Wednesday, 23 January 2013

12 for 2012

So here are my 12 reads for this last calendar year. I wonder whether I should step this up to 13 for 2013 and so forth - it has certainly been an enjoyable New Year Resolution to keep. So here they are on all their glory:

The first way of describing this year's picks is - eclectic. There's some old, some new, some Booker and some for pure enjoyment.
Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Better than Wolf Hall? Surely not! Of course with 2 works as huge as these comparisons are pretty worthless, but Bodies benefitted from a smaller cast of characters than Wolf and a condensed period of time. This made the whole thing easier for my brain to manage. On the downside, I learned less about Cromwell, who has become someting of an obsession. I now work a few hundred yards from Austen Friars so am reminded on an almost daily basis that there will be a long wait for part 3. Should I cheat and read a biography? Would this be disloyal to Hillary? Should I wait for her?
Nights at the Circus - Angela Carter
Nights is quite an extraordinary book. From chapter 1 you are hit with the feeling that this story cannot be at all true, and that the author will be taking a huge risk if she sticks with the main premise to the end. Surely our main character must be found out in chapter 2 and then we can have something more conventional. But no, not in 2 or 3 or 10 or until maybe the last page, and then maybe not even there. Each plot and subplot seem to want to outdo each other for incredulity and as one bizarre character exists stage left so an even stranger  one emerges from a trapdoor, or floats to earth with no visible means of support. And so is the author - she walks a tightrope from first to last (trapeze would be more fitting, perhaps) always risking that the reader will judge her dashed on the rocks. But then you realise that you have been amazed, deighted and, at the very end, wishing deeply that there was a sequel - sadly this will never be. 
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce
Now I know this has reached Richard and Judy's list, but bear with me. This book is also a delight, but a sad one. The suspense is beautifully judged and the denoument done with the soft touch that seems fitting of Harold himself - this superhero in plimsoles. I often rant about books with stupid endings - this has the very best, in the very sad circumstances. Call me a softy or a romantic, but this book shows how much there is left to cherish in a long and ordinary life.
The jouney in Julian Barnes  The Sense of an Ending I had less sympathy with. My initial reaction to the opening, set in an English public school, was that this was going to be yet  another study of the emotional depth that only the upper classes truly possess. But, swallowing the chip on my shoulder (it had been there a long time and was cold and rotten) and ignoring the pretentious nature of the two main 'characters' I really liked the plot. And then, bingo! another great ending. Someone should really re-write this basing it in a Milton Keynes comprehensive (that chip grew back pretty quick).
So far all the books have been written in the last 30 years, and I promised you eclectic, so here you go Candide, by Voltaire. This is all Melvyn Bragg's fault - he talked about it on Start the Week and I was intrigued. Candide is incredibly fast-paced, often a little crude and almost comic-book. Without understanding the political and cultiural references of the day it can't read as the satire it was intended to be. That said, what a romp!
Next up came Kate Atkinson and Case Histories. I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum a while ago and it was great, but frankly I was a little snobby about this one which is the first of her oddball, dysfunctional, brooding Detective Brodie stories. The problem was seeing it n TV where it was a cross between Morse and Rebus. In the book the story is grimmer and funnier at the same time and, like Museum, there is plenty of coincidence and a wholeness that hangs the thing together. Indeed, the way the different Cases are tied up with one ball of detective string is highly ingeneous. So, again, I read a book with a great ending this year. This, and a conversation with an Atkinsonite on the tube led me to do something I haven't done since college: I went straight on and read another book by the same author.
Atkinson's Emotionally Weird is a very different kettle of the proverbial. Now, I was told that this wasn't as good, and sure there are some dodgey plot moments and the structure is "challenging", but I loved it. This is quirky and original and deeply charming. Some of the characters (especially the University lecturers) are superbly funny and outrageous and I loved the 1970's attitude to student work; fading when I was "up" and has probably completely vanished now.
C by Tom McCarthy seems to be a novel chiefly about mourning, loss and sadness yet is wrapped in the clothes of technology, travel, altruism, control and misogyny which keeps the whole from being unbearably heartrending. The huge shifts of direction in Serge's life are maybe the only things not handled with supreme skill. We do not exist in episodes, but are blends of all our pasts and sometimes I felt that this was handled too infrequently or awkwardly. That said, this book has had a lot of critical praise and I will be seeking out Remainder for one of 2013's reads. Where are you taking me next Tom?
C was the first book I read in 2012 and the last was The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. Although the ending is ambiguous that doesn't make it bad, indeed you could hardly think of a better way of bringing this to an end. While reading The Lighthouse I kept thinking of L'Entranger and that of all the outsider-type characters this year (Harold Fry, Serge, Brodie, Stevens, Ned Kelly) Futh was by far the strangest, misunderstood and prone to mishap. There is a problem when so many unfortunate things happen to the central character - is it believeable any more, or is it just falling into farce? I am really undecided about whether she pulls it off, but any book that explains the human condition through such a light touch works for me.  
And that brings me neatly to Stevens, the central and only fully explored character in Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was told it was hard work and I was even told that it was boring. It was neither. This is a book that I consumed in a week and was so sad that it ever had to end. The book shows immense craft in the writing and the lightest possible touch in explaining the emotions and motivations of Stevens. We know him by the careful explantion of what he does, how he moves and serves, converses and even how he drives. We feel his deep embarrassment at trying to perfect "banter" and the obligations he feels to those who rescue him when he runs out of petrol. Life's imperfections and unpredictability seem almost unbearable to him and we feel this pain. But there is no shouting and screaming, nothing explodes and nobody even dies. Indeed, virtually nothing at all happens in Remains. The author doesn't need events. As such, and unlike many of the other novels of the year, time is not condensed, but can play out in all its nuances. We are left with some thoughts from Steven's mind (sometimes charmingly inconsistent and confused, like our thoughts all are), a short drive, some recollections about a former (perhaps misunderstood)  employer and a conversation with an unrequited love. And it is this stilited, inconclusive conversation that is the most important part of the story. The day has little left by way of remainder and perhaps any hope of happiness is dashed. Brilliant.
Lots and lots happens in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. Quite why this remarkabel story only amounted to a bad film with Mick Jagger in the past is beyond me. The story itself is one of injustice, and hope, the latter always dashed at the last second. Carey books are invariably an event in themselves and this may not be his greatest, but it nonetheless makes you feel that this has been a grand undertaking, dilligently pursued and not without a huge amount of craft. In the past Rafeael and Michaelangelo painted huge scenes in life-like detail and told the big stories. To me Carey's novels are Michaelangelos.
And so, lastly, to a daub. A wee splatter of paint that amuses a little, but leaves little lasting impression. To say that the most memorable thing about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday is its title may be a little cruel. But not a lot. (anyone remember Across the Andes by Frog?) It's about trying to fish for salmon in the Yemen, and er... Well, the story is told as a series of diary entries and frankly unbelievable emails (people don't write emails like that). Most of the characters are thin and unbeliveable and the plot is poorly executed. The whole idea of this was to take something "impossible" and show how it wasn't - but that never really happened. That said, I'm sure Mr Torday has made a fortunte out of the film rights and, as such, if I could have written any of the books on this I wish this was the one.
Happy reading in 2013 all. I've started with a real belter - Doris Lessing'sThe Good Terrorist.