Thursday, 31 December 2015

WHAT I READ IN 2015

Time for the annual review of what I read this year – and guys, it’s big news, because for the first time ever I actually read more books by women than men this year. Admittedly this is because in a fit of despair I did some major re-reading, mostly Jane Austen and of Nancy Mitford, who are always very cheering. However! It’s still something: 33 of the 60.

Best of the year is obviously lead by Austen. But it’s hardly fair to put her in the race, like running a race horse against chickens. So the best of the rest: the quarter from Elena Ferrente of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD. It’s a magnificent series on a pair of friends from Naples in the early twentieth century. In a sign that it truly is the end of days, the publishers have felt it necessary to brand this major literary achievement as chick lit. I pity those who buy it as chick lit, as they will be horrified - its all about how boring your children are and how to abandon old friends who aren’t working for you anymore. REUNION by Fred Uhlman is a wonderful novella about the effect of the rise of the Nazis on a pair of high school boys; THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones is a fantastic huge story of slavery in the American South; and A NOTABLE WOMAN by Jean Lucey Pratt is a set of real life diaries covering fifty years in the life of an ordinary woman that had me blubbing in Luxor airport.

Worst of the year is I’m sorry to say THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailor, which is a very young man’s view of the glamour of war; the terrible MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden, which is insulting to Asian prostitutes everywhere, and OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey, which is just misery without a purpose. Here's the list


• OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey
• A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin
• STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel
• DEATH ON THE NILE by Agatha Christie
• TROLLOPE by Victoria Glendinning
• TOBACCO ROAD by Eskine Caldwell
• REQUIEM FOR A WREN by Nevil Shute
• TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE by John Steinbeck
• THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING by Alaa al Aswany
• BEING MORTAL: ILLNESS, MEDICINE, AND WHAT MATTERS AT THE END by Atul Gawande
• WHEN THE DOVES DISAPPEARED by Sofi Oksanen
• A NOTABLE WOMAN: THE ROMANTIC JOURNALS OF JEAN LUCEY PRATT ed. Simon Garfield
• BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah
• DON’T TELL ALFRED by Nancy Mitford
• A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD by Anne Tyler
• YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks
• HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu
• FARENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
• MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA by Arthur Golden
• THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley
• THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir
• A SUNDAY AT THE POOL IN KIGALI BY Gil Courtemanche
• MARCH by Geraldine Brooks
• ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews
• REUNION by Fred Uhlman
• THE ROYAL WE by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks
• THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante
• THE DISCOMFORT ZONE by Jonathan Franzen
• THE FISHERMEN by Chigozi Obioma
• MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, and THE STORY OF A NEW NAME and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrante
• THE END OF THE STORY by Lydia Davis
• WESTWOOD by Stella Gibbons
• AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa
• MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
• THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion
• EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett
• THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt
• LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller
• FIRE IN THE BLOOD by Irene Nemirovsky
• NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
• AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel
• JERUSALEM THE GOLDEN by Margaret Drabble
• SENSE AND SENSIBILITY by Jane Austen
• DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY (and its sequels) by EM Delafield
• DANCING IN THE DARK by Karl Ove Knausgaard
• THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy
• A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes
• HOME by Marilynne Robinson
• UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry
• PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
• THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford
• LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford
• THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer
• THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon
• THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
• THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones
• WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys
• KITTY AND THE PRINCE by Ben Shephard
• LAKE WOBEGON DAYS by Garrison Keillor




THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Wadman

Just a re-read of this, because I had nothing else on my Kindle and because it's fantastic.

OSCAR AND LUCINDA by Peter Carey

This is extraordinarily well written novel about glass manufacture, religion, and Australia. Yet I fail to be able to drum up much enthusiasm for it. For a start, there are a lot of minor characters, who, while uniformly interesting, tend to slow down the narrative. And what narrative there is very much in a depressing direction: Oscar and Lucinda are both gambling addicts, and so from the beginning you struggle to see a happy ending. You feel sorry for them, but you also feel annoyed.

Also, they keep making terrible business decisions, such as investing huge sums in building a glass church for a tiny village in the Outback which is not served by any roads.

In summary, it’s a horrible, cruel book. The author spends 500 pages using all his great talent to get you to care about his large array of characters, and then has it all end badly for each of them, in an array of different ways. Rest assured, Oscar and Lucinda do not end up together. As an added bonus, Oscar even dies. I can only conclude that Carey was born in the First World. One shouldn’t stereotype, but you don’t lay out this kind of misery and despair in art unless your own reality is pretty freaking fantastic.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

A KISS BEFORE DYING by Ira Levin

Apparently I am becoming a fan of Levin’s. I read his STEPFORD WIVES and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and now A KISS BEFORE DYING. They’re fun books – tightly plotted and hard to predict. I notice now as I write this blog and look back over the titles that they also all deal very much with gender issues. They’re about women being tricked by men. A KISS BEFORE DYING was his first novel (a massive success when he was only twenty three) and is his least sophisticated iteration on the theme. It tells the story of a man who courts a wealthy young woman in the interests of securing her inheritance. She (spoiler) becomes pregnant and so will be disinherited. When she refuses an abortion he decides to kill her so as to escape marrying her. It all goes downhill from there. A clever, twisty little story. I wish I had written it at twenty three.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

I do not recommend reading a book about a flu pandemic while on a long fligh next to a woman with the snuffles. It was overnight Dallas to London, and I felt ready for the end of days when we reached Heathrow. In the book the pandemic takes just a few days to spread around the world. It’s airborne and kills in under twenty four hours. People survive if they are able to stay away from others for the first weeks, as everyone who is not immune dies very quickly.

The story follows a group of people who were all loosely connected with a production of King Lear in Toronto on what is called ‘Day 1’ of the pandemic. Mostly the story follows one of the child actors in Lear, who in the post-apocalyptic world tours with a group of performers mostly showing Shakespeare and Mozart. I struggle to believe that in those harsh times there’d be much appetite for this. I’d think there’d be more money in horrific dog fighting or gladiatorial displays or something. But perhaps I am a terrible person with insufficient respect for the human spirit.

Another strand of the story follows a group who survive because their plane is forced to land at a remote airport, where they all go on to live for the next few decades, with romances blossoming between jaded business travellers and Lufthansa cabin attendants. It’s an interesting novel, and I recommend it, though the apocalyptic setting is more engaging than the various individual plots. It certainly made the flight seem short, though it also made the snuffler terrifying.




DEATH ON THE NILE by Agatha Christie

As I am on a Nile cruise I thought it was a good idea to read a novel about someone dying on a Nile cruise. DEATH ON THE NILE was written while Christie was on a cruise, and you can exactly see what inspired her. I even visited the hotel in which she stayed. I read quite a bit of Christie as a teenager, and still admire the clockwork neatness of her plotting. But for me there’s not much beyond that; but just that alone is a big achievement.

TROLLOPE by Victoria Glendinning

I’m not a great reader of biographies, but I do love Anthony Trollope, so was tempted by this charity shop find. It’s a biography almost as long as one of the subject’s novels, and it needs to be, because Trollope lived a long and full life. I love him for his extraordinary energy. He wrote his many novels while working full time at the post office, and is responsible for such fine novels as SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON as well as the establishment of the postbox. It inspires me. He would wake up early in the morning and write for four hours before going to work a full day, which often included personally walking postal routes to see how they should work. He once said: “The whole success of my life I owe to early hours.” He is for me a prototypical Victorian, that couple of generations that made the industrial revolution happen and in whose long shadows we are all still standing.

Trollope’s family was among the gentility who lacked money, and his early life was fairly difficult. He was socially awkward, middling at school, and not his parents’ favourite. Interestingly, his life only really turned around in his twenties, when he got an opportunity to get away from his family and go to work in Ireland. From then on it was pretty much up, up, up. I was also interested to learn he travelled a great deal, going to America, Australia, and Africa. What a fabulous man. Pity about the horrible beard.