Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year In Review In Review

The original theme of this magnificent post was the unspeakably unoriginal The Best Books of 2007. But then I realized that I pay chronology exactly zero heed in terms of what I read. Mostly what I read (and like) is something which grabs my eye on a bookstore's shelves or tables, or comes from the keyboard of an author whose previous effort(s) caught my eye on a bookstore's shelves or tables. As a consequence I neither know nor care which books were written when.

It is here that I'll freely admit to not being -- nor desiring to be -- a particularly open-minded reader. This exacts a particularly heavy burden upon me in the category of fiction; the state of which is deteriorating rapidly. So rapidly, in fact, that if you could get utter silence in a bookstore you could hear a faint fizzing sound.

The problem with fiction, and a problem which is accelerating faster than gravity would lead you to believe, is the unholy triumvirate between most authors, mental health care professionals and the pharmaceutical giants who produce antidepressants by the silo. In short, the novel these days is as depressing as a conjugal visit at Lubianka and worse, the comic novel is in a Hell of a bad way. In America the comic novel is in even worse shape, pale as moonlit fog and coughing up blood. This means that if you wish to read a readable comic novel from an American author, you have to wait for Dave Barry (who has been known to intersperse his ouvre with tomes the main subjects of which are nasal secretions) or Chris Buckley, who has been known to make his readers wait several epochs between books.

Which leaves the American reader seeking intelligent comic fiction -- the only fiction worth a read, says I -- training his eye across the Atlantic to perfidious Albion. Or re-reading stuff written at a time when his countrymen countrypersons were not such an insufferable gaggle of appalling, navel-gazing, humorless, politically-correct busybody Chicken Littles and therefore could muster up the courage to mock and laugh and generally make light of things.

You may ask, especially if you are new* here, what could possibly be the matter with "serious" fiction. I hear your cry and, filled with bonhomie and the spirit of the season (or at least spirits) I won't tell you to bugger off. Instead I'll sort of answer this, charitable sort that I am.

Y'see, dear Internet, serious modern fiction starts handicapped from the start. It is handicapped and fatally so, by the "serious" bit. Thence it devolves sharply in any number of directions. You have unhappy marriages, abusive mothers, alcoholic fathers, lesbians with rabies, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, the one sympathetic character dying of sputum or something, illegitimate progeny, someone leaving Ireland, someone committing suicide because the world is not ready to accept his zoophilic orientation ("Sir Wilbur's youngest, Ranulph, after leaving Eton, decided to enroll at Magdalene College, where he assiduously threw himself into the practice of animal husbandry, until one day lads from the village caught him at it."), someone being oppressed by the mores of the day, unrequited love, dysfunctional mourning, adultery, someone charming and yet evil, and, naturally, much death and betrayal.

Then there is the fetish for many writers to do one of two things with the characters:
1 - Make them interesting, which means they will be
a) so bizarrely improbable you'll hate them, or
b) so wildly flawed you'll hate them, or
2) Make them likeable, which means they will be an insipid bunch whose appeal reaches a mile wide but an inch deep.

The problem with all THAT is most authors -- cheating from the old Spy Magazine parodies, I bet -- simply cannot be bothered to be elegant in their prose. And inelegant prose cannot be overcome by anything. Whoever said that "90% of everything is $#!+" probably got the idea from scanning modern fiction.

This doesn't mean that modern non-fiction is let off lightly. After all, there is a chokingly huge glut of "the world is ending" non-fiction. This trend, I fear if not checked soon, will see bestsellers such as Build Your Own Mud Hut or Well, YOU Wanted High Def TV, Now The World has Imploded...Happy Now, Mr. Western Civilization? But setting aside the tomes that would have us rewind to those giddy, pre-James Watt, pre-I.K. Brunel days, there is still some daylight along the nonfiction aisles.

So!

Here is my list of books I enjoyed this year and which you won't read.

Blacklisted by History by M. Stanton Evans
An exhaustive look at the McCarthy years from a somewhat different perspective.

Conversations With My Agent by Rob Long
This explains how brilliant writers are co-opted by microcephalic Hollywood executives to bring us dumbed-down, cretinous TV fare (with the odd exceptions).

How To Become Extinct by Will Cuppy
It's written by Will Cuppy and that should be good enough for you, especially if you are walking the benevolent misanthrope tightrope.

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley
The idea of a breakfast-time TV show in a fictional Middle Eastern nation ("The Switzerland of the Persian Gulf") with the title One Thousand And One Mornings which features self defense advice for women to use against their boyfriends during Ramadan is priceless.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
Stellar stuff from the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and a former Esquire Menswear editor.

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry
At last, an entertaining book about poetry. An honest one, too, admitting that most modern poetry is well-nigh unreadable.

View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
This is as close as I come to both chick-lit and Serious Modern Fiction. Elizabeth "No, Not the Actress" Taylor is one of the most underappreciated authors of the last 50 years. Her prose is VERY precise, with a very dry wit, and interesting characters struggling against their feelings when they run up against Stiff Uppah Lip mores of the pre-Carnaby Street days.

Hell and Other Destinations by Piers Paul Read
A great series of essays, and I'm not much for essays.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
Carl Hiaasen, only funny.

Night of the Avenging Blowfish by John Welter
This is probably the greatest comic novel of the last 25 years and, for some quirk of fate, happens to be American. We'll not see the likes of it again. You'll laugh so hard you might get asthma medicines tossed at you. At least you would if you would read it, which you won't. (There is some Very Grown Up scenes and language. Ya done been warned.)

With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed by Lynne Truss
It falls apart a TINY bit at the end. But only a TINY bit.

-J.

* Hi.