Starting the reading for 2010 a little late; it took me a while to finish Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder, which is both excellent and substantial. As per usual, this post will be updated throughout the year with brief impressions of the books and a slightly less than arbitrary star rating. Thanks to Christmas presents, loans, and plenty of Amazon time, the to-read pile is so tall as to be in danger of toppling over. Time to make a start with a big, thick book then. Based loosely on Hamlet and with some chapters narrated by a dog, first up is a big selling American hit:
16th January – 1st February. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. It’s all about a mute boy called Edgar, who lives on a farm in rural middle America with his parents, who breed a unique type of dog. Their perfect world is undone by the arrival of Edgar’s father’s brother. The plot is closely mapped to that of Hamlet, and while, for the first half, mixing high tragedy with modern, detailed prose and a free-roaming viewpoint results in a book that sinks its emotional hooks deep into you and is very compelling, the second half didn’t, for me, manage to reconcile the source with the new setting as seamlessly. It’s still an excellent novel, with beautiful descriptions of the natural world and excellent canine characters.
2nd February – 9th February. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. I didn’t find in it what so many others did; to me it seemed dry and irritating. DNF.
10th February - 17th March. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantell. Yes it’s too long and all that, but it wouldn’t be what it is if it was shorter; builds up a terrific sense of day to day life in a Tudor London totally dominated by Henry VIII’s obsession with divorcing Katherine of Aragon. The characters are believable and the duel between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More pulls you through those hundreds of pages.
20th March. Conversations with My Agent, Rob Long. “When something like Cheers ends, it always takes a few careers with it. Don’t be one of them;” so says Rob’s agent in this slight but funny look at a writer who, once Cheers has ended, lands in development hell. There’s some nice Catch-22isms from the Hollywood suits, but overall it’s a very light and fast-paced read. One of the very few books I’ve read in one sitting though, so certainly enjoyable.
21st March – 1st April. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton. The first chapter sets the scene for this study of life and work well, looking at all the different jobs required for a tuna to make its way from the Maldives to a Sainsbury’s in Bristol and the dinner plates of a suburban family. The second chapter, following employees of McVities as they focus-group a new biscuit into existence is hilarious, horrifying and, to anyone who’s worked in the modern office, dreadfully familiar at the same time. It’s twenty or so of the best pages of writing I’ve read in a very long time, the words possessed of a fine precision that allows the tone to slice from mocking to empathetic in the space of a line, and to finely slide right under the skin of its subjects. After that, I found the book meandering and less able to take possession of the things it talked about. That said, thoroughly worth it for the first two chapters.
2nd April – 9th April. Bangkok 8, John Burdett. It’s been ages since I’ve read a thriller, and I really wanted to like this – Bangkok set, its main character is a half-Thai, half-American Buddhist cop. It really wasn’t my thing at all; the Buddhist aspects of the character seemed to excuse a very passive plot, the dialogue is rubbish and the female characters lifeless. Dull discussions of prostitution, too.
10th April – 28th April. A Crisis of Brilliance, David Boyd Haycock. A group biography of five leading young English artists in the early 1900s, who all studied at the Slade school of Art in London, and whose lives were all affected by the First World War. I knew almost nothing of Paul Nash, Stanley Spender, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler and Richard Nevinson before reading it, and found it really interesting – the book gives plenty of context and moves fluidly between the subjects.
29th April – 1st May. Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro. Yikes. I’ve loved every single one of Ishiguro’s books, but not this one. When a book’s own blurb describes it as “gentle” you know not to expect too much, but these five vaguely linked stories left almost no impression on me.
2nd May – 24th May. The Odyssey, Homer (EV Rieu / DCH Rieu trans.) First time I’ve read it. Epic.
25th May – 28th May. Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle. Excellent comic looking at a year spent with MSF in Burma. Subtle, touching, and a definite improvement over the so-so Shenzhen.
30th May. Exile on Main St, Bill Janovitz. Another entry in the 33 1/3rd series, looking at the Stones’ 1972 classic. A good companion to the recent re-release.
1st June – 19th June. The Lost City of Z, David Grann. Enjoyable story of the gentleman explorers who sacrificed their lives and sanity to try and conquer the Amazon in the early 20th century. Gives you an excellent sense of how hostile the Amazon was to Western explorers, and how this hostility was born of both the jungle’s ecosystem and the explorers own approach to what they characterised as the savage unknown.
20th June – 13th July. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell. Long awaited novel from the man who effortlessly combines popular appeal with a literary approach. It’s more straightforward than Cloud Atlas, but it’s beautifully told and deceives you into thinking it’s straightforward – but by the time you reach the ending, you’re completely enmeshed in its world and in love with its characters.
14th July – 21st July. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson. Another 33 1/3rd book; entertaining and thoughtful, if overly erudite story of a brainy music critic trying to engage with a Celine Dion album.
18th August – 1st September. Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad. A biography of American alternative music in the 80s: everything that lead to Nirvana, basically. Too long but then it’s comprehensive and features a lot of first hand testimony.
5th September – 16th September. The Age of the Infovore, Tyler Cowen. Huge disappointment; badly structured, sloppily written and entirely unfocussed. When it does settle down, it attempts to use autism as a lens through which to view the way technology is changing our mental skills. It’s not an interesting or radical enough theory to sustain a book and even the author doesn’t seem that interested in it, prone to following other threads and directions, but always in a flat, shallow way. No surprise then that they changed the title drastically from the first printing – it was originally published as “Create your own Economy.” It’s a book in search of a topic by an author who’s clearly smart, ludicrously well read and interested in many things. His blog, Marginal Revolution, is far better.
20th Sept – 1st October. The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris. Too much writing, too little in the way of characters and story. The writing itself is over burdened; thoughtful certainly, but cynical, exhausted and the overall effect for much of the book is text that is brutal, unpleasant and with little to offer. It never quite seems to decide if the disease the central character suffers from is medical or allegorical, and as a result, doesn’t earn its symphonic ending. Ferris isn’t a bad writer – this is just a failed project.
8th October – 20th October. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Terrific, although if you read it after having seen the film (as I did), you can’t help but be aware just how much of the text the Coen Brothers managed to get up on screen. It’s a very, very close adaptation, and though it’s no fault of the book, post-film, and post-Javier Bardem it lacks room to breathe.
21st October – 15th November. A Face To The World. Laura Cumming’s book on self portraits is rather brilliantly done; easy to read and full of insight.
16th November – 28th November. Life, Keith Richards. A tale definitely worth telling though despite being willing to clearly present the highs and lows of an excessive and often insane life, he’s not someone given to to self-criticism, judgement or even debate, and it leaves the book feeling lacking something. There’s no light and shade, no reflection. Still, we’ve got the songs for all that.
29th November – 2nd December. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid. This told tale, a story recounted to an impassive listener, starts brilliantly, but the longer it went on, the more frustrated I got with it. There’s something unctuous about the narrator himself, and the device of having him ‘tell’ you the story soon starts to seem gimmicky. It’s too literary as well – his lost love is a writer becoming a ghost and he’s radicalised in part by going to Pablo Neruda’s house. This contributes to a feeling that the book is a dilettante, afraid to get dirt under its fingernails; the Fundamentalist of the title seems more like a whining teenager than someone fired with genuine rage, on the path to doing something terrible.
3rd December – 20th December. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa. A slow, elegiac drift of a book, possessing the same kind of beauty as dust falling through sunlight on a slow summer afternoon. I liked the fractured approach to the narrative, and the way you come inexorably to care about the characters, not for who they are or what they’ve done, but for the fact they suffer the universal human tragedies of age, decline and death.
21st December - 5th January 2011. Electric Eden, Rob Young. Detailed, well researched history of English pastoral and folk music. Best of all, gave me lots of new music to explore. Tone never quite settled – sometimes scholarly, sometimes imaginative, it never manages to be as imaginative as the music it covers though, perhaps because it’s not personal enough.