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Books I read in 2012

  • And Now the Shipping Forecast by Peter Jefferson
    23rd December 2012

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
    9th December 2012

  • The Second Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
    21st November 2012

  • Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer
    24th October 2012

  • The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
    13th October 2012

  • The Diary of Lady Murasaki by Murasaki Shikibu
    1st October 2012

  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
    20th September 2012

  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
    12th September 2012
    Garth Stein's novel turns out to be a fairly conventional story of familial heartbreak, tragedy and triumph, with the twist that the story is told by the family's dog Enzo (named by the racing driver father Denny after Enzo Ferrari). Enzo is a mute witness to the family's ups and downs, and also to Denny's racing career - although he understands human speech, as a dog he cannot speak and without an opposable thumb (which he covets) he's unable to behave in any way other than as a dog ("gestures are all that I have", he begins).

    It's Enzo's observations that lift the book, and in a way as a character it feels almost as if he deserves a bigger story than the one he finds himself in: he often thinks of a Mongolian legend that he's heard, that a dog who is good in one life will return as a man in the next, and he speaks eloquently of the parallels he sees between racing on the track and how to steer through life's difficulties (the eponymous art of racing in the rain). It's an interesting narrative device, as while Enzo is part of the story and very much involved in it emotionally, he is principally an observer. But also it's Enzo's voice that makes this book worth reading, and although they are very different characters, like the talking jazz trumpeting bear of The Bear Comes Home he's able to provide some insight into what it means to be a person.

  • The Bat Tattoo by Russell Hoban
    9th September 2012

  • Loneliness: Why it Happens and How to Overcome it by Tony Lake
    6th September 2012
    I've had this book for maybe ten years now and finally got around to reading it. I guess that at around 100 pages it's not the length that has discouraged me in the past, but it's a remarkably compact book built around the idea that loneliness is a disease which attacks a person through their communication system, cutting them off from "mutual" communications with other people - that is, commnunication where all parties are engaged and take part in equal measure. Without mutuality, a person feels cut off from other people, unable to express their thoughts and feelings and feel understood and accepted by others; and the effect is that feel even less able to communicate, and even more cut off, in a kind of vicious cycle.

    Tony Lake suggests that there are different categories of loneliness, varying by time-frame and degree. People can be lonely while knowing that their situation will only last for a short time (for example if their partner is away but is due to return), or they can become cut off over many years and almost completely lose their ability to communicate in a social setting. There are a various suggestions for these different situations, to either cope with short term loneliness, or attempt to address the longer term problem, and while the book shows its age in some of the discussions on meeting people (my copy dates from 1983 and thus predates the internet), the advice on body language seems timeless - and in fact makes great deal of sense when considering how to overcome the communication problems that arise from loneliness.

    Aside from the concise description of what loneliness is (which I found profoundly insightful), I think the idea that has stayed with me the most is encapsulated in the phrase "people need people": we each need to be able to feel we're understood, known and valued by others. The "mutual behaviours" that Lake talks about are the mechanisms by which we communicate these things to each other. Crudely put, the solution comes in two parts, firstly how to meet other people, and then how to interact with them. Like any book, reading this won't end loneliness - but it does give some excellent insights into what it is, and how you might overcome it.

  • Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer by Russell Hoban
    2nd September 2012

  • Amaryllis Night and Day by Russell Hoban
    31st August 2012

  • Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
    27th August 2012

  • Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka
    18th August 2012
    I would have been the last person to think that I would enjoy this - a work of sporting fiction, about an ageing alcoholic journalist Wije Karunasena trying to track down the talented but unsung Sri Lankan cricketeer Pradeep Mathew years after his disappearance. And yet in spite of my lack of interest in cricket I found it immensely enjoyable and quite compelling, and finished it in 4 days. Karunatilaka is one of those writers with a deceptively light touch and his writing and story-telling feel surprisingly accomplished given that this is a first novel (though I think towards the end it's in danger of outstaying its welcome). There's a lot of humour too, and I even learned some things about Sri Lankan names and the origin of the word "amateur" as someone pursuing an interest through passion rather than as a profession.

    It's true that there's a lot of cricket in this book but Karunatilaka doesn't seem to expect the reader to know much about it - in fact early on his narrator even writes: "If you've never seen a cricket match; if you have and it has made you snore; if you can't understand why anyone would watch, let alone obsess over this dull game, then this is the book for you." He does explain some aspects of the game (for example the eponymous "chinaman" is a type of unorthodox bowling pitch - although it might also be an allusion to Sri Lankan slang for an unbelievable tale) but really it's more about following cricket: the statistics and the rules, the debates over the players, the politics and so on - almost like a fictional cricketing "Fever Pitch" (although both the style and the convoluted and surreal conspiracies that Wije claims to uncover remind me a lot of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, or even Catch 22).

    On another level to me it's also about a more general question about how the world recognises greatness, whether it's in sport or literature or indeed in life. Wije argues that Pradeep Mathew is the greatest cricketeer that Sri Lanka ever produced while at the same time he is also completely unknown - and he wonders why it is that lesser talents should be recognised, that in the end it's not just talent but also luck, timing, opportunity, that determines the legacy that we leave behind. In some ways as entertaining and well-told as it is, the story is a bit irrelevant and perhaps acts more as a hook to hang these various questions on. I found it fascinating and brilliant, and if you enjoy an interesting journey as much as actually arriving then I can highly recommend it.

  • The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
    12th August 2012
    This novel set in Snowdonia in Wales at the end of World War II tells the stories of three different characters: Captain Rotherham is a German ex-pat working for British intelligence and charged with interviewing Rudolf Hess to determine whether the old man's amnesia is real; and Karsten is a German POW incarcerated in a prison camp outside the remote Welsh village of Esther Evans (the eponymous Welsh girl). Each of them faces their own struggle with the different secrets that they're keeping, as each tries to understand what the concepts of loyalty and bravery mean in the real world.

    This is Davies' first book and it's a good read, although possibly a bit uneven at times (Rotherham's part felt a little tangential at the end to me), and the very different situations of the three protagonists are a clever way to explore the themes of belonging and not-belonging, secrecy and lies, and what it means to be brave. I also liked how he neatly side-steps the cliched happy ending while bringing things to a satisfying conclusion.

  • The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg
    22nd July 2012
    Many years ago I remember enjoying Høeg's thriller Smilla's Feeling for Snow and it's heroine's unusual gift. The protagonist of "The Quiet Girl", Kaspar Krone, is another character with an unusual gift - this time a sense of the musical sound of people and places - although he is unusual in many other ways, not least in that he is an internationally famously circus clown under threat of deportation from Denmark to Spain for unpaid taxes. Against this backdrop Kaspar becomes involved in a plot which involves an order of nuns, a shadowy conspiracy and a group of children with strange powers.

    I enjoyed reading "The Quiet Girl" although at times I found myself lost in the coils of the plot and felt that I missed a lot of subtle (or maybe not so subtle) details. But the book moves at a fair pace, and Høeg has a knack for creating fascinating and compelling characters - aside from Kaspar there are various other unusual people throughout the story, and it was these that kept me reading. I think if I were to read it again I'd maybe pay more attention to the plot details though.

  • The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
    14th July 2012
    I don't know what to make of this ... singer Nick Cave's second novel, "The Death of Bunny Munro" is ostensibly the story of the final journey undertaken by the eponymous travelling salesman along with his 9 year-old son following his wife's suicide. Bunny seems to be obsessed by sex with any and all of the women he meets on his travels - described in graphic, often brutal and ultimately quite dispiriting detail - while simulatenously being haunted by memories of his dead wife (who seems to be haunting his son in more conventional fashion).

    The setting on south-east coast of England, along with Bunny's name and profession, made this feel more like the 1950s or 1970s, and Bunny felt like an anachronism in modern times, and rather like (say) American Psycho I found myself wondering what it was all about: is this supposed to be simply brutal entertainment, or is it trying to say something deeper about the male psyche, or the modern world? This review from the Guardian seems to suggest that the book aspires to something more.

  • Come Dance With Me by Russell Hoban
    12th July 2012
    I think this is one of my most favourite books - the start of a tentative romance between two older people, Christabel Alderton is the singer in Goth band "Mobile Mortuary" while Elias Newman is a consultant at a hospital, and both struggling with their own pasts and what it says about their futures. What I love about Hoban's writing is how deceptively light it is, and how his stories have depth without being heavy. I really like and care about the characters in this book, which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it again, and I loved the uplifting ending. I can see myself returning to this again in the future, and it's encouraged me again to seek out some more of Hoban's other books.

  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuik
    6th July 2012
    I think this is the third time now that I've read "Fight Club", each time I tear through it in a couple of days - I seem to get caught up in the momentum of the story and speed up towards the end - and again it doesn't disappoint. One of the things that I liked about it is that (as with all the best books) each reading seems to reveal something different. This time around I was reminded a little of American Psycho, and maybe the broad theme of alienation from the modern world is similar, but Palahnuik's anti-hero has more compassion, self-awareness and wit than Easton's creation.

  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
    1st July 2012
    I think that this might be my favourite David Mitchell book, certainly his best since the brilliant but somewhat uneven Cloud Atlas. There is certainly a lot of meandering in this story of a clerk working for the Dutch East India company in Japan in the late 18th century, but somehow the loose ends and unanswered questions matter less here than in previous stories, and in a way these things feel a bit like real life to me. Throughout Mitchell's writing is wonderfully fluid and the various turns of event kept me hooked until the end, when I was sad that it was finished.

  • Endurance by Alfred Lansing
    24th June 2012
    Lansing's book recounts Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated attempt to cross the Antartic in 1915, and the heroic journey that he and his men made to escape after ice crushed their ship (the eponymous Endurance) and left them stranded on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea. Written in the 1950s, the story of their incredible journey - first across the ice, then by boat to Elephant Island - and the terrible hardships they encountered, is recreated from diaries and first hand accounts, and is truly astonishing. It's a tale of great bravery and also of great luck, and is an absolutely compelling read.

    The story of the other party on Shackleton's expedition is told in Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tale of an Antarctic Tragedy.

  • Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village by Louis de Bernieres
    21st June 2012
    Someone at my book group lent this to me after I'd mentioned that I'm not really a huge fan of short story collections. In "Notwithstanding" (set in the eponymous fictional English village) stories about various people are loosely interrelated, and she was right that the connections gave the book as a whole a sense of cohesion that generally I miss in this genre. Aside from this the writing is excellent: de Bernieres has a deceptively light touch and I liked how he treads a fine line between the comical and the profound, with several of the stories (for me "The Girt Pike" in particular) being surprisingly moving.

  • Be Happy by Robert Holden
    11th June 2012

  • I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn
    5th June 2012

  • Angelica Lost and Found by Russell Hoban
    1st June 2012

  • Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
    29th May 2012

  • Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster
    13th May 2012

  • The Story of Swimming by Susie Parr
    21st April 2012

  • Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry
    1st April 2012

  • Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
    30th March 2012

  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
    25th March 2012

  • The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
    21st February 2012

  • The Money Machine: How the City Works by Philip Coggan
    20th February 2012

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    7th February 2012

  • I Love You But I'm Not In Love With You by Andrew G. Marshall
    3rd February 2012

  • Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939 -1949 by Jim Baggott
    26th January 2012

  • 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael Brooks
    19th January 2012

  • The Second Coming by John Niven
    11th January 2012

  • Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman
    10th January 2012

  • River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit
    1st January 2012

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