Sunday, 30 December 2012

My Top Ten Books of 2012

For the 2011 line-up, click here. In no particular order (and with the obvious caveat that these are books read by me for the first time in 2012, not published in 2012):

1. The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

I reviewed this in detail here. Summary: I liked it very much once I realised it was not about a boy meeting a magical tiger. I have been told that Yann Martel's Life of Pi (which I have also avoided for some time) is, similarly, not about a magical tiger floating on a raft, so perhaps that's one to add to my ongoing Tigers series. (I like tigers, as long as they aren't magical ones, as you may have surmised...)

2. Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

I've also reviewed this on the blog. Possibly the finest work of nature writing I have ever read, a beautiful collection of essays, and a trove of interesting information to spark new hobbies (for me, the opening essay, 'Aurora', rekindled my long-dormant interest in the far north). I've since read her first collection, Findings, and didn't think it was as good - but then, very little is.

3. The Dust Diaries by Owen Sheers

Shamefully, I did not review this wonderful memoir immediately, although it made a deep impression on me when I read it. Owen Sheers narrates the life of his great-uncle, Arthur Cripps, a missionary to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) his possible loves, hopes and ambitions, and Sheers' own journey to the country to retrace his legacy. I loved the rendering of the African landscape, the way Sheers fearlessly weaves together fact and fiction - though clearly denoting the faultlines between his own imaginings about his great-uncle and the documented sources - and the way he takes on a difficult structural challenge and makes it work. I've been thinking a lot about the boundaries between history and fiction this year, and this book, for me, exemplifies that history always owes a debt to imagination and storytelling, even in the most scholarly biography.

4. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Again, I've written nothing before about the book that made the biggest impact on me this year. Ann Patchett relates the story of her friendship with fellow writer, Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002, with empathy, tact, and grace. Grealy was best known for her memoir Autobiography of a Face, which related her experience of living not only with a facial disfigurement, but one that was constantly changing as she underwent countless reconstructive surgeries (although countless is probably the wrong word here: both Grealy and Patchett obsessively count them). However, neither of these books (the title of Truth and Beauty is taken from one of the chapters of Autobiography of a Face) are about Grealy's face. Rather, Patchett writes about passionate friendship, the artistic struggles of both women, and Grealy's battles with self-loathing and depression with incredible honesty. When I reached the end of this memoir, I turned to the beginning and read it again; it's that good.

5. Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

Reviewed on the blog here alongside Sebastian Faulks's A Possible Life, this novel - which describes itself best on the back, where it promises 'Christian missionaries, mountain tribesmen, invisible demons and crazed anthropologists' continued my interest in the stories we tell ourselves and how they become truth or untruth. (It's also a gripping thriller that Stephen King raved about.)

6. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This family saga - which is about much more than just sexuality, although it deals with that topic very well - juggles absurdities and grotesque humour with realistic, fascinating characters, a feat that, in my experience, very few writers can pull off. I was enthralled by the three generations of this Greek-American family, and sorry to see it end.

7. The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

This book on the history of one group of Edmund de Waal's family heirlooms, Japanese netsuke, and their journey over a hundred years from Vienna to Tokyo (via Tunbridge Wells), is highly recommended; I avoided it for some time because it seemed to be so hyped, but this was a mistake. Like Sheers, de Waal imbues the familiar family memoir with new life, and switches seamlessly from past to present as he records his own researches alongside his family's experiences. By the end, the netsuke had become so familiar I felt as if I had actually held them in my hands.

8. Checker and the Derailleurs by Lionel Shriver

I reviewed this fabulous ode to spontaneity here. I think the clearest evidence that this book was a hit is that I'm still singing 'Lay perpendicular grates' to myself occasionally to my own, horrendous, tune...

9. Antarctic World by John Euller

This dated account (some of the science is interesting, to say the least) of the history of Antarctica, first published in 1960, might initially seem an odd choice, but I was so gripped by Euller's accounts of the voyages of Scott, Shackleton, and other Antarctic explorers that I had to allow it a mention. Reading those chapters returned me for a while to childhood absorption in a text, and I refused to put my historian's hat on and critique his retellings.

10. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I plan to review this properly on the blog very shortly - I'll add the link when I do - so I won't say too much here, but Hollinghurst's eye for the detail of social interactions, and his depiction of the same characters as they age and change, but retain their essential selves, is truly brilliant. I won't normally countenance comparisons to George Eliot - and this is no Middlemarch - but I think this novel does deserve to be linked to her work, which is as much as anyone can ask for, really. ETA: link

So that was this year - ninety books read (as compared to ninety-nine in 2011, so fairly good considering PhD madness). As for my resolution to read through my TBR pile, it no longer exists in its original form - although a new one is currently forming from Christmas presents and £30 of book vouchers - and three of these books came from it, so reading through it was definitely worthwhile. Onwards...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

‘Towards the end of any likelihood of change’

Initially, this skeletal novel seemed to me as if it had emerged from some advanced creative writing class where the author had been watching The History Boys on loop. Beginning with the narrator, Tony’s, list of memories – which demonstrate an effective use of water imagery slightly reminiscient of Philip Larkin’s 'Water' – we race forward through his life, and his disconnected musings on time and memory, ticking off these images on the way, until we reach a conclusion where every thematic sideline seems to have been neatly accounted for, and every doubling in the narrative explained. A* on a creative writing course, certainly, but why did it win the Booker?

The clue lies in the lines that close the novel, perhaps: ‘There was unrest. There was great unrest.’ Near the beginning of the novel, these lines formed the confused answer of a rather dim history A-level student, Marshall, when he was asked to sum up the reign of Henry VIII. Back to Alan Bennett again, perhaps, and Irwin’s statement that ‘If you want to understand anything, study Henry VIII.’ But there’s more to it than that. Marshall’s foolish answer, which Tony and his friends mocked at the time, preferring new boy Adrian’s cleverer remark, ‘something happened’, has gained greater weight by the end of this short novel, which may seem skeletal, but is possibly unforgettable. Having finished this frustrating book, I, for one, couldn’t stop turning it over in my head, thinking that there must be more to it than meets the eye. And perhaps there is more to it, and Julian Barnes’s triumph lies in a supremely unreliable narrator – but perhaps there really is nothing else to this story, and the triumph lies elsewhere. It is a narrative that is intended to induce unsettlement and unrest.

You see, my initial judgement of the novel stemmed from the fact that Tony’s account of his life is so thin, so airless. Characters are strongly drawn but barely seem to be physical presences; he races through even the most important chunks of the story swiftly, and seems to believe he’s done a good job in saying what he wanted to say, lingering on details like a biscuit tin that are important in his head but do nothing to illuminate a scene for a reader. His reflections on the nature of time are interesting but ultimately empty. He believes his own story is more surprising than it is, as when he reflects to himself, ‘Right, so you’re feeling guilt towards your ex-wife... and excitement towards an old girlfriend you haven’t seen in forty years. Who said there were no surprises left in life?’ Although Tony himself is unable to see it, the reader’s reaction might be that nothing could have been more predictable.

Tony seems to believe that his narrative, The Sense of an Ending, is about working out why his old friend Adrian committed suicide, and joining up, as the boys reflect in a history class early on in the novel, all the links in ‘a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else.’ I would argue that it is about something quite different: how Tony constructs his life story and how he introduces a resolution into the narrative, even so late in the day. Tony wants his life to be more unpredictable than it has been, and so he seizes upon the reappearance of his old girlfriend, Veronica, and a letter than he wrote as a young man, to weave himself into a story that seems to promise more excitement, and, crucially, the chance to reposition himself as a more complicated person than he really is. Throughout the novel, Tony muses about ‘the woman of mystery’ (Veronica) versus ‘the woman of clarity’ (his ex-wife Margaret) and which is better, but he seems to be projecting this conflict within himself onto women. When he receives the angry letter that he wrote forty years ago to Veronica, he is appropriately horrified and apologetic at his ‘vile’ words’, but both the reader and Tony are aware of another possible reaction; this young man with his passion, pretentiousness and colour is not the Tony we know now, and we feel that as a loss.

So ultimately, this novel with all its limitations and repetitions seems to me designed to frustrate the reader; to make them wonder if there really is nothing more to Tony’s life than this, if this patchwork of memory is really all he has left of sixty-plus years. We want to put flesh back on the bones of his recollections, to make his life deeper and more meaningful, but the frightening question Barnes poses is whether this is really all there is, and if our memories are not functional enough to hold onto the fullnss of life. Are we all doomed to become as banal as Tony? As Adrian says, quoting a fictitious French philosopher, Patrick Lagrange (though it seems unlikely that Adrian himself made him up given that his history teacher also seems to recognise the name), history – and by extension, our own personal testimony – ‘is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Books of the year, almost, again

Following on from my previous year's post, I decided to play this game again:

Using only books you have read this year (2012), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

Describe yourself: Look at Me (Jennifer Egan)

How do you feel: An Equal Stillness (Francesca Kay)
Describe where you currently live: The Red House (Mark Haddon)
Your best friend is: Truth and Beauty (Ann Patchett)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Antarctic World (John Euller)
Your favourite form of transportation: Red Shift (Alan Garner)
You and your friends are: A Perfectly Good Family (Lionel Shriver)
What’s the weather like: The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder) When Nights Were Cold (Susannah Jones)
You fear: The Fanatic (James Robertson)
What is the best advice you have to give: Intuition (Allegra Goodman)
Thought for the day: In Defence of Dogs (John Bradshaw)
How I would like to die: Before I Go To Sleep (SJ Watson)
My soul’s present condition: Hope (Laura Hird)

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

'The past is always tense and the future perfect'

What to say about White Teeth when you come to it twelve years too late? I was barely a teenager when this book was first published, but even then I was aware of the fuss that surrounded its publication, and I’ve made many a resolution to read it over the years. And especially, what to say when you feel, perhaps unfairly, utterly underwhelmed? It would be easy to say it was inevitable – that books as hyped as this one are always disappointing – but I don’t think that’s quite true. (Loved The Secret History, loved The Tiger’s Wife.)

Having said that, it’s easy to see why Zadie Smith grabbed attention at the beginning of the millenium. Her use of language is so confident, so inventive, so surprising for a young first-time novelist – she refuses to hedge her bets at any point, and is never afraid to push boundaries just that little bit further. And it must have been, more than a decade ago, so refreshing to read such an irreverent exploration of multiculturalism, with numerous unexpected juxtapositions that alter our assumptions about what it is to live in a mixed-race society. The scene where black teenager Irie Jones goes to have her afro ‘relaxed’, has it accidentally burnt short instead, and runs off to buy the hair of an Indian woman, which she has glued to her head to cover her shame, will stay with me, I think. So will the charitable Chalfens, introduced late in the novel as benefactors to Irie and her friend Millat Iqbal, and the Chalfen matriarch’s delight at finally having troubled teenagers whom she can help, as opposed to her own too-perfect sons. These interactions between three families - the Iqbals, Joneses, and Chalfens - is where EM Forster’s influence on Smith becomes clearest, I think. Unfortunately, as in On Beauty, her straight-up homage to Forster, this is where both the strength and weakness of her approach lies.

As in Howards End and A Room With A View, Smith often turns to caricature to sketch out wider points about the society she is describing. Leonard Bast dying in a flurry of books is a scene that frequently popped up in my head as I read certain sections of White Teeth – the irony of Samad Iqbal getting laid because his devout faith attracts a white English teacher, the admittedly funny scene when Millat and a group of radical Muslims’ assault on a scientific conference about transgenic mice is thwarted by the vagaries of the London Underground. However, these caricatures, unlike most of Forster’s, are often too broad, and the humorous situations can seem too contrived to raise much of a laugh. Even Cecil Vyse from A Room With A View gets to have a moment of true humanity – ‘Nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it’ – an important counterpart to the pompous ridiculousness of his character, I’ve always thought, if not quite as poignant as Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s ‘I was adored once, too.’ I never really felt a connection with any of Smith’s characters - with the sole exception of Samad during his experiences in the Second World War - and this spark of liking swiftly faded as he aged into a laughable patriarch, believing it would be a good idea to send one of his sons back to Bangladesh, because he’d like to have sent them both, but couldn’t afford two air fares.

Howards End, of course, is about family, and White Teeth positions itself as a kind of postmodern family saga. This is perhaps the most important way in which it would have seemed so much fresher had I read it twelve years ago (and if I hadn’t been more interested in Harry Potter and Philip Pullman at that point). Having read so many other postmodern family sagas that have been published more recently, I felt it wasn’t really offering anything new. I kept on comparing it unfavourably to the wonderful Middlesex, which is bizarre, funny, and brilliant, but never loses a sense of human sympathy for its characters, and explores immigration, genetic inheritance, and sexuality in a way that’s so much lighter and yet deeper than White Teeth. So was Smith simply swept to fame on a zeitgeisty wave, and does she actually achieve little at all once you look past the dazzling exterior she builds with her words? Not exactly. Firstly, I’m not sure this is the kind of novel I would ever enjoy; it has been compared to Dickens, which I should have taken as a warning, because I do not like Dickens, I really don’t. Secondly, I do believe that this would have read as a much more astute social commentary had I been old enough to appreciate it at the time at which it was written – the essence of this kind of novel is its brilliant reflection of the status quo, and I can’t remember that from an adult’s point of view.

But with those two caveats, I don’t think this is a great book, I’m afraid; although others (Dickens fans?) might find it a good read. A long time ago, I read an essay by Smith called ‘The House that Books Built’, about the shallowness of her early work – with little life experience, she wrote, she could draw only on her internal world, full of cross-references to other novels, and so everything she created felt hollow. I disagreed with her then, and I disagree with her more strongly now. Because I don’t think that life experience is the be-all and end-all of literary realism; and because if this is what she wrote with the benefit of experience, it feels like it was built with books.

PS. I imagine all the initial reviews spent a long time analysing why this was called White Teeth, so I’m not sure I can be bothered to go into it, though Smith delights in scattering teeth metaphors throughout the novel. My considered literary opinion is roughly: it’s about roots.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Farthest North and Farthest South #1: Spectres from the sea

 Having recently visited the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge (no idea why I haven't done this before, having lived in the city for eight years) I was reminded that one of my on-off obsessions is with the North and South Poles and their environs. I'm not quite sure why, and having given the matter a little consideration, I think it's something to do with storytelling. As an historian, I'm trained to unravel and unpick stories, to scrutinise the aspects that give them the most weight, and while it would be hard to argue that, for example, the history of Antarctic exploration has been entirely unbiased - Max Jones's The Last Great Quest is devoted solely to the history of the rewriting of Scott's reputation after his death in 1911 - there is something about it that lends itself to narrative. For me, the fact that the poles are uninhabited means that I can engage with the quests of explorers like Scott in an easier way than I can relate to other nineteenth and early-twentieth century explorers, who tended to leave a trail of destruction through local peoples in their wake. Of course, this does not mean there are no moral questions to ask about polar exploration - the environmental impact is the first consideration that springs to mind - but there's something wonderfully refreshing about being able to engage with a good story like the exploits of Scott and Shackleton again, without having to worry about the other sides. 

And this long-winded introduction is to say that I'm following up my entirely non-random and well-planned Tigers series with another series of reviews on the far north and far south. I've decided to begin with a book I recently re-read after reading it for the first time in the Scottish Highlands a few years ago - which worked remarkably well given the long, bright evenings, the lack of electricity in the house I was staying in, and its isolated location. Somewhat chilling... (I've since read Sarah Moss's second novel, Night Waking, which is another frustrating mix of flaws and brilliance - I reviewed it briefly here).

Cold Earth, her debut novel, starts extremely well but trails off somewhat about halfway through, although an element of tension is maintained until the (rather rushed) ending. The central - and immediately intriguing - idea is that a group of British and American archaeologists, Nina, Ruth, Jim, Catriona, Yianni and Ben, are excavating a Viking settlement on the isolated coast of West Greenland. The site in question was abandoned by the early settlers for debatable reasons; was it plague, raiders, or climate change that drove them away? However, these ancient events are inadvertently echoed by the archeologists themselves when an epidemic back home leaves them entirely cut off, running out of food as winter and darkness draw in.

As I noted above, the beginning of the novel is masterly. Nina, who narrates first, is a brilliantly drawn, if not exactly likeable, character, and her paranoid slant on the dig provides a wonderfully atmospheric opening scarier than the vast majority of ghost stories I've read, as she dreams of the early settlers surrounding their camp in the weirdly light Greenlandic nights. Unfortunately, the rest of the book suffers from major problems with pacing. When the narration abruptly switches to Ruth, who is the most pragmatic of the group and openly disgusted with Nina's hysterics, much of the narrative drive is lost. Although Ruth is an equally well-drawn character, and the personality clash between her and Nina works well as the internal politics of the group begin to take shape, her refusal to believe in Greenlandic ghosts robs Nina's section of much of its impact. This is also due to the form of the novel as a whole. It's presented as a collection of 'last letters home' written by the archaeologists, but unfortunately this conceit becomes increasingly contrived, as a number of the 'letters' were clearly written before the danger became apparent, and it seems to me that it would have been better to have kept it as a straightforward set of switching narratives, which would have allowed more flexibility to interperse sections of Nina's narration with Ruth's, for example.

The second half of the novel is also oddly paced. The major plot point - the isolation of the group from civilisation - doesn't kick in until very late in the day, although the scene narrated by Jim where they wait for a plane that never comes is, again, wonderfully and creepily written. Although the lengthening nights and Arctic landscape - along with Ruth's mediations on death - are continually used to good effect, the novel never really regains its momentum, and wraps up incredibly quickly at the end with short sections from Catriona, Ben and Yianni, which feel frustratingly unbalanced compared to the much longer narratives from the first three characters. I was left with the impression that the book could have been significantly longer, and that the male characters, in particular, were left rather underdeveloped.

However, this is perhaps an overly critical take so far - what the novel does do, it does very well, and I'm perhaps being more critical than is fair because it could so easily have been really brilliant, rather than just good. Nina, Ruth, and even Catriona, who gets far less page time, are all vividly depicted, and the dialogue is often amusingly biting as the squabbling between the characters increases. At one point Nina - who fancies herself well-travelled - and Ben have this telling exchange over passports;

'Nina looked up. 

"Gosh, that looks very new and shiny. Mine's in rags."

"Yeah... The other one went through the wash."


The atmosphere is genuinely chilling, and difficult to shake off after finishing the book, and the details of early Viking settlements in Greenland are fascinating - Moss manages to filter through a lot of information without ever including anything that seems extraneous. And, despite the uneven pace, it's still hard to put down, and I found myself being continously drawn back to the story. All in all, then, an impressive debut - although Night Waking solved some of its problems while creating others. I'm looking forward to checking out Moss's new non-fiction book, Names for the Sea, which deals with her time living in Reykjavik, and possibly her earlier academic work, The Frozen Ship, on the development of discourses on the Arctic and Antarctic. In the meantime, this series will continue next Sunday when I review two non-fiction books on Antarctica.