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.
‘It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.”’
That’s a stellar paragraph I clipped from Pulphead, the widely praised collection of essays by US journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan. The essay in question – Mr Lytle – can be read in full on the Paris Review website. I’ve still not finished the book itself, but it’s really terrific, each essay a well crafted story with sentences that confound the reader in the best possible ways. Recommended.
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.
Yes, yes, I’m only getting round to this now. I was going to leave it, but then I was chatting with the Canadienne about The Lighthouse, a strange, light and surprisingly strong Icelandic novel I read in 2011 and I suddenly realised I had a few things to say.
Maybe I was tired at the end of the year; I had travelled a long away, after all. And maybe I was looking forward to the new year.
Just now I’ve written up my notes on the books I read in 2011. 26 books, which is pretty much the average number I get through; a higher number of non-finishes than usual, which included being extremely disappointed by William Gibson’s woeful Zero History. One thing that tracking the what I’ve read has done is make me aware that I should be more judicious of how few books I read – 26 or so a year isn’t a lot, especially when I can easily add one or two a week to my Amazon wishlist.
That said, 2011 had some real highlights, books that even on a quick scroll through the list really light up some fond memories: Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy was incredible, so compelling that the moment I finished it, I grabbed my coat and went looking for a bookstore to buy the sequel.
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut was equally transcendant. The writing has the beauty of a cold, clear winter day – unflinching, technically marvellous – but there’s a tremendous empathy in it, which is often missing from literary fiction. The coldness is all on the outside of this one; the deeper you go, the softer and more human it gets.
What about Joseph Conrad?
His story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.
2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.
Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.
There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.
Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.
The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.
I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.
But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.
[Book] Via a review that’s interesting in and of itself, in the FT:
“Fish is a sentence connoisseur who describes his enthusiasm as akin to a sports fan’s love of highlights, and relishes the craft… [The book shows] the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: ‘The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.’ It’s a poem of a sentence, ‘The father of waters’ and ‘unvexed to the sea’ perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of ‘again goes’ rather than ‘goes again’, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either.”