It has been a busy year of thesis writing, but I still managed to cram in a few pieces of fiction for good measure. The Sydney University Book Fair provided a few good books, including a couple of Flashman works, some Derridean philosophy and some trashy modern fiction. The small edited collection Nine Strange Stories (1974), edited by Owen Betty and featuring works by Jorge Luis Borges, Jack London, D.H. Lawrence, Patricia Highsmith, Rudyard Kipling and others proved to be comical and unnerving with tales to rival those of the Twilight Zone. Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro left a lot to be desired; the intriguing premise was let down by deadpan writing (though perhaps this was intentional). Rabbit, Run (1960) by John Updike, which I finally got around to reading, was a surprising favourite, its utter simplicity alleviated by darkly humorous prose. Graham Green’s The End of the Affair (1951) was an emotional but sometimes frustrating (and somewhat predictable) work. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) was a complex, chaotic but intriguing treatise on waste and American consumerism, while Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013) was almost as enjoyable as the author’s previous works. Matthew Asprey’s Dog City (2014) was a favourite, with self-deprecating humour and small town crime. Asprey also got a citation in Bryan Cheyette’s Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (2014), a shrewd work discussing both canonical and marginal authors through contemporary Jewish and post-colonial writing. And rounding off a year of reading is my latest purchase, TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1996), which follows the events of a poor Mexican hit by a rich man’s car, highlighting the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in contemporary xenophobic America. Only a quarter of the way in so far, my review may appear in 2015. But there were three stand-out pieces from this year’s reading that reminded me why I love books and the act of reading. The top three book that I read this year are:
#3 The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London
A short but thorough and imaginative novella, Jack London, writing in 1912, envisions a post-apocalyptic San Francisco in a world devastated by what is known as the Scarlet Plague, or the ‘Red Death’, which has destroyed most of the world’s population in 2013. 60 years later, the protagonist, an ageing professor, James Howard Smith, attempts in vain to impart his memories of pre-apocalyptic civilisation to his savage grandsons, who mock and ridicule the old man and his recollections. Smith recounts his days as an English professor, as well as how and when the plague took hold of the world, with heartbreaking, feverish nostalgia. The effect is made all the more poignant as his memories mean almost nothing in a world that has reverted to primitive living and dismisses emotion, love, intellect and education as trivial. Smith’s account acts more like a soliloquy as he is really talking to himself about all that he misses from the world of yesterday, and marvels at how class and status no longer have any place in the brutal post-plague world. London speculates on the fate of mankind following the outbreak of disease, and depicts what seems to be an unnervingly possibility when civilisation falls victim to plague.
#2 Petersburg (1913) by Andrei Bely, (the pseudonym of Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev)
Set against the frenzied backdrop of the Russian revolution of 1905, Petersburg is uncompromisingly dense and haphazard at times, particularly with dialogue, living up to its description as the Russian version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Though published before Ulysses, the work was not translated into English until 1959. It is quite a difficult book to get in to. But the rewards for persevering are great once the reader becomes well acquainted with Bely’s infinite descriptive prowess and wordplay, rivalling only Nabokov, who called the work “one of the four greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” The book focuses on Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov, a young Russian who occasionally likes to dress up like a red domino and who has been ordered to assassinate his own father, Tsarist Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov. There is a reason why Anthony Burgess called the work “The one novel that sums up the whole of Russia.” It is an exhaustive treatise on Russia, and captures the most intimate political and physical construction of the city of Petersburg. Early on in the novel, Bely writes: “A Petersburg street in autumn permeates the whole organism: chills the marrow and tickles the shuddering backbone; but as soon as you come from it into some warm premises, the Petersburg street runs in your veins like a fever.” Bely keeps this lyricism prominent throughout the whole novel, which can make it an exhaustive read for the amount of picturesque detail. A must for any aspiring writer wishing to broaden their expression, and a must for any fan of Russian literature who has exhausted Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Nabokov.
#1 In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote
On my reading list for some time, I finally bought a simple $10 Penguin edition (since I’m no hipster), and took to the book immediately. A creative non-fiction work that took about seven years for Capote to write, In Cold Blood investigates the brutal murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote does not offer a tried-and-tested who-dunnit, but reveals the murderers to us from the get-go, and follows their exploits from murder to capture and death. Laden with intricate details of the police detectives, the family and their acquaintances, as well as the family and acquaintances of the murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, Capote brilliantly delivers a comprehensive story of the murders, encompassing years of research. In the same vein as Nabokov, Capote not only captures the tale with expertly lyrical prose, but delves into the minds of the criminals to make the reader empathise – if only slightly – with the murderers, their history and their background. And just like Nabokov, (only without the same black humour), Capote masters both the feats of storytelling, keeping the reader hooked through the hunt, and prose, exhaustively providing beautiful insights into the minds of those involved in the bloody affair. A sombre and melancholic tone lingers at the core of this riveting novel, which has occasional moments of humour to rescue it from complete depression. It hangs heavy on the heart right up until the very end, and stays with the reader for a long while after. An easy favourite for this years’ list.