Books 2009

A Year in Books

2009's tally: 38 books. Not a patch on previous years (in particular the year of university degree and thus long-term unemployment) but a respectable amount nonetheless. However, sixteen of those books were fluffy Regency novels by one Ms Georgette Heyer, so I am slightly ashamed of myself. On the plus side, I managed to read some books I had been meaning to read for a long time..

Good reads: I discovered Andrew Crumey and I look forward to more books by him. Moebius Dick was my favourite out of the three Crumey novels I read in 2009. AS Byatt's The Children's Book was incredibly satisfying and I re-read the last twenty-five pages twice before finally closing the book. I finally read Donna Tartt's The Secret History and while I continue to struggle with North-American fiction (Atwood notwithstanding - long story) and I had a few quibbles with certain subplots, I enjoyed the read. The best read of the year was undoubtedly Michel Faber's Under the Skin. It was one of those "nasty little books" I love so much. An incredibly well-written, tightly plotted and genre-defying novel I know I will be revisiting in years to come. It's not often I find a new favourite read.

Uneven reads: I read Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia this holiday season and I wanted to love it. Its premise sounds like something I would like - Soviet Union, science fiction writers and the possibility of multiple realities - but I ended up being disappointed. Roberts' writing is sloppy (as is the editing), the tone is uneven and the book does not live up to its premise until fifty pages from the end when you get the feeling Roberts is finally writing the book he wants to write. I was very unimpressive with a running gag about a man with Asperger's Syndrome which was wholly unnecessary to the plot and jarred badly. Still, the last fifty pages or so redeemed the book from being merely a bad read. It was an uneven and occasionally interesting read. Flann O'Brien's minor classic The Dalkey Archive was also a comedic read but a more successful one. I was not entirely enthralled by it, though, but I am glad I finally read it. Junot Diaz' Oscar Wao was another book I thought I would love more than I did. I am still not sure why it did not work for me and it continues to nag me.

Bad reads: I really didn't like Ross Raisin's God's Own Country. It read like Raisin had read Iain Banks' vastly superior The Wasp Factory and felt the book needed sheep. Audrey Niffenegger's much-hyped The Time-Traveller's Wife was a huge disappointment to me. I thought it would be a genre-hopping, intelligent novel and instead it was chick-lit in disguise. Honestly, if I wanted romance or sheep-herding, I'd be reading Georgette Heyer. Wait a sec..

Goal for 2010: reading fewer Georgette Heyers, reading more from the unread pile(s), get hold of the latest books by Margaret Atwood and Colm Toibin.

Being a Reader of Books

Firstly, today is a sunny day. It is so strange to see rays of sunlight spill into this room, so I wanted to make a little note of that. Secondly, the new Winter Knitty is up. If I weren't still working on David's sweater, I would cast on for Mr Darcy for him.

Thirdly, I just finished reading AS Byatt's The Children's Book this morning and I have all these thoughts running through my head.

Yesterday I wrote briefly about whether I connect with favourite authors because they have shaped my ways of thinking or I connect with these authors because they mirror the way I think? The egg or the chicken?

When I go on one of my solitary walks, I often get sentences or lines of poetry running through my head. Sometimes I just "hear" fragments, other times I get an entire stanza. The regular visitors include Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Silent Noon, DH Lawrence's Gloire de Dijon, and John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. Most often, though, I hear TS Eliot. It runs the gamut from his most famous works like Prufrock and the Waste Land to lesser known pieces from Inventions of the March Hare. I view the world through words and many of these words came from Eliot. I am vaguely amused by this - after all, I am not the first nor will be the last to define myself using others' words.

And so AS Byatt. I first read one of her books one week into my university years. All these years later, Byatt is one of those very few authors whose entire oeuvre I have read. I connect with her books - they are filled with solitary bookish women surrounded by a far too material world. Last night I watch an interview with her and closed my eyes when she said: "All I ever wanted was to live a life of the mind." In a world defined by emotions, feelings and exteriors, I am drawn towards her books of ideas, thoughts and interiors.

The Children's Book is exquisite. It is a messy book insofar as it describes a messy world and also is also slightly messy structurally. A proper review would be far too long - you can find good reviews and synopses elsewhere - but it suffices to say that I really liked it. I re-read the final fifteen pages twice and I suspect I will revisit the novel just as I have revisited several of Byatt's other novels.

But am I drawn towards Byatt because I am a solitary bookish woman (bound by class) who just wants to live a life of the mind? Or have I become a solitary bookish woman because I spent my formative years reading books by AS Byatt (and EM Forster)?

Thoughts of a dry brain in a chilly season.

Deja Vu

YouTube Comment or E.E.Cummings? One of the funniest 20th century poetry/21st Century internet crossovers I have seen today. Not that I have seen that many, of course. After a few weeks of awe-inspiring knitting productivity, my busy fingers have become almost idle. I cast on, knit maybe twenty rows, decide the project doesn't thrill me and I rip it all out. Lather, rinse, repeat. Possibly it is the continuous failure of Topstykke that haunts me. The pattern is great, of course, but I keep messing up:

  1. I cast on too few stitches and tried to remedy this whilst on a fast moving bus to Aberdeenshire filled with shouty Russian students.
  2. I cast on the correct number of stitches but lost my stitch markers somewhere between a sofa and the kitchen table (a 3 year old nephew might have been involved).
  3. I cast on correct number of stitches, got all of the set-up row right and blissfully knitted on until I realised that I was knitting a size up from what I'm supposed to knit.
  4. I cast on correct number of stitches, got all of the set-up row right and blissfully knitted on until I realised I had twisted my cast-on and I was knitting a moebius-shaped top which will be impossible to wear (in this dimension, at least).

So I think it is time to let Topstykke rest for a few weeks whilst I get other things done. David's sweater is a top priority (he won the Halloween costume competition, by the way) and I want to have another lace shawl on my needles (Aeolian, I'm looking at you). I just hope that I can stick with those two projects and not rip them out after twenty rows.

Shockingly enough I have begun reading again and am currently one-third through Iain Banks' Transition. Banks strides the literary and speculative fiction divide, but cunningly uses a middle initial "M" to differentiate between the two genres. Interestingly, "Transition" is being marketed in the UK without the "M" (i.e. it is not speculative fiction, you fools!) whereas the US market gets courted with the "M" (hey, it's speculative fiction!). My favourite Banks novel, The Bridge, is a non-M novel but is more speculative than many genre novels. It's all about marketing, isn't it? So far I'm enjoying the novel, in case you were wondering..

Music and Silence

Yesterday I picked up a friend from hospital and, whilst waiting, I began and finished Rose Tremain's Music and Silence. Full disclosure: while I would rather see Denmark become a republic than remain a monarchy, I do have a favourite Danish king, King Christian IV, and Tremain's novel is set in his court. It is always interesting to see my heritage interpreted by foreigners. Recently I went to Largs on the west coast of Scotland and visited their Viking exhibition. I was unsure of whether to laugh or cry at the incompetent and sometimes plain wrong presentation. Tremain has a firmer idea of what she wants to do with the source material, thankfully. The book is well-researched and coherent. I was quite impressed by Tremain's use of personal names as I've often seen otherwise decent historical novel fail by using anachronistic names. I did wonder about inconsistent orthography ("ΓΈ" is rendered faithfully but "Γ₯" isn't) but it is a minor quibble.

So Music and Silence is a well-researched novel about the Danish King's court in 1629/1630. You get the full meltdown of the King's relationship with his infamous mistress/Salic wife, Kirsten Munk, and you are also privy to the disastrous economic situation in Denmark following years of warfare and overspending. The book is well-written literary fiction. You would think I would be all over this, wouldn't you? Sadly the book left me cold.

I wanted to spend more time with the King who actually had a larger-than-life personality. I wanted a more nuanced take on Kirsten Munk who becomes Evil Carnated in Tremain's version. I wanted to hear about the King's children (some of whom led incredibly colourful lives). I wanted to know about a country in transit from European superpower to European ruin. I wanted to read about a country where the monarch had continuous problems controlling his own noblemen. Tremain had so much interesting material available to her and I was stuck reading about two dull original characters and their insipid backgrounds. Moreover, I was left feeling that her literary-visual take on a Baroque royal court owed far more to Sally Potter's film adaptation of Orlando than anything else.

Anyway.

This week has been a real beast and I'm yet to send out any of the blog giveaways. I am very sorry. Bar more unforeseen disasters (you don't want to know), I hope to send things out by Saturday. And please cross your fingers that the few remaining days of this week will pass uneventfully.

Isn't It Romantic?

A few weeks ago my partner, David, came down with the flu and I succumbed a day later. I suspect it was the dreaded H1N1 flu, although we cannot be sure. I was cooped up in bed for a few days which obviously led to me devouring one book after another. That is, one Georgette Heyer regency romance after another. To be absolutely precise, fourteen Georgette Heyer books. I'm in withdrawal as we speak. The curious thing is that I started to really get into the socio-economics described by Heyer. Usually she is praised for her knowledge of early 19th century fashion and her distinct language usage (la!), but as I was lying in bed reading one novel after one, I started paying attention to money. Who has money? Who hasn't? What do they do with the money? How does money flow through the novels? How does money connect and separate people? Gosh, I almost feel like a Marxist literary critic..

A Civil Contract sees an impoverished aristocrat marrying a wealthy trader's daughter and through the marriage attempt to improve his estate's farming conditions. It is not a wildly romantic novel (no passionate embraces; no swooning) but a rather pragmatic look at class differences and social aspirations. While the book is far from being Great Literature, I found it convincing and interesting. I'm not sure I will read it again (unless I discover an hitherto unknown passion for early 19th C drainage problems) but it is certainly one of Heyer's beefiest novels.

The Unknown Ajax is a straightforward read compared to A Civil Contract. The hero and heroine flirt, chase ghosts, encounter smugglers and fall in love. Lather, rinse, repeat. What I loved about the book, though, was the fact that the hero is a Yorkshire woollen mill owner(!) and Heyer devotes several passages to the discussion of fleeces, crimp, sheep breeds, and the economics thereof. Just the thing to read when you're in bed and too weak to knit.

At the end of it all David pondered if I like reading Heyer because of a) the fashion discussions (I am a costume history devotee), b) the Yorkshire sheep or c) the many, many dogs with distinct personalities? I like to think it's a combination of all three plus the sparkling wit, the often ludicrous language and the knowing use of literary references (like the Shakespeare, Pope and Byron quotations in Venetia, possibly my favourite Heyer novel).

Speaking of things Romantic, I have begun knitting the Percy (Bysshe Shelley) shawl in Old Maiden Aunt 2ply alpaca/merino in the Bracken colourway. I paged through my well-thumbed copy of Shelley's Collected Poems earlier today and was amused by the doom and gloom I encountered. I had forgotten how Gothic he can be..

Ah, and the title? Enjoy Chet Baker's version of it on YouTube..

A Beautiful Day

It's going to be a beautiful day so the bluebirds sing. I have booked myself a short, but much-needed flight home to Denmark in May. I need to spend time with the Danish part of myself, I have decided. Going back is always odd because it invariably ends up being a long series of meet-ups with everybody I have ever known in Denmark. I cannot remember the last time I spent a few hours in Copenhagen just, you know, hanging out with myself. I am not complaining. It just feels strange after having spent fifteen years in Copenhagen and suddenly the way I engage with my city is transformed. I think this is something most expats experience.

Linkage, then:

+ When I read "Glasgow Artist Restores Lost Mural" on the BBC website, I knew exactly who and what they were talking about. Wooh! + Cover Versions: "Classic records lost in time and format, remerged as Pelican books." + Speaking of which .. Pelican paperbacks. I used to own a lot of them. + Art-House Book Trailers. Just as vile as the name suggests. + CraftGawker. Look, be inspired, create. + This Is Not A Riot: An effective, non-violent response to riot police. (I miss going to demonstrations) + The Fall of the Spanish Hapsburgs, or why marrying your first cousin is a bad, bad idea. See also this pictorial guide to the Spanish Hapsburgs. Ouch. + As seen everywhere on the web: Uncomfortable plot summaries. To wit: "Groundhog Day: Misanthropic creep exploits space/time anomaly to stalk coworker." + And as seen on John's blog: "Over the weekend, sharp-eyed Cassini-watchers on unmannedspaceflight.com noticed a series of way-cool photos on the mission's raw images website." Mindblowingly cool photos.

I finished reading The Time-Traveller's Wife. It was rather "girly". I have also begun yet another knitting project: Geno in duck's-egg-blue milk-cotton. It's rather lovely and very summery.