I used to keep a list of books that I had read, but I've let this drift of late. I'm resurrecting it for this blog...
March and April 2012
Hmph. Hardly read a thing. Dear oh dear.
This month was taken up with reading a maths book that I agreed to review for someone. Hmph. Mistake.
- Remains of the day, Ishiguro. Beautiful, beautiful novel. I saw the film 20 years ago or something, and thought it was great. Indeed I was slightly sorry that the film had stayed with me so vividly - Miss Kenton had Emma Thompson's face as I read the book... And good as ET was, I'd rather have let the face form naturally as I read. But, still, this is a beautifully weighted, beautifully paced read. Ishiguro has such a sure touch that you read his work feeling entirely confident that he won't put a foot wrong, and that the journey will be worth it. It was.
- Chicago, city on the make, Algren. This is a prose poem - not something I owuld normally go for, but I've heard of Algren and this is all I've been able to get my hands on so far. I feel a bit luke-warm about this particular piece - poetry just aint my thang - but his attitude, his preoccupations, his voice are all great...
- Planet of Exile, Le Guin. Ursula Le Guin is brilliant of course, and this is no exception. This is an early piece and you can tell she was still learning her craft but still it's a little gem.
- Autobiography of a sex worker, Nalini Jaleema. About a sex-worker/ very-poor-woman in Kerala. Interesting to read a book with such a different voice from the usual - not just about a poor person but by one. She doesn't dwell on the bad times - one has to read between the lines to appreciate the level of destitution that has been this woman's experience - nor on the good (such as there have been). This alone brought back the feel of India: `weary acceptance' seems to be the way the poor of India get through their day.
- Dolores Claiborne, King. God that man can write. 250 pages of hokey ole american prose, and he carries it off. The story is a little tame - it runs out of steam rather disappointingly - but the way it's told is really splendid. Stephen King is fast becoming my guilty pleasure.
- My friend the mercenary, Brabazon. This book is marketed as war-porn: it has an endorsement on the dustjacket from the doyen of the genre, Andy McNabb, and about the most cliched strap-line of all time: he wanted a war and, for his sins, he got one. It's a lot more than that though - the first half is a memoir of Brabazon's time in Liberia as a free-lance journalist during the civil war. It's entirely hair-raising but also an enlightening account of how that war went on with very little concern from the outside world. The second half is about the coup in Equatorial Guinea - I've not got there yet, as this book is so full-on that I have to read it in doses - but I'll be looking forward to reading of Mann et al getting their comeuppance. Actually Brabazon comes out of this whole thing looking pretty bad - he's not just a journalist it turns out, but he plays a significant role in some of the events that are described. And it's not a role that he should be particularly proud of...
- A bunch of children's books: my oldest boy is now old enough that I can read him books that I can enjoy! Notable triumphs include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Queen's Nose; almost anything by Roald Dahl (except The Witches and The BFG because they're too scary, and The Great Glass Elevator because it's totally shit; special thumbs up though for Danny the Champion of the World); The Worst Witch; The Wizard of Oz (until it got too scary). Don't bother with Paddington though - turns out it aint written for children at all, and this adult didn't think much of it either.
- Flashman, Macdonald Fraser. I loved this! The main character - Flashman, who is also the narrator - is a sexist, racist, philandering scoundrel. But he has one redeeming characteristic: for the purposes of this book he is entirely honest. The book is the story of (part of) his life and, at this sage, he is an officer in the British army in Afghanistan, so the account is both timely and very entertaining. There's a large dose of comedy of course but, still, the effect is quite compelling. I felt that I really learnt something from this book: first about the history of the disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan (150 years later we're doing it again...), and second about the attitude of the occupying forces of the time (outwardly we've changed, but inwardly??)
- The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood. In marked contrast to the previous book I read (below) this is sci-fi of the highest order. Atwood is interested in woman's position in society, her relationship with power, her identity away from the dominant culture... To explore these issues she sets up an Iranian-style revolution (but Christian this time) in the US, and runs with it. The result is captivating - beautifully written, intellectually engaging, and entirely diverting. The whole thing has a very strong aesthetic effect as well - when I think back on this book I have a sense of sparseness and blankness emphasising the dislocation felt by the main character after being cut adrift from everything she holds dear.
- American Gods, Gaiman. Total shite - I only got 100 pages in and then gave up from sheer boredom. This is the sort of thing that gives science-fiction a bad name: it's supernatural for the hell of it, not because it gets you anywhere worth going.
- The Corrections, Franzen. Only half-way through. See comments below about Freedom. This guy can really write - I'm totally getting off on this. Added later: although I really enjoyed The Corrections, I don't think it is as good as Freedom, for all that it is more famous. Franzen is obviously a very talented writer and he shows that off a little in this one (extended scenes involving imaginary turds spring to mind). I didn't really mind the showing-off - as I say, he is VERY good - but the look-what-I-can-do! effect of the prose distracts a little from the point of the story. Freedom has a much lighter touch and is, consequently, a better book.
- Farenheit 451, Bradbury. Catching up on classic sci-fi I should have read years ago. Although I must say I wasn't totally bowled over by this. Enjoyable yes, mind-blowing no. Bradbury uses language in quite a peculiar fashion - his metaphors are kind of jumbled, and his turn of phrase feels rather clunky. I guess it's quite deliberate - its all about throwing the reader off-balance...
- Contes choisis, de Maupaussant. I'm reading these short stories to practice my French. My French aint really up to it but it's good stuff. I particular like one called La Parure which I think I read in English as a kid, and have remembered ever since. I don't read short stories much, they have a very different currency to novels - the best ones grab you, thrust a startling, arresting image at you, and then leave. A good one is quite an experience.
- Freedom, Franzen. Bloody ace. It says on the back cover something like `it'll remind you why you read serious literature', and it really did. It just has more substance than trashier stuff you read just to be titillated, and it stays with you longer. I read this after Misery which was great, but I didn't learn anything from it, I was just diverted. Nothing wrong with diversion of course, but somehow Freedom showed me new things about life - and that counts for so much more. As I write this I'm just starting The Corrections which is Franzen's most famous. I must say though that so far I think Freedom is better. It's a gentler, less caustic book, and I think it's better for it.
- Misery, King. I'm only half-way through but this is a blast. I've never read King - dismissed it as fluff. But I was wrong. It's not a literary masterpiece but it's quite a tale, and the writing feels somehow really strong. Writing with balls, for lack of a better way of putting it. And quite amusing with it.
- Room, Donaghue. Oh. My. God. Insanely brilliant book. Without a doubt my book-of-the-year. Not only was it utterly enthralling, it was also entirely terrifying, very disturbing, and sticks with me days later. I really learnt stuff from this book about how to be a human - and I guess that's what good writing should be about. On the down-side I also felt quite traumatised by the end and could have done with a couple of counselling sessions to move on. Still, well done Emma Donaghue.
- Never let me go, Ishiguro. Ace. I've wanted to read Ishiguro ever since I saw Remains of the day, but this is the first one I've managed. Really enjoyed it. A page-turner and thought-provoking with it. My only criticism is that it lacked a real denouement - it felt like it built and built and built and... ended.
- L'etranger, Camus. In French! Very proud of myself. In fact in some ways my struggles with the French reinforced the strong sense of bewilderment and alienation that Camus builds throughout the novel. The narrator conveys a perpetual sense of estrangement from the rest of humanity: What the hell is wrong with everyone? Why do they behave this way? Why are they giving me so much shit?
- Le Petit Prince, St Exupery. Another novel read for the benefit of my French. Having said that this is worth reading anyway, it's a little cracker. An absolute classic of French literature and justly so. I enjoyed it immensely.
- Vendetta, Dibdin. Detective fluff. Load of shite really but it passed the time.
- Dead Souls, Gogol. This took me absolutely ages and I wasn't that taken with it. Sometimes farce works and sometimes it's a bit of a drag - for me this was more of the latter.
- The Children of Green Knowe, Boston. A children's book that I read for nostalgic reasons - I loved this book as a child. It's a very different thing from the book I remembered, but I loved it nonetheless. Very atmospheric and harking back to that romantic period in English history when small school boys caught steam trains to visit distant relatives in the school holidays; I dare say such a period never really existed but even the idea of it creates a pathos that I find irresistible.
- Un ete de Jade, Gingras. I've decided to try and improve my French so I started with this little fellow. A`teen read' which I round rather enjoyable and just about my current level.
March and April 2012
Hmph. Hardly read a thing. Dear oh dear.
- World War Z: an oral history of the Zombie war, Brooks. Flipping great! It grabbed me like an undead hand round the throat and I hardly put it down until I'd finished it. It fed my strange predilection for survival tales in a dystopian future. Seems like a strangely relevant genre in these uncertain times...
- Death and the Penguin, Kurkov. This was a recommendation of my author friend GW. Now GW is a woman of impeccable literary sensibilities, but she's made a booboo with this one. Either that or this book is so deep that I missed the whole point. Somehow I doubt that - loadashite.
- Ragtime, Doctorow. I'd wanted to read it ever since I read The Book of Daniel which is amazing. This is not so good, but still well worth a go. I read it in about a fortnight - it rollocks along. The introduction describes it as that mythical beast, the great American novel. That might be a little overblown but, still, Doctorow does the big themes and he does them well. Splendid stuff.
- An Evil Cradling, Keenan. Utterly compelling story of Keenan's four and a half years as a hostage in Lebanon. Not only is the story astounding, and very very unnerving, it is also excellently written. Perhaps most impressively he manages the tricky task of expressing his distress and anger at the treatment he received... but without poisoning the tone with bitterness. He is, of course, entitled to feel bitter, but the way he rises above that option is what makes this book worth reading.
- The Secret Pilgrim, Le Carre. Ace. I was at first thrown by the fact that this book is a bunch of vignettes rather than a big ole plot-driven novel. But jeez that man can write. He realises what PD James (below) apparently has not: a plot can be diverting but it can never truly satisfy. There has to be a human interest, character development, SOMETHING TO SAY. I might be being harsh on PD here, but certainly Le Carre trumped her this time.
- Laughter in the dark, Nabokov. Well it's better than Pnin (see below). But, still, a man who could write Lolita should do better than this.
This month was taken up with reading a maths book that I agreed to review for someone. Hmph. Mistake.
- A mind for murder, PD James. I don't normally bother with crime (apart from James Ellroy) but I was in a pickle and this was all I could find. It's fine writing but the end revelation of whodunnit was a bit limp somehow. The search for a killer certainly gives a book momentum, but it's hard not to leave underwhelmed...
- Karoo, Tesich. I'm only half way through but this book is a blast. Another flawed narrator - not a nob-end this time, just a likeable pillock - who seems intent on turning his life into a pile of shit. God knows where it's going, but it MUST end badly.
- The Ginger Man, Donleavy. Another supposedly brilliant book that I found fairly tedious. My good friend LeChat assures me that much of Donleavy's work is gasping-for-breath hilarious; The Ginger Man is not one such. Donleavy's primary achievement is to engender sympathy in his reader for a narrator who is a total nob-end.
- Animal's People, Sinha. I'd been avoiding this because I thought it would be all worthy-worthy-worthy and have no serious artistic merit (it's a novel set in Bhopal post Union-Carbide). Well, I was a fool. It's a superb book. Brilliantly written. It avoids moralising and sanctimoniousness with ease yet it manages to deal with the vital issues of Bhopal head on. Outstanding.
- Island, Huxley. Thoroughly enjoyable. The flaws are obvious - it's too ideas-heavy to be a really good novel, and the level of genuine literary originality is limited. On the other hand the ideas that fill the book are really rather wonderful. It's great to read someone being unashamedly idealistic: the man Aldous would like the world to be a better place and he's got some (pretty concrete) ideas how that could happen. To the modern nihilistic reader it might seem naive and sentimental - it's certainly VERY uncool. But cool be damned! Good on him for laying his ideas and, indeed, his heart out for all to see. I was inspired. And it made me want to do mushrooms again a lot!
- Nostromo, Conrad. Supposed to be one of the books of the 20th century. I couldn't get past page 100. I've kept coming back to it but it just bores me rigid.
- The Shipping News, Proulx. It was great but I was very slightly disappointed. Her collection of short stories was the best thing I read last year and this, while good, wasn't quite as spectacular. Still, it's a great read.
- What I loved, Hustvedt. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. DON'T READ THIS BULLET IF YOU WANT TO READ THE BOOK. I haven't actually finished this one but I'm sticking it up here because it made me cry. There aint too many books do that - especially not on the train from Milton Keynes - but this had me bawling like a baby. Since becoming a Daddy I am completely unable to cope with bad stuff happening to kids (I was semi-blubbing at the radio a few weeks ago listening to a woman being interviewed about the death of her daughter in 7/7) and so the central moment of this book hit me like a hammer. One aside: every one of the main characters in this book is permanently engaged in writing a book or writing a thesis or preparing pieces for some show: it makes me wonder what kind of a rarefied atmosphere Siri Hustvedt lives in?!
- Ice, Anna Kavan. It weren't what I was expecting. It's all about messing with your head or, more precisely, giving you an idea of what it's like inside the head of Anna Kavan (sometime mental patient, lifetime heroin addict). It's hard reading but it was just about worth the bother.
- The girl who kicked the hornet's nest, Larssen. Just the same as the other two: Bit of fluff that I thoroughly enjoyed.
- The arrival, Tan. Christmas present from my cuz; its a graphic novel without any words whatsoever. Strangely silent effect. All about the pains of the migrant; beautifully done.
- Fear of flying, Jong. I thought it'd be pure smut and I was all wrong. There's a bit of shagging here and there but it's hardly non-stop. Really enjoyable read with lots of existential musing, and a good dose of comedy. I appreciated the articulation of an optimistic feminist angle, a feminist angle that celebrates the body and its passions.
- The girl who played with fire, Larssen. The second one. Everyone's read 'em so I won't dwell on it. It's a piece of fluff but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Entirely gripping, and Lisbeth Salander really is a great character (for reasons outlined below after I read the first one).
- A fine balance, Mistry. Superb book. Brilliantly written, thoroughly entertaining, entirely moving. The ending was conceived on the Grimsville express from Grimsby to County Grim, so I wasn't left feeling overly positive. But still it was worth the ride.
- The Great American Novel, Roth. The man can write like a dream, I only wish he didn't write about frickin' baseball. Hilarious though it is, I'm not sure that I'll ever finish it.
- The Butterfly Isles, Barkham. The woman gave me a Christmas present about butterflies in an attempt to shut me up. (I've been thinking of adding butterfly-spotting to my blossoming collection of middle-aged obsessions.) Anyways, it didn't work: I've been banging on endlessly about butterflies and am looking forward to a summer in flowery meadows. Was particularly struck by the life-cycle of the Large blue (which is rare and resident very close to Bristol).
- Dune, Herbert. Impressively ambitious and thoroughly readable sci-fi. Shame he became so fixated on the prophetic element of the thing. It inherits some of the worst components of the fantasy genre, i.e. the preoccupation with various people's ``right to rule", and the strange notion that the person who can fight the best must be the person with the highest moral calibre. Patent bullshit, but strangely ubiquitous in some fields of writing...
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson. Yep, like everyone else in the Western World I started reading this one dull afternoon, and four days later I'd read 500 pages and finished it. Gripping (obviously), but also notable for the main character, Lisbeth, who has a genuinely different morality from the mainstream. We so often confuse morality with legality, although the two have very little to do with each other. Lisbeth is spectacularly free of such confusion...
- Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, Brown. Heart-breaking; more comments here.
- And the band played on, Shilts. Splendid; more comments here.
- The Cleft, Lessing. Tried to read this as Lessing won the Nobel prize not long since. Couldn't make head nor tail of it; bored stiff; gave up.
- Call for the Dead, Le Carre. I love Le Carre and this was a nice way to while away the time. Not his finest (that would be The Little Drummer Girl), but still fun.
- Maigret in Montmartre, Simenon. I'd never read Simenon before; it was great stuff, and I'd like to read some more. Apparently he wrote about 200 Maigret books so there's plenty of scope. He also, apparently, slept with 3000 women. Clearly he didn't do things by halves that bloke.
- Pnin, Nabokov. After Lolita everything by Nabokov is a disappointment (with the possible exception of Pale Fire). This one was diverting enough but it didn't really get my pecker up...
- The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare. I was very disappointed by this, and didn't get more than a third of the way though. I'll try again sometime; perhaps it was my mood...
- Germinal, Zola. Absolutely ace. A bit of a tome, but it's a page-turner. Big-hearted stuff. More comments here.
- Close range: Wyoming Stories, E. Annie Proulx. Bloody brilliant - best book I read all year. I opened it because it contained the short story Brokeback Mountain. The film of that name is one of my favourites, and I didn't expect the book to outshine it... but it did. Truly superb writing.
- Ubik, Philip K. Dick. Splendid science-fiction. I've started to read sci-fi again after a break of some 15 years. Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin are my two favourites. Le Guin's writing is outstanding - she has the surest of touches. Dick's writing, on the other hand, is very patchy. He was prodigious in his output, and obviously didn't worry quite so much about the finer points of literary technique. They both, however, use their medium to explore truly enthralling ideas (this is the point of sci-fi after all). Ubik is a particularly spectacular example of this - it's a total head-fuck of a book, with reality repeatedly undermined throughout... Dick's capacity to startle the reader more than compensates for the aforementioned patchiness. And although his books tend to have a distinctly dystopian feel, they also somehow have a very big-hearted quality which makes reading them a pleasure. (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on which the film Blade Runner is based, is another of Dick's books that I'd recommend. Much better than the film.)
- The Big Nowhere, Ellroy. It is my avowed intention to read everything that James Ellroy has ever written. The man is a genius, and his writing is ace. This was no exception.
- Falling out of Trees, Wyness. Written by my friend G. Wyness, the novelist. Most enjoyable even accounting for the typically bleak Wyness-outlook! Publishers, what are you waiting for?
- The Good Earth, Buck. Very enjoyable. I knew very little about life in China before I read this book. I now know a mite more.
My all-time listOK, I can't remember what I was reading before July, but thought I'd conclude by jotting down some of my favourite books of all-time...
- Anna Karenina, Tolstoy. Everything about this book is big, especially the heart.
- The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner. The first third of this book is written from the point of view of someone with intellectual disability. As a result it's completely confusing and disorienting... but it really works. No other writer lets you inhabit the mind of their characters so completely. See also Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
- Catch 22, Heller. It's been a while since I read it but I remember it as being unbelievable.
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire. This isn't a novel but I include it because I enjoyed it so damn much. Freire enunciates a way of changing the world that I find completely convincing.
- The Dispossessed, Le Guin. The best sci-fi novel I've ever read. Beautifully written, exploring wonderful ideas.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kesey. The film is shit in comparison. This is a book with balls.
- Zorba the Greek, Kazantzakis and Narziss and Goldmund, Hesse. I include both these together as they seem to me to be investigating a similar juxtaposition - a life of passion and abandon next to a life of service and ascetism. Both are wonderful, although Hesse's best book is not this one, it's The Glass Bead Game.
- Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky. Fookin' ace.
- In Cold Blood, Capote. Capote writes like a dream, and this is his piece de resistance.
- To kill a mocking bird, Lee. I read this as part of my school english lit class. Wonderful.