Tuesday, December 19, 2006

My Year In Books

This will probably be monumentally tedious but I’m going to do it anyway. The number of books read in each month appears in brackets following the name of the month, mainly to lend an air of mystery to procedings - what trash am I not telling you about? Links are to my posts related to the book in question.

January (4) started inauspiciously with Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, the worst Stephen King novel not written by Stephen King that I read all year. Lunar Park is amusing enough for the first hundred-odd pages, but like the books to which it pays homage Ellis’s novel soon turns into a nasty, confusing, and completely unscary mess. Luckily the month ended on a more positive note, with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. I’m glad I believed the hype, because Remainder is an amazing book. By mid-year it had been snapped up by a major publisher and the original Metronome edition is now sold out. Jon, I hope you’ve still got my copy; it could be worth something one day.

In February (5) I read my first David Foster Wallace, Oblivion, and thought it just ok, although I’m told it is not his most accomplished book. Might be worth another look sometime. More impressive – and significantly shorter, which is always a plus – was Jorge Luis Borges’s Doctor Brodie’s Report. This collection contains at least one masterpiece (“The Gospel According to Mark”) and plenty to like besides. Not so good was Cell, the worst Stephen King book actually written by Stephen King that I read all year. Contra what I said here, I ended up finishing it, and found that it only gets worse.

By the doctor’s reckoning, Belinda and I were meant to be parents by the start of March (8), but Charlotte wasn’t born until the ninth. By then I had already read seven books, mostly crime fiction, with the highlights being Scott Phillips’s The Walkaway, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and Tim Willock’s extremely over-the-top Bad City Blues. Later in the month, when I could grab a spare moment, I read Terry Pratchett’s disappointing Thud!.

April (4) was a bit of a wash-out. Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country didn’t amount to much; the same author’s God Bless You, Mr Rosewater was a weak, heavy-handed satire that I was surprised to learn had been written between the brilliant Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. Barry Gifford’s The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula - a collection of novellas including Wild at Heart and Purdita Durango - was far more enjoyable.

I got my groove back in May (7). Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs irritated but got me thinking – mostly about how much I dislike Nick Hornby, although since then I've come to dislike him a lot more – while Philip Roth’s Everyman and Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog were intriguing for very different reasons. After rereading Roth’s Operation Shylock I finally got around to Primo Levi. His books The Drowned and the Saved and If This Is a Man are every bit as extraordinary as their reputations suggest. Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust is also a book that I would recommend to anybody wishing to find an approach to the Holocaust.

I did a lot of rereading in June (7): The Third Policeman, Flashman, Lucky Jim for about the eighteenth time. I also read one of my least favourite new books of the year, Tim Parks’s Cleaver. The story of a middle-aged white man (yes, another one) undergoing a crisis (yes, another one), Cleaver was almost as turgid and dreary as this post is turning out to be.

July (13) was all over the place. I read Shakespeare, Bukowski and the first Adrian Mole book, first encountered some eighteen years ago in my primary school’s library with a sticker on the cover that read “Grade Six Only” because in the book Adrian measures his "thing". I read Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, soon to be longlisted for the Booker, and Paul Theroux’s engagingly bitchy Sir Vidia’s Shadow. I also read a lot of crap that I won’t bother mentioning here.

August (10) was Booker month, but after struggling through Peter Carey’s Theft and – dear god – Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life, I was over it. Finally read Trainspotting and loved it, ditto Ellroy’s American Tabloid, and reread Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition - a brilliant and unremittingly difficult book that is both frightening and funny.

Jon’s been telling me to read Gene Wolfe for what feels like decades, but The Shadow of the Torturer didn’t engage my attention at all. Same goes for Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, a grossly overrated book that I also read in September (10). More to my taste were Nabokov’s Despair, Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando - why didn’t somebody tell me she was so good?

For everybody’s sake, including my own, I’ll condense the last three months (16 – so far) into one paragraph. Loved Pale Fire, All the Pretty Horses and The Road, didn’t care for Kingdom Come and House of Meetings. Favourite books read during this time were Walter Abish’s How German Is It and Roth’s Zuckerman Bound, which collects the first four Zuckerman novellas. Also read The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. I found it interesting as a cultural artefact, but give me the films any day.


TimT said...

I first read a late book of short stories by Primo Levi, and followed that up with another book of short stories and his 'The Periodic Table'. They are wonderful, and I have since assiduously avoided reading his major war histories. I don't want to think of him (as so many others seem to) as the Holocaust historian; I think *he* himself preferred to be seen as a practising chemist who once fell into some dreadful experiences.

There is an interesting anti-Stephen King vein I notice developing on this site. Perhaps I have just read the right books (his early short stories and 'Misery'), but I rather like him (then again, he has written a little too much dross on top of the few good stories and books. Hmmm and again hmmm ...)

Anonymous said...

As a somewhat obsessive compulsive youth, The Lord of the Rings was the only novel I decided wasn't worth reading all the way through to the end. I was taken to see the movies and enjoyed them, largely because the fanboys who made them read more depths into the tale than is present in the actual writing.

This is just my way of saying that How German Is It is one of my all-time faves.

Tim said...

I think *he* himself preferred to be seen as a practising chemist who once fell into some dreadful experiences.

Well he certainly never set himself up to be the definitive historian/spokesman that some make him out to be, but his Auschwitz experience informed his entire life and career. Not saying that the Holocaust books are the limit of his achievement as a writer, but they are nevertheless extremely powerful works.

King's never really worked for me. Even during my teens when I read a lot of horror fiction I was generally disappointed by his books. Misery was an exception, but I haven't read it since I was about sixteen so I really couldn't say now. Dan Green has an interesting post on King's style here.

Ben: LOTR is a bit like some of King's novels: good source material for cinema, but pretty much interminable rubbish otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Having not read Orlando, I found Woolf's To the Lighthouse an interminable bore. I prefer as a rule, as one does, to finish a book before completely bagging it, but I couldn't even muster the inner strength to pick it up again after a while.

I agree re: LOTR. Great screenplay/fantasy world for fanboys, but the only depth is in the conception of that world.

And lastly Primo Levi. Like others before me, only The Periodic Table here but what a great read from a man who led a very difficult life.

Anonymous said...

I prefer as a rule, as one does, to finish a book before completely bagging it

We tend to waive that rule around here.

Anonymous said...

Christ, what a lot of novels you read you lucky bastard.

I certainly hope parenthood has reduced you to the sorry state of the rest of us (as it did me...)

I haven't read any of SK's novels for many years (and so have not read anything past IT which I very much enjoyed). But I recently read On Writing (in just 3 days -- I was so freakin' proud of myself) and it's terrific...