Year in reading, 2012 (first half)

One of the few regular things I’ve done regularly on this blog is tracking books I’ve read; I started the year off  by defecting to Pinterest, but got nowhere with it. Something about that layout. For all that people make out Pinterest is a site for curating and collecting, it’s really a shop, isn’t it? Showing all these book covers makes it seem more like the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones than a library…

So, here I am, back on the blog. After the jump, books from the first half of the year, summary verdicts and mistake filled summaries.

1st Jan – 8th Jan. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst. Marvellous writing; there are passages which are flawless, original and daring yet so incredibly true and right his words seem like the only way to say it. And yet, the narrative is so weak and few of the characters engaging. At time it seems a cliched and heavy handed reduction of the 80s; the strength of the prose saves it, but when something is only beautiful and doesn’t take you anywhere, it can’t help but feel slightly disappointing.

8th Jan – 11th Jan. Before I Go To Sleep, S. J. Watson. Page turning thriller with a great twist, about a woman who forgets the past twenty years every time she sleeps.

12th Jan – 3rd Feb. The Ipcress File, Len Deighton. Stylishly written, but I found it hard to follow, and given that the ending is basically three chapters of solid exposition and explanation, I wasn’t the only one.

4th February. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Volume, Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore I loved volumes 1 and 2, but while this “sourcebook”, a patchwork of stories and ephemera, scripts and visuals, is an innovative idea, for me, it never became more than a lifeless pastiche.

4th – 14th Feb. C, Tom McCarthy. An interesting take on modernism, telling the story of Serge Carrefax – enthusiast of early radio and photography, WW1 pilot, 20s heroin fiend and Egyptian explorer. It’s a rich mix and McCarthy doesn’t go for a complex, complete synthesis – so in some ways it’s a bit disappointing (the plot is thin) but it’s good to see a writer taking on technology’s impact.

15th – 17th Feb. The Quiet American, Graham Greene. Absolutely terrific story of a love triangle in a pre-American war Vietnam. Complex and layered, but beautifully compact.

17th Feb – 25th Feb. Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. Written only a few years later than The Quiet American, and with some of the same concerns – western agents in foreign climes, the end of many empires – only this time, it’s a satire and a gas, comedy rather than tragedy.

25th Feb – 3rd April. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. An absolutely amazing book, full of very powerful insight into the way we think. Written with a perfect balance of clarity and complexity by a Nobel prize winner. Amazing – and made a real difference to my thinking at work, too.

4th April – 22nd April. Beijing Coma, Ma Jian. The tragedy of Tiananmen told by a student in a coma. Overlong but brilliant.

22nd April – 26th April. Cuba and the Night, Pico Iyer. He’s a great writer, and parts of it feel incredibly real – but it’s a patchy novel, with ropey dialogue.

26th April – 20th May. Life And Fate, Vassily Grossman. I admit it, I admit defeat. 400 pages into this nearly 900 page novel about Stalingrad and every emotion that went into it, and came out of it, and it’s time to say I just didn’t connect with it. Too many characters (new ones are still being introduced on page 300!), and I found it weirdly lacking in movement, with flat dynamics. That said, I am prepared to admit that with this one, I think I just lost the thread.

21st May – 28th May. Londoners, Craig Taylor. Terrific collection of interviews, all told in a direct, first person way, from many different people who have a connection with London. Some of the individual stories are real standouts – the East End mortician changing to keep up with immigration by doing deals with Polish undertakers, the pilot who begins and ends the book – but others are distinguished by what they add to the symphony of voices who love and hate the city equally. Recommended.

29th May – June 8th. Barney’s Version, Mordechai Richler. Just brilliant, right down to the twist in the very last line.

9th June – 15th June. Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod. Widely praised short story collection that I failed to engage with. To me, it showcased some of the worst aspects of short stoires: stories that are more tricks than stories, full of gotcha! moments, where you’re reading and there’s not a story but a build up to an aha moment. Other stories end mid-flow, confusing leaving the reader hanging with asking a profound question.

16th June – 22nd June. At Last, Edward St. Aubyn. Better than Mother’s Milk, which felt like a mis-step, and there are still some terrific passages, but it’s a book of conclusions, of repetitions finding their consumation, rather than newness. Beautifully executed though.

23rd June – 27th June. Racing through the dark, David Millar. Compelling autobiography of a pro cyclist who doped and recanted. Excellent on the excitement, technical challenges and physical demands of road racing.

27th June – 10th July. Money, Martin Amis. It made me laugh out loud, and the writing is full of energy – as if it’s held together by forward momentum, and if it stopped, it wouldn’t make sense. Sags because there’s no real plot though.

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