Richard Lutz flips through the books he read in 2020 – the good, the bad, the downright appalling
There’s no doubt that the Covid crisis hit the quantity button on my annual list. You just didn’t go anywhere. That meant more books devoured, digested or simply endured.
Let’s start with the stars of 2020. So here goes.
And to put any lingering curiosity to rest, the picture below is of a dapper Norman Lewis, the British essayist and politico-travel writer, who creeps into the Best Of list each year. His memoir “Naples ’44” is a vivid wrenching account of when he decamped with the army into the Italian city as World War II was ending.
Here is a picaresque story, beautifully written, about how the starving, the orphans, the emptyhanded tried to make do in Naples as the Allies swept in to find a ruined city. At points it’s terribly sad as when Lewis portrays what people will do to survive, selling their daughters to troops, denouncing their neighbours, slowly starving to death, attempting to make a living or, simply, just finding clean water.
This is his account of when a group of blind girl orphans were refused food in a restaurant:
“Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong….These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. “
It’s a mesmerising book and the writer’s clear and elegant style makes it all the more moving. It’s one of two Lewis books I gobbled up this past year. And I do like that white tie.
A second book on the Best Of list is “Mr Norris Changes Trains” by Christopher Isherwood. It’s a fictionalised account of the author’s demi-monde days in 1930’s Berlin. And, yes, if that sounds familiar it’s because it ultimately became the film Cabaret starring Liza Minelli.
Isherwood’s accounts centre on a certain Mr Arthur Norris, a prissy, narcissistic conman who swans around the German capital, absolutely penniless and prone to feeding off anyone naive enough to support him. It’s a gloriously dark comedy with the Nazi spectre looming on the horizon. Mr Norris’s unreflective life is a hoot – especially when he joins the Communist Party simply because he’ll have an immediate audience when he speaks (quite effectively) at rallies and smoky meetings. It is one of those novels that you find yourself reduced to chuckling out loud. A funny book. But one with an underlying tone of imminent evil.
A third Best Of choice is Craig Brown’s “One, Two, Three Four”, a cheeky biography of The Beatles. Brown is a wit and his winning breezy style, pinned down by good primary research, makes it unputdownable at times. His Mop Tops are knowing lads who instinctively understand how to pull the peckers of the bosses and the heartstrings of the young lasses. Lennon comes across as in need of a mental health plan; Paul is a sharp innovator; George is sullen; and Ringo is uncannily clever at acting dumb. There are a few new bits, loads of gossip and fresh interviews of those that are forgotten, fallen by the wayside or just ignored.
Last of the Best Of Books is a long shot – “Black Elk Speaks”. It’s a verbal memoir by the eponymous Lakota Indian leader recounting his former days fifty years after he took part in fighting the American Army out West. As a boy, he was a horse soldier against General Custer and, speaking only in Lakota and translated by his son, he explains in his final days to an academic, how treachery and bloodshed destroyed his world.
“I failed,” he sadly says in his dotage. He witnessed his culture ground into the dust as lands were stolen, tribes killed off and promise after legal promise ignored. It’s a stunning indictment of how cruel the United States was as it expanded built on a pool of bloodlust and treachery.
Now for the Big Losers List. The WORST book was Manhattan Is My Beat by Jeffrey Deaver. You always see his mega-novels in dentists’ waiting rooms, airports or propped up on a charity shop shelf. A subsequent novel, The Bone Collectors, became a film hit starring Denzil Washington. But Manhatten is My Beat was written ten years before that.
Deaver must have knocked off this book while asleep. He uses every trope going in crime writing, every trite gimmick. There’s a semi alcoholic morose cop, there’s the obvious bad guy and the peppy streetwise outsider who somehow is allowed to help the New York police. And all to solve the… actually, I’m not too sure what is solved or what happens in the novel except Deaver seems to have awoken each morning and blindly banged it out. As Capote said about Kerouac: “It isn’t writing. It’s typing.” I think Deaver was paid by the syllable. Just keep typing….
Another bigtime loser is “Less Than Zero” by Bret Easton Ellis, the California badboy Gothic noir writer. He’s the belle of the ball for gruesome seedy studies of the rich and young; his plots (based on his early life) are sodden with hard drugs, hard loveless sex and an anomic lifestyle among the kids who can score the most expensive dope going in Los Angeles. It’s nihilistic stuff, not well written, more of a fifteen year old’s self-obsessed diary hidden away with his stash. To be fair it was knocked off when he was 21, a fledgling writer pouring out his guts. But a book that really goes nowhere except to the next narcotic hit.
And a final addition to the No List: Go Set A Watchman, by Harper Lee. She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an elegant Southern drama and a Grade A Gregory Peck film. But this shambles of a book was written before and turned out to be a first draft of her classic. This is a sort of sequel set when the main child character Scout Finch is an adult. It doesn’t work and I don’t know why the publishers decided to put it into print. Ah, wait, wait a darned min, I can think of one reason it went to press, why a 90-year old Ms Lee was badgered into going public.
Dollops of loot for a novel in the making that should have stayed off the market. But the decision, alas and alack, was made and it’s an unfortunate mess, a terrible way to keep the Mockingbird flame alive. Maybe the real story should be how a cynical money grubbing publishing house bullied a nonagenarian to release an early attempt of her masterpiece and then get it fobbed off as a ‘missing’ novel by Harper Lee. Shame, shame, shame.
Other books that get an honourable mention:
The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn- tells the USA tale from the angle of the poor, the dispossessed, the slave. Strong stuff
I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke- the Manchester poet is a lively writer and prolific storyteller. Not at all the cocksure strutting wide boy at all
End of the Tether by Joseph Conrad- a quiet and eerie story about the wreck of a South Seas freighter on its last sealegs. A portrait of failure and age