Category: Review of the year

Midway review of the year – post I

The year started with a foreign theme with Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky quickly followed by some Huraki Murakami. The Dostoevsky was great to see a great writer show a more human side. This was repetitive and obnoxious in places with a sense of humour that didn’t always work. Following it up with his debut Poor Folk showed just how polished he could be.

Murakami’s book about running was more a book about writing with the author talking about discipline and routine and the fact they worked well for both running and writing.

Then things took a German theme and specifically the holocaust with The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne and Crabwalk by Gunter Grass.

The Reader was a clever book that challenged perceptions of victim status with a camp guard unable to read being sent to prison for amongst other things deciding who should die on prisoner lists. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was childlike but very powerful. The story of the boys on either side of the barbed wire ends in tragedy but the senselessness of racist persecution comes through strongly. Finally Crabwalk is Grass writing about modern technology and the power of the internet to spread hate. He tells a story about the power of the past and the failure of a guilty generation to teach the young the lessons they should have learnt.

Then came the marathon that was 2666 and the Red Riding quartet. First of all the Bolano. This 1,000 page opus is in many ways an odd book. Produced in a way that the deceased author never wanted – he had hoped for separate books – and without a conclusion it is a real challenge to stick with it.

The pay-off as far as I was concerned was that it showed an author who was clearly on a journey towards a grand narrative. The hundreds of women that were being killed in an industrial Mexican town were linked with a reclusive author. No doubt it would have all come together and you could appreciate the vision.

The Red Riding quartet, which benefitted from a TV series on Channel 4, was in some ways as dark as the Bolano with murders and corrupt policemen but this was closer to home and grittier. David Peace takes the reader into a nightmarish world where the lines between right and wrong have gone and night and day become a blurred living hell. As the story of corruption in Yorkshire unfolds through 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983 so do a collection of inter-connected characters. Peace is writing not just about corruption but real evil and the imagery used and the content of these books is going to stick in the mind well beyond 2009.

Part two coming up…

A year of reading – part two

In the second part of my review of the books consumed this year there has to be a mention for a couple of authors in particular that provoked a frenzy of reading activity.

J.D Salinger
Starting with Catcher in the Rye, which was everything you expected it to be with the teenage anti-hero, there was enough about the style to provoke a delve into the short story collections. The creation of the Glass family, which seemed so genuinely biographical, is something that weaves throughout his other books. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters both expanded on the family history. The pivotal event, apart from the family being involved in a popular radio series as children is the suicide of the eldest son Seymour. That event stirs his brother Buddy to be the voice of the narrator that looks for clues to the suicide and catalogues the impact on the siblings.

Cormac McCarthy
One of the great things about loving books is that it can lead to interesting conversations with friends. One of mine led to an exchange with a McCarthy loving friend. I didn’t act on his enthusiasm until half way through the year and then tackled No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy. Those four books, which concentrated on the changing nature of Texas and the mystery of the Mexican border, were the perfect preparation for The Road. Probably my favourite book of the year, The Road is able to take the idea of a dying world to its logical conclusion. Once there all that is left is love, hope and a fading respect for some of the traditions of the past.

Crime fighters
Thrillers have always been a source of relaxation and there were some great surprises. The Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo managed to grip you with Roseanna and introduce a ten book series following the exploits of Martin Beck. As the year ended the first two had been read and Father Christmas had delivered the third. Henning Mankell, another Swedish author, looked like delivering the same quality with Faceless Killers but his next two books, the third of which I am still wading through, failed to deliver. Arthur Conan Doyle provided the holiday reading in Switzerland as I visited the falls where Holmes had fought with Moriarty.

British humour
Times gone by, a gentler age, were easily discovered leafing through the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and the Lord Elmsworth stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Although none of the above provided many laugh out loud moments they all threw open a window into the past when it was possible to get into a farcical scrape and still come out of it having kept the reputation of the upper classes intact.

Short stories
One of the pleasures, and occasional chores, of 2007 was being ambitious enough to fill each lunch hour with novellas or collections of short stories. Some of the best were provided by Rudyard Kipling who produced colonial tales that showed his ability as a writer. The same colonial background was used by Doris Lessing in The Black Madonna. But one of the masters of the short story genre, Edgar Allan Poe, provided a selection of stories that often seemed far removed from real life. Some of the most memorable include The Fall of the House of Usher and Murder in the Rue Morgue. There are little pockets of supporters for short stories and whenever they pipe up Anton Chekhov is often used as an example and he also provided some powerful food for thought during lunch hours.

A year of reading – part two

In the second part of my review of the books consumed this year there has to be a mention for a couple of authors in particular that provoked a frenzy of reading activity.

J.D Salinger
Starting with Catcher in the Rye, which was everything you expected it to be with the teenage anti-hero, there was enough about the style to provoke a delve into the short story collections. The creation of the Glass family, which seemed so genuinely biographical, is something that weaves throughout his other books. Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters both expanded on the family history. The pivotal event, apart from the family being involved in a popular radio series as children is the suicide of the eldest son Seymour. That event stirs his brother Buddy to be the voice of the narrator that looks for clues to the suicide and catalogues the impact on the siblings.

Cormac McCarthy
One of the great things about loving books is that it can lead to interesting conversations with friends. One of mine led to an exchange with a McCarthy loving friend. I didn’t act on his enthusiasm until half way through the year and then tackled No Country for Old Men and the Border Trilogy. Those four books, which concentrated on the changing nature of Texas and the mystery of the Mexican border, were the perfect preparation for The Road. Probably my favourite book of the year, The Road is able to take the idea of a dying world to its logical conclusion. Once there all that is left is love, hope and a fading respect for some of the traditions of the past.

Crime fighters
Thrillers have always been a source of relaxation and there were some great surprises. The Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo managed to grip you with Roseanna and introduce a ten book series following the exploits of Martin Beck. As the year ended the first two had been read and Father Christmas had delivered the third. Henning Mankell, another Swedish author, looked like delivering the same quality with Faceless Killers but his next two books, the third of which I am still wading through, failed to deliver. Arthur Conan Doyle provided the holiday reading in Switzerland as I visited the falls where Holmes had fought with Moriarty.

British humour
Times gone by, a gentler age, were easily discovered leafing through the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and the Lord Elmsworth stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Although none of the above provided many laugh out loud moments they all threw open a window into the past when it was possible to get into a farcical scrape and still come out of it having kept the reputation of the upper classes intact.

Short stories
One of the pleasures, and occasional chores, of 2007 was being ambitious enough to fill each lunch hour with novellas or collections of short stories. Some of the best were provided by Rudyard Kipling who produced colonial tales that showed his ability as a writer. The same colonial background was used by Doris Lessing in The Black Madonna. But one of the masters of the short story genre, Edgar Allan Poe, provided a selection of stories that often seemed far removed from real life. Some of the most memorable include The Fall of the House of Usher and Murder in the Rue Morgue. There are little pockets of supporters for short stories and whenever they pipe up Anton Chekhov is often used as an example and he also provided some powerful food for thought during lunch hours.

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…

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…

Review of the year – fiction

It has been a fantastic year in terms of chipping away at some of the classics that should have been consumed when I was younger. For the sake of making the process easier I will go through it briefly on a country basis and my love for Russian literature should become apparent.

Russia
This was the year of Fydor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Goncharov and Gogol with highlights including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Kasmarov and Oblomov as well as Dead Souls and Taras Bulba. The general theme of Russian literature is tragedy so you get the father killing his son is Taras Bulba a Russian aristocrat Oblomov marrying beneath him and losing potentially the love of his life because he cannot make the effort and of course the story of brothers who hate their father and a student putting a hatchet into a money lenders head in Crime and Punishment. Great books that really make you think about your own views and behaviour and because of tragic twists leave you wondering where the story will end tight up until sadly it does.

France
Proust dominated the reading with Remembrance of Things Past a book that started with such deep description it was almost suffocating but ended with a paranoid writer obsessed with homosexuality and the sexual encounters of his former lover, who dies after falling off a horse. Apart from that the short but disturbing tale of teenage love and intrigue in Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and Jean Paul Satre’s Nausea proved that the French are capable of being passionate about love as well as obsessively introverted about their own thoughts. The other main French writer was Albert Camus who provides a classic in the shape of The Outsider that deserves to be read by more than just US presidents on their holiday reading.

America
Tales of economic hardship in the form of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath showed how important the depression and the expansion of private enterprise had been on novelists but there were also books like To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee that were capable of leaving you in tears. Other highlights included The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway as well as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which showed how powerful the combination of journalism and literature can be.

Favourites
One of my standout reads was The White Guard by Mikhail Bulagov who also amazed with The Master and Margarita. A combination of war story, adolescence and growing up the story. A special mention for the penultimate chapter in Ulysses by James Joyce not only because that was one of the few chapters that was readable without use of web based study guides but because it was also the most moving between the two main characters Bloom and Stephen.

More, much more, to come in 2007.

Review of the year – fiction

It has been a fantastic year in terms of chipping away at some of the classics that should have been consumed when I was younger. For the sake of making the process easier I will go through it briefly on a country basis and my love for Russian literature should become apparent.

Russia
This was the year of Fydor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Goncharov and Gogol with highlights including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Kasmarov and Oblomov as well as Dead Souls and Taras Bulba. The general theme of Russian literature is tragedy so you get the father killing his son is Taras Bulba a Russian aristocrat Oblomov marrying beneath him and losing potentially the love of his life because he cannot make the effort and of course the story of brothers who hate their father and a student putting a hatchet into a money lenders head in Crime and Punishment. Great books that really make you think about your own views and behaviour and because of tragic twists leave you wondering where the story will end tight up until sadly it does.

France
Proust dominated the reading with Remembrance of Things Past a book that started with such deep description it was almost suffocating but ended with a paranoid writer obsessed with homosexuality and the sexual encounters of his former lover, who dies after falling off a horse. Apart from that the short but disturbing tale of teenage love and intrigue in Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and Jean Paul Satre’s Nausea proved that the French are capable of being passionate about love as well as obsessively introverted about their own thoughts. The other main French writer was Albert Camus who provides a classic in the shape of The Outsider that deserves to be read by more than just US presidents on their holiday reading.

America
Tales of economic hardship in the form of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath showed how important the depression and the expansion of private enterprise had been on novelists but there were also books like To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee that were capable of leaving you in tears. Other highlights included The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway as well as In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which showed how powerful the combination of journalism and literature can be.

Favourites
One of my standout reads was The White Guard by Mikhail Bulagov who also amazed with The Master and Margarita. A combination of war story, adolescence and growing up the story. A special mention for the penultimate chapter in Ulysses by James Joyce not only because that was one of the few chapters that was readable without use of web based study guides but because it was also the most moving between the two main characters Bloom and Stephen.

More, much more, to come in 2007.