Saturday, 20 December 2008


It's so interesting to see what everyone's writing down as their best of 2008. The omnipresence of "Netherland" on lists frankly baffles me, but then I've been clear about my perplexity in the face of that book, and er, like, 18 out of 21 people agree with me, so, like, ner. 

These are just done chronologically.

1. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

The atmosphere is still with me, of this strange and haunting book about the power of music and the desire to be an artist at all costs. Reads also as a sort of allegorical history of the development of Nazism in Germany, but from the inside. Incredibly meaty, with beautiful prose in every sentence. Just what you would expect from one of the most famous German novels. 

2. Romain Gary, La vie devant soi (1975)

This is incredible.  A little boy, son of a prostitute who has long disappeared, is being brought up amongst the other children of prostitutes by a former sex-worker now too old to make her living. The book is told entirely from the child's point of view. Astonishingly touching. And incredibly "real". An act of stylistic ventriloquism that manages to make you cry too. 

3. James Meek,  We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008)

I loved this book, though I reckon everyone who adored "The People's Act of Love" might have been a bit surprised to find it concerns Afghanistan, c. 2004, rather than snowy Imperial Russia. I love James Meek. A beautifully stylish writer. I would read anything by him. I think we haven't even begun to hear the best from him. 

4. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (2008)

We have been waiting for Denis Johnson to kick our arses, by extending the subtle, slim books he writes - detailing losers and drunks and visionaries of a lost America - onto a larger canvas. Here it is, spanning the entire Vietnam war. Not for those who cannot manage without a strong storyline. Definitely for those who are looking for poetry, sincerity, human mystery. 

5. Rosamund Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936)

The second of the back-catalogue reads. Gorgeous, delicate depiction of life in thirties England. My grandma remembered reading it when she was younger, and we both re-read it together, agreeing that the crap line on the cover "this book was the Bridget Jones of our day" was total, well, crap. But if you like shivering cold drawing rooms, taxi cabs, party frocks, iron baths and economy Spam sort of books, you will undoubtedly fall under this book's amazing spell. 

6. Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (2007)

I honestly thought this was a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. A simple tale of office folk fighting over who is going to have the best chair. WTF was going on with all the people who didn't like it then? 
Bad taste?

7. Tim Winton, Breath (2008)

Tim Winton is a great writer about the open wild spaces of Australia, but when he turned his attention to surfing this year, one of his favourite hobbies... he blew my mind. A great book. Very slow, hardly anything happens, but with an extraordinary quality of paying attention. As always with him. 

8. John Lanchester, Family Romance (2007)

I'm pretty much a family memoir denier. I just can't bear the whole genre. I don't know how I ended up reading this. But it's amazing! His mother was a nun but just forgot to own up to anyone... And many other bizarre turns of event. Yet of course it's the way it's written that's the treat and a half. He has the most beautiful, cool, translucent style, steering you through the wreckage of his family. Really great. 

9. Anne Enright, The Gathering (2007)

I think I bought this because I was deeply intrigued by her terribly forthright opinions on the McCanns. 

An astonishing book about families, grief, madness, secrets, oh my god, honestly I could be really tedious about it. All the people who have given it one star on Amazon have just read it wrong. Don't let me start ranting about it. 

10. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)

I know this isn't fiction, but I don't think I said I was going to stick to made-up stories. I included John Lanchester, anyway. 

This is just a gorgeous little read, that makes you think about how people decide how to live their lives, what powers them onwards, and also made me think a lot about how much grit you need to be a writer! Even though the book is ostensibly about running, you learn a lot about Murakami... and become, in my case at least, rather fond of him. Even though he depicts himself as a grumpy old loner. Lovely. 

11. Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident (2006)

I had liked a short story she wrote in a Granta book of the best young American novelists, so I bought this. The book is great: a novel about China meeting America in the form of a young Chinese artist who comes to California on an exchange programme. Delicate, funny, daring, all the stuff you want from a novel, plus a good story and loads about modern China that was ... so evocative. 

12. Gerard Woodward, August (2001)

Just finished this last night. Amazing. I do not for the life of me understand how come this guy isn't better known. Maybe he is the most disagreeable individual known to humanity in real life. I can't think so, though, really; the touches in this book, about a family's series of August camping holidays to Wales, are just extraordinary kind and caring even to the realllllly annnoying characters. Amazing. 



I find this sixties Scandinavia crime series, featuring the policeman Martin Beck, totally irresistible. Firstly, they have great covers. And for bookaholics, they have letters along the spine which, when you have the whole set, spell "MARTIN BECK". Ah, the marketing department know us completists so very well...

But the truth is I wouldn't worry about finishing the set if I didn't love the books. They are a strange mixture - preoccupied with showing a rapidly-changing Swedish social landscape, but at the same time showing a deeply sympathetic Ed McBain-type depiction of a small group of cops in a single police station. 

And evidently they were heavily influential on Mankell's later Wallander series - sometimes you can almost smell the similarities between Wallander and lovely Martin Beck. 

This story, though, is particularly good. I got to the letter 'N', before stopping reading earlier in the year, but I missed out 'T', so I went back this week. What bliss to be reading a detective novel that you know before starting is going to be good. 

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Tuesday, 16 December 2008


I read this book, which had been sitting on the shelf since approx. three weeks after it came out, after The Common Reader extolled its virtues. Actually the virtues of the whole trilogy

To start with I was a bit nonplussed, as the style is fairly undemanding, and there are a few bits that smelt a bit "creative writing" to me. (Sorry, but that's like my worst thing in the entire world.)

But my god, I got so into it that I sat on a chair by the boiler all day to keep warm and read the entire thing, when I was supposed to be making dinner for sixteen people. 

The things I loved: the complications of a properly dysfunctional family, laid out on paper. And like Tolstoy said, this unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way. Alcoholism haunts them, erratic behaviour, and that terrible inconsistency and unpredictability that is the hallmark of the drunk family. 

The fact is though, that amongst all this, you still manage to care about everybody, worry about everybody, and want to know what happens, which is practically amazing to me. And the fact that you sort of laugh at them, even in their tragedy. The motorbike riding through the campsite! The tragic glue-sniffing mum! The therapeutic shop-lifting! The disappearing bathroom pipework! In fact flicking back through I remember finding really quite a lot of it funny. It's a funny, laughable, terrible story. 

A book not like any other I've ever read. Though plenty enough like people I've known in real life. Well, thank you to The Common Reader, and also to my friend Ruth who lent me the book and has never asked for it back (eek). I loved TCR's point that for once the publisher's blurb is right - the characters really do haunt you: I keep thinking about them and wishing I could read more stories about them. Thoughtfully, Woodward wrote it as a trilogy. So hurray, I've got two more to go! 



I just got sent this on my Henry James list, it made me smile. Aidan Harman wrote:

"This poem by Oliver Reynolds, from the Times Literary Supplement of 5 December 2008, my strike a chord with list members as it did with me.

The Master (with Epigoni)

Trying yet again to tackle
one of the current bunch
(invidious etc. to name names)

I found myself thinking
Why am I reading this
when I could be reading James?"


Friday, 12 December 2008


I've just found my new favourite Amazon reviewer, P. Bird. 

P.Bird thinks practically everything is overrated. In fact, I reckon you can read in these short pieces of prose an entire life of almost constant disappointment, in which our hero soldiers on despite the lack of satisfaction involved in any of it. 

Halfway down the page I almost got worried that any minute there was going to be some life-changing burst of enthusiasm for a book, but no: consistently miserable. 

On page 2, though (further into the past) there's a plot twist, as P.Bird reveals an unsuspected soft-spot for Anne Tyler whilst continuing to militate against men thinking they can write as women, or the other way around. There's some battle of the sexes thing going on in the turbulent inner life of P. Bird that I can't quite read, but which I find compelling. There was a time when P.Bird was happy! Just not now. 

Brilliant. Well, better than reading that stupid overrated old Junot Diaz, anyway!



There is a funny story on Gawker this morning about a writer who has advertised for a little elf to send out his short story submissions for him, while writer guy toils in Manhattan earning a crust for the both of them. Made me laugh. 


Thursday, 11 December 2008


After my friend K came down with the mumps this week, contagious illness has been on my mind. My mum can't remember if I am vaccinated, and I'm too lazy to ring the doctor and ask. I'm just going to wait for my face to swell up. 

In the meantime Dove Grey Reader is giving away "Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped Our History" by Dorothy Crawford. It made me think about the question of what the best sickness reads are. Not as in, what you read when you are sick; but the best books about sickness. 

This is a beautiful edition of this great essay about the possible advantages of being sick in bed, and there's a good intro by Hermione Lee, VW's biographer, too. But you can get the introduction for free on the wonderful internet...

Alfred Crosby: America's Forgotten Pandemic; The Influenza of 1918
Crosby is the top man in the field, and has a totally engaging way of writing for someone who knows so much. Really scary.

Alfred Crosby: Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900
Another one by Crosby: how we ruled the world by giving it our illnesses.
Defoe was five years old when plague hit London in 1665, so you could say this is the very first historical novel...  He brings the fear alive, though. 

William McNeill: Plagues and Peoples
McNeill theorizes you need big cities to cause really unstoppable plagues.

Roy Porter was the twentieth century's finest historian of medicine, and this has all his usual flair, plus all his usual encyclopedic knowledge of practically everything, too. 

Christopher Wills: Plagues: Their Origins, History and Future
Out-of-print, but really good. Don't miss a chance to get a copy of this if you can. Read the bit about cholera on a plane going to Greece and it made me feel really sick. Excellent.

And to finish:
The fortunately-named Roach has a fabulous eye for the curious detail...


Tuesday, 9 December 2008


So what is it with the really heavy books at the moment? Or is it just that I am having a "reading things in hardback" sort of month? 

I'm not complaining per se, but the only problem is that after both  "The Northern Clemency" and "The Rest is Noise" my arm aches. 

What if I get tennis elbow and then can only read really tiny paperbacks? 


Monday, 8 December 2008


Look I am someone who likes high art literature; but in downtime my favourite thing in the entire world is detective fiction. And detective TV programmes. So obviously I was very pleased when they decided to make a TV programme of Wallander. But honestly! It's rubbish! They get a super Shakespearean actor to play my best Scandinavian cop... It doesn't work! Wallander is Swedish! He doesn't look like Kenneth Branagh! To be honest, in my head he looks more like Ken Stott. Well, all the cops look like Ken Stott, don't they?

But also it's just a bad adaptation. I don't like it. It's beautifully shot, and of course Svenska is so gorgeous to look at. But to me the books give a strong sense of Swedish society, which the TV programme utterly fails to do. Anyway, a big thumbs down. but I'm still watching it on I-Player. I'm just not giving it my full attention....

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Saturday, 6 December 2008


I just read about this on Slate: it's a website that is devoted to daily routines of interesting people. Today they have Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison talking about how to get out of bed and start work. Adding it to my RSS right now. 


Thursday, 4 December 2008


So I first read this book when I was eighteen. The date is actually written inside the front cover. I thought all of Asimov's books were great. I don't know whether I thought they were high art, but I really enjoyed the feeling that somehow you were being given a glimpse into the future.

But now it is the future! Well, except not quite the future of Foundation, which is set thousands of years from today; at a point where a galactic empire begins to wane in power, and smaller, marginal post-colonial states take up the slack. 

Here's the funny thing though. It's six thousand years in the future, and there are many intriguing predictions that may or may not come true by that date (psychohistory: it can predict what will happen in the the future!) but one thing alone makes the book seem curiously c.1960ish in outlook. The book paints a broad canvas, but amongst all the politicians, traders, members of the military, priests and academics we meet in the book, not one is a woman. 

In fact the only female character in this entire century-spanning book is an evil queen who is distracted with extraordinary rapidity by some nice shiny jewelery.

Ahhh. 1960. What an innocent world, that he wrote this book, trying so hard to predict how the world would be, and he missed such a big thing completely out. Girls. Actually in charge of things. Who would have thought?

PS Also, there are also in Foundation mail spaceships, presumably carrying good old-fashioned "letters", as we used to call them.