Since I've seen so few new releases this year I'm really not qualified to say anything about movies (actually, I'm not really qualified to say anything about anything, but hey, this is the Internet, and it hasn't stopped me yet.) While contemporary movies have not sunk so low as contemporary music or art, I still find most of what comes out of Hollywood these days to be unsatisfying. Yes, there is an occasional gem, but for the most part the storytelling art seems to have been lost.
Other than sports and CNBC's after hours financial shows, I also watch very little television. The Shield is the most consistently excellent drama on TV right now and has been for awhile, surpassing The Sopranos long ago. In fact, in retrospect, The Sopranos turned out to be a single first season of perhaps the finest television ever produced, followed by five seasons that included brilliant acting (especially Gandolfini and Edie Falco) and characterization, but disappointing story lines that sometimes came out of nowhere and went nowhere. The producers seemed to develop a contempt for the audience, or at least the norms of traditional storytelling, summed up nowhere so clearly as in the final episode with its in-your-face non-ending. It seemed to me that Chase's intent there was to expose those of us who expected some sort of resolution - even the mildest 'life goes on' type of resolution - as old fogies stuck in the past, unsophisticated rubes who lacked the capacity to understand his vision, his art. Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps he simply had long since run out of ideas and fell back on the post-modernist impulse to shock rather than entertain.
Of course, most successful television shows run out of ideas and continue on long past their primes; the list of those that went out on top is a short one. Unfortunately 24, for so long so marvellously entertaining, clearly jumped the shark last season. What had been incredulous but thrilling devolved into pure farce. I'll more than likely watch when the new season starts but I won't be expecting much, and I'll drop it quick if the ridiculous-meter maxes out again.
On a happier front, Curb Your Enthusiasm may have actually improved this season. Every show was hilarious. I absolutely love this guy. Watch some of the clips on the linked page. I guarantee you'll be laughing out loud.
Since we only made one trip to NYC this year, I only saw a single broadway play, Pygmalion, which I blogged about here.
That leaves books. I had a terrific year of reading - probably my best ever. By my count, I read twenty books in 2007 (the list is on the right hand pane of my blog, if you're interested) and almost all of them were exceptionally good - a few were simply brilliant. I don't have the time or inclination to check the publication date on them but by my count eight of them were published in either the past year or the year before that. Of the new books I read, I'd have to say that Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach was the best novel. McEwan is the finest writer of English we have today and Atonement is the best novel published in the past twenty years. On Chesil Beach is not the achievement Atonement was but it's not meant to be. More of a novella than a novel, it lacks Atonement's gravitas and consequence. But it has the brilliant McEwan prose and storytelling ability and that makes it my best novel of 2007.
The best non-fiction of the new books? Probably Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy. While the focus is always on Caesar, any biography of Caesar is necessarily in part a history of the major events that led to the civil war and the fall of the republic, and Goldsworthy tells it with verve and a fine writing style, offering many fresh insights. Highly recommended to those interested in Ancient Rome.
The best books I read this year, however, were not new ones so I'd like to mention a few previously published works I read that really deserve attention - books that have stood the test of time and will continue to. To start with, a history. The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, by Piers Brendon, published in 2000, is a monumental history of the Depression and the march towards war, covering the period from the stock market crash in late 1929 until the German tanks rolled into Poland in September, 1939. It is astoundingly good. Brendon is a masterful storyteller with a gift for synthesis and exposition. His short, biographical descriptions of the major players of the period are themselves worth the price of admission. Indeed, his introduction of Churchill (pages 604-610) should be taught in the universities as an example of history writing at its best. I read this passage, reread it, then read it aloud to my wife, simply for its pure entertainment value. The rest of the book is no less interesting. Brendon, like a master film noir director, plunges us deep into the shadows of that 'dark, dishonest decade', detailing, chapter by chapter, the causes and consequences of the events in each of the nations that would soon be at war. He explores the fears, the motives, the blindness, and yes, the cowardice, of those who might have put a stop to Hitler, and exposes the moral rot (on both sides) and the incipient evil that finally made war inevitable. It's a tremendous book, a tremendous ride.
Finally, John Williams. How had I never heard his name before? Williams, who died in 1994, wrote only three novels in his life, Stoner, Augustus, and Butcher's Crossing. I read Stoner this summer and was immediately convinced that it's one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. Williams' quiet, spare prose about the life of an unremarkable man who teaches English at a university does not seem to be the stuff of great novels. I tried explaining the storyline to a friend of mine, who scoffed at my description - not for him, thanks. The problem is that a mere outline of the story is utterly insufficient as a description of the book. All I can say is, read it. The cumulative effect of Williams' storytelling is powerfully moving and, in the end, heartbreaking. It is a tragedy but one with ameliorative effects. One gets the sense that Williams' point is that we all live tragic lives, or at least lives that will be visited by tragedy. It's how we handle those tragedies, how we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, that matters. In the end, we'll find a way of understanding the disappointments, we'll throw bitterness and self-pity off, and we'll find a sense of, perhaps not peace, or even contentment, but acceptance.
I waited a month or so to read Augustus, though I could hardly wait. I read a few books in the interim, good ones too, but Augustus kept calling. When I finally picked it up I thought it couldn't possibly be as good as Stoner - but it is. I've read volumes on the history of classical Rome but it took this work of fiction to gain my greatest understanding and appreciation of it. And everything I read on the subject from here on will be improved by it. Using the raw material of Augustus' life as a backdrop - rich stuff indeed - Williams' recreates the period in all its intrigue and ruthlessness. All the usual suspects that we know so well from the pages of the history books are here - Augustus, of course, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cicero, Cleopatra, Agrippa, Livia, Julia. But they come to life in Williams' masterful telling, vividly and finally to life. We get a deep and clear understanding of them, their upper-class Roman way of life, the structure of their society, their way of thinking, and why they acted as they did. Told in epistolary format, it is not, as one would expect, a story of triumph. No, the story Williams tells of the man who created perhaps the greatest empire man has ever known is, like Stoner, ultimately a tragedy. In the book's final section, we at last hear from Augustus, who chronicles the major events of his life in a letter to his old friend Nicolaus of Damascus. It is August of the year 14 A.D. Augustus has only a few days to live and he knows it. He is on his yacht, determined to give himself a final holiday, floating down the coast of Italy on his way to Capri. The letter he pens over the course of these few days is in effect his last testament. He describes to Nicolaus the coldness that fell over him as a young man upon hearing of the death of his uncle Julius Caesar, and how he immediately turned away from his friends out of instinct and necessity. The distant, enigmatic Augustus we hear so much about in the history books takes root here within moments of Caesar's death. So does Augustus' realization of his destiny: to change the corrupt world which had been bequeathed to him. But he accepts his fate without joy or anticipation. There is a sense of regret running through the entire letter, his entire life. He's given up so much to gain, what appears to him in these final days, so little. From the time of Caesar's death he's been obligated to live a life he never really wanted; save for Nicolaus, he has outlived all his old friends and he acknowledges 'the triviality into which our lives have now descended'; the person he loves most, his daughter Julia, he has forced into exile, and he no longer speaks her name; the stories of his heroism and benevolence, the documents and statues, the histories of his life, all the deliberate works of propaganda that have built his reputation and allowed him to reform and consolidate the empire, are 'lies'. All those good and capable people who might have tended to the empire after he has gone have now departed. Instead, his beloved Rome will be relinquished to the cruelties of his despised step-son Tiberius. As death nears, he writes:
I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself
'I have lived too long,' he concludes.
Thus, the greatest emperor in western history dies alone, with the conviction that he has outlived his usefulness and whatever he has accomplished will ultimately be for naught. As in Stoner, this knowledge is conveyed free of any bitterness or self-pity. Taking the two books together, we see that the Roman stoicism displayed by Augustus as he greets death is a philosophy shared by William Stoner upon his own death bed. It's the thread that links the mighty ancient emperor with the modern university professor. John Williams wrote two superb books - masterpieces, if you will - and you should read them both. If I were forced to choose among them I would choose, as the best book I read this year, Augustus.