Tag Archives: Books

‘Tales of soldiers and civilians, and other stories’ by Ambrose Bierce

Tales of soldiers and civilians

I knew nothing about Ambrose Bierce when I plucked this book off the library shelf. I’m always intrigued when I see a title that I’ve not heard of before in a ‘classics’ series. Bierce was a late nineteenth to early twentieth-century American author, and this is a selection of short stories from across his ouevre. (Bierce didn’t write any novels. In his Devil’s dictionary, he dismissively defined the novel as ‘a short story padded’. I love novels, but this made me smile. It’s a typically irreverant Biercism). The stories range from the poignant to the macabre to the ridiculous. Bierce revelled in his characterisation as a cynic and misanthrope during his lifetime and posterity has polished this reputation to a high shine. There is certainly plenty of cynicism on show in his fiction, but I get the impression that like many supposed ‘misanthropes’ Bierce was bitterly disappointed by his fellow humans because he himself had strong ideals and expected better of other people.

The first section is separated into ‘soldier’ and ‘civilian’ stories, with the American Civil War providing the setting for the soldier tales. Bierce fought (on the Union side) and perhaps it made him feel that the world would forever be divided into those who had experienced war and those who had not. Bierce specialises in the way war – especially civil war – artificially sets people against each other. His favourite theme is to pit brother against brother, father against son, close friends facing each other on battlefield. Most of his stories have a twist at the end, and often this involves revealing the depths of emotion hidden behind military demeanour, where following orders and doing your duty can mean struggling against your instincts and killing those you love and admire.

At times the prose is intensely imagined. Bierce is capable of minute detail, such as in ‘One of the missing’, in which a man is trapped under the fallen timbers of a building with the muzzle of his own loaded gun pointing at his head, primed to go off at the slightest movement. Several pages without action or dialogue follow from the point of view of an immobile man sweating with terror and confronting death. At other times the narrative zooms out across the landscape at dizzying speed, as in ‘An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, when a man being hanged on a bridge falls down into the water away from his executioners and is carried downriver towards his wife and home. He experiences a heightened perception of the movement, sounds, and sights of life buzzing all around him:

He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf – saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig. He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass. The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat – all these made audible music. A fish slid along beneath his eyes and he heard the rush of its body parting the water.

These stories are not for the squeamish. This is not just the case with the war stories; Bierce is also deliberately horrific in his ‘civilian’ stories. The writer he most made me think of was Chuck Palahniuk, which was not what I was expecting from a nineteenth-century writer. Like Palahniuk, Bierce aimed to shock by pushing his characters way beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour: parenticide and serial killings are common. Several of his tales can be classified as ‘horror’, featuring a (usually terrifying) supernatural element. However, he often offers a scientific or quasi-scientific explanation for the ‘supernatural’ phenomena. I found this aspect intriguing; I suppose it reflects how an intelligent and imaginative person excited by scientific discoveries at the turn of the ninenteenth century would have tried to make sense of the world.

Did I enjoy it? I admit there were moments when I blanched at some of the gorier sections and had to put the book down for a moment to recover from the images Bierce had so vividly implanted in my mind. But I admire his courage. Where others turn their faces away from things they would rather not think about, Bierce confronts life head-on. He’s equally good at describing light-hearted pranks, pettiness, bravery, devotion, injured pride, vanity, betrayal, selfishness, chivalry and cruelty. From the comic to the grotesque, all human life is here.

‘I hate the internet’ by Jarett Kobek

i-hate-the-internet

I hate the internet. Who doesn’t? OK, so it’s useful: I reserved this book at my local library via the internet, and am now writing a review of it on the internet, which you are reading … on the internet. So I’m more ambivalent than indifferent to the internet: I love it and I hate it at the same time. For something that has really only been used by most people for the last decade or two, it has taken over vast swathes of our lives. Very few novels have acknowledged this seachange in the way we live. Jarett Kobek’s I hate the internet confronts our online lives head-on in a bracing interrogation of what on earth we are doing to ourselves and others.

Adeline has offended the internet. A video of her voicing her opinions on a wide range of subjects has been put online and now Twitter hates her. The previously technologically-illiterate Adeline fights back by getting her own Twitter account and is sucked into all manner of problems – and marketing possibilities. This story is only a very small part of the book, however: the plot (such as it is) meanders along, being constantly diverted into discursive discussions on everything from social media, Silicon Valley, Google and comic books, to the state of modern America.

To start with the problematic aspect of this book: it may be subtitled ‘A novel’ but it isn’t really. The plot is minimal, mostly being concerned with Adeline and her friends offering their opinions on various aspects of the modern world. There is little to no scene-setting, character development, action or description: it mostly consists of talking heads in a void. This isn’t a criticism exactly, as it’s not due to Kobek’s inability to write. He clearly meant the book to take this form. If you like this kind of book, you’ll like this book; if you don’t, you won’t.

Where the book does shine is in its take-downs of a breathtaking range of modern ills. Almost every paragraph skewers at least one feature of modern life, ranging from the banal to the profound. Amongst others, Kobek takes a well-aimed swipe at sexism, racism, celebrity-worship, comic book conventions, Facebook, literary fiction, Ayn Rand, the cost of renting in the San Francisco Bay Area, Received Pronunciation, gentrification, Google, sweatshops, sport, economic deregulation, virtue signalling, twerking and Star Wars. He does not engage in subtle persuasion as to whether the things he criticises are bad: he simply describes them in bald unflinching matter-of-fact terms as if explaining the world to an alien, or a bemused human from the future. For example, Kobek explains one character’s slave ancestry thus:

Sometimes when Jeremy’s male ancestors raped Jeremy’s female ancestors, the underlying biology would produce babies. When these babies were born, they were owned by their fathers or their fathers’ families.

You could rape your property and make new property and that new property would earn you more money. It was a nice time to own people. It was a bad time to be owned.

As you may have guessed from the above quote, Kobek is at his most scathing when slaughtering America’s sacred cows. Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution, Walt Disney, the CIA, the Iraq war, the New York Times, Thanksgiving and baseball are all attacked. Occasionally, small sections of text are blacked out in the style of censorship strips with the accompanying phrase [Jim’ll fix it], in reference to the fact that Jimmy Savile’s fame and wealth enabled him to evade prosecution. This serves as a frequent visual reminder that whether you agree with all of Kobek’s criticisms or not, the importance of speaking truth to power cannot be denied.

I wouldn’t want to regularly read this kind of book as I didn’t find it as emotionally engaging as a novel with a sustained narrative would be. But I did admire Kobek’s attempt to grapple with modern issues commonly ignored by other authors, and found his forthright and combative style refreshing.

‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir

the_martian_2014

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. It the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Following an accident, astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars, presumed dead by his crewmates. How will he survive in this barren, hostile planet, totally alone until the next scheduled space mission lands in four years’ time?

This is the opening scenario of The Martian, a novel that is a perfect example of a theme that has been developing in modern culture over the last decade or so: the geek as hero. Watney’s knowledge of botany, chemistry, cosmology and materials science is vital for his survival. Suddenly, whether scientific theory can work in practice is a matter of life or death. Watney has to rapidly make phenomenally clever calculations, and apply them instantly where the result is of vital importance. Most of us know that the chemical formula for water is H2O, but not many of us would be able to apply this knowledge to make water from scratch on another planet.

Despite these technological trimmings The Martian is at heart a surprisingly old-fashioned story. What could be more primitive than having to struggle for the very air you breathe? The result is a gripping adventure story. Lots of people have described it as Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ and that’s a pretty neat summary. This is ‘science’ fiction not in the narrow sense of a fetishisation of cutting edge modern technology, but in the wider sense of a celebration of human ingenuity. And Watney is undeniably ingenious: this is the man who when faced with the problem of how to start a fire with no flammable materials uses his own arm hair as tinder. Some of his solutions for survival are low-tech, such as growing potatoes for food using soil and (human) fertiliser. He also makes use of a navigational technique from the 16th century: using a sextant to calculate latitude. And over the course of the novel he uses a hell of a lot of duct tape.

Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.

The Martian is an action thriller, rather than a psychological thriller. When I started reading I thought there might be some sick twist to the story – some betrayal or sabotage by someone Watney trusted, or that he himself would become pychologically scarred by his ordeal. But this is another way that The Martian could be considered a straightforward old-fashioned story. There is no villain, unless the indifferently hostile Mars itself counts. Watney is a likeable hero with no hang-ups: cheerful, resourceful and mentally balanced. This makes sense though, as this is the kind of person who NASA would pick for an interplanetary mission. If there’s one thing reading this book has taught me, it’s to face up to the fact that NASA is never going to send me to space; it’s also taught me that I wouldn’t want to go anyway. But I loved reading about it. I’d particularly recommend this book to anyone interested in science, space travel or survival stories, but it would be enjoyed by anyone who just wants an uncomplicated exciting adventure story.

‘The rector’ and ‘The doctor’s family’ by Mrs Oliphant

The rector and the doctor's family

A new Victorian author! New to me that is; obviously no actual new Victorian authors have emerged since 1901. The rector and The doctor’s family first appeared in 1863, the good people at Virago Classics republished it in 1988, I found it in a second-hand bookshop in 2013, and now I’ve finally got round to reading and reviewing it in 2016.

The book is made up of two short novels, both set in the same fictional provincial Victorian town of Carlingford, where Mrs Oliphant later set other novels. The first story, ‘The rector’, is very short indeed – it can hardly even be called a novella, at a mere 35 pages. As well as being short, its plot is so slight as to be almost nonexistant. It would probably have been better suited to being one plot strand amongst many in a more complicated novel. ‘The rector’ features that staple starting point for stories set in closed communities: an incoming stranger – in this case Carlingford’s new vicar – and his attempts to fit into the town. The residents of Carlingford are intrigued as to what sort of religion he will provide: ‘high’ with all the aesthetically pleasing rituals of incense and solemn ceremony or ‘low’ with long, earnest sermons. Another source of local speculation is whether he, a middle-aged bachelor, will succumb to any of the eligible women of Carlingford. The turn the story takes subverted what I was expecting. Although I felt slightly shortchanged by the (to my mind) anti-climactic ending, I do admire Mrs Oliphant for not sticking to the usual jaded, predictable endings.

Another fresh element in Mrs Oliphant’s writing is her irreverent humour. It can be seen in the scene where the rector’s gossipy elderly mother, Mrs Proctor, interrogates him about his new parishioners. She is somewhat hard of hearing and her son is worried that his shouted replies will be overheard by the servants in the kitchen. Far from sharing this worry, Mrs Proctor finds his agitation highly amusing:

“But now tell me, my dear,” said old Mrs Proctor, “who’s Mr Wodehouse?”

With despairing calmness, the Rector approached his voice to her ear. “He’s a churchwarden!” cried the unfortunate man, in a shrill whisper.

“He’s what? – you forget I don’t hear very well. I’m a great deal deafer, Morley my dear, than I was the last time you were in Devonshire. What did you say Mr Wodehouse was?”

“He’s an ass!” exclaimed the baited Rector.

Mrs Oliphant’s quiet subversion is more apparent, and more satisfyingly worked out, in the second story, ‘The doctor’s family’. This story also kicks off with the arrival of newcomers, this time connected to that other pillar of provincial society, the town’s doctor. The doctor’s lazy and dissipated elder brother is suddenly revealed to have acquired a wife and children during his stay in Australia. They turn up announced in the doctor’s house, along with the wife’s sister, Nettie. The doctor is instantly attracted to his sister-in-law, the vibrant Nettie Underwood. Nettie’s charm for the doctor – and for the 21st-century reader – is her feisty determination to run her life on her own terms:

Nettie obstinately refused to be said to do her duty. She was doing her own will with an imperious distinctness and energy – having her own way – displaying no special virtue, but a determined wilfulness.

Nettie’s confident self-sufficiency reflects Mrs Oliphant’s own personality. Widowed in her 30s, she had two young children to support and was pregnant with a third; she then found out that her husband had left her with £1000 of debt. Undaunted, she girded her loins and increased her writing output, eventually producing over 120 novels during her lifetime. She also financially supported her brothers, nephews and nieces. Her life was a firm rebuttal of the popular Victorian notion of the helpless woman reliant on men; no wonder she had no time to waste on such women in her own writing.

Where does Mrs Oliphant rank amongst the pantheon of Victorian authors? The rector and the doctor’s family doesn’t have the emotional punch of the Brontë sisters or Thomas Hardy, nor is Mrs Oliphant as technically accomplished as Dickens or Eliot, or as original as Wilkie Collins. The mostly-cosy world of Carlingford is similar in its style and its preoccupations to that of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford or Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire. However, Mrs Oliphant’s own interesting life, and the quiet subversion she shows in her novels, made me warm to her more than I have done to, say, Anthony Trollope, and I will probably hunt out some more of her books.

‘Longbourn’ by Jo Baker

Longbourn

Jane Austen’s books – especially Pride and Prejudice – have inspired many sequels. One of the earliest was Sylvia Brinton’s Old friends and new fancies in 1903, and since then they have come quick and fast, up to and beyond 2012’s Death comes to Pemberley, a crime fiction spin-off by P.D. James. It’s understandable: Jane Austen left only six finished novels and a few fragments, and her fans wish she’d lived longer and been able to write more. Unfortunately, the sequels are mostly awful.

A sequel to a well-known work faces two problems. The first is that a classic work of literature is complete in itself. It covers the defining event of the protagonist’s life, whether that’s Frodo destroying the One Ring or Elizabeth Bennet securing a husband. Any other, later, events in their lives are going to seem unimportant and uninteresting by comparison. The other problem is that the classics were written by geniuses, and to borrow their characters and plotlines is to set yourself up for comparison with them. Jo Baker’s Longbourn, a retelling of Pride and prejudice, gets around the first problem by concerning itself not with later events, but the same events, from a different point of view – that of the Bennets’ servants. The second problem remains though: although not a bad writer, Baker is not as good as Austen (not many people are).

Most of the action in Longbourn – around three-quarters – takes place alongside identifiable events from Pride and prejudice, and each chapter is headed by a short quote from P&P. Although P&P is the jumping-off point for the book, Longbourn is defiantly concerned with all the things that Austen didn’t cover: the working classes, sex, violence, war, slavery, mud, blood and bodily fluids. It’s a promising concept, and on occasion deploying these themes in connection with characters we tend to think of us refined and cerebral can produce a delicious jolt of shock, as when the housemaid Sarah muses on the Bennet girls whilst washing their laundry:

“The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were.”

I have a few issues with this book. One is that it is too didactic, constantly banging-on about how difficult the servants’ lives were, and how their wealthy employers were thoughtless to their needs. I’m aware that some people have a lot of money and others very little, and that this can cause problems and be a Bad Thing. That doesn’t mean I want to be hit around the head with it every few minutes: I prefer social commentary to be more subtle. Baker simply makes all the P&P upper-class characters out to be nasty people. This is not a book for Austen fans who feel genuine affection for her characters, as Baker’s interpretation is that Darcy is an unpleasant man, and Elizabeth’s marriage to him will make her unhappy. In this respect it doesn’t even work as fan fiction.

The second issue that I have with Longbourn is that the P&P connection didn’t add anything. It appeared to be there to grab the attention of the reading public by promising all the titilating bits that Jane Austen left out, without actually delivering any insight. The P&P characters were a bit flat, which is perhaps to be expected as they were not Baker’s own original creation.

If the non-P&P storylines were strong, Longbourn might still have been able to transcend the unsubtle didacticism and the virtually pointless P&P connection. Sadly, the biggest problem of all for me was that I couldn’t get interested in the non-P&P storylines. When you remove the P&P dressing this is basically a dull romance, which is not the kind of book I would normally read. It’s a shame, but I suppose I’ll have to accept that geniuses of Jane Austen’s level are few and far between, and should be valued as such.

‘War and peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

War and peace

Having slogged through Anna Karenina back in 2010, I decided not to bother with Tolstoy’s other epic masterpiece, War and peace. Not that Anna Karenina was a bad book; I just didn’t think it needed to be so long. The plot wasn’t really complex enough to justify it – when you strip it back, it’s basically Madame Bovary.

Then I saw that the BBC was adapting War and peace for TV and thought I’d watch it instead of reading it. I found myself enjoying the series so much that 3 episodes in I decided to have a crack at reading the original book as well.

Published in Russian between 1865 and 1869, War and peace is set over 40 years earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars in which Napoleon’s French army basically tried to conquer all of Europe and Europe, including Russia, fought back. There are two strands to the novel: one takes the reader out onto the battlefield and to the heart of the military action (‘War’) and the other is concerned with the concurrent domestic and social affairs of the Russian aristocracy (‘Peace’). There is some crossover between the two strands as they feature some of the same characters, and have similar themes: strategy and manouevre; the power of privilege and patronage; and how to find meaning in life. The novel spans 15 years, beginning with the first military engagements between France and Russia in 1805 and climaxing with France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, with an epilogue taking events up to 1820. There is a large cast of characters, which often confuses readers,especially non-Russian speakers not familiar with Russian names. It is epic in its scope, attempting to cover a wide range of human activity, emotions, motivations and personalities, and epic in length, being over 1400 pages in the version I read. Now, 1400 pages isn’t impossible to read – the combined output of the Game of thrones books so far is around three times as long – but the reason so many people struggle to finish it is probably the fact that it does combine two different genres in its mash-up of military and society, with the result that some readers will think there are 700 too many pages of war, while other readers will think there are 700 pages too many of peace.

How has the BBC TV series fitted such a behemoth of a book into 6 hour-long episodes? It has tightened the focus of the story onto three characters (Pierre, Andrei and Natasha), jettisoning a few of the minor characters and sub-plots. Being a visual medium, it was also able to replace pages of description about a character’s emotions (and Tolstoy doesn’t really do ‘succinct’)  with an expressive look from a good actor, or pages of military logistics and discussions of soldiers’ morale with brief panoramic battlescenes before cutting to more detailed coverage of the actions of a few main characters. Above all, the TV adaptation cuts out Tolstoy’s musings on history, philosophy and religion. In the book, these diversions from the plot are sometimes astute and occasionally vivid. I loved Tolstoy’s comparison of abandoned Moscow to a queenless hive:

From the alighting-board, instead of the former winy fragrance of honey and venom, and the breath of warmth from the multitudes within, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the scent of honey. No sentinels watch there, curling up their stings and trumpeting the alarm, ready to die in defence of the community. Gone is the low, even hum, the throb of activity, like the singing of boiling water, and in its place is the fitful, discordant uproar of disorder […] Black robber-bees prowl swiftly and stealthily about the combs in search of plunder; while the short-bodied, dried up home-bees, looking withered and old, languidly creep about, doing nothing to hinder the robbers, having lost all desire and all sense of life.

(Book 3, part 3,  chapter 20)

However, beautiful immersive passages like this are far outnumbered by Tolstoy’s dry, abstract essays. I read the majority of War and peace in three weeks, and then struggled for nearly a week to finish the last 40 pages, which consists of Tolstoy’s opinions on the role of man’s free will in history and is really boring. I take my hat off to the BBC adaptation for managing to preserve the interesting story at the heart of War and peace whilst ruthlessly editing out the ramblings that slow the novel down: the result is both intimate and coherent. It could have been a bit longer though. I don’t think 20 episodes (like the 1972 BBC series) are necessary, but why not 8 or 10? The BBC seems to have a stubborn inflexibility regarding the number of episodes it commissions for its TV series: it’s always 6, whether it fits the story or not.

So much for what the TV series left out; did it add anything that wasn’t in the original novel? Not really. A few scenes were altered or added to explain to the viewer developments that Tolstoy ‘tells’ the reader rather than ‘showing’ them. But in general it sticks very faithfully to the order of events and the essential personalities of the characters. Much of the dialogue stayed so closely word-for-word to the version I was reading (Rosemary Edmonds’s 1957 English translation for Penguin) that I have a strong suspicion this was the version the script was based on. Some online commentators have – wrongly – claimed that the TV series introduces things that are not in the original book. These often relate to Hélène, the most outrageous of War and peace‘s characters. Possibly this is because she is highly sexualised and viewers think that her actions must be the outpourings of Andrew Davies’s feverish mind; his reputation as the writer who introduced a wet shirt scene for Mr Darcy in his 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and prejudice precedes him. Here are some of the things I have read people claiming are modern introductions by the TV series but are actually in the original novel (please skip this section and proceed to the final paragraph if you haven’t read the book or seen the TV series and don’t want any plot spoilers):

  • Hélène’s ‘modern’, slangy way of talking. In fact, in the book this is one of the things that shocks her husband, Pierre:

He recalled the coarseness and bluntness of her ideas, and the vulgarity of the expressions that were characteristic of her, though she had been brought up in the most aristocratic circles.

(Book 2, part 1, chapter 6)

  • Female characters wearing low-cut, clinging and generally revealing dresses. This is not a modern sexing-up of staid 19th-century clothing for TV. Unlike the later, buttoned-up Victorians, early 19th-century women’s clothing was low-cut, clingy and revealing. Influenced by ideas of freedom and a return to nature that had been promoted by the French revolution and thinkers such as Rousseau, women’s dresses were made of thin fabrics and drew attention to the breasts. As a prominent society woman, Hélène takes up this fashion with enthusiasm:

She was, as she always did for evening parties, wearing a gown cut in the fashion of the day, very low back and front.

(Book 1, part 3, chapter 1)

During the opera scene in which Natasha is introduced to Hélène’s brother Anatole, Hélène’s clothing emphasises the licentious nature of the surroundings. She is repeatedly described as “half-naked” and “nearly naked”, and at one point she stands up in her opera box with “her whole bosom completely exposed” (Book 2, part 5, chapters 9-10).

  • Hélène’s unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Again, it is clearly outlined in the book:

Everyone was very well aware that the lovely countess’s illness arose from the complications of marrying two husbands at the same time, and that the Italian doctor’s cure lay in the removal of this difficulty

(Book 4, part 1, chapter 1)

  • Most controversially of all, the TV series shows an incestuous love affair between Hélène and her brother Anatole. Some say it is not present at all in Tolstoy’s novel, others that it is coyly hinted at. Well, it’s most definitely there in the original, and pretty baldly stated in a way that doesn’t require much interpretation:

‘Didn’t I hear that her own brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, that there was a regular scandal and that was the reason he was sent away?’

(Book 1, part 3, chapter 1)

And again, later on:

‘Anatole used to come to borrow money from her and kiss her on her naked shoulders. She didn’t give him the money but she let herself be kissed.’

(Book 2, part 1, chapter 6)

Of course, both of these extracts are narrated from one character (Pierre)’s point of view, so it could be argued that Pierre’s view of things is mistaken and their affair is only in his head, but this in itself is an interpretation which is no more justified than taking the words at face value and accepting that they are in a relationship.

I’m glad I read War and peace after all. I enjoyed it, I didn’t find it anywhere near as hard-going as I thought I would, and now I can talk about it. But I have to say I took more enjoyment from the BBC TV adaptation. That’s only my personal choice: if you like epic, sweeping big-picture novels, or have a particular interest in the Napoleonic Wars (or the philosophy of free will and necessity), go ahead and read the book.

Books I read in 2015

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Some of the books I read in 2015

I was incredibly lax at blogging in 2015, posting only, er, one review. This wasn’t for lack of material: I read 86 books in 2015, which is an average of 1.65 (and some extra decimal places) a week. The reason I know this? I have been keeping a reading journal for the last 12 years.

‘Reading journal’ is a bit of a fancy name for a tatty ringbound notebook which simply lists the titles and authors of all the books I have read. It gives absolutely no indication as to what I thought of the books, other than the occasional enigmatic ‘NF’ in the sidelines (Not Finished; the reading equivalent of the race-runner’s dreaded ‘DNF’, Did Not Finish). Why do I keep this list, faithfully copying out long subtitles and racking my brains as to whether I read a particular book at the end of October or the beginning of November? What use is it to me, let alone anybody else? Quite honestly, I don’t know. But now I’ve started, I can’t stop. In the spirit of a new year purge I thought I’d share my list, along with my thoughts about reading habits and how to record them. So here goes…

January 2015

Sjowall Wahloo Fire engline that disappeared

  • Antonia Fraser – The weaker vessel: woman’s lot in seventeenth-century England
  • Maurice Druon – The strangled queen
  • Muriel Spark – The prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  • David Suchet & Geoffrey Wansell – Poirot and me
  • Agatha Christie – Murder on the Orient Express
  • Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo – The fire engine that disappeared
  • Pamela Frankau – The winged horse

I like to think of myself as reading quite a wide range of books, but my reading journal shows my reading tastes are pretty narrow: mostly history, historical fiction, crime fiction and thrillers. January is a pretty representative month in this aspect. There’s nowhere to hide with a sternly factual record: I can’t kid myself that I’m more literary than I am.

February 2015

National Velvet film still

Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet in the film National Velvet

  • Torie Jayne – Craft show and sell
  • Robert Harris – An officer and a spy
  • Enid Bagnold – National Velvet
  • Maya Brenner – Beaded jewellery: create your own style
  • Mike Revell – Stonebird
  • John Steinbeck – The grapes of wrath

National Velvet was a re-reading of a book I loved as as kid (teenage girl disguises herself as a boy and rides a scruffy horse she won in a village raffle in the Grand National) and was relieved to find I loved it again. Stonebird is another children’s book, the debut novel from my friend Mike and is highly recommended for pre-teens.

March 2015

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  • Liane Moriarty – The hypnotist’s love story
  • Jamie Coe – Art schooled
  • Robert Lacey – Great tales from English history: Chaucer to the Glorious Revolution, 1387-1688
  • Hugh Walpole – Portrait of a man with red hair
  • Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon
  • Helen Fitzgerald – The cry
  • Edna Healey – Emma Darwin: The inspirational wife of a genius

A couple of weird novels here. Flowers for Algernon is a sci-fi classic first published in 1966 in which the protagonist, a young man with an IQ of 68, is turned into a genius following a bioengineering experiment. But this ‘enhancement’ doesn’t make him happy, and when he slowly begins to lose his new-found intelligence things get even worse for him … Whereas it is the concept behind Flowers for Algernon that makes it unusual, Hugh Walpole’s Portrait of a man with red hair is weird because of its unsettling atmosphere. It’s an incredibly intense, sinister study of cruelty and manipulation. A member of the illustrious aristocratic Walpole family that includes both Robert Walpole (the first British prime minister) and Horace Walpole (author of Gothic classic The castle of Otranto), Hugh Walpole was a best-selling author in 1920s and 1930s who has since faded into obscurity. I bought a cheap secondhand copy of Portrait out of idle curiosity and will definitely be hunting out further Hugh Walpole novels in the future.

April 2015

Herman Koch - The dinner

  • Dashiell Hammett – The thin man
  • Matt Fitzgerald – Iron war
  • Herman Koch – The dinner

The dinner is an international bestseller by Dutch author Koch. Two sets of parents meet for dinner in a fashionable restaurant to discuss their teenage sons, who have carried out an act of appalling violence. What exactly the boys have done, and their parents’ reactions to it, are slowly revealed as they work their way through the multiple courses of their dinner. The contrast between the protagonists’ pretentious fussing over fine dining and their contemptuous disregard for the victim of their sons’ violence is supposed to reflect their moral bankruptcy, but for me The dinner doesn’t really work as any kind of wider social satire as the behaviour of its characters is so far beyond what anyone other than a psychopath would consider acceptable.

May 2015

Tales of the city

  • Samantha Ellis: How to be a heroine, or, What I’ve learned from reading too much
  • Sue Townsend – Adrian Mole: The cappuccino years
  • Armistead Maupin – Tales of the city
  • Charles Portis – True grit
  • Brenda Fowler – Iceman: Uncovering the life and times of a prehistoric man found in an alpine glacier

I read some really good books this month, all courtesy of my local public library, which despite being a tiny one-room library in a small Norfolk town always has some intriguing gems. The cappuccino years is the fifth installment of the diaries of fictional Adrian Mole (first encountered as a 13¾-year-old struggling with puberty, the Falklands War, and the BBC’s obdurate refusal to broadcast his heartfelt poetry). Ever a humorous mirror of contemporary British social and political life, in this offering set in 1997 Mole is now 30 and a single father working as a celebrity chef, but he is still forlornly pursuing the beautiful, unobtainable Pandora Braithwaite, who has gained national fame as one of Blair’s babes. I loved (re)reading this, and am sad that there will be no more installments of the diaries following the death of Sue Townsend in 2014.

Tales of the city is the first of Maupin’s soap opera-style serialised novels set in San Francisco with a cast of colourful characters. I didn’t feel the fierce affection for the characters that many of its fans do, but found it refreshing and different to anything else I’ve read before (except perhaps the book of Sex and the city which is kind of a 90s New York version of Tales and is a lot darker and more complex than the TV adaptation).

Finally, I loved True grit, a thrilling Western/adventure story set in the 1870s and narrated by the unforgettable, god-fearing, firm-minded, quick-witted Mattie Ross:

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

June 2015

Now is good

  • Laura Andersen – The Boleyn king
  • Charles Dowding – Organic gardening: The natural no-dig way
  • Bob Flowerdew – Organic garden basics
  • John Fedor – Grow your own organic fruit and vegetables: A complete guide
  • Linda Gray – Herb gardening
  • Kate Bradbury – The wildlife gardener: Creating a haven for birds, bees and butterflies
  • Jenny Downham – Now is good
  • Ben Macintyre – Agent Zig-Zag: the true wartime story of Eddie Chapman
  • Dwayne Alexander Smith – Forty acres
  • Agatha Christie – Dumb witness
  • Masanobu Fukuoka – The one-straw revolution
  • Henry Venmore-Rowland – The last Caesar (NF)

The epidemic of gardening books in June was due to my having just acquired an allotment. In between bouts of digging I found time to read Now is good (previously published as Before I die, it was retitled for release as a film – presumably because death is a bit of a downer and they didn’t want to put filmgoers off). It’s a young adult novel about a 16-year-old girl who is terminally ill with cancer and decides to do everything on her bucket list before she goes. This caused some controversy when the book was published as her wish-list includes sex and drugs. Brave and original, it unflinchingly faces all the aspects of death that most of us prefer not think about: debilitation, loss of consciousness, anger and depression, the effect of bereavement on loved ones, physical decomposition of the body after death. It’s also an uplifting celebration of life and all the things we should appreciate while we’re still alive. This was probably my book of the year.

July 2015

19th wife

  • David Ebershoff – The 19th wife
  • George R. R. Martin – A game of thrones

In The 19th wife there are two ’19th’ wives, each the subject of separate plot threads. One is the real historical figure of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, who fled Salt Lake City in 1875 and spent the rest of her life campaigning for an end to polygamy. The other is the fictional BeckyLynn Scott, a modern polygamist wife whose boorish, bullying husband has been viciously murdered. All the evidence seems to point to BeckyLynn being the murderer and everyone – including the police and BeckyLynn’s own son – thinks it’s an open and shut case. But of course the situation is more complicated than it initially seems (how could a polygamist murder mystery not be?) Running two plot strands in parallel seems to be an increasingly common structure for novels, but in many cases it is an unneccessary distraction and I felt this was true of this novel: I found the Ann Eliza Young sections a bit boring and didn’t feel they added anything to the other story.

August 2015

How to be free

  • Danny Wallace – Awkward situations for men
  • Helen Fitzgerald – Bloody women
  • Charles Dowding – Gardening myths and misconceptions
  • Danny Dorling – So you think you know about Britain?
  • Danny Wallace – Friends like these
  • Prosper Mérimée – Carmen
  • Tom Hodgkinson – How to be free
  • Dave Hamilton – Grow your food for free (well, almost): Great money-saving ideas for your garden
  • Maria Semple – Where’d you go, Bernadette
  • Graeme Simsion – The Rosie project
  • Philippe Claudel – Monsieur Linh and his child
  • Sarah Stacey & Josephine Fairley – The green beauty bible

Tom Hodgkinson rails against modern life in How to be free, arguing that it is stressful, negative, lonely and above all joyless. It’s difficult to sum up his analysis and solution to this sorry state in a few lines, as his book ranges over several hundred years of literature, philosophy, religion and politics in search of alternative ways of living. Instead I’d recommend reading it yourself: you might not agree with all that he says, but it’s a refreshing and entertaining read – and possibly a liberating one too.

September 2015

How I killed Margaret Thatcher

  • Kimberley Cutter – The maid (NF)
  • Janet Evanovich – One for the money
  • Kirstie Clements – The Vogue factor
  • Anonymous – I am the secret footballer: Lifting the lid on the beautiful game
  • Phil Hogan – A pleasure and a calling
  • Sloane Crosley – I was told there’s be cake: Essays
  • Dick Francis – High Stakes
  • Hal Herzog – Some we love, some we hate, some we eat
  • Liane Moriarty – What Alice forgot
  • Georges Simenon – The man who watched the trains go by
  • Robert Ludlum – The Bourne identity (NF)
  • Anthony Cartwright – How I killed Margaret Thatcher

Two out of three of the novels I started but didn’t finish in 2015 occurred in September. What was so bad about these three novels? In truth some of the books I finished were probably worse – I tend to hang on grimly with a book I’m not enjoying, in the hope it will have an ending so ingeniously brilliant and unexpected it will make up for all that went before. Somehow, for probably no rational reason, I just didn’t care enough about these three books to finish them. It’s an elusively slippery quality, the ability to make a reader care enough to carry on reading (and I realise that many people will have abandoned this post before this point, so if you’re still reading … thanks! It’s much appreciated. Not long to go now, I promise)

October 2015

Capital

  • Jen Campbell – Weird things customers say in bookshops
  • Artruro Perez-Reverte – Captain Alatriste
  • Helen Fitzgerald – The donor
  • John Lanchester – Capital
  • Pamela Horn – Labouring life in the Victorian countryside
  • Eva Stachniak – The Winter Palace
  • Robin Oakley – Tales from the turf: Reflections from a life in horseracing

The title of John Lanchester’s epic state-of-the-nation novel Capital is a pun: its subject is both London (capital city of England) and the vast amounts of money (capital) circulating through London’s streets. Most people’s wealth takes the form of house ownership, and Capital is brilliant at holding this national obsession up to scrutiny, examining the chain of events that are set in motion when the residents of Pepys Road receive anonymous postcards subscribed with “We want what you have”.

November 2015

Chrysalids

  • Patricia Highsmith – Those who walk away
  • John Le Carré – Call for the dead
  • David Adam – The man who couldn’t stop: OCD and the true story of a life lost in thought
  • Christopher Hibbert – The English: A social history 1066-1945 (selections)
  • Philippa Gregory – The white queen
  • John Wyndham – The chrysalids
  • Adam Thorpe – Ulverton
  • Marcel Theroux – Strange bodies
  • Agatha Christie – The clocks

The level of geekery required to compulsively write down every book I read for no discernible practical benefit leads to serious problems. The most important being: what counts as a book? I don’t include newspapers or magazines, but what about anthologies where only some of the essays or short stories were read? What about reference books: how much of a book do I need to have read for it to have been read? This pointless agonizing can be seen in the entry in my reading journal above, where I’ve written the word ‘selections’ after The English: A social history 1066-1945 as a recognition of the fact that I didn’t read the whole book … merely the bits that were useful to me while researching a family history book I’m currently writing.

December 2015

What matters in Jane Austen

  • Maurice Druon – The poisoned crown
  • Jane Austen – Persuasion
  • John Mullan – What matters in Jane Austen? Twenty crucial puzzles solved
  • George R. R. Martin – A clash of kings
  • Ruby Ferguson – Jill’s pony trek
  • George Macdonald – The princess and the goblin
  • Matthew Green – London: A travel guide through time

I’ve read What matters in Jane Austen? before, and will no doubt read it a few times again. It’s a microscopic examination of 20 questions about Jane Austen’s novels, including ‘Do we ever see the lower classes?’ ‘What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage?’ and ‘Why is it risky to go to the seaside?’ John Mullan credits Jane Austen with having put enough careful detail into her novels to reward the observant reader who pays attention to this minutiae. His own enthusiastic delvings unearth many intriguing facts, including the fact that in Emma nice-but-dim Miss Bates unwittingly reveals many of the secret intrigues going on behind the scenes in her unheeded loquacious ramblings: intrigues that have been completely missed by the intelligent, witty Emma herself. However, this is a book for diehard Austen fans who are familiar with all her novels rather than the casual reader, as it contains many plot spoilers.

So what are my new year’s resolutions for 2016? To blog more regularly is one of them, if only to avoid having to write a post as exhaustive as this one next year…