A Year in Books, 2019

A New Decade / The Radio Plays the Sounds we Made

I read more books than usual this year, the average quality level was higher and there are two or three that I would press in to your hand right now. It was altogether, the most enjoyable year in reading for a while. What I took from this is a good reminder that beneficial effects are often linked – more and better, faster and together, quality and quantity. This is frustrating when you’re focussed on change, because it’s easier (and more desirable) to be able to isolate single pieces of the system and operate on those, and it’s more pleasant to believe that operating on isolated parts of the system can drive holistic change – more pleasant because that’s clearly easier than the alternative, which is to accept that changing systems requires a look at the multiple interrelated pieces that comprise the whole.

How to read more books
Counter-intuitively though, it can sometimes be straightforward to jumpstart some level of change with a small, meaningful action. In this case, for me, it was just to really focus on reading over the summer, and to shorten the time between buying and reading a book. Over the last few years, I’ve bought books by building an order from end-of-year “best of” lists, and then buying a large number from Amazon, in order to have good choices of books on hand the moment I finish one. The difficulty is that culture goes cold, that is to say, something bought in December can look less interesting in March. Throughout last year, I consciously shortened the distance between buying and reading, which meant I got to Jia Tolentino’s excellent Trick Mirror, Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods and Max Porter’s Lanny quickly. All three are worth your time.

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A year in books, 2015

I always seem to read the same number of books a year.
A lot of things change, but not this. I’ve been recording it for ten years or so, and it’s always 24 or 25. It’s not one every two weeks; I cram at Christmas and in the summer. Maybe now my body just knows that’s the target, and I just lean towards it.

This year was a character study.
Of myself and my son, who turned one right at the end. “Everything is a phase,” someone told me. I watch my son, and even though he’s tiny, there are already things he has done only for a little while that he’s now doing for the last time. Crawling doesn’t last long. All of this makes you think about yourself, too. What are you doing for the last time this week, or the first time right now?

So I think I was drawn to books about people. I read the first two volumes of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. The first one starts by talking about Texas soil in 1800, and how it made people poor, even the dreamers. The point is how the Johnson family’s decisions had been shaped in all the years leading up to him being born. It makes you think of yourself like the sea, and all the rivers of choices and ideas that have been poured into you. There’s such a completeness to the Caro’s imagining of him that he’s written less a book and more Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper.

The second volume is even better. It’s about one election, gangsters and lawyers versus cowboys and rangers, money versus myths. It finishes and you think it was Johnson that ended the Wild West.

You can make people up
The best character this year was an Opium Dealer in River of Smoke. It’s the second of a trilogy looking at the Opium trade in the 1800s. Bahram Modi is an Indian climbing through society on the back of a terrible trade; and he knows he deals in misery but he cannot reconcile it with the pleasure and power of what he can see with his own eyes. It’s about the difficulty of understanding the system you’re in, about how the world is always too wide to take in.

It’s hard to write about work.
The absence of work from 20th, 21st century art is really surprising. It’s a lot of life. And it’s huge for the Victorians — Dickens and Trollope. Even Austen, she’s writing about what is it that people do all day to get by? Perhaps it gets harder to write about the more digital and the less tangible it becomes. I read a couple of books about Apple and they were not memorable. All Day Long is a series of vignettes talking to people about their jobs, and there are some nice conceits (the maker of ballet pumps, followed by the dancer), but it feels unrealised by the end. Kim Gordon’s good on her life’s work. There are these bursts of anger. You finish it and think about naming your children after her.

One of these days Joshua Ferris will do something completely fantastic. To Rise at a Decent Hour has an excellent opening, lot of sharp lines, dull in the middle and a good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.I re-read Neuromancer and maybe that could be said to be a great novel about the hold of work on someone. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.

If a book is good you want to buy it for people.
I bought Station Eleven a few times. There’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walking Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.

How do you take yourself seriously?
It’s a harder question than you might think. I wonder if people said it to Miranda July. She does so much — art, films, and a novel — and yet she is really serious about each. The First Bad Man feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that never self censors. Loved it.

In full, the year’s reading:

  1. 10th — 22nd Jan. Complete Short Stories, Flannery O’Connor. The best are excellent; bitter and tough, full of pride mercilessly observed. There’s a narrow focus to them that’s a strength and a limitation.
  2. 22nd Jan — 9th Feb. The Man With The Compound Eyes, Wu Ming-Yi. DNF. Tedious Eco tale interweaving the horrors of a giant trash island with Pacific island folklore; squanders these interesting ideas on flat characters and a story that loses narrative tension and interest with every turn of the page.
  3. 10th Jan — 13th Feb. Neuromancer, William Gibson. A rare re-read and well worth it. Murky, intense, psychedelic, fragmentary and entirely powered by its own magic.
  4. 15th Feb — 22nd Fev. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Finished this at just gone midnight after a solid two hour power to the end. A lovely rhythm to it; there’s something unusually delicate about its approach to the apocalypse. It reminds you of how one dimensional things like The Walkng Dead — with their relentless nihilism and cruelty — are. Melancholy and moving, yet fast and involving.
  5. 23rd Feb — 3rd March. The Sculptor, Scott Macleoud. Beautifully executed if overly conventional story of a lost artist saved by love.
  6. 3rd — 19th March. Poetry Notebook 2006–2014, Clive James.
  7. 24th — 30th March. Becoming Steve Jobs, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Fluid, compelling and convincing portrait of the Apple CEO.
  8. 20th March — 4th April. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris. Excellent opening. Lot of sharp lines. Pretty dull in the middle. Very good final third until he completely blows it with the ending. I suspect one of these days he will write something truly excellent though.
  9. 5th April — 17th April. Girl In A Band, Kim Gordon. It’s great; slim chapters, bursts of anger, beautiful descriptions of playing in Sonic Youth and some really funny lines.
  10. 21st April — 10th May. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Creepy and strange story of the deep past; pulls off the fable thing fairly well (better than harvest for instance).
  11. 20th May — 26th May. The First Bad Man, Miranda July. Genuinely great. Compelling, terrifying, funny, sweet and very rude, it also feels like a new, different way of doing literary fiction. The whole thing could be an allegory — and yet July feels all in on it, total commitment to a story of love and motherhood and fantasy that earns its happiness and hope, never self censors and avoids being dull, sub-Kafkaish. Loved it.
  12. 27th May — 5th June. A classless society: Britiain in the 90s, Alwyn Turner. Flat and turgid; far too much focus on every last detail of Major’s bumbling regime, with little to say about the more interesting cultural trends.
  13. 5th — 19th June. Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh. A stadium rock book. Unashamedly big, epic and pacy. Never threatens to surprise you but it fascinates with a very polished blend of detail and drama. Bring on the next one!
  14. 19th June — 1st October. Lyndon Johnson, Path to Power. Less a book and more a paperback Frankenstein’s monster, the full creation of a human being using only ink and paper. Quite incredible.
  15. 31st July — 10th August. A Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks. Likeable vignettes of rural life in the Lakes.
  16. 12th August — 10th September. The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch. Nicely realised world and when the plot finally gets going the stakes are high and it’s compelling — but the author never quite figures out if the central character is a rogue or hero or what he wants the reader to think. There’s a lack of emotional control that robs the plot of significance — how much can you care about all of this when it veers between picaresque and tragedy in 20 pages?
  17. 10th — 24th September. All Day Long, Joanna Biggs. Interesting series of vignettes where the author interviews people about work. Some of the stories are affecting and full of lively detail, but overall the patchwork effect doesn’t coalesce into anything greater or stronger. An eloquent final few pages on the future work, framed by a visit by the author to her old school, hints frustratingly at something bolder, more cohesive — and unrealised.
  18. 25th September — 19th October. Jony Ive, Leander Kahney. Workaday Apple bio. The odd new bit around the process but nothing substantial.
  19. 24th September — 25th October. All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. Compelling WW2 story that threads together the fates of multiple characters over short, lusciously written chapters. There’s something of the blockbuster about it — it’s polished, professional and a little bit too sweeping — that means it feels less emotionally engaging than it should.
  20. 26th October — 5th December. River of Smoke, Amitav Gosh. Second in the trilogy, and home to my favourite character of the year, the flawed, ambitious, wealthy and inquisitive Opium dealer Bahram Modi. Too many of the other characters, especially the supporting cast, don’t distinguish themselves, and the book’s second strand — set of letters — is flat and slack. But Bahram lifts it above history to the realm of beauty.
  21. 21st October — 12th December. Means of Ascent, Robert Caro. Absolutely brilliant; whereas the first volume ranges far and wide, this is really focused around a single compelling story — the 1948 senate election. Two compelling main characters in Johnson and his opponent, Coke Stevenson are joined by a superb supporting cast featuring Mexican gangsters, Texas Rangers, wily lawyers. The book is beautifully constructed, making it clear just how titanic the opposing forces were. In a sense, the election was America as it wants to think of itself — the stoic heroism of the frontier and the myth of the West, facing off against unbridled capitalism, ambition and the unchecked forces of market progress. Stellar.
  22. 12th Dec — 28th Dec. The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley. One of the very few books where the last page really, really matters. What comes before is uneasy and damp, strange and intense. When those last few pages unfurl it takes a deep breath and soars into much more ambitious territory, grander and more macabre.
  23. 12th Dec — 20th Dec. The Song Machine, John Seabrook. Enjoyable and well researched look at the intensive way modern songs are assembled — a bit like formula 1 cars, endlessly tuned and built to a tight spec.
  24. 28th Dec. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Two of the lessons are beautiful and brilliant.

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.

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Deciding what to read, start of 2009 edition

Normally, I’ve got zero interest in what the press write in previews for books of the year – the combination of the fact few papers have book journalists and the need to add some celebrity spice to any and every piece means they normally turn over the preview to vaguely well known writers and politicians, who in turn use the space to plug their mates. And of course, all the books they’re plugging are pricey hardbacks. The Millions’ recommendations for 2009 has a couple that caught my eye:

* New Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, which is a cycle of short stories, a format I love.
The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li. Set in China, it’s described as “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim”, which centres “on the 1979 execution of a Chinese counterrevolutionary in the provincial town of Muddy River and spirals outward into a scathing indictment of Communist China.”

Neither of those are out yet, and as always when it comes to books, my eyes are bigger than my stomach (bigger than my bookshelves, maybe?) so I have lots from last year, and from Christmas to tackle.

I’ve decided to start with a book called The Dark Volume; it’s the sequel to ‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters’, which I read at the end of 2006; although I ended up criticising it for pretty much the same reasons as everyone else – it was too baggy, needed an edit, the good guys never seemed to ever get on top of the bad guys, it was tricky to tell what motivated the heroes – I was grabbed by the first few pages of the sequel. Although it’s still the kind of book you could whallop a burgler with, and be safe in the knowledge he’d never get up, it was obvious from the first few pages the editing was tighter. Secondly, I don’t often read sequels or serials and I can’t deny it was nice to get that sense of familiarity from re-meeting characters. Finally, having survived hundred of pages of machinations in the Glass Books, the three heroes have motivation now: revenge.

After that, the road ahead is less clear. I need to read a book called Rogue Leaders, which is a history of LucasArts games – shouldn’t take too long as it’s filled with a lot of illustrations. Then I’ve got Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y – you’ll recognise it if you’ve been into Waterstone’s recently, as it has black-edged pages. Plugged on the back by Coupland and Pullman it looks like a good mysetry with some pop-philosophy thrown in.

Then it depends on what I order next from Amazon; a couple of last year’s books have resulted in some proliferation on the wish list, with Tim Butcher’s excellent Blood River spurring me on to find out some more about colonialism in the Congo via Adam Hochschild’s Leopold’s Ghost; Richard Holmes, who was a wonderful tutor when I was at UEA has a new book out whose title alone – ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ – is the literary equivalent (for me at least) of the tastiest ingredients. Hardback only at the moment though, so I might go for some more Tim O’Brien after enjoying his ‘Things They Carried’ last year. A quick scan through the earlier pages of the wishlist also reveals a promising looking sci-fi novel called The Sparrow, which is about what happens if you send the Catholic church into space, The Last Summer of the World, which focuses on an aerial photographer in WW1 and Sandor Marai’s The Rebels – Marai was an obscure Hungarian writer who’s books have only just been translated into English. I read the first one made available, Embers, in 2003 and it was terrific. Genuinely haunting, a tale of two old friends coming back together in a spooky, mist-shrouded house for a reckoning; finally, there’s a bunch of motor racing books as I have a vague plan this summer/autumn of driving to see some old circuits…

Books I’ve Read, 2009

In keeping with pretty much the only tradition I keep , there will now follow a list of the books I’ve read this year, with short reviews, and even shorter star ratings. This year I’m going to photograph all the books I read in a suitable location/situation as well: 2009 cover project.

Previously: Books from 2005 and 20062007, and 2008.

5th January – 11th January. The Dark Volume, G W Dahlquist. (Amazon) Sequel to ‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters’, and far better – pacier, more focussed and meaner, it’s a breathless charge through a weird steampunk adventure that holds the attention and this time round, probably does give 24 a run for its money.

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12th January – 26th January. The End of Mr Y, Scarlett Thomas. (Amazon) Full review here.

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27th January – 12th February. Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. (Amazon) Controversial one this… In many ways, it really isn’t that good. I didn’t have such a problem with its combative take on its subject, declaring him guilty of being responsible for 70million deaths in peacetime, but most frustrating for the general reader is that this approach clearly sets out to contrast with (Chinese) establishment views of Mao, and yet there’s little in the way of context. Reading it feels like listening to one side of an argument. The history itself is fascinating, horrific and bizarre but the telling is a letdown.

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13th February – 24th Feburary. Lust, Caution, Eileen Chang. (Amazon) Lust, Caution is actually a short story, so it’s partnered by four others in this book. It’s worth the price of admission for the title story alone, which is a stunning piece of work that compressess a lifetime of obsessions, thoughts and feelings into a few short pages.

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7th – 8th March. Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (Amazon) Geek confession: I’d never read Watchmen up until now; blitzed through it one weekend in preparation for seeing the film. I loved how formally inventive it was – parallel stories, shifting timelines, invented documentary sources – and the characters are compelling. The impending nuclear doom backdrop never quite gelled with the rest of the story for me, though. It seemed like a real product of its time, out of step with how things are now and not convincing enough to transport you back to a time when the danger was real.

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25th February – 20th March. The Last Summer of the World, Emily Mitchell. (Amazon) Fictional account of pioneering American photographer Edward Steichen, who lived in France just before the First World War. The plot – rendered somewhat predictable by the flashback structure – is about the disintegration of Steichen’s first marriage, but it touches on a lot of affecting things; photography and memory, the challenges war poses to visions of creativity, Americans in Paris… Comes together beautifully in the end. It may be understated but it’s a compelling and haunting piece of work. I’m surprised it didn’t get more attention from the press and awards types.

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21st March – 30th April. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, Yiyun Li. (Amazon) Highly praised (as in ‘she’s as good as Chekov’) book of short stories set in contemporary China that I just completely and utterly failed to get in to. No idea why – maybe my own frame of mind at the time – but I just couldn’t get very far with it at all.


1st April – 29th April. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. (Amazon) Feted by io9 as one of the 20 Science Fiction Novels That Will Change Your Life, The Sparrow certainly has an excellent premise: a radio telescope picks up haunting alien songs, and while the UN dithers about what to do, the Catholic church steals a march and despatches a ship full of Jesuits (and their friends, thanks to some plot ropey contrivances) to see what’s going on. Things go horribly, horribly wrong, and only one person makes it back. The narrative is divided between the investigation into the expedition and the expedition itself; hard not to feel disappointed because everything appears tuned to make the awful acts of the denouement seem as terrible as possible. Great ending, but you’ve got 500-odd pages of overwritten prose to wade through to get there.

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30th April. Chess (aka The Royal Game), Stefan Zweig. (Amazon) Brief but compelling novella written in the 1940s by an exiled Austrian Jew; it works as an allegory about power, but also as a driving, mysterious story about two adversaries at chess.

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1st May – 28th May. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami. Easily the best thing I’ve read all year. An amazing book.

29th May – 7th June. The Housekeeper and The Professor, Yoko Ogawa. A very short novel about the relationship between a housekeeper and a genius maths professor who has only 80 minutes of memory thanks to an accident; sounds cliched, but some wonderfully delicate, ambivalent and detailed scenes bring the relationship to life. Only the slightly flat ending lets it down.

Half star

8th June – 16th June. Red Dust, Ma Jian.

17th June – 2nd July. High Rise, JG Ballard. Fascinating concept – the inhabitants of a high-rise building become cut off from the real world, and the physical deterioration of the high-rise mirrors their moral collapse. Sadly it’s dull to read, with little in the way of shades of grey, stiff characters and not enough plot to sustain it.

July. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. A brilliant read by a terrific writer, the story of a Dominican geek and the curse on his family.

July. The Ghost, Robert Harris. Entertaining thriller.

August. Bartelby the Scrivener, Herman Melville. Superbly creepy. Ending unfilling, though.

August. Another Bloody Love Letter, Anthony Loyd. Second volume of autobiography from war correspondent/on-off heroin addict. Exciting and bleak to the point of nihilism, yet grounded in flesh and blood love and loss. His attempts to deal with the death of a friend are moving and insane in equal measure.

27th August – 31st August. In The Miso Soup, Ryu Murakami.

11th – 15th September. Nobody Move, Denis Johnson. Brilliant dialogue, but the plot is pointless and the characters are weak.

16th – 23rd September. Shout! The Beatles in their time, Philip Norman. Outdated – the bulk of the book was written in 1980 – with a rushed update chapter and a prologue with portentous, cheesy 9/11 references, it’s unfair to Paul and George, infatuated with John and lacks rigour (and interest) in the music.

25th September – 3rd October. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne.

4th October – 17th October. The Blind Side, Michael Lewis. Terrific story telling.

17th October. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Terrifying and hugely affecting.

25th October – 9th December. Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon. Following The Road was always going to be tough, and despite the fact it’s a book that’s featured on many ‘Best of 2009′ lists, Await Your Reply, a literary thriller about identity theft, was still something of a let down. I blame the turgid first half; three (apparently) unrelated sequences that of drifting, endlessly passive characters with no real purchase on the world. When the book kicks into gear, it is terrific, at least for a little while, Chaon managing to remove the bottom from the characters’ world and let them fall a long way. As good as this part is, it struggles, like so many modern books, to end, and mostly fritters away the menace and meaning of these highlights.

Half star

9th December – 30th December. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes.