Books what I did read init.
May/ June/ July/ August 2015
Let's see if I can remember...
Dec 2013 - Feb 2014
Read absolutely SFA in this period. Was a bit stressed about moving continents.
Feb/ Mar/ Apr/ May 2013
Life's been a bit of a blur lately so I'm not rightly sure what I've read. I'll just list what springs to mind.
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.
- La terre, Zola. I love Zola. Germinal is ace. This is also ace. Half-way through and loving it. Should learn enough French to read it in the original.
May/ June/ July/ August 2015
Let's see if I can remember...
- The wrench, Primo Levi. He is a great writer. This aint his best but it's still excellent.
- Transfigurations, Michael Bishop. Great opening, but didn't quite hold it together. Sci-fi is great for exploring the big themes, but this got kind of lost.
- This is the way the world ends, James Morrow. Great concept - exploring the consequences of nuclear war. Very powerful and a great message.... and I just couldn't get into it. I wanted to like it but couldn't.
- A delicate truth, Le Carre. His later books have dropped in standard I reckon, but this was good. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
- Stranger in a strange land, Heinlein. Excellent. At times his open ranting about every topic under the sun gave me the shits, but this was outweighed by the sheer force of the concept he was exploring. This was sci-fi on another level - a Martian messiah with a message of free-love, peace and understanding. What's not to like?
- 1Q84, Murakami. Finally! It's been on request from the library for a month and it arrived a week ago. I'm six chapters in. So far, so fooking brillopads. Looking forward to some serious Murakami satisfaction over the course of April...
- The door into summer, Heinlein. Bit of sci-fi fluff. I enjoyed it but I was hoping for the meat that I found in Heinlein's The moon is a harsh mistress.... and it wasn't there.
- Buffalo crossing, Williams. This is by the guy who wrote the brilliant Stoner (see below) so that's positive... But I was hesitant because the back-page blurb said it's about men shooting buffaloes... Turns out I just cannot read books about men shooting buffaloes. From a literary point of view it's beautiful, elegant, heart-felt stuff... But the sheer pointless waste of the whole thing makes it completely unreadable for me - I just feel constantly sick. I've read plenty of books about the Holocaust, for instance, or crime novels where some psychopath is performing unimaginable horrors... but somehow that didn't get me quite in the place where this book gets me (it's a physical place, an inch below the belly button and right deep in the very pit of my stomach). It's still sitting half-read next to my bed but I really doubt I'll ever pick it up again.
- Possession, Byatt. Very enjoyable; satisfyingly literary. I got a little bored about two thirds of the way through - it felt like it was 100 pages too long. And sometimes all the erudition gave me the shits, but generally a good read.
- Nonstop, Aldiss. Nice bit of sci-fi guilty pleasure.
- Porno, Welsh. A rather embarrassing book to read on the train, I have discovered. Not a patch on Trainspotting, but so far so good (I'm half-way through).
- Stoner, Williams. Bloody ace. More about it here.
- The hunger games, Collins. Bit of teen lit. This book doesn't really work on any number of levels - the plot has some horrible big holes in it. But the writing is very enjoyable, the scenario and the characters are interesting, and there is a warmth to it that I can see is an important component of good teen-fiction. (Ooph, that sounds hideously patronising.) Short summary: I enjoyed it.
- The rules of attraction, Ellis. The first book I've read by Bret Easton. It was a fine old page-turner. A bunch of wealthy college students taking lots of drugs and having lots of sex, how can that fail to be of interest? The value of the book is, I suppose, in the way it probes the pointlessness of this sort of a life, not out of prudery or moral disapproval, but from a more existential "what the fuck is this all about?" point of view.
- The cold six thousand, Ellroy. I stopped reading Ellroy because the violence started to get to me. Lack of options made me turn to this... and I'm glad of it. The story is pretty over the top and ridiculous, but boy the man can write. The style is so unique that it feels like an excursion into an entirely new literary landscape. And although the plot is so sensational, the characters are very acutely drawn, the machismo of the general carry-on softened by the rather tender way that weakness and vulnerability is exposed in the hardest of men. And, finally, for all that it is a caricature, the book shines a scarily truthful light on the real American political landscape.
- The moonstone, Wilkie Collins. I'm halfway through this and I only started reading it because of a lack of options.... But it's brilliant! Hilarious and superbly written - the narrator of the first part of the book is one of the great literary characters I would say. I'm slightly mystified as to why this book is not more famous - I've always heard of it as a curious footnote - "the first detective novel" or something, but it's far more than that. Great stuff. And Wilkie Collins was clearly a man of quite progressive views. Here's a quote that resonates more than a hundred years later:
The upshot of it was, that Rosanna Spearman had been a thief, and not being of the sort that get up Companies in the City, and rob from thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her, and the prison and the reformatory followed the lead of the law. (ch.4)
- Frankenstein, Shelley. Entertaining up to a point, but the flowery language and the endless moralizing started to give me the shits after a while. Can see why it entered our mythology though - the idea at the bottom of it all is striking.
- July's people, Gordimer. A well written and engaging book.... But I didn't much care for it. Perhaps because it's viewpoint on black-white relations in South Africa is so fundamentally negative. This may, of course, be an entirely legitimate view point - I wouldn't have a clue - but, still, seeing the world from this point of view aint much fun. If there isn't any hope in the situation, what's the point of writing about it?
- Ender's Game, Card. Entertaining stuff, I enjoyed it. Fairly implausible as a set-up but he carries it off pretty well, and the characters are interesting and engaging and sympathetic.
- Written on the body, Winterson. I've read a couple of Winterson's books and liked them... but not this one. It seemed very self-indulgent to me - like maybe she's become so successful that she can't find an editor to give her honest feed-back. A bunch of clever oneliners doesn't make a novel. I liked the non-gender-specific narrator though.
- The mote in God's eye, Purnell and someone. Very clever and quite entertaining but in the end a bit 2-D for me. None of the characters have any great depth and although the politics of the alien encounter is done pretty well, I don't want a strategy manual for a novel I want a goddamn story. In addition the (rather distasteful) politics of the authors are just a bit too evident, for instance the naivety of the "liberals" in the set-up is overplayed to the point that they end up looking rather stupid (which is clearly the desired outcome). Plus they indulge in several fairly crass racial stereotypes - a grasping Arab merchant, a monotone robotic Russian admiral - that just seem a bit pathetic. A shame because much of the book really works.
- The Good Soldier, Ford. Brilliant book this. On the surface it's about a bunch of toffs and their shenanigans. Underneath, well, I guess it's just about being human. Somehow the reader ends up completely inhabiting the personality of the narrator and feeling his various bewilderments, pain, betrayal, love, hope etc. Beautifully done.
- The moon is a harsh mistress, Heinlein. Sci-fi, when it's done well, probably gives me more pleasure than any other genre. And this is sci-fi done very, very well indeed. I read this book in about 3 days and was completely captivated. The story is great, the characters are great, the writing is great - in a style that isn't haute-literature, but still vigorous and stimulating, and rather beautiful.
- The castle, Kafka. He didn't finish writing it and I didn't finish reading it. Just got bored with the same old thing over and over. I know this is a classic and he it's done brilliantly, but I can only be endlessly-frustrated-by-bureaucracy so many times, before I think why am I reading this? (Especially as, by happenstance, I read some of this while sat in a very long queue waiting for a bureaucrat to give me an ID card.) Of course it's not really about bureaucracy, so much as life, but still.... 200 pages in and I've got the point - I don't need the remaining 200.
- I know why the caged bird sings, Angelou. She just died and I guess a new generation have now heard of her and are reading her autobiography-in-6-parts. I'm one of these johnny-come-latelys and I can see what all the fuss is about - this is a fine book, but also important for the story it tells. A minor side note: I had no idea that a woman's vulva grows during puberty. I know now (and that gives a hint as to the spectacular honesty of this book).
- The road, McCarthy. Oh my God, oh my God. Cormack McCarthy writes like a goddamned dream, but every now and then I think he loses discipline and his books become too big and sprawling for their own good. This one don't have that problem - it's ace. The relationship between child and father is unbelievably tender and beautiful, and inspiring for me as a Dad.
- Flow my tears the policeman said, Philip K. Dick. Another favourite. Dick's work varies in standard a little - it seems like the ideas came so fast he didn't have time to write them all completely properly.... But this one is a good one. Dick's central premise is always that someone's world has just completely fallen apart and they're struggling to figure out what is real (this reflects his own struggles with mental illness apparently)... In the early books this is breakdown is usually explained at some point - it's a government policy gone wrong or something... As he got older, though, he didn't feel the need to explain things so cause-and-effect styley, and he just ran with where the scenario took him. And it really works. A Philip K. Dick book is always a great ride...
- Oliver Twist, Dickens. I love Dickens. Love him, love him. My 20 year hiatus in reading his books is well and truly over. What made me think his stuff was too heavy I really do not know - OT is a proper old page-turner. And the man's ability to craft a sentence is truly jaw-dropping at times.
- Stepford Wives, Levin. This is just a pulp read, the central premise of which is entirely ridiculous... but I read it in half a day and thoroughly enjoyed it. He can tell a decent yarn, old Ira. Warning though: do not, under any circumstances, watch the movie. It is shit-squared.
- The cry of the owl, Highsmith. PH is much more famous for the Ripley series, only one of which I've read, and which left me completely underwhelmed. I tried this one due to a dearth of options and, in fact, it was fucking great. A much more compelling read than Ripley. I think my problem with Ripley was that the main character - Ripley - was such a complete weirdo that I couldn't relate to him in any way. The main guy in this one though is much more ordinary - frustrating and weak perhaps, but all the more easy to identify with for that.
- The Mother, Pearl Buck. I've read two books by Pearl Buck and they were both ace. Just good straight story-telling about the life of a poor person in China. Great stuff.
- Disgrace, Coetzee. This is a fine piece of work. I find Coetzee's work quite unique - he writes about the prosaic and it seems so very, well, prosaic. That sounds odd but consider, on the other hand, how the mere act of writing about something tends to make it into something it is not. Some writers make the most of this effect, amplifying it even, so that the effect is one of great deeds done by great (wo)men (Cormack McCarthy is exhibit A here), but if you want to write about life as it really is, then it really should be rather unremarkable. And unremarkableness is a surprisingly difficult thing to achieve in literature. At least it is if you also want to write something worth reading. Well Coetzee manages both - and this book somehow has an importance that I can't quite explain - because it conveys life as it really is so well, what it has to say about that life seems of that much more significance. Outstanding.
- The Secret History, Tartt. I've heard plenty about this but the size put me off. Plus I thought it was supposed to be very literary. Well that was quite wrong - it was more an up-market thriller, then any kind of literary opus. Having said that I enjoyed it a lot. The characters in it are kind of odd, but I liked it nonetheless.
- The Christmas books, Dickens. I mentioned A Christmas Carol below, well now I've read all five. I thoroughly enjoyed them. Dickens' warm-hearted writing is really satisfying, and a pleasure to read. His female characters are an obvious weakness - if they're under 30 they are typically so angelic as to be barely human.... But we can forgive him :-)
- Spy line, Deighton. The second in Deighton's trilogy. I kind of enjoyed the first but I got bored reading this one, and irritated by how damn clever Deighton has to be all the time. The library here doesn't have the last one and I can't say I'm bothered. (Edit later: turns out there isn't another one, so that's all to the good.)
- The Spy who came in from the cold, Le Carre. I love Le Carre but this was too soon after Deighton. I was just a bit bored.
- The Blind Assassin, Atwood. I love Margaret Atwood and I was pretty keen to read this... It was good but I guess I was a bit disappointed. Perhaps the primary problem for me was that Atwood inhabited her narrator so well that I really felt like I was listening to the words of a somewhat bitter old woman. And unsurprisingly the taste that was left after the book finished was one of... bitterness. It kind of wore me down this constant cynicism and negativity, although I can't deny that the effect achieved was spot on for the character in question.
- A Christmas Carol, Dickens. I've wanted to read this for a long time. It's a classic of course but these days I don't read classics so I felt some dread at reading something so worthy. Of course it's great, though. I'd forgotten that Dickens is actually hilarious! And, as I mentioned with Murakami, when you're in the hands of a master you can just kick back and enjoy it. And what greater master than Dickens?
- Spy hook, Deighton. I got this because the library here in Costa Rica is a bit limited with English language stuff and I thought it might be a poor man's Le Carre. Turns out not so poor. It's only spy nonsense, and it feels a strange thing to read in this tropical world, but it's a decent read for all that.
- Dharma punx, Levine. A memoir of a junkie turned mediator. Interesting, heart-felt stuff. The salacious parts are plenty salacious (good!) and so I guess the first half of the book (where all this happens) is more memorable. The second half occasionally feels like the diary of a wandering hippy - there are some dull sections... But it's written with a lot of heart, it's got a fine message... And, most importantly, it got me back on the mat after too long away. So, thanks Noah Levine, you've made a difference to me.
- The stars my destination, Bester. More classic sci-fi (see earlier this month). I thought The demolished man was good but, by God, this one was outstanding. I feel like I'm turning into a gusher, using bold font on two books in a row but, Jeez, I'm on a roll here. These are some spectacular books here folks.
- Kafka by the shore, Murakami. I've wanted to read Murakami for a while but plunged into this with some trepidation - it's long and literary looking and there's guff about talking cats on the back... Turns out it's absolutely fucking brilliant. Murakami is the shit, kids, the real deal. It's such a lovely, safe feeling to realise you're reading a book written by a master of his craft - you somehow relax into it, you don't need to worry that he'll make a mess of it, or the thing won't all pull together. Very sure hands, a deft touch. Cracking.
- The demolished man, Bester. A bit of classic sci-fi - excellent bit of work this.
Dec 2013 - Feb 2014
Read absolutely SFA in this period. Was a bit stressed about moving continents.
- Bodily Harm, Atwood. I've read a couple of Margaret Atwood's efforts and thoroughly enjoyed them, but this one just hasn't taken off for me. I'm 10 pages from the end and I'll be happy to see the back of it.
- Feral, Monbiot. I am loving this book. I borrowed it from my main man, Shortpants, and I'm well impressed. I normally avoid reading Monbiot's Guardian columns because I agree with 90% of what he writes and end up entirely depressed. This couldn't be more different - full of hope and vision for what this country could look like if we got our shit together. Tremendous stuff, I'm inspired.
- Tomorrow when the war began, Marsden. Classic Australian teen fiction. Thoroughly enjoyed this - made me nostalgic for Australia, and I thought it was a well written, well balanced piece of work.
- Trainspotting, Welsh. A classic and rightly so. I'd always avoided this because I thought reading vernacular would be like pulling teeth. I was entirely wrong. Crackerjack.
- Waiting for the barbarians, Coetzee. Coetzee does the prosaic better than anyone I think I've ever read. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but I really like him. He's the opposite to Cormack McCarthy (see below) for whom every event is a solemn sacrament preordained from time immemorial, and worked out by men in an agony of blood and viscera. Coetzee, on the other hand, writes as life is - moment to moment, uneventful, rarely exciting, endlessly familiar. That's much harder than it sounds.
- The Crossing, McCarthy. I seemed to be reading this for about ever, which aint a good sign. However there's a lot of this book that is pure genius - the writing is magnificent, the first third of the book is taut and focussed and tremendous. In fact part of the reason this book took me so long as I needed a break to cope with the emotion. However the second two thirds rambles a bit too much for my liking - although the writing is always superb, he could have cut it down a bit. Get an editor, Cormack.
- The Bodysnatchers, Finney. A bit of classic sci-fi. A giggle, nothing more.
- Girl with curious hair, Foster Wallace. Cult author, which usually means love or hate. So I.... think I might quite like him. Not sure yet - this is a bunch of short stories and I've only read half, and I'm not a big fan of the genre in any case... But I've got enough of a taste that I'm now up for tackling Infinite Jest.
- A pale view of hills, Ishiguro. I like Ishiguro a lot - as you'll see if you look below. His writing style is great - he has an excellent touch. You can feel the but coming though can't you (don't say that sentence out loud, eyawee!)... well the but here is that I was just a bit too confused at the end. I don't mind a bit of bewilderment - sometimes an author sets out to unsettle, the reader ends up unsettled, and the unsettlisation is a pretty whizz bang experience in its own right - but maybe there could have been just a little more help to see through the fog with this one. I am not the only person who feels this way.
- Time out of Joint, Dick. Speaking of feeling unsettled, well Philip K Dick is the grand master. I guess being mentally ill for large portions of his life gave him a (perhaps unwanted? although maybe not) pretty good insight into the feeling of sands shifting under one's feet... And he certainly communicates that feeling mighty effectively in everything I've ever read of his. This is not his best (although it's pretty damn good) - apparently the quality of his life's work is on an exponentially positive trajectory so later = much much better. Still this was a good ride...
Feb/ Mar/ Apr/ May 2013
Life's been a bit of a blur lately so I'm not rightly sure what I've read. I'll just list what springs to mind.
- The Raw Shark Texts, Hall. Nice! I was worried for a while that this was going to be one of those too-clever-for-its-own-good books that impresses and irritates in equal measure (That's you, Saul Bellow)... But the boy carried this one off - thanks, primarily, to a very likeable narrator. You're allowed to be clever if you're also decent and human. So thumbs up in the end.
- All the pretty horses, McCarthy. I loved this. Gritty and grim. Also beautiful and very very atmospheric. (My mother suggested I watch the film because it was a good'un. My mother was wrong - it's a shocker. I think the presence of Matt Damon might have been enough to convince the progenitor that it was worth watching but it sure weren't enough for me.)
- The boys from Brazil, Levin. Pulled it off a library shelf at random because I wanted a bit of a story to grip me. It was a good choice - I enjoyed this booger. Nothing much to it, but a pleasant way to pass a half hour before dropping off to sleep.
- The informers, Vasquez. Bored stiff and I stopped after a hundred pages or something. It's probably a better book than I thought but I just felt totally indifferent to all of the characters and decided that if I didn't give a shit what happened to them it probably wasn't worth reading more to find out.
- Fights, Wyness. This is the latest version of a novel written by my friend, the novelist, Gill Wyness. She's certainly ramped it up with this one - cracking. Publishers need to extract their digits.
- Dracula, Stoker. Great! All gothic moon-lit nights with foul beasts out on the prowl etc etc. A lot of very worthy characters who, I must admit, were giving me the shits a little by the end - but not enough to stop me enjoying the whole thing. It's a shame Dracula was foiled in his bid to establish a rein of terror over London as the capital might be in better shape if he had... But you've got to give him kudos for trying.
- Royal Flash, Macdonald Fraser. Another right laugh this one. You can't really go wrong with flashman. There'll be fighting, quite a bit of booty, some outrageously bad behaviour from the man himself and a supporting cast of nineteenth century icons, all cast in a very bad light. This one had Bismarck and Lola Montez, a right pair.
- 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.