It’s that time again.
Tl; dr: a book a week; more graphic, poetry and creative non-fiction; authorial gender balance (unplanned but welcome); some classics/critics’ favourites continue to mystify (One Hundred Years(!), A Little Life, The Power).
Having moved three times, with the latest abode being the most modest (balcony aside), I chose to be a realist. I shifted around half of my books to Age UK. In a contest between books or living space, frankly, I need the space. Less clutter, more clarity and focus.
Nor was it especially difficult to cull, with most of the departed being books I’d read and disliked, or was unlikely to ever read.
After a year of consistently underwhelming recommendations from colleagues, a work library and book club, next year I’d like to take back control (sorry) of my reading. I probably say the same thing every December but I really hope to slay some of the greats: Anna Karenina, The Tale of Genji, Middlemarch, et al.
If there has been a theme, it has been a greater quantity of contemporary fiction and – less intentionally – more books by women. With the exception of a few, such as Knausgaard, Rooney, Laing, I continue to find the contemporary scene uninspiring. Undoubtedly I’m looking in the wrong places.
As usual, I carry forward a handful of writers whose voices are now encoded in my thinking as deeply as my own (which isn’t the same as saying these were the best books I read). Admittedly this owes a lot to the authors themselves having memorable real-life voices; it is where a real and a literary voice enthrals, and the distinction between these dissolves, that I find myself in spare moments thinking in another’s voice.
These would be:
- Kathy Acker for her rawness and ability to evoke, simultaneously, entrapment and limitless possibility.
- Ursula K. Le Guin for never underestimating her readers’ intelligence.
- Karl Ove Knausgaard for making art out of the real everyday. Also his awkward silences in interviews.
- Zadie Smith for saying “a novel is not about self-expression, that’s what a diary is for; a novel is a series of problem-solving exercises.”
One-line reviews of ***** reads:
‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke
A model of constructive feedback to new writers, in which the poet moves, in the space of two paragraphs, from ‘There is nothing less apt to touch a work of art than critical words…things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe’ to ‘all I will go on to say is that your verses have no identity of their own’ – balancing honesty with humility.
‘Flee general subjects and take refuge in those offered by your own day-to-day life; depict your sadnesses and desires, passing thoughts and faith in some kind of beauty – depict all this with intense, quiet, humble sincerity and make use of whatever you find about you to express yourself. If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself.’
‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith
Fresh, often very funny, sharply observed, only losing its way a bit in the third act where it tries to juggle too many strong characters and, as a result, each goes a bit out of focus.
‘It was not a place a man came to die. It was a place a man came in order to go other places via the A41.’
‘Ryan’s freckles were a join-the-dots enthusiast’s wet dream.’
”You’ve got to give these new ideas a chance. Otherwise you’re just a philistine, Arch. Now, at the end of the day, you know I’ve always been your cutting-edge type of geezer. That’s why I introduced Bubble and Squeak two years ago.”
Archie nods sagely. The Bubble and Squeak had been a revelation of sorts.’
‘Cider with Rosie’ by Laurie Lee
Every bit as comforting, soothing and monotonous as a warm bath (including the feeling of fleeting warmth).
”Twice-two-are-four. One-God-is-Love. One-Lord-is-King. One-King-is-George. One-George-is-Fifth…’ So it was always; had been, would be forever; we asked no questions; we didn’t hear what we said; yet neither did we ever forget it.’
‘I Have More Souls Than One’ by Fernando Pesoa
While Akhmatova’s poems work by stealth, reciting the familiar before delivering something unexpected or perplexing, Pessoa’s are a masterclass in borderline excess, continuously nearing the point of having overstated a point without ever quite reaching it; fortuitously, Akhmatova’s the better to read on a train at dusk, Pessoa’s on a sunlit balcony.
‘Evening hours at the desk.
And a page irreparably white.
The mimosa calls up the heat of Nice,
a large bird flies in a beam of moonlight.’
‘The world is for the person who is born to conquer it,
And not for the one who dreams he can conquer it, even if he be right,
I have dreamed more than Napoleon performed.
I have squeezed into a hypothetical breast more loving kindnesses than Christ,
I have made philosophies in secret that no Kant wrote.
But I am, and perhaps always shall be, the man of the garret,
Even though I don’t live there…’
‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
There are no pages without something worth quoting, and I think what impresses most is the deftness with which she balances a highly cerebral and effective structure with generosity of feeling towards her characters.
‘We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that’s already between us, the distance of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back…’
‘Clouds in the west laid great shivering mirages on the plain, the shadows of dreams of lakes gone dry ten million years ago.’
‘The Fire Next Time’ by James Baldwin
He renders tangible and reasonable the loftiest and most hyperbolic rhetoric: a non-believer’s preacher.
‘One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.’
‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison
On the one hand, this perfectly describes aspects of living in a permanent state of transition between two social levels and feeling trapped by history (the protagonist’s ‘invisibility’ stemming from his growing awareness of his liminal status); on the other hand, the story doesn’t quite fulfil its purpose as his self-realisation lurches forward at key moments, undermining the credibility of what is otherwise an acutely observed transformation.
‘Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements.’
‘ “His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains… The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its lines and the rhyme was completed… Go teach the cops to forget the rhyme. Tell them to teach them that when they call you ‘nigger’ to make a rhyme with ‘trigger’ it makes the fun backfire.” ‘
‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami
Never before have I finished a novel and felt so comfortable not having a decided opinion about it.
‘As they fell, the tears caught the light of the moon and sparkled like beautiful crystals. Then I noticed that my shadow was crying too, shedding clear, sharp shadow tears. Have you ever seen the shadows of tears, Mr. Wind-up Bird? They’re nothing like ordinary shadows. They come here from some other distant world, especially for our hearts. Or maybe not. It struck me then that the tears my shadow was shedding might be the real thing, and the tears that I was shedding were just shadows.’
‘The Golden Notebook’ by Doris Lessing
If it sometimes feels interminable (much of the last 100 pages), it ranges wide without ever seeming to lose control of what it’s saying (harnessing the idea of life’s ‘excess’ in a neat cinematic metaphor) and is, in a word *abundant*, teeming with startling ideas and insights about all manner of things (esp. the baggage we bring to our relationships).
‘There’s a small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life. And the reason why I have only given my attention to the heroic or the beautiful or the intelligent is because I won’t accept that injustice and the cruelty, and so won’t accept the small endurance that is bigger than anything.
I said to her: ‘We’re back at the blade of grass again, that will press up through the bits of rusted steel a thousand years after the bombs have exploded and the world’s crust has melted. Is that it?’
‘And so?’ she said.
‘I don’t think i’m prepared to give all that much reverence to that damned blade of grass, even now.”
And the rest:
‘Concrete’ by Thomas Bernhard ****
‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?’ by Mark Fisher ****
‘Blood and Guts in High School’ by Kathy Acker ****
‘The Third Policeman’ by Flann O’Brien ****
‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing ****
‘Twenty Poems’ by Anna Akhmatova ****
‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood ****
‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ by Muriel Spark ****
‘I’m Fine But You Appear to be Sinking’ by Leyna Krow ****
‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W. G. Sebald ****
‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ by Max Porter ****
‘A Death in the Family’ by Karl One Knausgaard ****
‘A Cup of Rage’ by Raduan Nassar.
‘Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway ****
‘Conversations With Friends’ by Sally Rooney ****
‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ by Hubert Selby Jr. ****
‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison ****
‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson ****
‘Red Rosa’ by Kate Evans ***
‘New York City in 1979’ by Kathy Acker ***
‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Diaz ***
‘Women as Lovers’ by Elfriede Jelinek ***
‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez ***
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney ***
‘Ice’ by Anna Kavan ***
‘The Word for World is Forest’ by Ursula K. Le Guin ***
‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk ***
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou ***
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie ***
‘Stoner’ by John Williams ***
‘H(A)PPY’ by Nicola Barker ***
‘Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001-14’ by Theo Farrell ***
‘Losing Afghanistan’ by Noah Coburn ***
‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers ***
‘The Fall’ by Albert Camus ***
‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter **
‘The Palm-Wine Drinkard’ by Amos Tutuola **
‘The Rum Diary’ by Hunter S. Thompson **
‘Puckoon’ by Spike Miligan **
‘Pilcrow’ by Adam Mars Jones **
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanigahara **
‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan **
‘Under the Net’ by Iris Murdoch **
‘Agapē Agape’ by William Gaddis **
‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante **
‘Annihilation’ by Jeff Vander Meer **
‘The Dharma Bums’ by Jack Kerouac **
‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman *
‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury *