Friday, December 23, 2016

Reading in 2016

So, I set out to read 100 books in 2016. 

I know - and thank you, Professor Parry, for also pointing it out to me - that setting targets isn't really what reading should be about but hey, that's how I roll. It also allows me to indulge in my love of Excel spreadsheets. 

What I also set out to do was read more fiction, more poetry and more writing by non-white men. I have certainly read more fiction than usual. Of the 64 books, I read in 2016 26 of them were fiction, 28 non-fiction, 6 poetry and 4 Doctor Who (which I've made a separate category just because.)

How did I pick the books? Well, partly I am very slowly working through a list I found on the Guardian website of 1000 novels you should read so some of them came via that list. Another chunk was picked via my Reading Group.* Most of the non-fiction was just a random choice but reflects my interest in World War One and World War Two. Often though one book on a particular topic will lead to another one, e.g. reading Geoff Dyer's excellent The Missing of the Somme led me to the older (and also excellent) The Great War & Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. I also read a couple of books on the recommendation of podcasts - Dan Snow's History Hit was a particular contributor here - but you can also thank Tim Keys's Radio programme on Daniil Kharms' The Plummeting Old Women. 

I only read six poetry books, which wasn't quite what I was hoping - ignoring for the sake of argument The Poetry Society's fantastic Poetry Review, which arrives Quarterly & features a fine selection of poetry to read as well as interviews, criticism and reviews. If you like poetry & have a decent income I can't recommend joining The Poetry Society enough. It would be worth it for the Poetry Review alone. However one of my favourite books of 2016 was Katherine Towers' 'The Remedies'. 

Poetry books sometimes feel like a luxury - perhaps because they are - because they tend to be quite expensive but I'll take them over watches (as a random example of pointlessly expensive bling.) 

The one thing my reading does often do is miss contemporary or literary fiction so I'll end up reading a lot of 2016's best books in 2017 & beyond. Any recommendations of podcasts about current fiction eagerly received. 

So, what were my favourite books I read in 2016?

I've already mentioned The Remedies, by Katherine Towers so that's one. Then there is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, which is an astonishingly well-written & crafted novel. Also Elizabeth Smart's By Central Station I Sat Down & Wept, which feels more like a long narrative poem than a novel. It's also incredibly and almost unbearably personal. I can see why some people might dislike it but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which I expect not to like at all but fell in love with to such a degree that I found myself a little tearful twice whilst reading it. On public transport. It wasn't far from Joey's reaction in Friends. I also really enjoyed Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love, which is a classic example of a book I wouldn't have read based on its cover if I'd picked it up in a shop but which deserves to be read by as many people as possible. It being a story of love and philosophy (which might just be the same thing.) I also really enjoyed The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel, which I described as 'James Bond with carrier bags'. That's a line I'm still proud of. 
I also loved Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude but with more cooking. So it is tough to pick a single best book but I've randomly (and perhaps pointlessly) decided to select one: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which just pips By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept.)

Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the great books of military reportage and I regret not having read it in 1989 when it would have probably changed my life. Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R. Thorpe, which is a biography of the kind of Conservative that I suspect is if not extinct certainly endangered. Geoff Dyer's 'The Missing of the Somme is moving, wonderfully researched and well-written. But I think the best non-fiction book I read in 2016 was Sarah Helm's This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, which is a tough read - there were moments when I had to put it down for a bit to read something less real - but well-worth it. 

Perhaps the book I found toughest to get through in 2016 was T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which I find had great moments but did sometimes feel like a long, dull trudge through the desert. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, was the book I felt I needed more knowledge to appreciate properly but did enjoy. Kobe Abe's Face of Another was the only book in 2016 that I really ended up disliking, despite it being clearly a fine book. There was something about it that lost me towards the end. 

So there you have it. That was my 2016. Below is the full list of the books I read. Feel free to comment. 

Fools & Jesters in the English Court, John Southworth
The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion & Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, Janina Ramirez
The Silver Stallion, Ahn Junghyo
After Hitler: The Last Days Of The Second World War, Michael Jones
The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning & Making of English Football, David Goldblatt
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart
The Mask of Dimitrious, Eric Ambler
Non-Stop, Brian Aldiss
This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, Sarah Helm
Beowulf, Seamus Heaney
Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke
The Wild Swans at Coole, W. B. Yeats
The Happiness Patrol, Graeme Curry
Forensics, Val McDermid
Trumbo, Bruce Cook
The Crystal Bucket: TV Criticism from the Observer, 1976-79, Clive James
The Pompous Tory: The Wife in Space, Volume 3. Neil & Sue Perryman
Cultural Amnesia: Notes On The Margins of My Time, Clive James
The Plummeting Old Women, Daniil Kharms
1971 - Never a Dull Moment: Rock's Golden Year, David Hepworth
Like Water For Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance in the Last Year of WW2, Randall Hansen
Rasputin - A Short Life, Frances Welch
Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe
The Wind Among The Reeds, W. B. Yeats
The Vinyl Detective, Andrew Cartmel
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence
Resistance is Useless, Jenny Colgan
The Movie Doctors, Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode
Stage Whispers, Douglas Wilmer
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Dan Fox
Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan, D.R. Thorpe
The Victorian Guide To Sex: Desire & Deviance in the 19th Century, Fern Riddell
The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer
The Waste Land & Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Where Adam Delved & Eve Span: A History of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, Mark O'Brien
The Mad One: The Wife in Space, Volume 4, Neil & Sue Perryman
The War Machines, Ian Stuart Black
Operation Insanity, Colonel Richard Westley
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
England, Arise: The People, The King & the Revolt of 1381, Juliet Barker
The Face of Another, Kobo Abe
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe
Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Death of a Hero, Richard Aldington
The Man With The Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
Fantômas, Marcel Allain/Pierre Souvestre
Epitaph for a Spy, Eric Ambler
Journey into Fear, Eric Ambler
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
The Great War & Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Sex & Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire, Eric Berkowitz
The Remedies, Katherine Towers
The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak
Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, Sarah Ladipo Manyika
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee & The Final Solution, Mark Roseman
Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945, Raul Hilberg
Dispatches, Michael Herr


*A thank you here to Rachael Barnes, Leslie McMurtry & Aya Vandebussche for making me read books that I might not have picked myself. 

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