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.
Advertisements

Books I’ve Read, 2010

Previously:

Starting the reading for 2010 a little late; it took me a while to finish Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder, which is both excellent and substantial. As per usual, this post will be updated throughout the year with brief impressions of the books and a slightly less than arbitrary star rating. Thanks to Christmas presents, loans, and plenty of Amazon time, the to-read pile is so tall as to be in danger of toppling over. Time to make a start with a big, thick book then. Based loosely on Hamlet and with some chapters narrated by a dog, first up is a big selling American hit:

16th January – 1st February. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. It’s all about a mute boy called Edgar, who lives on a farm in rural middle America with his parents, who breed a unique type of dog. Their perfect world is undone by the arrival of Edgar’s father’s brother. The plot is closely mapped to that of Hamlet, and while, for the first half, mixing high tragedy with modern, detailed prose and a free-roaming viewpoint results in a book that sinks its emotional hooks deep into you and is very compelling, the second half didn’t, for me, manage to reconcile the source with the new setting as seamlessly. It’s still an excellent novel, with beautiful descriptions of the natural world and excellent canine characters.

2nd February – 9th February. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. I didn’t find in it what so many others did; to me it seemed dry and irritating. DNF.

10th February – 17th March. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantell. Yes it’s too long and all that, but it wouldn’t be what it is if it was shorter; builds up a terrific sense of day to day life in a Tudor London totally dominated by Henry VIII’s obsession with divorcing Katherine of Aragon. The characters are believable and the duel between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More pulls you through those hundreds of pages.

20th March. Conversations with My Agent, Rob Long. “When something like Cheers ends, it always takes a few careers with it. Don’t be one of them;” so says Rob’s agent in this slight but funny look at a writer who, once Cheers has ended, lands in development hell. There’s some nice Catch-22isms from the Hollywood suits, but overall it’s a very light and fast-paced read. One of the very few books I’ve read in one sitting though, so certainly enjoyable.

21st March – 1st April. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton. The first chapter sets the scene for this study of life and work well, looking at all the different jobs required for a tuna to make its way from the Maldives to a Sainsbury’s in Bristol and the dinner plates of a suburban family. The second chapter, following employees of McVities as they focus-group a new biscuit into existence is hilarious, horrifying and, to anyone who’s worked in the modern office, dreadfully familiar at the same time. It’s twenty or so of the best pages of writing I’ve read in a very long time, the words possessed of a fine precision that allows the tone to slice from mocking to empathetic in the space of a line, and to finely slide right under the skin of its subjects. After that, I found the book meandering and less able to take possession of the things it talked about. That said, thoroughly worth it for the first two chapters.

2nd April – 9th April. Bangkok 8, John Burdett. It’s been ages since I’ve read a thriller, and I really wanted to like this – Bangkok set, its main character is a half-Thai, half-American Buddhist cop. It really wasn’t my thing at all; the Buddhist aspects of the character seemed to excuse a very passive plot, the dialogue is rubbish and the female characters lifeless. Dull discussions of prostitution, too.

10th April – 28th April. A Crisis of Brilliance, David Boyd Haycock. A group biography of five leading young English artists in the early 1900s, who all studied at the Slade school of Art in London, and whose lives were all affected by the First World War. I knew almost nothing of Paul Nash, Stanley Spender, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler and Richard Nevinson before reading it, and found it really interesting – the book gives plenty of context and moves fluidly between the subjects.

29th April – 1st May. Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro. Yikes. I’ve loved every single one of Ishiguro’s books, but not this one. When a book’s own blurb describes it as “gentle” you know not to expect too much, but these five vaguely linked stories left almost no impression on me.

2nd May – 24th May. The Odyssey, Homer (EV Rieu / DCH Rieu trans.) First time I’ve read it. Epic.

25th May – 28th May. Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle. Excellent comic looking at a year spent with MSF in Burma. Subtle, touching, and a definite improvement over the so-so Shenzhen.

30th May. Exile on Main St, Bill Janovitz. Another entry in the 33 1/3rd series, looking at the Stones’ 1972 classic. A good companion to the recent re-release.

1st June – 19th June. The Lost City of Z, David Grann. Enjoyable story of the gentleman explorers who sacrificed their lives and sanity to try and conquer the Amazon in the early 20th century. Gives you an excellent sense of how hostile the Amazon was to Western explorers, and how this hostility was born of both the jungle’s ecosystem and the explorers own approach to what they characterised as the savage unknown.

20th June – 13th July. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell. Long awaited novel from the man who effortlessly combines popular appeal with a literary approach. It’s more straightforward than Cloud Atlas, but it’s beautifully told and deceives you into thinking it’s straightforward – but by the time you reach the ending, you’re completely enmeshed in its world and in love with its characters.

14th July – 21st July. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson. Another 33 1/3rd book; entertaining and thoughtful, if overly erudite story of a brainy music critic trying to engage with a Celine Dion album.

18th August – 1st September. Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad. A biography of American alternative music in the 80s: everything that lead to Nirvana, basically. Too long but then it’s comprehensive and features a lot of first hand testimony.

5th September – 16th September. The Age of the Infovore, Tyler Cowen. Huge disappointment; badly structured, sloppily written and entirely unfocussed. When it does settle down, it attempts to use autism as a lens through which to view the way technology is changing our mental skills. It’s not an interesting or radical enough theory to sustain a book and even the author doesn’t seem that interested in it, prone to following other threads and directions, but always in a flat, shallow way. No surprise then that they changed the title drastically from the first printing – it was originally published as “Create your own Economy.” It’s a book in search of a topic by an author who’s clearly smart, ludicrously well read and interested in many things. His blog, Marginal Revolution, is far better.
(No stars)

20th Sept – 1st October. The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris. Too much writing, too little in the way of characters and story. The writing itself is over burdened; thoughtful certainly, but cynical, exhausted and the overall effect for much of the book is text that is brutal, unpleasant and with little to offer. It never quite seems to decide if the disease the central character suffers from is medical or allegorical, and as a result, doesn’t earn its symphonic ending. Ferris isn’t a bad writer – this is just a failed project.

8th October – 20th October. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Terrific, although if you read it after having seen the film (as I did), you can’t help but be aware just how much of the text the Coen Brothers managed to get up on screen. It’s a very, very close adaptation, and though it’s no fault of the book, post-film, and post-Javier Bardem it lacks room to breathe. 

21st October – 15th November. A Face To The World. Laura Cumming’s book on self portraits is rather brilliantly done; easy to read and full of insight.

16th November – 28th November. Life, Keith Richards. A tale definitely worth telling though despite being willing to clearly present the highs and lows of an excessive and often insane life, he’s not someone given to to self-criticism, judgement or even debate, and it leaves the book feeling lacking something. There’s no light and shade, no reflection. Still, we’ve got the songs for all that. 

29th November – 2nd December. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid. This told tale, a story recounted to an impassive listener, starts brilliantly, but the longer it went on, the more frustrated I got with it. There’s something unctuous about the narrator himself, and the device of having him ‘tell’ you the story soon starts to seem gimmicky. It’s too literary as well – his lost love is a writer becoming a ghost and he’s radicalised in part by going to Pablo Neruda’s house. This contributes to a feeling that the book is a dilettante, afraid to get dirt under its fingernails; the Fundamentalist of the title seems more like a whining teenager than someone fired with genuine rage, on the path to doing something terrible.

3rd December – 20th December. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa. A slow, elegiac drift of a book, possessing the same kind of  beauty as dust falling through sunlight on a slow summer afternoon. I liked the fractured approach to the narrative, and the way you come inexorably to care about the characters, not for who they are or what they’ve done, but for the fact they suffer the universal human tragedies of age, decline and death.

21st December – 5th January 2011. Electric Eden, Rob Young. Detailed, well researched history of English pastoral and folk music. Best of all, gave me lots of new music to explore. Tone never quite settled – sometimes scholarly, sometimes imaginative, it never manages to be as imaginative as the music it covers though, perhaps because it’s not personal enough.

Novels written by dictators

By definition, dictators can do anything they like, so why wouldn’t the mad, bad and crazy men at the top of tinpot regimes want to write novels?

“Some recent examples have been Saddam Husseins’s last publication, Be Gone Demons!, sales of which suffered due to bomb damage, despite the author’s previous million-selling form; and Radovan Karadžić’s The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night, written while on the run from the UN’s War Crimes trials yet still nominated for Serbia’s highest literary prize, the Golden Sunflower. Neither, unfortunately, are available from Amazon.”

Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler’s List) wrote a novel about the literary ambitions of a dictator, called The Tyrant’s Novel, which I read in 2006. It’s worth a look, but I remember it being a little restrained and dry.

The cover of 1984 (updated)

“The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid December, as promised. Warburg recognised its qualities at once (“amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read”) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted “if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot”.

– From the Guardian’s look back at 1984, the “Masterpiece that killed George Orwell”.

1984 is no longer the book that’s most influential on me, or my favourite, but it is still a part of who I am – like a literary tattoo. I read it at just the right age and the right place – a wordy 17 year old at college in Luton, obsessed with books and how they describe the world – and I’ve got some beautiful copies of it at home (including a beautiful illustrated one) as mementos. Penguin recently posted up a competition on Twitter to win a signed print of the Shephard Fairey image adorning the the current 1984; you had to come up with an image Penguin’s publicist can use on his Twitter page that reflects the book. I pulled two contenders from my Flickr account:

Plugboard

It’s a shot of the Colossus computer at Bletchley Park. I liked the flatness of the colours, the lack of shadows, and the suggestion of words being monitored. And also, of course, the reference to “the commons”. In the end though, I went for this one:

Rothko colours

A favourite of mine, snapped on the iPhone at Tate’s Rothko show. I think it’s funnier and stranger than a lot of 1984-derived images tend to be; of course, it doesn’t shy away from the central darkness of the novel, of how bleak life is when words cannot be trusted.

Update: I won!

Two new books added to the wishlist

From the Onion’s very sober round-up of 2008’s best books.

Carl Wilson, Celine Dion “Let’s Talk About Love”:

“Carl Wilson’s startlingly good entry in the 33 1/3 music-book series surveys the work of Celine Dion and functions as an uncommonly honest, unerringly rigorous inquisition into the vagaries of “taste,” and how they manifest in ways we seldom acknowledge.”

David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:

“The plot of this debut novel drops Hamlet into rural Wisconsin, as seen through the eyes of a mute boy and the pack of super-intelligent dogs his family breeds. But the writing recalls Willa Cather in perfectly capturing the aching clarity of perception and the piercing sting of memory. Wroblewski’s descriptions of sign language, innocence, despair, and survival hang in the air like dust motes, dancing to a simple yet deeply sacred music. All this in a page-turning thriller that builds to transcendent heights of tension. This was a book I never wanted to end.”

Both sound good – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle reminds me I’ve never go round to reading A Thousand Acres, a re-telling of King Lear set in rural America either.

Books of the Year 2008

Previously:

2006 – 25 books, 28% non-fiction, and my book of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
2007 – 24 books, 33% non-fiction, far fewer contemporary novels1, and my pick of the year was Crime and Punishment.

So how did 2008 go? I read even fewer books than in 2007, which is disappointing, with just 22 finished. I read much more non-fiction than ever before – over 50% of this year’s titles (12) were based on reality2. In another break with tradition, all but one of the novels were contemporary; only Don Quixote was older than I was. The reasons for reading less were obvious: work was tough, with a lot of long hours at towards the start of the year, and the fact I spent months reading Don Quixote.

That said, I don’t regret a page of it or any of the time I invested in it; Edith Grossman’s translation is fantastic and if you feel like setting yourself a project I’d highly recommend reading it. Don Quixote was first published over 400 years ago and is now pretty much only known for two things: the word quixotic, and the idea of tilting at windmills. One of the pleasures of reading it is discovering that it’s the reputation that’s stale, not the text itself. Quixote evolves as it moves, changing because of how self-aware it is. It’s not surprising, of course, if you consider that it comes from the same time period as Shakespeare’s plays, which are often about seeing oneself, what’s faked and what’s real, but I suspect I’m not alone (perhaps lazily) in expecting a certain rigidity from older novels. On the contrary, Quixote’s story and tone is supple: at times devious and cruel to its characters, and at others  funny and reflective. No more sore than Part two; originally published ten years after the first, in it Don Quixote and Sancho Panza find themselves famous (as a result of the first part) and the victims of infamy thanks to a cash-in, unofficial second volume.

Of the modern novels, some were absolute rubbish – step forward The Foreigner and Crusaders – but in general, I felt like I picked well. Haruki Murakami didn’t disappoint, but neither did the much hyped Tree of Smoke whose author, Denis Johnson, was new to me.

Looking back though, three books stand out as the ones that, after reading, I found myself either recommending to people or plotting to buy as presents: two factual ones, Evan Wright’s Iraq-set Generation Kill and Tim Butcher’s journey on the Congo, Blood River. Generation Kill is marginally the better book – Blood River has a slow start – but both are tremendous as looks at very different worlds. In particular, I really enjoyed Blood River’s way of presenting complex colonial history as a easily digestible travelogue. It’s a great place to start to get to grips with European legacy in Africa. In terms of fiction, one book stood out this year, which was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s a series of short stories set sometimes in the Vietnam war, sometimes when the soldiers are back in the States, all concerning the men of Alpha Company. The stories do intersect, but they don’t always follow in strict sequence, or link in obvious ways. The effects of the connections are what makes the book as a whole particularly powerful, giving depth, light and shadow to the trusims of how war changes the people fighting, the people waiting back home and all the places in between.

1 Written after I was born (1980).
2 Although I am including Slash’s autobiography in this, so ‘reality’ is clearly a fairly elastic term.