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Books and Blogs 2012: favourites

The passion of Andrew Sullivan. The alpha and omega of Patrick White. The lost masterpiece of Australian literature. The dying words of an art critic.

Politics:
In a year when the prospect of an American swop back to conservatism ran high, and anxiety and excitement collapsed into a seesaw hyperventilating tension, and one was constantly checking the polls at Nate Silver‘s, the theatre and forehead mopping and cheerleading were best served by two blogs.

 

The Dish by Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Beast)
Sullivan’s deep coverage and analysis of the body politic was a marathon, bravura performance. An apostate, or at least a lapsed and renounced Republican Sullivan was candidly terrified of a GOP win — a party he views as having been taken taken hostage by its ideological extremities, including the folk he calls the ‘Christianists’. A prominent flag waver for BHO (see his cover story ‘President Obama: The Democrats’ Ronald Reagan’ for Newsweek), he also kept a close eye on Obama’s shortfall from the ideal. Most enjoyable of all he relentlessly kept track of Romney’s many lies and omissions, one at a time, every step of the way. His coverage of a second Obama term should be fierce. Sullivan’s notorious drama queen moment (Sullivan is a pioneering theorist and a prominent activist for marriage equality) came while live-blogging the first debate when he cried:

10.29 pm. How is Obama’s closing statement so fucking sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight.

 

The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman (NYT)
The Nobel laureate made all the crucial economic arguments against the GOP’s demonising of health care, taxes, public works and government interventions, pointing out contradictions, evasions and ignorance. His Monday and Friday op-ed columns for the NYT are eminently readable, lucidly correcting distortions and misinformation; his blog is unabashedly geeky: see a recent post on what a $TRILLION deficit really means — it involves arithmetic and a chart (but also a picture of Dr Evil). Part of the time I have no idea what he is saying, sometimes the post simply looks too intimidating — but the blog works as a talisman: the reassurance of a warrior batting away for facts and figures and reality.

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Movies (TNR)
The great writer on film today is David Thomson, posting on The New Republic. (But oh I still love that Astairean wit, Anthony Lane.) Beyond writing his own books, Thomson began taking over the main duties of movie critic on the venerable magazine when the also great Stanley Kauffman reduced his writing rate a couple of years ago (at 94). Thomson has all the chief virtues of a good critic: firm convictions, long memory, an airy tone, a sharp tongue as required, practiced wit and an instinct for laneways less travelled. Here he is in ‘Emily Blunt and the Half-Life of Female Action Stars’ (read it here):

Amid this inane monotony, for which I paid $11, I began to notice Emily Blunt. Why? She was acting, and struggling to urge life and sentiment into this shooting gallery … she is appealing and human, things for which you can get shot in Looper. So I thought of Emily Blunt, and I then I started to think of Emma Watson and Linda Hamilton. (You have to do something during a film like Looper). Emily Blunt is 29 and for a few years now she has been so smart and funny and desirable in big supporting parts … that you have to say, “Give her a big lead part in a great comedy—quick.” Alas, her big part came in The Young Victoria, which was not a comedy. Now she is 29, which comes just before 30, which precedes 40. Plenty of time, you say?

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Writer at Large (Crikey)
Guy Rundle is great when an election is on but I love it most when he turns his eye on stuff — society and all the messy misfitting tongues and grooves of everyday. His recent series loping around America, North and South, is exemplary: wizardly informed (“Montreal is the place modernism came to die”), highly coloured (“escalators disappearing down tubular, Beaubourg-style shafts, all the signs (“arretez!” “pas ici” “billets”) in a neat sans-serif ”) and exuberant (“when you arrive at Montreal’s Central Station, there’s no mistaking where you are. You’re in 1982.”).

Rundle’s radar picks up on the little political signals, and he amplifies and arranges them into a startling bouquet of many stemmed but unified design:

Quebecism has been given a revival by the new more matter-of-fact separatism now alive in Europe, from Scotland to Catalonia, to FYRO Macedonia, the only country that sounds like a Formula One team. Such new nationalisms have sheared away much of the mysticism of earlier movements – they no longer believe their nation is the font of all wisdom …

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Books I found particularly memorable in 2012

Because, honestly, with many a book I find I can forget the main characters, the plot and the title a week, few days, hours, later. (Quick, what’s the name of Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper?) If I can retain a book, that counts for something, like, a lot.

Patrick White, Alpha and Omega
This year, the centenary of his birth, saw the first publication of his last novel, or a fragment thereof, The Hanging Garden, and also the first reissue since 1939 of his debut as a novelist, Happy Valley: there were only 3000 copies extant.

White’s first novel is as sharp, jagged, vivacious and streaming with consciousness as could be expected of the future Nobel laureate. Written at 27 (pictured, right), Happy Valley is half about older people, people who have lost their ideals and are trying to regain their hopes. On the other hand, the last book, The Hanging Garden, is about two teens, a boy and a girl fresh and hypersensitive with promise. The writing is sharp and jagged, vivacious with gleaming streams of conciousness. (There seems to be no gap between first book and last.) Even though one longs for the whole of The Hanging Garden, this first part is wonderful; I dare say its brevity or seeming compression is part of its charm and sufficiency. A pair of brilliant bookends.

 

The Art of Dying, the Art of Looking and Thinking
Tom Lubbock was the art critic at The Independent from 1997 until 2010 when he stopped due to the progress of a brain tumour. Two posthumous publications have appeared — one is a book of writings on art, taken from a weekly column in the Independent. The other is a small volume, a diary of his journey into death. The former, Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored, is my favourite collection of art writings this year, and leaps high into my pantheon of art criticism. His approach is distinctive and original, coming from an oblique angle — one is tempted to bandy that “i” word, iconoclastic. He has the knack of making you think something you have never thought before. Here is how he begins his brief essay on Gustav Klimt’s Water Nymphs:

The ears of Mickey Mouse are a good lesson in two-dimensionality. Mickey’s ears are simply two black circles.

His little appended biographies of the artists are superbly unexpected: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) specialised in richly mixed pleasures. He piles it on … sex-saturated, stuffed with money, filled with gold leaf … and suggestions of holy icons and sensory delirium. It is a supremely consumeristic art…

Published this year (Lubbock died in January 2011) his journal, Until Further Notice I Am Alive, is an ultimate artifact, a writer working towards his death sentence. He writes so well there is no call to critque it as a piece of writing; he is not being belletristic, it is, but not merely, frank. It is reportage of thinking and feeling from the final frontline. I found myself reading the book before bed, and postponing a return to it for days. I simply did not want it — 145 pages — to end, did not want him to end. From 28-30 March 2010, p.90:

Suppose I should want there to be a god, not as a guarantee for my eternal life (I can die), but as someone to remember me, or to contemplate my life, every moment of it, for ever — and your life too, especially the times we’re going through now. That’s something god could do for us, a totally unselfish act by god.

 

Classic discovery: Designing the Text Classic series of lost and neglected Australian treasures (see here and here) I got to hang out in an Aladdin’s cave of narrative splendours. Among many other highlights, I was knocked out by the young Thomas Keneally (Bring Larks and Heroes), David Ireland‘s award-winning opus (inc. The Glass Canoe and A Woman of the Future), stirred by Jessica Anderson (The Commandant) and truly shocked by Barbara Baynton‘s gothic Bush Studies (first pub. 1902!); Helen Garner introduces it.

But my best and favourite discovery is Elizabeth Harrower. There are two books in the series now — The Long Prospect is about a young girl in a town like Newcastle. It’s great, intense and psychological and lyrical with insight. The other, The Watch Tower, is set in sparkling Sydney in the 1940s, about two girls abandoned by their mother growing up into women, and the man who wants to control them. A watchtowering masterpiece of Australian literature, it had incredibly fallen out of print for these many years. It is a staggering achievement of tremendous power, not to be taken lightly. We had lost it, now it has been recovered. Praise!

 

Summer reading.
I have these to look forward to:
Katherine Boo — Behind the Beautiful Forevers (reporting from Mumbai slums)
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata (the scifi great returns to the future)
Hans Fallada — Alone in Berlin (gift from a friend; one of the great Nazi period novels. The first 2 pages are ripping.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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