The annual book round-ups are being released by the media, and despite the death of the novel, there are still some interesting things to talk about. We start with the “Season’s readings” from The Guardian, compiled by Ginny Hooker. Several notable notables have chimed in to contribute their recommendations:

  • Gordon Brown recommends FDR: The First 100 Days — booooooooring. Cliche, once so prominent in politics, is on its way to the door. Obama thrived on the novelty, in the US, of Marxist imagery and London has Boris friggin Johnson (that’s a compliment) as its mayor (Johnson, by the way, recommend’s Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson). Brown would do well to start reading some Ayu Utami (my favorite Indonesian author) or Dewi Lestari. The liberal media would eat it up.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recommends a book told from the perspective of a gecko called The Book of Chameleons. In a previous post, I suggested that, while the reports of the death of the novel had been greatly exaggerated, it was certainly losing its foothold at the top of the literary mountain. As such, expect more unconventional narratives like this to become the convention.
  • Tariq Ali mentions Napoleon’s Accursed War, saying “One of the great epics of the 19th century, properly recovered for the first time by Fraser in all its ambiguities and tragedies, along with its popular heroism, it’s continuously moving, without a trace of sentimentality.” Might be worth picking up.
  • William Boyd suggests that Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls is worth revisiting this year because a new translator, Donald Rayfield, alongside refurbished Chagall illustrations. The Garnett Press, run out of Queen Mary University of London, Rayfield’s HQ, asserts that “it will be as impossible to separate Chagall from Gogol as, say, Tenniel, from Lewis Carroll.” Doubtful. Recently, the Harn in Gainesville featured a Maggie Taylor reinterpretation of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland alongside reproductions of Tenniel’s illustrations. The exhibit drew everyone, including me, in for close study.
  • Carmen Callil recommends So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. This is going on my list.
  • Margaret Drabble offers up Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, which also appears on the NYT list. Drabble writes that the book “is almost unremittingly tragic, and made me feel quite ill, but was well worth the effort – bravely published, bravely translated, a grim and important novel about a crisis in world history.” You could write that about any of a billion books (or even movies, if paraphrased) that have come out of China and frankly, I can’t take it anymore. I was so depressed after Li Yaotang / Ba Jin’s Cold Nights that I wanted to shoot someone. Still, Richard Holmes later recommends Xinran’s China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation which seems like it may be pretty good. Oral history isn’t just good, it is great, as a form of narrative wildly different from mere prose. And this is about one of the world’s most terrible tragedies, speaking in terms of opportunity cost — monetarily, to be sure, but even moreso otherwise.
  • Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader, recommended by Alan Hollinghurst, is apparently a tour de force 61 poem compilation covering Scotland, its people, its history — everything. As reviewer Kate Kellaway writes, “In a sense, The Lost Leader is the wrong title for a book in which Imlah sees to it – brilliantly – that none of his subjects gets away.” So add this one to the list.
  • Hanif Kureishi recommends Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Ross writes a blog of the same name that had quite a few good posts before and during the book’s release, but has since become sadly dormant. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but nothing compares to dollar signs.
  • David Lodge, who write a most recommended book about the sometimes funny adventures of deafness, offers up Captivated: JM Barrie, the Du Mauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland. According to him, the book “is a somewhat speculative but mostly persuasive study that reveals new complexities in the web with which the sinister Barrie entrapped the tragic Du Maurier family.” Whoa.

More 2008 in Books next post from The New York Times.