“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” George R.R. Martin
“I wanted to crawl in between those black lines of print, the way you crawl through a fence, and go to sleep under that beautiful big green fig-tree.” Sylvia Plath
“I don’t remember ever feeling lonely; in fact, on the rare occasions when I met other children I found their games and their talk far less interesting than the adventures and dialogues I read in my books.” Alberto Manguel
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Groucho Marx
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” Cervantes
Midway through this year I posted an update about my reading and, as 2014 fades into the New Year, the time has come to look back over some of the highlights, in the six months since that post, as well as some of the books that have disappointed. I hope you find some ideas for holiday reading or even gifts for friends, family and colleagues from this reflection. As always, I hope you find more time to read and encourage others, especially children, to spend time regularly with a book.
I avoided reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, despite the excellent reviews, as I just did not fancy being in a Japanese POW camp. Several times I considered reading the book but other novels, set in more appealing eras, distracted me from starting. I usually read the Man Booker Prize winner and at least some of the short list but still I did not open Flanagan’s book on the announcement of his victory. I just didn’t need to read another blokey war story about an oft-explored time in our history. In fact, it was only after Flanagan’s much publicised donation of prize-winnings and criticisms of the Abbott government’s environmental policies that I started the novel. Now I think about it, the quote – and it is the most quotable of the year – “Money is like shit, my father used say. Pile it up and it stinks. Spread it around and you can grow things”* – is what made me realise I needed to read his latest and shudder at what a close run thing it was that I almost did not.
I rarely cry. The Narrow Road to the Deep North had me blubbing multiple times. There are so many deeply moving, insightful episodes. The amputation of Jack Rainbow’s leg; Dorrigo Evans’ thoughts while marrying in St Paul’s Cathedral juxtaposed with his wedding speech; the freeing of the fish and subsequent conversation with the Greek cafe owner; and, several times, the cruelties and vagaries of fate made my face wet. The protagonist’s philosophy, “charge the windmills’ makes the literary a pragmatic response to surviving the unforgiving minute.
Flanagan can slow time and bring the events described into sharp focus. His writing, while cinematic, also seems to have us deep inside his camera. I liked the non-linear narrative and many of the twists in the final pages of the novel. It is probably uncharitable, maybe even wrong to type this but I find it hard to believe the judges of the Miles Franklin Award saw All the Birds, Singing as a superior read. Novels aren’t foot races but Flanagan’s book is a masterpiece of storytelling that is far ahead of the competition. It will still be read when Evie Wyld, as cleverly constructed and significant as the narrative is, has long been forgotten.
* I now have a better understanding of where Flanagan’s father may have gotten the saying from. Read this.
Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano interested me as someone who likes to continually learn about the craft of writing. Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, carefully reveals more and more about the mysterious Dora, as year by year, his research uncovers her past. It is spare and real. This excavation feels very true to how life is for those researching mysteries that can only be solved by finding elusive snippets in old newspapers or files lost deep in official archives.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is outstanding. A friend and colleague says “Ness is the best author writing adolescent fiction today”. A very Big Call but this book is evidence enough that she may be right. All teens should read it. All parents too and anyone who wants layers to their fiction – and life. The illustrations are haunting.
Two books really made me laugh this year. Really laugh. The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1917), by PG Wodehouse, is deeply, deeply amusing. Wodehouse is a master and it it is hardly surprising his characters continue to live on in the popular consciousness. The other was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Please read it if you need a giggle. I can sum up Simsion’s book with a quote from the novel: “humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others.” Indeed.
Dominion, and also Dissolution, by CJ Sansom are great reads. The first is alternate history of the most disturbing kind and the latter, makes Tudor England seem, well, like one imagines Tudor England to be like. I will pursue more Sansom in 2015. I will return with Matthew Shardlake to Tudor England and also visit Spain, as Winter in Madrid looks particularly good.
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey is a clever collection of short stories that will appeal to those with a literary love of all creatures great and small. The tale of the tortoise, and the one about the dog, were my faves. Believe it or not, the story told from the POV of a mussel, was the most amusing. These tales are worth your time.
The Strange Book of New Things by Michel Faber is one of the best novels of the year. It is a work of great imagination and the kind of sci-fi that those who do not think fondly of this genre could approach without trepidation. Faber, with great economy, creates aliens who are compellingly different and crafts a story that will appeal to the religious and other readers more comfortable with contemporary fiction than religious dogma. Quite a feat. Most disturbingly, the environmental themes are rendered in a chillingly, matter-of-fact manner that is increasingly less a work of fiction than a description of what is terribly likely to happen on Earth in a very imaginable near-future.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, especially in the opening pages, feels like Young Adolescent fiction. This is not a bad thing. I have not yet finished but am not finding it as good as Cloud Atlas which is a magnificent, important novel. The Bone Clocks is just not to the same standard but is an enjoyable read, especially for those who like sci-fi and fantasy. Like Faber, Mitchell is really quite a genre-busting author and always interesting.
One good book leads to another. A truly wonderful example, H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, led to The Goshawk by TH White. We learn a great deal about White from both books but MacDonald’s recently deceased father loomed larger for this reader. MacDonald poignantly sketches a portrait of her dad as that “quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new.” What a lovely thing to be. What a lovely thing to say. MacDonald’s rumination on life, death, goshawks and the novelist, White, has sentence after sentence that resounded and I re-read constantly, savouring each insight:
- “Long walks in the English countryside, often at night, were astonishingly popular in the 1930s. Rambling clubs published calendars of full moons, train companies laid on mystery trains to rural destinations, and when in 1932 the Southern Railway offered an excursion to a moonlit walk along the South Downs, expecting to sell forty or so tickets, one and a half thousand people turned up. The people setting out on these walks weren’t seeking to conquer peaks or test themselves against maps and miles. They were looking for a mystical communion with the land; they walked backwards in time to an imagined past suffused with magical, native glamour: to Merrie England, or to prehistoric England, pre-industrial visions that offered solace and safety to sorely troubled minds.”
- “But I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.”
- “Being a novice is safe. When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe any more.”
- “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”
Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama does not disappoint and my expectations were very high. It is not a readable as The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution which was the first volume of what surely must be considered Fukuyama’s magnum opus. Quite simply, anyone who values and wishes to understand how democracy functions, or fails, must read these two volumes. That should be everyone. I would like to gift it to every politician in Australia.
No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald and The Establishment and how they get away with it by Owen Jones are both disturbingly good reads that analyse what I will call ‘spin’, in our contemporary societies. Like you, I followed the Edward Snowden saga closely in the media as it unfolded last year. Greenwald’s book made the salient points of the story linear and led to an appreciation of the intellectual coherence of Snowden’s personal philosophy. His code name, Cincinnatus, says much about his outlook. Cincinnatus was a Roman general whose civic virtue was widely esteemed in ancient times. He refused to abuse his dictator status after the need for tyrannical or emergency powers were no longer needed. He went back to farming. This sounds like Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator but in reality, Snowden’s story is far more dramatic and historically important. The political and media landscape, in Great Britain, that Jones’ explores is one that is equally disturbing but one feels the hyperbolic advertising on the cover, suggesting the author is a new Orwell, detracted from his achievement for me. It was too much like spin.
God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens was, of course, preaching to the converted. Many find Hitchens too strident but as with Richard Dawkins, one suspects that history will judge their positions kindly as religion continues to fade into our, albeit important, historic past. I miss Hitchens and intend to re-read his writing about Orwell these holidays. Interestingly enough, the brilliant Alan Lightman, whom has the eye of a novelist as well as that of a physicist, takes a much more conciliatory position than either Hitchens or Dawkins on religion is his wonderful series of essays, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. He ‘puts his cards on the table’ and states he is an atheist but certainly takes Richard Dawkins to task. I highly recommend you read Lightman’s writings on multiverses, if nothing else. His use of anecdote, the evocation of personal experiences as diverse as locking eyes with a hawk, or seeing his daughter married, are without peer in popular science writing. I would like to read more of his work sooner rather than later.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is not really that short but it does encompass an enormous amount of what, unfortunately, has become trivia more than common knowledge. Recently added to the NSW Higher School Certificate prescribed texts list, I hope that more and more people spend time with Bryson and his coterie of our greatest minds, many of them unrecognised. Bryson makes the sage point that there are three stages in scientific discovery: “First, people deny it is true, then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.” The contemporary topic of science of climate change springs readily to mind.
Although it has a bad title, How to be Danish: A Short Journey into the Mysterious Heart of Denmark by Patrick Kingsley is absolutely on the money about Denmark. It fleshes out some of what I discovered, living and working in Viborg during 2011. I suspect it is a niche market but if you are at all interested in how your own society, assuming you are not a Scandinavian reader, can be improved, read this book and try to visit.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is an intellectually stimulating read. There are, however, a number of assertions that seem wrong rather than merely provocative. Chief amongst these errors is the list of ideologies – Communism, Nazism, liberalism, socialism, humanism, capitalism and nationalism – that Harai lists as ‘natural-law religions’. In his defence, he does note that ‘some readers may feel very uncomfortable with his line of reasoning’ and says feel free to go on calling them ideologies if it ‘makes you feel better’. Unfortunately Harari then plunges on getting it really wrong by saying that ‘liberal humanism…does not deny the existence of God’. My dictionaries all seem to emphasise the ‘rejection of religion’ and challenges to ‘the authority of the church’ which of course is subtly different but nevertheless I found this the weakest part of the book. Similar comments could be made about socialism, as described by Harari. This is the only real blight on what is an otherwise a tome brimming with insights into the nature of our species, future and history.
Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory by Francis Pryor is a great read. His relaxed, conversational style works well, especially considering the content. Pryor takes us on a journey into the distant past from the perspective of what we should already know well. People live in families and their sense of home is fundamental to the day, year and epoch. He really reconstructs a highly imaginable past. Pryor rightly says, “unlike many in academia, I do not contend that the use of the imagination is somehow undisciplined, or misguided, and that truth can only be revealed through rigorous analysis.“ Pryor has been around for a long time in archaeological circles and his books are always on my ‘to read’ lists. Every few pages he just makes the past real and understandable in the simplest and yet most profound of ways. Here’s an example from Home:
“a self-image is one of the reasons why prehistoric people would have valued, and sought out, tranquil waters. Indeed, I would be surprised if people in Neolithic or Bronze Age times saw their own reflections very often at all. Clear, still water is quite unusual: lakes have reedy margins and floating weed in summertime, and in winter ice and wind frequently disturb puddles and ponds. So I strongly suspect there would have been sheltered pools set aside, where the water was known to be particularly calm, and where people would come to view themselves. And it isn’t hard to imagine why these places would soon have acquired religious significance.”
Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings by Jean Manco is exactly the kind of history I wish to read. It combines the latest research from the lab into our DNA with deep understanding of more traditional sources. I recommend to everyone.
Australian History in 7 Questions by John Hirst should be read by more Australians. I was particularly interested in the convict question having often wondered what the impact of making a continent a prison is on our contemporary society. It is not much discussed in Australia nowadays, if it ever really was. I suspect it is one of the reasons why our democracy is not as robust as that of the Scandinavian countries but more significantly, why Australians are so obediently and proficiently making more and more laws that regulate the minute in our nation. Maybe one has to regulate against those pesky convicts made good and as Hirst points out:
“Only one barrier was erected against the successful ex-convicts: no matter how much money they made, the officers and free settlers would not accept them as social equals. They did not expect to meet them at balls and dinners at Government House, which set the standards of ‘good society’. To modern Australians this seems snobbishness, but the other side of this social exclusion was economic opportunity: the officers and free settlers did not care what positions ex-convicts held or how much money they made.”
Not so great
Revolution by Russell Brand is terrible. I have often enjoyed Brand’s feature articles in newspapers over the last four or five years but this book, although it starts well enough, just deteriorates into utter dribble, especially in the second half. New Age mysticism, self-mythologising rants and his tendency to namedrop pulling names, from a lucky dip of famous intellectuals, becomes very irritating. Give it a wide berth.
Hitler – A Short Biography, a slight book by AN Wilson, is not worth the effort. I borrowed it from the library for my daughter who reads anything she can about ‘The Final Solution’ as she wanted to understand more about the dictator. There are a raft of minor errors and superficial interpretations of the man and the epoch. I returned it without wasting her time.
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman has been the biggest disappointment of my reading year. The final book in a trilogy, I took the unusual step, for me, of purchasing the hardback. I found it boring and the excitement felt when reading the first two books was not matched. It is brilliantly written in parts but added nothing to the tale. I should note that my partner felt differently and liked this one as much as the other two books; other fans seem to be very happy too. My admiration for Grossman’s skills as a writer remain undiminished though. There is an episode in the book that felt like watching a Chinese martial arts film, the action is slowed to allow one to feel every blow. Brilliant and cinematic.
The Circle by Dave Eggers is atrocious. The superficiality of the insights into our New Media Age are truly disappointing when the book offered to be so much more. Some of the major characters are so untroubled by self-knowledge that one wishes the novelists could save the reader from the banality of it all. That is the point you say but truly, it is a dull read except for just a few moments. One scene, in the protagonist’s parents home, gives new meaning to the word awkward. I think many of you probably have to read this one (like every second person in Germany, where it was a major bestseller) just to be annoyed by it. The resolution is particularly poor.
I am feeling very uncharitable about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Somehow I finished it but really, I might as well have worn a hair-shirt in my library for all the pleasure it bought. It cannot be reviewed further here. It is terrible (and the tv series worse).
Laskar Pelangi or The Rainbow Troops by Andrea Hirata is exceptionally popular in Indonesia and the film adaptation much praised. It is about the underdog battling the powers that be and is filled with unique characters and heartrending situations. To give you the idea (and it should have been a more admirable book for this reader in many ways):
‘“I want to be a teacher,” said the fifteen-year-old girl. She didn’t say the sentence defiantly or with gusto. But whoever was there when she spoke that sentence would know that Bu Mus dug every letter of each word from deep in her heart, and that the word teacher bubbled in her mind because she admired the noble profession of teaching. There was a giant sleeping inside of her, a giant that would wake up when she met her students.’
However, as much as I applauded the message and see the importance of the tale, I found both the book and the film terribly tedious and predictable. Perhaps it a stylistic issue. The writing must lose the poetry of the original in translation.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman is another book that felt like a chore to read. I was attracted to the story of how it was constructed and performed but just found no enjoyment in the illustrations or experience of reading the book. Perhaps my high expectation was part of the problem.
Enough. I feel bad with the uncharitable nature of some of the above…and will spare others the rod.
“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organisation remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organisation would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery – since everything interlocked – and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.” Franz Kafka, The Trial
“They’re talking about things of which they don’t have the slightest understanding, anyway. It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.” Franz Kafka, The Trial
Unexpectedly, I visited the Kafka museum in Prague this year which provided a wonderful insight into the novelist’s experiences as a petty government official in the early 20th century. I re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka at my lowest professional moment this year. ’Weasel words’ and the empty rhetoric of what passes for educational leadership was reaching an all-time low and it was hard to see how anyone could deliver in a land where 2+2 was equalling not a helluvalot. The Trial is quite an amusing read. I’d missed that first time round. In fact, unexpectedly, I laughed aloud quite a bit. David Foster Wallace believed that Kafka’s humour was “not only not neurotic but anti-neurotic and heroically sane”. I agree.
A Clockwork Orange was also re-read and the introduction, by Anthony Burgess, that explores the vastly different resolutions, in the European and American editions, was more interesting to me than the novel itself:
“Readers of the twenty-first chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb. I meant the book to end in this way, but my aesthetic judgments may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics, nor are critics. “Quod scripsi scripsi” said Pontius Pilate when he made Jesus Christ the King of the Jews. “What I have written I have written.” We can destroy what we have written but we cannot unwrite it. I leave what I wrote with what Dr. Johnson called frigid indifference to the judgment of that .00000001 [percent] of the American population which cares about such things. Eat this sweetish segment or spit it out. You are free.”
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is a masterpiece of reportage. The final pages should be part of the journalists’ creed. Orwell was prepared to write truthfully without fear or favour, even if it challenged his own political leanings. This quote says much:
“And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading … consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan … beware of my partisanship, … and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.”
George Orwell: Diaries is my final read for 2014. Orwell’s interest in natural history as well as his humdrum domestic obsessions with eggs and vegetables is juxtaposed with the frightening events of the 1930s and 40s. He comments about attending an event in the local town hall that saw the British fascist, Oswald Mosely, booed when he commenced his speech, clapped enthusiastically by the end of his diatribe. I was surprised to see a casual mention of ‘concentration camps’ for entries in that same year, 1936.
I keep returning to George Orwell. It is hard to forget, in my 46th year, that Orwell never saw 47. His prolific output seems to grow more extensive as I uncover previously unknown essays, letters and reviews. Seeing Things As They Are, yet another collection of his non fiction pieces, will grace my shelf shortly and will be the first book I read in 2015.
The Top 10
My top ten recommendations* culled from reading during 2014, in no particular order, follow:
The map is not the territory. Alfred Korzybski
Learning is recursive and reading helps one revisit many landscapes for the first time. It would be fun to visually map the swirling patterns, of what I will call our intellectual and literary interests over long years of reading, to see how many times one returns, with new eyes. I remember, in a reading journal from 1992, drawing a sketch of a tower (too much Jung, if you want to know) with many windows looking out over new landscapes. I certainly was aware that steps led upwards to vantage point, one was doomed never to reach, where the the vista was endless, without any conceivable horizon. However, one should be constantly reminded that what we read is not reality itself just a representation. Having said that sage points about the human species are made by two authors this year showing we like to share illusions, delusions and allusions:
“It is only our faith of allusions that makes life possible…it is believing in reality that does us in every time.” Richard Flanagan
“…perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions…with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” Yuval Noah Harari
There is an exquisite irony in this passion we have for reading that is not lost to me. Living vicariously is often our only choice but the nature of representation means sharing an illusion, or is that delusion, with others. The more of us that read the more of us that inhabit a shared landscape, or at least a shared representation of one. I am searching for books that take representation to ever more interesting, insightful places. The authors who know they are tricksters interest me most of all.
By reading, we are forever charging windmills with a kind of blind awareness that these maps are never likely to be particularly real; except to the equally deluded. If you get what I mean? 😉
In 2015, I do intend to finish – and I have started many times – Don Quixote by Cervantes. I am sure many of you will understand why. Another, larger, ongoing project is to read all of Orwell’s fiction and non fiction writings. This should be a good balance for any reader’s fulcrum.
It is important to seek out emerging Australian writers but at the moment I wish to read more widely than that and am looking for new novelists and essayists in languages other than English, especially Scandinavian writers. They do not necessarily need to be contemporary. I am looking forward to more translations of Karl Ove Knausgaard being published in English. I have saved My Struggle: Book 3 to savour in case the wait is longer than anticipated. I scribbled down the names of some Icelandic authors while in Reykjavik this year that still need to be explored. Stefan Zweig has been on my pile for a while and I regret not making a more concerted effort to read his work this year while in Vienna. The time has come to cast off my aversion to some very popular genres and, gulp, I intend to read some crime fiction. Valerio Varesi, an Italian author, is at the head of the trail. Thanks Anthony. I will be in Italy this April and hope to discover other contemporary Italians to read during this time. Suggestions?
What writers do you recommend who publish in languages other than English? I am especially interested in non fiction writers and essayists but contemporary fiction sought too.
What are you planning to read in 2015? What was the best of 2014?