Archive for December, 2014

My Favourite Books of 2014

December 15, 2014

What follows are some thoughts I’ve had about the books that I have most enjoyed in 2014. These are not all books that have been published this year, but I am hoping that if you’re reading this, then you might consider picking up one of two of the books that I have loved in the last year.

Cynan Jones – The Dig

I read this book earlier in the year and it stayed with me for a while. The prose is simple, crisp and sharp. It’s a short book, but it packs a brutal punch. Despite the comparisons with Cormac McCarthy, this is a distinctive novel, rooted in the claustrophobic British countryside and not the apocalyptic landscapes of the USA.

Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation

I absolutely loved this book. It reminded me of Renata Adler’s great 70’s book ‘Speedboat’, in that it sacrifices narrative for a more fractured approach. It’s full of astute observations, perfectly captured vignettes of modern life and its frustrations and enervations. It is also very funny. Every paragraph is a discrete delight, but the sum is even greater than the parts. It returned to me week after week to reveal something new.

Joshua Ferris – To Rise Again At A Decent Hour / Then We Came To The End

These two books are two of the funniest books I have read this year. The former was published this year and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ali Smith should have won the Booker – she’s a genius and, like Nicola Barker, I can read pretty much anything she publishes, even the not-so-great stuff, because they’re so distinctively brilliant (see Nicola Barker’s In The Approaches, which wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but still contained moments of pure Barker genius) – but this, despite also being brilliant, was never going to win because it’s properly funny and the Booker doesn’t seem to like properly funny (wry, yes; funny, *turns up nose*).

Then We Came To The End was Joshua Ferris’ first novel, which I read after finishing ‘To Rise Again…’ and it’s even better. In fact, it’s among the best books of the century so far, along with Darkmans, The Line of Beauty, The Corrections, Wolf Hall, The Road and a few more that I can’t think of right now. It’s almost entirely told in the first-person plural (with the exception of one astonishing and heart-breaking section about two-thirds of the way through). It could seem tricksy, but it works brilliantly to capture the anxious ennui of corporate office life. It’s hilarious, acerbic, despairing and has heart. It reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s wonderful ‘The Mezzanine’, but with the microscope that Baker uses inverted outwards.

I cannot recommend TWCTTE enough. It’s a work of genius.

Marcel Proust – The Way By Swann’s / In The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower

Madeleines, eh? Don’t get me started.

Marcel Proust (pictured above playing a tennis racquet as a guitar) is a name that generally conjures up a few things: small cakes, remembering things and people saying “oooooh, la dee daaa” in a silly voice, then accusing you of pretentiousness. The above picture, I think, shows off the thing that is rather un-Proustianly forgotten about Proust: he’s brilliant, funny, charming and an all-round delight. Sure, his sentences are sometimes so long that I occasionally can’t remember how they started and the sheer size of A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu is mind-boggling (following the advice of a very wise man, I have found it’s best to keep other books on the go to retain sanity), but these books are wonderful and far easier to read than you might think. I’ve found myself (inwardly) gasping at the lucidity of his descriptions of our inner lives and his writing about art, love, friendship and everything else in between. It’s gloriously rewarding and that’s why it’s a good thing to think about reading the ‘great’ books, the ‘great’ works of art. They are difficult, but ultimately they enrich you.

Word of warning though: I’m currently about 150 pages into the third volume and he’s still not eaten that bloody cake.

Andy Miller – The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life

One of the reasons I decided to start reading A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu is because of The Year of Reading Dangerously – part memoir, part self-help, part literary criticism, all hilarious and all (whisper it) joyous.

Andy Miller is a former bookseller and editor. He is also a fine writer (his short book on the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society is excellent), however, it seems even the greatest lover of books can become jaded when the routine of commuting and childcare takes over a life. I don’t know much about these things, because I am a highly immature 31 year-old, who moved to London 2 1/2 years ago, but I’m pretty sure at some point I will have to deal with the adult world. It’s an awful grind though, isn’t it, this whole ‘living’ business?

The premise of the book is that Andy Miller, despite being a man of exemplary literary background, had let himself go. He had also lied about having read ‘great’ books. He has never finished Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Pride & Prejudice, The Communist Manifesto and at least 46 other books.

We’ve all done it, haven’t we? A friend of mine recently text to say she was starting War & Peace and was tremendously excited to be able to talk to me about it. I loved Tolstoy. I had read Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I’d also read War & Peace, hadn’t I? I’d certainly sung its praises, using lofty phrases. My friend now knows I am a pillock, who has not read War & Peace. I’m pretty sure she doubts that I’ve read Anna Karenina as well. I promise I have and I genuinely thought it was incredible. A truly great book. If I loved Anna Karenina (I also adored The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Kreutzer Sonata), I would love War & Peace. So, I basically loved it already and had therefore read it. Right? Hmm.

In this book, that sort of logical delusion is picked apart and fretted over by Andy Miller. He also looks at what makes a great book and, in a genuinely laugh-out-loud chapter compares Moby Dick (a ‘great’ book) with The Da Vinci Code (‘arse gravy’ – Stephen Fry… I won’t spoil the author’s neat put-down of Fry’s not-so-neat put-down).

Seriously, I was bothering people on the bus with my tittering. I blame Andy Miller for the distaste with which my fellow travellers on the W7 look at me.

It’s not all LOLing and self-disgust though, there are some moments that are genuinely moving, without ever being mawkish. The reflection on The Tiger Who Came To Tea is lovely, as well as Miller’s memory of his own childhood books, which despite (apologies, Mr Miller) being a decade younger had me in a nostalgic reverie.

The best chapter, for me, though, is the letter to Michel Houellebecq. I read Atomised when in Sixth Form and recall enjoying it, but being a little baffled. I intend to re-read it soon, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not you like, care, or even know about Michel Houellebecq. The letter itself was, to me, what this book is about. It is the unabashed joy of finding a book that speaks directly to you and that can affect you to your core. It’s the joy of discovering what it means to discover what ‘great’ art really is, even if it seems nebulous. It’s why great books, great songs and great art stay with us until we’re dead in the ground and someone else picks them up. It’s a glorious chapter, full of sincere irony (David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker) and, thankfully, not ironic sincerity (half of Vice Magazine’s output). It’s full of analeptic energy and references to obscure Neil Young albums. It was the moment when the book burst open for me, like that exhilarating moment in The Beatles’ A Day In The Life when it skips from Lennon to McCartney (for the record, now I’m 31, I can safely say that McCartney is better than Lennon – imagine that, John). This was the moment when a book that was ostensibly about great books became great for me. It spoke to me.

This is not a book of po-faced literary criticism for the pages of the LRB (NB, I read the LRB and enjoy it, but I once went to a screening of B.S. Johnson movies at their bookshop and some of those guys need to lighten up). This a book for those who grew up in the suburbs without an independent bookshop, who lived their lives in the library, who don’t sneer at the thought of buying a book from W.H. Smith, who have come to love Tolstoy, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul McCartney and Sherlock Holmes, who grew up with the Mr Men, Asterix & Obelix, Winnie the Pooh, Dennis the Menace, Mr Toad, Peter Rabbit, The Secret Seven and The Twits. It’s for those of us who love books, but have found ourselves forsaking the great ones, thinking ‘there’s only so much time’. It’s a nonsense. You have got the time and it’ll be worth it. Don’t take my word for it, though, read this book and take Andy Miller’s word for it. Then blame him.

Andy Miller’s belief in the ability of great books to enrich us and better us is not just righteous; it’s infectious. This book has already led me to pick up great books by Jean Rhys, Gordon Burns (Alma Cogan is an absolutely brilliant novel that should be in the list above, but I’ve not been able to fully articulate my thoughts on why I love it so much), Arthur Schopenhauer and Julian Cope. It’s encouraged me to read books I haven’t got around to yet (see below). It’s full of lipstick traces and anecdotes (there’s a particularly wonderful one about Iris Murdoch; probably the most Morrissey Morrissey book-buying story it’s possible to find; there’s also a slightly upsetting one about an unnamed film star, who may or may not have starred in such films as Peeping Tom and Frenzy).

It’s even inspired me to start on my own List of Betterment. I used to think I was quite well read (it helps that I work in a law firm, where great books are not high on the list of things to think about – reading books is my thing, compensating for me being less clever, less sharp, less able to construct analytical arguments than my colleagues), but I realised that I still had a lot to read and a lot of lies to compensate for.

If you like books, or have liked books and want to like them again, go out and buy Andy Miller’s book. If you don’t, I’ll probably buy it for you.

Here’s the first 30 of mine (order to potentially be re-worked at a later date). Don’t judge me too harshly and feel free to recommend books to me…

1. Marcel Proust – A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu (volumes 3-7)

2. Leo Tolstoy – War & Peace

3. Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend

4. Malcolm Lowry – Under The Volcano

5. John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces

6. Henry James – Portrait of a Lady

7. Hilary Mantel – Beyond Black

8. Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theatre

9. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire

10. Colin McInnes – Absolute Beginners

11. Joris-Karl Huysmans – A Rebours

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamozov

13. Virginia Woolf – The Waves

14. Laurence Sterne – Tristram Shandy

15. Louis-Ferdinand Celine – Journey to the End of the Night

16. James Joyce – Ulysses

17. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary

18. Patrick Hamilton – The Slaves of Solitude

19. Jean Rhys – Tigers Are Better Looking

20. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

21. David Niven – The Moon’s A Balloon

22. Don DeLillo – The Names

23. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita

24. Gogol – Dead Souls

25. John Updike – Rabbit, Run

26. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

27. George Eliot – Daniel Deronda

28. George Gissing – New Grub Street

29. John Dos Passos – USA Trilogy

30. Thomas Hardy – The Mayor of Casterbridge

Maybe it’s time to come up with your List of Betterment.

p.s. you don’t have to copy Andy Miller’s list – the Venn Diagram of those wishing to read The Communist Manifesto, American Psycho, Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide to the Great Kosmiche Musik by Julian Cope and The Essential Silver Surfer is going to be pretty limited. Sorry, Andy.

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Warning

December 15, 2014

If you’re reading this and know me, you might realise it has been almost two years since I last wrote anything on this blog. Partly, this is down to indolence, but mostly because I had an epiphany revolving around the crapness / crapitude / crapsatchel / Crapola in Crayola, that is my prose.

Not only that, it also struck me: “Who cares about what you, who work in a law firm, think about music or books or films or art or anything of importance and substance? Your top cultural achievements of the last five years include finishing some quite big books and not making a complete dick of yourself when you had a brief online conversation with Jonathan Coe.”

It’s taken two years, but the funk* of self-pity has finally lifted. I’ve realised that it doesn’t really matter if my writing is an abominable excrescence; it’s a decent way to exercise my brain and, damn it, I quite like it when it’s not getting me down. Also, the two or three friends to whom I have whimpered were reassuring and/or told me to stop being a prat, which if anything is more reassuring than just being nice**.

So, having got that out of my system, my next blog post will be a list of my favourite books of this year. In the words of Mr Chuck D Esq.: “Consider yourself… WARNED.”

*I’m thinking beanie-hatted slap bass botherers pronouncing the word ‘funkay’ as opposed to, say, Funkadelic or Sly Stone, for whom Vince Noir’s egregious slur of funk in The Mighty Boosh as ‘jazz’s deformed cousin’ is just plain wrong.

**Please don’t take this is carte-blanche to call me a prat, I have a fragile ego and I will shun you for approximately 34 seconds if you call me a prat.”