Category Archives: Personal posts

Some thoughts on #readwomen2014

For those of you not familiar with it, #readwomen2014 is a campaign started on twitter by writer Joanna Walsh intended to get people reading more books by women.

#readwomen2014

The concept of the campaign is a simple one, female writers don’t get the same critical attention as male. That’s odd, women read more than men (proportionally and in aggregate) and they get published in much the same numbers. So if women are published equally and women read more, why are they reviewed less?

Part of the answer seems to be that a disproportionate number of professional critics are men, and men famously are much less likely to read books by women than women are books by men (which is both bizarre and frankly depressing). Another part is marketing and perception.Women’s fiction is often given “girly” covers with pastels and sometimes cute taglines. If you’re male those covers are profoundly offputting.

Equally, it’s sadly true that all too often when a man writes a novel of middle-aged depression and marital failure it’s considered a meditation on aging and loss. When a woman does the same it’s seen as a domestic novel. As Joanna Walsh said in an article at Berfrois:

It’s not whether women are published (because they are) but how they are published. Are men more likely to write what’s considered ‘important’ literary fiction, or could it be that more are regarded that way? I’ve heard female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing’s not, when reviews, even press-releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “playful” when it is experimental, “delightful” when it is satirical, “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim (none of these examples is made up).

So, one response to all this is women only literary prizes, which is deeply problematic for a number of fairly obvious reasons – it’s intrinsically sexist, smacks of women needing protecting from market realities, is arguably as logical as a prize for authors with red hair, there’s the question of how bad can things really be with authors such as Eleanor Catton and Hilary Mantel winning the Booker and so on. My response to all those commonly made points would be that prizes exist to focus attention on authors who might otherwise be overlooked, and with a few high-profile exceptions there’s a lot of evidence that women are disproportionately overlooked.

Anyway, back to #readwomen2014. Joanna Walsh wrote an article in the Guardian about her campaign, here, and it caught my attention.It got me thinking about the proportionality of my own reading. I haven’t gone back and checked through my past reviews here to do a gender breakdown, but it didn’t take long to look at my kindle and work out roughly what proportion of the authors on it were women.

14%.

When I first mentioned that I might write this piece, in the comments under my 2013 wrap-up, leroyhunter responded:

LibraryThing tells me I own about 1300 books by roughly 650 writers, of whom only 12% are women. That shocks me, as I percieve myself as reading in a more balanced fashion (certainly nowadays compared to when I was younger).

Leroy’s on 12%. I’m on 14%. Pretty much the same proportion for each of us, and like him I was surprised how weighted towards male writers my own numbers were.

So, what’s going on? I don’t discount the possibility of unconscious bias, but I don’t think it’s just that. I own a fair few classics and there are reasons one would expect a significant majority of those to be by men. Few women historically had rooms of their own, or in other words men had the financial independence needed to write far more than women did (if we looked at percentages of working class authors to middle or upper class I suspect the percentage would be even worse than 14%).

On top of that though there’s the systemic issues of the publishing and reviewing industries. If books are marketed in part by gender, and they are, and if professional critics skew heavily towards reviewing fiction by men, and they do, then serious male readers are likely to find themselves mostly reading books by men for the very simple reason that those will be the books that they’ll be aware of.

Critics are still essential for bringing new books to the public’s attention. Bloggers have a place, of course they do, but even the best and best known bloggers have a tiny fraction of the platform of the most mediocre newspaper reviewer.

So, what to do? Well, you could do worse than decide to read more books by women. In other words, #readwomen2014. I admit, I have mixed views on that because the idea of consciously letting author gender influence what I read suggests that the books I then choose need special treatment, that they wouldn’t otherwise be worth reading on their own merits. 14% though.

The other obvious concern of course is that if I spend 2014 assiduously reading books by women, 2015 will inevitably be the year of reading men, as I’ll have far fewer unread books by women and still a vast pile of unread books by men.

There isn’t a good answer to all of this, and certainly not a single answer. I don’t plan to exclusively read women in 2014, but I am being more aware of what I am reading and I have been looking to see if there are writers I may have overlooked perhaps because of their gender and perhaps because of how they were marketed. So, Eleanor Catton whose The Rehearsals has a cover that makes it look like a teen romance; Anne Enright whose The Forgotten Waltz has a cover that couldn’t make it look any more aimed at women if it had a sticker on it saying “men, not for you!”.

Anyway, there it is, #readwomen2014. I don’t ultimately think it’ll change much, but if it gets a few of us discovering some writers we might otherwise have overlooked then for me that’s a success. More importantly, if it helps raise a debate about the issue of women writers being pigeonholed and sidelined, that’s definitely a success.

We live in an age where increasingly we are an audience of one. Google filter our search results by our past search histories. We have news channels dedicated to our political perspectives. Amazon tailors recommendations by past purchases, leading us always to deeper exploration of what we already know.Children’s toys have never been more aggressively marketed on strictly segregated gender lines (leading in 2011 to the cancellation of the US kids show Tower Prep on the basis that too many girls were watching it and it was designed to sell toys to boys, see here).

This is part of that. I want to be surprised. I want to read what I haven’t thought of yet. That can’t happen in a world where we’re sliced and diced by race, class, gender, age, political affiliation, sexual preference, religion or lack thereof, people who viewed “x” also viewed “y”. That’s why ultimately I agree with #readwomen2014, because being aware of your own choices matters.

104 Comments

Filed under Personal posts, Publishing

Looking back on 2013

The fact I’m writing my best of 2013 post in late March 2014 shows how much I’ve struggled to find free time lately. That’s had an impact on my reading of course, with the result that 2013 was very much a mixed bag of a reading year for me.

On the one hand I read something in the order of about 32 or so books over the entire year, which seems distinctly on the not very many side (though looking back on my 2012 roundup I seem to have said much the same thing then, so perhaps that’s my new normal). On the other hand, I discovered Winterson, read some Joyce and Hamsun, and got to grips with Don Quixote so what the year lacked in quantity it at least made up for in quality.

Before I begin, it’s pretty much a given that blog posts should have at least one image to break up the text and to look pretty on iPads and similar devices. I didn’t have anything relevant, so here’s a Tamara de Lempicka picture of someone looking wistful.

tumblr_m7qgv9vSnE1rrnekqo1_1280

Right, without further ado, here’s my quite-a-long-time-after-the-end of year roundup of the best books I read in 2013, set out according to category of book. Please note that each category has been determined using the latest scientific and artistic principles, and not as might seem according to my own arbitrary whims.

Best German modernist novel: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. 2013 was a year where modernist classics featured heavily in my reading. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book more discussed than read, which is true for most modernist works, but the difference here is that it isn’t even discussed that much. It should be. It’s a blisteringly good book with definite Dos Passos-esque resonance (another writer who doesn’t get the press he should) and an absolutely incredible portrait of an age.

I won’t lie, Alexanderplatz is a challenging read. That’s partly for the sheer unpleasantness of some of the scenes (particularly the slaughterhouse section) and partly because Döblin uses cinematic montage techniques (very modern back then) to bring it all to life. Well worth the effort though.

I tend to dislike state of a nation novels. If you’re going to do one though this is how you go about it. Döblin captures the sheer messy vitality of Berlin, the potential and the waste and the progress in all spheres save the human. It’s an extraordinary book, and in most years would have been a top contender for book of the year.

I was going to have a best novel set in Berlin category, but that would also be Berlin Alexanderplatz. If I had a best novel set in Berlin that isn’t Berlin Alexanderplatz then it would of course be Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, but good as that was it’s been too good a year in the end for it to get its own category so it makes it into the runner-up list rather than the finalists. On to the next category!

Best novel by an author with deeply disturbing political sympathies: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. This is again an extremely challenging read, but here more for the relentless refusal by Hamsun to make his nameless protagonist remotely sympathetic. Hamsun gives no easy analysis to the reader, his protagonist slowly starves on the streets of 19th Century Oslo (then called Kristiana) but as becomes evident he doesn’t really need to, it’s his own pride and inability to compromise that takes him to such extremes.

This is an intensely psychological novel examining in unsparing forensic detail a single man’s consciousness at the level of every fleeting thought and emotion. In my review I described it as ” the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction”. It’s also a superlative translation of a book that’s seen a fair few different translations.

That takes me onto the next hotly competed category:

Best novel that inspired a seriously odd computer game: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. it’s getting fashionable at the moment not to like this one, perhaps because of its perma-presence on the US canon, perhaps because of the movie, perhaps because when everyone says something is a masterpiece there’s a natural contrarian desire to say “oh no it isn’t”. Well, I’d love to be contrarian, but unfortunately it is a masterpiece. Happily it’s not a daunting masterpiece, it’s not some experimentalist behemoth with shifting narratives and playful structures and whatnot. It’s just superbly well written.

Gatsby is also, like quite a few of the older books on my list this year, a novel that remains utterly current. When Alexanderplatz was written, or Hunger, or Gatsby, we didn’t of course have mobile phones, the internet, social media or any of the other tools by which our lives have been transformed.  I’m not one of those who say that none of these things have really changed anything because they plainly have, but people remain the same and part of the power of great literature is to speak to who we are across cultures and centuries even if the details of our lives have altered beyond recognition.

While I’m on the early greats, here’s an even earlier one:

Best unsurprisingly good novel: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Perhaps the most commonly paraphrased opening sentence in the English language, and easily one of the best known stories of classic literature. Like Gatsby though it really is very good. The surprise of it is that it’s a much harder-headed novel than you might expect. Austen isn’t afraid to look directly at the centrality of money and power and on their impact on people’s, particularly women’s, lives. I wouldn’t call it gritty, as that would give the wrong impression, but it’s certainly not soft-focused.

Going back to the modernists we have:

Best short story collection about paralysis: Dubliners,  by James Joyce. Again it’s all about the writing, which is the common thread of this year’s best-of’s and probably of most years’. Dubliners is by and large a much easier read than you might think, although speaking English as a native language, having some sense of Catholic tradition and possibly some links to Ireland will all certainly help. Joyce marries the social to the psychological, and does a bloody good job of it.

Best poetry collection largely on the strength of one poem in the collection even though some of the others are pretty good: Prufrock and other Observations, by T.S. Eliot. What can I say? Prufrock is my favourite poem. I couldn’t read this during the year and not have it in my end of year list. It has an air of melancholy and regret  and some of the saddest lines ever written in English. Utterly beautiful.

Right, next category, drumroll please:

Best novel I never expected to like: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve long had something of a prejudice against Jeanette Winterson’s novels, not sure why. It’s a fortunate prejudice though because it means that now I’ve finally discovered her work I have a new author I can be genuinely excited about. I love Winterson’s work, what I’ve read of it so far, and she’s already become one of my go-to authors for when I need a reading lift.

Oranges is perhaps her best known, not least because of the very good TV adaptation. The book though is stranger and warmer than the adaptation, and perhaps more importantly is shot through with love not least for the Winterson character’s mother who it would be easy to paint as the villain of the piece. It’s beautifully written and has a fine observational wit and I absolutely loved it. Which takes me next to:

Best novel inspired by one of my favourite cities on Earth: The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. Yup, this is the first time I’ve had the same author twice in my end of year list. I said I liked her. Winterson captures a truth of Venice (there’s more than one), explores the nature of history and story and mixes fable and romance in a way that overall I thought was a huge success. Does it all make sense? Actually, yes it always does, just not literally so. Winterson’s telling you stories, trust her.

Best novel I considered just handing to people and urging them to read it: Ask the Dust, by John Fante. If I believed in World Book Night, which I don’t, and if I could choose a book to be given out as part of it, which I can’t, this would be a strong candidate for the book I’d choose. Clean, graceful prose. Emma caught the links between this and Hunger which I’d missed, and wrote a damn good review of it which is linked to from mine. Incredible evocation too of Los Angeles.

Right, we’re into the home straight (I googled that, I always thought it was the home strait, no idea what it means). Here’s my final three categories before my book of the year.

Best novel about a terrible relationship that should never have happened: My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes. This is just a little stunner of a novel. Well written, carefully observed and shockingly overlooked until the always excellent NYRB Classics brought it back to us. It’s a wonderfully disillusioned novel and is a particularly good choice if you need something short and punchy after a longer, flabbier read. Hayes doesn’t waste a word.

Best novel to shock your early twentieth Century bourgois Swedish friends with: Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg. This one is here for the character of Doctor Glas himself, whose head we inhabit for the duration of the novel as he grapples with moral dilemmas while ignoring the sexual undercurrent of his own thoughts. It’s most Freudian. You wouldn’t think an early twentieth century novel about medical ethics would be such a gripping read, and yet it is. Definite thanks to Caroline for bringing this one to my attention, since I’m pretty sure that otherwise I’d never have read it.

Best much, much darker than you expect novel: The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is an odd one. It starts out like a light naturalistic comedy, and then progressively turns into blackly surreal farce. It’s a cruel book, which should sound like a strike against it but Bainbridge’s acid wit makes the whole thing a delight not despite that but because of it. One to give those people who think books are somehow improving, they really aren’t.

That takes me to my final category, the best book I read in 2013. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in any year, up there with Madame Bovary and I have no higher praise than that.

Best novel: Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel de Cervantes. In 2013 I read Joyce, Fitzgerald, Winterson, Austen, and all the others listed above each of them an exciting and important writer. Despite that roll-call of excellence I knew from the moment I sat down to write this post what the best book of the year would be. If I’d just read volume one it would have featured somewhere above (under the category, Best novel about brutalising a deluded old man) but it wouldn’t have been my book of the year.

The second volume of Don Quixote though is the masterpiece by which other masterpieces can be judged. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and one of the most modern novels I’ve ever read (a theme of this year’s reading as I discussed above). It’s funny, intelligent, tragic, and structurally incredibly clever without getting lost in its own cleverness. I know it’s daunting. I was daunted too. Counting both volumes together it’s a big part of why I didn’t read more books this year. It was worth it.

Ok, so that’s it. My best of 2013. I’m a little disappointed to have had to cut Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, but in a list which features Austen, Cervantes, Döblin, Eliot, Fitzgerald and Joyce I’d hope she’d forgive me.

28 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

Securely protected against the second rate

I’m conscious that I’ve not posted in a little while, and thought I’d just let people know why. It’s nothing dramatic, just an extremely intense push at work up to financial year end (end April just gone) and several transactions which have simultaneous deadlines in early May. If none of that means anything to you, then here’s a simpler one word explanation: life.

I do hope to begin posting normally again within the next week or so, which would be good because even though I’ve had almost no time recently for reading, I’ve had even less for blogging so the review backlog has grown.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share this rather wonderful quote. It’s from the foreword to the translation I’m currently reading of Hjalmar Soderberg’s Doctor Glas.

The English writer William Sansom has written: “When the book first came to me, I got again that marvellous rare feeling, after the first page or two, of being quite certain I was in the hands of a master, knowing that I could trust this book entirely – knowing that this intelligent and beautiful writer would make me both sit up startled by various excitements and at the same time lie back with wonderful relief to know I was securely protected against the second-rate . . . In most of its writing and much of the frankness of its thought, it might have been written tomorrow . . . That this is a work of art and a masterpiece is to my mind unassailable.”

It’s not a feeling I get from every book, far from it, but there are times when I know exactly what William Sansom meant and it really is the most wonderfully reassuring sensation. It’s why (despite the fact I have as a rule no intrinsic interest in the subjects he writes about) I still read Colm Toibin. It’s why I love James Salter. It’s what I felt within moments of starting Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

It reminded me too of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (it’s in my archives). That’s a book firmly of its period, but in its ambition and verve it too might have been written tomorrow. I do like that test – it might have been written tomorrow. It’s curious how few books pass it (even those that were only written yesterday).

8 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

If you’re here through Freshly Pressed…

So, I’ve been listed on Freshly Pressed (thanks WordPress editors!) and if you’re reading this you may well have found my blog because of that.

Firstly, welcome and please feel free to leave comments (though you don’t have to of course).

Secondly, as you’ve probably already worked out this is a reading blog. How it works is that I write up each book I read. Mostly it’s literary fiction (including modernist and experimental works), but also some crime, SF and whatever else may take my fancy.

Thirdly, if you scroll down on the right hand side you’ll find a link titled A random post. If you click on that link you’ll be taken to a random blog entry from my archive. Give it a try, it’s a fun feature (well, fun for me anyway – if there’s anything literary bloggers love it’s people digging up old reviews). If you do wander into the older posts, again comments are totally welcome.

Finally, each year I do an end of year round-up post in which I talk about the best books I read that year. You can find those posts, for each of 2009 to 2012, in the Annual Reviews section on the right. You’ll also find there my two Personal Canon posts, where I talk about the writers who were most important to me as a teenager and the ones who’re most important now.

That’s it really. Thanks for dropping by, and please check out some of the links in the blogroll to the right. I put links there for the blogs I chiefly follow myself and they’re all blogs that I regard highly (a few are dormant, but I hope they’ll return so I keep them there).

12 Comments

Filed under Administrative posts, Personal posts

Buying less: an audit

Just over a year ago I wrote a post titled “Buying less“. It was about my desire to stop having an ever-increasing TBR pile, with books being added to it faster than I read them. I talked a little bit about my personal history; I set out some rules that I planned to apply to cut down my book buying; and I wrote about the issue of dematerialised clutter – of how by moving purchases from the physical to the virtual space we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re buying less than we actually are.

Since then, I’ve learned that rather wonderfully there’s a Japanese word for the act of buying a book and not reading it, for letting books pile up unread: tsundoku. I’m not sure whether the word has any history or is simply a very recent neologism, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s too useful a word not to be used.

The rules, revisited

I mentioned I’d set out some rules. Here they are:

1. If I’ve not read anything by an author I don’t buy more than one book by that author as my first purchase.

This avoids my Joseph Rathbone experience where I thought his work sounded great, bought three of his novels, read the first and hated it and so ended up giving them all away (two unread).

2. If I have an unread book by an author, I don’t buy another book by that author.

This is sometimes tricky. I have an unread Echenoz, and keep reading reviews of other Echenoz novels which sound tremendous. It makes no sense though to buy them if I haven’t read the one I have. That kind of thinking led to my having everything Richard Yates has written (hardly a tragedy, but not really necessary given I read about one of his a year typically). It lead to my owning all Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels of which I’ve read the first five or so and then ground to a halt. Tastes change, and while at the time I bought them I was reading a Rankin a month it turns out that wasn’t a good predictor of how I’d carry on reading.

3. I can’t buy more books in a month than I’ve read or permanently removed from the house.

This isn’t working well for me. Not because I haven’t stuck to it, I largely have. It’s not working because if I read four books and buy four books then I now have four more books on the shelves, and the same number of unread books as I started the month with. I may need to institute a firmer one in-one physically out policy or change the ratio (one in for each two read say).

So, a year on, how have those rules worked out for me?

I’ve broken rule 1 once only. I haven’t read any Denis Johnson yet, but Amazon had two of his in its Christmas kindle deal at incredibly reduced prices and I bought both. That’s a risk, as I may not like either, but at least I didn’t spend much. Other than that, I’ve kept to this one and so avoided that experience of buying multiple books by a new author and then sadly discovering that I don’t like his or her writing.

Rule 2 I’ve stuck to pretty much religiously, despite frequent temptation. This is an important one when you’re a blogger, because it’s very easy to read about an author you’re already into and then get tempted to buy more by them. If you already have unread books on the shelf by a writer, it makes no sense to be buying others – presumably you were once just as excited about the ones you already have.

The third rule has I think been touch and go. It’s the most important of the three, it’s the one I identified last year already wasn’t quite working, and over the past twelve months I’ve struggled to stick with it, or indeed even to remember it.

The outcome

DunhamLibrary*

In physical terms I have fewer books than I did a year ago, and more of those I have have been read, so in that sense it’s been a success. It’s not a lot fewer though, so it’s a very limited success. In virtual terms I’d say I have more unread kindle books a year ago, I hadn’t taken account of the Christmas sale Amazon does, the 2op book promotions or the daily 99p kindle deal (usually useless to me, but not always).

In my previous post I talked about realising that where I had thought I was buying less, instead I was just buying less in physical form:

There’s a danger in fact with ebooks and ecomics and so on. We can think we’ve decluttered (very much a buzz word that) our homes, but in fact we’ve done nothing of the kind. A hard drive full of unplayed RPGs in pdf format, a Kindle full of unread books, programmes bought on iTunes but unwatched, none of its obvious but it’s all still there. It’s all still cultural material which is being accumulated faster than it’s being experienced. It’s purchase in place of participation.

I talked about how the rules needed to work for both the physical and the virtual, and a year later it’s fair to say they haven’t entirely. I’ve acquired some good habits, but not sufficiently so. I note that in mid-April 2012 I posted a comment on that blog entry summarising how it was going, and the answer then was very well indeed. That means the slippage all came later – essentially the habits didn’t quite stick and so as time went on my application of them became less rigorous.

One of the easier mistakes one can make is to assume that one’s immune to the common failings one sees in others. When someone commits to do something over the coming year, whether it’s losing weight, exercising more, buying less, whatever, we pretty much know that they’re almost certainly going to let it slide after a while. Why should we be different? Why should our plans be more robust than everyone else’s?

It’s a hard question, and not one I have any good answer to. Part though of the solution is I suspect timeliness. A year is a long time, few of us can remain focussed that long. Perhaps then with all these resolutions, the trick is not to make them for a year but for three months, six months, no longer. A period where we can remember them and keep them fresh in mind. I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.

I still haven’t watched Fish Tank. I did at least though watch The Golem. It’s very good.

*Picture may not represent my actual reading space.

21 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

That Was The Year That Was: 2012

One of the nice things about doing an end of year roundup post is the opportunity to be reminded of great books that are slipping into memory. 2012 has been a difficult reading year. Great books have been disrupted by work more than once, which is fair enough but still unfortunate, and of course I had a slipped disc and an entire month in which I read nothing at all (and even now in late December I’m still not reading much).

As I started to write this post my impression was that in fact 2012 had been a bit of a dud, but the truth is it wasn’t at all. I had an easy shortlist of some 14 or 15 books to include in this post, and given that I only read around 30 or 40 this year (due to all the interruptions) that’s pretty good.

My “Hungarian literature month” was a huge success for me, with almost every book on it being considered for this post. I’m absolutely going to be reading more Hungarian fiction in the year ahead, and Laszlo Borza in the comments very kindly pointed me to a bunch more novels I’d never heard of.

I’ve read more Modernist fiction this year (and you know, I’m still never sure whether to capitalise that word or not), and the happy discovery there is that the more of it one reads the less difficult it becomes. Good modernist fiction (what do you think, lower or upper case?) always remains challenging, but in a good way because you have to reach towards it and actively engage with it.

The thing with modernist fiction is that it doesn’t take a default approach to how fiction should be written; there’s no assumption that naturalism is actually natural. That means that each book can be exactly what it needs to be, can take a concept and explore it in language without the manner of that exploration being in part pre-defined.

Anyway, there’s plenty of others better qualified to talk about modernism than I am, so I’ll get to the list. Here’s my top reads from 2012, this year sorted into essentially random categories:

Best crime novel: Despite reading and enjoying a new (to me) Chester Himes novel this year, the standout is easily Ross MacDonald’s brilliant The Way Some People Die. I’ve been reading MacDonald in order of publication, and this is clearly where he kicks solidly into gear and starts to merit the reputation he’d later have. If you don’t fancy the commitment of reading through his whole body of work, which would be fair enough really, this is a great place to start.

Best science fiction novel: This is a total cheat, because it’s not really science fiction, but Anna Kavan’s Ice just stands head and shoulders above most of the field. This is an exercise in what Christopher Priest calls slipstream fiction; novels that eschew strict narrative realism instead to explore impressions and the experience of a thing rather than the reality of it.

Ice makes little factual sense and intentionally lacks internal consistency, but it makes every sense on an emotional level. It features the obsessive cat and mouse pursuit by a man of the woman he perhaps loves and his rival for her, but motives, relationships and even identities are fluid and shifting and not to be trusted. All that and the book is steeped in frozen imagery of isolation and utter cold. If you do read it, read it before the spring.

Best comic novel: This is a surprisingly hard one. I loved Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station and in any normal year it would easily have been top of my list, but then came my Hungarian literature month and Antal Szerb’s Oliver VII. This was in fact a good candidate for my overall best novel of the year entry (you can see what pipped it below), and it is utterly splendid. A book without shadows, an exercise in pure romance and love and a gentle but wry wit and it’s tremendously well written.

My only caveat with Oliver VII is that if you haven’t read Szerb before it may not be the best one to start with. It’s as far from difficult as a book can be, so that’s not the issue, rather it’s because it’s a culmination of his earlier books and it’s worth reading those first.

Best confusing novel: Confusing sounds like a bad thing, but some novels set out to confuse so as to force the reader to slow down, backtrack, weigh the sentences. Ice, discussed above, is a good example of what I mean. These are novels which the reader will absolutely bounce right off unless they’re prepared to become part of the work, to be as unsettled by the fiction as the characters are within it. Ann Quin’s Three is a masterclass in this sort of technique, while still married to a deeply British sensibility of sublimated sex and petty status disputes. I’ve two Quin’s yet left unread and I’m looking forward to both of them.

Best novel for generating blog hits: I never choose to read books in the hope they’ll generate hits actually, that would be distinctly depressing, but there was one book I reviewed this year that generated way more hits than any other. It is of course Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which continues to puzzle readers for reasons that frankly puzzle me as while I liked it I don’t think it’s a particularly difficult novel in any sense and its themes are far from obscure. Anyway, Barnes wrote a good book and it deserves the interest it receives, it’s just a shame so many other great books aren’t getting the same attention lavished on them.

Best classic work: Despite reading Hardy this year, I have to turn to China for this one and to Pu Songling’s wonderful Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. This collection, which is ideal incidentally for reading on kindle or even your phone, is just a delight and at some 600 pages frankly it’s far too short.

Best poetry: This has to be the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin from Dedalus Press. This is one of my first attempts at reading a novel-length poem (I know, I’m a lightweight) and Beck’s sense of the ryhthm of the prose makes it a pleasure rather than a chore. I don’t know if it’s the best translation out there (really, I haven’t the foggiest), but it worked well for me and if you’ve ever been tempted by this classic of Russian literature but feared it might just be a little too capital I important to easily engage with I’d definitely recommend this.

It’s hard for anything to stand up to Eugene Onegin, but I do want also to give a small shout out to contemporary poet Angela Leighton whose Sea Level collection proved a joy (though given I wrote it up on 2 January 2012 I almost certainly read it in 2011, making it ineligible for this post anyway). Leighton doesn’t seem to get much attention, but should.

Best small novel on grand themes: Actually, this is a hotly contested field, but for me it has to be the marvellous, subtle and profoundly human novel Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. I liked the book so much I made up this category just so I could wedge it into this post.

Best historical novel featuring a gay love story and a major French literary figure: The City, like many other industries, has its awards each year. A bunch of lawyers or bankers gather in a room, a famous comedian who despises them all trots out some well-worn jokes and then the awards are announced. The organisers of these events make their money by selling tables, and nobody buys a table without some prospect of an award.

The result is some of the most carefully tailored award categories you can imagine. Best Privately Financed Eastern European Road Deal. Best West African Port Financing. Best West European Satellite Refinancing. Odds are if you see that, there’s only been one West European satellite refinancing that year.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Phillippe Besson’s In the Absence of Men so it’s only fair that it gets included in my end of year roundup. I considered having a best historical fiction category, but I basically don’t read historical fiction so that would really have been just as artificial as the category I did put it in.

Since blogs are public I won’t say which deal it was, but I have worked on an award winning deal where the award pretty much was best historical novel featuring a gay love story and a major French literary figure, or rather where the category was clearly designed so that we won (and bought a table). I’ve got the tombstone sitting on a shelf behind me as I type this.

TRUMPET ROLL

Just one category to go now, but the most important of all. It’s the novel which just absolutely blew me away this year, and which I’m privileged to have read. It’s the one that stands out from what actually was a really strong year full of great books, even if not as many of them as I’d have liked. I doubt the choice will be much of a surprise to any regular readers.

Best novel of 2012: This has to be Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and skilfully translated by George Szirtes. Satantango is just an incredible work of fiction; an extraordinary exercise in technique (though never dry) which unleashes an apocalyptic and existentialist vision that remains with me long after reading it. Absolutely superlative.

So, there it is, my end of year list. It’s even more arbitrary than usual this year, but then why shouldn’t it be? Reading is intensely personal, and every book mentioned in this post is one that spoke to me and which reminded me both why I love literature and why I should want to do something so utterly odd as to go online and maintain a blog so I can chat to others about the books we each love.

Have a great Christmas and New Year.

26 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

Slipped disc

Hi all,

I have a slipped disc and so am likely to be offline for a few days, possibly a bit longer – the immediate recovery could be a week or two with potentially several weeks of physio (apparently I may be off work anything between one and six weeks, its hard to predict). Not sure when I’ll be able to type normally so as to make normal posts such as the overdue Satantango review, since it involves sitting down for periods of time which I can’t yet do and will likely need a few days at least before I can.

On the plus side, no environment is more conducive to reading Proust than being bedridden. It’s very thematic.

24 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

Waterstones and Kindle

Waterstones started selling kindles in their stores today. That’s not a surprise, the date’s been long-trailed, but it is still an important step in UK book retailing.

The offering is a fairly simple one. You can buy kindles in-store, and if you do you get points on your Waterstones’ loyalty card for the purchase. Soon there’ll be wifi in stores (it’s not ready at launch) so you can browse Amazon and buy books on your kindle while still in the shop. Staff will help set up kindles (not that most people will need much help, they’re pretty simple devices) and of course offer advice on which books to buy.

Interestingly, you don’t get loyalty card points for ebook purchases, even if bought while you’re in the store. You will though be able to browse books on your kindle while in-store, and as long as you’re in-store you can keep browsing to your heart’s content – you’re not limited to just reading a sample. You could, if time were no object, just sit there and read entire books in full.

Intuitively none of this looks like a smart move. Waterstones is providing shop frontage and promotion for its biggest rival, and selling a device which allows readers to buy books from the comfort of their own home and have them instantly delivered. Intuition though is often wrong.

Here’s how I think the Waterstones’ offering will progress, and how I think they’re looking to monetise this. To make this work Waterstones need to increase in-store dwell time. Basically they need to get potential customers to stop in the store, browse, and stay long enough that they either decide they like the book they’re considering and so buy it on the spot, or feel they should buy while there out of some vague sense of obligation given they have spent so much time in the shop.

To achieve that you need more of some things, and less of others. The more is chairs and coffee. The less is books.

Browsing physical books is a mobile activity (at first anyway). The reader wanders among shelves, picking up books, looking them over, putting some back. Eventually they may wish to sit down and look at a few in greater depth, but initially at least they’re walking and looking.

Browsing a kindle is a sedentary activity. Walking while reading a device is a recipe for collisions. The reader here will want to sit down immediately, to have some time in a comfortable place where they can use their kindle to look up books (which frankly isn’t the smoothest way to access the Amazon store in my experience) and to have a bit of a read of the books they decide to consider.

When most of your browsers are just wandering the shelves you don’t need that much seating. In fact, you can perfectly well get away with no seating at all (though in larger stores there’s usually some somewhere). When most of your browsers want to stay still for extended periods of time though it’s obvious you’re going to need a lot more places for them to do so.

Equally, if you want browsers to linger, to enjoy the e-browsing experience, coffee makes a lot of sense. US stores have long led on combining in-store coffee houses and books, but plenty of UK bookstores have followed that lead. My beloved London Review Bookshop even has a (excellent) cafe attached. With kindles you also don’t have to worry about customers damaging the books they don’t buy by putting them in puddles or crumbs (I realise kindles don’t do well in puddles either, but it’s the customers’ kindles as opposed to the store’s books and anyway, most people are careful what they put their consumer electronics down onto).

So, more seating and where possible coffee. The shops though aren’t magically getting bigger to accommodate all this – something has to go. The obvious thing is books.

That doesn’t mean Waterstones will stop selling books of course. It just means it will stock fewer of them. Likely fewer multiple copies of the same title, but also perhaps a greater focus on the books people are likely to buy in hardcopy. I’d expect in a year or so, perhaps sooner, to see more space devoted to gift titles, stationery, coffee table books and the like which the kindle doesn’t replace, and less to say the more obscure literary titles and back catalogue (though I could easily be wrong on what kind of books they’ll reduce stock of).

From a booklover’s perspective all this seems a bit depressing. If I’m remotely right (and the only safe prediction is that predictions are generally wrong) we’re talking about bookstores as places to hang out, to relax, drink coffee and use free wi-fi to check out titles on your kindle (again, a development of an existing US retail model). The shops will be attractive and will have helpful staff, but a larger share of physical product will likely be aimed at the non-reader, since the reader is online.

All that and it’s incredibly risky. The alternative scenario is people buy their kindles, maybe at Waterstones but equally possibly they’ll just try them out in-store, head home thinking about them and then buy them online from Amazon that evening. Those same people once they have their kindles may browse occasionally in Waterstones, but just leave books in their Amazon basket buying them later when they think they’re likely to get round to reading them. On that scenario Waterstones becomes just a large advert for Amazon, and eventually goes bust from lack of its own trade.

The problem is that there is no path forward that isn’t incredibly risky. Waterstones has a ton of expensive high street real estate. It’s business model is predicated in large part on selling physical books on a volume basis, but it’s plain to anyone paying the slightest attention that the mass market is moving online. Staying as they are is an option, but it’s not necessarily any less risky than what I’ve outlined above.

To survive Waterstones has to somehow adapt to the ebook. It’s made a start by selling ebooks through its own website, but Amazon’s market share in the ebook space is so overwhelming that there’s a real sense in which it’s the only game in town. If to the average reader the word ereader might as well mean kindle, then Waterstones’ choices are either to try to shift that perception (good luck) or to come to terms with it. They’ve chosen the latter.

Waterstones’ strategy is to become the cleaner wrasse to Amazon’s shark. That’s not the best outcome imaginable, but it’s a lot better than being eaten.

Anyone interested in this topic should also read this BBC interview with James Daunt, where he discusses some of the ideas regarding dwell time (not that he uses that phrase, it’s one I know from an airport investment I worked on) and coffee.

21 Comments

Filed under Ebooks, Personal posts, Publishing

Negative reviews and me

I hate writing negative reviews. That’s partly, I admit, because I always imagine the author reading them and softly crying as they see me tear apart their baby. Mostly though it’s because they take twice as long to write as the more positive ones.

As a general rule negative reviews aren’t actually that common. That’s true not just of my blog, but of blogs generally and to an extent of more traditional outlets too. Many bloggers, and many critics particularly in the genre space, seem to see themselves almost as cheerleaders for their preferred literary form. I think that’s a mistake.

Here‘s an example from The Guardian of what I mean by cheerleading. Eric Brown is a well respected SF reviewer and a successful author in his own right (a good one – I’ve read some of his books). In his column he regularly gives thumbnail sketch reviews of recent notable SF releases. That’s a useful service, but the problem is he likes all of them.

Now, Eric Brown presumably has more than four books he could choose to review, so it’s quite likely he just chooses to focus on those that he thinks most merit attention. That approach would automatically mean nothing but positivity – the bad books wouldn’t even make his column.

Take a look though, even if you’ve no interest in SF, at the third review down – the Tad Williams novel. In particular, note this quote “Dollar is not your archetypal angel but a likable rascal with a penchant for sex and drink.” Now, I admit I’ve not read the book and Eric Brown has, but does that not sound like the worst bloody cliche of urban fantasy?

Put bluntly, it’s a terrible character concept. It definitely doesn’t sound to me anything like anything Chandler or Hammett would have written (comparisons Brown makes, and I have read both as well as other, previous, Tad Williams’ novels). It sounds generic, which if genre is to have any value is what it must always strive not to be.

That gives me a problem. If I don’t trust the Williams’ review, and I don’t, where does that leave me with the others? The Willow Wilson and the Mary Gentle both sound potentially interesting (actually, I think the Mary Gentle sounds terrible, but I know the author’s work and have some confidence that she might pull it off). If Brown is always positive though how do I know which ones are really worth reading, and which are just getting a sympathetic boost?

I’ll stop ascribing motives to a man I’ve never met who probably genuinely does like all four books, and instead turn to my own blog. I have written negative reviews here, but not very many. So why is that?

Well, before I answer that I’ll give some examples of past negative reviews I’ve written. First example: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkin. This is from way back in 2008, and I hated this book. In fact, it genuinely made me angry, and I think it’s the single most negative review I’ve ever written. The book deserved what I wrote and more, and I stand by the review, but it represents a failure on my part – I read a frankly terrible book and that means I didn’t pay enough attention when choosing what to read.

That’s reason one for a paucity of negative reviews. It’s quite rare I go into a book blind. Generally I know quite a lot about it before picking it up, either from general knowledge of literature or the subject matter or from other blogger’s reviews. I don’t get paid for this, so I’m not going to read a bad book for any reason other than my mistakenly thinking in advance that it was going to be a good book.

Second example: Plague Zone, by David Wellington. Again, this was essentially a bad book. It wasn’t though a book which made me angry as the Perkin book did. This is again an example of me making a bad choice – I read a lesser work by an author who was writing in a genre that’s of no interest to me. That’s my fault, not David Wellington’s. I’ve already talked about why it’s rare for me to read a book that’s out and out bad, but there’s a second point this one brings out and that’s that writing negative reviews is much harder than positive ones.

John Perkin’s book made me angry, so slamming it was easy. David Wellington though had made an honest attempt at writing a solid horror novel and for me hadn’t on this occasion pulled it off. If I’m going to say that in writing then I should justify my view, and that means analysing a book I didn’t enjoy to present where I think it failed and why.

When I write a review of a book that I think hasn’t succeeded I have two main goals. One is to give a sufficiently fair review that someone else might think “hey, this doesn’t sound bad at all, what he dislikes I might like so I’ll give it a try”. In other words, I still want to give enough information to allow a reader of my blog to take an informed view of the book. The second goal is to be constructive. That doesn’t mean blind positivity. It means though saying why I think the book didn’t succeed sufficiently clearly that the failing could potentially be addressed in future books.

That’s in some ways an arrogant statement. The truth is any given author is highly unlikely to be reading my blog, and even if they were is even more unlikely to look to some random blogger for literary tips. Still, if the book isn’t irredeemable (like the Perkins, seriously, it’s terrible) then there should be something one can sensibly say that plainly speaks to the book’s flaws without just lazily throwing stones.

What’s even harder though than writing constructive criticism of a book one doesn’t rate, is writing a review of a book that ultimately is just mediocre. Two examples now: Q&A, by Vikas Swarup (later to be made into a film as Slumdog Millionaire); and The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh. The second is more negative than the first, though looking back I think I was probably a bit kinder to Q&A than it deserved.

The Perkin review was fuelled with anger. The Wellington review was of a book that had clear and easily described flaws that Wellington had obviously avoided in other novels he’d written and that could be avoided in future. The Swarup and Ghosh though, ultimately they’re just a bit worthy and dull.

The concept of my blog is that I review every book I read. If that wasn’t how it worked though I doubt I’d have reviewed either. It wasn’t enjoyable to lay into what for both authors would have been a considerable amount of work. Both books have lots of fans, so if they come across my reviews I’m there raining on their enthusiasms. Worse than all that by a long way though is that it’s boring to write about something boring. As I said above, I’m not getting paid here and writing about dull books is a chore.

What’s noticeable to me as I write this is that all the examples are from a few years back. That’s good, because it means I’m getting better at avoiding bad books. What prompted this post though is my upcoming review of Magda Szabo’s The Door. This is a book with a lot of fans, many of them people whose views on literature I hold in very high regard, but I thought it was terrible. I don’t particularly look forward to writing about it, but I am hoping that on this one at least I’ll have people in the comments telling me why I’m wrong.

So, negative reviews. If you avoid writing them you’re potentially doing a disservice to the authors, by denying them criticism which could help them improve. You’re also potentially doing a disservice to other readers, by not warning them of what they may be getting into. Worse than all of that though is you’re risking not driving debate. If everyone disagrees with me about The Door, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the start of a conversation.

40 Comments

Filed under Personal posts

My Hungarian literature month

Most English language readers or literary fiction don’t read literature in translation. It’s odd, but it’s true). I find that incredibly disappointing, particularly when one looks at lovers of crime fiction who react with absolute glee when new works appear in translation.

Some writers leap over the great barrier of indifference. Most serious English-language readers could name a fair range of French and Russian writers without breaking sweat. German language would be trickier, but you might get a handful, the same could probably be said for Latin American writers (and I’ve just jumped there from a country to a continent of course).

After that, after that I think most people would start to run a bit dry. That’s fair enough, we can’t read everything, but it does mean that most of us are missing out on absolute riches. Iceland has a strong literary tradition, but I wouldn’t call it a well known one. Italy of course, but few Italian writers are household names (Umberto Eco being the obvious exception). Japan has in my view one of the greatest bodies of literature the world has yet seen, but apart from Haruki Murakami I suspect most of it remains obscure even to those generally open to translated fiction.

Then there”s Hungary. I’ve only reviewed two Hungarian novels so far on this blog (Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, translated by Len Rix; and Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark, translated by Richard Aczel). I own though a great deal more Hungarian literature that I haven’t read yet, and that looks absolutely superb. It looks so good in fact that I suspect Hungarian literature may be up there with French and Japanese in terms of the quality of the tradition.

So, I’ve decided that I’m going to make September a personal Hungarian fiction reading month. All that means is that during September I’ll only be reading Hungarian literature, drawing on the titles I already own and haven’t got to yet. It’s not a challenge (how could reading great literature ever be that?) or a race, just an attempt to broaden my exposure to a body of work which I suspect I’ll find extremely rewarding.

The authors and titles I have to hand are:

Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted; They Were Found Wanting; They Were Divided (it’s a trilogy)

László Krasznahorkai: Satantango

Dezső Kosztolányi: Anna Édes

Gyula Krudy: Life is a Dream

Sándor Márai: The Rebels

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight; Oliver VII

Now here’s the thing. I read around 50 books a year (I thought it was more, but blog stats don’t lie). That means I probably read around three to five novels a month, depending on how dense they are and how busy I am at work. That in turn means that I’m not going to get anywhere near reading all of that list. So it goes. Besides, having more than I can get to gives me a choice each time I finish a book of what to read next, which is important.

I should also note that my reviews tend to lag my reading a book by a week or two on average. So, while I’ll only be reading books from the above list in September, my first couple of reviews in September will likely be of books finished during August, and my first couple of reviews in October will likely be the last couple of books I read during September.

Those caveats are ok though, because the point of all this, to the extent there is any point beyond literary whim, is personal. I’ve bought these great books, I’ve sat them on my shelf and they remain there providing a certain literary ambience and helping insulate the dining room. Those are important tasks for books, but occasionally it’s nice to actually read them too. If nothing else it saves embarrassment if a guest picks one up and notices that the pages remain suspiciously pristine.

If anyone wants to join me in this, that’s great. If not, I hope you find some of the resulting reviews interesting.

55 Comments

Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Hungarian Literature, Personal posts