Friday, 25 July 2014

15 for 2013

OK, so I went a bit mad in 2013 - largely owing to a number of long-haul flights to the US and Asia. Over 100 thousand miles in the air meant plenty of time to keep up my resolution to read at least a book a month.

The Good Terrorist - Doris Lessing
Maybe not the wisest title to have in your hand luggage, but a great choice for book one. This was a reminder of how life used to be in the early 70's when I was growing up - Britain's youth not really sure of which way to turn - to conform or take their rebellion to some logical, if unpalatable, conclusions. The world is one of of squats, declining standards among public officials, casual racism and sexism, and a multi-layered secretive world of agitators, protesters and terrorists.

The "good terrorist" of the title can easily be seen as the recently-deceased Doris herself: an organiser, a practical person that others rely on. In the end our terrorist though is left nt just with the actions, but also their consequences (which we will never know), as all her friends have deserted her to the wrath of ... the IRA, the police... who knows?

Resolution for 2014 - more Doris Lessing. Her novels have a density of characterisation that is admirable, while the plot grips.

Carry On Jeeves – PG Woodhouse
My first go at Jeeves, and I fear it may be my last. The stories here are very predictable and seem almost carbon copies of each other with just the names changed. Occasional bon mots aside I did not find this to be the comic genius that was mentioned frequently in the blurb. I gave it to my 12 year old daughter afterwards and she got bored half way through. “All the stories are the same” she complained, and I must agree.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Not nearly as ridiculous as the movie (how on Earth anyone could follow that without having read the book I don’t know), this is a book that draws you in if you are fascinated by solving puzzles. The puzzles here are how the different stories are linked together, rather than the plots of each story. And this is a shame. The stories are uneven in their quality – some, like that of the early explorer being poisoned by his doctor, drag somewhat. Others, like the Korea of the future and old peoples’ home of the present are quite brilliant page turners, while being very different in character. If you haven’t read Cloud Atlas then do, there will definitely be something in it for you. If you saw the movie first then you might be put off, but persevere and try to keep any mental pictures of Tom Hanks with funny teeth out of your head.

Kate Atkinson – various

OK, as those of you who read last year’s entry will know, I love Kate Atkinson. I now believe that I have read every word she has had published. One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News are “classic” Atkinson and you will not be disappointed. I particularly enjoyed the running theme through the former (as well as it’s fantastic start when a brutal road rage incident is witnessed by a queue of ticket buyers)  and the latter is a great story – a lot darker and maybe with a slightly predictable denouement, but I loved it all the same.  

And so to “Started Early, Took My Dog”, which has some brilliant moments, starts well, then rambles through until a rushed finish. Not a reason to give up on KA, but not her finest ‘in my humble’.

Levels of Life - Julian Barnes

This is a deeply personal book and may be too factual to be called lit-fic. As an exploration of a man’s grief for his lost partner it is deeply moving and I pretty soon stopped trying to read this in public, prone as I am to the odd tear or two. Ultimately though, I found this book highly rewarding – Barnes comes across as an honestly decent bloke in a time when there are very few great male role models in the books and newspapers we read. Of course he could still turn out to be a monster, but if so then this is even better fiction that I thought.

Fugitive Pieces – Anne Mitchells

I have not seen the film version, but can thoroughly recommend the book. The book is divided into two parts and our all-action hero, Jakob, from Book 1, that Mitchells makes us fall in love with and root for, is bravely killed off in Book 2. We have invested a lot in Jakob  - his escape from Nazi Germany and his troubled marriages and now we suddenly lose him. Now we get a new less admirable character, Ben, who is diffident, troubled and makes many poor choices, it seems. But the last few chapters in which Ben explores Jakobs life and home are extremely moving. A great book, as evidenced by the fact that you will read this in a flash and wish there were a few more hundred pages.

The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin

I loved the premise of this book – Mary finally gets to tell her side of the story. It digs constantly, through Mary’s own indignation, at the process by which her son’s story is being turned into gospel and the establishment of the church. She, and the truth that she knows, are being side-lined by the story-tellers. The survivors write the history, as they always do, and Mary is powerless. The contrast to the church’s own extreme veneration of the Virgin is a confection it seems, as her treatment on Earth by those that created the legend, is far from venerable.

What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt

This is a novel that delightfully plods through it’s early chapters, delighting you with the artistic characters of New York and diverting you on the subjects of female hysteria, artistic pretention and how the academic community live in such a different world from you and I. And then it all changes: death, marital breakup, eating disorders, theft, drugs, breaking of trust and finally murder. The pace is cranked up, we get a “road movie” section and our hero is viciously assaulted in a hotel room. Oh, and rather like Fugitive Games we get our hero killed off (a peaceful death) and then an almost Barnesian exploration of guilt. This is a “big” book in so many ways – ideas abound and the inexplicable nature of people’s behaviour under stress is a theme that constantly disturbs. You want it all to work itself out, but know that there will be no happy endings here.

This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You – Jon McGregor

An utter delight and now vying to be my favourite Jon McG book. This is a collection of stories that all have a lightness and sense of wonder about them: these aren’t the kind of things that usually happen to ordinary people, but just occasionally they do. Richly amusing, beautifully descriptive of Fenland, and each story beautifully different from all the others. I may re-read this very soon.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguru

Really on a run of form now. In the west we seem to know little (or maybe care little) about Japan in the immediate post war years. This book tells the story of one of the losers, a man whose identity, status and philospohy have been undermined. Worse, his view on art has been confined to the follies of the now defeated regime which he vigorously supported. His old world has gone and there is no sympathy for him. Even his drinking club has closed as the city also undergoes renewal. 

Like all his novels, the pace is to be wondered at. Have decided I need to read everything he has ever written too.

A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon
Afraid I really didn’t go for this. Not as moving a description of English middle-class life as many out there, and not funny enough to live alongside the likes of The Curious Incident. The fast moving plot keeps you going, but ultimately I had no sympathy with the characters and was glad to move to the next book on my list.

We Need New Names – No Violet Bulawayo
Sadness and exploitation run deep through this book, but the joyous spirit of our narrator and her stark honesty perhaps give us a little hope. Ultimately, as she is transported from Zimbabwe to the US we realise that her hopes for her own future are dulled and blunted by the her feelings for the friends she leaves behind. This book made a large impression on me – educating me to just how hopeless and joyless the world is for so many of the world’s children. Brilliant, truly brilliant.