Chris Loy

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2013: My year in books

The year that I discovered that the best way to be well read is to read books.

01 Jan 2014

At the start of 2013, I joined the website Goodreads and began using it to track my reading habits. I had estimated that in 2012 I completed less than ten books; despairing at such a low figure I resolved to greatly up that count in 2013. I set a target of 40, revised it up to 52 after a couple of months, and ended up finishing 45 books in total. Here’s what I thought of them.

The Cement Garden — Ian McEwan

McEwan’s first novel is a concise and macabre tale of four children and their attempt to survive independently after the sudden death of their parents. One of my favourite authors, much of the appeal of McEwan’s writing is how such deceptively simple prose can tease out profundity from what is at heart a slight, nasty story on the collusion of the sacred and the profane.

Down and Out in Paris and London — George Orwell

Before this, the only Orwell I had read was Nineteen Eighty-Four; Down and Out… was the first of several more of his works that I was to devour this year. It is a non-fiction relating of Orwell’s time living on and then below the breadline in first London and then Paris (although the ordering is reversed for dramatic effect). Orwell’s style here is relatively raw and undeveloped, but he is eminently readable and relates a vivid and powerful snapshot of poverty at the time of writing.

Speechless — Polyp

Manchester-based Polyp is a political satirist and cartoonist, writing primarily for the New Internationalist. This, his first graphic novel, is a dizzyingly ambitious project in which he seeks to narrate a summary of the entirety of human history, through cartoons in which no dialogue is used. By turns amusing, insightful and shocking, it was an enjoyable read and seemed a suitably inappropriate point for me to first enter into the reading of graphic novels.

We — Yevgeny Zamyatin

A rare example of science fiction originating from Russia, We is perhaps more known for its later influence than read on its own terms. Set in a far future utopian society, and relating a satirical story that will be familiar to those who have read Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a hugely inventive example of early twentieth century science fiction. With a distinctive, at times synaesthetic style, We is an enjoyable read, which eventually proved subversive enough to earn the distinction of being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board, and resulted in the author’s exile from his home land.

A Farewell to Arms — Ernest Hemingway

A wonderfully evocative and moving first person narrative following the Italian campaign of the First World War, A Farewell to Arms is one of Hemingway’s finest books. Highly recommended.

The Kindness of Women — JG Ballard

A sequel to Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s much-loved fictionalised autobiography, which detailed his childhood internment in the Lunghua prisoner of war camp, The Kindness of Women follows Jim from early adulthood through to, perversely, the filming of a fictionalised version of Empire of the Sun. As the title suggests, the focus here is on his interactions with various women (his nanny, his first wife, and in some detail the first cadaver he dissected at medical school), but those expecting a romantic novel should be warned off. The protagonist here is the traumatised, middle-aged author of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition among others, and the focus is similarly obscene. A fine book, but no entry point into Ballard’s extensive canon.

Discordia — Laurie Penny & Molly Crabapple

A terrific piece of frontline journalism written by Penny with illustrations from Crabapple, Discordia narrates a week the pair spent in Athens at the height of the Euro crisis in July 2012. Written with great integrity and honesty, it presents an authentic snapshot of a pivotal moment in recent history.

VALIS — Philip K Dick

It is hard to know where to begin describing VALIS (that’s Vast Active Living Intelligence System to you and me). Ostensibly a work of fiction, it includes great swathes of Dick’s “exegesis”, a work of madness written in his darkest days of mental illness and substance abuse, and turns Dick’s trademark ability to explore any subject with mind-bending science fiction onto his most personal subject: his own mind. At times it is unclear whether the novel explores madness or is merely a symptom of it, but it is written with such power as to be utterly compelling.

Heart of Darkness — Joseph Conrad

Conrad’s fiction has undoubtedly failed to age as well as many of his contemporaries’, given his focus upon colonialism, tribalism and nautical life. Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for Apocalypse Now (which transposed the narrative from Africa to Vietnam), is a peculiar book about losing oneself in a foreign land. The framing mechanism is that of an old sea dog relating the tale to a little-glimpsed audience of sailors, and it is perhaps the commentary on the betrayal of trust inherent in storytelling which rings most true today.

Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

Brontë’s gothic masterpiece is every bit as good as its reputation suggests. For a long time I was deterred by the stream of film and television adaptations which suggested something rather more traditional and predictable than transpires to be the case. A product of its time, yes — but far darker and stranger than you might expect.

Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy

Famously, when asked to name his favourite three novels, William Faulkner is reported to have replied “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.” After having finished Tolstoy’s epic tale of love, life and family, it is not difficult to see how he arrived at that conclusion. Certainly one of the best books I have ever read, and the finest novel I read this year.

Consider The Lobster — David Foster Wallace

This collection of essays by Infinite Jest author Wallace covers a diverse range of subjects, from John McCain to porn awards shows, via a series of extended and discursive reviews of biographies, dictionaries and lobster festivals. Wallace’s prose (with extensive parentheses*† (and parentheses within parentheses) throughout) is hard work but rewarding, and his ability to explore important themes discussing the least likely of subjects is second to none.

*And oh so many footnotes.

No seriously, a LOT of footnotes, and in many cases substantially longer than the main body of the text (in itself often dizzying (or at least surprising) in length for explorations of apparently simple subjects). In fact it can definitely be argued (and indeed is herein being done so by your writer) that the chief pleasure in reading David Foster Wallace (henceforth DFW‡) is to follow him on explorative and often dead-ended tangents. His essay Consider the Lobster (holding a particular significance for myself in 2013§) for instance, which does precisely what its title suggests and considers the life and death of a lobster farmed solely for human consumption (surely “the” lobster, if such a definitive article of a single species can ever exist, being the apparent “lobster” appearing on a menu (or indeed referring specifically to the notion of lobster meat, which in this case would reduce to much the same thing)) contains an extended discussion of the sensory neural system of the lobster, which while appearing on first glance to be a technical area outside of the remit of an apparent “moral” or “ethical” work, is actually key to the entire discussion of the cruelty of boiling lobsters alive, being the chief differentiating factor between the (standard) consumption of lobsters and other meats. Such insight is typical of much of DFW’s writing and serves to enhance both style and content.

A typical Wallacian abbreviation.

§Said year being the one in which, beyond reading a much larger than usual number of books (citation: this page) I also went completely vegetarian for a period of twelve months.

The Road To Wigan Pier — George Orwell

The second of two non-fiction books by Orwell that I read this year, it is very much a book of two halves. The first is a remarkably bleak account of poverty in the North of England at the time Orwell was writing, with the passages detailing his experiences in a number of coal mines proving the most shocking. The second half of the book is a lengthy essay exploring class politics and socialism, both personally for Orwell and more widely for society.

Snow Country — Yasunari Kawabata

A stark and lyrical tale of doomed romance, Snow Country was the breakthrough novel for Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kawabata. Understated and melancholy, the prose is sparse and the story ambiguous, yet it is completely captivating. A masterpiece.

This Perfect Day — Ira Levin

An heroic tale following yet another Nineteen Eighty-Four style plot, Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby among others) writes a thrilling narrative and the book is a great page turner, but ultimately it says little that hasn’t been said better elsewhere.

Thousand Cranes — Yasunari Kawabata

Following in quick succession from Snow Country, this exploration of grief and loneliness bears the same qualities as Kawabata’s earlier novel. Not as immediately breathtaking, but a wonderful novel nonetheless.

Lost At Sea — Jon Ronson

This collection of articles and essays by British writer Jon Ronson (best known now for The Men Who Stare At Goats) is a great read. Ronson is something of a written word equivalent of Louis Theroux — meeting and exploring the lives of those on the margins of society. The tales narrated within are for the large part insightful and amusing, but at times Ronson unearths a genuinely shocking story, in particular in the essay from which the book takes its name.

Dubliners — James Joyce

Having struggled through but greatly enjoyed Ulysses the previous year, I found Dubliners a great treat — containing all of Joyce’s compassionate insight into the human condition but in a concise and readable collection of interrelated short stories. It does not bear the stylistic wizardry or breathtaking ambition of his later work, but it is a moving and greatly enjoyable compilation of stories, particularly the novella The Dead, which concludes the collection.

The Crossing — Cormac McCarthy

The second part of McCarthy’s celebrated The Border Trilogy, The Crossing follows a young American boy as he crosses the border into Mexico to return an injured she-wolf to her family. While All the Pretty Horses was essentially a romantic novel that turned sour as it progressed, this novel offers no such lightness, and is essentially replete with McCarthy’s trademark bleakness from the offset. The prose is sparse, the setting evocatively defined and the tale a grim one, yet as with all his work I found The Crossing a joy to read.

Disgrace — JM Coetzee

Continuing what was becoming a season of dark and depressing fiction, Disgrace narrates the fall from grace of a respectable professor of English in South Africa, who eventually loses everything. Compelling but depressing.

The Sirens of Titan — Kurt Vonnegut

A wildly inventive science fiction novel that in many ways foreshadows the absurdist approach of Douglas Adams, yet makes sure that beyond the silliness there is something important to say. Vonnegut’s prose is a pleasure, and if the narrative seems to fly off the rails a bit at times, you’re willing to forgive it thanks to the colourfully rendered characters.

The Fifth Child — Doris Lessing

Lessing is without doubt one of my favourite authors. Writing across a wide range of genres and settings, her signature gift is perhaps the ability to capture a life, a period, or even entire worlds in very little space on the page. The Fifth Child is in some ways a horror novel in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, in which the titular son is born to his mother as perhaps an evolutionary throwback, perhaps something more sinister, but certainly the apotheosis of that parental nightmare — the “problem” child. The suggestion of horror is, however, limited; Lessing maintains a strictly realist style, and the story allows her to explore notions of power within the nuclear family, questions of nature-versus-nurture in raising the child, and (as ever) the role of women within an evolving society. Utterly gripping and thrillingly ambiguous, I blazed through the book at lightning speed and look forward to doing the same with sequel Ben, In the World.

Men Without Women — Ernest Hemingway

A collection of short stories on the theme espoused in the title, and focusing on wartime Europe, Men Without Women is further (if unneeded) proof of Hemingway’s ability to examine with great depth the masculine condition, in his trademark terse, hard prose.

The Comfort of Strangers — Ian McEwan

McEwan’s second novel is, in my opinion, a great leap forward from The Cement Garden. The story concerns a couple holidaying abroad and the mysterious characters they meet there, and plays out in many ways like an old-fashioned ghost story. It is a short but vividly memorable novel: dense and macabre, yes, but also deeply human. One to read and re-read.

Umbrella — Will Self

The only Will Self novel I have yet read is a dense intertextual Ulysses of mental illness, wartime spirit and being haunted by the past. The text is one continuous block marched out over some four hundred-odd pages; sentences run on from one to the next, sometimes jumping back and forth decades at a time, between different places and characters; the predominant occupation is with insanity. Self’s style here is deliberately schizophrenic — the background chatter of a song stuck in the head, or a distant memory failling to materialise properly constantly interrupting the narrative — and it is in short a very difficult read. It was ultimately rewarding, but it is arguable that such a long and difficult book might have had more to say.

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta — Doris Lessing

The full title of this first “space fiction” novel by Doris Lessing is in fact Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta — Personal psychological historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days, and this perhaps sheds some light on the content of the book. Shikasta (“the stricken!”) is in fact Earth, formerly Rohanda, corrupted by the influence of the vile Puttorian empire over centuries and slipping from the grasp of the benevolent Canopus, alien beings seeking to cultivate peaceful life on Earth. Completely astonishing in scope, Lessing’s sudden lurch into the hardcore of science fiction wrong-footed many critics at the time of writing. It is, in fact, a glorious blend of myth, fable and allegory, narrating the collapse and ultimate destruction of civilisation on Earth and providing fertile ground for Lessing to explore themes of social injustice, political corruption and religious fanaticism among others. Even more of a joy — it is merely the first part of a five-novel series (each with similarly exhausting titles). Wonderful.

Discourse on the Sciences and Arts — Jean Jacques Rousseau

The first set text I read for my (ultimately aborted) attempt at a free online course in modernism and postmodernism (along with seven of the next nine books), Rousseau’s essay is a provocative argument against the prevailing Enlightenment notion that advances in science prompt advances in society. An important and interesting work, it is however unnecessary to offer any recommendation to read it outside of an academic setting.

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality — Jean Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s second discourse is a much more in depth analysis of the idea of progress, and focuses on the progression of society corresponding to a progression in inequality.

The Communist Manifesto — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Again a set text, yet a short enough one that in the age of the internet there is no reason for it not to have been read by everyone.

Madame Bovary — Gustav Flaubert

The tale of Emma Bovary is a classic story of a woman whose childish belief in romance leads her into an unhappy marriage, an unwise affair and ultimately worse. Darkly humorous and beautifully written, Flaubert’s tale deserves its lasting reputation, and despite being a rather direct attack on some of his contemporaries, still feels relevant today.

Paris Spleen — Charles Baudelaire

I do not generally read poetry, and so I found Paris Spleen a friendly entry point into Baudelaire’s canon — being as it is a collection of prose poems. They are at times dark and strange, at others humorous, and ultimately very enjoyable.

Civilization and Its Discontents — Sigmund Freud

This essay is to my understanding Freud’s most political work, building on his previous work in psychoanalysis and extending those ideas to examine society as a whole. It is a fairly short and interesting read, and seems a good entry point into his writings for those of us with a more political than psychological bent.

To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s intense tale of the melancholia of family life and the dangers of delayed gratification is lyrical and at times elegiac. Two separate visits by the Ramsay family to the Isle of Skye provide the framework for philosophical introspection on themes such as loss and perception. A very good book indeed.

Notes From Underground — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s devastating and at times comic novella is often considered the first existentialist novel. The unreliable, rambling narrations by the unnamed writer are part furious tract, part comic memoir and utterly captivating. I feel it is worth mentioning here that I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, as I did with Anna Karenina, and found it fantastic — to the point where I will seek out their translations for all future Russian literature I read. Very readable and highly recommended.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress — David Markson

Markson’s debut is a curious novel, written almost entirely in the style of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a dense philosophical work that I have not read. It is a first person narrative written at a typewriter by a woman who believes herself to have been the last human alive for some thirty years, and is largely stream-of-consciousness reminiscences on her part. Ruminations on art, philosophy and literature intermingle with personal reflections in a narrative that at all times retains ambiguity. Difficult to categorise, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a thought-provoking and at times very funny novel, which is quite unlike anything else I have ever read.

On the Genealogy of Morals — Friedrich Nietzsche

The final set text I read for my course on modernism before abandoning the reading list, Nietzsche’s essays on the evolution of morals are in my opinion a difficult read. His logic is contradictory, his conclusions at times baffling and at other times sinister, and I must admit I struggled to keep up with the nature of some of his thoughts. However, the chief appeal of Nietzsche lies in his tenacity at questioning the unquestionable, and while I may not agree with much of what he says here, the inquiries he provokes are certainly stimulating.

High-Rise — JG Ballard

Ballard’s urban nightmare follows the fortunes of the residents of a high-rise block in which, piece by piece, society tears itself apart and those living within regress back to a near-animalistic state. By turns surreal, grotesque and wickedly hilarious, High-Rise might best be summarised as a very adult take on Lord of the Flies. Riotous fun.

Metamorphosis and Other Stories — Franz Kafka

In a year in which it was revealed that everything that anyone does online is recorded and archived away, ready as evidence for the day that any case is brought against you, many voices could be heard urging people to read Nineteen Eighty-Four to understand the dangers of a totalitarian society. For my money however, the set text of 2013 should have been Kafka’s The Trial — a cautionary tale about the banality of evil and the secretive power of a blind and apathetic bureaucracy crushing a man’s life without even telling him why. This collection of shorter works, including Metamorphosis, explores this and a number of other themes, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. An absolute must-read.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying — George Orwell

In his third novel, Orwell relates the life of Gordon Comstock: an educated, intelligent and thoughtful young man who considers himself a socialist and “declares war on the money-god” — abandoning his job, comfort and all prospects. An angry and powerful novel about poverty and futility, it is in some ways autobiographical, and captures with immense tragedy the downward spiral into which the stubborn, well-meaning individual can slip.

Mrs Dalloway — Virginia Woolf

Following the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, a high society figure in London in the 1920s, over the course of a single day in which she prepares to host a party in the evening, this novel jumps back and forth through its protagonists’ memories to examine with great intelligence the malaise of the age.

A Christmas Carol — Charles Dickens

Read on Christmas Eve, this novella held few surprises for me after seeing a dozen film adaptations (my personal favourite remaining the Muppets version). However it is a hugely enjoyable read, and Dickens gets the balance between spookiness and seasonal cheer spot on. A deserved classic.

Animal Farm — George Orwell

Containing all of Orwell’s usual insight, Animal Farm was Orwell’s most successful synthesis of art and politics to date. A book I really should have read years ago.

Bartleby the Scrivener — Herman Melville

This short, bizarre novella about a preposterously passive clerk, whose very existence is defined by the repeated phrase “I would prefer not to” seems in many ways to prefigure Kafka in its ambiguous, unacknowledged menace. A little baffling but hugely enjoyable.

The Daydreamer — Ian McEwan

This collection of stories written for children follows Peter, a young boy with a vivid imagination, and the adventures, real or imagined, that he undertakes. The stories are inventive and the theme is universal enough that there is also great pleasure to be had here for adults.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde — Robert Louis Stevenson

So familiar is the story of Dr Jekyll, the mad scientist, and Mr Hyde, his abominable alter-ego, that it comes as a shock to realise that the original tale by Treasure Island author Stevenson is in fact structured as more of a gothic murder mystery, with the final revelation coming presumably as a shock for those not already completely familiar with the story.

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