Kicking this year off with a selection from The Big Book of Dick(TM), a birthday present from a friend with an equally tawdry/literary sensibility. I’ve never never actually read any Philip K. Dick before, so looking forward to it. As before, this post will be updated throughout the year with brief impressions of the books and a slightly less than arbitrary star rating.
6th Jan – 24th Jan. The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick. Took a while for me to get into it; more me than the book, I think, but once done, its takeover of my imagination was total. The completeness of its world is amazing: unlike a lot of “what if” fiction, it’s air tight. There’s no leaking in of our world – the characters are completely part of the nightmare. The scene in the hotel – jagged, missing half the obvious words, but packing in such extremes of feeling – held me completely.
25th Jan – 2nd Feb. Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The story of an incredible achievement, a American mountaineer single-handedly creating an NGO dedicated to building schools for girls in remote areas in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. His approach – hands-on, building trust with locals – yields terrific results, and so as a book, despite being overlong and the writing lacking a certain something, it’s moving, heart-warming and important. Worth looking at the website for more, particularly this interview with Mortenson [PDF].
3rd Feb – 14th Feb. Cadence & Slang, Nick Disabato. A beautifully produced book about interaction design, interfaces and the feel of digital products. As a newcomer to the field, I found it incredibly useful. It’s full of practical advice, delivered in a straightforward manner. This does mean it’s not the most fun book to read – it’s didactic, split out into very short sections and gets straight to the point. In some ways, I think it would have benefited from a little more poetry to both the writing and its approach; on the other hand, I can see that this may well have ruined it, diluting the advice – which is applicable to a wide range of people and situations – and making it too idiosyncratic.
15th Feb – 21st Feb. A Grief Observed, CS Lewis. I read Joan Didion’s Year Of Magical Thinking last year and couldn’t get into it; similarly with Lewis’ meditation on loss. It’s written in a way that’s plain and elegant, and which clearly narrates the author’s attempts to come to terms with his bereavement. But again, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
21st Feb – 26th Feb. In A Strange Room, Damon Galgut. A terrific book; three stories, sharing a similar theme — travel — written in a way that’s spare and beautiful. Sounds very literary, but what makes it emotionally successful is it’s just so empathetic in a straightforward, direct way. Only connect; this one does.
4th March – 30th March. The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, Zachary Mason. Retellings of the Odyssey – alternate endings, different takes – some of which are just fragments. Fascinating, inspiring that it got into print, and parts of it are just deliciously clever – the chess story in particularly – that you can’t help smiling in pure delight.
31st March – 13th April. A Distant Neighborhood, vols 1 & 2, Jiro Taniguchi. Japanese Manga about a 48 year old salaryman who is thrown back in time to his 14 year old self, months before his father mysteriously disappears. I love time travel stories, and while this was melodramatic in places, its mostly simple, effective and affecting.
14th April – 1st May. Designing for the iPad, Chris Stevens. Written by the designer of Alice for the iPad, there are some good practical lessons here, although if you’ve done a lot of reading in the field, some of it will be preaching to the converted.
1st May – 4th May. Cobra’s Heart, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Short selection of his writings on Africa; a bit random and lacking in context but then it’s a tiny volume. I’d be interested in reading The Shadow of the Sun, which is the full book they come from.
4th May – 12th May. Just Kids, Patti Smith. Terrific ramble through 70s NYC as Smith and the photographer Robert Mappelthorpe find their way in life and art. Avoids too much name-dropping and it’s a curious blend of the lyrical and the naive which keeps it fresh and intriguing. Throughout, there’s a tremendous and constant faith on both their parts in ‘the work’, which is inspiring.
13th May – 17th May. Some Hope trilogy, Edward St Aubyn. You just have to read this. It sounds so dislikeable and dismissible – posh English people being horrid to each other. Rah rah rah. But it is at the end just devastatingly beautiful and sad in such a rich, full emotional way. It’s funny and vertiginously daring, thrilling stomach churning about the heroin and addiction and beautifully patterned – these ripples, patterns repetitions – phrases, situations – echo down through the characters. Stunningly good.
18th May – 8th June. In The Plex, Steven Levy. Better than his iPod book which I read previously, this offers a terrific insight into Google. The interviews and direct quotes are its strong points; the context, less so, as it’s hopelessly one-sided.
9th June – 18th June. Mother’s Milk, Edward St Aubyn. The problem of high standards – it’s basically not as good as the Trilogy, and while it’s full of fine writing, that fall from grace rankles. There’s not enough Patrick, it’s too psychological and Freudian – and Eleanor is too passive, plus there’s too little continuation of the older characters. Iraq war stuff feels awkward. It only really takes flight when Patrick is allowed to riff on Seamus.
19th June – 9th July. The Good German, Jospeh Kanon. Enjoyable, pacy thriller set in Berlin, 1945. The setting is the strongest point as the desperate city is really brought to life. At its best it’s like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. More action packed and flabbier though, it could do with honing in areas.
10th – 13th July. Miracles of Life, JG Ballard. Brief and mostly flat; Ballard lacks the interest in nostalgia required for a successful autobiography. There’s no sense of the sadness of time passing and no sense of character. That said, it’s clearly an incredible story, and I left Miracles feeling perhaps I just haven’t found the right Ballard book – I want to like him, because there’s something deeply admirable about him and his approach.
14th July – 6th August. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera. DNF. On a line by line basis, it’s very finely written. I found myself folding the corners of pages over to remember passages, but I found the book itself dragging. I didn’t connect with the main characters and their dilemmas. Each time I closed the book, it was easier and easier not to pick it up again.
7th August – 17th August. How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran. She’s one of my favourite columnists, and a woman who single handedly makes the Times worth reading. No surprises that her book is possessed of the same blend of wisdom and surreal anarchy that she brings to the columns, and the chapter on abortion is particularly moving. I would have preferred more about her, I think – the most enjoyable parts are more personal than her journalism, and her own stories give it more depth.
18 – 27th August. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Curiously, everyone I mentioned this book to had a similar reaction: a sort of eye-rolling ‘yeah, read that in school’ dismissal. It’s a shame to be so closed minded about it, because coming to the book fresh, it didn’t seem dated or overly bombastic. Obviously, authoritarian dystopias all live in the shadow of 1984, but I felt The Handmaid’s Tale made a strong case for itself, and still does, as a book with an independent vision. I really liked the framing device too – the end skips forward several hundred years, and creates some interesting ripples going back through the text.
28th August – 1st September. Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia. DNF. It’s rubbish; there’s just no sense of drama to the lifeless proceedings at all.
1st September – 27th September. The Little Book of Economics book, Greg Ip. Lots of American examples, but it’s a pretty good primer for understanding The Economist, which is itself a decent recommendation.
28th September – 3rd October. The Cello Suites, Eric Siblin. Fascinating book about the the rise to prominence of Bach’s austere, beautiful and mysterious cello suites. Beautifully written, evocative and well told, it’s an ideal intro to the music.
17th October – 21st November. 1Q84, Books 1 & 2, Haruki Murakami. In parts you worry it’s deeply terrible but just a page or two later and it’s irredeemably wonderful. Combines the bizarre and the mundane in a compelling and convincing way. Utterly unique and brilliant. The ideas shine through; an alternate place, doppelgängers, love and things not being right.
21st November – 27th November. 1Q84 Book 3, Haruki Murakami. In parts it really drags; some will argue it doesn’t need to be this long but then it’s a novel, and if it’s a good one, it has its own logic, determines its own needs. This one certainly does; beautiful ending, it might be predicatable but it’s really earned it, and some beautiful writing too. Unique.
28th November – 11th December. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Disappointing. Of course, it’s full of great stories, but there’s very little analysis, or sense of understanding about the why and the how.
24th December – 28th December. Zero History, William Gibson DNF. Yikes, this was truly terrible – and yet the writing is so technically beautiful, but with so little to say. The story is meaningless (a marketing agency hunts for someone who designs jeans), the plotting lazy, and the characters empty. Whereas Gibson once created worlds where you never knew where you were, and always felt in challenged and threatened, here you get to watch a few idle rich kids travel the world in search of nothing at all. It’s hard to discern anyone’s motivation, harder still to share it – Gibson himself only seems enagaged when delivering parapgraphs of description or discussion about the conflation of military and casual clothing design. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that there is brilliance here – the absences of characters taken away by screens, the strange loneliness of cites – but that instead of creating, he, like the marketing firms he writes about, is content to package up a little technical and otaku knowledge and sell it back to the dumb literati who shower him with plaudits. Woeful.