January 20, 2013

My Top 10 Books of 2012

Oh my god. I read a horrifyingly small number of books this year. I really need to knuckle down, or I'm never gonna finish my stupid list (though on the plus side, that would mean I'd never have to read Proust...). It's a bit ridiculous doing a Top 10 this year, given how few books I've got to choose from, but I'm gonna do it anyway. And maybe the knowledge that fuckin' Sons and Lovers made the 2012 list will give me the kick up the arse I need to read a hell of a lot more in 2013.

The title of each book will link you through to my original review. Here goes:

10. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Despite my many misgivings, Lawrence's windy oedipal drama sneaks into the top 10 on the basis of its handful of brilliant passages. Too much of it was way too airy and pseudo-philosophical, but when actual events were actually happening, it was pretty good.

9. A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

Again, there was a whole hell of a lot about this book that didn't work at all. But in brief glimpses --- notably in the first and last sections, when the satire is directed at the kind of 'cosy English village' that a bunch of BBC miniseries have idealised --- Orwell's biting wit and sharp, cruel prose are in evidence. In those moments, it really comes alive.

8. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Ah, now we're getting to the good shit. Gulliver's Travels, despite one weak section, was really good fun. The targets of Swift's satire are pretty much lost to history at this point (unless you know a hell of a lot about early 18th century Irish politics), but the inventiveness and wit on display here is what keeps this book alive in reader's imaginations. The section in the land of the Houyhnhnms, in particular, is a pretty extraordinary piece of writing, hilarious and savage all at once.

7. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Mitchell is one of the most interesting, and most daring, writers working in English at the moment. What's most exceptional about him (apart from his audacious use of narrative structure) is how big-hearted he is: some might argue his conclusions are simplistic, but I kinda love that he's always wholly unironic and unaffected. Ghostwritten has its faults, but they're far outweighed by its pleasures ... and in a novel as diverse as this, nobody will ever agree which is which. You'll just have to read it and decide for yourselves.

6. Aboriginal Stories of Australia & Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales collected by A.W. Reed

I have a real thing for fairy tales and folk stories (the Brothers Grimm rock my world), and these collections were no exception. I've always felt there's a lot to learn from studying early stories, and the main lesson I took from these books was that it's remarkable how similar in structure, style and content they are to the myths and legends of other, entirely disconnected cultures. It's truly incredible how similar we all are, and these stories --- as well as being entertaining in their own right --- are compelling evidence of that.

5. The Untouchable by John Banville

I love a good spy story, and The Untouchable was very good indeed. Banville's narrator is a man who barely has any personality of his own, instead adjusting himself to act any part that his changing life requires. Always showing a false, constructed face to the world, he was a spy long before he was ever recruited by the Soviets. Banville delves right into the emptiness at the heart of that way of being, and though his prose could be a bit overdone, it perfectly suited the character's voice. A real achievement.

4. The Iliad by Homer

Barbaric, savage, and beautiful. Homer's gift with metaphor and simile is incredible, and makes his epic poem (which covers a mere few weeks towards the end of a decade long war) seem like it encapsulates the entire world of its time. As ferocious and thrilling as it is, the main things that linger in my mind are the stark clarity of the language, and the alien morality that Homer forces you to accept. There's a reason we're still reading it, 2,500 years later.

3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This book manages to feel like a titanic epic, yet it's almost entirely about the thoughts flying around inside one man's head. I'm not sure how Dostoevsky manages that, but I suppose it's to do with the exquisite, minute detail we're given of Raskolnikov's thoughts, and the heart-breaking universality of Raskolnikov's concerns. It also doesn't hurt that it's bite-your-knuckles tense, and read-that-sentence-a-second-time-just-to-savour-it beautiful. An astonishing, devastating novel.

2. Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas

I think this book is going to haunt me. It works brilliantly as a spooky, horrifying ghost story, but its true genius is in the way that Tsiolkas, at the same time as he's scaring the crap out of you, is also exploring fascinating issues to do with identity, history, and diaspora. It's a marvel, a perfect marriage of plot and theme, and it left me breathless with admiration. It's the best Australian novel I've ever read, and one of my favourite novels full stop.

1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

So if I liked Dead Europe so much, what novel could possibly beat it into top spot for 2012? Les Miserables. God, how can I put this? Les Mis felt like more than a novel. It was a history, and a manifesto, and a philosophical text, and it was impossible not to be awed by the scale of its ambitions, nor to be floored when it achieved them all. It was the biggest, grandest reading experience I've ever had, and I know I'll be revisiting it again and again in the future for as long as I live. It was Everest, and everything else is just a foothill. It was incredible.

There you have it. If I'm being completely honest, those top three could be switched into pretty much any order and I'd be perfectly happy. All three of them were remarkable, brilliant books in their different ways. This order is how I'm feeling today, but tomorrow, who knows?

What were your favourite books of 2012? Read anything that blew your mind? Let me know ...

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen
books to go: 76

January 19, 2013

2012: My Regrets of the Year

So last year I did a quick post on my 'Regrets of the Year' --- that is, the books that came out that I wanted to read, but couldn't because of this stupid quest. I actually think it'll be really handy in another couple of years when I'm finished with my list, because it'll stop me forgetting about things I was intrigued by, but never had a chance to investigate further. I might be late to the party on all these, but that's not gonna stop me, dammit!

So, here are my biggest regrets of 2012:

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías.

Aaaaand already I'm sorta cheating. This wasn't a 2012 book, it just came to my attention this year. Anyway, it looks and sounds incredible. After splitting up with his wife, Jacques Deza begins to discover he has an incredible gift: he can interpret subtle cues in a person's face today to predict what they will do tomorrow. He can, on a very small, personal level, predict the future. Then he gets recruited to a spy organisation of dubious purpose, and the whole thing turns into a weird, philosophical thriller.

'Philosophical thriller' sounds right up my alley. I was close to buying this instead of Crime and Punishment, but it's friggin' huge, being sold in three separate volumes that total about 1300 pages. However, one of my colleagues at work flew through the lot in about two weeks, so it seems like it's still pretty page-turner-y.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

Billy Lynn just has one of those set-ups that seems kind of perfect. After surviving a famous skirmish in the Iraq war, the remaining members of a heroic company are doing a whirlwind publicity tour back home. Scheduled to appear with Destiny's Child at halftime at a Dallas Cowboys game, they have to spend the day schmoozing with mega-rich corporate types, trying to score with the cheerleaders, humouring the hulking war-hungry players ... all while trying to protect the secret of what really happened over there.

I don't know about you, but I want to read that fucking book. It helps that it's been getting fantastic reviews, and is apparently hilarious. We run a book club at the store, and the fact that it divided our (generally pretty staid) book clubbers is another plus for me (don't tell them that).

HHhH by Laurent Binet.

Another war novel, this time set in WWII, it deals with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's coldest, cruelest lieutenants. The two men responsible, Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš, were themselves discovered and killed almost straight away, and many details of their lives and their heroism have been lost to history.

Binet's novel, though exhaustively researched, isn't shy about admitting that there are elements of the story that will remain forever unknowable. Binet deals with this by inserting himself into the book, debating whether it is a greater tribute to imagine the interior lives of the two assassins, transforming them from real men into legends, or if it is a better, truer course to only write what is definitively known. So as well as a thriller, it becomes a meditation on how we remember our history, and how our selective remembrances can change the past.

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood.

I was kind of 50/50 on this one: I liked the sound of the plot (a group of brilliant students at Cambridge get carried away by their leader's macabre experiments to do with music and death), and I loved the authors getting name-checked on the book's jacket (it was compared to Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith and Evelyn Waugh), but it could so easily have been one of those over-hyped debuts that has publishers hot under the collar, but never delivers. But then one of our regular customers, whose opinions are pretty close to my own, read it and loved it. I'll always be looking for another Secret History, hopefully this is a worthy successor.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.

I've heard wildly disparate things about this one, and some people have flat out hated it, but the basic concept is enough to keep me intrigued: a new kind of virus sweeps the globe, making parents get gravely ill at the sound of their children's voices. I don't know much more about it than that (other than the fact it's got a really beautiful cover ... yes, I know that's how you shouldn't judge books), but that's enough to get its hooks into me. The possibility for exploring some really interesting stuff to do with families and the ties that bind us, and just what would happen when suddenly the world's children hold all the power. And god, so so pretty ...

So those are my 'want-to-reads' from 2012. Any of you guys read anything brilliant this year that I should add to the list?

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen
books to go: 76

January 9, 2013

Les Miserables (#79)

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What I said then:

Not only is it 1,000 pages long, but it promises misery in its very title. Uh-oh.

What I say now:

By far the greatest thing this 'read everything I own' challenge has done for me is forcing me to sit down and give a chance to those classics which I would never have opened otherwise.

I was dreading Les Miserables. And then I read it, and holy hell, it was absolutely wonderful.

It's almost doing Victor Hugo and his masterpiece a disservice to call it a novel. As you finish it (you'll probably be crying), it feels like so much more than that. It's hard to get across the grandeur, the titanic majesty, the all-encompassing, all-consuming nature of this book and how it's written. If every other novel tells a story, then Les Miserables tells a whole world.

The only thing remotely comparable (in my reading, anyway) is Moby Dick, but where Melville brings an intense focus to a very narrow, limited time and place (the final voyage of the Pequod), Hugo is trying to do the same thing with something as large and ungainly as Paris, over the course of about twenty years. His ambition is so enormous that it's absurd; when he pulls it off, all you can be is flabbergasted.

Where can I even begin? Well, there's the huge cast of characters, all of whom feel vital and alive, despite also fitting neatly into one-dimensional archetypes. It's actually incredible how he does this, taking a stock character with one personality trait and making them seem so human, and so real. I couldn't even tell you how he does it, except to say that perhaps, by examining each of his cliches to such a microscopic level, he finds again the human truth that made it a cliche in the first place.

There's his magical turns of phrase. All of a sudden, in the middle of a long paragraph, there'll suddenly be a sentence that sums up an idea with such clarity and succinctness that it feels like an entirely new thought, minted fresh, that nobody's ever had before, yet which is obviously and utterly true.

And there's the way, across hundreds of pages, an uncountable myriad of plot threads slowly draw together, forming a vast tapestry that feels completely satisfactory. Nothing is left unexplained, no character's fate is left untold, yet it all hangs together as one single story. A momentous, epic, grand, beautiful story.

Now, look, there are undeniably things about Les Miserables which will challenge a modern audience. There's the way the same ten or so people keep bumping into each other, one fantastic coincidence following another. There's the way that Hugo, clearly a wannabe philosopher, treats his story like a clothesline, hanging on it all sorts of colourful digressions. (This actually becomes endearing, mainly because he's so good at it: he takes a timeout for fifty pages while he tells the story of the battle of Waterloo; he gives an exhaustive account of the criminal slang of the time; when his hero, Jean Valjean, enters a convent, he gives a history of the building, then a history of the order of nuns that has made it their home, then discusses that orders place within Catholic doctrine, then talks for a while about why he thinks religion is stupid. At the climax of the novel, at one of the moments of highest excitement, he spends twenty pages giving a history of Paris' sewers, and then ten more using them as an extended metaphor for the darkness in humanity's soul.) But if you are willing and able to forgive these eccentricities, you'll be in for one of the reads of your life. I promise.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser
books to go: 77

January 1, 2013

Crime and Punishment (#80b)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Why I bought it:

After getting over my fear of 19th century Russian authors with Anna Karenina, I thought I'd have another crack at one of the big ones. After doing some highly unscientific research (which mostly consisted of reading blurbs) I decided Dostoevsky was the most likely to be my cup of tea.

What I say now:

Crime and Punishment is a fascinating book. It manages to examine a tawdry, grubby little crime in such minute, exquisite detail that it actually becomes kind of beautiful, even transcendent.

Raskolnikov, a poor (and almost starving) student, manages in his addled state to philosophically justify committing a murder. After briefly (and ineffectually) planning it out, he goes ahead and kills an elderly pawn-shop owner. The actual murder scene is an incredible piece of writing, suspenseful and horror-filled to a degree that any contemporary crime writer would surely be envious of. It also takes place barely one-sixth of the way into the book: the bulk of the novel from then on is taken up by Raskolnikov's attempts to come to terms with what he's done (and continue to justify it in the face of sordid reality), and to stay ahead of the police.

Raskolnikov's wrestling with his conscience, which might in lesser hands be boring ('a man thinks' is hardly the stuff of great drama ... except when it's great, I guess) is given a kind of feverish, manic intensity by the thrill of Dostoevsky's prose. He also makes a genius decision in having Raskolnikov fall ill immediately after the crime: as the character's literal fever rages, his thoughts and feelings are clouded and confused in terms of real-life logic, but make perfect sense on a thematic and philosophical level.

Though it's founded on a moment of horrific violence, Raskolnikov's journey is strangely touching. A large part of his thinking before the murder, and even afterwards, is that, well, some men are great, and are destined for great things. The usual rules of society cannot apply to them. Raskolnikov fervently believes he has greatness inside of him, that he is capable of something magnificent. The murder becomes almost a test of this: if he is truly to lead a remarkable life, then he can't be caught, because that would interfere with his destiny. The realisation that comes late on --- that he is only an ordinary man, that there's no divine spark within --- is acually kind of heart-breaking. We've all had grand dreams, haven't we? And we've all had some moment when we've had to come to terms with the fact that we're not special, we're not incredible ... we're simply ordinary. It's not easy. But Dostoevsky's genius is to take the heartbreak of that realisation and make it beautiful: what could be better than to be a part of humanity? What could be worse than being unique, if being unique means being alone? Raskolnikov is not weakened by his epiphany, but strengthened. And, by reading this novel, so are we.

Oh, and a brief structural note: Crime and Punishment was written in the 1860's (at almost the exact same time as The Moonstone), which is right when modern police forces were just coming into being throughout Europe, and 'crime novels' were first being imagined. The major addition that Crime and Punishment gave to the incipient genre was Dostoevsky's brilliant use of small details in the crime scene, that could be recalled and expanded on later in the novel. By which I mean, there are several things mentioned in passing while the crime is being committed that come back later, either as clues or as important elements of mis-direction, as the police (and Raskolnikov himself) try to piece together what actually happened. This would become a staple of the genre (It's been ages since I read any Agatha Christie, but if memory serves this was a particular favourite trick of hers), but I seriously doubt if it's been done as well as Dostoevsky does it.

In summary, this book is incredible on every level: theme, plot and prose (major props to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translators of this edition). You really should read it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
books to go: 78

Before They Are Hanged (#81) & The Last Argument of Kings (#80a)

Before They are Hanged & The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

What I said then:

Books 2 & 3 in a schlocky fantasy trilogy that, surprise surprise, is actually pretty good (so far).

What I say now:

In terms of contemporary fantasy stuff, Abercrombie is considered one of the best young writers going around. I've gotta admit, though, that these two books didn't really do it for me (and didn't really live up to the promise of The Blade Itself, the first in the trilogy which I liked quite a lot).

I've got no problem with an author playing with genre conventions, and making unusual narrative choices (and in a genre as stultifyingly conservative as fantasy, I'd really much prefer it), so long as those choices add up to something. Or go somewhere. Or make sense.

Unfortunately there were whole swathes of Abercrombie's work that led to a complete dead-end, story wise. Honestly, you could pretty much cut all of Before They are Hanged from the trilogy, and not even really miss it. Too much of what was going on in both of these books was inessential. They were chock full of pleasant-enough diversions, with interesting-enough things going on ... but which didn't have anything to do with anything else. I was willing to let that stuff ride in book 1, because there's always the chance it comes back later. By the time the trilogy was done, and  all those loose ends were simply left dangling, it was getting on my nerves.

Heck, there are entire major characters who Abercrombie simply can't find a use for them in the end. After spending three books in their company, it'd be nice if they had something to do, when the ginormous battle gets going ...

In terms of the prose, for a quick, pacy read like this, it's generally pretty good. He does have a habit of dropping into sentence fragments during more 'action-y' moments which grates after a while. I understand there are people out there who love that shit ... I'm just not one of them. I know you can write a proper sentence, Joe, why stop now? Do you really think the words 'and' and 'the' are going to slow down the action that much?

These were a disappointment, to say the least, and I probably won't be reading Abercrombie again.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
books to go: 78