Friday, 1 January 2010

Books 2009

I won't do this next year - it's long and unwieldy and close to unreadable.  Some of these books have had write-ups in posts of their own anyway.  I started off intending just to write one line responses to books, but that was never really going to last.  It's not an exhaustive list, either - I've forgotten about it a time or two.  It's close, though.  Doesn't contain any audiobooks, of which there have probably been about the same number.  I'm mildly impressed by how much of the below is actually literature.  This is the first year since I graduated that I've felt able to read 'serious' books and I'm definitely glad of it.  Lots of poetry.  Lots of books I've read more than once to get the hang of them.

Queendom Come - Ellen Galford. Silly, queer, political satire; not high art but engaging.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café - Fannie Flagg. People, living, growing and being; one of the best books of all time, even if never recognised as great literature.
Rapture (poetry) - Carol Ann Duffy. A love story enacted in luminous verse.
The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett. The attractions of literature for one like the Queen - interesting but a little didactic.
4.48 Psychosis, Crave (plays) - Sarah Kane. Pictures of confusion and of what it means to crave. Plays.
Orlando - Virginia Woolf. Epic life - time, gender and roles.
American Gods - Neil Gaiman. Not his best - the story doesn't hang together completely. It feels a bit contrived, and the idea is actually close to that of 'Anansi Boys'. Still, Gaiman's imagination is second to none. Magical realism - Salman Rushdie lite.
The Price of Salt - Patricia Highsmith. Took me ages to read this. It's modernist, albeit late. I enjoyed it's melancholia and it's exagerrated sense of the importance of self and the flow of emotion. It guess it's that which made it feel modernist to me - the influence of psychoanalysis is strong. It's a small story, and it stays that was until the last 10 or so pages. In the last paragraph it turns around and decides to have the couple getting back together. I felt I was being given a slapdash happy ending, with all the build up being to an unfulfilled but more wordly heroine left me at the end. Instead she goes back to her lover and I was left thinking that the two of them didn't really sound like they had a relationship that was viable. Maybe that was the point. Not about falling in love well, not about growing as a person but about making mistakes and getting hurt like everyone else? Very un-American for an American novel. Not that I know masses and masses about American literature, but still. I'm glad I read it, but I won't recommend it to many. I'm trying to decide if I think it's art or not.
Casino Royale - Ian Fleming. Fun. Bond. Anything else important?
Things the Grandchildren Should Know - Mark Oliver Everett. This is the guy who is the band Eels. It's his life story. Crazy family. Crazy life. It was fascinating in a voyeuristic kind of way. There are bits of it that make me think I wouldn't like him in real life. It's just a bit pretentious. But. The guy writes well, the story is interesting and he writes about a concert I was at which was pretty cool.
Affinity - Sarah Waters. I enjoyed this, despite or because of its slowness. This time the miserable end annoyed me as much as the happy end of 'The Price of Salt'. Do I just not like surprises? In contrast, though, the end was superbly constructed. I didn't dislike it from the point of view of the writing, just found it unsatisfying. I do not need reminding that humans are base and cruel to one another. It is nice to see some nobility in people no matter how miserable the storyline I suppose.
Mean Time, Standing Female Nude (poetry) - Carol Ann Duffy.  Carol Ann Duffy has just been made poet laureate, so it took me quite some time to get hold of these two collections.  Neither is as strong as 'Rapture', but both show a poet with great emotional depth.  But they made me want the directness and the exuberance of 'Rapture'.  The emotions contained in these are purely just not as attractive, I think.
Alias Grace - Margaret Attwood. I nearly put this down a couple of times while I was reading, but at other times I couldn't put it down at all. I found it unsatisfying, in the way that books that have elements of true stories in them can be. It's about a suspected murderess in prison in C19th Canada. I found the character of Grace intriguing, and I was gripped by trying to understand for myself whether or not she IS guilty. That is the book's central strength. I was turned off by some of the sex. It's not usually something that bothers me in books, provided it feels relevant. It didn't, here. The affair with the landlady seemed so totally extraneous. The rather hopeless doctor would be rather hopeless with or without it. The main end it seemed to serve was to afford Grace an opportunity to tell us that she doesn't believe it of him and helps her air of naivete...but that doesn't need the underlining. At first glance, the analysis of mental illness seems to be trying to put the didactic point to the reader that 'There are more things in heaven and earth...'. I think, though, that the effect is to attack our modern scientific certainties. In our desire to believe in Grace, we want to believe in a sort of illness that our modern viewpoint doesn't allow to be possible. It unbalances us and forces to ask questions in the way the Victorian Canadians would have done. This is a good book with great writing, there is no doubt about that. But it is unsatisfying, perhaps because it is unsettling. I am still dwelling on it, so it has staying power, but it's not something I will read again or necessarily recommend. 
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson. A lovely Cinderella fairytale, about how someone on whom life has always dropped the worst parts of itself is suddenly rewarded.
Cleansed (play) - Sarah Kane. I picked up my Sarah Kane collection intending to read 'Crave' and '4.48 Psychosis' again but 'Cleansed' caught my eye as I flicked through. It's a difficult play - I think the most difficult she wrote. You know where you are with 'Crave' and '4.48'...granted that's 'nowhere' or more properly 'inside someone's head', but 'Cleansed' is limbo. Everybody is sinister and vulnerable and weak and powerful. Each has powers to hurt the other and each has powers to break them. People change gender and become one another. Everybody is tortured. There is blood and gore and violence and pain, but the link between beauty and pain is drawn in detail. I don't understand it. Don't know where to unpick it - which is odd for me because usually there's SOMETHING. I find reflections of living...moments of beauty and reality in the harsh dystopia Kane writes. There's less a plot than characters, but the characters are so mutable. I've seen it performed once, beautifully, in a studio in Cambridge. Not quite there but nearly. Some of the sublime imagery was done fantastically well, but it was halting. But then the play itself is halting and jerky. It is about the transience yet transcendence of beauty, I suspect. I'd love to see it again done well - I'm usually so suspicious of people putting on Kane's plays unless I know something about them...too often they're emo university students trying to put on something 'edgy', lacking a sympathy for the text. I have seen all of her plays live (there are only five, two of which I've seen twice and one of which I was involved in the production though only as an ASM, plus a short film which I haven't seen), sometimes better done than others. The performance of 'Cleansed' remains my favourite, though it was nearly 5 years ago now and it's fading a bit. Reading it helped to fill a hole last night, letting me re-connect with living a little after feeling left behind. Being left behind is part of life, I suppose.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit - Jeanette Winterson.  I keep reading this - I'm pretty sure I've read it more than once this year.  It is beautifully written, and I find it enormously comforting to read.  Horrible things happen, but it is full of hope.  It is convinced of the transcendence of love and has enormously high standards.  It is confused and young but passionate.  It is it think the greatest book I have ever read.
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn.  This is inspired, some of the best I've read this year.  Up there with Plath's Ariel and Duffy's Rapture in the 'best of all time'.  It's about love and emotion and feeling and moments and being alive.
Wish I Was Here (short stories) - Jackie KayShort stories about endings of long relationships, all of them.  The ways of losing someone, of watching your lover fall out of love with you and into love with someone else.  Painful, poignant - deeply affecting, even if you weren't where I've been this year.  And beautiful to read them mostly about gay people.  Honest and true and unpretentious.  So they're painful stories for the subject matter, and somehow safe for the settings.
Trumpet - Jackie Kay.  I enjoyed this, but not as much as Wish I was Here.  It's beautiful, but it was lacking the focus of the short stories.  It's a fabulous story, and totally intriguing.
The Riddle of the Sands - Erskine Childers.  Turn of the century spy story, set in the Baltic.  Fantastic swashbuckling fun and an interesting insight into the pre-war hysteria there was surrounding the German Imperialist threat.
Unseen Academicals - Terry Pratchett.  New Discworld - liked for Discworld.  Felt odd to read, though.  I suspect his view of things is changing given his current situation.
Why Don't You Stop Talking? (short stories) - Jackie Kay.  Not as good as 'Wish I Was Here' - she clearly progressed.  This get a bit samey after a while.  I suspect though it would be more meaningful if I was older.  Beautiful, but not so touching.
Sweeping Up Glass - Carolyn Wall.  A great read - not perfect, but a brilliant story and some lovely characters.  Just the pace, I think that was off - the big events were dismissed a bit quickly.  Something like that.
The Sandman - Preludes & Nocturnes (graphic novel) - Neil Gaiman.  What it says, really.  I enjoyed these and will be looking for more.  Even if I just killed any shred of street cred I ever had...
Domes of Fire, The Shining Ones - David Eddings.  These are of that trashy fantasy genre that I usually don't bother with any more (Discworld is not trash), but since I'm in Cornwall and didn't have enough books with me, I had to make do with what was on my brothers' bookshelves.  They're great stories, I'll give them that, but I do want to tear apart so many things about them.  Necessary light relief, at this point. 
Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf.  I need to read this again, sometime.  Because it treads so close to poetry, it's hard to absorb all at once at the end of the day after a dinner featuring alcohol.  I'm glad I have, though.  Maybe because it was on my mind after Sweeping up Glass, but the pace of Woolf's novels is always interesting.  Time is difficult and fascinating for her.  Think I've already written that particular essay, though, with regard to To The Lighthouse for which it is even more apt.
The Mating Season - P. G. Wodehouse - Jeeves and Wooster.  Not sure I've actually READ one before, as opposed to watching them on telly or hearing the audiobooks.  A good value light romp, without so much farce that I can't bear it... 
Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll - I'm glad I read these again, and in the context of the strange man that Carroll was.  They're so peculiar.  The only time has anyone sat down and written a dream with success, I think.
Lighthousekeeping - Jeanette Winterson.  I read this twice - finished it, turned it over, started again, in a day.  It's a beautiful thing.  It's not as complete, somehow, as Oranges, which I'm sure is intentional, but it's beautiful.  It's about love and stories and a guiding lights, and it's wonderful.
Birthday Letters (poetry) - Ted Hughes.  I have a problem with this book.  I did last time I tried to read it, too.  I think it's because it's not really put together as a collection of poetry.  It has one central idea but it is drastically over-worked.  I got further this time I think than I did previously, before I realised I was reading it merely because I didn't want to not finish it.  I have probably another twenty poems left - which I will read, because there might be a few more gems in the last pages as there are in the earlier ones and which I have not yet found.  There is a reason to read it, but I'm not sure that I will attempt to read it cover to cover again. 
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn.  Again.  Just because it's hugely comforting.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Next - Ken Kesey.  I loved this.  I wasn't expecting to, actually.  And I started it about 3 months ago and didn't get into it for ages.  The first part is all pretty grim, actually, but that just makes the second half all the more euphoric by contrast.  It's amazing.  A little Messianic, perhaps (one man, saves all, by death...), but it is amazing.  The characters are great and the proposition is great.  Definitely a recommendation.
Measure for Measure - William Shakespeare (play).  I read this after I'd written the post on the quote from it.  I'm not entirely convinced on the plot front, but the text is fantastic.  It teases out questions of integrity and morality far more effectively than I could.  It doesn't provide answers, which is how it fits into the 'problem play' area of Shakespeare's oeuvre, but it's brilliantly thought provoking.  Aside from the quotation I blogged about, my other favourite line image is of being 'desperately mortal' which is used to describe the murderer Barnardine when the Duke disguised as Friar Lodowick asks his character.
A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula le Guin.  I loved this, as a peaceful and easy thing to read in a week of running about and seeing people.  The style is somewhat Tolkeinian, though the plot doesn't owe him anything at all.  I'm looking forward to the next two books.

As the year breaks, I'm reading:
Three Lives - Gertrude Stein
The Man With Night Sweats (poetry) - Thom Gunn. Again.
Letters To A Young Poet (unsurprisingly, letters...) - Rainer Maria Rilke
Landing Light (poetry) - Don Paterson.

As far as things I intend to read next year go, well here is a good place to start - not that it's exhaustive.  It contains all the things I want to read that,  obviously, I don't own...  Reading is good.


  1. i like your list. well, excepting the poetry, which i simply haven't been able to digest for some time now. alias grace was not my cup of tea and the blind assassin i think i dropped four times, but the handmaid's tale i liked. it's not greatly constructed, but there was just something about the main character's interior monologue that struck a chord. and maybe i like dystopias as a genre.

  2. I think you have to pick your poetry. I come across a reasonable amount where I can see the artistry but it just does nothing for me.

    I read the Handmaid's Tale a while back. I do remember quite enjoying it in a way, but dystopia will never be something I go to as my first choice I just find it too depressing. I think that Margaret Attwood has a fantastic facility with language and character, but perhaps her taste in stories and events is just not mine. I have a few more things she wrote on my list to read in future, but she's slipped down a few places!