Sunday, 8 January 2012

my books of 2011

I am quite a fan of David Mitchell, and I read, in late June, Black Swan Green, the story of a 13-year-old boy in a village in middle England, in 1982.  The boy has a stammer he manages, mostly, to conceal from his peers (as I did mine) but Mitchell, oddly, calls the stammer The Hangman.  No.  It is more like an iron bar.  David Mitchell has never written a dull book, and this was fascinating - he uses onomatopoeia or similar, and writes about England "English church bells go 'trip, trip, dranggg and baloooom.".  That is so exactly how they go.  I did like that.    Anyway, the book is a coming-of-age story.  A boy grows up, a little.  Finds out about girls, a little.  Someone dies.  A baby is going to be born.  A family fractures.  A childhood home is left behind.

Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina, was first published in Serbo-Croat in former Yugoslavia in the late 1940s.  I read i t in French translation before.  In the second half of 2011 I read it again in English translation.  It is the story of a bridge, and of a country (Bosnia).  This was a country they tried to kill.  A country that barely exists.  That existed (in Yugoslavia) when this book was written, but no longer does.

John Updike, Rabbit is Rich, the first Updike I have ever read, and I have to say I am a believer.  Lovely writing.  A discontented man. I like discontent.  Here is his description of the man of the book pulling a lettuce for salad for that day's meal, in the evening "Dark green around him is damp with coming evening, though their long day's lingering brightness surprises his eye above the shadowy masses of the trees."  The title notwithstanding, the man of the book is not rich, and so I wonder if the whole thing is meant to be ironic.  Fantastic stuff though.  Family members gather for a wedding, and Rabbit remembers a sledge (a sledge!) and a child who died sledging on their street when he was a child, and how all the children knew it, though their parents did not tell them.  It is dated about finance and technology and as a book published in I think 1981 must be.  People were signing mortgages at over 13 per cent.

I read a lot of American stuff in the second half of 2011, including Raymond Chandler 'Farewell My Lovely' - I very well remember the film with Robert Mitchum - "It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."  And "I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin."  How excellent is that?

I read, too, Alistair Darling, "Back From The Brink,".which is much exercised by the vileness of both politics and the media.  And he does not like Gordon Brown very much.  I went on, still in politics, to Philip Gould, "The Unfinished Revolution".  Well, Gould is dead now.  And then to Chris Mullin's early diaries, because he writes very well and entertainingly, whatever I might think of him personally (a very nasty creature indeed, and he was a rubbish minister too).  Mullin mentions, interestingly to me, a person called Judy Stowe, who used to be in charge of South-East Asia Stuff at the BBC World Service back in the day (Mullin has a great interest in Vietnam and is married to a Vietnamese person), I knew Judy to be a Khmer Rouge apologist of the first water, but let that pass.  Mullin has the reputation of having written a pamphlet called "How to Deselect Your MP" and he clearly does not like this notion, for he reminds us that it was written in the 1970s, and was called "How to Select or Reselect Your MP".  An aside on Mullin - he cites Frank Dobson as saying "Bill Clinton's only mistake was not asking Ted Kennedy to drive Monica home".

Another political book that was published in 2011 was "Prime MInister Boris and other things that never happened", an Iain Dale publication edited by Duncan Brack, to which I had the honour to contribute a chapter.  It makes an interesting read.  Some of the chapters are quite scholarly, and some are lighter weight.

In the second half of 2011 I had the good fortune to make a month's trip to Australia, and I read a book by Howard Jacobson "In the Land of Oz", very dated, but not uninteresting.  He and his wife sit stony-faced through Crocodile Dundee, because they disapprove of it, but the blue-collar Australians around them roar with laughter and delighted recognition throughout.  And Jacobson and spouse (who is Australian) despise them for it.  And he is aware of the kind of traveller he has been, in his Australian odyssey - "Now I know what kind of traveller I was.  I journeyed to the centre of dialogue; wherever it was I thought I'd been I'd never in fact set foot outside a conversation.".

I reviewed previously 'Ghost Map', about the cholera outbreak in London in 1854 and my hero Dr John Snow, who understood that the pump was to blame, which I followed coincidentally with 'Nemesis', by Philip Roth,  about polio in New Jersey in the 1940s, a book that shocked me, because it ended so darkly, and so soon.  It's a book about what "everybody knows" but which so often is not true - such as catching polio from swimming pools.  Which you do not.

I read about languages too,  and was pleased to be reminded of Chomsky's sentence "colorless green ideas sleep furiously', intended to show that  a sentence can be perfectly grammatical and still mean absolutely nothing.

An interesting one was 'The Kid' by Sapphire, the story of the son of the woman she wrote about in 'Push', published in 1996 I think, which became the film 'Precious'.  She is a poet, and it shows.  Worth it. Though very dark.

I even read a theological commentary in 2011, on 'The Song of Songs', largely because it was written by my brother, Paul J. Griffiths,  but also because this is the book from the Bible I  perhaps knew the best for a long time, because RE lessons at school were so boring that we used to spend them reading the "rude bits" in the Bibles we were issued with.

And right at the end of the year I was reading Orwell's essays.,  This inspired me to read Dickens, which I never really have, though some of him was read to me through childhood bouts of tonsillitis.  What is hugely interesting about Orwell's essays is that if he is writing, for instance, about Henry Miller's 'Tropic of Cancer', he spends most of the essay writing about James Joyce.  Could a person get away with this today?  I am still reading the collected essays at the time of writing, but so far 'The Lion And The Unicorn' is what stays with me.  About England.  He wrote this in 1940, and says "the pacifists are mong those who wish for a Hitler victory"/

In the last two years or so I have been reading a lot of William Boyd, having read him first at the end of the 70s when he first published, gone off a couple of books ('Brazzaville Beach' and 'Stars and Bars') but have very much come back to him.  A great writer and a great storyteller.  I read 'Fascination', a collection of short stories. Explicit homage to Chekhov, 'Woman on the Beach with a Dog' and 'The Pigeon', a little bit self-conscious.

I finished the year re-reading Wiliam Boyd 'The New Confessions' which may be his masterpiece.  Bows low to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.A whole life, and a whole century, though I suspect he wrote the same book again later, of which more, indeed, later.

That's not everything I read in the second half of 2012, but it's most of it.  I did so much travelling and other work that I read less in that six months than I usually do.  Making up for it now.


Anonymous said...

Glad you liked R is Rich. The entire Rabbit set of books is worth it. Adore Black Swan Green.

Interestingly, I bought The Kid for a friend as a Christams present. Have not yet read it myself.

Re-reading Bleak House now prior to reading the Tomalin biog of Dickens. I am then going to read the Arnold Bennett Clayhanger trilogy for the first time; the Drabble biog of him and also JB Priestly's Good Companions before some Dumas. And this year I am going to read some Victor Hugo; also, Edna O'Brien's autobioography, Country Girls - published in Septembr/October 2012.

Mr London Street said...

I like Rabbit Is Rich very much, I think it's my favourite of the Rabbit books. And if not rich, he's certainly prosperous, which he isn't in the previous two books. Also, you can't beat a novel with a spot of swinging in it. The previous two books are worth reading, but only just. Have you read Revolutionary Road?

Jane Griffiths said...

Have got the Claire Tomalin biog on the new Kindle and downloaded six Dickens free to follow it with. Next on my print pile after I finish The New Confessions (which is LONG) is Candia McWilliam, on a reader's recommendation.

Anonymous said...

The Candia McWilliam is just so FAB - enjoy! The other Rabbit books are also v good - and additionally, his last book of short stories. Also, Couples - an earlier novel - v sixties and seventies. ACE!! A v seventies word.

I was crazily put off Updile for some reason for years and years - and am now a fan! Incidentally, John Cheaver's collected short stories also v worth reading - and the recent excellent biog of Cheaver. And I want also to get the new Edmund White novel -

Anonymous said...

Have ou thought about the 2011 book 'Turkey' list -- the books you tried and really didn't rate?