Tuesday, 31 December 2019

WHAT I READ: THE LAST DECADE


As a new year’s resolution in 2010 I thought I’d try and blog everything I read for a year.  I expected I might make it till about say February, new year’s resolutions being what they are.  Ladies and gentleman: I’ve made it an entire decade.  10 years, 508 books. 

In that ten years I’ve changed countries three times  (UK/Kenya/South Africa/UK again), and spent long periods in lots of places outside of those (Zimbabwe/Nigeria/Sierra Leone/Ethiopia/Luxembourg). I have changed careers (majorly).  I have lost my father and my cousin.  

But that’s all in my real life.  My other life, in books, is in this blog.  To my surprise, I think it’s comprehensive: I don’t think I’ve missed more than 3 or 4 books the entire 10 years.

It’s been uneven.  Some years I read a lot - 100 books in 2011, (17 in June alone, not unrelated to who I had lost); other years not so much – just 39 in 2013.  I thought briefly about in celebration trying to re-read the whole blog, but I don’t think I will.  It would take a lot of time, for one thing, and for another based on a few samples I’ve taken here and there, it’s a very weird experience.  It’s a bizarre time travel to old versions of myself and often opens up strange memories; because I find, startlingly, that often with a book comes a memory of where I was when I read that book, or of what I was avoiding.  Last year when I rounded up what I read in 2018 I put it quite well:
It’s very strange to look back over this blog.  I’m like: who is this person who wrote this blog? She seems to have a lot of energy and a lot of free time.  Also, she has a lot of funny things to say.  I guess we each have our own sense of humour, so it makes sense that reading what I wrote, I often think: that’s exactly what I would have said!  What is really disconcerting is to read a blog post about a book I have entirely forgotten.  It’s like time travel to a former self, and offers the rare opportunity to look at myself at a strange kind of remove.  
Other books I remember well, and reading the blog takes me back not just to the book, but to where I was when I read it.  SOMETHING IN THE WATER, I’m sick in a hotel room in Napa.  GRANT I’m on the beach in Mauritius.  NORMAL PEOPLE it’s the sofa of my living room in the middle of the night   If I ever re-read this post, let my future self note: it’s a hotel room in Wisconsin at  4am. 

I did re-read my very first post, on Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY.  Apparently I had spent the night in a treehouse in Kenya (?). In some ways I am different – I learn that back then I ‘never bought books online’ - while today I always do; but in some ways I am quite the same – apparently ten years ago I still had a lot to say about colonialism in literature.  I wonder I’m not tired of myself yet.

To celebrate I’ve recorded below all 508 books.  I have to laugh at some of it – who was the person who thought she should read the textbook ECONOMICS: PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICE (Standish et al)?  And I was surprised to learn today that apparently I read THE BLUE FLOWER twice, five years apart, without noticing, but both times quoting the same section on eating cow udders.  I’ve also added the summary from each year of my favourite books, which is a tour through ten years of highlights. 

Onwards: to another year; maybe another ten years.  If I’m spared. I should note I have started a new version of this blog, on Instagram, a service that didn’t even exist when this blog began.  (Neither, by the way, did e-books).  If I make it to 2030, who knows what I will be using? Perhaps I’ll just hand it all over to my AI. 

Enjoy the two pics; the one here from last week; the one above from some time in 2010. Two countries, two modes of transport, two hair colours.  Time passes but let it be known I still own that T-shirt.


Best of the blog

2010
Back then, I didn’t summarize my end of the year, but I’ll go ahead and say my best were THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and .I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith

2011
ABSENT by John Eppel, a hilariously sad satire of contemporary Zimbabwe, and that rarest thing, a coherent account of white African identity
FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen, a fabulously Victorian novel of contemporary America
THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz, a brilliant and funny account of a multinational dork's life
GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell, an oldie but still a goodie
MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather, on the romance of the Midwest
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth, on masturbation as a major philosophical event.



2012
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens: how did I live this long without ever reading this?
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW by Anthony Trollope: it's so absorbing, it's like an anaesthetic for your actual life.  I also enjoyed non-fiction for perhaps the first time ever this year: highlights include STANLEY by Time Jeal and THE GUN by CJ Chivers.


2013
PERSUASION BY Jane Austen
THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Wadman

2014
Highlights were GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson, a truly astonishing, almost oppressively wonderful book; A MAN IN LOVE by Karl Ove Knausgaard, which began my love affair with his massive autobiographical project; and MOTHER'S MILK, by Edward St Aubyn, a book that made me look forward to my own midlife crisis. 


2015
Best of the year is obviously lead by Austen. But it’s hardly fair to put her in the race, like running a horse against chickens. So the best of the rest: the quartet from Elena Ferrente of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD. It’s a magnificent series on a pair of friends from Naples in the early twentieth century. In a sign that it truly is the end of days, the publishers have felt it necessary to brand this major literary achievement as chick lit. I pity those who buy it as chick lit, as they will be horrified - its all about how boring your children are and how to abandon old friends who aren’t working for you anymore. REUNION by Fred Uhlman is a wonderful novella about the effect of the rise of the Nazis on a pair of high school boys; THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P Jones is a fantastic huge story of slavery in the American South; and A NOTABLE WOMAN by Jean Lucey Pratt is a set of real life diaries covering fifty years in the life of an ordinary woman that had me blubbing in Luxor airport.

2016
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.

2017
Particularly: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman, a fantastic story of adolescent love and adult loss; CAPTAIN SCOTT’S LAST EXPEDITION by Robert Falcon Scott, a transfixingly wonderful account of his journey to the Pole, which ended in full ugly-crying on the Gatwick Express (for me, not for him; he was dead, I was just coming back from Cyprus); and THE CAZALET CHRONICLES, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a fabulous 3000 pages on civilian life in WWII.  Then there’s INSTEAD OF A LETTER by Diana Athill, a story about a really, but really, bad break-up; JG Ballard's EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which is really remarkable account of a Singaporean prison camp, and, though it hardly needs me to give it the nod, LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding, which is even better than I remember it in high school.  And then I can’t help but mention LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman, a story about who of his friends and family he sold out to survive the Stalinist purges.

2018
Best of the blog: CONVERSATIONSWITH FRIENDS by Sheila Rooney, a story of love and friendship I’ve read three times this year already; EARLY WORK by Andrew Marr (just getting in under the bar as I read it in December), which is a hilarious tale of infidelity and procrastination;LESS by Andrew Sean Greer (give him another Pulitzer); and MEMOIRS OF ANINFANTRY OFFICER by Siegfried Sassoon, a memoir of the First World War it is not one’s business to like or dislike but just to respect. 

2019:
BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage, a sizzlingly angry memoir of teenage pregnancy
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain, a diary of a nurse in WWI, but mostly a love letter to her dead boyfriend

I was going to give you the full list of all 508 (of which 44% women by the way), but it is 11 pages of Word document So here's just 2019.
  1. THE PURSUIT OF LOVE by Nancy Mitford
  2. FREDERICA by Georgette Heyer
  3. DAISY JONES AND THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  4. KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset (Trans. Tii...
  5. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Vera Brittain
  6. THE RETURN OF THE SOLDIER by Rebecca West
7.       MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  1. TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT by Graham Greene
  2. DELIVERANCE by James Dickey
11.    THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: A TALE OF THE LAKE DISTRICT by James Rebank
12.    HAPPINESS BY DESIGN: FINDING PLEASURE AND PURPOSE by Paul Dolan
  1. A SEASON IN SINJI by J.L Carr
  2. A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole
  3. THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME by Andre Aciman
  5. APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA by John O’Hara
  6. BAD BLOOD by Lorna Sage
  7. A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by JL Carr
  8. YOUR BEST YEAR YET by Jinny Ditzler
  9. THE MIGHTY FRANKS by Michael Frank
  10. INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Holdor Laxness
  11. DEVIL'S CUB by Georgette Heyer
  12. THESE OLD SHADES by Georgette Heyer
  13. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? By Philip K Dick
  14. THE GRADUATE by Charles Webb
  15. CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sheila Rooney
  16. THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA by Stendahl
  17. THE BEGINNING OF SPRING by Penelope Fitzgerald
  18. ZORBA THE GREEK by Nikos Kazantzakis
  19. ARABELLA by Georgetter Heyer
  20. GROWING UP by Russell Baker
  21. SPANDAU: THE SECRET DIARIES by Albert Speer
  22. THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler
  23. GIVING UP THE GHOST by Hilary Mantel
  24. BLACK SHEEP by Georgette Heyer
  25. THE CORINTHIAN by Georgette Heyer
  26. LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson (trans. Molly Ringwald)
  27. DISGRACE by JM Coetzee
  28. FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kusher
  29. CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY by Edith Wharton
  30. HOLIDAYS ON ICE by David Sedaris
  31. FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
  32. MY LIVES by Edmund White
  33. PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion
  34. EARLY WORK by Andrew Martin
  35. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout
  36. THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan
  37. A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA by William Boyd
  38. A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford
  39. BERTA ISLAS by Javier Marias
  40. THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro
  41. STORY OF A MARRIAGE by Geir Gulliksen
  42. WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks
  43. MUTOKO MADNESS by Angus Shaw
  44. THE GODMOTHER by Hannelore Cayre
  45. THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark
  46. THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende
  47. NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE by Andrew Miller

Sunday, 29 December 2019

NOW WE SHALL BE ENTIRELY FREE by Andrew Miller

This is like  a Jane Austen book but if Austen wrote thrillers.  It tells the story of a veteran of the Napoleonic wars.  He signed up, as many centuries of men seem to have done, with cheerful naivete. and a sort of hopeful blood thirstiness.  Strangely enough, killing strangers does not turn out to be all that fun, and especially not for the horses, and he returns home with a lot on his mind.

He decides to go travelling, to the islands beyond Scotland.  He struggles with a laudanum addiction, falls in love with a woman in some kind of cult, and then discovers he is being pursued by a deranged former army colleague (long story).  Despite all this incident, it does not exactly hang together as a plot.  But I still quite enjoyed it.  It's vividly historically imagined, which I like.  Here  he is describing the activities at port, for example
. . . the flogging of malefactors, the swabbing and coiling, the learning of stars, the difficult Arab maths
And some of it was quite beautiful; here he is spending the afternoon on the deck of a ship:
. . . the dull miracle of sea and air, of time slipping like honey through muslin
Or this, on an egg:
. . . the shell a perfect fit for the curve of his palm. It was like the evidence of something, a proof out of theology.  Also just an egg that he cracked on his front teeth, letting the yolk roll on to his tongue.
I love that description of the shape of an egg as 'a proof out of theology'! 

Mostly though this book made me think that really people have been having a bad time in wars for a very long time.  Read this interesting entry in Wikipedia, about Jonathan Martin, also a deranged veteran of the Napoleonic wars. He had a wild life, with eleven siblings, an aunt obssessed with hell, witnessing his own sister's murder, getting press-ganged into the navy, etc.  Eventually he burned down the choir at York Minster because he was "bothered" by the buzzing of the organ.  Fair enough. You can see where you might be at the end of your tether

Friday, 20 December 2019

THE GODMOTHER by Hannelore Cayre

MONEY IS EVERYTHING is the title of the first chapter of this book, and from this we already know we will enjoy it.  It tells the story of an immigrant woman in Paris who figures out how to briefly become a drug lord/lady.

As with so many things in life, it all begins with her mother.  Her mother is a Jewish refugee from Austria who has dementia and is fixated on her old dog:
Schnookie was the dog who had drowned in ’38 when she and her family were crossing the Danube in a dinghy to escape the Germans.  The fox-terrier had panicked and leaped overboard, to be swept away by the current before the eyes of my powerless mother.   It’s the only time in my life I cried, she would add, in a quavering voice to whomever was listening at the time.  Needless to say, I would feel like killing her whenever she put on this display.   
This hilarious last line gives you a good sense of the narrator we have.  Here she is again on her mother:
Amidst this defeated humanity, I would find my mother strapped into some sort of a capsule, her blind, staring eyes like saucers, fixed on the ceiling, waiting for the heavens to open like the doors of a store on the first day of the sales.
And on the other nursing home visitors, who similarly are struggling under the costs:
There we all were, part of that great, middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly. It was reassuring.
It is these costs that driver her look to a life of crime.  She leverages her low paid job as an Arabic translator to insert herself into the drug trade, helped  by one of her mother’s carers.  She is gloriously successful.  I wish we could have left it at that, but instead we had to have the part where her policeman boyfriend figures out what she is doing, and does not turn her in, but does dump her.  It really struck me: western cultural products can’t stand to have criminal succeed without consequences. 

It’s sort of sweet – I think it is the tradition of the morality tale that we can’t quite shake off.  Or that we don’t want to shake off.  Truth is that mostly people do get away with it.  (Not that I am always going on about dictators, but let's face it they are the best example.  For every Muammar Gaddafi dying in a drainpipe there are ten Idi Amins who get to go out in deluxe Saudi hospital)

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE by Muriel Spark


This story, about a girls’ school, is full of sex, betrayal and tragedy. So a pretty accurate picture of a girls’ school overall.  I speak with authority, as a thirteen year veteran of a Convent myself. 

Miss Jean Brodie cultivates a small group of girls as her special set, all the while leading an impressively shady personal life, involving sleeping with the music teacher because she can’t get the art teacher.  She isn’t big on teaching the actual curriculum, but is big on the Latin derivation of words and how good a leader Mussolini is. 

In a creepy turn of events she encourages one of her students to have an affair with the arts teacher, and another to run off to fight for the fascists in Spain.  Unsurprisingly these grade A life choices end in tears and she is eventually betrayed by one of her own set.  Who then becomes a nun. 

I think I read or saw this as a play many years ago, because I mostly recall it as a story about the girls.  Apparently time is marching on, because I now read it as a story mostly about Miss Jean Brodie, who frankly I found rather inspirational.  I loved how she went big on terrible choices while aggressively telling anyone who would listen about how she was in her prime.  I mean:  #lifegoals

Saturday, 14 December 2019

THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende


Here is a book packed with all sorts of things.  It tells the story of three generations of a family in an unnamed South American country (i.e., Chile).  It is packed with incident.  Take this account of the pets:
Among that entire domestic fauna, the only one to have any importance in the collective memory of the family was a rabbit Miguel had once brought home, a poor ordinary rabbit that the dogs had constantly licked until all its hair fell out and it became the only bald member of its species, boasting an iridescent coat that gave it the appearance of a large-eared reptile.
The rabbit is never mentioned again.  Also why were the dogs licking it so much? No one knows.  The book is full of stuff like this.  Someone dies, and here is the response:

"You can bury her now," I said.  "And while  you’re at it, I added, you might as well bury my mother-in-law’s head.  It’s been gathering dust down in the basement since God knows when."

I mean: ?

It makes for a strangely absorbing, and very dense book, full of characters and ideas.  It covers about a hundred years from the  late 1800s up to a unnamed dictator's rise (i.e., Pinochet).  From a Zimbabwean perspective, I note once again how glad I am to have only a relatively inefficient dictatorship.  Apparently you can really torture a lot people once you get organized.

It was mostly enjoyable for its lush bizarreness, but I did enjoy this perspective on why it can sometimes be better not to actually get to be with the one you love:

Blanca preferred those furtive hotel rendezvous with her lover to the routine of everyday life, the weariness of marriage and the shared poverty at the end of every month, the bad taste in the mouth on waking up, the tedium of Sundays, and the complaints of old age .  .  . Perhaps she feared the grandiose love that had stood so many tests would not be able to withstand the most dreadful test of all: living together. 

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK by Nora Ephron

This book of essays contains some profound truths about the female experience.  Here for example is an extract from an essay about maint...