A year of reading – part one

Looking back over the course of this year on the reading front it has been packed full of surprises, both good and bad.

It would be easy to just try to cobble together a top ten but looking at things thematically these are the first batch of five areas that have provided some highlights this year:

Disorientating and disturbing
In this category you have to put Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Amerika but also most of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Petersburg by Andrei Bely is also disturbing in the same way that The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is operating around the subjects of terrorism and psychological terror. At the top of the list though has to be Castle in The Forest by Normal Mailer which was one of the hardest books to read and one of the most unpleasant – not because it was about Hitler but because it was about all of the things Mailer uses to rub the reader up the wrong way.

Love and idealism
East of Eden by John Steinbeck has a father that loves his sons and manages to show his bitter ex-wife what love is all about. The last scene in Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory shows the strength of commitment the church has to providing priests for the people in Mexico to follow. Aimez-vous Brahms…by Francoise Sagan shows the power of the illusion of love. Ultimately, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the love of a father for a son and the values of the past.

Meditation on life
Obviously a biography like Story of a Life by Konstantin Paustovsky has to be included but other Russian authors also produced books that felt like reflections on personal experiences. The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine was able to brilliantly take a reader down the wrong path following the mistaken narrator. The House on the Embankment by Yuri Trifinov showed the tragedy of a man who put party and personal security before love and honour.

A taste of France
More by accident than design a fair few French authors were consumed. Jean-Paul Sartre showed that he could produce a good story as well as a text that works on an existential level with his Roads to Freedom trilogy. Some of the same themes of occupation and resistance were covered in The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir. The classic Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was enjoyable but his Sentimental Education was even better. One of the most ambitious books I have ever come across was Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec who went room by room through a Parisian apartment block telling a story of those who lived and had lived there.

The fantastic
Along with Alice in Wonderland one of the surprises of the year was the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Once the commitment had been made to stick with them the reward was a story of good versus evil that was set against a most unusual world of Gormenghast. Although it might not be fair to put it in this category Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, with its time travel and aliens, was one of the strangest anti-war books but oddly more powerful as a result. Billy seems to have been so impacted by his memories of Dresden and the firestorm that travelling to other planetary systems would be more preferable to remembering those events in 1945.

Second half tomorrow…

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