Saturday, 1 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Fiction)

2010 is gone, over and done with. The world has dragged its sorry hide across another year.

Reading is a good hobby to have. It broadens your horizons, gives you (sometimes) a different perspective on life, and (in my case) improves the way you can employ the language to express yourself more effectively. Books help you to develop a philosophy towards life, which can help you to have a handle on when the going gets tough. 

2010 was a bumper year for reading. I read more than 100 books this year, a personal milestone. Hopelessly anal, I have kept a record of books I have read every year, for almost a decade. I also give them stars, ranging from five (books I absolutely loved) to no stars (complete waste of time and money). In 2010 I easily beat my previous best of 75, which was in 2005.

My target, every year, is to read at least fifty books; I try to read one book every week. This year I averaged almost two books a week. As usual fiction outnumbered non-fiction by a ratio of almost three to one. I love reading fiction. Writing fiction, I believe, is more creative than non-fiction. But the main reason I end up every year reading a lot more fiction than non-fiction is that there are very few non-fiction subjects that interest me.

I read more than 75 novels this year and, as I went through the list, I realised that I could not clearly remember the plots of a few of them, which probably reflects nothing more than that I read far too many books this year.

I began the year with Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby. I have read most of the novels of Faulks, some of which I have enjoyed immensely, such as his trilogy related to the First and Second World Wars, while some, such as Human Traces, disappointed. Engleby, a study of the aberrant mind of its eponymous hero, is a winner. If psychiatrists were the heroes of Human Traces Faulks turns his mind to the mentally unhinged, although not in the conventional sense, in this novel. Like Human Traces Engleby is hugely ambitious in its scope, the difference is Faulks pulls it off this time. It is a tense novel, and the reader heaves a big sigh of relief when the men in white coat finally arrive.

Another novel of Faulks I read, towards the end of 2010, is his latest: A Week in December. Here, Faulks turns his satirical eye on the contemporary London as he describes a week in the lives of its several protagonists in the week leading to Christmas in 2007. Faulks crams in everything that is of contemporary interest—from a critical examination (from a Western perspective) of Islam to the murky and morally ambiguous world of hedge funds—and nearly pulls it off. While the novel could have done, perhaps, with fewer characters, on the whole it is an enjoyable read. Faulks is a writer at the peak of his powers.

In Birds of Passage, Burnice Rubens, celebrated for her black comedies and satires, is in sparkling form. The novel (first published in the 1980s), which boasts of Rubens’s trademark deadpan humour, is also an exquisite comedy of manners. The novel is sadly out of print, but it is worthwhile searching for it in second-hand bookshops—that is how I found it—or ordering from the net.

I am a fan of Tibor Fischer. His 1993 debut novel, Under the Frog, is, in my view, one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Since then Fischer has published a few more novels which have failed to attract the same critical approbation as ‘Under the Frog’. Preposterous plots characterize Fischer’s novels, and the best way to enjoy them is to suspend your credulity and plunge into the bizarre worlds of his protagonists who seem to have only a nodding acquaintance with sanity. Good to be God, Fischer’s most recent novel, is no different from his earlier novels, like The Thought Gang. There is not much in the way of plot, but the novel is outrageously funny. Give Fischer a go if you haven’t read him before.

I read two novels of the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee this year. I have reviewed Diary of a Bad Year on this blog. The other novel was Summertime, the third autobiographical novel (or fictionalized memoir) Coetzee has published in the past decade, which follows Boyhood and Youth. Depicting a period of five years in the mid 1970s in the life of a dead author called J.M. Coetzee (who was, like the real J.M. Coetzee, also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), ‘Summertime’ is intense, gloomy, sombre, and, at times, frankly depressing—something which I have come to expect from Coetzee. In almost all of his recent fiction Cotzee’s protagonists bear a striking resemblance to the author himself. Quite why Coetzee has chosen to publish these as works of fiction instead of as memoirs is not clear to me, but it is a pleasure to read Coetzee’s sparse, yet exquisite, prose.

One Day is David Nicholl’s third novel, and the first I read. His debut novel (Starter for Ten) was hugely successful and was made into a film. One Day was described on some blogs as ‘chick-lit for men’. I was not expecting a great deal from One Day and perhaps because of this reason it took me by surprise by its depth. It is a wonderful novel that is so true to the lives we lead in the twenty first century. There are passages of great wit in the novel, which I found to be in the same tradition as that of vintage Nick Hornby and Jonatthan Coe.

I did not get round to read Jonathan Coe in 2010, but read Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, which tells the story of a nerdy forty something stuck in a non-job in a dreary English sea-side town, obsessively following a reclusive one hit wonder singer and composer from the 1970s. Hornby writes with his trademark wit and pithy observations. Although often billed as a comic writer, Hornby has always tried to tackle grander issues facing modern men. In Juliet, Naked Hornby attempts to fathom how and where it all goes wrong. It is an almost good novel. I wouldn’t rate it as Horby’s best, but even when he is not at his best Hornby is readable.

Continuing with the theme of novels about the dilemmas facing modern men and women, a novel I enjoyed reading was Tim Lott’s The Seymour Tapes. It is an entertaining novel, a page-turner, but Lott makes a serious point too: the constant Orwellian surveillance to which we are subjected does not necessarily bring us nearer to truth, and, into the bargain, can have tragic consequences.

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn attracted rave reviews and accolades upon its publication. It is also the first Toibin novel I read. Brooklyn tells the story of an Irish immigrant in the United States, in the 1950s. Through its protagonist, Toibin tackles the perennial dilemma of an immigrant: where is home?  It is a modest novel that is formulaic and dewy-eyed at places, but it works mainly because of Toibin’s alluring prose. I shall read more of Toibin in the coming years.

Sadie Jones burst on to the UK literary scene with her debut novel Outcast, which I had read in 2009 and liked. Jones’s second novel, Small Wars, which I read in 2010, is set, like her debut novel, in the 1950s. It tells the story of a young soldier, stationed in Cyprus, whose world begins to fall apart. Jones is a master of quiet hysteria and the reader gets sucked into the stories of her protagonists, helped along by Jones’s clipped sentences and sprinty dialogues (she was a screen-writer before she turned her attention to novel writing).  Not a great novel, but a satisfying read.

A novel I would have no hesitation in calling great is Barbara Kingsglover’s The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2010. At more than 600 pages it is a behemoth of a novel (but don’t worry, the print is big). Through the life of its protagonist, Harrison William, Kingsglover tackles big themes with big success: the uneasy relationship between art and politics in the United States (the witch-hunt of artists suspected to have Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era) and the lacuna between a life reported and a life lived.

Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap outsold all the Booker nominations in 2010, in the UK. The premise of the novel is like this: at a family barbecue, an obnoxious, over-pampered child is faintly threatening to another child, and is slapped by the father of that child. This action sets in motion a series of events in the lives of the participants. The novel has an insistent energy, and Tsiolkas uses the event as a launch pad to delve into the inner lives of the eight primary characters and to examine the tensions lurking under the surface of multicultural Australia. Very entertaining.

William Boyd is a favourite writer of mine. I have read most of his novels and have liked most of them. Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd’s most recent offering, is endlessly inventive and continually entertaining, which more than makes up for its lack of pace and the plot that could have been tighter. Boyd aims to please, and please he does.

Matt Beaumont is probably not a big league writer in the sense he is (probably) not very well known outside of the UK. I have read a couple of novels of Beaumont and found them rip-roaringly funny. His most recent novel, Small World, which I read in 2010, is slightly different in that for the first time Beaumont introduces a dark element in his novel; it is not all laughs. A good holiday read.

Another good holiday read is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peeling Society. The novel overflows with clich├ęs and the overdose of saccharine sentiments makes you sick; but if you can cope with it, the novel is an undemanding read. I have reviewed it on the blog earlier.

Louis de Berniers's Notwithstanding is a collection of stories set in the fictional English village of ‘Notwithstading’ which appeared, over the years, in different magazines. Berniers draws some memorable characters, and the stories which are superficially linked, are suffused with a sense of nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. I liked it.

The Infinities is John Banville’s first novel since his 2005 Booker winner, The Sea. The novel has all the linguistic elements which, depending on your predisposition, you will either adore or hate. I bet that 90% of people will need a dictionary to understand the meanings of at least half a dozen words in the novel. Banvilles has a ponderous, almost affected, style of writing. That said The Infinities is a jaunty little novel that will put you in a sunny mood.

Talking of novels delving in a ‘bygone era’, I read a couple of novels of Barbara Pym: Jane and Prudence which is set in the 1950s, and The Sweet Dove Died, which is set in the 1970s. Pym’s is a world populated by middle class housewives, spinsters, and parish priests (who are held in high esteem). They are undemanding reads and almost always comedy of manners. Pym has been compared to Jane Austen, which does her an injustice; she is far more entertaining than the dreadful Austen.

American writer Willa Carther’s A Lost Lady is also concerned with the passing of the old order (as A.S. Byatt notes in the introduction). It is an interesting character study of a lonely woman and her attempts to find an anchor in her life.

I read an Anita Brookner novel after a long time: Latecomers. In it Brookner examines the lives of two sixty something Jewish refugees, and lifelong friends, who have devised different strategies to cope with their experiences as well as to create traces of home in a society neither feels totally at home. At least in case of one, the cocoon of security is very fragile. It is a pleasure to read Brookner’s exact prose, in which not a single word is wasted. Anita Brookner is a superb writer and Latecomers is a wise novel.

The protagonist of Lisa Appignanesi’s The Memory Man, Bruno Lind, like one of the protagonists in Anita Brookner’s novel, is troubled by his past, especially that part which he can’t remember. It is an authentically researched novel, but the problem for Appignanesi is that the terrible subject matter (the Holocaust) has been dealt with by a number of haunting autobiographies and memoirs, in comparison with which fiction runs the risk of coming a poor second.

Another novel which has a Jewish figure at its centre is Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Hemon is hailed as an exciting and refreshing new voice in American literature, and much is made of the fact that he writes in English which is his second language, although I guess there are many Indian writers out there writing in English which is surely not their first language. That said Hemon does have a quirky way of wrestling with the language. At the heart of Hemon’s ambitious novel is a real life historical figure: Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish refugee from the tsarist Russia who fled the 1903 Kishinev pogrom (in what is now Moldova) and arrived in Chicago, only to be shot by the police five years later. The modern day narrator of Hemon’s novel becomes interested in the life and death of Lazarus Averbuch. Where the novel succeeds is in drawing parallels between the xenophobic hysteria that gripped Chicago in which the Jews were perceived as the fifth element bent upon overturning the existing system, and the anti-Muslim paranoia that gripped the country after 9/11. Where the novel succeeds less is the part where the narrator decides to retrace the footsteps of Lazarus, ultimately leading to Sarajevo, Bosnia, from where the narrator (like Hemon himself) hails.

Towards the end of the year I read Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen. Ali’s debut novel, Brick Lane, received widespread accolade (I think it was also made into a film). ‘In the Kitchen’ is her third novel. Ali’s prose has the panache, and there are passages of great warmth and wisdom in the novel, but on the whole, it did not work for me, primarily because the plot structure is weak, and the main protagonist of the novel, Gabriel Lightfoot, is a hollow man.

I read Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, which has recently been made into a film entitled ‘The American’ (starring George Clooney), just before Christmas 2010. Booth has attempted a psychological thriller and its hero is in the tradition of many an anti-hero in Graham Greene novels. Booth was a prolific and underrated writer, and this was his first novel I read. I suspect it is not his best.

Ian Mitchell’s Winter in Berlin is a strange little novel. Set in the former East Germany, it is a densely atmospheric novel. There isn’t much in the way of plot, but Mitchell has successfully managed to bring to life the shadowy world of East Germany.

I do not much read historical novels (the reason why I have not read a single novel of Philipa Gregory). I can just about cope with the novels which have historical background and in which a real life historical figure is not the main protagonist. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, has the backdrop of Mesopotamia as the world stood on the cusp of the First World War. It is a richly imagined, cannily planned tale of intrigue and subterfuge. It is also a thoroughly researched novel. Unsworth mobilises and positions his facts and myths in such a manner as to give the reader a tantalising glimpse into one of the most glorious empires of the Antiquity, the Assyrian Empire. Barry Unsworth is a favourite writer and my expectations were high when I took up reading Land of Marvels. And I was not disappointed. It is a smashing read.

A writer whose novel I read with great expectations is Sarah Waters. Having thoroughly enjoyed two of her Victorian mysteries, I had high expectations of The Little Stranger.  I picked up the book without reading any reviews. It is a beautifully written novel, very atmospheric, and, as it progressed, I could not wait to reach its end where, I was sure, Waters would provide some clever explanation. I was therefore a tad disappointed that the explanation was in the supernatural realm. It is a good ghost-story, though, if you like ghost stories.

In 2010 I read a few novels republished by Persephone Books, which, according to its website, publishes ‘neglected classics’ of the twentieth century, usually written by women. The novels I read were Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, Monica Dickens’s Mariana, Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at A Distance, Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Julia Strechey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Of these the one I liked the most was Little Boy Lost—it is a masterpiece. Someone at A Distance stands out in memory for its clinical dissection of the end of a marriage. I would be tempted to describe Mariana as the 1930s’ chick-lit (with no pejorative connotation) and a coming of age story rolled into one. Adorned by beautifully constructed sentences (Monica Dickens was the great Dickens’s great-grand daughter) and amiable wit, Mariana is a pleasure to read. The other two Persephone novels are slight, but easy enough reads. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which was recently made into a film starring Frances Mcdermot) is a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (in particular, Vile Bodies).

The only collection of short-story I read in 2010 was Jeffrey Archer’s And thereby Hangs a Tale. I am an unabashed, unapologetic admirer of Jeffrey Archer. I thoroughly enjoyed his latest collection of short-stories, many of which, if Archer is to be believed, are based on real life incidents. 

American Fiction

I read a few ‘American novels’ this year (in addition to The Lacuna A Lost Lady, and The Lazarus Project, which is partly set in America). One of them was Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. Moore has a formidable reputation in America as a short-story writer. I have not read any of her short-story collections (mainly because I don’t like reading short-stories, which I think is like conversing with several people at a dinner party for five minutes each as opposed to sitting down for a long chat in front of fireplace with your close friends). With A Gate at the Stairs Moore returns to the longer version of fiction writing, after many years. The result is a mixed bag. It is a kind of coming of age novel in which the protagonist looks back to the time, shortly after 9/11, when she was a student in the mid-western town of Troy. The novel is entertaining in parts—the protagonist has a GSOH and keen eye for the absurdities of life—but overall, the novel is dimly dissatisfying, not least because different elements of the story don’t gel well. The protagonist may be in her early twenties, but has wisdom of a fifty year old, which tends to irritate you after a while.

The Sorrows of an American was another novel, which I finished reading quickly (it is well written and very intimate). Siri Hustvedt’s prose is lyrical and it flows smoothly; there is also a bit of suspense; but there is no real plot to hold the story together.

I did not quite know what to make of Joshua Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed. The protagonist of the novel, Tim Farnsworth, is leading for all appearance a successful life—material wealth and a happy family; yet he has this irresistible urge to repeatedly walk out on this life—and I mean he literally walks out and keeps on walking aimlessly for months on ends. Is it a parable? I don’t know. Is there a bigger message here? I don’t know. Did I like the novel? I don’t know. Will I read another Joshua Ferris novel? I don’t know.

Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel, too ambitious for its own good, if you ask me. As in Carter Beats the Devil, his immensely successful and entertaining debut novel, Gold weaves into his story historical facts and fiction against the huge canvas, that of the First World War. There are three strands in the novel—each a novel in its own right—which barely converge. It gets pretty exhausting after a while. I had to take a break after I read about 250 pages of Sunnyside; I kept the novel aside for a month, read a couple of chick-flicks (Rachel Hore’s A Place of Secrets and Marina Lewycka’s We are All Made of Glue) to recharge my batteries, before taking on the challenge of reaching the end of ‘Sunnyside’.

Joyce Carol Oate’s A Fair Maiden is a road-crash; it is not just a road-crash, it is a multiple pile up. Oates tells the story of a relationship between a vulnerable young girl and a much older man who has vulnerabilities of his own. The novel seems to have been banged out in a hurry, as though Oates wrote the novel only to fulfil her contractual obligations to her publishers and her heart was not in it.

The Ghost at the Table, Suzanne Bernne’s third novel, on the other hand, is superbly executed. In simple yet evocative prose, Berne explores the age-old theme of difficult family relationships, family secrets, and the result is a novel that is a pleasure to read.

Ed Park’s Personal Days takes a wry look at a group of New York employees in an unnamed corporation. Park has a sharp eye for the minutiae of the office-life, and he has taken so much effort to make the sentence witty, you can hear them creak.

Finally, I read novels of the two of the giants of American literature. Kurt Vonnegut is a favourite author; I like Vonnegut because he always poses twisters to our moral sense. In ‘Mother Night’, the novel I read in 2010, Vonnegut tells the story of Howard W Campbell, an American who is standing a trial in Israel for being a Nazi propagandist. Vonnegut’s books are frequently about ideas. In Mother Night he challenges the black and white dichotomy which influences our world view and makes us aware of the shivery shades of grey.

At a time when his contemporaries have retired from fiction writing, Philip Roth seems to be going through a late flowering of his creativity. I can’t keep with the man’s fecundity. The Humbling, the novel I read in 2010, tells the story of a once successful actor, whose talent and confidence desert him in his old age. He then starts a relationship with a forty year old lesbian who is also the daughter of his old friends. After 13 months of experimenting with heterosexuality the lesbian decides to revert to her former position, so to speak. The old man, who has somehow managed to survive the end of his acting career, has no resources left to cope with this humbling and kills himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is a short novel, and Roth keeps up the pace, but that is about it. It is an unpleasant little novel and you can neither empathize with nor comprehend the motivations of the two main protagonists. Roth has published five novels in the past five years; on the present evidence he ought to take a break. 

(to be continued . . .)