Saturday, 31 December 2016


I love the yearly recap. It’s fun to look back and remember what I read. It’s like taking a quick bite out of all the meals you ate this year, one after another. I find I’m often reminded of where I was when I read a particular book – that sun lounger, or that flight – or sometimes of what I was trying to avoid while reading it. Reading the posts themselves is also very weird, in that I’ve often forgotten what I thought of the book at the time, and it’s strange to encounter what must be my own narrative voice, and to meet myself again from the outside.

What’s the best of the year? There were not any huge standouts, as has sometimes happened, but lots of books I really enjoyed. I have a huge fondness for THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, which this person who wrote my blog described as ‘like drinking family life from a firehose’. I also enjoyed SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth book in his wonderfully dull saga of his life; THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley, an unusual coming-of-age story, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma, a fun story of heroin addiction and sex work.

There were books I’m less grateful for. I gave up a lot of books this year – about ten – which is unusual for me. I think as I get older I realise how short a single life span really is, and am more careful what I spend it on. I really loathed WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt, and THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson, both equally uptight stories of the British bourgeoisie, and THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen, an unnecessarily fraught tale of adolescent love.

For the second year in a row, I managed to read about as many women as men, which I’m happy about, though it was not a particular goal.

My books have been a real joy to me, this year, as every year. I’m so grateful for all of them, both the good and the bad, and for all the people who wrote them for me. They’ve taken me to Libya, and the Discworld, to the First World War and 1970s New York, to Tsarist Russia and future London. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them

1) MISLAID by Nell Zink
2) WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt
3) LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker
4) THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
5) MORT by Terry Pratchett
6) HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
7) THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson
8) YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
9) SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard
10) A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
11) GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
12) NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
13) NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
14) FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev
16) MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring
17) BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
19) THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons
20) THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead
23) BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey
24) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
26) THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
27) THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage
28) BEING BROOKE by Emma Hart
31) THE BEACH by Alex Garland
32) GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
33) PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma
34) THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
35) THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
36) THE RETURN by Hisham Matar
37) MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub
38) THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras
39) THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Gacigalup

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.

THE RETURN by Hisham Matar

I love the end of the year, because it gives me a chance to read all the “Best of the year” lists and thereby find new books. THE RETURN was on many of 2016’s lists, and it is indeed a fine book. It’s the true account of a family’s twenty five year search for their father, who was disappeared by the Gaddafi regime. He was abducted in Cairo, with the active connivance of the Mubarak regime, and for some time his family thought he would soon be back – his wife recorded football matches for him for months – but in fact he never returned; or, at least, he has not so far.

The story is in many ways deeply familiar, the terrible story of the disappeared all over the world, but’s it beautifully and honestly told here:
When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle

I learnt a great deal about Libya while reading this book. While I knew Gaddafi was a monstrous dictator, of course, I did not realise that he was also crazy – like Idi Amin levels of crazy. Apparently there was a rumour of a prison actually underneath his compound in Tripoli, which most people did not believe. After the revolution, they found there was indeed a prison, buried deep underground, for his most notable opponents – “both the living and the dead. Freezers were discovered there with the bodies of long deceased dissidents.”

He also enjoyed darkly comic dictator behaviour. For example, once he set a trap: He "invited young literary talent to take part in a book festival, then arrested them.” He held most of them for ten years. I still find it hilarious that among Gaddafi’s last words to the soldiers who found him in the culvert (after some no doubt enjoyable begging for mercy) was “What did I do to you?”

Matar describes himself as “infantilised by exile” as “if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya,” and covers the back and forth of immigrant life very well:
Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Lydia. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.. . . In the thirty years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled into indefinite exile the following year; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of 15 for my studies and where for 29 years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me . . . that old tiresome question “where are you from?” And I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, “New York”
. However he never quite manages this, because as he explains:
I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who, unlike me have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect – this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.

The book focuses on Hisham’s return to Libya immediately after Gaddafi’s fall. There he is able to meet many old men, who have been released from various prisons as the regime has collapsed, and is able to see that his father is not among them. It is almost a relief:
For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me. Now I can say, I am almost free of it. All that remains are a few scattered grains

Already sad, this book is made sadder by what has happened to Libya since his return - the brief hopeful period after Gaddafi's fall has been followed by full civil war. Clearly this is a great book; it's made me mourn a country I barely know.

THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

Let me tell you that Marguerite Duras had a tough childhood. This semi-autobiographical novel gives the outlines. Poor, white, French Indochina. Unstable mother makes a terrible investment in farmland which then sinks into the sea. Older brother has a gambling problem and is unhealthily attached to unstable mother. Teenage girl wears old dresses of her mother’s (“It’s the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear,” she tells us, as if we all know what that’s like), and strange gold evening shoes, and a man’s fedora. One day on the ferry across the Mekong to boarding school, where she is the only white student, she meets a Chinese millionaire, and becomes his mistress. Everyone believes it must be for the money, and so she tells them, but in fact it is some kind of wild romance, with lots of showering each other and weeping. His father won’t let him marry her, and eventually her mother sends her off to France. She doesn’t see her family again for decades, not so much because of the shame as the cost of travel by ship.

This is the sharp end of the colonial experience, and is a beautiful, dream like sort of book, capturing Vietnamese gardens by night, mixed race high schools of the 1930s, and family dysfunction in a strange and gorgeous way. Here’s a taste, in speaking about her mother, who while unstable was also indomitable in her own way:
She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon – the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valour, human, absurd, that I see true grace.

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

Enjoyable story about a pair of families in New York. Sort of tiptoed around being literary fiction, but ended up simply well plotted and briskly paced. Largely forgettable, and indeed I’ve almost already forgotten it.


I’ve abandoned a lot this year, and often when I was quite some way through. Most recently:

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by Robert James Waller: Rare example of movie being better than book. Book is horrible schmaltz

VOSS by Patrick White: This sounded so good – foundational text of contemporary Australian literature, love story based on real life nineteenth century German botanist who journeyed into the Outback – what could go wrong? Everything apparently

Friday, 30 December 2016


I had five minutes of wifi available before we left a Bangkok hotel, and so I downloaded Thoreau’s WALDEN. I had a long flight ahead of me, and I suddenly thought – really? No doubt it is a towering classic but it may also be a very dull account of living by some pond. So with two minutes remaining I chose a title from the bestseller lists. This is partly so I was sure of having something pacey and plotty to read, but also because as regular readers will be aware I just finished a mass market thriller (Paula Hawkins’ GIRL ON THE TRAIN) and figured maybe I am just that kind of person now – the kind of person who reads mass market fiction.

Apparently I am not yet that person. I did read it, and it made the flight pass, but it was sort of lame. Girl is in love with gorgeous best friend who is with obviously inappropriate girlfriend. You pretty much know the plot from there. It was all set in Georgia, and everybody was very salt of the earth. There was a lot of stuff which I found surprising but the characters seemed to think was quite normal: people fighting in bars, littering like it wasn’t a big deal, and talking about PMS as accounting for womens’ behaviour. I guess this is what Trump voters mean when they say ‘real’ America. Shiver.


This book is about the relationship of a father and son, and is, as the author tells us early on “ . . . in all its parts, and so far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so, is scrupulously true”

Fabulous. I love a good effort to tell us in detail about your childhood, not least because I can’t ever imagine attempting such a thing myself. Who knows what the truth of all that is? Who can even remember it? I found this especially interesting because the author’s childhood happened in the 1850s, and I can’t recall ever reading an earlier version of memoir than this. I see Wikipedia calls it among the first psychological autobiographies, whatever that may be.

Edmund had a particularly interesting childhood, being brought up by fundamentalist Christians called the Plymouth Bretheren. Here he is making his first small rebellion, an attempt to find out what god would do in case of idolatry:
I knelt down on the carpet in front of the table and looking up I said my daily prayer in a loud voice, only substituting the address ‘Oh Chair!’ for the habitual one. Having carried this act of idolatry safely through, I waited to see what would happen. It was a fine day, and I gazed up at the slip of white sky above the houses opposite, and expected something to appear in it. God would certainly exhibit his anger in some terrible form, and would chastise my impious and wilful action
He is not struck down by lightning, and so begins a long path away from his father’s religion. His father has the entire Bible by heart, down to the minor prophets, and for ‘fun’ he likes to read Revelations and look for signs of the end of days. He is also however a complex character, being an eminent marine naturalist, who is really distressed by the first ideas of Darwin, and tries to reconcile what is obviously scientifically true with the seven days of the Bible by putting forward the idea that God did create the world in seven days, but that he created it so it looks millions of years old. The poor man is roundly mocked by scientists and ministers alike.

Eventually Edmund grows up and goes to London, as everybody it seems must do eventually. His father pursues him there with letters about scripture and molluscs, which are a great distress to him, and from which he quotes at length:
Over such letters as these I am not ashamed to say that I sometimes wept; the old paper I have just been copying shows traces of tears shed upon it more than 40 years ago

It’s a touching story of someone’s childhood, and I recommend it, though it left me a little sad. There’s something depressing about thinking of how everyone has their own story of their childhood, their own memories of their parents, all those stories, going way back into history, and mostly forgotten now.

Thursday, 29 December 2016


I love THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. I have read it two or three times and find it insightful and refreshing every time, so when the algorithm at Amazon suggested I might like the prequel, NEW YEAR’S, I was like: hell yeah, computer function. I would like that.

It’s set before LOVE AFFAIRS and is told from the perspective of Nathanial’s good friend Aurit. It’s brief, but as tart and enjoyable as the main novel. Try this man at a farmers market:
He yawned and shuffled his weight from foot to foot, looking not only bored, but aggrieved, as if being so near fresh, locally grown produce were actually painful to him, as if he were morally opposed to having any contact at all with food outside of what was served to him at a restaurant or delivered fully cooked to his apartment in a plastic bag. His posturing annoyed Aurit, struck her as an affectation, an assertion that he was less bourgeois than she and the others here and deserved some kind of medal for it. Such bullshit.

Or this description of – I suspect – many people’s mothers:
My mom is probably the better person in a lot of ways, but she is also difficult into personally – she’s sort of servile in a way that’s annoying in and of itself, but it’s especially hard to bear because she is also seething with resentment about being underappreciated.

Aurit herself is an interesting character, being one of these people who is somewhat scarred by not having been popular enough in high school. She messes up a good relationship in college by cheating with someone who she doesn’t particularly like, but whom she could never have had in high school, just to prove that she can. The main focus of this very brief story is Aurit’s relationship with Nathaniel. To me, the outcome is a little bit pat. Whereas in LOVE AFFAIRS you are never quite sure where Nathanial’s problem lies – it’s as hard to tell what’s wrong as it is in real life – here it’s all a bit more clear cut, which I did not so much admire. However, I still enjoyed it about 100% more than most books I read this year, and I hope Wadman’s busy in Brooklyn writing something new. I’m sure the algorithm will let me know when it’s done.

Monday, 26 December 2016

THE BEACH by Alex Garland

I was on a beach holiday in Thailand, so the least I could do was read THE BEACH. I read it in a single day, pretty much, from lunch table to deckchair to middle of the night by Kindle’s glow. I can’t quite decide what I think of it.

The book tells the story of a young man, Richard, who goes “travelling”.
Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started travelling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps . . . . Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Bagio, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty . . . Of course witnessing property was the first to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure staff. Being in a riot was something I pursued with a truly obsessive zeal . . .

TELL ME IT’S SATIRE. Can you imagine anything more disrespectful than tourist-ing someone’s low income, or political problems? It is thus obviously delightful when Richard, in his quest for the perfect paradise with like-minded travellers finds instead a police state which ends in murder and dismemberment. This is exactly what you hope for, for him, and the others. Though I can’t shake the feeling there is something unattractively prissy and bourgeois in my enjoyment of the death of his particular dream.

Garland shows he isn’t shy by beginning the story the traditional way: with a map. Richard is given a map which allegedly shows an island paradise. Richard and two French people whose he’s met that afternoon agree to try and find this island. Eventually they do, having to get through a 2 km swim, a large-scale mauijana farm operation, and a waterfall. Once there, they are not very warmly welcomed by the 30 or so travellers already on the beach. They fear their paradise being “discovered,” as Koh Samui and so forth were before. This strikes me as a strange fear, but it’s quite central to the plot. As Sal, the leader puts it, describing their eleven years of travelling before they found the beach:
Living with death. Time limits on everything you enjoy. Sitting on a beautiful beach, waiting for a fucking time-limit to come up. Affecting the way you look at the sand and the sunsets and the way you taste the rice. Then moving on and waiting for it to happen all over again

They are eventually accepted by the group, and at first it does really seem that they have discovered Eden, but slowly it becomes clear that it’s actually Lord of the Flies, with bonus lightly armed Thai militia. Everyone is smoking an awful lot of pot, and with it is coming some serious paranoia. Sal refuses to get medical help for injured members of the group, fearing this will reveal the location of the beach. Later a couple of people turn up on the island who Richard gave the map to on impulse, and he seriously considers killing them rather than letting them find the beach. Fortunately for him, the new arrivals run into the militia, with horrifying results, taking the problem out of his hands.

So it all goes to shit, but you can see why Richard, who is English, and his French friends aren’t that bothered. Once they decide to get out:
72 hours later we had airline tickets and replacement passports from our respective embassies
For some reason this made me really angry. Partly I think this is because just the queuing alone for my last passport took 12 hours, but mostly because it makes so very plain the very prosaic structures of privilege underlying all this supposedly wild adventure. It’s lots of fun to take big risks and explore the untamed wilderness of Asia, when you know very well you can turn around and go back home, to the delightfully tamed wilderness of Europe, any time you please. It’s nice when poverty’s just a vacation.

I should mention also that Richard has clearly played a lot of videogames and watched a lot of war movies and an interesting strand of this book is his mental collapse, a sort of hot mess of early male adulthood and marijuana. I haven’t really covered it here, but I think that another reader might have found that the most interesting part of this novel. Someone else might have enjoyed the Robinson Crusoe aspects, which are also here in abundance. I guess having written this post, I do know what I think of this book: it’s really rather good, a thriller that keeps you up to midnight, but also a novel with lots of big interesting ideas. Just so you know that Garland was only twenty six when he wrote it. GAR!

GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford

It is not every day that this blog can call a book “rollicking”. This however is that day. This book is an attempt by a contemporary author to recreate an 18th-century novel. I always love these kind of efforts, like recreating a dinosaur from a fragment in amber. It has a lovely recreation of this world.
Where the counting office had smelled of ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men, this had the different savour of waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea leaves, with the suggestion of (what is common to both sexes) the necessary house

The protagonist travels from London to New York, and it’s interesting to see how tiny he finds the latter in comparison to the former. Is also fun to see coffee shops as much in fashion then as now:
When he had ate his fill, and proceeded from the urgent first cup and necessary second to the voluntary third which might be toyed with at leisure

It is interestingly contemporary in that SPOILER ALERT the plot turns on the attempt to buy slaves into freedom, and in that the woman the protagonist falls in love with turns him down. It’s unclear if this is because she is crazy.

It a fun book, but for my taste a little bit too full of the 18th century equivalent of car chases, with much running around on rooftops, and a couple of duels. It passed the time, but I must say I’ve almost already forgotten all about it.

PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma

This is the hilarious story of one woman’s descent into heroin addiction and prostitution. This was easily one of the funniest books I read this year, though I’m not quite sure how, as in addition to the drug problem and sex work she also has an eating disorder and an alcoholic husband who leaves her. It’s partly that the book is so well observed. Take this – I feel like I’ve met this man a million times:
He was one of those old, gross men who went through life trying to muster the courage to commit to sexually harassing someone instead of just being a slimy perv.
Or this, on big city living:
NYC is like high school: trends, being judgemental, and how impressive it is when you find out someone has a car – Really? You have a car!
Or this:
When you’re a fat girl and you make an effort with your clothes and hair, it’s like “Why bother, you’re still fat.” Like you’re saying to the world you’re content with being fat. But if you just throw on sweatpants, you are this fat girl walking around in sweatpants. Have some self-respect. You can’t win.
Or this:
On Valentine’s Day I sat across from Peter in a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Candlelight flickered, my man wore a tie, and I felt empty. At some point you realise you aren’t waiting anymore for your life to start. Your life’s happening right now, and it’s pretty dull.

It’s also the laconic contemporary voice, which reads just like someone speaking to you. This hyper casual, hyper real tone is very difficult to do I think:
I regularly told people my father was white. Not because of some deep seated issue with being Indian, but because I didn’t know much about Indian culture, and I felt more American than anything else. I lied because it felt true. I said it to get off the hook for answering questions about why cows are sacred or whatever

For all the hilarity, it is of course also a sad book. Early on, we learn that the protagonist is having an affair with an older man. It’s hilariously dysfunctional. Here they are on an awkward taxi ride:
There was something about a man not caring if he ever saw me again that made me want to suck his cock.
But it’s less funny later, when she says:
But girls know it’s really not that big of a deal to give head, get fucked or have a guy come on your face. As a girl, you’ve probably been pressured into fucking at least once, and probably pity-fucked some loser once, and over time you’ve done enough stuff that you really didn’t feel like doing that eventually it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal

This is not my experience, but I hear it is for a lot of women. Sad when sex work is not such a stretch.

I highly recommend this book. My computer ran out of battery on a flight, and I hadn’t thought through the fact that I couldn’t recharge in Casablanca on my layover as I didn’t have an adapter, so I was somewhat stressed out, as I had a lot to do. I started this book instead, and was done by the time I landed in London, and in a much happier mood.

Sunday, 4 December 2016


This book, written in 1959, is apparently a famous progenitor of the modern supernatural thriller. Shirley Jackson is well know as the literary mother of Steven King. The story begins with an elderly scientist who invites a group of people to come to study an old house with him - Hill House - which has a long and strange history. The group includes a wealthy young man, heir to the house; a beautiful young lady who as a child experienced a poltergeist; and our main character, a young woman who has spent much of her life unhappily caring for her invalid mother. Here's a rather fabulous description of her:
Eleanor Vance was 32 years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

The book has most of the bare bones of what we'd recognise in such a story. There is the house the locals won't visit, the curious scientist, the nightly visits by the unexplained, and of course the death at the end. But in many ways it's less fun than what we now know as the genre. First of all, the group fully believes from the beginning that the house is evil. Thus we are denied the joy of the slow revelation to unprepared and attractive young people. Second, despite the setup, the wealthy young man and the beautiful young woman never get together. Thus, we are denied anybody creeping around the house in their underwear at midnight, which obviously should always be a key ingredient of such a story. Lastly the body count is depressingly sparse, with only one death. Admittedly, it's the narrator's, which is dramatic, but I could have done with a couple more. We're bloodythirsty up in here in the twenty first century.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen

I don't really know what was going on in the 1930s in Europe, but damn, the literature of that period is tortured. And it's not tortured in some kind of physical, comprehensible way; their worries are all very non-physical, or metaphysical, or something. This book tells the story of a 16-year-old girl, who after the her mother has died, has to go and live with her half-brother in London. Predictably, everybody is very tortured about this. There are lots of scenes where drinking tea is agony.

Things ramp up a level when a young man who had previously been flirting with the half-brother's wife becomes interested in the 16-year-old girl. There is some early flirtation, and then immediately . . . to the drama! He goes on about how he doesn't know why he can't open up to her; why he loves her, but not in a way she can understand; about how he is weighted down by her expectations. She is completely mystified. A contemporary reader is somewhat less so. GIRL, HE IS OBVIOUSLY GAY. Get over it.

Falling in love with a gay man is by no means an unknown problem in the modern world, but at least today you know what you are doing, and you can ascribe your issue to what it is: ie, your sexuality, rather than your soul.

Elizabeth Bowen is thought by some to be among the most accomplished of 20th-century novelists. On the evidence of this book, I am not among the some


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...