Books 2010

A Year in Books: 2010

Here are two of the reasons why I blog: 1) I can keep track of things which would otherwise have disappeared through the cracks of time and 2) I am able to detect patterns. Through blogging I can keep track of how many books I read and learn that I read between twenty and thirty books a year. OK, one memorable year I did read 103 books but I had just graduated from university/unemployed, I was single and I had no net access/TV. 2010: 21 books, down from the 38 books of 2009 but a big up in quality. I started this reading year pledging to improve the overall quality of my reading matter and I'm pleased to say I stuck to it. I hope to continue this trend in 2011: quality over quantity. I'd still live to get a few more reads sneaked it but needless to say that my reading time is competing with my crafting time, so we'll see which activity wins out in 2011..

The worst books: I always knew that the Julia Quinn novel, Splendid, was going to be one of my worst reads of the year. A book set in Regency London should properly not have its characters sound as though they lived in 1990s Los Angeles, full stop. On the other hand Splendid was not the spectacular train-wreck that Scarlett Thomas' Our Tragic Universe turned out to be. I used to like her books until I realised she was essentially a one-note author hiding underneath a layer of pretend- counter-cultural-coolness - and Our Tragic Universe is not even that pretend-cool. If Julia Quinn is guilty of letting her cardboard characters slipping into a contemporary register, Scarlett Thomas is guilty of writing books she does not have the actual ability to write (I'll come back to this point later when discussing another author). Finally, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go was a huge disappointment.

The honourable mentions: Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil was an entertaining book but one always destined to live in the shadows of Chabon's superior Kavalier & Clay (one of my top reads in the Noughties). I finally got around to reading Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White which was good but not anywhere near as breathtakingly brilliant as Faber's Under the Skin (see A Year In Books: 2009). Crimson was also "a novel thriving on exploring the dark side of society, and yet (..) polite enough to become a Sunday evening BBC costume drama" which continues to bug me a bit. China Miéville's The City & the City was a clever, well-written novel fusing crime fiction and science-fiction. The book was a touch too plot-driven for me but I really enjoyed Miéville's light writerly touches. Tom McCarthy presented himself as the heir apparent to James Joyce declaring his novel, C, to be 'the Finnegans Wake for the 21st Century'. Utter nonsense, of course. I thought McCarthy guilty of the same crime as Scarlett Thomas: attempting to write novels that are outwith their novelistic abilities. Unlike Thomas, though, McCarthy can actually write and while C does not live up to its billing, it is a fine conventional Bildungsroman disguised as an experimental novel. At times it felt like McCarthy had written his book especially for me with amusing High Modernist references coming right, left and centre. C is an acquired taste, no doubt about it,  but I liked it a lot.

The very good reads: David Mitchell is one of my favourite contemporary authors and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did not disappoint. It is densely plotted, well-written and I felt bereft when the book ended. Quibbles? Not many. At times you could almost see Mitchell moving his characters around as though they were chess-pieces - that may not work for everyone but I did not mind - and the pacing was occasionally uneven with some parts moving slowly followed by rip-roaring action. Colm Toíbín is another of my favourite authors and Brooklyn turned out to be one of the highlights of my reading year. I'm not much of an emotional reader but I connected strongly with Brooklyn's depiction of the émigré experience. Finally, on Lori's suggestion, I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five over the recent holidays and I was blown away by it. It read like a heady combination of Nabokov and Alasdair Gray. Not my last Vonnegut book, then, and definitely one of the best reads of 2010.

Books 2010: McCarthy/Dahl

I'm a footnote in an MA dissertation on Glaswegian author Alasdair Gray. I have arrived, dear readers, I have finally arrived! I finished reading Tom McCarthy's C the other week. It is quite a conventional book despite the breathless reviews comparing it to Finnegans Wake and French anti-novels - but despite its surprisingly orthodox qualities, I really enjoyed the read. It was a novel of ideas steeped in Modernist tropes and preoccupations: Egyptian fertility rites mingled with London soothsayers, merchants from Smyrna and Eastern European sanatoria populated by melancholic rich kids.

If I had been its editor, I would probably have edited out maybe thirty pages from the middle but overall I thought it a thoroughly entertaining read. I am not going to tell you that You Must Read This Book because it is definitely one of those books which will be an acquired taste.

Then I read Roald Dahl's James & the Giant Peach in one go because I was sitting in the autumn sun waiting for some friends.

Next: David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I'm yet to read a Mitchell book I haven't liked - although I am also yet to get beyond the first chapter of Number9dream.

Photo from St. Mungo's Cathedral which I visited yesterday post-Dahl reading.

Damaged Sentences

Tom McCarthy's C is my current commute + night-time reading. Except that I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I only manage a few pages every other day and it is almost due back at the library. Still, I am really enjoying it as I suspected I would. Except it is not the book I thought it was going to be. This is an enjoyable thing too. I have only read the first part - the part which outlines Serge Carrefax' childhood - which is set amongst silk production, deaf children and mad-cap amateur scientists in the early parts of the 20th Century. Interestingly, this first part is strongly, strongly reminiscent of AS Byatt's latest novel, The Children's Book. The plot similarities are there: vague mothers, precocious children hiding in the woods, unsettling amateur theatre productions, bizarre charity work, and unravelling bohemian family life circa 1900. Stylistically the two books are oddly similar too and use many of the same tricks: fragments of verse flowing through the narrative, the dichotomy of muteness/speech, and a certain learnéd verbosity knowingly reined in.

I think the book might be about to change. Serge is heading for a sanatorium in Eastern Europe. I shall expect echoes of Joyce and Mann. So far I like C a lot even if it is not a high-flying avant-garde homage to Modernism but rather a literary book about ideas. I like literary books about ideas.

Incidentally, I googled Byatt + McCarthy and found this lovely review from The London Review of Books. I particularly take great pleasure in this tidbit:

Like McCarthy, I used to get exasperated by the self-impoverished narrowness of mainstream British so-called ‘literary’ literature, its obsession with Amises and McEwans, its deliberate ignorance of so much else; after a while, I realised this was not a literary but a cultic matter, to do with fertility rites and myths of social renewal. I remember that in the early 1980s on Channel 4 there was a chaotic late-night chat show, which my memory frames as having on it Vi Subversa from the Poison Girls, crowning Boy George as the young god of the year just out. As she did so, she warned him that the promise of regeneration embodied by his figure could be made good only with his sacrifice. As with hindsight, it duly was, as for Jesus and Osiris and Gazza and Martin Amis.

Recently I also found Sell the Girls, a blog entry about the old chestnut known as "dead white men and poor suppressed women writers". I happen to like reading books and poetry by Dead White men and I've often had to defend myself against outraged feminist students who thought I was betraying my gender. Seeing as these outraged feminist students frequently did not show up to extracurricular seminars because they had to do the dishes before their boyfriends came home (true story), I rarely paid them much attention.

However, the blogger behind Sell the Girls is vastly more genuine in her outrage and brings her own experience from the publishing world to the table:

I suggest that perhaps what we ought to consider is the presentation and the representation of the female author, because—and I speak from hard experience here—a female author is simply marketed and presented differently. From the color and tone of the cover, to the review coverage, to the placement, to the back cover copy, to the general perceptions of female issues.

Jane Austen was "girlified" a few years back, of course and, famously, Joanne Rowling was advised to call herself JK Rowling or no boys would want to read Harry Potter. Other than that, I struggle to recognise a world where Dead White Men are taught to the exclusion of female writers. I remember being taught Mary Sidney, Lady Mary Wroth, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft (and her daughter), Fanny Burney, Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot etc and that is even before we get to the 20th C. Maybe I was just lucky with my tutors.

Scatterbrained. I meant to say something profound about Sell the Girls but I lost it.

Books 2010: Faber - The Crimson Petal & the White

In my Copenhagen-dwelling days, one of my greatest pleasures was to tour the second-hand bookshops in search of English-language books. I had a favourite haunt - just around the corner from my home - which had pile upon pile of ridiculously cheap books in all languages. The owner opened the shop whenever he felt like it and that was my only problem: I had to be Constantly Vigilant or I could miss the one day in three months when he felt like opening the shutters. The other second-hand shops had fewer books, were more expensive and tended to have the same selection of books. The first Bridget Jones novel was in heavy supply, as was The Celestine Prophecy, Dan Brown's numerous tomes and .. Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. In my head I yoked Faber's book together with these other books of dubious quality and so I never read it, although I had plenty of copies to choose from. Fast-forward some five or six years.

Michel Faber's Under the Skin, a 'strange, disturbing, genre-defying short novel', turned out to be one of the most fascinating reads in recent memory (I must revisit it soon). Of course I am eager to read more books by Faber, and so another second-hand shop (in another city in another country in another life) delivers yet another copy of The Crimson Petal and White.  This time I bought it. It bears no resemblance to Bridget Jones, Dan Brown, nor The Celestine Prophecy. Instead it reads like Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet written by the step-child of John Fowles.

The Crimson is a Victorian novel written for the 21st century. Like Waters' first few books, it explores the underbelly of Victorian society in a way that Charles Dickens could not: the prostitutes, the corpses dragged from the Thames, the blood, the gore, the shame. Faber has a writerly touch which infuses the book with tiny postmodern flourishes - an omniscient narrator breaking the fourth wall, texts within texts and many characters being authors themselves. His touch is light enough not to irritate, but occasionally it is almost too light:  mid-novel it almost disappears only to reappear just before the end. Knowing references to "proper" Victorian novels abound. Readers who have read Collins' The Woman in White, Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Dickens' Great Expectations will savour Faber's small nods; readers who comes to The Crimson without any 19th C novels behind them will enjoy The Crimson as a rollicking good read.

And it is a very good read. I find it difficult to find faults with The Crimson, but at the same time it did not captured me in the same way that Under the Skin did. It is significantly less raw and more conventional (by current standards - certainly not by 19th C standards!). I finished reading it today and found out that the novel has been commissioned for a four-part BBC drama. And perhaps that sums up my sole problem with the book: it is a novel thriving on exploring the dark side of society, and yet it is polite enough to become a Sunday evening BBC costume drama.

Kimfobo at Reading Matters has a superb review, as does Tom of A Common Reader. Maybe The Crimson Petal and the White is still just  tainted in my mind by sharing those shelves with Bridget Jones et al all those years ago.

Books 2010: Scarlett Thomas - Our Tragic Universe

I am reading a lot at the moment. Scarlett Thomas' latest novel fell into my lap at the local library and I was happy to take it home with me. I am equally happy to take it back not having spent any money on it. Let us recap what happened last time I read one of Ms Thomas' books:

I do not know why I’ve read three Scarlett Thomas novels because if you take away the colourful packaging of a) metafiction (“The End of Mr Y”), b) anti-consumerism (“PopCo”) and c) popculture (“Going Out”) you get pretty much the same novel. New Age health solutions? Check. Schrödinger’s cat? Check. Main protagonist being into her math puzzles? Check. Slightly deviant sexual orientation painted in a fairly vague way? Check. C-category drug use? Check. Vegetarianism or some variant upon it? Check. Internet featuring heavily? Check.

But I still like her novels (..) even if they feel like a Linda McCartney meal. You know, easily digested vegetarian fare with a touch of celebrity to it?

Our Tragic Universe? It reads like a diluted version of the above padded with Narratology for Dummies, Tarot cards, jam-making and pages about how difficult it is to, er, knit socks. Everything falls into place once Scarle Meg figures out how to knit socks on double-pointed needles. I wish I were making this up.

Okay, a more sophisticated approach:

Clearly Our Tragic Universe wants to have a plotless plot or even be that paradoxical beast: an approachable antinovel. Whatever plot it has, it revolves around our protagonist attempting to write a hip, Zeitgeisty novel without a plot. Ah, funnily enough the novel itself mirrors the non-existing novel within. So far, so refreshingly clever (or depressingly metafictional, depending upon your mood). Sadly, Scarlett Thomas knows how to do this intellectually (we know this because the books bangs on and on about the theories) but her novelistic chops let her down.

Our Tragic Universe is a mess, and not even an entertaining mess.

Scarlett Thomas thanks Andrew Crumey in her notes. Crumey writes the sort of novel that Thomas thinks (or wishes or pretends because her books are all about pretending) she is writing. Go seek them out. I'm currently thirty pages into David Mitchell's number9dream - he is that rare beast: an author who is a chameleon but also is constantly himself. Mitchell does marvellous things with narrative structure and is essentially a storyteller at heart. Another author I would recommend you read instead of spending time/money on Our Tragic Universe.

(Our Tragic Universe is actually worse than my other recent read, Julia Quinn's Splendid, which is terribly sad because Splendid is set in Regency London and has characters slipping  in and out of 1990s Valley-speak.)

Books 2010: Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger/ Rachel Seiffert: The Dark Room

My first Sarah Waters book was, appropriately enough, her first published novel, Tipping the Velvet. In 2003 I wrote: "..less than the sum of its part, but her evocation of a Victorian London filled with gender-benders and rent boys was thought-provoking: what did Dickens and his contemporaries omit from their tales?" Sarah Waters has come a long way from the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. Some would say that her books are less entertaining these days; I would say that Sarah Waters is beginning to show some impressive novelistic chops. The Little Stranger is not Waters' opus magnum. It is an uneven novel - less sure of where it is going than Waters' other novels - and the dénouement will be too open-ended for some people. I really enjoyed it, in other words. Where once Waters threw Everything and the Kitchen Sink into her books, she leans back here and trusts herself as a writer. Her first two novels were particularly unsubtle, but The Little Stranger thrives on subtlety. I understand if other readers find its lack of resolve frustrating, but I would argue this may be the point of the novel. I said it of Alan Hollinghurst and now I shall say it of Sarah Waters: the Big Important Novel will happen at some point soon. As for now The Little Stranger has preyed on my mind that Waters' other novels have failed to do.

I have not read anything else by Rachel Seiffert and the decision to read The Dark Room was a quick 8am "I have to have something to read at lunch" grab. Twelve hours later and the book is finished. Another uneven read, but unlike The Little Stranger, the unevenness stems from an author unable to join the seams and smooth out the kinks in her material. The subject, the effect of the Second World War on Germans, is too big and too complex for Seiffert. Symbolic gestures replace genuine characterisation - the disabled boy becoming a fervent nationalist; the collaborator standing in for an absent grandfather - and the entire novel falls a bit flat. I think the second story of The Dark Room's three would make a good companion piece to Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, though, as they share similar characters and a similar setting, yet tell two quite different stories.

Next: I think it is time to move away from books set circa 1940-1950.