If your 2017 was anything like ours, it whizzed by in a dizzy of confused haste. That's one of the reasons our round-up of the best of 2017 is a bit delayed. But the books that crossed our paths in the previous twelve months were too good to ignore. As usual, we asked some of our favorite literary people to tell us what stood out in their reading year, regardless of the book's publication date. We also asked them to give us a peak at what they're looking forward to in 2018.
You don’t go to Shakespeare to learn the history of Henry VIII. That’s what Peter Carey once said to explain why facts didn’t bind him when he wrote True History of Kelly Gang in the voice of legendary, infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. It’s not the novelist’s task to give the reader the absolute truth; the goal must be to tell a good story, to discover (or create) hidden aspects of character, to subvert and to use the historical record in a way that serves story.
I spent much of the past three months preparing for an on-stage interview at the Auckland Writers Festival with Johnson, who died on Wednesday, May 24. He cancelled his appearance several weeks before the festival, but it was a great pleasure—and often an education—to read and reread his books and prepare for the meeting.
Michael Martin, poet and editor, is proving himself an exciting new playwright.
Last year, we shared the first in a cycle of plays, FLOR-ALA. Now we bring to you A Show of Hands, a surprising, funny and provoking work about complacency and threat.
For what, the narrator of Leonard Michaels's Sylvia asks, has all of his time reading literature prepared him? He describes himself as “an overspecialised man, twenty-seven years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say ‘I love to read.’”
“But why do I read?” asks the Polish poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski in A Defense of Ardor. “Do I really need to answer this question?”
Several years ago, in the middle of a snow-covered Paris winter, I went to the American Library and checked out my first Charles McCarry novel that didn’t feature CIA agent Paul Christopher. During that first read of Lucky Bastard (1998), I thought McCarry had betrayed me. It was outlandish, too absurd to buy into, this novel about a charming politician with no experience who's indebted to Russia and, as McCarry's publisher describes it, is plagued by "a zipper problem."
Years later—in late 2016, to be precise—certain stories in the news started to sound like they had been pulled directly from this novel. After McCarry's novels predicted the 9/11 attacks decades earlier, I shouldn't have doubted his prescience.
Then there’s that great pleasure of browsing the shelves with no objective. Before long, a title, a name—something foreign and unknown—calls out. Several years ago, for me, the title was Season of Migration to the North. In that moment, I knew I had something. Indeed, I knew I had it, a mysterious and poetic title, as well as the name of the kind of writer I spend much of my browsing time searching for: someone from a region I know little about—in the case of Tayeb Salih (1929-2009), author of Season of Migration to the North, northern Sudan.
Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim is full of examples from the arts and sciences that show a clear connection between time spent away from work and the quality of work ultimately completed. Pang quotes artist after (prolific) artist who works hard and consciously but who also naps, maintains a time-consuming hobby and takes significant breaks while remaining at the top of his or her field.
But rest is a foreign concept to me. Can Rest help me and others who get caught up in doing too much?
Richard Yates keeps trying to break my heart. It happens every time I turn the page of one of his books. The truth is that I want him, maybe even need him, to do it. Break my heart. Knock me out of my chair. With Yates, you don’t need to ask. His work fulfills Kafka’s requirement that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.”
It may seem obvious to state that all science fiction at heart engages with the question of what it means to be human. Even so, it seems worth saying again. Beyond all the gadgets and the new means of interaction and the cyborgs and chimeras and the cool toys, the bald question remains: Who are we? (In other words: what is a human?) Not regardless of our setting but through it and our interactions with what we’ve created.
One of the things that science fiction can do because of its central focus is make us extremely, necessarily uncomfortable. Which is how I often felt—alongside being excited, impressed and fearful—as I read Alexander Weinstein’s recent story collection, Children of the New World, in which he offers thirteen possible outcomes of our increasing dependence on technology and our inability to stop destroying the natural world in order to fuel our obsession with energy and technology production.