The best books of 2008 came from independent publishers who eschewed the vulgar editorial policies pursued by conglomerates where, it often seems, nobody edits, subedits, or reads the fodder they foist onto an increasingly ill-educated or tasteless reading public.
Best first novel of the year is Spencer Kansa's Zoning (Six Gallery Press). The unruly spirit of the Beats comes alive in Kansa. This is hardly surprising since he knew Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Huncke. In Zoning a Beat attitude or stance skips several fair-to-middling generations of pseudo-counterculture writers to resurface.
Zoning is about travelling without moving - a magical story revolving around the lives of a teenage occultist and a young porn star. William Burroughs said that Zoning reads like an urban Celine and Burroughs knew his onions when it came to good writing.
A Country of Words (Saqi) is a valuable autobiography of the puckish Abdel Bari Atwan. All through the so-called War on Terror Atwan has been one of the voices of dissent able to get airtime from a pro-war BBC. When his last book, The Secret History of al Qaeda, came out, I attended the London launch where he treated us to an incisive analysis of Bin Laden and his merry men. He exhibited Arab intellectual style and content with considerable panache.
In his autobiography Atwan, writing with subdued power, recalls tea with Margaret Thatcher, a weekend with Osama, and meetings with Yasser Arafat. Born in Gaza in 1950, he grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp. He left as a teenager to, eventually, become one of the world's chief commentators on the Middle East.
Headpress are a funky bunch of sisters and brothers so it comes as no surprise to find that they've taken counterculture VIP John Sinclair under their wing. Sinclair, a 60s poet, MC5 manager, and chairman of the White Panthers, was an early victim of the War on Drugs, sentenced to20 years to life for giving two joints to an undercover cop. John Lennon wrote a rare good song - John Sinclair - and performed at a 1971 benefit gig with Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, and Allen Ginsberg.
Sinclair edits HEADPRESS 28 to mark the 40th anniversary of the White Panthers. It includes essays such as An Appointment with John Sinclair by David Kerekes and Queen of the Damned. An interview with Diamanda Galas by Stephen Portlock. It features two essays by me; Brotherhood concerns the 19th century Irish revolutionary organisation, the Fenian Brotherhood, and Panther Burns and Howls is a dialogue between myself and my good buddy, Tav Falco of the Panther Burns art-blues combo.
In Tangier (Telegram Books) by Mohamed Choukri brings together three short books by the distinguished Moroccan writer. These Cocteau-like essays are meditations on the relationships between the city of Tangier and the writers Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles. On a more human level they're meditations upon the unequal relationships which existed between three big shot internationally famous Western writers and an impoverished, obscure, but profoundly gifted Moroccan writer somewhat stranded in a charming provincial backwater.
Choukri was a difficult, somewhat irascible, fellow - I used to see him every day as he made his way to and from Negresco, a pub where he drank too much but where, through a discreet gap in the curtains, he watched his world go by. Every writer needs such vantages. He had a difficult relationship with Paul Bowles which reached its climax when, at a Tangier cultural conference attended by members of the Moroccan government, he denounced Bowles as a racist and an exploiter.
His irascibility and awkward nature shine like a beacon in this book. He was never taken in by Genet's phoney French "man of the people" stance. A highlight of the Genet section is an argument between the criminal intellectual and my pal Hamri the Painter of Morocco concerning the existence or non-existence of Allah. The Tennessee Williams section - non-fiction writing of the superior sort - is not undermined by that fact that he and Choukri didn't seem to have spent too much time together or to have known each other all that well. I paid big money, a few years back, for a beautiful original small press edition of Tennessee Williams in Tangier. I hope that, when this fine collector's omnibus edition of Choukri's jealousy-inducing writing runs its course, Telegram brings out a cheaper paperback version. Telegram deserve much praise for their commitment to bringing Choukri's oeuvre to new audiences. They've already brought out two of his novels including that Arabic classic, For Bread Alone.
The Origami Crow (Seven Towers) by Eamon Carr is a short book by the Irish musician and music maven concerning his trip to Japan in 2002 to cover the World Cup and, also, his lifelong obsession with haiku poet Basho. It takes the DJ Shadow-listening hipster off the main streets of life in search of, perhaps, death and the void and the endless sleep. Having written a remarkable small book, he should now turn his hand to writing a long one. If he could extend his range to, say, 200 pages he could become a true literary big shot, just like Mr. Bowles or Sidi Choukri.
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.