Sunday, 1 January 2012

Books Read in 2011

Below is the list of books I read in 2011.

  1. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse)
  2. Starter for Ten (David Nicholls)
  3. The Pregnant Widow (Martin Amis)
  4. The Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta (Paul Theroux)
  5. David Golder (Irene Nemirovsky)
  6. The Bradshaw Variations (Rachael Cusk)
  7. Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguhi Ghali)
  8. The Indian Clerk (David Leavitt)
  9. E2 (Matt Beaumont)
  10. The New Confessions (William Boyd)
  11. A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mante)l
  12. Going Loco (Lynn Truss)
  13. The Pyramid (William Golding)
  14. Girls in their Married Bliss (Edna O'Brien)
  15. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle (Monique Roffe)
  16. Family Album (Penelope Lively)
  17. Trespass (Rose Tremain)
  18. Job (Joseph Roth)
  19. Natural Curiosity (Margaret Drabble)
  20. The Making of Henry (Howard Jacobson)
  21. blueeyedboy (Joanne Harris)
  22. The Good Angel of Death (Andrei Kurkov)
  23. The Man in the Wooden Hat (Jane Gardam)
  24. The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk)
  25. Dial M for Merde (Stephen Clarke)
  26. Solar (Ian McEwan)
  27. At the Chime of A City Clock (D.J. Taylor)
  28. Tiger Hills (Sarita Mandana)
  29. The thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
  30. Tiger's Wife (Tea Obreht)
  31. The Summer of the Bear (Bella Pollen)
  32. The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
  33. The Hand that First Held Mine (Maggie O'Farell)
  34. Kaddish for An Unborn Child (Imre Kerstez)
  35. Sex and Stravinsky (Barbara Trapido)
  36. Great House (Nicole Krauss)
  37. Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
  38. Imperial Bedrooms (Bret Easton Ellis)
  39. Beatrice and Virgil (Yann Martel)
  40. An American Type (Henry Roth)
  41. Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare)
  42. Another Part of the Wood (Beryl Bainbridg)e
  43. The Concert Ticket (Olga Grushen)
  44.  Midnight Bell (Patrick Hamilton)
  45. The Siege of Pleasure (Patrick Hamilton)
  46. The Plains of Cement (Patrick Hamilton)
  47. The Betraya (Helen Dunmore)
  48. Libra (Don DeLillo) 
  49. The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
  50. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Paul Torday)  
  51. Tinkers (Paul Harding)
  52. The Hindi-Bindi Club (Monica Pradhan)
  53. The Misogynist (Piers Paul Read)
  54. Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut)             


  1. Nine Lives (William Dalrymple)
  2. Elephant in the Room (Graham Swift)
  3. A Feast of Freud (Clement Freud)
  4. Small Memories (Jose Saramago)
  5. One Morning in Sarajevo (David James Smith)
  6. Indian Takeaway (hardeep Singh Kohali)
  7. Swimming in a Sea of Death (David Rieff)
  8. The Masque of Africa (V.S. Naipaul)
  9. Mango Orchard (Robin Bayley)
  10. Four Girls from Berlin (Marianne Mayerhoff)
  11. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  12. Uncle Tungsten (Oliver Sacks)
  13. Stalin Ate My Homework (Alexi Sayle)
  14. The Mango Orchard (Robyn Bailey)
  15. Young Che: memories of Che Gueva (Ernesto Guevara Lynch)

My target, when the year began, was to read minimum of fifty books, ideally seventy five. I am happy with the eventual tally of sixty nine.

I remember starting the year with non-fiction, as I wanted to read substantial non-fiction this year. In the end, as has happened every year, I ended up reading far more fiction than non-fiction. That is because there simply aren’t very many non-fiction themes or subjects that interest me.

About the fiction I read this year. I read more than fifty novels, most of them literary, a few genre. When I look at the list the first thing that strikes me is that there are awful lot of titles that did not live up to my expectation.

So, out of fifty four, which novels I really enjoyed reading? Not many, I am afraid. 

Beer in the Snooker Club is the only novel written by the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali (written in English). I first became aware that there was a writer called Ghali when, in 2009, I read Diana Athill’s memoir, After A Funeral. The memoir lays bare, in painful details (Athill has made a habit of publishing memoirs which are searingly painful, honest etcetera, in which she talks freely about her own foibles and somehow manages to emerge shining; it is not an easy trick to master), her relationship with an Egyptian writer who is referred to throughout as ‘Didi’. The memoir mentions that ‘Didi’ had written a novel by the publishing company for which Athill worked as an editor, and that Athill had greatly liked the novel. A little bit of Internet search revealed that ‘Didi’ was an Egyptian writer named Waguih Ghali and he had indeed written a novel entitled Beer in the Snooker Club. I ordered the book from Amazon and I am glad I read it. Beer in the Snooker Club tells the story of an Egyptian Coptic Christian, Ramos, who is a poor member of an affluent and well connected joint family. The novel is set in the 1950s; the British have left the region, officially, but their presence is very much there; the Suez crisis is still a few years away, but there is a growing sense of nationalism amongst the Egyptians. The action, such as it is, takes place in Egypt and England. Novel, via various misadventures of its protagonist, gives a snapshot of the Egyptian upper classes during a period of socio-political upheaval in that country. Acutely observed—Ghali is at his caustic best while describing the pretensions of the Egyptian rich, or the British class system--, very funny and entertaining, Beer in the Snooker Club is a pleasure to read.

Jonathan Franzon’s Freedom is that rare event, in my view, when a novel lives up to all the pre-publication hype. This is a novel which is as good as they said it was, a first class read. I have reviewed Freedom on the blog.

Another first class read was Don Delillo’s Libra. Libra is an imaginative reconstruction of the assassination of John F Kennedy, America's 35th president. Libra was first published in 1988 and had created a bit of a kerfuffle at the time of its publication. There are several strands in Libra which DeLillo handles with great aplomb. With great skill he creates for the reader a shadowy world within world. But, for me, his greatest skill is in humanizing Lee Harvey Oswald, the gunman who killed JFK (although the conspiracy-driven Libra has its own take on it, which is different from that shown in Oliver’s Stone’s JFK, also  full of conspiracy theories). DeLillo almost forces the reader to empathize with Oswald. Libra is a superb read.

The Jewish-American writer Henry Roth was an enigma. His debut novel, Call It Sleep (reviewed on this blog) is considered as a modern classic of the twentieth century. Call It Sleep was published in the 1930s. After that Henry Roth disappeared from the literary world and did not publish another novel for sixty years (surely, the longest ever writer’s block in the history). Indeed when Call It Sleep enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, many did not even known whether Roth was even alive.  Roth made a triumphant return to fiction writing in the 1990s (by that time he was well into his eighties) with an epic four-volume novel-sequence, two of which were published after his death (in 1995). In 2010 was published another, probably Roth’s last novel, An American Type, edited from the extensive notes Roth had left behind. Like all of Roth’s previously published novels, An American Type is highly autobiographical. The child protagonist of Call It Sleep is a grown man (although the name has changed), has published a novel which has attracted lukewarm praise from the critics, and is struggling with writer’s block. Roth's writing style is very lyrical,. There are some memorable characters in An American Type, in particular M (Roth’s wife in real life who, he said in an interview, saved him), whom the protagonist marries towards the end of the novel. An American Type is not a novel to cheer you on a gloomy day, but a very worthwhile read.

Slaughterhouse 5 was the novel that made Kurt Vonnegut’s reputation. I was always under the impression that I had read Slaughterhouse 5. (I have had the novel in my collection for several years.) A chat with a friend disabused me of the notion, and I read the novel in 2011. Vonnegut’s post-modern take on the Allied bombing of Dresden (that killed thousands in a single day) towards the end of the Second World War may not be to everyone’s taste, nor his minimalist style, heavy in irony. But I like it. I  knew (even without reading it) that Slaugterhouse 5 was a great novel and reading it confirmed what I had always known.

The British writer Patrick Hamilton is a largely forgotten name these days. If he is remembered at all, it is for the two plays he wrote—Rope and Gaslight—which were made into very successful Hollywood films in the 1940s. (Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her role in Gaslight). In the 1930s (when he was only in his twenties), Hamilton wrote three novels based around a fictional London pub named Midnight Bell. Originally published separately, these three novels: Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and Plains of Cement were published in the 1930s as a compilation entitled Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. In 2005 the BBC adapted the novels as a drama with the same title (which I haven’t seen).  The three novels—each one is a compact little novel that can be enjoyed on its own—are interlinked and tell the stories of the lives of three protagonists which overlap. At times Hamilton’s prose is a bit mannered, but these chronicles—suffused with dark humour— of the urban obsessions, frustrations, but also hope, are great reads.

Piers Paul Read is not a la mode author these days. Indeed so unfashionable was considered to be the subject of his last novel that it failed to find a publisher in the UK. The novel, Death of A Pope, was considered to be too catholic for British tastes. (It was published in America by a small, independent publishing house.) Perhaps mindful of this, the protagonist of Read’s most recent novel, the provocatively titled The Misogynist, is an atheist. The Misogynist tells the tale of a sixty something retired (and divorced) barrister who finds himself increasingly at odds with the society around him (at any rate what passes for society in London). The Misogynist is a neatly crafted novel, immensely readable not least because of the wry and ironic tone of the narrative. This is the first Read novel I have read (I avoided reading him in the past because of the reputedly religious themes of his novels; However, based on The Misogynist, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I ought to read more of him.)

I do not much read historical fiction, in particular fiction that deals with remote historical events of extraordinary significance, pullulating with real life characters. I am therefore amazed that I took to reading A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s behemoth of a novel (more than 800 pages) covering the first four years of the French revolution, and absolutely loved it. A Place of Greater Safety is a mix of thriller, tragedy, intrigue and romance, told in a bravura style—a compelling portrait of a society on the cusp of cataclysmic changes.

Penelope Lively, the winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, is a prolific novelist, and has not let advancing age (she is nearing eighty) slow down her creative output. The range of Lively’s novels, depending on your view, is either well circumscribed or narrow. A lot of her novels are about the trials and tribulations of middle class families. I don’t have any problem with that—better stick to what you know best. Family Album, Lively’s sixteenth novel, is like a series of snapshots—it does not have a linear narrative—of a middle class family between the 1970s and 1980s. The narrative is slightly distracting because Lively changes from first to third person frequently. I could cope with that; what I could not understand was why Lively felt the need to shift from past to present tense and vice versa in the middle of a paragraph.  On the whole, though, Family Album is an intelligent and moderately absorbing tale.

Another ‘intelligent’, 'middle class' novel, of women plagued with the suspicion that their lives are unfulfilled, which I read in 2011, was Margaret Drabble’s Natural Curiosity. If you like to read novels of middle class, middle aged women who tie themselves in knots over what they said to whom and how, and desperately want to have affairs (I do; that is I like to read such novels), you will like Natural Curiosity.

Girls in their Married Bliss is the third novel of Edna O'Brien’s celebrated Country Girls trilogy. I have reviewed the second novel of thetrilogy (Girl with Green Eyes), which I loved, on this blog. Girls in their Marrried Bliss follows the lives of the guileless and lovable protagonists who are married and living in London. It is a great read and, almost forty years after its publication, does not seem dated at all, the hallmark of a classic. It is difficult to believe that copies of O'Brien’s Country Girl novels were burnt in Ireland because of the frank portrayal of the sexual lives of the protagonists.

I read two novels of the British comic writer Howard Jacobson in 2011: The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Booker Prize and an earlier novel, The Making of Henry. The themes of many of Jacobson’s novels are the same: highly sexed, middle aged, academic Jewish men who are tortured about their Jewishness. The Finkler Question is slightly different in that the protagonist, thus tortured, is not Jewish but suspects that he might be, or thinks he ought to be; I don’t exactly remember. But it does not matter, as, for me, the pleasure of reading Jacobson is his language. You cannot but marvel at the inventive way in which Jacobson turns a phrase. It is a rare gift, and Jacobson is a seriously comic writer. He is a treasure.

Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine won the Costa (previously Whitbread) award. It is a richly imagined and moving tale of how one’s past can’t be repressed indefinitely and is only waiting, with heavy suspense, to claim what is its due. Don’t be put off by its corny title: The Hand that First Held Mine is a very good read.

David Mitchell is one of the most exciting and talented writers writing in English today. I have read two of his previous novels: Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Both were brilliant reads. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, has, in contrast to these two novels, a linear narrative, but its canvas is still expansive. The setting is Dejima, a man-made island in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan, for centuries the only access the reclusive Japanese Empire would allow to the outside world, where the Dutch East Indies Company has a trading post. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an ambitious novel (another historical novel I read this year; but very different from A Place of Greater Safety) of intrigue and drama, and Mitchell almost pulls it off. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet may not be a masterpiece, but it is still is gripping yarn.

Another Part of the Wood is one of the early novels of the great Beryl Bainbridge. The novel is like a set-piece in a movie with a twist at the end. Written in Bainbridge’s trademark sparse style, Another Part of the Wood gives a glimpse into the type of novels Bainbridge would write in the 1970s (A Bottle Factory Outing and Injury Time, which I have reviewedon this blog).

David Golder is an early novel of Irene Nemirovsky (it might have been her first). Nemirovsky, of Russian Jewish descent, left for France with her family following the Boshevik revolution, where she achieved considerable success as a writer, and David Golder was one of her successful, if controversial novel. When the Nazis controlled France Nemirovsky went into hiding where she started writing another novel. She had not completed the novel when she was arrested, transported to Auschwitz and gassed immediately upon arrival. She was 39. The incomplete manuscript was with Nemirovsky’s daughter, who could not bring herself to look at it for almost five decades. The incomplete novel, entitled Suit Francaise, was published to great acclaim a few years ago. The success of the novel created an interest in this until-then forgotten author and many of her earlier novels are now available in English translation. David Golder is a character study of a self-made man who, now that he is dying at 68, has realized that wealth has not brought him happiness. This novel (apparently also made into a successful French film in 1930) had created some controversy because of the portrayal of a Jewish man by a Jewish writer, which was considered to be unsympathetic. Nemirovasky was regarded by some as a ‘self-hating Jew’. May be I am missing something, but I did not find the portrayal of the novel’s eponymous hero unsympathetic. Golder may be cold and ruthless and calculating, but he has a human side to him; the portrayal is not stereotypical or caricaturesque. A good read.

Matt Beaumont is not a name (I think) that is widely known outside of the UK. Which is a shame, as he is one of the funniest writers I have read. I have read five novels of Beaumont, four of which were comic novels and had me in splits. The novel I read in 2011 was E2. It is a novel, like its predecessor (Beaumont’s debut novel), written entirely in e-mails sent by various employees of an advertising firm in London. It is a motley collection of the psychopaths, weirdoes, and insane. E2 is a hilarious read; I can't remember the last time I laughed so much when I read a novel. Beaumont’s humour is situational but he also makes liberal use of irony, exaggeration and sarcasm, to devastating effect.

The Indian Clerk is an interesting novel by the American novelist David Leavitt. It traces the last five years of the life of the celebrated Indian mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan, during which Ramanujan collaborated with the British mathematician G.H. Hardy and left behind a body of work that ensured that his name would be remembered by posterity. The Indian Clerk is a very well written ambitious, dense and expansive novel of great depth. A very satisfying read.

Now the ‘also rans’.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous writer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2006. Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s mammoth novel (almost 700 pages) is, I believe, his first novel since the Nobel triumph. It tells the story of an obsessive love between a wealthy Turkish man and a poor woman  (how unusual is that?) with a post-modern twist towards the end which we have come to expect from Pamuk. In the novel the reader is treated to long and over-zealous descriptions of the ravishing beauty of the heroine.  The trouble is: in the absence of photographic evidence I was unable to appreciate the life-changing influence this great beauty came to have on the narrator’s life. Where the novel succeeds is in creating a vivid tabula of the Istanbul of the 1970s.

Imre Kerstez won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature. Kerstez’s oeuvre is not large; he has written, I think, a total of three full-length novels, of which I think Fatelessness is truly brilliant. The other two, at just around hundred pages, are more like novellas. Of these I read Kaddish for an Unborn Child in 2011. It is a meditation by a Jewish Holocaust survivor on why he never had children. Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a lamentation on life that has lost its meaning for the one who is condemned to live it, a proloned burst of tortured introspection by a writer who is marked by Holocaust. The novel weighs you down with its melancholy, and the ennui is quadrupled by tortuous translation.

Joseph Roth’s reputation in the English speaking world is as a writer of nostalgic and achingly elegiac novels mourning the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Radetzky March). Job is Roth’s takes on the biblical story of Job. The novel is remarkable for Roth’s lyrical description of nature.

I have not read a single novel of William Boyd which I have disliked, and I didn’t dislike The New Confessions, one of Boyd’s early novels (published first in 1988), which I read in 2011. The New Confession is a memoir of a Scotsman born at the turn of the twentieth century. The story of the ultimately inconclusive life of the enthusiastic, vain and (in some respect myopic) John James Todd is an absorbing enough tale; but Boyd has done it much better in Any Human Heart.

Nicole Krauss announced herself as a writer to watch out with her second novel, The History of Love. I had loved that novel; and it was with great expectations that I took to read Great HouseGreat House consists of several narratives at the centre of which is a desk. The plotting of Great House is fractured and the prose style is heavy, ponderous, and mostly monotonous. The novel was not a complete let-down, but it did not quite work for me.

Jane Gardam is a distinguished British novelist in the same tradition as Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens (three amongst my favourite writers). She is one of the few authors who has won the prestigious Whitbread (now Costa) award twice. In 2005 Gardam published Old Filth, a story of a retired English barrister, to great critical acclaim. (Filth was an acronym for: Failed In London Try Hong Kong). The novel enjoyed considerable commercial success. The success of Old Filth probably prompted Gardam to publish The Man in the Wooden Hat, which is a kind of prequel to Old Fiilth and tells the story of 'Filth's' younger days in Hong Kong from the perspective of his wife. Written in Gardam's trademark no-fuss style, The Man in the Wooden Hat is a decent read, wryly funny in parts, but not as good, I am afraid, as Old Filth.

I read a Helen Dunmore novel after many years, in 2011. Dunmore was the recipient of the inaugural Orange Prize for fiction for her novel, A Spell of Winter. I had read it at the time and it had not worked for me. I had therefore given a wide birth to Dunmore’s subsequent novels. I decided to try The Betrayal, which I read was based on the so called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, the last of Stalin’s act of vengeance against the educated classes, before his death in 1953. That interested me. The Betrayal is a novel—to borrow a football cliché—of two halves. The first half is brilliantly paced and Dunmore builds up an atmosphere of unease. By comparison the second half is slow, laborious and the ending is a tad anti-climactic (though historically accurate).

I have read a few novels of the South African novelist Barbara Trapido. I thought that the semi-autobiographical Frankie and Stankie was brilliant. The rest (that I have read) were tolerable. Sex and Stravinsky, Trapido's most recent novel, is tolerably tolerable and mildly funny. It is like a feel-good Hollywood film, which you may enjoy while watching but should not make the mistake of taking it seriously even though it occasionally pretends it does. If you are looking for depth, here, you are diving at the wrong end.

Joanne Harris’s blueeyedboy is a thriller that has the most unreliable narrator in the history of world literature. The guy is either a fantastist or an extremely cunning killer, you are not sure which; but by the time you come to the end of the novel which has more twists than a circus contortionist’s performance, you don’t really care; you simply can’t take it all in; it is ridiculous. An easy read, though, perfect to take on holidays.

Nicholas Shakespeare is a British writer whose one previous novel I have read. It was called High Flyer and was a comedy of manners. Reading it had not convinced me that I should read more novels of Shakespeare, and for the past several years I had not read his novels, one of which (Dancer Upstairs) was made into a film directed by John Malkovich. Inheritance, Shakespeare’s most recent novel, which I read in 2011, is like two novels in one. The first one is a modern comedy of manners, which worked for me. The second, a historical tale with the Armenian massacre as its backdrop didn’t.

Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was short-listed for the 2010 Orange Prize in fiction. It has an interesting theme—post-colonial Trinidad. In the novel Roffee tries to tackle big political themes, but the novel essentially is of unserious nature; it merely scratches at the surface. There are plenty of dramatic moments in the novel, but no real drama. However it is an undemanding read.

The fashion designer-turned novelist Bella Pollen is perhaps best known for her novel Hunting Unicorns. I read Hunting Unicorns years ago, and while I can't remember anything about it, I remember that it was an enjoyable read. The summer of the Bear is Pollen's most recent novel, which has three strands: a le Carre style mystery surrounding the 'accidental' death of a British diplomat; a family tear-jerker, as the dead man's family comes to terms with his death; and the story of a bear in the title that thinks like humans and might be a reincarnation of the dead diplomat. The Summer of the Bear is a mildly captivating read, although the story of the bear does not really sit comfortably with the other two strands of the novel and the mystery is lame. I have included The Summer of the Bear in the 'also rans' and not 'disappointments', because I had no expectations from the novel when I started reading it. 

Monica Pradhan's The Hindi-Bindi Club is a Chick Lit that tells the stories of the two generations of Indian women in America. The theme of the novel is very similar to Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club. The novel is mildly witty and the stories are mildly riveting. I have included it here for the same reason I have included The Summer of the Bear: I had no expectations from the novel and I actually found myself smiling occasionally. At the end of each chapter Pradhan gives recipes of Indian dishes. These recipes have no connection to the story, but they are yummy. (I tried the almond and raisin chicken which, even if I say so myself, was delicious). If this does not persuade you to read The Hindi-Bindi Club I don't know what will.

Finally, there is Martin Amis. What are we to do with him? There are many who believe that Amis is past his sell by date. I disagree. However, Pregnant Widow, Amis’s most recent tale of a bunch of teenagers (with enough hormones flowing to keep a Soho whorehouse in business for years) in the flower-power era, who spend a holiday in an Italian castle, does not find him in a sparkling form. That said, Martin Amis never lets me down totally. There are passages of great wit and humour in the novel, which is a descent read.

Now to the disappointments.

Cormac McCarthy is considered a great American novelist. His The Road won the Pulitzer Award for Fiction in 2007, and was also made into a film. Set in a post-apocalyptic world in an unnamed country (presumably America) without any reference to past and future, The Road is a story of a father and son travelling from one desolate scene to another. Sometimes they come across empty houses. The son is wary and tells his father to be careful. The father tells him he will be careful. The son, frequently, is not convinced, but the father tells him that they do not have a choice, and if they are at all to survive and not die of starvation they will have to take their chances and enter the house. This happens repeatedly; the only variation is in what they encounter—sometimes it is a house, at other times it is a gas station, some other times it is an abandoned ship. As for what they find in these places, sometimes they find food, sometimes they don’t. And . . . well, that’s about it. They stomp through ash; they sleep in ditches; they stomp through more ash; then they find another ditch to sleep in. The novel is about as engaging as watching paint dry.

Another award winning fiction that failed to enthrall was Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Award for fiction. At just under 200 pages Tinkers is not a big novel, but it is a slog. It is a slog for a number of reasons, one of them being there is no plot and no real story; instead Harding deluges the reader with pages after pages of impressionistic descriptions of nature. The prose is belaboured and not particularly alluring. The novel, really, had no redeeming features for me. The only thing I learned after reading Tinkers was that it is not possible to die of boredom.

Continuing with the theme of award-winning novels which are tedious beyond endurance, it would be hard to find a more tedious novel  than Tea Orbeht’s Tiger’s Wife (unless you have read Tinkers). This novel won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. Set in an unnamed country in an unnamed region (although less than subtle hints are dropped that the country is former Yugoslavia) Tiger’s Wife attempts to be an allegory and fable at the same time, and manages to be neither.  Like Tinkers, Tiger’s Wife, too, is full of descriptions of nature, which serve no other purpose than emphasizing that the author has nothing interesting to say.

By Nightfall has not won any awards as far as I am aware, but its author has. It is the latest offering from Michael Cunningham who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction of his memorable The Hours. By Nightfall tales the story of the mid-life crisis of an art-dealer who seriously considers changing his sexual orientation by contemplating to have an affair with his brother-in-law (don’t ask). True, Cunningham’s prose is crisp and finely rendered (although the protagonist’s proclivity to ask ironic, rhetorical inward questions and offer self serving faux-intellectual insights into his silly infatuation tends to grate on your nerves after a while), but that does not quite make up for the preposterous plot which seems more like a gay man’s sexual fantasy about the hidden homoerotic impulses residing within heterosexual men.

I do not find William Golding, the 1981 Nobel Laureate, an easy read. Apart from The Lord of the Flies, I have not read any novels of Golding, although, over the years, I have bought quite a few, which line my shelf (they look good). I read The Pyramid, which was described as Golding’s most accessible novel. The Pyramid depicts three episodes in the life of a young man, named Oliver. These episodes have little in common except that they take place in the same obscure English village. The premise of The Pyramid is rather slender. Golding touches upon some universal themes and there are a few funny scenes in the novel, especially the second section; but the novel, overall, has a bumpy, uneven feel to it. The Pyramid might be Golding’s most accessible novel, but it is not the more absorbing for it. 

Ian McEwan is one of the leading British novelists of our times. He is a novelist who has managed to be commercially successful and be a hit with the critics. I have read quite a few of McEwan’s novels and with the exception of an early novel, have not liked any of them. Solar, McEwan’s latest offering, has all the elements that I associate with his novels: it is over-long, verbose, and full of redundant information, with the usual splattering of the grotesque and macabre. The comedy, such as it is, fails to bring a smile to your face. The thematic focus is not sharp and the narrative is not particularly gripping. Reading Solar is like watching a performance of a stand-up comedian, desperately trying to be funny and telling an over-long anecdote (which is not funny at all), oblivious that the audience has lost interest.

The Canadian writer Yann Martel won the 2002 Booker Prize with his second novel, Life of Pi. Life of Pi was a wonderful fable with sparkling, lustrous prose. Eight years later Martel published Beatrice and Virgil, another allegory and fable. This time round Martel attempts to convey the horror of the Holocaust through an anthropomorphic donkey (Beatrice) and monkey (Virgil). It is painful to read Beatrice and Virgil: there is no driving force to the narration (despite the powerful theme of Holocaust at its heart) with its bland, flat, laborious prose, full of strange metaphors. It can be considered an achievement of sort to write a novel on the theme of Holocaust that is a cure for insomnia, although I doubt that was Martel's intention. Beatrice and Virgil is clearly a work of a writer who is struggling with the Writer's Block.

Olga Grushin is a Russian-American writer of considerable merit. Her début novel, The Dream Life of Sukhonov, was a triumph; I loved that novel. It was therefore with great expectations that I began reading The Concert Ticket (I think it is published in America under the title The Line). The Concert Ticket takes its inspiration from the 1962 concert given by the exiled Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, and weaves a tale of ordinary people who are coping with the miseries of their quotidian existence with the hope of something truly magnificent that may or may not materialise. The problem is the plot-structure is too anaemic to bear the weighty themes Grushin wants to convey. The novel is too long, and the reader's fatigue is increased by Grushen's overworked, over-elaborate, over-luxurious, and flowery prose. Grushin had kept in check her tendency to carve out exquisite sentences in The Dream Life of Sukhonov, but in The Concert Ticket, the genie is out of the bottle; the novel overflows with metaphors, which, nevertheless, fails to camouflage the fact that Grushin does not have a great deal to say. This novel is killed by a fatal overdose of over-exquisite prose.

Reading Bret Easton Ellis's Imperial Bedrooms gives you a kind of de ja vu. That is because Ellis has been doing the same thing again and again for the past twenty five years since he burst on to the literary scene with Less than Zero (many characters in Less than Zero also appear in Imperial Bedrooms): characters that are not likeable (some of them deranged), who lead shallow lives; torrid sex scenes; and gruesome, gratuitous violence. Imperial Bedrooms is a kind of noir delivered in Ellis's trademark minimalist style. But Ellis really needs to move on. What shocked in American Psycho is merely tiresome in Imperial Bedrooms. Perhaps fellow brat pack writer Jay McInerney (who I always thought was more talented than Ellis) can teach his friend how to change the trajectory of his novels and move beyond shallow, materialistic teenagers.

Rose Tremain is an award-winning British novelist. In Trespass, her most recent novel, Tremain endeavours to weave a tale of suspense and intrigue, delving into darker corners of human mind. Unfortunately not very successfully. None of the main characters is particularly believable; there is not a great deal of suspense; and the story is about as chilling as a stroll through the isles of Iceland. A disappointment. 

Paul Theroux’s A Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta is a disaster. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel is. Theroux used to be a very good writer; there are many novels of his which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I am not even going to bother describing the plot of A Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta. Don’t read it.

A bit about non-fiction.

I did not read a lot of non-fiction in 2011. Of the 15 non-fiction books there were a few memoirs, the best and one I enjoyed the most was The Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara. The memoir was originally published in Spanish in the 1980s as two volumes. The English translation which came out in 2007 combines the two volumes in one. Written by Che Guevara’s father (also, somewhat confusingly, called Ernesto Guevara), the memoir focuses on Che Guvera’s early life as a child growing up in Argentina and his training as a doctor. Based extensively on the copious letters Che Guevara wrote to his family, the memoir is a moving and absorbing read that gives an insight into the mind of the man who smilingly went to his death in a remote corner of the world (at the hands of CIA agents) and who, more than forty years after his death remains an iconic figure. Five stars.

Alexi Sayles used to be a slightly unhinged (and popular) left-wing stand-up comedian in the 1980s and 1990s, before he gave that up and made an apparently successful transition to fiction writing. I have read one of his novels; I think it was called Overrun. I remember much of this novel except that it was funny in parts and not very impressive. Stalin Ate My Homework is Sayles’s memoir of growing up as the only child of left-wing parents in the 1960s Liverpool, UK. The memoir is engaging in parts and Sayles has drawn memorable portraits of both his parents, especially his Jewish mother, Molly. In 2010 I read a delightful memoir, entitled When Skateboards will be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh, of being brought up by a single mother who was convinced that there would be a Communist revolution in America. Sayles comes from a less dysfunctional family than Sayrafiezadeh's, but his parents were not any less eccentric in their political views than Sayrafiezadeh’s.

Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten is a nostalgic trip down the memory lane for Sacks to his childhood in London and his fascination with chemicals which he shared with one of his many maternal uncles. Engaging in parts.

Four Girls from Berlin is a memoir by Marianne Meyerhoff which tells the story of her Jewish mother who escaped from the clutches of the Nazis just in time (her parents and brother were not so lucky) to arrive in America. It is a moving tale of a life unfulfilled and talent gone waste. There is a twist at the end, which hits you hard because you know that it is not imagined. 

Jose Saramago, who died a few years ago, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. In Small Memories we find the great Portuguese writer looking back upon his childhood. Full of amusing anecdotes (such as how the family came to have the surname ‘Saramago’) Small Memories is an utter delight to read. What strikes you the most when you finish reading Small Memories is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Saramago’s background and childhood that suggests that he was going to be, in fullness of time, the recepint of a prestigious literary award, a proof, if proof be needed, that great writers are born, not made.

Swimming in A Sea of Death is a memoir of the last months in the life of the feminist Susan Sontang, written by her son. The picture that emerges of Sontong (who died of cancer) is of a brittle, fragile woman: a woman who, on the one hand simply refused to accept her mortality; who, as her son mentions at one point in the memoir, had come to regard herself as ‘special’, after her previous successful battles against two cancers; on the other hand, as she hovered up information on the deadly blood cancer realised that this time she was fighting a battle she was not going to win. She tells her son, ‘this time I don’t feel special.’ Sontag subjected herself to excruciating treatments including the bone marrow transplant which, according to doctors was going to be tricky given Sontag’s age (they were right). Sontag, depending on your view, either went down fighting all the way, or subjected herself to avoidable pain and misery had she accepted the inevitable and agreed to palliative care. Swimming in A Sea of Death is a meditation on death and what it means to die in Western civilizations.

One Morning in Sarajevo is an account of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1914, an event that propelled Europe towards the First World War that killed millions. The book also throws light on the lives of the young men 9About whom not a lot is known) who plotted to kill the heir apparent. It is not an easy book to read, but informative. Well worth the trouble if the subject interests you.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I ahve read in recent times. That is probably not saying much, as I do not read many pieces of investigative journalism. But believe me, this book is superb. It traces the life of a poor black American woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks who died sometime in the early 1950s from a particularly aggressive type of cancer of uterus. However, the samples of cancerous cells taken from Henrietta's diseased organ, for reasons the scientists could not fathom, did not die, and stayed alive in culture for long periods. This presented the scientists with a unique opportunity to grow and study behaviour of cells in a number of conditions (using Henrietta's cells for culture mediums in which the cells grew), which, as the cliché goes, expanded the frontiers of human knowledge. In due course Henrietta's cells, which scientists labelled HeLa, were commercialised and many people became rich beyond belief. No marks for guessing that the dead woman's family was completely unaware of these developments and remained mired in poverty. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, with great tact and sensitivity, gives a balanced picture to the reader. It is a smashingly good read. 

In Nine Lives William Dalrymple tells stories of nine remarkable individuals he meets during his travels in India.  Some of the stories (I presume they are true stories) are so unusual that they stretch the limits of your credulity. India is a strange land.

Finally, I come to Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul. I shall review this book later this month.

My top ten novels of 2011

  1. Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali)
  2. Libra (Don DeLillo)
  3. Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
  4. Girls in their Married Bliss (Edna O'Brien)
  5. Slaughterhouse 5 (Kurt Vonnegut)
  6. The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
  7. An American Type (Henry Roth)
  8. Plains of Cement (Patrick Hamilton)
  9. The Misogynist (Piers Paul Read)
  10. E2 (Matt Beaumont)
Since I read only 15 books of non-fiction, I shall list below my top five non-fiction books of 2011.

  1. Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara (Ernesto Guevara-Lynch)
  2. Masque of Africa (V.S. Naipaul)
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  4. Small Memories (Jose Saramago)
  5. Four Girls from Berlin (Merlin Meyerhoff)