Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The 12 Books of 2011

I am truly rubbish at New Year's resolutions, and for many years have simply not bothered. But last year was different for some reason - I made 2 resolutions and felt determined to follow them.

The first resolution was to read at least one work of literary fiction each month. 12 books in a year doesn't seem too much but my reading had slipped so much over the years, what with a) work and family commitments and b) not spending time on aircraft, as my job has been predominantly UK-based the last 7 years or so.

So here are the books as they sit on the bookshelf:

Highlghts are definitely The Book Thief, Markus Zusak - my kind of book and The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal. The former appealed to my love of  the magical and mysterious with a modern history background set as it is in Germany during WW11. The latter also appeals to my love of history as it charts the history of a Jewish family from around 1870 to the present day. The obvious interregnum of WW11 is of course important, but I found myself liking the earlier parts of the book as they were more educational. Paris in the time of impressionists and Proust, the building of imperial Vienna, were subjects I knew little of. While reading this book you need access to the Web as you are always wanting to find out more about the detail. In particular you will want to look at the paintings that play such an important part in Charles's story.

What of the other 10? Well the first admission is that there are only 9  - the year isn't out yet and Doris Lessing's the Fifth Child is working out very nicely.

The second admission is that Bill Bryson appears with a work of non-fiction. It is very long however (and took much longer than the allotted month to read) and is sumptuously frabjous - so no apologies. At Home is a brilliant return to form.

Most disturbing has to be a two horse race between the Mc's: John McGregor's Even The Dogs and Ian McEwan's Cement Garden. I'm afraid to say that McEwan won by a country (or distopian urban) mile. A great shame as I had enjoyed McGregor's previous with constant wonder at how he had pulled it off (do seek out If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things). The Dogs though taught me nothing and McEwan reminds us that it is far more disturbng what is left to the imagination. Has nobody tried to film Cement Garden?

On the 'curate's egg' list go When God Was a Rabbit and A Week in December. Sarah Winman's first novel is brilliant for 2/3 of the way, and then gets horribly lost in a 911 plot that is neither relevant nor credible. Truly loved the first part though (there are some mgical elements that are really subtly played: the way I like them). Seb Faulks left me a bit cold with A Week. This is clearly a very clever book with masses of detail, but I'm just not clever enough to understand the whole message. Also, I was left wondering whether everyone he writes about has to be such a psycho.

The big disappointment was Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. Nearly good, but not quite and, again, a dumb ending. I was quite hoping that Maxwell would die and we could hear more about his father's story: now there is a sub plot crying out for elaboration. And the whole yacht race piece - a true story and a huge tradegdy on at least 3 facets - Coe could just retell this and end up with a better book. All that said I will probably buy the next Jonathan Coe just as I have bought all the others - and hope that the next is another Carve Up or Rotters Club.

That leaves just Mark Haddon's masterpiece and The Finkler Question. To be perfectly honest I read the Curious Incident to make up time after Mr Bryson sidelined me for 7 weeks or so. The reason it leapt off the shelf was that it was short. Short, and brilliant too - there is nothing I can say that hasn't already. And so on to Finkler.

This was the book that started off the whole resolution 12 months ago, and is the one that has stayed in my brain the most. I find myself thinking about the characters in the wee small hours, or while reading something else. I know that a lot has been said about it being Jacobson's turn to win the Booker, and that other works of his are superior, but for me this is a book where you start to care: about the chracters, yes, but more about the issues that are raised and the consequences these have for all of us living in the UK. There is s strong political and social message here, but it isn't blasted from the brass section, but is a counterpoint offered by bassoons and oboes and cellos. It gives the whole piece extraordinary depth and I wonder whether others may have read Finkler too fast and only heard the high notes. My plodding style was maybe more suited.

So, if that resolution was 11/12ths complete, what of the other. Well, it is 12/12ths, but I'm not going to tell you what it was.

2012? More Howard Jacobson certainly. 12 books? Definitely, you need the rigour! However, if Hilary Mantel finally gets round to finishing off Wolf Hall it will be a vast undertaking, so I claim now that it counts as 2 of my 12.

Happy Resolutions.

Fried Pickles

An odd choice of title I'm sure you'll agree. Fried Pickles appear on the menu at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Fargo, ND and eating there last week our server Jamie urged the party that they really had to be tried. Mmm, we wondered.... fried pickles?

Jamie explained how they were made - dill pickles were sliced into rounds, dipped in a spicy tempura batter and then deep fried.

We still weren't convinced.

And then Jamie clinched the deal by explaining that they were "like nothing you've tried before". Temptation got the better of us, and who could resist such a sales pitch for the risking of no more that $3.99.

The Fried Pickles duly arrived, we sampled them, and they were pretty horrid. But never mind, we had tried, Jamie was happy and no falsehoods had been exchanged in marketing a truly disgusting product. They were indeed like nothing I had tried before, and, to go further, they were exactly like a whole range of things I will never want to try in the future!

The power of marketing will never cease to amaze me. Especially when it is done with such elan as that showed by our server at the Texas Roadhouse. It does though beg the question as to what idiot decided to make Fried Pickles an integral part of that establishment's menu?

I hope, I pray, that is goes somethng like this. Owing to an admin error in procurement (Dave swears he will now finally get his galsses changed) the Texas Roadhouse get a truckload of pickles delivered last month instead of the usual two cases. What to do? Implore the vendor to take them back, or try to make the most out of an unusal windfall. A hasty staff meeting is called and it is there that out plucky hero Jamie suggests deep frying the little critters. "How d'ya suppose selling those?" comes that obvious question from owner "Houston" Hal Stetson III.

"Well, with a degree in marketing from University ND, I see this challenge as a mere bagatele", says Jamie "leave everything to me. I may be just a server to you, but in real life I'm a product strategist without parallel". Over the next 36 hours Jamie racks his brains for the killer strap line, the one that will make him rich perhaps....

...and perhaps not, because I will certainly not be going back to a restaurant that serves me such food and I imagine that others in Fargo will make a similar choice. Fried Pickles were a blip and Jamie was a shrewd tactician, not a cunning strategist. In the long term the truth will out and good products will beat bad ones.

Now I must go as my daughter is imploring me to come and watch X-Factor with her. "It's fun" she tells me, and I guess I can risk an hour of my life for a little fun.