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Book of the Year

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Am I the first blogcritic to post a Book of the Year award for 2003? Probably, but then, this isn’t a book of the year award in the sense of what-was-the-best-book-that-came-out-this-year. The only qualification to be eligible for my Book of the Year award is that item in question must be a book, I must have read it over the course of the year and, for metaphysical completeness, I must remember having read it. (I’m over forty, that’s not a small concern anymore.)

First off, let me say that I know a number of you will be wondering why a little book called Business As Usual isn’t on this list. You see, that would qualify as shameless self-promotion. And I would never use blogcritics.org for shameless self-promotion. Never ever.

Here are four runners-up in no particular order:

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

The first appearance of James Bond celebrated its 50th birthday this year. If one can cast aside any preconceived ideas brought on by 40 years of Bond films, one will discover a straightforward, tautly-written espionage thriller, that offers some insight into the mindset of the early fifties when smoking, drinking and misogyny were all the rage. I did a thorough review over at kuro5hin in my pre-blogcritics days.

Pattern Recognition, William Gibson

A somewhat improbable mystery/thriller where the non-mystery elements save the day. A woman with a near mystical ability to identify successful corporate logos gets tangled in a proverbial web of deceit and danger over something called “The Footage” – enigmatic film snippets seeming randomly released across the net, only to be discovered and hyper-analyzed. This has caught the attention of a high-powered advertising scion and the search for the footage creator begins. The search follows a confusing path from London to Toyko to Moscow and the resolution isn’t all that satisfying, but Gibson is still Gibson; his prose has a riveting, high-speed immediacy, like a cyber-savvy Kerouac. This best part of this book are the passages describing the sub-culture of the followers of the film snippets — Footage-heads – and there electronic interactions through email on web forums. For anyone who has spent a fair amount of time engaged in web communities, these passages will seem absolutely genuine.

Bangkok 8, John Burdett

A lurid, profane and (yet another) somewhat improbable mystery, but that’s not really the point. Worth the read for the delightful narrator/investigator, who was raised by a prostitute, indulges in drugs, and is a devout Buddhist without an ounce of self-pity or self-importance; and for the lucid, fascinating tour of the seamier side of Bangkok along with an eyebrow arching discussion of the Southeast Asian sex trade. Full review here at blogcritics.

Man Eaters of Tsavo, Col. John Henry Patterson

The story of the Tsavo lions is one of the great adventure stories of the past century. I knew it only from various retellings I’ve encountered over the years, primarily in the works of author Peter Capstick. (I will not dignify the dreadful movie The Ghost and the Darkness by discussing it here.)

Early in the year I picked up a copy of The Ghosts of Tsavo by Philip Caputo, wherein the author visits the Tsavo area — now a protected wildlife reserve — to retrace Patterson’s footsteps and check in on the wildlife research in the area. I got about half way through — nothing too interesting seemed to be happening and the author kept making a rather condescending point about how we, with our shopping malls and air-conditioned homes, don’t realize that without the trappings of civilization we would find ourselves at an inopportune place in the food chain. Silly me, I thought that was kind of the whole point to civilization. Anyway, this caused me to go to the original source to get my fix; the description produced by Patterson himself.

It is a wonderful book. The completely unaffected prose. The perfectly constructed sentences, devoid of idiom. The utter lack of the need to justify the story as something of socio-political significance. The beautifully understated, Edwardian descriptions of harrowing experiences, almost gothic in nature. Just wonderfully written.

“Dr. Brock and I were easily able to follow his track, and soon
found the remains about four hundred yards away in the bush. There was the usual horrible sight. Very little was left of the unfortunate bhisti [water-carrier] – only the skull, the jaws, a few of the larger bones and a portion of the palm with one or two fingers attached. On one of these was a silver ring, and this, with the teeth (a relic much prized by certain castes), was sent to the man’s widow in India.”

The Usual Horrible Sight. Ho-hum.

Best of all Man-Eaters of Tsavo is freely available in electronic format, here or at Project Guttenberg.

And the winner of the Book of the Year is…

Hokkaido Highway Blues, Will Ferguson

Ferguson, a Canadian English teacher in Japan (that’s an English teacher who happens to be Canadian, not a teacher of Canadian-English, you hoser) takes it upon himself to hitchhike the entire length of Japan south to north, following the Sakura, the springtime blossoming of the cherry blossoms which carry much symbolism.

This is a prime opportunity for an author to wallow in portentous treacle about the beauty of this venerable cultural, but Ferguson will have none of that. He approaches this with a full measure of Western irony and wry humor.

“During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of sake and sing raucous songs until you topple over backward. It’s all very fleeting and beautiful.”

Chuckle. Ferguson realizes he will never truly fit in, but still has a strong affection for Japan.

“I always feel like such a great ungainly mess of a person in Japan, a sweaty bull in a forest of deer, and whenever I return to North America I am surprised at how loud, fat and disorderly everyone seems. It’s great. It’s liberating to be back in my element. But it also increases my discomfort when I return to Japan — as I always do — and find that once again I am this clumsy, unwieldy figure, shirt untucked, shopping bags in disarray, hair uncombed, groping for a handkerchief that I do not have.”

“The Japanese are not a coldhearted people. Sometimes I wish they were, it would make leaving easier. The problem is not that you aren’t welcome. You are. You are welcome as an outsider…The door is open but he chain is on. One hand beckons, the other blocks. Like a hostess in a snackbar, Japan flirts its way into our hearts, it pours our drinks, it strokes our ego, it smiles and sighs and listens to our stories, and then in a moment of silence it asks: “How did you ever get so fat?”

There is plenty of insight, but mostly the book is filled with deftly humorous recountings of the people he encountered and his (mis)adventures with them.

“I walked toward the white-bright phosphorous lights of the harbor, down to where the ferry was tethered. A group of boys, killing time on a spring evening in Saiki, were on their bicycles by the dock waiting for the ferry to leave. When they saw me, a mini-pandemonium broke out. They yelled [in English], ‘Hello!’ ‘This is a pen!’ and other such witticisms. (Or more accurately, ‘Harro! Zis is a ben!)

‘Gaijin-san! Gaijin-san! Are you going to Shikoku? You are? Did you hear that, he understands Japanese! Good-bye, Gaijin-san! Good-bye!’

The ferry bellowed once, twice, and the motor began rumbling, low and deep as an empty stomach. Cars were filing on, their headlights on low beam. ‘Say something in English! Gaijin-san, say something in English!’

‘I have never eaten feces knowingly!’ “

His trip is filled with stuff like that, often triggered because he is a gaijin. He has a deeply moving encounter with a family whose patriarch was a WWII POW, spends a hilarious evening virtually kidnapped by a group of drunken salarymen in Akita, gets lost, gets drenched, gets insulted, gets fired, and almost gets laid.

A longish book covering a longish journey, yet it leaves you wanting more. Like a good hitchhiker, Hokkaido Highway Blues never bogs down or loses its drive, energy, and wit.

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About David Mazzotta

  • Natch

    I second the Bangkok 8 recommendation. I read it last week in virtually one sitting. Another of John Burdett’s is The Last Six Million Seconds, also excellent.

    As an aside, though, my reading of novels has become severely limited by keeping up with the net. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or not.