Categories
Autobiographies Reading

What I read in 2014: autobiography and other

Here are some more books I read in 2014.

Autobiography

  1. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Cathy N Davidson.  My first book of the year, started on the plane back from Japan after a family holiday. Cathy N Davidson is an American Academic, and here describes three long stays in Japan and the cultural differences she found there. A sensitively written, thoughtful account. Well worth looking at even if you have no intention of visiting Japan.
  2. On Writing, Stephen King Now this is the kind of how to write book I like. Such advice as there is, is  derived from his personal experience as a successful writer, and is presented in an autobiographical context. The book ends with a lengthy account of returning to work after an appalling road accident that left him for dead by the side of the road. Well worth reading.
  3. Rock Stars Ate My Life, Mark Ellen. I once met Ellen in a Chiswick swimming pool and chatted to him for five minutes. As genuinely nice then as he seemed on the telly. This book is a amiable recollection of how the love of music filled his life with characters and adventures. Ellen is engagingly self-depreciating, and quietly nostalgic for a lost age of rock music. A happy read.
  4. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou. I found this lived up to its reputation. Maya Angelou is unsentimental in her reminiscence. I find her account of her episode of silence after she was raped as child to be heartbreaking, and the depiction of her childhood in the country seems to me to be describing something from the 19th Century.
  5. Night, Elie Wiesel. Holocaust literature is always going to be gruelling. ‘Night’ is a  chilling account of the author’s deportation, the loss of his family and experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald with his father in the last years of the second world war. This, alongside Primo Levi’s work should be required reading throughout Europe, especially for nationalists of all hues.
  6. Experience, Martin Amis. A memoir of disparate strands. A murdered cousin, thoughts on writing, a history of his bad teeth, his relationship with his father Kingsley. To me this was a highly satisfying read, though I can’t quite say why. Martin Amis is one of those writers whose work plays on my mind afterwards.
  7. A death in the family, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This book is fascinating. It is ostensibly a novel, but is written so autobiographically with banal or hyperreal detail,  featuring the writer and his actual family that for me it transcends genre. My brother told me to read this. He said it was like inhabiting someone-else’s life. He was right. One of the few literary name-checks in it is for Proust, and I can see why.

Other

  1. The Big Book of Hell a cartoon book, Matt Groening. I’m a sucker for cartoons. And I love these drawn by the man who came up with The Simpsons and Futurama. Great stuff, and with a bleak pessimism that makes it all the funnier.
  2. Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges. A book of short stories, but annoyingly as everyone said about it, these are stories that stick with you. So for example when watching the Interstellar movie, I almost yelped, “Borges! Infinite library!” These stories are so influential on contemporary fiction, that it seemed rude not to have read them before. Marvellous stuff. One of my books of the year.
  3. The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As someone who did a degree, back in the days of quill pens, in Philosophy and Literature, I like to read a bit of philosophy every now and then, and prefer a bit of what used to be called Continental Philosophy to its Anglo-American counterpart. I particularly like it when a philosopher is forced to be clear and succinct and resort to natural language. Merleau-Ponty’s book was based on a series of radio talks given on French radio. An accessible glimpse into a great philosophical mind.

I also wrote about these two last books in this post.

Next post, Poetry.

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Categories
Novels Reading

What I read in 2014: novels

Those lists of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century are maddening and fun. I usually score between 70-80.  So, to better this, I read some titles that regularly crop up. As many of the lists are American the books are too. This year I filled in a few of the gaps.

  1. The ShiningStephen King. My first Stephen King novel. I was surprised at its readability and quality to be honest. I liked its depiction of a family dynamic warped by alcoholism and general spookiness, including a spooky kid.
  2. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles. Having failed to read this twice before, this year I completed its harrowing journey into alcohol, fracturing relationships, sickness, death and personal identity eroding (in the face of all these pesky foreigners) into madness. I read it with schadenfreude hating all the tiresomely neurotic characters – but in no way sorry that I had persisted.
  3. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck Fun enough, with its ramshackle characters in a community of marginalised drunks and mavericks. Heard it being discussed on BBC Radio 4’s A good read. Did little for me, finding it less funny than other people seem to have found it.
  4. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck Short. A perfect little tragedy, clearly wonderfully crafted, but for some reason not my kind of thing as I found it a bit dull.
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’Toole Lots to like here, and it made me laugh out loud once or twice. It was episodic, theatrical set pieces made it all seem rather artificial. But one of my favourites of the year and in Ignatius Jacques Reilly an unforgettably repulsive antihero.
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee I loved this book, and wondered how I had never read it before. Deceptively simple, traces of Bradbury style magic, morality, race relations, standing up for what is right in the face of adversity. A jewel of a novel, and probably my favourite read of the year.
  7. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner.  I was barely able to finish this novel regularly cited as one of the best of the twentieth century. Innovative stream of consciousness techniques enabling us to see events and a family in wildly different ways. Again (maybe this is something going on with me as a reader this year) I felt indifferent to the fate of the characters, partly because how it was written seemed to dwarf what it was saying. And how it was written irritated the bejaysus out of me. But nevertheless a sense of achievement to have completed it.
  8. The Remains of the Day, Kasuo Ishiguro After the Faulkner, I felt the need to get off the American locomotive. This deft, understated book was a perfect antidote. Really enjoyed the portrayal of a emotionally buttoned up English butler. This is only the second Ishiguro I’ve read, and I love the space he leaves for suggested meaning – an writerly ability that perfectly matched his subject matter. I am a fan.
  9. The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes One of those books I read with enjoyment, but having finished it even a few months later, I have to fight to remember anything about it. A group of ambitious boys, who have to deal later in life with the fact one of them committed suicide.
  10. The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion Not a great work of literature, but a perfect holiday read, which is what it was. I enjoyed it. Read it in a day. It made me laugh.
  11. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust A guilty read, after speed reading about 50% of it when at university. Maddeningly slow at times, but also quite beautiful. Makes me want to read the other six volumes of the series. The bits I did read when I was at University, concerning involuntary memory, still stay with me as some of the profoundest writing I have read. The opening, Combray, section I find amazing even if it is about a spoiled little milksop crying for his mother. I saw parallels to how I feel about Guernsey.
  12. The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis Still not sure how I feel about this book, dealing with the lives of people running a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I may have to read it again. It certainly brings to life the idea of the banality of evil. Left me feeling uneasy and with a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s surely the point.
  13. The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide Bought me as a gift as I like Japan and cats. The story was understated, using the domestic to stand for bigger things. Helps that I have visited Japan twice so find it easy to imagine the scenes described.
  14. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami A birthday present from my wife. I’ve read the majority of Murakami’s books and like millions around the world have fallen under his spell. While I sometimes get the sense that the novels are one vast and continuous work, I consumed this new book in a couple of days and loved it. There is a directness about his style, despite the weird and wonderful subject matter, that hooks me every time.
  15. The Outsider, Albert Camus The sort of thing takes me back to being a philosophy undergraduate. I was expecting it to be a let down, but found it surprisingly easy to read and the new penguin translation, by Sandra Smith seems very well done. The central character of this book is living a life in bad faith, unable to make any decisions and as a consequence he exists in a limbo state, unable to connect emotionally to anything around him to the point that he can shoot someone dead without understanding why. Exit puffing on Gitanes.
  16. Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton depicts west London and Brighton in the 1930s, and given that I used to live in West London and now live in Brighton I found it interesting for this reason alone. But as a depiction of functioning alcoholics, frittering their time and money away with people they despise it is unrivalled. Seedy and pathetic, their pathetic lives are mercilessly depicted. A great book.
  17. The Fall, Albert Camus Back to existentialism. The monologues of a lonely drinker in an Amsterdam cafe harping on about how terrible life is and what a terrible man he is. In the end it turns out his mutterings have been addressed to himself, or at least to his double. Weird and strangely great.

It occurs to me, looking at this list (something I’ve never done before) that as a reader you are constantly in flux. I wonder if I would have felt differently about each book if I had read them in another order so that what was going on in my life as I read a book was different.

So that was the novels. Next post, non-fiction and autobiography.

Below Harper Lee.

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Categories
Theatre

I’ll have a glass of what he’s having

Last night I watched a man drink a glass of nothing.

I was at a one man show* and noticed the character pour himself an occasional drink. Eventually the liquid in the prop ran out, but the actor drank on. This is something routinely seen on stage, of course, but  it got me thinking about imaginary drinks.

An imaginary drink can go on forever, like the endless drink featured in Norse mythology. Thor is tricked by a malevolent giant Útgarða-Loki into drinking from a drinking horn magically attached to the sea. Thor is made to look foolish as, despite drinking heroically, he is unable to finish the drink. According to Wikipedia, the annoying giant says:

And when you drank from the horn and thought it slow to sink, I dare say that was a miracle I had not expected to be possible; the far end of the horn was submerged in the sea, but you did not see that. Now, when you come to the shore, you will see what kind of sip you drank from the sea; there is now a sandy beach where there used to be water.

At least Thor’s thirst accounted for a bay full of water. The imaginary drink, however, is endless.

Having recently read The Shining by Stephen King, the tormented father Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic. Due to the malign influence of the Overlook Hotel, he sits at an empty bar which has been closed down for the winter. He starts thinking about drink, and a phantom bartender appears to fix him dry martinis. The book was written when King was himself in the grip of alcoholism, so these scenes have a strange force. These imaginary drinks are on on the house and Torrance quaffs them till he gets absolutely wasted.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the imagination. One thing that is wonderful about it is its unquenchable nature. Its freely available. It is intoxicating. And, usually, you feel fine in the morning.

Cheers.

Jack Torrance all smiles at the bar

 

 

* A promising play in development, called Big Man, written and acted by Martin Bonger, directed by Alex Swift and based on the myth of Orpheus.