Chris Loy

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2014: My year in books

The year in which I read slightly more books than in the previous year.

22 Mar 2015

Following on from last year's total of 45 books read, I set myself a target of 52 books to read in 2014. In the end I finished 47, which varied in length from 15 to 1500 pages long. I set out, as always, to read as wide a range of different books as possible, and feel I did quite well on most fronts. There is my usual bias towards fiction, but otherwise I had a fairly good spread of authors by era and nationality. However, in assembling this list I realised with a sense of dismay that I had only read 3 books by women this year, one of which was little more than a long poem. A terrible ratio by any standards and a clear goal for rectification in 2015.

Candide - Voltaire

Voltaire's classic satirical novel documents the episodically tragic life of the eponymous optimist. I found it an enjoyable read, although given its age I suspect many of the episodes parody works or people with whom I am not familiar.

The Time Machine - HG Wells

Having seen both film adaptations in the past, I had expected little more than an enjoyable, if dated, adventure story from The Time Machine. While this expectation was to some degree met, I was surprised to find a bold satirical barb in the story that was largely absent from those adaptations; the book proves also to be a vehicle for Wells to explore his own socialist viewpoints in the face of the late nineteenth century's accelerating social and technological change.

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five - Doris Lessing

The second in Lessing's celebrated Canopus in Argos: Archives series, the novel details the lives of those living in the ambiguous numbered Zones surrounding Rohanda/Shikasta (Earth) during its nurturing by the benevolent Canopian empire. Operating on a level between allegory and myth, Lessing's gaze here is primarily feminist, the central plot concerning an arranged marriage between the leaders of the peaceful, matriarchal Zone Three and the warlike, patriarchal Zone Four. Yet feminist tract it is not, and the resulting story is surprisingly readable.

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick de Witt

This blackly comic western novel follows brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters on their mission to assassinate Hermann Kermit Warm at the behest of fearsome crime lord the Commodore. The twisting plot and cinematic tone bring to mind film westerns of yore, and while it is a hugely entertaining read is perhaps less substantial may be suggested by the awards with which it was garlanded.

White Noise - Don DeLillo

This immensely satisfying postmodern novel by American writer DeLillo is a bleak yet compelling deconstruction of late twentieth century western life. Beautifully written and defiantly unpredictable, it is a masterful embodiment of the author's unique worldview.

What Money Can't Buy - Michael J Sandel

American political philosopher Sandel here explores the moral and ethical implications of a marketisation of all aspects of modern life, and outlines an argument for drawing a line beyond which some activities should be exempt from the free market - from premium tickets for queue-jumping at theme parks, to the high sums paid to hunt and kill endangered species. His writing is lucid, his arguments compelling, and his insights into the limits of free markets both profound and important.

Death in Venice - Thomas Mann

This novella by German author Thomas Mann is at once dense in philosophical meaning and light of artistic touch. The mood of the novel lies somewhere between ennui and obsession, and stays with you long after the final page has been read.

Neuromancer - William Gibson

Considered the definitive cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer reads like a Chandleresque detective novel set in a science fiction world of hackers, crackers and ice. Surprisingly dense and packed full of ideas that would resurface in everything from online terminology to the plot of The Matrix, it is a dizzying and exciting read, written with such gusto that you can forgive the gaping plotholes and occasionally cloying prose. Fun.

Coming Up For Air - George Orwell

This pessimistic and angry novel by Orwell, written on the eve of the second world war, is a portrait of British life during a period in which social changes pull apart the world in which Eric Arthur Blair had been raised. The central theme is one of loss - both of hope, and of the world of yesteryear for which the disillusioned central character desperately yearns. While the worldview is bleak, Orwell's writing is as readable as ever, and if it does not reach the heights of his greatest works of fiction, it is certainly an important entry into the canon.

The Conquest of Happiness - Bertrand Russell

Philosopher, mathematician and polymath Russell here collects his thoughts on what happiness is, and how to achieve it, in way designed to be accessible to the average reader. Russell is eminently quotable, and his arguments for the pursuit of a quiet, contented and unambitious life are interspersed with practical advice for how to achieve it. If the book represents the self-help guide in embryonic form, then it should be noted that it aims for loftier goals than the vapidity typical of the genre.

The Penultimate Truth - Philip K Dick

A relatively minor entry into Dick's extensive canon of science fiction, The Penultimate Truth is set in a world in which the majority of the human race lives underground, sheltering from the third world war raging overhead, and dedicated to building munitions, robotics and supplies in aid of the war effort. In a bravura Dickian twist, it transpires that the war is a fiction, perpetuated by the small ruling elite living an Eden-like existence on the surface, at the expense of the many below. While in The Twilight Zone this would have been the final revelatory twist, here it is the opening of a novel that explores how a deceived populous might react if such an untruth were revealed. While the end result is an occasionally clunky science fiction adventure, the wealth of ever-original ideas from Dick's pen sustain the pace, and the novel is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Kill Your Friends - John Niven

This incredibly dark satire of the music industry follows the exploits of an unscrupulous A&R man Steven Stelfox, and benefits enormously from writer John Niven's first hand experience of such work in the nineties. At times utterly hilarious, while the novel may not be such high art as those to which it owes stylistic debts (American Psycho and Trainspotting among others) the punches it throws certainly land.

Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela

A lengthy and detailed autobiography, ghostwritten in part by American journalist Richard Stengel, Long Walk to Freedom covers Mandela's life from early childhood up to his release from prison in 1990, with a strong emphasis on both his own political career and the changing political situation in South Africa over that time. I found it hugely informative concerning the rise, dominance and fall of that country's nationalist government and its policy of apartheid, as well as a powerful testament to human will and spirit in the face of overpowering opposition. As well as describing in detail the formation and operation of the ANC, it details extensively the resistance movement in all its forms. The tone is reflective throughout, and the later parts of the book present the overthrow of the minority rule with a message of conciliation over magnanimity. The only real criticism that I can level at the book is that at times it is a little one-sided in its documenting of the period, but it is after all an autobiography. Essential reading for anyone struggling to understand how injustice and inequality can be overcome, no matter the odds.

Vermilion Sands - JG Ballard

This breathtaking collection of short stories by Ballard is perhaps the pinnacle of his science fiction, and is an astounding artistic achievement. The stories all take place in the fading desert resort of the title, a bleak future home to an array of washed-up stars and celebrities, living their lives among the sand dunes, singing statues and burning heat of Vermilion Sands. The apotheosis of Ballard's fusion of a surrealist style with the lingering gaze of hard science fiction, it is poetic, at times absurd and always immensely compelling.

The Child in Time - Ian McEwan

McEwan's third novel marks a turning point in his writing career, as the gothic, grotesque and macabre tone of his early short stories and first two novels give way to the psychological yet emotive style that would become his trademark. It follows Stephen, a writer, and his estranged wife, as they struggle to come to terms with the abduction of their young daughter two years previously. A circular meta-narrative of Stephen's seeming appearance in his own childhood acts a counterpoint to a moving story of loss and acceptance. The novel is arguably McEwan's masterpiece.

Tristan - Thomas Mann

This short novella details a love triangle which takes place in a sanatorium, and appears to be Mann's response to a perceived empty aestheticism, or perhaps dilettantism, of a failed artist. The style is detached and I found it difficult to engage with, although the tragic arrangement of the narrative carries a certain beauty.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez

Marquez's lengthy history of the Buendía family and Macondo village is considered one of the masterpieces of twentieth century literature, and a prime example of the magical realist style. As is often the case with undisputed classics, it proves to be a rather more peculiar beast than its reputation may suggest. At times variously melancholic, comedic and angry, and always very, very strange, it is a book that should be read by all.

A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing - Eimear McBride

The debut novel from Irish writer McBride had a famously difficult time getting published, the manuscript languishing unpublished in her possession for nine years before an independent publishing house were willing to take it on. Pick any page from the novel and it is immediately apparent why those so ready to heap praise on it remained unwilling to attempt to sell it; this is indisputably difficult prose, and the narrative unremittingly bleak. In interviews, McBride has listed her two chief influences as James Joyce and Sarah Kane, and while the former immediately brings to mind a reputation for elliptical, sesquipedalian prose, the mark of the lesser-known Kane's no-holds-barred violent and tragic stage plays can certainly be seen just as strongly.

McBride writes in poetic, pre-speech stream-of-consciousness first person, that requires a little time to adjust to, but offers an incredibly strong connection with the central character as she narrates her life from birth onwards. I found it very tough going initially, but after watching footage of McBride herself reading excerpts, I was able to settle into the rhythm of her prose, and ultimately connected with it in a way that I have with very little else that I have ever read. I absolutely adored this book from start to finish, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler

The second of Chandler's novels following private detective Philip Marlowe is as packed full of twists and as beautifully written as The Big Sleep. While the approach may not seem as novel here, the execution is as precise as ever, and the result is a very enjoyable crime novel.

The Mysterious Stranger - Mark Twain

Twain's final, unfinished novel proved for me a rather unconventional entry-point into his work. A strange tale of a group of children meeting "Satan" in the woods, the tricks he plays on them and the ensuing pandemonium, I didn't really know what to make of it. One that I will perhaps revisit after having read more of his work.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives - David Eagleman

In this collection of speculative fiction, some of the short stories verge on prose poetry, and as a whole it is described by the author as an experimental novel. Each of the pieces concerns death and the afterlife, often in absurdist or science fiction settings, and it is at times quite amusing. Slight but enjoyable.

American Pastoral - Philip Roth

This Roth masterpiece has a strong claim to being the greatest American novel of the late twentieth century, and is at the very least the best of his books that I have read. He writes here as his aging alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, beset by doubt over his past, and who imagines a life for old schoolmate Seymour "Swede" Levov after a series of unexpected discoveries. It is a novel about the death of the American dream, which shrouds its intent underneath several layers of narrative and meta fiction, but at its core lies a dark, bitter heart of hardened steel that pumps Roth's hidden truths throughout the beautifully written pages. An angry and desperate novel, written with exhilarating skill by a great writer at the top of his game. Wonderful.

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

Finding something new to say about War and Peace, Tolstoy's expansive epic on the Russia of Napoleonic times, is a daunting task, but perhaps not one as difficult as finding something to say about the human spirit that isn't said better here by the master of long fiction. Utterly gripping for the entirety of its massive length, this is a book which should at some point be read by all serious readers. One of the longest novels ever written, it requires many weeks set aside to be read through at any sensible pace, and yet through some untold magic it never becomes a chore. The writing is joyous, the immense cast of characters exquisitely drawn, and even the lengthy non-fiction sections somehow sit comfortably alongside the tragic family narratives and the monumental battle sequences. It is at the same time a story about a handful of Russian families in the early nineteenth century, a historical epic detailing the Franco-Russian Napoleonic wars, and an extended rumination on the nature of history, politics and indeed writing itself. It is impossible to categorise, it is a daunting undertaking, and it is worth every moment. I look forward to reading it again.

The Plague - Albert Camus

Camus's novel about an outbreak of plague in an Algerian town works brilliantly on multiple levels. It is perhaps most easily understood as an allegorical exploration of France under Nazi occupation, but there are also deeper existentialist questions explored (despite the author's objection to the term). Beyond all this, it is a gripping read that depicts vividly the sense of spiraling dread and resignation felt by the town's residents as the disease takes hold.

The Call of the Wild - Jack London

This bold and unusual novella follows the story of a large, domesticated dog kidnapped and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. Narrating the animal's perspective without resorting to anthropomorphism, it is both an exciting adventure story that would thrill children, but also something deeper and more profound, which takes an internal longing for wildness and uses it to explore ideas about what a civilised, domesticated life should and should not be. An excellent and very readable short book.

The Book of Daniel - EL Doctorow

This dizzying, experimental and semi-historical novel loosely fictionalises the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (renamed Isaacson here), an American married couple executed for espionage in the early fifties, by imagining the shattered lives of their surviving children, Susan and the eponymous Daniel. The narrative jumps around in time period and style through the book's duration, and it is not an easy read. Yet it makes of the historical novel such a high work of art, and explores with so keen a gaze such an interesting and tragic story, that it is impossible not to recommend it.

Moby Dick; or, The Whale - Herman Melville

The earliest book to be afforded the title The Great American Novel, Melville's epic tale of Ahab's quest to exact vengeance upon the eponymous white sperm whale is completely deserving of its fearsome reputation. JG Ballard called it his favourite book, and claimed he had started it many times but never finished it. As such I feel it is worth noting that much of the middle of the book is taken up with lengthy philosophical discussions on the importance of whaling, detailed anatomical descriptions of the physical makeup of various species of whale and reporting of oral myths from land and sea, and it is only late into the novel that the mad quest takes centre stage. Yet the work is never fragmented or misdirected, and all the many pieces that Melville weaves together spiral brilliantly into a single unified whole. Beautifully written, epic in narrative and heavy with meaning, it is a book to be treasured.

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell

Orwell's non-fiction account of his time fighting as part of the anti-fascist militia in the Spanish civil war is a powerful piece of anti-war literature. This is no gung-ho tale of heroism and bravery; it is a vivid and honest description of the futility and confusion of warfare, of amateurishness and internecine squabbling, of idealism turned sour and of political exploitation of the higher notions of civic duty. Needless to say it is as easily digestible as all of Orwell's writing; it is also arguably the highpoint of his copious non-fiction.

First Love, Last Rites - Ian McEwan

I found this first collection of short stories from one of my favourite writers surprisingly Kafkaesque. It is darkly funny, grotesque and macabre, and at times really rather strange. I personally found some of the stories stretched to the point of incredulity, yet somehow, no matter how twisted (and a few in here really are very twisted), the threads weaved never quite snap. If not always enjoyable, certainly impressive as a debut.

Fermat's Last Theorem - Simon Singh

This non-fiction book by British science writer Simon Singh details the 358-year long quest to prove the final theorem of Pierre de Fermat, a French mathematician who jotted down that he had a proof that no Pythagorean triples can be defined for powers greater than two, but died without documenting how he did it. Many notable mathematicians over the centuries tried and failed to prove Fermat's theorem, and by the time Andrew Wiles successfully proved it in 1994, mathematics had changed and grown almost beyond recognition. Singh writes clearly and with a great deal of humour (and almost no algebra) about his subjects, and the book alternates in style between biography (of Fermat, Wiles, and intervening figures) and popular science (covering number theory and much of the history of mathematics). Recommended.

The Fall - Albert Camus

Camus's mysterious novel is a series of monologues that are built as a sort of confessional memoir on the theme of a fall from grace. A provocative if ambiguous novel, its questions stay in the mind longer than its slight length might lead you to expect.

The Unlimited Dream Company - JG Ballard

Among the most fantastical and arguably the most positive of the prophetic British writer's works, this is the surreal tale of the supernatural revolution which takes place in the sleepy suburb of (Ballard's own) Shepperton, after the messianic arrival of a crashed stolen aircraft and its pilot, who narrates the tale. The pace is breathless, the style superlative, and the narrative a successful pairing of Ballard's generally distinct surrealist and fantastical themes.

First Love and Other Novellas - Samuel Beckett

This series of four possibly interrelated novellas by ambiguously sketched narrators is a disquieting read. Having previously only known his work as a playright, I was pleasantly surprised to find Beckett's prose so effortless in such an early example of his long-form writing. Enjoyably dark, with perhaps the dryest hint of an undercurrent of humour running through, it certainly whetted my appetite to read more of the Irish writer's novels.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Gabriel García Márquez

This starkly precise narration of a murder in rural Colombia is my favourite of the books I have so far read by Márquez. It carefully pieces together the events of one day leading to the murder of one Santiago Nasar. It was later claimed that narrative was inspired by real events, resulting in a long legal battle in which the Colombian writer defended himself on a charge of misappropriation. Regardless of how much of the story is actually lifted from history, the insight into the lives and motivations of its remarkable crop of characters always feels true to life.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzenitsyn

Solzenitsyn's bleak tale of a single day in the life of a Soviet labour camp inmate in the fifties was a revelation on publication. Never before had any published writer depicted the harsh realties of Stalin's repressive regime. Fifty years on, the novel's political relevance has fallen away, and what it leaves behind is a monumentally powerful work that captures the humdrum desperation of an ordinary man in the freezing Northern wastes of Russian, wrongly accused and forgotten.

The Tenth Man - Graham Greene

This long-lost short novel by British novelist Greene opens with a compelling scenario: ten prisoners of war are forced to draw straws to choose which one of them will die; a rich lawyer draws the straw, but convinces a poor young man dying of tuberculosis to swap, in exchange for his entire fortune. The twisting narrative picks up some years later after the war, as the ramifications of this deal take effect. Intelligently plotted and quite the page turner.

Stoner - John Williams

Long-hailed by a small number as a long-lost classic, American author John Williams' Stoner suddenly in 2013 found an audience, and started creeping up the bestseller lists in many countries. Reading it makes it easy to understand why. The novel follows the life of farmboy-turned-English-professor William Stoner, a man who on the surface leads a relatively drab existence between a stale academia and a cold marriage, yet which we experience with all the richness and passion that he feels on the inside. In many ways it is a paean to literature, to a life of books, to the resolve of the human spirit and to the richness of a life filled with melancholy. Stoner is a book to be greedily devoured, lovingly pored over, read time and again and to be wondered at with sadness as to how a work of such beauty can be lost for so long. A perfect novel.

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

This classic of modern African literature is a post-colonial novel which follows the tragedy of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader of the fictional village of Umuofia in Nigeria, as the township falls under the influence of British missionaries. A searing and important book.

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor - Gabriel García Márquez

The astonishing true story of Luis Alejandro Velasco, the sole survivor of a shipwreck in 1955, was originally ghostwritten as autobiography by Márquez, and published as an episodic piece of journalism. Published under his own name many years later, the author includes an introduction expanding on the story, its publication and the scandal it caused. The political furore would have been ample material for an exciting non-fiction account, but Velasco's story itself is almost beyond belief. Terrifically written without sentiment by Marquez, it is a short but very memorable read.

Event - Slavoj Žižek

This dense but compassionately short series of essays by the Slovenian philosopher is full of his usual pop culture references, invoked to explicate a variety of his usual interests from the mundane to the unfathomable. I enjoyed some of it but in truth found it hard-going, and will likely stick to his entertaining documentaries in future.

Heart of a Dog - Mikhail Bulgakov

A stray dog is taken in from the frozen Moscow streets, fed, watered, put under the knife, pumped full of adrenaline, given a pair of human testicles and learns to walk, talk and drink vodka. So far, so Frankenstein, but Bulgakov's dark satire functions as an allegory that sets in its sights the New Soviet man of the 1920s, along with (seemingly) eugenics, bourgeois values and even Stalin. It is raucously funny, potently bizarre and quite wonderfully astute.

Seeing Stars - Simon Armitage

Across a wonderfully varied collection of prose poems from British poet Armitage, the tone lurches deliberately from whimsical to ominous, from horror to satire, from mundanity to fantasy. It is an absurd book that laughs in the face of any attempt to categorise or understand it, and does so quite brilliantly. I loved it.

A Child's Christmas In Wales - Dylan Thomas

Welsh poet Thomas's best known work, a short piece of prose suffused in nostalgic yearning for simpler times past, it felt apt to read this on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas Wren - Gillian Clarke

This short work by the current Welsh poet laureate is in many ways a response to Dylan Thomas's piece, and yet avoids its shadow by winding a stranger path and employing simple, pretty imagery.

The Man Who Would Be King - Rudyard Kipling

Kipling's novella briskly narrates the story of two British adventurers who decide to travel to Kafiristan and dupe the natives, setting themselves up as kings. While they meet some initial success, the story is essentially a straightforward morality tale, with a couple of grotesque twists as their adventure turns sour. While some of the story is mildly racist in a rather lazy colonial fashion, I was surprised to find myself reading what is apparently a satirical allegory about the perils of imperialism, from the pen of such a hardline imperialist as Kipling.

The Outsider - Albert Camus

I originally read Camus's first and best-known novel more than ten years ago, and while the years may not have changed the words on the page, they have certainly changed what they mean to me. Where once I saw Meursault as an emotionally-closed yet ultimately relatable figure who society could no longer find a place for, I this time saw the callousness of a life drained of meaning, a stark warning of what awaits us all if we remove ourselves from the human experience. I suspect that ten years hence I will find some third and stranger truth lying inside the French master's dark web of ambiguity. I can think of little higher praise.

Hansel and Gretel - Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti

This short graphic novel adapts the traditional German folk tale. Mattotti's art is captivating, and was the inspiration for Gaiman's new text, which is faithfully grim. A dark delight.

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