reading 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: Ishiguro, Larsson

As I was reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women, a much preferable title which I shall use forthwith), I kept thinking about my previous read, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. What was it about Ishiguro's novel which singled it out as an automatic qualifier for the "Worst Read of 2010" post I will be writing early next year? What made it particularly awful? Only a handful of books make it to my all-time God-Awful Reads list.

Jonathan Myerson's Noise is one: wildly inconsistent pacing, one plot dropped in favour for another as Myerson seemingly got bored with his original idea (or found himself incapable of writing the novel he set out to do) and a constant sneering, smug sense of contempt running throughout the book (the only consistent thing about it). Julian Barnes' England, England is another. Barnes had two great ideas (England as a theme-park and a Baudrillardian take on said theme-park) but could not get them to work in the context of a novel. A cautionary tale that sometimes you need to write an essay rather than try to work your ideas out in fiction.  And then dear Ian McEwan with his Booker-winning Amsterdam, a book so contrived, self-indulgent and ill-executed that it has coloured my reading of everything else McEwan has written.

I think what bothers me about Never Let Me Go was the pointlessness of it. I cannot even pretend to loathe it as there is nothing there to loathe. I cannot point to any smug, self-inflated sense of importance (Myerson's Noise), any over-ambitious intellectualism running rampant (Barnes' England, England), nor any toe-curlingly bad writing and plotting (McEwan's Amsterdam). Ishiguro's book is just .. there. It doesn't challenge, doesn't engage, doesn't take a stand and doesn't make you think. I'm bothered by this (which could be argued is an achievement, of course).

By contrast I finished reading Larsson's novel this morning having raced through it over the course of the weekend. Män som hatar kvinnor is not my cup of tea. I am a squeamish reader who does not enjoy reading page after page filled with gory details or graphic sexual encounters. I also had real issues with the main characters (the main investigator, Mikael Blomkvist, was an author surrogate; Lisbeth Salander, Blomkvist's hacker sidekick, was a pile of clichés, or, as Joan Smith points out in her excellent review, 'a revenge fantasy come to life.'). Having said that, the book made me care. I cared about finding old photographs and piecing together what happened one afternoon in 1966. The plot was convincing (if too gory for me) and unpredictable. Larsson's real strength, to me, was his description of milieus: both the remote Hedestad community and the smart and educated Stockholm media intelligentsia were drawn with a strong, decisive hand. I do not think I shall be seeking out the two other books in Larsson's trilogy - I'm too squeamish and not much of a crime-writing connoisseur - but if you like your crime novels smart, well-written and compelling, I'd recommend Män som hatar kvinnor in a heartbeat.

Next: I need to read a book written by a women, I think. Mantel & Wolf Hall, here I come.

Knitting & Reading

Meet Larry the Leicester. I am knitting Larry out of British Sheep Breeds DK in Bluefaced Leicester cream and brown. The pattern is Janice Anderson's free sheep pattern (pdf). I made a slight mess of picking up stitches around Larry's face (the decreases stand out more than I'd like), but I hope it'll even out once I stuff the toy. I'm knitting Larry on request, but I'm actually enjoying the process way more than I thought I would.

I'm really, really loving the BSB wool: it is a heady combination of the rustic wools I love so dearly (smells faintly of sheep, is unprocessed, comes in natural colours only) and the tempting butter-soft merinos I keep going back to (so very soft, feels great as you're working with it, next-to-skin smooth). I had no idea it would be so fabulous, although my friend LH has been in raptures over it for as long as I have known her. I really have to knit a jumper or cardigan out of it one of these days. Srsly.

In very related news, my knitting bag is safe. Don't ask.

I finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go on Friday and I was very disappointed. The book has a meaty subject matter and Ishiguro has the necessary writing chops, but instead of an "extraordinary", "enthralling" and "masterly" book I was left reading a rather tedious, flawed novel. I get that Ishiguro writes about people unable to live full lives, people who are somehow lost (even to themselves) and people who are out of step with time. I get that he "writes like someone impersonating a realist" with resulting defamilarization etc. Still, the novel has an extraordinarily clumsy dénouement, the plot has numerous gaping holes and the writing felt lazy as though Ishiguro was painting by numbers. Never Let Me Go just did not add up as a satisfactory read and I am left wondering if the glowing reviews (and subsequent prize-nominations etc) were the result of Ishiguro's reputation as an important British novelist or if I am losing my grip on what a good literary novel reads like.

Next: I have exchanged my book vouchers for Toibin's Brooklyn and Mantel's Wolf Hall. I even got Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo thrown in as a special offer, although I rather regret not getting it in Swedish (but then David would be disadvantaged).