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Old 1st Jul 2003, 13:21   #1
John Self
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Default Best Books of 2003 (part one...)

As we now have a full six months of 2003 under our belts, I thought I would list my favourite books of the year so far in rough order of preference. Almost none of them are new, as they're all paperbacks, but what they all have in common is that I read them for the first time in the first half of 2003 so they're new to me...

1. Dan Rhodes, Timoleon Vieta Come Home
2. William Boyd, Any Human Heart
3. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
4. Rabih Alameddine, I, The Divine
5. James Lasdun, The Horned Man
6. Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
7. William Boyd, The Blue Afternoon (can you tell that I discovered William Boyd this year...?)
8. Hari Kunzru, The Impressionist
9. Kyril Bonfiglioli, The Mortdecai Trilogy
10. Michael Frayn, Spies
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Old 1st Jul 2003, 13:27   #2
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John - you have actually read The Bonfire of the Vanities?

I have this sat at home, ever since I got it for 20p or something in an offer from the Observer.

is it any good?
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Old 1st Jul 2003, 13:32   #3
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Always been one of my Please Lord Give Me The Strength To Read It books. I'd be interested in your views too, John.
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Old 1st Jul 2003, 13:42   #4
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Is it any good?! It's only number three on my list of best books of the year, goddammit!

Yes I too had it languishing by my bed for about 6 months and only read it because I had decided not to buy any new books and make an effort to clear up my backlog. I got through the thing - 700 pages - in 4 days, which is a measure of how easy going it is once you start. Here is a review of it I posted elsewhere.

---

If you're like me before I read it then you probably know two things about Bonfire of the Vanities. 1: it's very fat. 2: it was made into a much-panned film with Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks. I can now exclusively reveal to you the full extent of the fatness (710 pages) and that Melanie Griffith was also in it.

Oh and that it's a red-blooded, full-hearted, rootin', tootin', rip-roaring, fully hyperbolic masterpiece. It's the story of the gruesome downfall of Sherman McCoy, a bonds dealer on Wall Street who earns not a kick in the arse off $1m a year (Wolfe making the book neatly inflation-proof, I guess). You might think he has a bit of a downfall coming, and you could be right - he's involved, after all, with a hit-and-run which leaves a black youth in a coma - but Wolfe makes it so horribly detailed, and at the hands of such heinous malefactors that, in the end, your sympathies are all with McCoy. For as we are gratuitously told on the last page of the book, if there are real criminals in this case, they are Reginald Bacon (the corrupt black civil-rights "reverend" who can whip up an angry mob in nothing flat), Abe Weiss (the District Attorney up for re-election in the Bronx, who needs a good high-profile white-on-black conviction to get back next year) and Peter Fallow (representative of the most venal and contemptible of the low, the tabloid newspaper pack-rats).

But I can see why the book made such a bad film. The plot, while gripping, isn't the half of it. It's a book, dummy: the words are the thing. Wolfe is effortlessly adept at bringing life in New York, in all its forms, into our minds via the page, and soon you too will be looking around you in public for the Social X-Rays (there was one in front of me in the queue in Marks & Spencer today), the Lemon Tarts, and the Pimp Rolls. His characters are - let's admit it - Dickensian too, with particular pleasure for me coming every time Judge Mike Kovitsky, physically tiny but loud and profane, graced a scene.

In its sweep and narrative force, Bonfire of the Vanities is comparable in my experience only to the likes of John Irving, although for my money Wolfe is a better writer, line for line, than Irving is. I am almost afraid now to read Wolfe's second novel, the equally corpulent A Man in Full. Any takers?
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Old 4th Jul 2003, 22:59   #5
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One of my favourites too. But probably worth another shot as a movie. I haven't read it for ages though it's survived all of my book shelf purges since I bought it 15 years ago, so I'm obviously subliminally telling myself to re-read it. I've got a copy of A Man in Full on my shelf awaiting the time I need to read it.

What I enjoy in the book are the episodes revealing the yuppy longing - McCoy in the men's room worrying because he can't survive on the million dollars a year he is about to stop earning, Larry Kramer estimating the price of the shoes and briefcase of each person he passes on the way to work.

Must re-read it. But theres so many books in this room I've not got round to reading.

Help!
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Old 17th Jul 2003, 11:19   #6
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Very pleased to see the mention of Kyril Bonfiglioni. He died years ago now, but the trilogy seem to make it back into print every now and then. They're great.

Not come across Rabih Alameddine. Who's that?
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Old 1st Aug 2003, 11:53   #7
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I had never heard of him either until his book I, the Divine was a 3-for-2 choice in Waterstone's (and may still be). It had a tricksy concept which I rather liked - a novel entirely in first chapters, on the basis that the narrator is writing her autobiography and can't decide where to begin - but it surpassed my expectations. There was literally not a dull page - recommended.
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