Thursday, January 14, 2010

Best of 2009

Everybody likes lists so here's a list of things that moved me in 2009. I didn't blog much (a mere 5 posts - I was quite shaken) but I did leave quite a wide digital trail by compulsively tracking my consumption of various cultural artifacts - especially as I tend to make time to write mini-reviews. A cursory summary of my year: 50 books, 120 movies (blame Netflix), 10 concerts and 1 play. I remain an omnivorous consumer of the web and additionally bookmarked or shared up to 680 articles and blogposts (blame the 1099 feeds I subscribe to Google Reader) - each of these was the occasion of some pithy commentary and tags, your basic frisson de folksonomie.


I read mostly novels last year and eschewed non-fiction since I haven't yet become American in my reading preferences. There was some poetry especially near the end; mostly web-based after I got interested in how poets are using the web.


Entertainments tend to get short shrift, dismissed as they are as guilty pleasures, yet there is something to be said to bask in the glow of literary entertainments. With hindsight, I prefer Graham Greene's self-described 'entertainments' to his serious pieces. I've resolved to increase the quotient of entertainments in my reading.

  • Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
    A delightful entertainment and sublime take on a bygone era at Oxford. Compare to the best campus novels like those of Kingsley Amis and David Lodge or even more scabrous affairs like Porterhouse Blue. Satire and vicious cultural observation. Some of the dialog from the upper class twits reminded me of his Edwardian contemporary, Saki. For example,
    Are you fond of peasants? My tenantry are delightful creatures, and there is not one of them who remembers the bringing of the news of the battle of Waterloo.
    How to describe an effete English Lord in 2 sentences.
  • Comment Cuisiner Son Mari À L'Africaine by Calixthe Beyala
    A novel in the form of a cookbook. A cookbook in the form of a novel. A fable in the form of a tasty barbecue. A romance spiced with flair. A delightful confection through and through, cooked with verve. A sensual read, it is also a thoroughly modern affair set in the milieu of low income housing in Paris. She was early in documenting immigrant life and prescient about the travails of exiled souls.
  • The Charlie Mortdecai trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli
    The three Charlie Mordecai novels, Don't Point that Thing at Me, After You with the Pistol, and Something Nasty in the Woodshed have the highest concentration of effortless wit, zingers and cultural affectation I've encountered in a long while. Who knew that the intrigues of a disreputable coward, art snob and seasoned thief would be so entertaining? The increasingly intricate plots are almost incidental - verging at times on spoofs of James Coburn spy capers which were themselves spoofs, the towering pleasures are in the asides. I want to have cocktails with Mordecai.
    My life-long study of the art of warfare has taught me that running away is certainly the most cost-effective type of fighting. It doesn't win many battles but it saves you a lot of troops. Ask any Italian general if you can catch him out of his hairnet. Or, indeed, if you can catch him at all.

    Kyril Bonfiglioli - After You with the Pistol, page 74
  • The Parker novels by Richard Stark
    Donald Westlake sadly passed away late in 2008, his alter-ego's productions are the gold standard of hard-boiled noir, spare and stripped down tales of amorality and professional crime. Luckily many are being reissued these days. The Mourner, The Score and The Seventh were last year's comfort suites for me, variations on a heist with a relentless force of nature at the helm. Also revelatory was Darwin Cooke's graphic novel resurrecting Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter. Revenge has never been better.

Masters of Storytelling

There's nothing like letting go and putting your faith in one of these craftsmen of the tale:
  • Verre Cassé by Alain Mabanckou
    I read a lot of Mabanckou last year and an appreciation piece is sorely overdue. He is one of the best living African writers and yet few focus on him perhaps because he writes in French. Let's hope that the new translations that have began appearing remedy the situation - Broken Glass seems to be getting some buzz. Short of that, I'll become his shill. His latest, Mémoires De Porc-épic, was also magisterial.
  • Moses Ascending by Samuel Selvon
    After discovering the many pleasures of Zee Edgell last year I resolved to read more Caribbean literature and, after plowing through Selected Poems by Derek Walcott, I went back to that other master of Caribbean letters, Samuel Selvon, catching up on his great creation in 1970s England. A novel packed with hilarious observations about immigrants, poor whites, Pakistanis, black power, sexual mores, the relationship with authority figures, and throughout the resilient hustle of the Caribbean immigrant.
  • The Dragon Can't Dance by Earl Lovelace
    Call it a masquerade or rather a prose calypso. Wonderful social commentary on Trinidad, straight from the slum hills overlooking Port of Spain.
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
    Beautiful writing, haunting characters and an unerring ear for the nuances of language. The film adaptation is a classic of tragic noir, Robert Mitchum was never better.
  • To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
    A sardonic lament on the corruption of the mafia. He cut out all the fat in the narrative and the result is so restrained as to be unbearable. It lingered in my mind the whole year and resonated as I watched Gomorrah. What is to be done when this malevolent thing can blight an entire society? The follow-up, The Day of the Owl is, if anything, more menacing.

Urban Dread

  • Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas
    This one hit too close to home mainly because I know one of the barely fictionalized protagonists. Observations on race, identity and cultural anomie from the viewpoint of Boston black Americans close enough to the ivory towers to make their continuing travails and periodic falls from grace more heartrending and frustrating. An elegy for the modern strays of the world.

    Also in the same vein of urban dread, The Scholar: A West Side Story by Courttia Newland with its inner city London setting and The Turnaround by George Pelecanos who continues to mine the streets of the Washington DC area.


I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

Young African writers are in ascendance these days. This wistful and funny study of world of the 419 scam was the best and most heartening of the lot. I never quite got to Sarah Ladipo Manyika's In Dependence or my friend Nii Ayikwei Parkes's Tail of the Blue Bird so those will have to be part of the 2010 contingent.


The Cutting Ball's production of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano was a tonic, what with its great translation and interpretive gusto, but then you know that I love all things Ionesco.


  • In The Loop
    The best film of the year. The best adaptation of the year. The most fun of the year. A satire of the build up to the Iraq war, it hit harder than all the war movies. The Alistair Campbell character is larger than life but the entire cast shines.
  • Goodbye Solo
    Ramin Bahrani is fast becoming my favourite director; he manages to get so much out of his actors. I'm fairly sure I've been driven by a taxi driver with the same spirit as Solo (wonderfully played by Souleymane Sy Savane) in Boston. They caught the magic with this gripping meditation on life and family ties. The previous year's Chop Shop was gritty and heart-breaking.
  • Killer of Sheep
    Talking about strays of the world, how about a portrait of working class life in 1970s Los Angeles. Charles Burnett's masterpiece only received a theatrical release after 30 years. I can still hear Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth play in the background of a hot apartment in the summertime.
  • Sin Nombre
    The most uncanny love story meets road movie meets Latin American gang life. Mesmerizing.
  • Gomorrah
    No wonder the writer, Roberto Saviano, now needs police protection; Matteo Garrone's adaptation brings stark visuals to a relentless milieu of social corruption and violence.
  • District 9
    I hope Neill Blomkamp never gets budgets ala James Cameron, his scrappy aesthetic and expedient innovations are fine by me.
  • Nuts in May, Abigail's Party
    Happy-Go-Lucky also was my top film of 2008 hence I went on a Mike Leigh spree and revisited many of his early television pieces. Fun all around.
  • Life and Nothing But
    The aftermath of the first world war is a great backdrop for a meditation on loss and love. Another Tavernier-Noiret collaboration.
  • Mapp & Lucia (series one)
    I have long loved E.F. Benson's Mapp & Lucia series, its celebration of beastly manners are economical marvels of observation. The television series didn't disappoint.


I have a series called The Lost Reviews in the works so I'll simply note the high points.

And then there were the passings. Michael Jackson's death left a hole in my heart. The concert film was no consolation and the tributes barely salved the soul; the thrill is gone. Add to that the recent passings of Willie Mitchell and Teddy Pendergrass and what is a soul lover to do. Rest in peace.

Late Pass:

Kutiman's Thru You was the most creative album of the year, all the more impressive since Youtube was his orchestra and jam band. Dig it.

On to 2010. My mantra: focus and produce.

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