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Book Log For The Second Half of 2010

January 1, 2011

The first half of my ‘Year in Books’ is here.

Despite not actually reading as many books as I did in the first half of the year, I do get the impression that I have covered a lot more ground intellectually speaking though I could not tell you why.  I made it to 45 books bringing my total for the year up to an altogether respectable 94.  As usual, I have linked (where possible) to any reviews that may have resulted from my readings of these books.

JULY

1.  Wolfsangel (2010) By M.D. Lachlan [The Zone] : This was an intriguing read if only because I think it challenged my own awareness about my tastes.  For a while now, I’ve been moaning about the lack of good thriller-type genre novels.  Wolfsangel is exactly that: Its action films are well conceived, brilliantly plotted and not so common that they either feel like padding or become overly familiar.  There are also moments of tension when the characters have to face certain death.  But despite the thriller aspects of the book being very well realised, I found them quite dull.  Especially when compared to the metaphysical weirdness that goes on at the beginning and end of the novel: Imagine a Big Dumb Object, but one constructed not out of the principles of physics but out of the principles of a magic system built upon pain, misery, madness, suffering and death.

2.  Raft (1991) By Stephen Baxter [Vector] : I was somewhat shocked to discover how much of this novel was recycled in Baxter’s recent Ark.  Yet more proof that, as a writer, the poor chap is hopelessly overstretched and close to burn-out.  However, despite the book’s characterisation being minimal and it having a very traditional plot in which a scientific wunderkind has to overcome humble origins in order to unite a disparate human colony and save the day, I was impressed not only by the strength of Baxter’s ideas (gravitational chemistry, universes with different laws of physics, nebular eco-systems, informal social hierarchies that slide into near-racial differences) but also the weirdness of some of his imagery.  There’s a section where the hero has to eat his way into a whale and another nightmarish section in which he has to survive amongst cannibalistic bottom-dwellers on a planetoid made of human bone.  Very strange.  Cool though.

3.  Hatchet Jobs (2004) By Dale Peck : Interesting collection of negative reviews.  Their utility was somewhat lessened by the fact that I was not familiar with any of the works Peck writes about but I was struck by how similar Peck’s style is to mine (viz. long introduction introducing key concept).  Really good in terms of learning how to write extended pieces of criticism looking at multiple books by a particular author.  The introductions are pretty damn good though, particularly the one on criticism.

4.  Timelike Infinity (1992) By Stephen Baxter [Vector] : I first read this book ages ago and it did not make a huge mark on me but returning to it now I am struck by quite how brilliant a traditional SF novel it is.  It’s tightly plotted, has decent characters (particularly by Baxter’s standards this early on), has some brilliant ideas and some lovely writing.  The book seems mostly concerned with the idea of escape from bondage and how scaleable that challenge can be : Escape from personal isolation, escape from prison, escape from enslavement and escape from history.

5.  In Defense of Food (2008) By Michael Pollan : I think that Pollan makes a good case for his basic rules – Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.  However, he makes these points not by really arguing for them directly as by arguing against their negation.  So he attacks the idea of how our idea and definition of food has become debased, then he attacks our tendency to eat way too much by explaining it as a result in our fucked up Western diet, then he attacks the reliance upon eating meat.  He does all of these things by fighting this concept of ‘nutritionism’, which is basically food science but food science as practiced by the food-industrial complex, their lobbyists and their tame politicians.  My problem with this aspect of the book was that a lot of the time he seems to be arguing against the idea of going with ‘best scientific thinking’ on the basis that science has been wrong in the past.  I think that beneath a lot of his arguments lies a basic truth : Since the second world war our thinking about food has become profoundly compromised and our diets have suffered as a result.  Therefore, it would be rational to go back to the diets that our great-grandparents ate and start all policy and scientific discourse from that year zero point.  But Pollan doesn’t come out and make this point.  So, I found the book interesting, frustrating and ultimately quite lightweight.  Didn’t take long to get through though and some of the facts are eye-opening.

6.  Flux (1993) By Stephen Baxter [Vector] : Dear God What Happened?  Did Baxter have some kind of psychotic episode in 1992?  Did he take up drinking?  This is by far and away the weakest book of Baxter’s I have ever read (Emperor and Mammoth books included).  It is terrible.  The basic conceit is an interesting (if somewhat tired) one : A bunch of teeny-tiny humans living a primitive life inside a star.  Baxter goes to some effort to world-build how a lot of these ideas might work in physical terms but after a while he just stops and starts using normal words with capital letters to stand for more elaborate scientific concepts (for example, the micron-tall humans don’t breathe air, they breathe Air which is a kind of radiation).  The teeny-tiny humans then get knocked out of their peaceful lives by a glitch in the star and when they go hunting for more food they discover a medieval city filled with more teeny-tiny humans.  Baxter then goes on at tedious length discussing the economy of said city and how a lot of the kids surf on the quantum tides.  Then they discover that it’s the Xeelee who are messing with the star and they go on a quest to try and find some weapons to stop the Xeelee and in the process discover how it was that the teeny-tiny humans came to exist and what purpose they play in the grand scheme of things.  Towards the end, the book flirts with some interesting ideas about Aristotelian human flourishing in the context of humans designed and built for a particular purpose and there’s a nice theme stressing the importance of working on great projects just to keep the nothingness of existence at bay but by then it’s too late : weak characterisation, terrible padded world-building, weak ideas and a limp central narrative ultimately sink the book.  Terrible.

7.  Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) By David Shields : Hmm.  Bit of a let down this one.  On the one hand, it’s a fascinating book that contains many insights and intriguing methodologies but on the other hand, I was rather disappointed to find that there’s not much subtlety to Shields’ position.  Yes novels are old hat.  Yes intriguing things can be done with memoirs.  Yes cool things can be done with literary collage.  Yes the boundaries of the essay can be challenged by rejecting the traditional distinction between truth and falsity and memoir and poetry, but I’m not convinced that a) Shields has anything more to say than he has said in his much shorter interviews and b) that something like Monson’s Vanishing Point does not make the exact same case far more effectively by example.  Still, an interesting book in terms of advancing my own thinking on certain issues.

8.  Travels with my Aunt (1969) By Graham Greene : Very much a lesser Greene this one.  Essentially, a shiftless middle-aged man loses a mother and gains an aunt.  Initially presenting herself as quite Severe, Aunt Augusta gradually reveals herself to be not only Bohemian (living with a ‘negro’) but down-right transgressive as she is involved in all kinds of smuggling-related activities.  Initially, the protagonist rejects this life and is horrified by his aunt’s carryings on but eventually it becomes clear that he is aimless and disaffected from traditional British middle-class life and so he clings on to his weird Aunt as the only family he has.  Some nice moments but ultimately quite lightweight.

9.  Mouseguard : Fall 1152 (2007) By David Petersen : Was a bit disappointed by this actually.  The art-work is lovely but I think that Petersen relies too heavily upon it to carry the emotional weight of the story resulting in a setting, narrative and characters that are all a little too thin.

10.  Mouseguard : Winter 1152 (2008) By David Petersen : This is such an improvement it is almost unreal.  The information density of the series has massively increased resulting not only in quite a cool setting and some nice stories but some fascinatingly conflicted characters who struggle not only against their society but against the bonds of friendship and social expectation that bind them to each other.  Admittedly the book relies quite heavily upon old ideas (sinister abandoned Weasel city in a Moria-stylee and a Dread Pirate Roberts super hero) but moments like the bit when two old friends and rivals fall out over a woman more than redeem the quality of the writing.  Lovely stuff.

11.  Ring (1994) By Stephen Baxter [Vector] : Not quite as good as Timelike Infinity but this novel still packs one hell of an intellectual punch.  There’s something beautifully tragic about the way in which Baxter controls mood by keeping all of humanity’s achievements off-stage.  The expansive humanity we meet at the opening is mostly glossed over and by the time the characters return to the solar system there is nothing but ruins.  Ruins of a great civilisation swallowed up by the utterly indifferent forces of nature and entropy (granted the face of sentience in the shape of the photino birds).  the vistas are brilliant, the plot and characterisation are basic to say the least but the moods are sublime.  It is one of the most heartbreaking novels I have ever read… all that effort for nothing.

12.  Zoo City (2010) By Lauren Beukes :  This novel contains some beautiful touches.  I love the increased sense of place, I love the use of South African slang and I like the way in which the magic system is quite self-consciously vague despite elements of active info-dumping that only really blur the picture.  The problem is though that, unlike Moxyland — which used multiple viewpoints to describe its society — Zoo City only has one protagonist and so there’s a lot less of an emphasis upon characterisation and perspective and much more of a reliance upon plot as the meat of the novel.  This proves to be somewhat unwise as Beukes’ plot is hopelessly padded and dull.  This novel feels like a real step backwards and I cannot help but wish that she HAD actually read His Dark Materials as maybe then she might have moved on some of those ideas about animal familiars.  Pity.

AUGUST

13.  The Burden of Responsibility (1998) By Tony Judt : At his best, Judt is not only a towering intellect but also a brilliant writer.  The book’s introduction sets the scene by painting an image of mid-20th Century French that is incredibly intellectualised and incredibly politicised but also entirely out of touch with reality.  Judt describes the tribal squabbling that dominated discourse at the time as moral and intellectual failures of responsibility… thinkers and politicians simply did not do their jobs properly.  Against this backdrop, Judt produces three essays devoted to the intellectuals who did try to act responsibly : Leon Blum, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron.  The Blum essay is easily the best in that it brilliantly captures the essence of a mercurial man who was, in many ways, too nice to fill the role that only he could fill.  The Camus is also excellent in that it refuses to apologise for Camus’ failings either as a philosopher or as a political thinker, attempting instead to locate him within a wider tradition of French moral writing.  I’m not entirely convinced but it was a good read.  Aron’s work is the one I am less familiar with and, somewhat disappointingly, Judt is quite a bit weaker on Aron than he is on either of the others.

14.  A Special Place (2010) By Peter Straub  [THE ZONE] : A spin-off novella from Straub’s The Skylark/A Dark Matter dealing with one of the minor characters who is encouraged to become a serial killer by his uncle.  I was, I must admit, a bit disappointed with this.  As a novella, the work is quite short but what space it has seems to be devoted to rehashing many of the tropes traditional to the serial killer genre.  Stylistically, the book is nothing much to write home about either and while A Dark Matter frequently creeped me out, A Special Place left me largely unaffected.  HOWEVER, what is interesting about the work is the way in which it refuses to be about serial killers.  Indeed, the novel is essentially about sublimated homosexuality – A troubled young boy develops a crush on his handsome but louche uncle and his uncle sees in his adolescent animal-killing the potential for something more.  Something darker.  And so the uncle encourages the boy and grooms him… twisting him into an imitation of himself.  The boy then starts to replicate this odd psychological dynamic with a boy he meets at school.  Whereas most serial killer novels are all about the gothic architecture of the serial killer’s mind, A Special Place is an oddly non-cerebral novel.  The boy has little self-awareness and his uncle is just as bad (his attempts to talk about Hitchcock reveal him to be little more than an imbecile entirely lacking in anything approaching human empathy) and Straub’s refusal to devote any screen-time to the whys and wherefores of the killings suggests in no uncertain terms that there is something else going on here.  As one scene makes clear, it’s one thing to kill animals for fun… but being gay?  that really is beyond the pale!

15.  New Model Army (2010) By Adam Roberts [THE ZONE] : Excellent novel.  The book effectively communicates not only a new form of political system but a new form of being.  One fundamentally other to the traditional phenomenological self that dominates most novels.  Contains some lovely writing too.  Brilliant stuff.

16.  Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (2004) By Bryan Lee O’Malley : Actually quite liked this.  The blending of low-key social realism with manga-inspired artwork and video game iconography really is quite striking and I do like the feeling that Pilgrim is simply wandering through life in a kind of media-inspired haze.  Even falling in love has to be cloaked in these ridiculous fantasy trappings.

17.  Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2005) By Bryan Lee O’Malley :  Still loving the art work but I am now starting to find the sense of non-reality rather grating.  I am struck by the fact that none of the characters seem to have much weight to them and so the social realism of the initial volume is swept aside by the video game narrative.

18.  Total Kheops (1995) By Jean-Claude Izzo  [Ruthless Culture] :  A surprisingly disorganised book.  In parts it is brilliant; the sense of place is wonderful, the stuff about food is wonderful, the incredible sense of  life stultified by memory and regret folds neatly into the sense of place and the heat and squalor and bustle of the city.  The narrative itself is rather weak and the characters are far from compelling but the sense of space is brilliant.

SEPTEMBER

19.  How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007) By Pierre Bayard [Ruthless Culture] :  Possibly the best-written work of non-fiction that I have ever encountered.  Not so much structured as fitted with an adamantine skeleton, Bayard makes his points succinctly and with real style and wit.  However, having read through the book and been hugely entertained by it, I am more intrigued by what he does not say.

20.  The Heart of the Matter (1948) By Graham Greene :  After reading The Human Factor, I found this rather an unfocussed work.  I think that Greene is trying to write about pity and the way in which a man’s pity for the people around him can lead him to commit terrible acts not only of self-betrayal but actual selfishness.  The sections in which the protagonist wrestles with his religious faith and his completely incompatible desire to continue living a life with a mistress and a debt to a local crook are brilliant but I’m not sure that Greene actually manages to coax any kind of concrete lesson or idea out of this.  It’s all a lot of sound and fury with very little light.

21.  Stone Spring (2010) By Stephen Baxter [THE ZONE] : Very much a book that riffs on the same themes that have dominated Baxter’s fiction in recent years:  In particular a) The tension between humanity’s sense of extended family and humanity’s xenophobia and capacity for radical cultural change b) the tension between the comforts of home and the need to engage with the world.  I was particularly struck by the way in which Baxter’s relationship maps are perfectly realised but the inner lives of his characters are utterly other and verboten suggesting that his characters are subjects to vast social forces as the tips of their social networks and how the pressures of these networks can destroy a person’s inner happiness and soul.  Great alien culture stuff, great battle sequences, great moments of horror.  Great stuff.

22.  Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) By Robert Pogue Harrison :  Hmm.  I am, as ever, impressed by Harrison’s skill as a writer despite being an academic.  He writes with such precision and grace that he is able to communicate great ideas without them seeming particularly difficult or abstract.  HOWEVER, I am also acutely aware that while he excels at speaking about the human heart, he really struggles with abstract ideas and when called upon the discuss philosophical concepts he is clear and stylish but also not particularly convincing.  This means that he is constantly invoking these very human emotional responses that are a) pre-scientific in their psychological irreality and b) applied to the real world as though the world were a person.  A subtle thinker, but undeniably one with his weaknesses and strengths.

23.  The Fire in the Stone (2009) By Nicholas Ruddick  [Salon Futura] : One of my books of the year.  Not so much for the actual content (though its overview of the prehistoric fiction genre is compelling) as for the way in which Ruddick suggests that speculation about non-existent pasts could be used as a form of self-definition and engagement with the present.

24.  Terminal World (2010) By Alastair Reynolds : This book starts really really well.  Spearpoint is not only a great idea (layered technology levels producing layered genres) it is also quite a neat social metaphor for the hierarchies of class and also literary genre.  However, once the characters leave Spearpoint, it all goes wrong.  The middle tier is devoted to Swarm, a kind of military organisation that exists out in the wasteland.  Ostensibly a dictatorship, Swarm is really full of intrigue and politics but the politics are utterly uninteresting as they are so utterly one-sided in that the leader of Swarm is a scientifically minded person who wants to save Spearpoint while the people opposing him are a largely faceless mire of sinister inquisitors.  With the politics not relying upon any tough decisions or any real exchange of ideas, the pages devoted to them feel like wasted time and space.  Killing dead any momentum the book might have acquired during the opening break-neck flight from Spearpoint.  Also problematic is the fact that the book’s speculative grunt-work takes place at the wrong level with Reynolds wasting time on pseudoscientific justification for how different technology levels might work in theory instead of how they play out in practice.  The final third’s return to Spearpoint is equally uninteresting as it is all about saving a poorly fleshed out world that we are never adequately convinced to care about.  Ugh.

25.  The Haunting of Hill House (1959) By Shirley Jackson :  Simply magnificent.  While the quality of the set pieces is rather uneven (though they do get better as the book progresses), the psychology and characterisation not only anchor the book but provide its raison d’etre.  Eleanor Vance is one of the all time great female characters.  Justifiably a classic.

OCTOBER

26.  The Red and the Black (1830) By Stendhal [Ruthless Culture] : Magnificent.  The story begins almost as a picaresque adventure with a young member of the upper working classes finding advancement first to middle class professions and then to the drawing and bedrooms of the nobility.  However, as the book progresses, the picaresque structure falls away revealing a protagonist who is spectacular in his capacity for self-deception.  Indeed, despite seeing himself as a young Napoleon, Julien is basically (much like Napoleon if truth be told) nothing more than the right person at the right time.  Having undergone revolutions, empires and restored monarchies, France is depicted as a nation is desperate need of feeling the whip-crack of tyranny.  The country yearns for a great man.  Julien is seen as this great man and so, at every step, he effectively tumbles upwards into social vacuums created above him by the weak and frightened members of the upper social classes.  This resolves brilliantly in the final chapters when, accused of murder, Julien is poised to be forgiven for the crime of attempted murder by an establishment that has way too much vested in his success.  But then Julien (by this point a rich member of the nobility) makes this spectacularly misjudged socialist speech painting himself as this poor downtrodden working class wretch, at which point the jury sentences him to death.  Also brilliant is the book’s central love affair from which love is entirely absent.  Julien fancies the Marquis’ daughter because a rival does.  the Marquis’ daughter fancies him because he feigns disinterest in her despite her wit and beauty.  Because both parties believe that they cannot have the other, they relentlessly pursue each other.  A wonderful, wonderful book.

27.  Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) by Gabriel Josipovici : Contains some brilliantly thought-provoking analysis in that the book ties Modernism to a desperate attempt to resolve the problem of the World’s Disenchantment.  However, as to the actual resolution of the problem, Josipovici left me slightly confused as he seemed to be suggesting both that the problem could be resolved by fiction that embodied the ‘trembling of existence’ and that the problem could never be resolved because the solution could never be articulated or pinned down to a particular strategy.  So if you don’t know how to resolve the problem, how do you recognise fiction that solves it?  He also has a tendency to disappear up himself into completely incomprehensible analysis of poetry and art that really does not add very much to the discussion but these minor quibbles aside, I found the book relentlessly clever and very thought-provoking indeed.

28.  Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding : I was actually quite surprised by how accessible this novel is.  The themes of civilisation and savagery are laid out in such elegant terms that it is easy to see why this book would be taught at A-level.  Loved the ideas, loved the almost Platonic characterisation and loved some of the descriptions of violence descending upon the world such as the ape-like creature with a face and the satanic pig’s head.  Understandably a classic.  Must read more Golding.

29.  Darkness at Noon (1940) By Arthur Koestler : A brilliant book about the relationship between principle and expediency and how expediency can become a moral imperative in its own right.  Initially, I took the book to be about the psychology of interrogation with the main character being grilled in preparation for one of the Moscow Show Trials at which Stalin (re-christened ‘Number One’) liquidated the old guard of the party.  However, while this reading of the novel does invite one to pay particular attention to some neat set-pieces (like the protagonist’s ‘creation’ of cell mates), the book’s real meat exists in the speeches that populate the final third of the book.  This is possibly one of the most conceptually dense books I have ever come across… the conceptual density reminded me quite a bit of Lem actually.  I now want to read more of Koestler’s works.

30.  Stamboul Train (1932) By Graham Greene : Not one of Greene’s best this, chiefly because the large cast of characters combines with a return to old themes (particularly the question of fidelity to another) to create an impression of thinned-out déjà vu.  Some nice moments and I very much like the huis-clos feel of a bunch of characters thrown together on a long train journey (though Agatha Christie quite possibly did it better) but I struggled with this a bit I must admit.  Greene saw this as an ‘entertainment’ and I can sort of see why, there’s some experimentation going on but ultimately we are well within the author’s comfort zone.

31.  The Japanese Devil Fish Girl (2010) By Robert Rankin [Strange Horizons] :  Abysmal.  Simply abysmal.  Not funny, smug, under-written, weakly characterised and stinks to high-heaven of a creatively bankrupt author trying desperately to leap onto a moving bandwagon.  Awful.

32.  A Short History of Cahiers du Cinema (2010) By Emilie Bickerton : Rather enjoyed this potted history of Cahiers but am also keenly aware of its limitations.  Bickerton is okay on the broad strokes of the various theoretical modes the journal moved through but she struggles to empathise with anyone who isn’t her… so she spits venom at directors she doesn’t like and quotes theoretical papers completely out of context for the purposes of mockery.  In fairness, the book is too short to give a proper cultural history of the journal but then why bother writing it?

33.  The Red Tree (2009) by Caitlin R. Kiernan [THE ZONE] :  Excellent.  The book is essentially one of those ghost/madness Horror stories but it is enlivened by a really very clever infrastructure of quotations, short stories, annecdotes, lies and delusions that thoroughly blur the lines between not only reality and dreams but also between literature and the world.  Excellent.

NOVEMBER

34.  The Grand Design (2010) by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow : Hmm.  Firstly, despite being quite short, the book felt padded.  Indeed, it is not until you are half-way through that the authors get to the point.  Far too much time is spent faffing around discussing free will and pre-socratic philosophy.  Once they get to the point, I felt that the ideas were vague and frequently overly familiar… do we really need another popular science book explaining the two-slits experiment to us?  Felt like a newspaper article padded out into a book… some interesting ideas though.

35.  Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 1 (2009) By Fumi Yoshinaga : Fascinating piece of alt-history set in a medieval Japan in which the male population has been decimated by plague.  This decimation means that men are treated as prize possessions thereby altering some gender roles but maintaining others.  Exquisitely structured, the book begins with a story of a young man entering the Shogun’s all-male harem (thereby allowing us to learn the world) before the Shogun herself starts to question why it is that only some gender roles have altered.  Terrible translation though.

36.  Ooku: The Inner Chambers Volume 2 (2009) By Fumi Yoshinaga : Translation problems broadly solved and the series settles down into a fascinating investigation of why it is that the world of the first volume contains so many of the inequalities of our world despite the huge differences between them.  Nice little origin story for the Ooku itself and a very neatly drawn relationship between the two central characters who both struggle with their gender identities.

34.  Crime and Punishment (1866) By Fyodor Dostoevsky : Not so much a whodunnit as a whydidhedoit.  The story follows the main character’s desperate attempts to rationalise a brutal murder he commits in the first act out of self-pity, shame and greed.  Throughout the book he cycles through these various rationales, trying them on in different contexts before finally settling on the one provided by the official investigating the case.  Less stridently hysterical than the Brothers Karamasov and so a good deal more enjoyable.  Great stuff.

35.  Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010) By Jonathan Rosenbaum : Rosenbaum’s latest collection of essays is as enjoyable as ever.  Some wonderful insights into the current state of film culture and criticism and some insightful commentaries upon directors and films (particularly good on clint Eastwood actually).  Great stuff as ever.

36.  Absence of Mind (2010) By Marilynne Robinson [Ruthless Culture] : Oh dear.  Ostensibly an attempt to critique the reductionist theories of mind swimming about in popular science the book struggles due to the fact that the author clearly knows very little a) about scientific concepts of the self and b) what is wrong with popular scientific discussions of them.  Rapidly devolves into a series of increasingly desperate appeals to aesthetic principles of the ‘but surely this can’t be right!’ variety.

37.  One (1953) By David Karp [Interzone] : A rather lovely ‘dystopia’ that suffers for the fact that we are no longer terrified of having our individuality taken away by sinister psychiatrists.  Stripped of its affect, it is a neat little therapy story that feels very much like Koestler-lite but it has a rather wonderful Jimmy Stewart-style ending and some good verbal jousts.  Enjoyed it despite it having not aged particularly well.

38.  Servant of the Underworld (2010) By Aliette de Bodard [The Zone] : Lovely idea — a fantasy/mystery mash-up set in a version of the Aztec empire in which magic works.  The two genres interweave quite elegantly but the novel itself is something of a disaster due to the focus on dialogue over proper exposition.  Weak plot, weak characters and an ending that sells the best bits of the novel up the river.  Ugh.

DECEMBER

39.  The Prone Gunman (1981) By Jean-Patrick Manchette [Ruthless Culture] : Splendid slice of noir fiction, peppered with dark humour.  Impressively muscular: intelligent, exciting, funny.  Exactly what you want from a thriller.

40.  The Outsider (1942) By Albert Camus [Ruthless Culture] : Exquisite.  It was an absolute pleasure to re-read this book as an adult and finally be in a position to understand all of it in light of Camus’s thinking as a whole.

41.    Madame Depardieu & the Beautiful Strangers (2008) By Antonia Quirke [Ruthless Culture] : Wonderfully written film memoir that blends together an account of a film critic’s romantic life with her opinions about a number of male actors.  One part Marina Hyde to One part Ken Tynan.  Brilliant and hugely enjoyable stuff.

42.  Who Fears Death (2010) By Nnedi Okorafor [The Zone] :  This book is an emotional roller-coaster.  First I thought it was merely over-rated.  Then I thought it was actively awful.  Finally I thought that it was trying too hard to be clever despite not having very much to see.  A timely reminder that I really should stop paying attention to Gary K. Wolfe as we clearly have very different tastes.

43.  Blackout (2010) By Connie Willis : Another Wolfe recommendation and I spent the bulk of it cursing his name and that of his family and allies.  Very much a book written by someone of Willis’s generation, Blackout displays the sort of intense gratitude and fetishisation of historical detail that you only really get in people born in or around the Second World War.  For me, the goings on in the Second World War are — emotionally speaking — really no different to those of the First World War or the Napoleonic wars.  Willis mires herself in train time-tables, tube maps, diets and the dates in which department stores are bombed whilst devoting no time at all to the futuristic time-travelling civilisation or the people who travel from it.  In fact, the whole plot of the novel revolves around the fact that posterity seems to intervene in order to keep the Second World War pickled in aspic.  Initially, I hated this.  It struck me as nostalgiaporn.  But then I came to realise something… yes Willis was presenting the denizens of the mid-20th Century as heroes, but she was also depicting the denizens of the mid-21st Century as cowards.  Is Willis commenting on the differences between the War-time stoicism of the British during the Blitz to the hysteria of the contemporary British in the face of terrorism?

44.  At The Mountains of Madness (2010) By I. N. J. Culbard : A graphic novel adaptation of the Lovecraft novella for Self Made Hero press.  Loved the ‘period’ look of the images and Culbard’s decision to play up the different personalities and attitudes in the scientific research team but was largely unimpressed both with his depiction of the city and his handling of the Horror aspects of the book (though it must be said that much of that lies in the power of Lovecraft’s descriptive prose and so is difficult to adapt to a more visual form).  Good enough that I may well seek out some more of the author’s adaptations.

45.  Out of Sheer Rage – In The Shadow of D H. Lawrence (2003) By Geoff Dyer : Halfway between a memoir and an extended critical essay, Out of Sheer Rage is exactly the kind of book that David Shields was on about in Reality Hunger.  Starting out with this astonishing attempt to capture an easily distracted stream of consciousness and nail it to the page, the book then widens into a moving, funny and devilishly insightful meditation on the creative process and Dyer’s relationship to Lawrence.  I knew little of Lawrence and little of Dyer upon starting this book and I still walked away entranced.  Great book.

8 Comments
  1. January 2, 2011 11:20 pm

    My God you’ve read a lot of books this year!

    Intrigued to see you discovered Geoff Dyer this year as did I. Agree completely re ‘Out of Sheer Rage’. I then went on a binge and read all his other abacus stuff. ‘Yogo For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It’ was the closest he got to ‘Rage…’ again, but it was all pretty great, even his debut novel ‘Color Of Memory’. A rewarding discovery.

    Will have to chase down the Tony Judt too – somehow that wasn’t even on my radar.

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  2. January 3, 2011 7:50 am

    Funnily enough, that was my first reaction : Must. Buy. Abacus. Books. But I have a lot of other books I want to read so I limited myself to his collected essays and his last novel, which I am planning on reading soonish.

    The Judt is really good despite the fact that it seems to be very much overshadowed by his recent historical works. Given that you’ve read Aron, I suspect you will get even more out of it than I did :-)

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  3. January 3, 2011 9:55 am

    I haven’t read Aron, but I’ve read a lot of other people writing about Aron (there’s a useful primer in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia actually). Will definitely read Judt to dig deeper on the whole period.

    Yes, my tendency to judge books not only by their content but their covers too has indeed seen me ‘bag’ all Abacus books by Geoff Dyer. Only one left me cold – ‘Paris Trance’ – but maybe that’s because Paris leaves me cold. Thought his essays were good, ‘But Beautiful’ the best written, but the later books the best. Now know the next I shall read by him will be ‘Working The Room’, his latest essay collection.

    Finally, delighted to read you found Stieg Larsson wanting too. I was given the trilogy as a present (because I like crime novels apparently) and just couldn’t connect. I don’t know if it was the translation or the writing but it didn’t flow off the page and felt autistic a book. It wasn’t in the depths of Dan Brown (quite) but I am slightly astounded that it’s gripped the earth quite as it has. I was expecting at least the standard of Thomas Harris’s early work. I didn’t find it (and like you, I quite enjoyed the first movie, even if it was needlessly voyeuristic).

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  4. January 3, 2011 4:33 pm

    Mouseguard : Winter 1152 (2008) By David Petersen : This is such an improvement it is almost unreal.

    That’s interesting; I too found the first volume a massive disappointment. I may be tempted back.

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  5. January 3, 2011 5:20 pm

    Martin — It’s quite cliche-ridden (Dread pirate Roberts and the mines of Moria)but at least it has a proper story that hangs together. The first volume felt incredibly lightweight narratively speaking.

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  6. January 3, 2011 5:22 pm

    Richard — I like that James volume even if the subtext of it seems to be a massive grump about the extent to which left-wing politics dominates the intellectual landscape. He’s right about Aron having been overlooked and his being a more substantial thinker than Sartre or Camus (Camus, unlike Sartre was always completely honest about his lack of analytical heft) but James does paint him in quite rosy terms :-)

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  7. Paul Kincaid permalink
    January 5, 2011 4:28 pm

    I don’t understand how you have not encountered Golding before now. I actually think Lord Of The Flies is the weakest of his early novels. The Inheritors, Free Fall, The Spire and Pincher Martin are just astounding. You should put everything else aside and read them now; believe me, you won’t regret it.

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  8. January 7, 2011 8:53 am

    Hi Paul :-)

    Golding (along with people like London, Balzac and Zola due to my decidedly continental schooling) is very much a victim of the fact that I was forced to read Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors as a child. A child who very much resented having to read anything.

    I am definitely going to start on Golding when I get home from my travels.

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