Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Books read in 2012

Below is the list of books I read in 2012.


  1. An Object of Desire (Steve Martin)
  2. The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
  3. Submarine (Joe Dunthorne)
  4. A Visit from the Good Squad (Jennifer Egan)
  5. Started Early Took My Dog (Kate Atkinson)
  6. The Wilt Inheritance (Tom Sharpe)
  7. Last Man in Tower (Arvind Adiga)
  8. The Collaborator (Mirza Waheed)
  9. The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)
  10. The Report (Jessica Francis Kane)
  11. Untold Story (Monica Ali)
  12. The Accident (Ismail Kadre)
  13. Lost Horizon (James Hilton)
  14. The Good Earth (Pearl Buck)
  15. Good Morning Midnight (Jean Rhys)
  16. The History of Mr. Polly (H.G. Wells)
  17. A Man of Parts (David Lodge)
  18. Lucky Break (Esther Freud)
  19. Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan)
  20. Two Serious Ladies (Jane Bowles)
  21. Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim)
  22. Whatever Makes You Happy (William Sutcliffe)
  23. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  24. Point Oemga (Don DeLelio)
  25. Mr. Rosenblum’s List (Natasha Solomons)
  26. It’s A Man’s World (Polly Courtney)
  27. King of the Badgers (Philip Hensher)
  28. The Passport (Herta Muller)
  29. The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Euginides)
  30. All that I am (Anna Funder)
  31. Summer Things (Joseph Connolly)
  32. As I lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  33. This is How (M.J. Hyland)
  34. The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
  35. A Bend in the Ganges (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  36. Cactus Country (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  37. The Croweaters (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  38. Tamas (Darkness) (Bhisham Sahani)
  39. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Dawn (Romain Rolland)
  40. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Morning (Romain Rolland)
  41. Jean Christophe Vol 1—Youth (Romain Rolland)
  42. Jean Cristophe Vol 1—Revolt (Romain Rolland)
  43. Lolita (Reread) (Vladimir Nabokov)
  44. The Tortilla Curtain (T.C. Boyle)
  45. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
  46. The Aunt’s Story (Patrick White)
  47. The Casualties of Peace (Edna O’Brien)
  48. Brazaville Beach (Reread) (William Boyd)
  49. Life Class (Pat Barker)
  50. I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal)
  51. A Life Apart (Neel Mukherjee)
  52. Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned (Walter Mosley)
  53. Fifth Business—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)
  54. The Manticore—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)
  55. The World of Wonders—The Deptford Trilogy (Robertson Davies)


  1. Anatomy of A Moment (Javier Cercas)
  2. Bedwetter (Sarah Silverman)                    
  3. My Father’s Fortune (Michael Frayn)
  4. Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)
  5. The King’s Speech (Mark Logue & Peter Conrad)
  6. The Fry Chronicles (Stephen Fry)
  7. The Box—Tales from the Dark Room (Gunter Grass)
  8. With the Kisses of His Mouth (Monique Roffey)
  9. Cooking for Claudine (John Baxter)
  10. May Week was in June (Clive James)
  11. Mountain of Crumbs (Elena Gorokhova)
  12. How to be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)
  13. The Genius in My Basement (Alexander Masters)
  14. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (Gertrude Stein)
  15. What is Remembered (Alice B Toklas)

I shall start with the non-fiction list first (it’s not very long).

Until this year I had not read anything written by Gertrude Stein, and my knowledge of her was very limited: an obscure, modernist American writer, who lived most of her life in Paris.

I picked up The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas from the local library out of curiosity. The blurb said that although the book was entitled as an autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Stein’s life-long ‘companion’ (an early twentieth century euphemism for a lesbian partner), it was actually Stein’s autobiography. The ‘autobiography’ is a pleasure to read. It has a wonderfully gossipy feel to it. Gertrude Stein is a great raconteur and the book is full of anecdotes about various artists with whom Stein mingled in the first thirty years of twentieth century. The cavalcade of artists is unending. Picasso and Matisse are but two of the artists who appear in this very engaging memoir. Stein doesn’t much care about chronology of events when she tells her story, and neither should you: just immerse yourself in the artistic world in Paris at the turn of the last century. (Also ignore Stein’s penchant for peculiar punctuation.) If you have a Kindle or any other e-reader, this book is free to download on Project Guttenberg.

After reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, I wanted to find out whether Alice B Toklas had herself written anything. It turned out that she had. Thirty years after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, and seventeen years after Stein’s death, Toklas, nearing the sad end of her long life, published her own memoir, entitled What is Remembered. The memoir ends with Stein’s death. Tokals’s style is much more sedate than Stein’s and she essentially covers the same ground as in Stein’s book. What comes across very poignantly is the close bond the two women shared and how Stein was the centre of Toklas’s life. I found the simplicity of Toklas’s narration touching.

Michael Frayn’s memoir, My Father’s Fortune, was moving in parts. In fact I had heard Frayn in a literary programme where he read extracts from his memoir and spoke at some length about his family and his father’s life. Frayn’s mother died when he was relatively young, and it was his father who raised him and his younger sister. The memoir is at times self-consciously twee, but on the whole enjoyable.

May Day was in June is the third volume of Clive James’s memoir. It has everything I have come to expect from a Clive James memoir. Like the previous volumes of the memoir, May Day was in June pullulates with off-the-wall, larger than life characters. James has almost eidetic memory for events and describes at great length and in great detail (and very wittily) incidents that happened decades ago. At times, though, the tone becomes too flippant; also James does not give much by the way of information about his inner life; the narrative moves along in a series of incidents where James passes side-splittingly funny observations about people and events.  What the memoir also does, very expertly, is, to create for the reader, the atmosphere among the academics in Cambridge in the 1960s.

Cooking for Claudine is a quirky book by John Baxter (another book I picked up out of idle curiosity from the local library; I had never heard of Baxter before). The book is about a Christmas meal Baxter prepared for the French family of his French wife (Claudine is his ‘formidable’ mother-in-law). The title is a bit of a misnomer: Baxter cooks the Christmas meal not just for Claudine but for the entire French clan of his wife. After reading this immensely enjoyable book, I wasn’t clear why Claudine was described as ‘formidable’; if anything, she comes across as a sweet old dear. Cooking for Claudine abounds with good humour. The book is part memoir, and Baxter regales the reader with anecdotes collected from his peripatetic life across several continents (before he settled down with Claudine’s daughter, in Paris, at the age of fifty). I enjoyed Cooking for Claudine so much that I have ordered another book by Baxter, A Pound of Paper, which allegedly is about Baxter’s life-long love affair with books.

Selling Hitler is an early non-fiction book by the best-selling novelist Robert Harris. It is a thrilling account of how a small-time crook from West Germany came to hoodwink the publishing world by selling them fake diaries of Adolf Hitler for multi-million deutschmarks in the 1980s. Harris’s droll, sardonic style of narration adds to the enjoyment.

I read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman because it was chosen by the book-group of which I am a member. Most in the book-group (consisting in its entirety of men) were scathing of this book, with one claiming that he found it impossible to go beyond the first few pages. I found it easily possible to complete the book. Driven by the curiosity to find out how Moran coped with life-changing events such as developing tits and growing pubes (the chapters have titles such as ‘I Need a Bra’ and ‘I Grow Furry’) I finished the book, which is part memoir part collection of essays, in two sittings. Moran, who is apparently a popular columnist in the Times, keeps a steady supply of humorous observations which makes it an easy and entertaining read. If she had a serious point, I missed it.

I had read Alexander Master’s Stuart: a Life Backwards a few years ago and I had enjoyed it. The book told the true story of a drug addict or an alcoholic (most probably both), who was in the habit of assaulting others, taking overdoses etcetera, to bring some fun to his otherwise bleak life, and who eventually killed himself by jumping in front of a train. What I remember liking about Stuart: a life Backwards, was Master’s style of narration, which avoided falling into the trap of maudlin sentimentality. The book, in spite of the grim subject matter, managed to be hilarious without being insulting to or condescending towards Stuart, its ‘hero’, who—sorry as you felt about his sorry life and sad, though not entirely unexpected, demise—you were glad was not your next door neighbour. In The Genius in My Basement, a peripheral (real life) character in Stuart: a Life Backwards takes the centre-stage, viz., Master’s landlord, who is described as ‘eccentric’ in the earlier book. In The Genius in My Basement you learn a bit more about this ‘eccentric’ landlord, Simon Norton. When you finish reading the book you reach the inescapable conclusion that the term ‘barking’ would be more apposite. The main point of Master’s new book (as I understood it) is that here was a man who probably was a genius—at least that’s what everyone who knew him in school thought—a prodigy in the making, in mathematics (isn’t it curious that you can be a prodigy only in certain fields—mathematics, chess, music; have you heard of a prodigy brick-layer?), who lost the gift somewhere along the way, which is very sad. On the positive side, Simon himself doesn’t give a sh*t; he never considered himself to be a genius, anyway; and is happy as a Larry.

I am not a fan of Stephen Fry, who has, in the UK, a reputation for being a versatile actor, witty host of television shows, and in general talented. I think he is only some of these things: he is an actor, though not particularly versatile; he hosts a few shows on the terrestrial channels (in particular the incredibly boring QI) but I don’t think reading out semi-witty comments written by television hacks makes you witty; and as for being gifted, it is, well, a matter of opinion. The Fry Chronicles is the most recent instalment of Fry’s memoirs. What I remember of this memoir, which I read at the beginning of 2012, is Fry’s (not very convincing) attempts to appear very modest about his success, and his repeated exhortations to the readers to consider him very lucky to have achieved ‘what little success’ he has enjoyed despite his meagre talent. I had little trouble believing him. Does Fry believe it himself? Would you believe a fat man who says he is into minimalism?

On to fiction.

The best fiction I read In 2012 was towards the end of the year: Robertson Davies’s superlative The Deptford Trilogy, comprising three novels (Fifth Business, The Manticore, and The World of Wonders) originally published in the 1970s. Superbly plotted and exquisitely written, the novel sequence is one of those books which have riveting plots and burst with ideas. This is the birth centenary year of Davies and one hopes there will be a revival of his novels. 

Manohar Malgaonkar was an earlier generation of Indian writers who (I suspect) is a forgotten name even in his own country (which, these days, seems to be producing high numbers of writers writing in original English, for a country where English is not a ‘native’ language). Manohar Malgaonkar’s name was suggested by an Indian friend, who also presented me with a copy of his 1970s non-fiction book, The Men Who Killed Gandhi, Malgaonkar’s investigative account of the conspiracy to assassinate Mahtama Gandhi, considered to be the father of the modern Indian nation. I found the book unputdownable, one of the most thrilling books I have read in recent years. A modicum of Internet search revealed that Malganokar (who died in 2010 at the age of 97) had written a number of novels, all of which out of print at present. I read two of the novels (ordered from second-hand book-shops) in 2012. A Bend in the Ganges has India’s bloody partition as its background, while The Cactus Country is based on the 1971 India-Pakistan war which resulted in the creation of a new country, Bangla Desh. Both the novels are extremely well-written, very atmospheric, and ring with authenticity. A Bend in the Ganges, in particular, is very harrowing in parts. I asked my friend whether there were any other novels written by Indian writers on India’s partition (which has the dubious distinction of being the event responsible for the forced migration of highest number of people in the twentieth century), and he suggested two: A Train to Pakistan, written in original English by the celebrated Indian novelist, Khushwant Singh, and Tamas (a Sanskrit word, apparently, for Darkness), an original Indian language novel (translated into English under the same title) by Bhisham Sahani. I read Tamas, which tells the story, in a series of extraordinary incidents, of Sikh and Hindu families caught in the madness of India’s partition as the communal violence engulfed what would become Pakistan. Tamas leaves you with terrible sadness for the human condition.

Emperor of Lies, a huge success in Sweden upon its publication, has, at its centre, one of the most controversial characters in the Holocaust history: Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous hero of Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel. Rumkowski ran for the Nazis the Lodz ghetto in Poland before it was liquidated (and Rumkowski, the ‘eldest of the Jews’, met his own end in Auschwitz). Sem-Sandberg’s portrait of Rumkowski is relentlessly unsympathetic (despite his assertion in the ‘afterword’ that he has not taken any ideological position towards Rumkowski). The novel is also a painstakingly researched chronicle of the daily life of the largest ghetto in Europe. While it means that the novel has a vast number of characters, very heavily based on real-life denizens of the ghetto, each with a heart-breaking story, which robs the novel somewhat of narrative coherence, it also makes it a very fascinating read. A remarkable novel on a tragic period in twentieth century Europe (translated in faultless English by Sarah Death).

King of Badgers is a ‘state of the nation’ novel Philip Hensher seems to be focusing on writing these days. I like Philip Hensher, who is difficult to pigeonhole as a novelist because he has published novels in different genres and on different subjects (though not with equal success). My most favourite Hensher novels are his earlier ones (e.g. Kitchen Venom) full of mordant wit. King of Badgers is Hensher’s seventh novel, the starting point of which (very dramatic) is based on the true story of a mother in the UK who faked her daughter's kidnapping in order to get money. Hensher excels at looking under the veneer of the respectable lives we lead and into the motives that drive us, throwing into sharp relief the defects and foibles of our existence. Weariness, exhaustion and sexual predatoriness seem to blight the lives of most of the characters in King of Badgers. The plot of the novel also becomes amorphous as the novel progresses, but on the whole, the novel succeeds in holding a mirror to the modern British society.
Anna funder achieved worldwide fame a few years ago with her superlative Stasiland, a fascinating account of the lives of ordinary people in the former German Democratic Republic. She has followed it up with All that I Am. It is a historical novel, which has long forgotten real-life characters that, in the 1930s, exiled to England from Germany for their anti-Hitler views, tried to form an anti-Nazi resistance movement. At the centre of this utterly absorbing story are the tragic figures of Ernest Toller, a left-wing playwright who rose to prominence in the Weimar Republic, and Dora Fabian, an intrepid young Jewish woman who might have been Toller’s muse, and whose mysterious death set Toller’s life on a trajectory that ended, five years after Fabian’s death, in a hotel in New York. All that I am ticked all the boxes for me. It is simply yet elegantly written, does not lack drama, and is, ultimately, incredibly moving. I couldn’t recommend it enough.

The Indian writer Arvind Adiga was virtually unknown until he won the Booker Prize for The White Tiger in 2008 (not altogether surprising, seeing as it was Adiga’s debut novel). The White Tiger was a savage indictment of the inequalities in the Indian society and its less than perfect political system. In Last Man in Tower Adiga turns the searchlight on to Mumbai’s (India’s commercial capital) middle classes. With great skill Adiga tells the story of middle-class greed and betrayal in a manner that is humane and understanding. Last Man in Tower is, in some ways, a morality tale: how in the face of a promise of a better life, life-long friendships, allegiance and values crumble. It is a brilliantly executed subtle tragic-comedy, which confirms that Adiga is a formidable talent.

Talking of Booker-winners, Julian Barnes, one of my favourite novelists, won the award (finally) for The Sense of an Ending, in 2011. The Sense of an Ending can be seen as a thematic continuation of Barnes’s memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of (reviewed on this blog some years ago), published a few years before The Sense of an Ending: namely the tricks memory plays when we recall past events which have shaped our lives. The Sense of an Ending reads like a thriller. The narrative—laced with Barnes’s trademark asides and musings on life—builds up a momentum that propels the eager reader towards the denouement, which doesn't disappoint.

I read Bouhmil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England because it had an endorsement on the front page by Julian Barnes who had described Hrabal as a ‘superb writer’. (As per the WikiPedia entry, Hrabal, a Czech writer who fell to his death from a hospital building in 1997, at the age of 83, is considered one of the best writers of the twentieth century. It just shows my ignorance of non-English writers that I needed Julian Barnes’s endorsement to become aware of Hrabal. How well known Barnes might be in Czech Republic? Would he need endorsement from well-known Czech writers when his translated novels are promoted there?) I Served the King of England (the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the protagonist never actually serves the King of England, although he serves the exiled monarch of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie) is a picaresque novel that has a fantastical feel to it. The novel is funny in a macabre way—its protagonist refuses to take anything or anybody—least of all himself—seriously—because what Hrabal is doing here (I think) is commentating on the bleakness of human lives.

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad became hugely popular upon its publication and also won for its author the 2011 Pulitzer Award for fiction. It is a novel of thirteen chapters. Egan described it as a book of loosely connected stories, which is what it is, although in the UK it was marketed as a novel. Unsurprisingly there is no settled tone to the narrative; it is a polyphonic ‘novel’ of shifting narrative voices. Egan also boldly experiments with the form in the novel (not always with success). The interlocking stories, very readable and entertaining in themselves, depict, thematically (like the as in I Served the King of England ), fractured and frequently unsatisfying lives in twenty-first century America.

The Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues was shortlisted in the UK for several awards but didn’t win any, as far as I am aware. Which is a shame. Half Blood Blues is an absorbing tale of friendship, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption. It is also an oblique commentary on the status of blacks in Nazi Germany.  A great pleasure of reading this novel is its lyrical language, pithy metaphors and easy-on-the ear slang. There are a few false notes, especially towards the end, but on the whole it is a first-rate novel.

James Hilton was a Twentieth century British novelist who wrote very popular novels in his time, some of which were also made into successful Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. I read Lost Horizon, Hilton’s novel which donated the English language the term Shangri La, out of a sense of nostalgia. It used to be a very favourite novel of my father. In it Hilton creates a world which, while it requires suspension of credulity on reader’s part, gives him a glimpse of what might be described as higher order of existence. 

Steve Martin is a seriously good comic actor and has been described as ‘indecently multitalented’ by The Sunday times. In the past few years Martin has diverted some of his energies into writing fiction. In 2012 I read An Object of Beauty, Martin’s third novel, in which he turns his attention to the world of painting. In it Martin creates for the reader the world of New York art scene where talent and creativity collide with cold commercial calculations. It is a well-plotted novel but the tone of the narrative is not even and, despite the witty one-liners which come thick and fast, is curiously flat at times. Well worth a read, though.

Lucky Break is British novelist Esther Freud’s seventh novel. In it Freud, the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud (and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud), who was herself an aspiring actress many years ago, portrays, gently and tender-heartedly, the world of aspiring actors struggling to establish themselves. The novel progresses at a sedate pace and, despite its subject matter, eschews drama and grand gestures; however Freud more than makes up for it with her astute observations and gentle humour.

The American novelist Jessica Frances Kane’s debut novel, The Report, fictionalizes a little known tragedy that took place in London, in the 1940s, in the middle of the Second World War. The novel—written in a devastatingly effective understated tone—is a humane and astute examination of human emotions and the human need to make sense of what has befallen us even though the understanding—as in the case of some of the characters in the novel—will bring nothing but heartache. I loved this novel.

With A Man of Parts, David Lodge returns to the realm of biographical novel. In it we learn more about the remarkable life (or part of it) of one of the most remarkable figures in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century British literature: H.G. Wells. Lodge focuses on what is generally regarded as the period when Wells was at the peak of his powers. Like Author Author (Lodge’s 2005 biographical novel based on the period in the life of the American novelist Henry James) A Man of Parts is a mixed bag. At times the novel, which extensively quotes from Wells’s published writings, reads more like a chronicle of Wells’s life and less like a novel. Lodge probably covers no new grounds, and, seeing as there are excellent and thoroughly researched biographies of Wells available (including one written by his son Anthony West) one wonders what the purpose was behind A Man of Parts other than give an opportunity to readers like me, who have neither the patience nor intellectual wherewithal to plough through the weighty biographies, to learn more about H.G. wells.

I read H.G. Wells’s History of Mr Polly after I read in the A Man of Parts that it was a hugely successful novel in its time. The novel was first published over a hundred years ago and it shows, especially in the prose and narrative style; but its theme transcends time. There are also a couple of bravura set-pieces, described by Wells with great gusto.

I re-read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita after several years for the book-group of which I am a member, and once again marvelled at the erudition, cleverness, language and humour of the novel.

Another novel I re-read for the book-group was William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach. It is one of Boyd’s early novels and cemented his reputation in the UK as a novelist. It is a well-written novel (you expect nothing less from Boyd) which has two stories, neither of which resolves satisfactorily.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the most side-splittingly funny novel I have read in recent times. The novel is written in the hard-boiled prose of Raymond Chandler and has, at its core, a mystery. The novel, which is set in a hypothetical Jewish colony in Alaska, is also a ‘what if’ novel. Apparently there was a suggestion, as the Second World War loomed, that the European Jewry be resettled in Alaska (as per the afterword of the novel), which for a number of reasons did not come to fruition. A very satisfying read.

A few years ago I had read the improbably named T. Coraghessen Boyle’s The Road to Wellville and had enjoyed it tremendously. I then went on a buying spree and bought 8-9 more novels and short-stories of the supremely prolific Boyle, but did not read any until this year. I read The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle’s 1995 novel in 2012. It is a heavy satire on a subject that is still very topical and triggers strong emotions on both sides of the Atlantic: illegal immigrants. Boyle’s novel deals with the immigrants from Mexico into California. The Tortilla Curtain crackles with Boyle’s scintillating prose; there are also several vividly imagined set-pieces that take your breath away. The novel is not without its flaws but is a very compelling read.

Jeffrey Euginide’s The Marriage Plot, like his two earlier novels, is gracefully written and oozes erudition; unlike the two previous novels, there is no subterranean disturbing element in The Marriage Plot, which is essentially a 21st century middle-class romance (nothing wrong with that); a witty, literary romance, but lacking perhaps in the complexities of human desire. The novel is remarkable for its striking description of Manic Depressive Psychosis from which one of the main characters suffers.

I read a number of novels of Nobel Prize winners this year, which left me feeling underwhelmed. I have reviewed Herta Muller’s The Passport, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, and Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story, and Gunter Grass's The Box (released in the UK as fiction and elsewhere as non-fiction) on this blog.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, full of Southern misery, brought me as near to death as was possible without actually dying. It is the kind of novel you’d probably not enjoy when you read it but would be very glad to have finished.

Finally, Jean Christophe. I had planned to read all the volumes of Romain Rolland’s three-volume novel sequence (consisting of ten novels), which were singled out for special praise when Rolaand was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature (1915) in 2012, but managed to finish only the first volume. I shall read the remaining two volumes in 2013.

Top Ten Novels read in 2012

  1. The Deptford trilogy (3 novels) (Robertson Davies)
  2. All that I am (Anna Funder)
  3. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
  4. A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
  5. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
  6. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Michael Chabon)
  7. Last Man in Tower (Arvind Adiga)
  8. The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)
  9. A Bend in the Ganges (Manohar Malgaonkar)
  10. Half Blood Blues (Esi Edugyan) / The Report (Jessica Frances Kane)

Top Non-fiction read in 2012

  1. Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)
  2. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (Gertrude Stein)
  3. Cooking for Claudine (John Baxter)
  4. The King’s Speech (John Logue and Peter Conrad)
  5. The Genius in my Basement (Alexander Masters)