A year in books, 2014

2014 was a year of commitment. I married, and had a child. I began a new job in earnest. And it made no difference, in one way, to the reading – I got through 25 books or so, mostly on the train in the morning, a few over the summer on holiday, a few in the evenings before bed. A mix of fiction and non, some graphic novels. Some old, some new.

This is the pace I’ve kept up since I started recording my reading in 2007. And yet of course the year imprints itself on the reading. Of course the books reflect the life (I don’t find it surprising that the fabulously rich pay consultants to build bespoke libraries in the same way they acquire other tastes).

The thread of commitment runs through these books; if each was a footstep, each would be firmly planted. How so? Any collection of books is, at heart, a collection of wants: Things you want to find. Things you want to learn, stories you want to complete, voices you want to hear. Things you want to have an opinion about.

This year, my wants were mostly places – my wife was pregnant from spring through to the end of the autumn, so I found myself thinking a lot about where I live, and where the baby will live. It is a cliche but of course it’s true: when you’re starting the clock of someone’s life going, you can’t help but think of the world 80 years from now. As you paint the nursery in the summer and wait for winter, through the open window the paint smells float out and the sounds of the world come in. Police sirens, ice cream vans, humble traffic and in the distance the river. These sounds are coming closer. What is it like, this place?

I wanted to read about the world as it is, as it was, as it could be.

There was speculative fiction, of course. I’ve always found JG Ballard disappointing, and the Drowned World was no exception. An exciting central idea – the world is flooded, gone – and a few nice passages of description, but the rest is atrocious: no plot, and no characters, just a kind of dated psychedelic ooze. Snowpiercer – whole world frozen, only survivors live on a train forever circling the planet – was better, and Jim Crace’s Harvest – a sort of speculative history parable is worth a look. David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks cast itself forward and backwards in time, but lit up only in places. Weighed down by a clunky reincarnation plot that even he struggles to explain, it’s basically Be Here Now: all the ideas are turned up to 11 but it’s overlong and heavy.

Yet Michael Faber’s Book of Strange New Things excelled. It is the story of a pastor sent to a new planet, where a corporation has a colony. This is a well used future, not far from now, shorn of glamour, but not of mystery. The alien inhabitants have asked for a Christian missionary; they want, very badly, to understand the Bible, this book of strange new things. It is hugely compelling: totally convincing in its story of how we respond to true strangeness. The missionary does not expect the aliens to be so hungry for stories of the life of Jesus; he does not understand why, or even how they can have such faith. Little touches of cleverness (the missionary translates Bible stories, stripping out references to Shepherding and livestock as there are no animals on the alien planet), and huge bolts of empathy about the pain of distance and of faith. It is the novel you should read from this year.

There was history too. It was digging for roots, a desire to get under the topsoil of civilization. Jared Diamond’s World Until Yesterday definitely exists in the shadow of Guns, Germs and Steel – where that one is huge in scale and sweep, this newer volume is rooted in specific experiences in the field with traditional societies, most often in New Guinea. Some of the stories and comparisons with modern culture are insightful – particularly around warfare, justice, and conflict resolution.

I loved Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins. It’s a romantic excavation of what it is to try and explore Roman Britain. Pleasingly fragmentary, subtle and compact, skilful and melancholy. I find myself often thinking of her description of how Londinium was nearly – perhaps was – abandoned after c. 400AD when the Roman state left England. Of how a Saxon hair pin was left in a great Roman villa, and how Higgens aches to know what the woman who dropped it felt, in the afterwards of such an empire.

And what the world is? Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences was just wonderful.  It’s a beautiful object, looking at his production of a series of tapestries. The theme is taste; surprising and subtle, tells you just enough, shows you the art in beautiful detail. Lovely, thoughtful and fun, thoroughly confounding ideas of modern art as trite and unengaged with society.

My friend Rich Bradwell finally got around to expanding his funny US roadtrip blog into something altogether bigger and better. Drive Thru USA is still easy going and light hearted travel book but it’s perceptive too, filled with insights and tales of amazing food.

A word on the much-hyped Stoner – it’s a bad book – but interesting to read because I think it says a lot about what people think is worthy in literature right now. “Rediscovered” after having been forgotten upon publication in 1965, it’s bad in the same way a lot of Ian McEwan’s stuff is bad, and bad in the way some popular culture is – it’s a pastiche of worthiness, an affection of what literature should be: sad and slow and full of stupid silences.

And finally then, H is for Hawk. This is the most English of the books. It’s about the countryside, and the old ways, and of course, ludicrously and very entertainingly, a woman who lives in Cambridge who buys a gigantic bird of prey to help get over the loss of her father. A strange book – grief memoir, biography, bird of prey guide – that casts off any awkwardness to be thoroughly convincing – limber, magical, involving.

A strong year; I think I got what I wanted.

In full, this year’s reading:

  1. 1st Jan. The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith. Short and strange, and giving, too – short stories often trade in a kind of meanness that’s meant to imply meaning, but here you see a full world, and a sad one at that.
  2. 1st Jan – 9th Jan. Sir Gawain & The Green Knight, Simon Armitage. The last time I read something in Middle English I recall a lot of weeping at the glory of Christ; this is considerably more fun, aided by an excellent and appropriate translation.
  3. 10th – 27th January. Under Another Sky, Charlotte Higgins. Romantic excavation of what it is to imagine Roman Britain. Pleasingly fragmentary, subtle and compact, skilful and melancholy.
  4. 28th Jan – 3rd March. Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett. Both hackneyed and original. Definitely about 400 pages too long, thanks to several plot loops, but the passion for the cathedral form ignites the page and it also shines a light on a forgotten period of English history.
  5. 4th March – 14th March. Showa vol 1. 1926 – 1939, Shigeru Mizuki. Japanese historical manga covering the run up to WW2; unsettling and excellent mix of very realistic drawings and detailed treatment of big events (politics, rebellions, war), with slapstick, joking around of the author’s own autobiography, drawn in a much friendlier style.
  6. 15th – 23rd March. The Drowned World, JG Ballard. Exciting central idea (the world is flooded) and a few nice passages of description, but the rest is atrocious: the dialogue is the kind of failure that puts you in mind of Harrison Ford’s reaction to the Star Wars script: “You can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”) No plot, and no characters, just a kind of dated psychedelic ooze.
  7. 1st May – 16th. Harvest, Jim Crace. Aims to be a parable but misses the mark.
  8. 16th May – 4th June, The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer. Melancholy view of an ageing group of friends, it’s remarkably persuasive and realistic – at times, sure, it’s too bitter, and probably too long, but it creates and illustrates the great, and painful truth at the centre of all of our lives: we’re all getting older, and it is both simple and complex.
  9. 14th June. The vanity of small differences, Grayson Perry. Beautifully produced book looking at the production of a series of tapestries. The theme is taste; surprising and subtle, tells you just enough, shows you the art in beautiful detail. Lovely, thoughtful and fun.
  10. 15th June – 15th July. The Paris Review Interviews, vol 1. Interesting and in-depth set of interviews with literary giants; at its best, inspiring and thoughtful and going to get your brain working.
  11. 16th July – 14th August. The Men Who United The States, Simon Winchester. At its most interesting when bringing to life the achievements of the pioneers who bound the coasts and a continent together with maps, railroads and telegraphs. It’s a one sided account though, and troublingly blithe about relations with the native Americans.
  12. 15th – 18th August, Decoded, Mai Jia. Interesting Chinese spy novel that’s very perceptive about the inside of Cryptographer’s heads and how the numbers mangle their heads and hearts.
  13. 19th – 24th August, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond. Where Guns, Germs and Steel was huge in scale and sweep, this book is rooted in Diamond’s specific experiences in the field with traditional societies, most often in New Guinea. Although he has a wide-ranging structure that tries to knit these anecdotes together, it’s still a hit and miss affair. Some of the stories and comparisons with modern culture are insightful – particularly around warfare, justice, and conflict resolution – whereas others, around diet and lifestyle are trite. It’s at its strongest talking about the rise of the state and what a powerful idea/piece of technology it is, but even then, it’s still in the shadow of the earlier book.
  14. 24th – 26th August, The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain. Short, tough and unbelievably lean. The opening chapter is brilliant, hard and sharp as a sword.
  15. 27th – 3rd September. The Summer Book, Tove Jansson. Totally wonderful set of short stories. Intricate and poised, there’s something finely worked and very right about them. Emotive because of it, there’s a solidity to them.
  16. 4th – 11th September. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami. He’s such a strange writer. Paragraphs of wilfully banal stuff, and then truly unsettling dreams crawling among them. Conventional questions raised and answered and then sitting right next to them, strange faceless entities that you get one or two looks at, but depart with no solutions. Compelling but empty.
  17. 12th September – 17th October. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. His Be Here Now. Too long, and with all the ideas turned up to 11. Lights up in places, but weighed down by a clunky reincarnation plot that he struggles to explain (and doesn’t bother till around page 400).
  18. 18th October – 26th October. Stoner, John Williams. It’s frustrating; I did read Stoner though and must confess it was not much to my liking. I found it, above all, frustrating, and by the end of the book that had curdled into a sense of annoyance at its artifice. I think it must have fallen on deaf ears in 1965 when it was first published because it said so little to those times – it’s a book about accepting social strictures as the earth accepts its seasons – and so I wonder what the people of today who have re-found it have found in it. I suspect it’s a kind of retro appeal; it has a look of moral toughness and wisdom that gives it the same outward appearance of the “big” Victorian books – Middlemarch, War & Peace, Dickens – without the length and without the hard work that comes from a rich cast of characters and older language. But Stoner is just a facade; there’s no investigation of his character, no suffering and no redemption and so there can be no judgement. He’s a terrible father, truculent husband and the love affair is implausible. It’s solipsistic in its rendering of character – aside from him, there’s no depth to anyone (and the death of his friend in WW1 is a cheap trick to return to). The female characters are uniformly dreadfully sketched.
  19. 30th October – 5th November. The Walk Home, Rachel Seiffert. She mentions in the acknowledgements that this was a hard book to write, and it shows in the way it never quite comes together. It has a rich brew of ingredients – immigrants, protestants and catholics, a difficult family – but it’s all been pared back to leave little trace. Flat dialogue fails to breathe life into the characters who remain content in their misery and content on the page.
  20. 4th November – 15th November. Drive Thru USA, Rich Bradwell. An easy going, light hearted travel book that’s funny and perceptive, filled with insights and tales of amazing food.
  21. 11th November – 20th November. Writing on the wall: the first 2000 years of social media.
  22. 21st November. Snowpiercer vol 1. Interesting concept, admirably straightforward implementation.
  23. 23rd November – 19th December. City of Darkness: Revisited, Ian Lambot. Beautifully produced record of one of the most incredible citiescapes to have ever existed, the Kowloon Walled City.
  24. 10th December – 23rd December. The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber. The most convincing description of landing in an alien land I’ve ever encountered; the story of a missionary who goes to visit a new planetary colony is expertly constructed with strong hooks to pull you through.
  25. 24th December – ??? H is For Hawk, Helen MacDonald. I’m only halfway through this, but it’s going in the 2014 list as frankly it’s so good it could easily overshadow all of 2015’s books. A strange book – grief memoir, biography, bird of prey guide – that casts off any awkwardness to be thoroughly convincing – limber, magical, involving.
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