March 22nd, 2011

Lisa Bookish

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter

perfectlyvague nagged me to update LJ, and as I haven't got anything to say that wouldn't bore my friendslist whilst merely attenuating my gloom, I decided to list and briefly review everything I have read this year. It's a surprisingly short list, given how much leisure I have at the moment and how rapidly (and often carelessly) I read. I mostly read in bed, but cohabitation lends itself to less cerebral ways of inducing somnolence, and also means I can't have the light on all night. I oculdn't work out how to make LJ do stars, so I did Js instead.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel JJJJJThis was part of my Christmas pressie from perfectlyvague who bought it for me because I kept nagging her about hurrying up and reading her copy so I could borrow it. I think I may have finished it in what thirstypixel refers to as 'the festive perineum' between Xmas and New Year, but I'll count as the first book of this year. I want to read everything by Mantel because I thought her A Place of Greater Safety - about the leading figures of the French Revolution- was utterly, breathtakingly superb. She writes her characters more intelligently than any other writer I can think of (though Pat Barker in The Regeneration Trilogy is almost as good). This novel is about Thomas Cromwell and he, his circle, his flaws and successes are all completely convincing and genuinely compelling. It is also about London and the villages around here that were part of Henry VIII's playground, which made it especially groovy for me.

Ending Up, Kingsley Amis JJJ Looking for something to read shortly after I shacked up with Wardy I remarked that all he had was misogynistic writers: Amis, Amis Jnr, George Macdonald Fraser, more Amis; and misogyny-enabling writers: chick lit, self-help, diet books (belonging to his ex). I like women who write about food and sex; I can't stand women who write about boyfriends and diets. I always think of Amis as something of an also-ran not just because he pissed away what talent he had, but because he saw pissing away as a talent. Wardy recommended this and I'm glad he did. I quite liked this this bitter, sharp novella about impoverished poshos sharing a decripit house in their twilight years. It had some laugh-out-loud moments and he anantomises envy and schadenfreude brilliantly, probably because he was so very familiar with them.

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald JJJ Fitgerald hated women, rich people and most men. Still for a book written by someone with a chip on each shoulder and a probably tiny penis this is pretty good. Everyone in it is loathsome, really, but engagingly so. It was another reread for teaching purposes and I was really struck by how much more satisfying and complex British modernist literature was at the time this was written.

Seventy Two Virgins, Boris Johnson JJJJ Just thinking of Bojo's erudition, wit and utter lack of sanctimony is making me want to type one-handed. This - a lovely present from lovely ms_siobhan is funny, well-paced and surprisingly compassionate. It's depiction of London types is warm and vaguely Dickensian and the humour reminds me of Tom Sharpe, whom I loved in my schooldays. It's also quite educational and recommended reading for anyone about to visit the Palace of Westminster.

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov JJJJ I picked this up in a charity shop at perfectlyvague's recommendation and it is actually about a penguin and you don't see quite why the title is so appropriate until the plot unfolds. It is great depiction of the bleakness of contemporary Russia and the necessary amorality of contemporary Russians; darkly comic and strangely moving.

The Lying Tongue; A Death in Venice</i>, Andrew Wilson JJJJ This probably deserves more than three stars, as it was compelling enough to read at a sitting. I'm just not a huge fan of thrillers. It's quite a clever one, and the second section makes you delighted you though the first section was a bit clicheed. Ooh I am going to up it 4 stars. There are some less than convincing bits but it's a great bit of escapism in a well-evoked setting. Good if you like nutters and Venice.

More Low Life, Jeffrey Bernard JJ I used to love reading this column in the Spectator when I worked as a Saturday girl in Colchester Library in the eighties. It is very funny in small doses, when one is too young to be much moved by the plight of the old. In an all-you-can-eat sitting it is a depressingly involving account of an ailing pisshead's pathetic decline. Not ideal reading if you are struggling with dire impoverishment and a crushing sense of failure. Bernard was enough of a poor old git to rouse Amis to compassion.

The Rain Before it Falls, Jonathan Coe JJ I loved The Rotter's Club. I didn't like this much. It's a boring, novel about characters I found I just didn't care about. The tale is pretty unconvincing, perhaps because it's a first person narration by a lesbian woman which is very obviously written by a man. I was aware of the author's gender way all the way through, indicating the poverty of the writing, I think.

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf JJJJ Christ, this is good. It's so much better reading it now I am well into my battleaxehood and not a too-bright young post-grad like I was when I first read it. It's subtle and clever and rich and if I had any drive or ambition I'd turn it into a brilliant screenplay like that chappy did with The Hours. I read it so I could teach it, as my pupil is studying this, The Wasteland and Heart of Darkness for an A level coursework on Modernism. I loved looking at those three books with her. She thought Mrs D was boring, but didn't after we'd discussed it and compared it to the Wasteland.

The Door, Magda Szabo JJJJ This was another Christmas gift from perfectlyvague. It's about the odd relationship between a brilliant servant woman and the irritating writer who is her employer (which might make you think of the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant but if it does, don't). The servant is a fascinating, alarming character and, unusually, I identified with her a tiny bit. I don't go looking for myself in books at all, or in music or art or whathaveyou. I know who I am; it's you I am interested in. The mistress reminds me a tiny bit of every woman I have ever disliked. I want to read more by the author now to find out if the writer in in this book is autobiographical. I do hope not. Anyway it's very compelling and readable and heartbreaking in places.

The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies J This was long-listed for the Booker and the covers are covered in many, many plaudits. God knows why. I don't think it sold well, as readers are wiser than critics. It's the worst kind of literary novel. You just know as you read it that the writer sat down to write a literary novel It's set in Wales during the war, is terribly worthy and the only interesting bit, about Rudolph Hess, doesn't really go anywhere. (Look, I'm not saying that it's the interesting bit because it is about a Nazi, alright? It's just the uniforms I like, and my pet theory about Goering.) The rest is all rather predictable and turgid and the characters are so unconvincing it was like reading the novelisation of a bad Radio 4 play. You imagine everyone being played by a second-rater who can't quite get the accent right.

The Quickening Maze, Adam Foulds JJJJ This was also shortlisted for the Booker and unlike the one above, deserved to be. It's an account of John Clare's stay in the High Beach asylum, compassionately run by the ill-fated Dr Matthew Allen. It features Tennyson in the supporting cast. It's moving and insightful and worth a read for the descriptions of the setting alone.

Black Ajax, George Macdonald Fraser JJJJ The story of the black American boxer who nearly took the British championship and was a favourite of Byron and Beau Brummel. It's told in a series of eyewitness accounts all of which are brilliantly convincing, apart from Flashman's father, oddly, who seems like a tired self-parody. I loved this, because he gets all the history and right and the antiquated language just sings with vigour. I quite like GMF, even though he's a curmudgeonly old chauvinist. Unlike Jonathan Coe, he can write a convincing female voice.

Quartered Safe Out Here, George Macdonald Fraser JJJJ GMF's account of his wartime experiences in Burma. This is a deliciously vivid eyewitness account of the follies and frailties and boredom of military service. If you are interested in war and people, read it. Unless you are a Cumbrian nationalist, that is.

The Dukan Diet, Dr Pierre Dukan J Yet another schyster who has made a fortune with the revelation that if you cut out stodgy starches and processed sugars for a while you'll shift some fat. This is just like the Atkins diet, but it demonises fat as well as carbs (but he calls the fats lipids, so you know he's a proper scientist) and adds the shocking notion that if you want to lose weight you need to get off your lardy arse and move about for twenty minutes a day. He fails to point out that if you actually are enough of an overeater you will probably consume sufficient 'free' protein for your body to turn into sugar (and thence fat) anyway. If I had any drive or ambition I'd write a diet book or some sort of self help twaddle and make a fortune.

A Landing on the Sun, Michael Frayn JJJJJ I love Michael Frayn. He never disappoints. This is a peculiar bitter-sweet novel about the odd relationship between an idiotically naive academic and a jaundiced civil servant. I can't say anymore without spoilering, but it is incredibly good. You could say its about a repressed, male English Madame Bovary. It's certainly about Englishness and repression but never veers into cliche. No one is ever a type; everyone is dysfunctional in their own compelling way.

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber JJJJJ I've read this before and liked it even more at a second reading. It's a mammoth novel, running to nearly nine hundred densely printed pages, but I was sad to finish it. It's about an educated prostitute called Sugar and it Dickensian in its scope and in its compassion, but leavened with a lovely contemporary cynicism. He is three hundred times better, as an historical novelist, than bloody Sebastien Faulks. He's as good as Hilary Mantel, but very different. It would make a brilliant introduction to any study of Victorian England.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke J If I don't warm to it, I will usually stick with a book anyway, but this bored me so much I gave up after a few chapters. It reminded me of Harry Potter 1 and Good Omens, both of which I rejected at a similar stage. The latter was touted to me as an ideal introduction to both Gaiman and Pratchett, but just struck me as being like Old Harry's Game except not funny, and all three rejected novels just seemed like children's novels (fair enough, obviously, in the case of the Potter. They just seemed too laboured, too arch, too jauntily patronising somehow, as if the author is saying, "Listen quietly while I tell you a story". That's what I hated about Lord of the Rings. I don't have an aversion to fantasy per se, as I love The Gormenghast Trilogy. And I am not above reading children's lit if it's as engaging as Philip Pullman or the Chrestomanci stuff I read at strange_complex's. I just found this tiresome.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley JJJJJ Another reread for teaching purposes. I've probably read this a dozen times now as it is always on the A level syllabus. The best novel by a teenager ever. It makes Bonjour Tristesse seem vapid and pisses all over that annoying bint Bidisha. I'd kill for tickets to the NT production with Johnny Lee Millar as the creature. In places it stretches credibility to breaking point, but the pacing is masterly and the creature's passions are as real as his creator's are repellent.

Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet JJJJJ This book was an absolute joy and I spent most of Sunday lying on the sofa under a quilt with it. It is a superbly written account of the lost and largely ignored days of British silent movies. The various characters involved, their scandals and pretensions and tragedies are brought to life with real tenderness, as the author interviewed an awful lot of ancient, decrepit and destitute personages most of whom died before the book was published. I love the idea of various deeply suburban bits of Surrey being the centre of celluloid decadence and debaucher. It's lovely to think of Ivor Novello snorting cocaine off a glass door floor in a nightclub in Maidenhead. Sweet writes an account of various other forgotten bits of British cinema up to the seventies and gives a very good account of the studio system. I have actually taught modules on British Cinema and I learnt a huge amount from this book, which challenges a number of prevailing academic assumptions. You don't need to know much about cinema to enjoy it as it would mesmerise anyone with a sense of humour and an interest in 20th century social history.

The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright NO J, so far I took this to bed with me on Sunday night and was so affronted by the laboured, pretentious wankery of the first page that I threw it at the wardrobe and demanded that Wardy brought me something decent to read (he rose to the challenge with a copy of Bojo's memoir of becoming an MP). I am annoyed because I actually bought this, but in the pound shop, so I didn't do my usual test of reading the first page before making an actual purchase. It looks like dreary self-conscious creative writing course codswallop. I know whereof I speak, given I used to teach one. This is the kind of overwritten bollocks that almost always produced by a male student, who would invariably respond to any sort of criticism by asserting that he didn't want his writing to be 'mainstream' or 'accessible'.
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