2015 Books

December 2015

1. The First Bad Man, Miranda July
***
Big, big fan of July. Loved her short story collection, No-one Belongs Here More Than You, loved her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. And so I had high hopes for this novel. It started brilliantly and then…it just lost its sparkle a bit. July has such a quirky, slanted view of life which adds to her prolific output, but after a while the misfits slot into their narcissistic lives and their strange ways become the norm.

2. Neurotribes, Steve Silberman
*****
Excellent historical view of autism research with some fairly horrific stories of how autistic people used to be treated before we better understood this fascinating condition. There is still a long way to go, but we seem to moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. In my previous life, before I moved into publishing, I worked with autistic people and I’m also the publishing editor for the journal, Autism, so my interest in this subject matter is keen. However, this is a great book for anyone interested in autism, especially parents and families who want to understand their son or daughter better. Take home message: celebrate diversity. Our world has thrived because of autistic people.

November 2015

1. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper
***
This is a biography about PLF, writer, international traveller, boozer, womaniser and war hero. Cooper is certainly easier to read than Paddy’s overwritten prose. Last year I read the first of Fermor’s “travel” books, A Time of Gifts, where he recalls his walk across Europe at the age of 18, setting off from Tower Bridge on a boat to Rotterdam and reaching Constantinople some months/years later. Fame didn’t only come from his memoirs but from his escapades in WW2, most notably when he and other Greek resistance fighters kidnapped a Nazi general to demoralise the German soldiers in occupied Greece. This part of the book is really the highlight for me. However, I don’t feel he did much more other than live an interesting life after that. Yes, he wrote books, he lived something of the nomadic life, relying on his aristo connections in many instances, he drank gallons of booze, and he talked a lot. He lived to a ripe old age and I imagine he was terrific company, if you’d got the stamina and liver to drink with him. But the biography doesn’t make me want to run to my shelf and read part two of his walk across Europe, Between the Woods and the Water.

2. Even the Dogs, jon mcgregor
***
I read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things some years ago and was impressed by mcgregor’s unusual, aloof narrative style. Even the Dogs does something very similar. There is an incident, a death, and no-one knows exactly what happened. Bit by bit a collective “we” piece together the events leading to this man’s death by weaving other people’s stories into this narrative. We know he died between Christmas and New Year but no-one found his body for several days. Essentially this is a book about outsiders. The dead man was an alcoholic, and he surrounded himself with addicts and drinkers. They often came to his flat to shoot up and pass out. Macgregor writes with a great deal of sympathy for these characters. They live on life’s edge, just waiting to get their next fix, and yet it is done without sentimentality. We grow to understand their motivations much better as we are drip-fed details of their own lives: trauma in Afghanistan or Northern Ireland as a soldier, child abuse or mental health problems. Seen on the street, you might well walk on by. On the page, they seem much more human because of this technique of the collective “we”. I have to confess I bought this book as a prize to myself for getting Highly Commended at the London Short Story Award 2015. Mcgregor was one of the judges and he kindly signed a copy for me. So, for that alone, I will treasure this short book.

October 2015

1. Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard
****
A birthday gift from my lovely friend, Mila (one of the Readers for TSS). Such an eclectic array of short stories, many of which are taken from real, historical events, such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 (The Zero Meter Diving Team), the defense of Hadrian’s Wall during Roman times, to The First South Australian Expedition, set in 1840. Shepard travels across time and space to bring us stories of family and romantic relationships, failures on the battlefield, an executioner’s perspective during the French Revolution, and astonishing feats of suffering and survival. The range is extraordinary as is Shepard’s talent in conveying such depth and compassion for the flawed human race. The man’s clearly done his homework.

September 2015

Most of the month well spent reading The Short Story Competition 2015 entries, but I did manage to sneak in this one.
1. How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran
***
Another quick read and an enjoyable one. The Scooby Doo episode at the radio station had me howling with laughter. I’m not sure the cautionary tale was quite so effective but Moran writes with gusto. Reinventing her fat, virgin, teenage self into a wise-cracking Dolly, she breaks free from the poverty of her working class roots and makes it as a music journalist down in London. It seems to be a thinly veiled autobiography rather than novel, but for fun reads, this book does the trick.

August 2015

1. The Good Son, Paul McVeigh
****
I read this in just over 24 hours during a camping trip to Dorset. Mickey Donnelly is the good son, brought up in 70s Belfast during the Troubles. He’s bright and wants to go to grammar school, but his Da is an alcoholic, his Ma is loving but overworked, trying to bring up 4 kids by herself, his brother is involved with the IRA and the kids in the street, man, they can be cruel. McVeigh does dialogue beautifully. In fact, most of the book is dialogue, both inner and actual. Maybe it’s because he writes about a time of my own childhood that seems familiar to me, maybe it’s because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting McVeigh a couple of times and found him to be a thoroughly nice bloke, but that aside, the book is just a great page turner. I was gunning for MD from the offset. Pun intended.

2. Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth
**
My love affair with Roth might end here. Mickey Sabbath, ex-puppeteer, crippled with arthritis, looks back on his life, mainly his sex life, and sees the failures within it. It feels like a dirty old man’s wet dream. I almost gave up as the first 150 pages were excruciating in their graphic detail. That might make me sound like a prude but his attitude to the women in his life is abhorrent, from his disappeared first wife, to his recovering alcoholic second wife, and to his mother. Only Drenka, his Slavic lover, escapes his vicious tongue and I don’t buy her as a character. She’s more an extension of his sexual fantasies. There’s no doubt Roth is a good writer but this feels too similar to The Human Stain with more dirty bits. The brief attempt at stream of consciousness doesn’t work, nor does the tedious transcript of the phone sex scandal. Just wish I’d stuck to the collection of short stories earlier this year.  Two stars might seem harsh as it does get better towards the end but it took too much effort to get there to look back fondly.

July 2015

1. A Bit on the Side, William Trevor
***
Virgin visit to Trevor territory. It started well with the first two stories: Sitting with the Dead and Traditions. Thereafter it tailed off a bit. He writes clearly and well, but perhaps I should have started with his earlier works.

2. The Isle of Youth, Laura van den Berg
****
I don’t know who recommended this book to me. It might even have been the young lad in Waterstones who on the same day foisted the terrible Flanagan book into my hands. If so, he is forgiven because this was a gem. I don’t think there was a bum note throughout. Tales of broken families, missing fathers, renegade siblings, failing couples, this fresh new-ish voice is a revelation. Definitely one to watch.

 

3. Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State, Colin M. Waugh
****
This has been sitting on my shelves from the day the Woolf & Tay indie bookshop closed its doors for the last time in SE1. The only good thing about this closure is that I walked out with this book and the excellent biography on John Cheever by Blake Bailey. Liberia has fascinated me for some time, ever since Charles Taylor was finally captured and indicted for war crimes, not, as it turns out, for atrocities committed in Liberia, but for crimes against humanity in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor is now behind bars for the rest of his life but still not a single person in America is held to account for their long-term involvement in this tiny West African country. I’m not exonerating Taylor. He deserves to be there. But, as is argued by the now deposed President, so should Bush and Blair.

June 2015

1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher stories, Hilary Mantel
***
My love affair with Mantel continues apace. This collection of short stories is her latest offering and has some harrowing tales. A staunch left-winger (the title gives it away doesn’t it?), she covers the theme social justice or rather injustice in many of the stories in this collection. The School of English is probably the most disturbing, but others leave you uneasy at man’s inhumanity to man.

2. Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
****
Oh joy! This was Roth’s first book, with the titled novella, Goodbye, Columbus, and other short stories. Ironically, Goodbye, Columbus is the weakest one in the collection. Boy meets girl, they date over the summer, they break up. End of. But Defenders of the Faith and The Conversion of the Jews have been added to my all-time favourite short stories. Very Jewish in style, but anti-religious, Roth explores one of his favourite themes, that of American identity, with wit, intelligence and his own stylised humour. I can see why Roth and Bellow are such good pals.

3. The Shipwrecked Men, Cabeza de Vaca
**
It feels a bit mean giving this only 2 stars but it just wasn’t very well translated. Written in the 1530s, and based on a true story, a bunch of Spanish explorers trek to Central and North America to colonise the land. They start off with hundreds of men but many lives are lost through shipwrecks, drowning, disease and attacks by the native Indians. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for these intrepid explorers, so steeped are they in their Christian ways that they cannot conceive of another way of life. Harsh though it seems, I can’t help feeling they got what they deserved. There is some fascinating detail as to how the Indians lived but the narrative is very dry for it to ever really come to life. Shame because I usually love tales of survival.
 

4. The Human Stain, Philip Roth
***
Again, possibly a bit on the tight side with only 3 stars. There are some excellent moments in this book – the ending of chapter 3 with his “lily-livered” accusations are a case in point – but overall it is too ponderous. Coleman Silk has a secret and it’s not the fact that this 71 year old disgraced academic is sleeping with the 34 year old janitor at Athena College. It’s something much more disturbing and if you’ve been following the recent case of Rachel Dolezal you’ll get my drift. American identity is at the heart of this book but Roth poses too many questions in his explorations rather than sticking to what he’s best at, actual story telling.

May 2015

1. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
****
One of the winners from The Short Story competition 2013, James Gering, recommended Lydia Davis. As usual, it took me a while to get round to his recommendation and what a lovely surprise. It’s a full of flash fiction, Flaubert translations and longer pieces about cows moving round fields like chess pieces. But my favourite is The Dog Hair. How she packed so much about the nature of grief in those few short lines is nothing short of a miracle. Look forward to reading more of her work.

2. The Narrow Road to the Deep South, Richard Flanagan
*
What a load of crap. An utterly pointless love story squashed into what should be a fascinating read about the building of the Burmese railway by Australian POWs. Except it wasn’t. My biggest question is how the hell did it win Man Booker prize in 2014? To the young lad at Waterstones who thrust it into my hands, gushing, “It reads like a glass of water.” Really? A glass of water that choked me. And stale water at that.

3. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
*****
Exquisite prose. This short book thoroughly deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. It tells of the ordinary (yet extraordinary) lives of people in Maine centred around Olive Kitteridge, an opinionated, loud-mouthed, flawed but likeable older woman and her gentle husband. It just does old age really well. Thanks for the recommendation, T!
 

4. The Duke of Deception: Memories of my Father, Geoffrey Wolff
****
It should probably say “Memories of my Father and Me”. Jeff Wolff, brother of one of my favourite short story writers, Tobias Wolff, works through the history of his con-man father, the “Duke”. The man was an out and out grifter, borrowing money, cars, swanky clothes, houses, and goodwill from family and friends. He pretended he was at Yale, fought in the Second World War (also not true), and created a fictional CV that managed to get him hired and fired around the world. His offspring both became writers and good ones. Jeff stayed with the Duke through childhood, Tobias with his mother. It doesn’t end well for the Duke and the book feels like a therapeutic act for the scarred son. I now feel I understand Tobias Wolff’s Firelight more than ever. If you’re a Wolff fan, definitely worth a read.

April 2015

1. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
*****
Sequel to Wolf Hall and more of the same. By that I mean more of the same superb story telling from Mantel. Heads lopped off left, right and centre, and the arch villain Henry VIII survives the lot. Mantel is working on the third novel, tracing the life of Thomas Cromwell. We know it ain’t going to end well for our hero but it will be a fascinating read nonetheless.
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
***
My first le Carré novel. It was a bit tricky following all the different characters at the beginning and with the insider language of lamplighters, scalphunters, janitors, mothers, the Circus, Control, etc., a glossary would have been helpful. The quiet character of George Smiley does emerge slowly. He is a far cry from the panache of Bond’s 007 but probably a more accurate description of the life of a British spy during the Cold War.

March 2015

1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
*****
I probably wouldn’t have read this if Mark Rylance hadn’t played Cromwell in the TV adaptation in 2015. I should probably add Rylance on my list of obsessions as this talented man is the greatest living theatre actor on this big, fat planet of ours. I was so taken by the rise of this abused blacksmith’s son to the most powerful man in England beyond the king that I thought I’d try the book. So glad I did. Mantel is a gifted, lyrical writer who plots the intrigues of the Tudor court with intricacy and great panache. She paints gods and monsters of the lot of them. Like Mantel, I was brought up Catholic and brought up to believe in the sanctity of Thomas More. This revisionist take knocks some of the goodness out of that revered saint. Can’t wait for Bring Up The Bodies. Five stars!
2. Falconer, John Cheever
***
Picked up this copy in a great second-hand bookshop on 3rd Street in Philadelphia. Hard-backed with 70s fonts and under $10, I was looking forward to this read but came away rather disappointed. In my view Cheever is first and foremost a short story writer. His novels are just not as good. Falconer tells the story of Farragut, a drug addict imprisoned for killing his brother. It has many of Cheever’s own life stories in there: troubled relationships with his brother and his wife, denial of bisexuality, an obsession with his cock, among other addictions. To me it just seemed to be a series of prison anecdotes. There’s almost a riot and a couple of escapes, both of which are pretty ridiculous. Most of all it lacks much of Cheever’s wit and he has an annoying tendency to ramble on in dreamscapes. Maybe the gin had addled his art by the time he wrote this later work. I’ll stick to his shorter stuff.
 

February 2015

1. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
***
The idea behind this book began when Byron, Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Mary Shelley decided to set up a competition to see who could create the best horror story. Byron and Shelley’s contributions are largely forgotten but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, has survived almost two centuries. A couple of myths dispelled (just in case, like me, you’ve watched too many bad horror movies): Frankenstein is the person who created the monster, not the monster itself. And it’s the monster who demands a female partner. Despite the poor creature’s intelligence and sensitivity he is rejected by human beings because of his grotesque ugliness and is desperately lonely. His soul mate is never made. There is no Frankenstein’s “bride”. Through the monster’s insistence Frankenstein begins to create a second female creature, but he decides more tampering with nature would be disastrous and unethical. As a result the monster wreaks more vengeance on Frankenstein’s family and loved ones. Thinking about when this was written and how science has evolved over time it’s a remarkably prescient tale.
2. Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads, Nick Hayes
****
My second graphic novel ever. First one was Persepolis. It tells Woody Guthrie’s life through pictures and words. The pictures are striking, often grey scale, and yet they bowl you over as the power of the Great Depression takes hold. The words…well, I’m nit-picking here, but on occasions he went overboard with alliteration. Guthrie could get away with it in song. I’m not sure it works quite so well in prose. But that’s my only niggle. It was beautifully produced and a book I will return to.

January 2015

1. Coming up for Air, George Orwell:
***
Fatty Bowling gets new false teeth and an idea. To revisit his home town after many years away. He’s got £17 in his pocket from a bet he is not prepared to share with his family. His parents are dead but he reminisces – not in a sentimental way – about his home town, his childhood, the school, the old sweet shop, his father’s failing business, his thick, older brother and fishing. Bowling is now married to a wife he doesn’t like, and two children he doesn’t care for. He has a house and a car in the ‘burbs and his life is boringly middle class. If he thinks he’s going to find an unchanged landscape when he returns to Lower Binfield, he is wrong. The ponds have turned into rubbish dumps and the old market town is unrecognisable. By no means Orwell’s finest work, it’s also a great improvement on the drabness of A Clergyman’s Daughter. There are times when I think Orwell’s journalistic skills drive his novels. He’s a meticulous note taker about time and place, and this particular novel captures the pre and post WW1 days rather well as the shadow of the Second World War looms. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed this book.

2. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell:
**
A miserable, little novel. Gordon bleats about money and poverty. He makes a choice to forego a middle class life by giving up his well paid job to live the pure life of the writer. He suffers for his art and we suffer as readers. In the end he opts back into his middle class ways, marries his loyal girlfriend and has a kid. If he’d been truly poor maybe he wouldn’t have had the luxury of choice.  My only comfort, Orwell hated the book too and apparently published it because he needed the money. Oh, the irony.
3. 1984, George Orwell:
****
My winter project of reading all of Orwell’s novels is over. It began with Animal Farm and ended with 1984. They are definitely his two finest fictional works. 1984 is so well known that I don’t need to expand on the plot, but I had forgotten the excellent details on re-writing history and the methods it uses to reprogramme its people. This element is deeply philosophical in nature as it explores what can we believe as the truth and questions how much we would defend the one we love when faced with torture. So much of the language of 1984 has become embedded into our own: Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak and we use the adjective Orwellian when describing a dystopian future. I think the success of these two novels lies in the fact that while allegorical in nature they somehow seem so very believable to this day. Just turn on American TV news for an example of brainwashing techniques. And as for surveillance, the UK is one of the most watched countries in the world.