The Wired Jester isn’t one for routine – mostly because it means certain things have to happen at certain times and thus it’s a perfectly calibrated recipe for lateness – but using this blog to record the books I’ve read during the year does result in the pleasurable opportunity to look back, in the style of a plump Guardian Review/Newsnight Review critic and
plug the books my mates wrote recommend the ones I most enjoyed. The post has been slightly delayed by the fact I’ve been trying to finish my last book of the year – Crime and Punishment – which looks a reasonable-length paperback, but is actually a very dense 600+ pages. I’m close enough to the end now to judge, though…
* In 2006, I read 25 books; in 2007, this dropped slightly to 24, two of which I still haven’t finished (Don Quixote and C&P); the number of non-fiction books, 8, was up by one.
* Of this year’s novels, only 6 were contemporary1 – less than half the number of last year. This reflected the fact I failed to finish two highly hyped modern novels last year (Rushdie’s latest, and James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love). That, and the fact the new novels I did want to read in 2007 were all hardbacks, and while I got a couple of them (William Gibson’s newest, and David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero), in general, I’m waiting for the paperbacks. Hardbacks are too bulky to carry with me on my way to work, which is where I do most of my reading. It’s no wonder Picador is planning to marginalise the hardback and prioritise the paperback – about time.
* As with 2006, in 07 the contemporary novels I read were mostly let downs: I eagerly awaited Spook Country, got it in hardback, zipped through it in a couple of weeks and was rewarded with a generic Gibson plot (accurately skewered here) and flat, dull characters. Pattern Recognition, his previous book, was far more of a success – although even with that, I found the characterisation was ultimately flawed and so stumbled in the end. In Spook Country, these weak elements come to the fore, and Gibson’s traditional strengths – the atmosphere, setting, the verse-chorus-verse pulse of familiar-strange-familiar that marks out the best of his writing – were diluted and lacking in strength. Despite its length, Spook Country felt slight and ephemeral, and a far cry from the strangely definite worlds he’s created in the past.
I’ve read almost all of Gibson’s novels, so perhaps, in part, some of my criticisms are the wailings of a fan who liked a certain style, and who doesn’t appreciate the new one. Tokyo Year Zero was the first of David Peace’s books I’ve read, and while it means I have nothing to compare it to, it was as disappointing as Spook Country. Hyped by both the serious book press and men’s lifestyle mags such as Esquire, it sounded great, appealing to my fascination with Japan and my interest in literary writing, as it’s a detective story set in the ruins of postwar Tokyo by a Granta-listed writer. I was expecting to love it… and did. For the first few pages. The writing is heavy with literary tricks – repetition, patterning, intercut stream-of-conscious pasages – all of which boil up a tremendously vigorous, tangible vision of a defeated, wrecked city. Unfortunately, the plot is woeful and the characters extremely simplistic. The twist is repeatedly flagged up and there’s even a ‘but it was all a dream’ moment at the end. It does make you wonder if book reviewers finish the stuff they talk up… Compared, say, to the writing behind The Wire, a TV show, which while not historically set, deals with a comparably bleak urban environment, Tokyo Year Zero comes across as entirely lacking subtlety and insight.
* Two contemporary writers didn’t disappoint though. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote my favourite read of 2006, Everything is Illuminated, and his most recent, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a beautiful book, too. It’s not quite, in my mind, as great as its predecessor – it seems smaller in scale somehow, and while the central character, Oskar, is a fantastic creation, the supporting cast is less interesting than in Everything is Illuminated. That said, it’s still a brilliant book. not quite, however, as revelatory as David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. This is a book consciously set on a far smaller scale than his previous ones, yet despite its mundane, coming of age beginnings, it ends as something quite remarkable.
* I was desperate, after my degree, to read more contemporary fiction, but now I’m going back to the classics.The three I read this year, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary and Crime & Punishment all impressed: C&P would probably be my favourite, and book of the year. Obviously it’s a huge literary achievement etc etc, but the biggest reason, I’d say, that its worth reading as a reader (rather than critic or student) is how… well, I want to say powerful and vivid, but these words seem flat and callow for C&P. Rendered hollow by overuse. C&P is so affecting that it’s physical; it’s breathless, disgusting, charming and shocking in a manner that only King Lear, in my reading experience, can compare to. Brilliant.
1 Written after I was born (1980).