When 2008 began, I made the following resolutions:
1. I would read at least fifty books.
2. Of these fifty, at least ten would be non-fiction books.
3. I would read Pride and Prejudice.
I have always enjoyed reading fiction, and, while I make no apologies for preferring fiction to non-fiction—I have always thought that fiction demands more creativity—my non-fiction reading is not up to scratch. I added the third resolution to the list because I was getting fed up with the constant badgering to which I was being subjected by a friend who cannot believe that I have not read one of the greatest novels written in English. My attempts to placate him on this matter—‘I do not much go for pre-twentieth century fiction, and, with the exception of Hard Times, have not read any nineteenth century fiction’; ‘I do not think I would find the tale of an old crone trying to marry off her daughters by giving as little dowry as possible engrossing, however well written’; ‘There is no call for him criticising my reading habits seeing as he reads no more than ten books in a year (two of which are Harry Potter)’— brought no joy. In the end, just to shut him up, I added Pride and Prejudice to my reading list for 2008.
Of the three objectives, I fulfilled one, the first one. The remaining two, sadly, will have to be carried forward to 2009.
Below is the list of the books I read in 2008.
1. An Underachiever’s Diary (Benjamin Anastas)
2. The Bottle Factory Outing (Beryl Bainbridge)
3. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
4. Jeeves in the Offing (P.G. Wodehouse)
5. London Observed (Doris Lessing)
6. And Where Were You, Adam (Heinrich Boll)
7. Aunts Are No Gentlemen (P.G. Wodehouse)
8. Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis)
9. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
10. House of Meetings (Martin Amis)
11. Reader, I Married Him (Michelle Roberts)
12. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe)
13. The Giles Waring Haters’ Club (Tim Dowling)
14. Call It Sleep (Henry Roth)
15. Merde Happens (Stephen Clarke)
16. Bluebeard (Max Frisch)
17. Slam (Nick Hornby)
18. Ralph’s Party (Lisa Jewell)
19. Before She Met Me (Julian Barnes)
20. Accidental Woman (Jonathan Coe)
21. A Woman of My Age (Nina Bawden)
22. Children of the Revolution (Dinaw Mengestu)
23. Some Tame Gazelle (Barbara Pym)
24. The Playroom (Olivia Manning)
25. Crome Yellow (Aldous Huxley)
26. Gathering (Anne Enright)
27. Laughter in the Dark (Vladimir Nabokov)
28. Model Behaviour (Jay McInerney)
29. My Revolutions (Hari Kunzru)
30. The Masters (C.P Snow)
31. Girl with Green Eyes (Edna O’Brien)
32. Road to Wellville (T.C. Boyle)
33. To the North (Elizabeth Bowen)
34. The Song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright)
35. Honey for the Bears (Anthony Burgess)
36. The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)
37. Beloved (Toni Morrison)
38. Blaming (Elizabeth Taylor)
39. Coming from Behind (Howard Jacobson)
40. Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
41. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax (Liz Jensen)
42. Tomorrow (Graham Swift)
43. The Kite Runner (Khalid Hosseini)
44. Terrorist (John Updike)
1. Let’s Kill Gandhi (Tushar Gandhi)
2. Holy Cow! (Sarah Macdonald)
3. Mao The Unknown Story (Jung Chang & Jon Halliday)
4. My Invented Country (Isabel Allende)
5. Mistress’s Daughter (A.M. Homes)
6. The Fishes Come Home to Roost (Rachael Manija Brown)
7. After the Wall (Jana Hensel)
8. Among the Believers (V.S. Naipaul)
9. Literary Occasions (V.S. Naipaul)
A total of 53 books—one more than the number I read in 2007. The non-fiction, while it fell one short of the requisite number, was, still, an improvement over the number in 2007 (five). And, while I did not get round to reading Pride and Prejudice—I tried, I assure you; however, every time I picked up the edition in my collection, with Kira Knightley’s sickly, anorexic face on its front, I had the strange sensation of life-force sapping, and, it was all I could do to put the Jane Austin masterpiece back on the shelf and totter out of the library gasping for breath—it was not supplanted by another nineteenth century fiction, say, David Copperfield (which has also been on my ‘to read’ list); I did not read any nineteenth century fiction. It has been suggested that I should buy a different edition of Pride and Prejudice, preferably one which does not have Kira Knightley adorning its front. Let’s see.
There are many authors in the list above whom I read for the first time. In the non-fiction category, with the exception of Naipaul and Allende, I had not read the works of any of the authors (and I had read only the novels of Allende), although, as far as I am aware, Gandhi’s, Macdonald’s, Brown’s and Hensel’s literary outputs do not (yet) extend beyond the books I have read.
In the fiction category, there were nineteen authors– Benjamin Anastas, Michelle Roberts, Alan Sillitoe, Tim Dowling, Henry Roth, Max Frisch, Lisa Jewell, Dinaw Mengestu, Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning, Anne Enright, C.P Snow, Edna O’Brien, T.C. Boyle, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Liz Jensen, Khalid Hosseini—whom I read for the first time. I must admit to being stumped—to use that quaint English expression (according to Jeffrey Archer, who, surely, is as English as they come)—Lisa Jewell’s Ralph’s Party in this list. Mind you, I have nothing against the mother-of-two, who decided to try her hand at writing after she was made redundant from her job as a secretary, and Ralph’s Party, as far as I can recall, is an easy-to-read-on-the-toilet type of books which do not make undue demands on your intellectual capacity; it is just that I read such books only when I am stuck mid-air for in excess of eight hours (and even then I generally read Jeffrey Archer). In other words, life is too short to read books whose genres are not to your taste. (I use the expression ‘Life is too short to . . .' quite often; I find it serves a useful purpose; it seeks to give the impression that while you are ignorant, you are ignorant by choice.)
I read Updike after a long time. The last novel of Updike I had read was Seek My Face, a gimmicky, unsubstantial and unreadable novel, which did nothing to reassure me that Updike’s creativity was not in terminal decline. While Terrorist shows glimpses of Updike’s former linguistic brilliance and is nicely paced, the premise, like the protagonist, is unconvincing, and the novel, which offers no real insight as to why an educated, academically bright Muslim boy turns to violence, is ultimately disappointing.
Kite Runner is written by the Americanized Afghan writer Khalid Hosseini, who, apparently, is a doctor by profession. The novel was a commercial success and was made into a film. It is a formulaic, melodramatic, over-the-top, predictable, and not very subtle novel, which divides the world rather neatly into simplistic categories.
Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle cannot be more different from The Kite Runner, both in its subject matter and narrative style. This comedy of manners is a quintessentially English novel, rich in subtlety-it is not the kind of novel that would make you laugh out loud, but will bring a smile to your face. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved has been collecting dust on my shelf for the last fourteen years, although I have read some other novels of the 1993 Nobel Laureate, such as Jazz and The Song of Solomon. I finally read Beloved (which won the 1987 Pulitzer) after I attended a literary programme in which Morrison read from her most recent novel— a prequel to Beloved. I am glad I read Beloved, which, despite some annoying (and unnecessary) gimmicks, is a very good novel—probably not my most favourite Morrison novel, but well worth a read.
Before She Met Me is an early novel of Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. It tells the story of the modern day ‘Othello Syndrome’. It is a well-researched book, embelished by Barne’s trademark wit. The end stuns you as much for its violence as for unexpectedness. Not perhaps Barnes’s best, but well worth a read.
Crome Yellow, a satire on the upper-class English (and their affectations) in the 1920s, is Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, but you would not think so, so assured is his style.
Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road was on my ‘to be read’ list for years. Yate’s wry, yet compassionate, novel of hopes (and their betrayals) of a middle-class American family,as it hurtles towards tragedy, is a great work of art. I will have to read other novels of this underrated genius.
The Masters is said to be the best of C.P. Snow’s ‘Lewis Eliot’ sequence of novels; it is also the book that has worn well. C.P. Snow’s tale of the intrigues and machinations of the election of the master of a college in Cambridge is remarkable as much for the great skill with which its key characters are drawn as for its superb, Dickensenian prose.
Road to Welville, the exotically named T Corghessan Boyel’s tale of John Harvey Kellog, the creator of Kellog’s cornflakes, is a riot. Boyle’s linguistic brilliance adds to the pleasure of reading. I shall be reading more of T.C. Boyle in the coming years.
If linguistic pyrotechnics get you what the Italians would call arrapato, then you should not miss Coming from Behind, Howard Jacobson’s debut novel. The plot, such as it is, is incidental; the novel is a vehicle for Jacobson to dazzle you with his crackling prose and wit. Jacobson is a great comic talent, sadly underrated.
Accidental Woman is the debut novel of Jonathan Coe, one of my favourite novelists. While it lacks the finesse of Coe’s later works and does not quite seem able to make up its mind which genre it wants to belong to, there is enough evidence in this slight (in respect of volume, not substance) novel the awesome talent Coe was going to turn out to be.
Alan Benet’s The Uncommon Reader is a sheer pleasure to read; this urbane and erudite novella about reading and its manifold delights can be enjoyed at many levels.
Call It Sleep is a multifaceted, at times deeply moving, novel of the Jewish imigrant life at the turn of the last but one century that I found remarkable as much for its black humour as for its innovative use of language. The poignancy is increased further when you learn of the deeply troubled childhood of Henry Roth, the inspiration for this autobigraphical novel.
Max Frisch's Blubeard was the only translated fiction I read in 2008. Frisch, whose better known translated works include I am Not Stiller and Homo Faber, has, in Bluebeard (the eponymous hero of Perrault's fairy tale), created a fascinating way of exploring old truths.
Of the nine non-fiction books I read in 2008, I shall mention three: Mao, the Untold Story is an extensively researched, meticulously referenced, eight hundred pages behemoth, which the Commuist regime in China dare not allow to be published. In seventy chapters Chang and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, trace Mao's life from his birth to death and, in the process, shatter every myth associated with the father of the People's republic of China. It is a bombshell of a book. Rachael Brown's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost is an engrossing, bittersweet account of the five years she spent as a pre-adolescent in the ashram of an Indian guru, Meher Baba, of whom her parents were disciples, in the backwaters of India. In an ironic, witty, humane, and genuinely affecting style Brown recounts the less-than-wholesome years she spent in the sleepy town of Ahmadnagar. V.S. Naipaul has the (undeserved) reputation of being anti-Muslim. Among the Believers, first publsihed in 1979, is Naipaul's account of his travels through Islamic countries of Iran, Pakistan, Indonasia and Malaysia. Written with his customary acerbity and relentless pursuit of ugly reality lurking underneath the patina of religious sohistry, the book is eerily prophetic.
My top three novels of 2008: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe), Jake's Thing (KIngsley Amis), and The Song Before It Is Sung (Justin Cartwright). I have reviewed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning on the blog, and shall review the other two in due course.