Book, film or song, I’ve always been attracted to those that open with style. Whether it’s the first Lord of the Rings, with its elegiac mix of mist, mountains and myth, or the geeky, poser-cool of Neuromancer’s dead TV sky, the chiming riff of the Stone Roses’ Waterfall, the pleasure of entering a convincing, beguiling imaginary new world is every bit as good as stepping off the plane and being in real life waking dream.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that for an ardent admirer of beginnings, picking a new book to read is something to look forward to; picking the first of the year, even more so. Last year I began with a travelogue, and this year I’m starting with non-fiction again: partly is that I wants my imagination to be left alone in these first few weeks of a new year, and partly is that a new year is a good time to learn new facts. That decided, the choice was obvious. A history of caffeine I’ve had kicking around for a while and never got round to starting – I’m super-busy at work, so it’s a drug I’m very familiar with at the moment…
Full list after the jump.
18th January – 10th February. The World of Caffeine, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer. (Amazon)
Lacks an overall sense of drive and narrative, meaning it seems to ramble and repeat in places, but some entertaining moments, and the scope – looking at caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolate – means it’s packed with information.
11th February – 16th February. Generation Kill, Evan Wright. (Amazon)
Compelling, violent, worrying – and worryingly funny – account by an ’embedded’ journalist of his time with a group of Reconnaissance Marines as they race into Iraq at the head of the 2003 invasion. You get a superb feel for the pressures and stress of military life, and the nihilism that seems integral to modern warfare, particularly the US application of it as a process of ‘shock and awe.’
24th February 2007 – 10th June 2008. Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman). 939 pages. It’s big. You’d never believe you’re reading a book from the 1600s, partly thanks to the incredible translation, and partly due to how surprising, and how meta, Don Quixote is.
10th June – 14th June. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks. The writing is clunky and clumsy for the most part, it’s too long and lacks focus… but the examples of people with synaesthesia, musical hallucinations are fantastic. Listen to the Radio Lab show on Pop Music and you’ll get the best stories from the book, all delivered with the style, wit and passion Musicophilia sorely lacks.
14th June – 20th June. Slash, by Slash and Antony Bozza. Technically of course, this should get 11 stars. But it doesn’t, it’s getting 3 because although it’s awe-inspiringly debauched there’s a clipped efficiency and coldness to it. It feels numb and reserved in a way that’s completely contrary to Slash’s guitar playing. Still, guess that’s why he’s a guitarist not a writer.
21st June – 27th June. Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. A very distinctive take on the Iranian revolution of 1979. Kapuscinski is extremely well regarded by critics and readers, and I really expected to like this more than I did. It’s certainly wise – his lines about how the revolutionaries are formed by their experiences living in the villages ring very true, how they’re happy making speeches etc – are great, but it just didn’t grab me.
28th June – 4th July. Cleopatra’s Wedding Present, by Robert Tewdwr Moss. Quirky, melancholy and compellingly personal travelogue of a journey through Syria in the early 90s by a young, gay journalist who was murdered before it was published. Moss’ visited Syria when it was run by the current President’s father, and it sounds like a very different place to how it was when I visited in April.
5th July – 20th July. The Foreigner, by Francie Lin. Thriller that takes its protaganist from San Francisco to his roots in Taipei. Starts off reasonably well, but it’s a mess by the end. The hero is woefully uninvolving, a passive, over-serious sad-sack who lards his observations of the world with ludicrous amounts of self pity. Taipei is a fascinating city, and an ideal setting for a dark, dirty and ambitious thriller. This isn’t it.
21st July – 29th July. After Dark, by Haruki Murakami. It’s not Murakami’s best novel, but it’s still fantastic, light on its feet, compelling and yet poignantly restrained. The chronoligcal central idea – that the action takes place one night in Tokyo, after all the trains have finished running, and each chapter advances the clock a few minutes at a time – is neat, and allows the plot to be ordinary and unaffected. As ever, what you expect to be threatening is made safe and it’s the safe situations that are strange and edgy.
30th July – 2nd August. Life on the Golden Horn, by Mary Wortley Montagu. Letters from a female aristocrat dispatched as the wife of an ambassador, to Constantinople in 1716. Witty, fresh and direct and full of confident observations. Her life story is interesting, too.
3rd August – 9th August. Imperium, by Robert Harris. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any of Robert Harris, and initially Imperium is something of a disappointment. It’s the first part of a projected trilogy about the life of Cicero and the Roman Empire in his time. The gimmick of having it narrated by Cicero’s slave/secretary Tiro is wearing at times, and despite being over 400 pages long, it feels briefly written. Few characters are memorable, and there’s little permanence or sense of a wider world, with the book clearly breaking into sections, at the start of which, the few characters who are necessary are introduced, moved around, and then often, dropped. Cicero himself isn’t even drawn in a hugely compelling or complex way. However, its briskness serves it well in that it manages to condense complex Roman history into a page-turning narrative with a strong drive, and as a quick scan of Wikipedia will show you, it was a fascinating period. The parallels between Cicero and Blair are fun, too – at one point Cicero even uses the phrase “a third way.”
25th August – 29th August. This Gaming Life, by Jim Rossignol. The first technology book of the year; the premise sounded great, seeking to comibine a travelogue in the real world (South Korea, Iceland, London) with wanderings in online games. However, only the South Korean section really gets fired up and has the precision of language the book needs. The rest is blurry, feeling its way towards the subject, rather than living it. At the end, it seems to arrive somewhere, but my feeling was that point was a start, not a conclusion.
30th August – 15th September. Trigger Happy, by Steven Poole. One of the few books to take an intellectual, lit-crit approach to videogames, it’s not subtitled ‘The Inner Life of Videogames’ for nothing. The writing is enthusiastic and full of itself, bringing in references from music, film and philosophy. Occasionally you feel it’s just showing off, but in general it’s compelling, convincing and outward looking in a way that This Gaming Life isn’t. Trigger Happy appears to be out of print now – the version I bought was second hand, and revised in 2000, so some of its predictions are out of date (it’s essentially a pre-Internet book), but it’s well worth seeking out a copy if you want to get some perspective on gaming.
16th September – 26th September. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Ticks all the checkpoints for the kind of fiction I like: linked short stories with recurring characters, distinctive setting and beautifully purposeful writing combined with a willigness to challenge style and form. Set mostly in Vietnam in the late 60s, it’s a very moving read that’s both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.
27th September – 13th October. Crusaders, by Richard T. Kelly. I started off very hopeful about this book; set Newcastle in 1996, in the ‘dog days of a corrupt government’, its cast of characters include a New Labour MP on the make, a naive Anglican Vicar hoping to start a church, a single mother and a slighty-dodgy local hardman. Unfortunately, it’s deeply disappointing: the narration is incredibly plodding, with each character being introduced in turn with huge (and I mean huge, 50 pages+) chunks of their backstory, which neatly focusses on key events that have shaped their psyche. This has the deadening effect of making the whole book feel very, very predictable and the characters completely lifeless. Worse, there’s very little in the way of plot or dramatic tensions – and by the end, you’re wondering what on earth some strands of the story (e.g. the MP) had to do with the others. A complete waste of time, basically.
14th October – 11th November. Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson. I’ve been looking forward to readin this for ages; it won a lot of prizes in the US in 2007 and I got very close to buying it in hardback, but decided to wait for a UK release as I had (as always) plenty to read already. Sort of set in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s – but taking in Thailand, Malaysia, the Phillipines and turning them all into a rich, dark Hellish stew – it takes the Vietnam war as it’s background and centres, most of the time, on a CIA operative called referrered to the for the most part as Skip Sands. Skip and his mad Uncle are running psychological warfare operations and this is used as a springboard to creating a surreal, very weird and dislocated atmosphere in which truth and morality are as difficult to grasp as the Tree of Smoke. There’s a strong religious streak too, and when it works it’s great; thundering, stoned dialogue that’s ludicrous yet true, characters that are very close to you as a reader. But it’s too long, dilutes the good characters with waffle about ones you don’t really care about, and struggles to come to a conclusion (because it never really works up the courage to commit to a plot).
1st November. Inside Steve’s Brain, by Leander Kahney. It’s not a biography of Steve Jobs, it’s not a business book about Apple and it’s not really got that much to say about technology… which leaves it feeling like a very long magazine article and not nearly engaging enough to work as a whole book.
12th November – 22nd November. Blood River, by Tim Butcher. Telegraph journalist Tim Butcher recreates Henry Morton Stanley’s epic 999 day journey along the Congo river. Butcher is adept at mixing in colonial history, charting the aftermath of Stanley’s adventure – the establishment, on the greedy whim of King Leopold of Belgium, of the Belgian colonial state, how brutal, racist but orderly life was there, and how, post 1960 independence, the country has crumbled thanks to its klepotractic rulers and endemic violence. Butcher makes the case (repeatedly) that the Congo is one of the few places in the world where a child born now is much worse off than one born 50 or 60 years ago. The writing gets a little repetitious in places and the journey takes an age to start but those are small niggles – it’s a compelling book that makes it easy to grasp the complex, sad history of the heart of Africa.
23rd November – 13th December. God’s Dust, by Ian Buruma. The second of Buruma’s books that I’ve read, but chronoligcally, his first. It dates from the late 80s, and this means that its central concept – a journey across Asia, from Burma and the Philippines to Japan – is also dated, because lots of SE Asia has changed incredibly in the last 20 years. The writing itself is less comfortable than in the later book, an sort of awkward hybrid of academic cultural theory, cutural commenary and travelogue. Only in the final chapter, about Japan, do these elements really coalesce and build upon each other.
14th December – 26th December. Ingenious Pain, by Andrew Miller. The quotes on the back made me think this literary novel about a Doctor in the 1700s who is born immune to pain was going to be slow-going, cerebral and packed with stunning sentences. It actually turned out to be a bit of page-turner – despite the fact it was the run up to Christmas, I whipped through it in less than two weeks. The story is excellent, although it’s let down by an ending that confuses vagueness for profundity. I was… underwhelmed is too strong a term… unmoved by the writing; given the fascinating concept, and the setting – the dawn of science, the rational world versus the emotions, genius versus compassion – I expected more from it. The words made me turn the pages and the characters came to life but there weren’t any truly memorable passages or pieces of incendiary brilliance. That said, I enjoyed it; the whole thing worked, and for the most part, it was a very satisfying read.