A year in books, 2015

I always seem to read the same number of books a year.
A lot of things change, but not this. I’ve been recording it for ten years or so, and it’s always 24 or 25. It’s not one every two weeks; I cram at Christmas and in the summer. Maybe now my body just knows that’s the target, and I just lean towards it.

This year was a character study.
Of myself and my son, who turned one right at the end. “Everything is a phase,” someone told me. I watch my son, and even though he’s tiny, there are already things he has done only for a little while that he’s now doing for the last time. Crawling doesn’t last long. All of this makes you think about yourself, too. What are you doing for the last time this week, or the first time right now?

So I think I was drawn to books about people. I read the first two volumes of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. The first one starts by talking about Texas soil in 1800, and how it made people poor, even the dreamers. The point is how the Johnson family’s decisions had been shaped in all the years leading up to him being born. It makes you think of yourself like the sea, and all the rivers of choices and ideas that have been poured into you. There’s such a completeness to the Caro’s imagining of him that he’s written less a book and more Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper.

The second volume is even better. It’s about one election, gangsters and lawyers versus cowboys and rangers, money versus myths. It finishes and you think it was Johnson that ended the Wild West.

You can make people up
The best character this year was an Opium Dealer in River of Smoke. It’s the second of a trilogy looking at the Opium trade in the 1800s. Bahram Modi is an Indian climbing through society on the back of a terrible trade; and he knows he deals in misery but he cannot reconcile it with the pleasure and power of what he can see with his own eyes. It’s about the difficulty of understanding the system you’re in, about how the world is always too wide to take in.

It’s hard to write about work.
The absence of work from 20th, 21st century art is really surprising. It’s a lot of life. And it’s huge for the Victorians — Dickens and Trollope. Even Austen, she’s writing about what is it that people do all day to get by? Perhaps it gets harder to write about the more digital and the less tangible it becomes. I read a couple of books about Apple and they were not memorable. All Day Long is a series of vignettes talking to people about their jobs, and there are some nice conceits (the maker of ballet pumps, followed by the dancer), but it feels unrealised by the end. Kim Gordon’s good on her life’s work. There are these bursts of anger. You finish it and think about naming your children after her.

One of these days Joshua Ferris will do something completely fantastic. To Rise at a Decent Hour has an excellent opening, lot of sharp lines, dull in the middle and a good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.I re-read Neuromancer and maybe that could be said to be a great novel about the hold of work on someone. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.

If a book is good you want to buy it for people.
I bought Station Eleven a few times. There’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walking Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.

How do you take yourself seriously?
It’s a harder question than you might think. I wonder if people said it to Miranda July. She does so much — art, films, and a novel — and yet she is really serious about each. The First Bad Man feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that never self censors. Loved it.

In full, the year’s reading:

  1. 10th — 22nd Jan. Complete Short Stories, Flannery O’Connor. The best are excellent; bitter and tough, full of pride mercilessly observed. There’s a narrow focus to them that’s a strength and a limitation.
  2. 22nd Jan — 9th Feb. The Man With The Compound Eyes, Wu Ming-Yi. DNF. Tedious Eco tale interweaving the horrors of a giant trash island with Pacific island folklore; squanders these interesting ideas on flat characters and a story that loses narrative tension and interest with every turn of the page.
  3. 10th Jan — 13th Feb. Neuromancer, William Gibson. A rare re-read and well worth it. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.
  4. 15th Feb — 22nd Fev. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Finished this at just gone midnight after a solid two hour power to the end. A lovely rhythm to it; there’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walkng Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.
  5. 23rd Feb — 3rd March. The Sculptor, Scott Macleoud. Beautifully executed if overly conventional story of a lost artist saved by love.
  6. 3rd — 19th March. Poetry Notebook 2006–2014, Clive James.
  7. 24th — 30th March. Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Fluid, compelling and convincing portrait of the Apple CEO.
  8. 20th March — 4th April. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris. Excellent opening. Lot of sharp lines. Pretty dull in the middle. Very good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.
  9. 5th April — 17th April. Girl In A Band, Kim Gordon. It’s great; slim chapters, bursts of anger, beautiful descriptions of playing in Sonic Youth and some really funny lines.
  10. 21st April — 10th May. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Creepy and strange story of the deep past; pulls off the fable thing fairly well (better than harvest for instance).
  11. 20th May — 26th May. The First Bad Man, Miranda July. Genuinely great. Compelling, terrifying, funny, sweet and very rude, it also feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that earns its happiness and hope, never self censors and avoids being dull, sub-Kafkaish. Loved it.
  12. 27th May — 5th June. A classless society: Britiain in the 90s, Alwyn Turner. Flat and turgid; far too much focus on every last detail of Major’s bumbling regime, with little to say about the more interesting cultural trends.
  13. 5th — 19th June. Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh. A stadium rock book. Unashamedly big, epic and pacy. Never threatens to surprise you but it fascinates with a very polished blend of detail and drama. Bring on the next one!
  14. 19th June — 1st October. Lyndon Johnson, Path to Power. Less a book and more a paperback Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper. Quite incredible.
  15. 31st July — 10th August. A Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks. Likeable vignettes of rural life in the Lakes.
  16. 12th August — 10th September. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch. Nicely realised world and when the plot finally gets going the stakes are high and it’s compelling — but the author never quite figures out if the central character is a rogue or hero or what he wants the reader to think. There’s a lack of emotional control that robs the plot of significance — how much can you care about all of this when it veers between picaresque and tragedy in 20 pages?
  17. 10th — 24th September. All Day Long, Joanna Biggs. Interesting series of vignettes where the author interviews people about work. Some of the stories are affecting and full of lively detail, but overall the patchwork effect doesn’t coalesce into anything greater or stronger. An eloquent final few pages on the future work, framed by a visit by the author to her old school, hints frustratingly at something bolder, more cohesive — and unrealised.
  18. 25th September — 19th October. Jony Ive, Leander Kahney. Workaday Apple bio. The odd new bit around the process but nothing substantial.
  19. 24th September — 25th October. All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Compelling WW2 story that threads together the fates of multiple characters over short, lusciously written chapters. There’s something of the blockbuster about it — it’s polished, professional and a little bit too sweeping — that means it feels less emotionally engaging than it should.
  20. 26th October — 5th December. River of Smoke, Amitav Gosh. Second in the trilogy, and home to my favourite character of the year, the flawed, ambitious, wealthy and inquisitive Opium dealer Bahram Modi. Too many of the other characters, especially the supporting cast, don’t distinguish themselves, and the book’s second strand — set of letters — is flat and slack. But Bahram lifts it above history to the realm of beauty.
  21. 21st October — 12th December. Means of Ascent, Robert Caro. Absolutely brilliant; whereas the first volume ranges far and wide, this is really focused around a single compelling story — the 1948 senate election. Two compelling main characters in Johnson and his opponent, Coke Stevenson are joined by a superb supporting cast featuring Mexican gangsters, Texas Rangers, wily lawyers. The book is beautifully constructed, making it clear just how titanic the opposing forces were. In a sense, the election was America as it wants to think of itself — the stoic heroism of the frontier and the myth of the West, facing off against unbridled capitalism, ambition and the unchecked forces of market progress. Stellar.
  22. 12th Dec — 28th Dec. The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley. One of the very few books where the last page really, really matters. What comes before is uneasy and damp, strange and intense. When those last few pages unfurl it takes a deep breath and soars into much more ambitious territory, grander and more macabre.
  23. 12th Dec — 20th Dec. The Song Machine, John Seabrook. Enjoyable and well researched look at the intensive way modern songs are assembled — a bit like formula 1 cars, endlessly tuned and built to a tight spec.
  24. 28th Dec. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Two of the lessons are beautiful and brilliant.

October cycling BHAG update

It’s starting to get dark earlier; 7:30, 7, 6:30 so that now it’s dark when I leave work, not just when I arrive. Sometimes I find cycling at night dull; there’s a flatness to the city, a literal lack of light and shade. But there are some good rides in the dark, when it’s not just the light which has receded, but life too. There are fewer cars and busses, more deserted corners and buildings empty despite having their lights blazing. Sometimes these moments of emptiness come in the strangest places: the Bloomsbury roads around the British Museum, or right outside Canon Street station in the city. If you come to these places late enough, you feel like you’ve come after humanity entirely.

From a cycling point of view, quietness means speed, and I log some fast rides home after working late, tearing home with the tyres lifting leaves in the air. One or two rides stand out in particular, when the traffic lights all line up and the smoothness of the tyres is matched by redone tarmac and the traffic is non existent, so I can really build up the momentum.

Continue reading

July Cycling BHAG Update

July is supposed to be midsummer, but here in England it’s not so sure; the weather is sketchy, blowy and cool, the sun fleeting. Sasha has fixed the troubles with his road bike – fitting hand built wheels with strong spokes in place of the good-looking but fragile stock ones – so we tend to cycle back from work together. Frequent stops at The Greenwich Union break up the ride home. It’s very cycle friendly as well as having great beer.

In the middle of the month, I’m in Montreal for a week. Here, summer is sure of itself, the sun high and hot in a boundless blue sky. Parts of the city feel overgrown; the houses pull back behind porches and balconies, or retreat beneath trailing ivy and flowers. The sunlight falls gently through leaves and at night you see fireworks, or kids still in shorts and dresses, or Hassidic jews, dressed devoutly in black and deep in conversation. It is hard to believe this place spends so long under ice.

Continue reading

London to Brighton charity cycle ride, this weekend

 Speaking of cycling – yes, I realise it’s pretty much all I do on here now – this weekend I will be pedalling 55 miles from London town down to the seaside in aid of the British Heart Foundation. I’ve got a heart, you’ve got a heart, and some cash would make both of our hearts feel better.

You can donate here – I’m only a few quid short of the target after all…

The 2011 Cycling BHAG

End of the road

At work at the moment, we’re contemplating the BHAG (pronounced ‘bee hag.’) The BHAG isn’t an old crone. It is, perhaps, slightly monstrous. Certainly, it should provoke a small amount of fear, a smidgen, a brief, cold press up against your heart.

Mainly though, it should be inspiring. The BHAG is the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Don’t laugh. It is a real thing. It has a Wikipedia page. A true BHAG should be so ambitious as to be ridiculous – at least when you’re starting. Consider Microsoft’s: a personal computer on every desk and in every home. This, at a time when people still thought of computers as machines that occupied whole rooms, and not too many years after Apple made them out of wood. A true BHAG should, thanks to its audacious, ludicrous character, inspire you to great heights.

While we’re still working on Dennis Media Factory’s BHAG, I did have an idea for my own one. I really started getting into cycling after buying a decent road bike last spring, so I thought about a mileage target for this year. And it seems obvious: 2011 = 2,011 miles.

Continue reading

If I Was Yours

In honour of them wining the Grammy, and because this is the first V. day I’ve spent on my own for eight years. Though that isn’t as entirely sad as that sounds; it’s both absence and space.

If I was scared
I would
And if I was bored
You know I would
And if I was yours
But I’m not

The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.

Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.

There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.

Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.

The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.

I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.

But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.

Continue reading