I spent the holiday period (December and January) perusing everyone’s ‘best of 2019’ lists (especially in the Guardian, the New York Times and the NZ Listener) and reading the novels that ‘crossed over’ many of these lists. In all, I read 13 novels in this period. My favourites, by far, were all by American writers and two of them were shortlisted for the National Book Award:
‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips – although written as a thriller and almost a who-done-it, this engrossing novel (set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia) moves between a set of diverse characters all connected in some way to the disappearance in Chapter One of two young sisters. Through the narrative, we learn of these people’s lives, their connections to each other and to the rugged landscape that they populate.
‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami – this is another novel that is written as a thriller and almost as a who-done-it. But this one (which I have highly recommended to many of my friends) is set firmly in Trump’s America and amongst immigrants (both legal and undocumented) populating a suburb in California. As each of the main characters (including Driss Guerraoul, a political refugee from Morocco and victim of a hit-and-run at the beginning of the novel) speak, we learn more and more of their secrets that give us a collective picture of life in today’s America, especially amongst immigrants.
‘The Water Dancer’ by Ta Nihisi Coates – this very engrossing novel makes yet another important contribution to the growing canon of fiction around the African-American experience in the Deep South prior to the Civil War; in this case, the slave plantations of Virginia. Almost magical-realism in its approach, it depicts young Hiram Walker using a magical gift that he has inherited to help himself and others escape from the plantations to supposed safety in the North, but with a range of outcomes. This superbly told novel beautifully complements another of my favourites from previous years, Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railway’.
Other books I read were:
- ‘Doxology’ by Nell Zink (a rather zany family saga involving extreme acts of activism in New York and Washington DC).
- ‘Trust Exercise’ by Susan Choi (a rather complicated but satisfying story of teenage love interpreted in various ways by both leading and peripheral characters).
- ‘Agent Running in the Fields’ by John le Carre (another fast-told tale of political anger set amongst contemporary British spies).
- ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ by Deborah Levy (a young man’s adventures of love and sex set between London and Berlin and told from two time perspectives – 1989 and 2016).
- ‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner (a tale of a young loner’s tragedy told by the son of well-meaning but arguably misguided psychiatrist parents. Not a page-turner but quite intriguing).
- ‘Find Me’ by Andre Aciman (a follow-up to ‘Call Me By Your Name’: what happened to the three main characters of the original novel 20 years on. Told in two parts, I found the first part more engaging than the second).
- ‘In the Spider’s Room’ by Muhammad Abdelnabi (a quite courageous account of a gay man’s life in Egypt and his persecution as part of the infamous Queen Boat affair in Cairo in the early 2000s; originally written in Arabic).
- ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong (another gay-oriented novel, this time of a love affair between a young Vietnamese immigrant and a white working-class boy; poetic but accessible).
- ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ by Sara Collins (set in both Jamaica and London in the early 19th century; a young woman who begins life as a slave tells her life as she stands on trial for double murder).
- ‘Cleanness’ by Garth Greenwell (an American language teacher’s rather complicated love life in Sofia, Bulgaria; a reasonably engaging follow up to the same character’s early life in 2016’s ‘What Belongs To You’).
I’m now engrossed in ‘American Dirt’ (by Jeanine Cummins) about a young Mexican woman and her 8-year-old son on the run from a murderous cartel in contemporary times. But I suspect it’s going to segue on to plight of migrants in Trump’s America as they try to transcend ‘the wall’.
MOVIES RECENTLY SEEN
I have had the pleasure of watching a wide range of movies over the summer break, most at the cinema but some on Netflix. I note with interest that many of them are now up for Oscars this week. My favourites (in no particular order) have been:
- ‘1917’. I only went to this story of two young soldiers undertaking an extraordinarily brave and heroic mission in France during WW1 because it started winning awards, and I was so pleased I did. Emotionally and technically, this film astounded me.
- ‘Joker’. This is another film I only went to because it started winning awards, particularly for Joachim Phoenix’s lead performance. Again, I’m so pleased I did. What a blistering metaphorical attack on the decadence of today’s world starring Phoenix at his best.
- ‘A Marriage Story’. Starring the wonderful Adam Driver and the equally wonderful Scarlett Johansson, I was totally engaged in this deeply moving story of a marriage break up between two reasonably decent human beings and their young son. Unfortunately, the American legal system gets in the way.
- ‘Pain and Glory’. I love the movies of Pedro Almodovar and this was one of his best yet. A beautiful-to-look-at autobiographical tale of a Spanish film-maker looking back on his life, the mistakes he has made and how to overcome them. Being deeply reminiscent of Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ from 1963, I re-watched the Fellini movie subsequent to the Almodovar film and loved it all over again as I spotted the similarities.
- ‘Little Women’. Not having grown up with the Louisa May Alcott novel, I didn’t know what I’d make of this film. But, despite its 19th century setting, I adored the contemporariness of this engrossing story of emerging feminism.