tender yet funny it’s bound to bring a poignant smile to your face

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson

Although Howard Jacobson has been called an English Philip Roth he prefers to be called a Jewish Jane Austen.  Both are apt descriptions of his style in this Booker winner.  Jacobson has created a wittily executed comedy of manners whilst, at the same time, applying his skills as a razor sharp cultural observer.

The story centres around Julian Treslove a failed BBC producer who makes his living as a celebrity look alike (not looking like any celebrity in particular but rather looking like any generic celebrity).  His two closest friends happen to be Jewish and after he is mugged in the street by someone who he believes whispers “You Jew” in his ear Treslove begins to re-examine his place in the world.  He decides that being a Jew is really where it’s at. Thus begins a delightful study of social mores and inter-faith debates on the actions of Israel and what Jewishness means.

While Jews (or Finklers as Treslove would have it) and Jewishness form the basis of the book’s narrative exploration, in a wider sense this book is an examination of the universal anxieties of cultural identity.  The Finkler Question is a wise and knowing novel, offering sparkling dialogue and riotously humorous incidents to illuminate the pathos of life and the underlying nature of human relationships.

The Martian – Andy Weir

I love the story behind The Martian.  Self-published novel that became a Hollywood blockbuster starring Matt Damon.  It’s a nice warm story on top of being a pretty good book.

In short The Martian is the story of an American astronaut stranded on Mars and what comes next. If one gets deep and philosophical we can see in The Martian a story of the triumph of the human spirit and a celebration of the ingenuity of human beings to overcome adversity in the face of overwhelmingly hostile natural forces – or if that sounds like a lot of tosh (and it does to me even though I wrote it) we can view the Martian as a cracking good read with enough cliff hanger moments to make any writer of Saturday afternoon serials proud.

And there’s enough actual science to make a science geek weep with joy without overwhelming the plot of what is essentially a race against time thriller.   So while there’s a moral panic in Australia at present that not enough kids are studying maths, science etc, perhaps the answer lies not in moralising Hanrahanisms but between the covers of this book.  As the Washington Post said, you might never get a better ad for the advantages of STEM education (or for that matter NASA itself).

Let’s all bow down before the humble yet mighty potato and thank god for duct tape!

 

Hank Aaron and the home run that changed America – Tom Stanton

I Never Had it Made: An Autobiography – Jackie Robinson

Let’s cut to the chase, if you were part of the baying crowd booing Adam Goodes every time he touched the ball this year you were in the wrong.  You were wrong in so many ways it is impossible to count.  At the very least you were aiding and abetting racism while thinking you were just riding an opposing player hard.  More likely you were like the fuckwitted Collingwood supporter sitting near me at Goodes’ comeback game to the SCG, a purely ignorant thug spewing racist epithets from the member’s stand in an expensive suit.  Any pretence to the contrary and claims that it was just about the sport, were surely blown away by the vitriolic reaction to David Jones decision to make Goodes a fashion ambassador.

It was an ugly side to the Australian character and should have no place in our society despite the incredible contortions of logic undertaken by various commentators to justify the jeers and boos.

Such behaviour by sporting fans (or media commentators for that matter) is not new however, so in a bid to come to grips with possible solutions and to see if I could understand the mindset of those responsible  I read these two inspirational tales of sportsman who been through it before.

Jackie Robinson of course is widely revered as the first African American to play in the major leagues after black players had been kept out of the game by the cartel that ran baseball for nigh on five decades.  It is to the everlasting credit of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their manager Branch Rickey that they took the step they did.  It is to the eternal glory of Jackie Robinson that he was the man that was able to do it.

As the famous story goes told by Robinson himself, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait and reacting angrily.  Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.”  Jackie Robinson certainly had the guts to stand up to death threats, verbal abuse (from players and fans) and rough play from opposing teams, but he was also one of the finest athletes ever to play the game of baseball.

Jackie Robinson tells his life story in a clinical, almost detached way but with a poignancy reflecting a life worth celebrating but one that was never easy.

Stanton’s book on Aaron however, is of a different kind, it is more a joyous celebration of those who stood up to racism.  That’s because the story of Hank Aaron is a different story – Aaron wasn’t breaking the colour barrier he was breaking the most famous record in all of baseball, set by the most beloved baseball player of all time. He was about to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record and a lot of people did not like that one bit.  Aaron too faced death threats and racist taunting, but the loveliest story in Stanton’s book occurs at the start when in response to the bile heaped on the slugger, tens of thousands of school children across America began to send him letters urging him on in his quest.

Adam Goodes stellar football career may not have reached the Olympian sporting heights of Robinson or Aaron but just as their stories are more than stories of bigotry and sport so too is Goodes’.  As many have pointed out, the real attacks on Goodes only began when he became Australian of the Year and thereby challenged the stereotypes and mores within which an unfortunate number of Australians believed as sportsman he should belong.

Or as Jackie Robinson writes describing his own post-baseball public career

“One day twenty years ago, they liked the way I stole home or admired my capacity to be insulted or injured and turn and walk away. For that admiration they have given me, I am supposed henceforth and forevermore to surrender my soul. I am not allowed an opinion.  If I become naturally normally indignant, they describe my mood as one of rage. Look what we did for this guy by admiring him and here’s how he repays us – by thinking he has the right to say something we don’t agree with.”

Just as Jackie Robinson continued to speak out, I hope, that now that he too has left the field of play Adam Goodes continues to fight the good fight for his people and for his values.

While these two books also helped me get my baseball season reading fix for the year, before reading them I was also on a quest for answers.  I’m not sure I found a solution to crowds acting like idiots but what I did find is that grace and human dignity beat bigotry and shatter prejudice every time.  And Adam Goodes has grace and dignity in abundance – he was a truly great sportsman he remains a truly great Australian.

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