A quick run through my reading in the first five months of this year:
A book that featured in many of the best of the year lists for 2010 and with good reason. So highly praised has this been I approached it with some trepidation. But it is every bit as good as people say. De Waal is an acclaimed ceramic artist / potter. He inherits 264 Japanese netsuke – wood and ivory carvings of animals, plants and people, from his great uncle. This sets him on a search to understand how they came into his family and their history (and thus his family’s history too). It takes him to 1870 France where they were first bought by his family, a wealthy banking dynasty who mixed with the likes of Proust, Degas and Manet. From there de Waal follows the netsuke to 1930’s Vienna where his wealthy Jewish family find themselves caught up in the political turmoil of the Nazi’s rise to power. Finally, the netsuke end up in post-war Japan. It is an astonishing story beautifully told. Every page has something worth quoting. Very highly recommended.
A big book about a subject I don’t particularly care for – 20th Century classical music. Yet such is the quality of Ross’ writing and his enthusiasm for his subject I was hooked from the very beginning and consumed the book like a novel. It made me want to hear the music as I read (and even though that was often not possible, Ross describes it so well it is easy to imagine it). I especially enjoyed the chapters about music in Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany, and those on the rise of modern classical composers such as Reich and Glass – the only music in the book of which I was already familiar.
Another one of the most highly rated books of last year and again, rightly so. Room is written from the perspective of a five year old boy born and raised in one room where his mother has been held captive for many years. The mother and child finally escape and then have to adapt to their new world. The style takes a little while to get used to – the language is that of a five year old. But once you have adapted to the style it is impossible to put down. Heartbreaking, horrific, compassionate and ultimately full of love and hope. Highly recommended.
Strangely underwhelming. The subject matter should be fascinating – the post-war arts and music scene of London with an emphasis on the underground – but it doesn’t deliver. There is a lack of narrative; the book is a collection of anecdotes and an endless stream of names. It contains some real gems but also much that is dull. There are stories where I wanted to know more but Miles never gives them time to develop. I would have preferred longer accounts of 10-15 of the key events rather than a couple of paragraphs on hundreds of small events. And although Miles was at the centre of much of this and so can give a first-hand account I didn’t feel that he captured the era and atmosphere particularly well. A missed opportunity.
For me Helen Dunmore is one of the finest living British authors and her latest confirms that belief. It is a sequel to The Siege, but can be read independently. It tells the story of a young couple in Stalinist Russia and their struggle to survive. Like all of Dunmore’s books the characters are expertly drawn and deeply believable. She is an expert storyteller and writes with a beautiful, sparse but lyrical style that captures scenes so perfectly (I believe that her work as a poet comes through in her language, and as a writer of children stories is why she tells such a good story). As with all Dunmore books (except Counting The Stars) – recommended.
Excellent. A long book (650+ pages) which races by. Funny, touching, moving. Murray tells the story of a group of school friends in a Dublin college – their worries, concerns, love, and search for a future. Each of the characters is brilliantly drawn – from the Skippy of the title to Ruprecht (a genius who is building a machine to travel to another dimension), and the main teachers who are often as mixed up as the students. Every page is a delight. It recalls for me Jonathan Coe, Steve Toltz and Andrew Crumey, yet stands on its own as something wonderful and unique. Very highly recommended.
Recently nominated for The Guardian’s best first novel this has much to admire but also has many faults. It starts brilliantly; the first chapter is one of the best opening chapters I’ve read for some time. Unfortunately he cannot sustain it. Beauman has some great touches, ideas (I liked the new town where its clever design means that nobody ever meets anyone new) and characters, but he doesn’t always know what to do with them. One section of the book turns into a bizarre cross between a bad farce and a poor Agatha Christie novel. The end is like an extract from some schoolboy horror book. But it is never dull, always readable and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne is part biography, part history, part philosophy (and even part self-help). She writes passionately about Montaigne telling the story of his life in 16th Century France and placing it in the context of his essays whilst also exploring his legacy (Montaigne is considered the founder of the essay form which is coming back into favour). Bakewell is never restricted by the traditional biography format, meandering around in time and subject and in doing so bringing Montaigne to life. And now to read the Essays.
This great book tells the remarkable story of Henrietta Lacks an African American woman who died of cancer in 1951. Shortly before her death cells from her cancer were taken for research purposes. At this time scientists had never successfully kept cells alive in a lab for more than a few days. Lacks’ cells continued to survive and divide and 50 years later are still being reproduced and used for research (it is estimated that more than 20 tons of cells have been produced) and they have been used to create many vaccines and medical breakthroughs. Yet Lacks, nor her family, ever knew anything about this and although there was a vast industry around the cells the family never saw any of the profits. Skloot combines the story of Lacks, her family and the medical research, alongside her own attempts to produce the book and persuade the family to open up. Highly recommended.
Egan’s latest is one of the most highly rated books of the past year (it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). It tells the story of a group of characters over several decades and fromvarious perspectives. Each chapter is written in a different style including one in the second person and one written as a powerpoint (it works better than you might think). Characters fade in and out, connections are not always clear until later chapters, insignificant characters suddenly become important. Egan’s control is expert; in lesser hands it could feel self-consciously clever. It is a book about time and memory and how dreams turn out. There is much to admire and highly recommended but perhaps a little overrated.
The two best collections of poetry I’ve read in the first few months of the year as I continue to rediscover contemporary poetry. Rain is a couple of years old but is the first Paterson I’ve read and I look forward to catching up with his other work. The Willetts has had a lot of media attention as the poet who used to be a heroin addict yet it is stands up because of the quality of the poetry and not just because of the back story.
It is a long time since I read any Camus but my opinion of him hasn’t changed with this. I can see him as an important writer but I struggle with his work and would not class him as a great writer. The Plague is cleverly constructed and makes one think but I am sure that I missed the significance of many of the metaphors and allegories.
There are some great characters and ideas in here but the book is too dense and Goldstein lays on the academic / philosophical side a bit too thick sometimes which means the good bits get lost in a thick treacle of dense prose. She can write well but I found myself skimming through much of it.
Another highly rated book including by those whose opinions I value. Yet this did nothing for me. It felt too forced – like it was trying too hard to be “hip”. I know people who found it very funny yet for me it rarely raised a smile. I tired quickly of the characters and also of the style and only got to the end because it was the only book I had with me on a long flight.
Everybody loves Alone in Berlin – 150 five star reviews on Amazon. Everyone except me. I never got past page 80.
Mark Power is one of my favourite photo journalists. His website has a huge amount of impressive work, essays and videos.
Terence Chang has shot some amazing photographs of San Francisco airport using long exposures and composite photos
I have featured Mark J Davis on here before but revisited his website today and was again taken by his wonderful photography.