Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Blessed by books

Now that the year is nearing its halfway mark, I can confidently claim that 2009 is going to be a
grand cru. I'm talking books, not wines, in case you're confused.

Because readers, like wine tasters, know that the harvest differs from year to year, in quality and in quantity. Often I read for weeks, sometimes even months, without coming across a really great book. Oh, I find pleasure, of course, I always find pleasure in reading, but I yearn for something more. I want a book that grips me and shakes me, a book that thrills me and fills me with awe and admiration.

And then there are years, like this blessed one, when each month is illuminated by a brilliant book. The kind of book that stands out from the crowd, or jumps off the shelf, for the rest of the year. Maybe even for many years to come.

The thrill started in January, when I finally tackled Don DeLillo's Falling Man which I'd been threatening to read ever since its publication in 2007. It is the most magnificent writing about 'Nine Eleven' and the attacks on the Twin Towers that I've ever encountered, and it convinced me (as if I needed any convincing) that DeLillo is an awesome author. I wanted to fall down at his feet and worship him after some pages, for what he does with language and style and human relationships. I know this sounds over the top, but we all have our weaknesses, and DeLillo is one of mine.

Then, in February, I was blessed by another beautiful book: Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, a lyrical novel about a family gathering. The nine surviving siblings of the Hegarty clan get together in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam... Dark and delightful from the first to the last page.

So far so good, I said to myself, like a falling man (with apologies to DeLillo) who still has a long way to go before he hits the ground, but surely this good luck can't last. Well, it did last, into March, when I read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, another outstanding novel published in 2007. (Talking of grand crus, what a grand year 2007 was for readers.) On Chesil Beach is a devastating study of a single young couple on a single night in the summer of 1962; 'a short, sharp shock of a story', as it was called in The Observer, proving once again that power has nothing to do with size or length.

And still my luck didn't run out. In April, while on vacation in South Africa, I read Toni Morrison's latest masterpiece, A Mercy, which I praised in my previous posting (Of mothers and race). And in May I read another novel I probably should have read three years ago. Kiran Desai's exquisitely titled The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, which makes it the 'oldest' of the five memorable novels I've encountered in the first five months of 2009. One of those marvellous stories about India that I just can't resist, as I confessed in another earlier posting (Hate and hurt in Mumbai, November 2008), it deals with an uprising in the Himalayas region in 1986, and demonstrates in a quite unforgettable way how big political dramas can affect the small personal lives of ordinary people.

So far so good, I say again, still falling. I can't wait to see what the rest of the literary year holds in store for me.