Thanks to work, I spent the second half of the year with even more and ever better reading devices than ever before – iPhone 5, retina iPad, Kindles of many stripe – but the list of books read is as slender as it’s been since I started tracking it. While I’ve been really enjoying saving stuff from the web to Pocket and reading them at my leisure, the real cause in the drop was a conscious effort to learn more for work. I spent a lot of time in the autumn reading business tomes, product management manifestos and UX volumes, often picking chapters, so it just didn’t seem right recording them here. Below, then, is just the fun stuff.
11th July – 21st July. The Glass Room, Simon Mawer. I’m sure me describing this as a WW2-era story with a house as the hero does absolutely nothing to make you read this book, so ignore that and focus instead on the fact that it’s a beautiful and brilliantly executed story about about the way people build lives and how the passage of time can take those lives apart. It’s about a perfectly conceived, artistically daring Modern house, constructed in the early 1930s in Czechoslovakia, and the people who live in it, are exiled from it, and who eventually return. Beautiful.
22nd July – 12th August. Darkmans, Nicola Barker. Depending on what point during reading this 800 page novel you found me, you’d have heard completely different opinions. I was alternately bored by the lack of story, pulled on by the brilliantly realised characters, entertained by the dialogue and frustrated by the lack of emotional heft. I’ve seen it elsewhere compared to Tarantino and that’s a good call; stacked stories, intercut timelines, rich in reference, studious and daringly callous – but never real and never near to your own life, always a distant thing.
13th August – 20th August. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst. The writing is not quite as achingly beautiful as the Line of Beauty, but it’s a gripping move through the 20th century that’s well handled, and avoids being melancholy. I always thought the appeal of books with time-shifts, where you see characters grow old and die, was the way they brought out the sadness of the passage of the time, like a patina in the wood, but The Stranger’s Child seems immune from that: it is nostalgic, but not sentimental.
21st August – 5th September. Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan. Very fine book of essays; the piece on Southern writer, Andrew Lytle, just sparkles. I was glad to read this on Kindle as I saved a bunch of highlights.
6th September – 16th September. Any Human Heart, Wiliam Boyd. Melancholy and affecting story of a writer’s life; successfully manages to intersect with 20th century history without seeming too much like a tourist’s guide to Big Events, and with a tangible emotional pull.
20th – 28th October. Building Stories, Chris Ware. Terrific, multi-book graphic novel about… well, the life of one woman, and the inhabitants of one building in Chicago. An excellent discussion about it on The Onion.
29th October – 13th November. Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil. From the laze and daze of Opium to the desperation and decay of heroin in Bombay. Terrific and beguiling start, but it unravelled as it went on, because there’s not really any story to hold it all together, and in the end, it dissolves quietly, making little impact.
21st December – 28th December. Bring Up The Bodies, Hillary Mantel. Disturbing and fully realised portrait of a society that’s vicious and dangerous, and intensely conservative, even as it moves through radical events. Liked the way patronage and traditional roles were shown as restrictive, reductive…
As usual, I’ll follow this up with a considered post on the best books of the year.