Category Archives: Personal posts

#TBR20 and how I buy books

I’m off on holiday soon, returning the week of 7 September. Before I go I thought I’d post a quick update on how I’m getting along with #tbr20.

tbr20

In one word the answer would be slowly, given I’m currently only on book seven of my 20. To be fair I did interrupt the 20 for one reread (The Maltese Falcon) and one exception purchased for my last holiday (Gods without Men), making nine books total since I started. Still, it’s been an active summer and so a slow reading summer.

That’s fine, and I’ve no particular problem with how quickly I’m getting through the pile. It has though made me pay attention as to how books come into my life and how my TBR pile keeps growing even though I’ve been trying for some time now to reduce how much I buy.

I have a general no review copies policy, but I occasionally break that. I’ve broken it twice during my #tbr20, once for In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González and once for Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things.

On the purchases front, I’ve not been entirely virtuous either. I bought a hardcopy of Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities in response to an appeal on behalf of its publisher who were in a financial squeeze and needed to shift some units to make the end of the month. I don’t regret that – I was going to buy it anyway so all that changed was the timing.

How I interact with my kindle is more problematic, particularly Amazon’s constant offers. I’m generally fine avoiding overbuying hardcopy books – I have to go to a shop, pick up the book I’m considering, decide to buy it and then to carry it home. It’s all very there, very physical. You can’t be unaware that you’re doing it and once you have the evidence is now in your home taking up space.

Peter Watt’s Echopraxia, sequel to his groundbreaking SF novel Blindsight, has long been on my radar as a book to pick up. When Amazon dropped the price in a daily deal to 99p it seemed a no-brainer, and so without engaging my brain I bought it. I’ve no plans to read it soon but there it is on my virtual bookshelf.

Similarly, I’ve long planned to have a go at Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetratology. Amazon dropped My Brilliant Friend to 99p as part of a monthly deal and I grabbed it. I was going to buy it eventually and at that price it was practically free. Again though, I’ve no plans on reading it soon and yet I have it.

So, that’s how the books come in. I notice myself buying physical books and give real thought as to whether I should or not. What #TBR20 has taught me is that I don’t apply the same logic to virtual books. I thought I did, but I don’t. Instead I wishlist a book and Amazon runs constant sales and so when something I’m interested in (or potentially interested in) gets reduced I pick it up.

Every individual purchase made on this basis makes sense. Every 99p book, or £1.99 book or whatever, is a noticeable saving on the price I’d otherwise have paid. I don’t buy anything I wouldn’t at least otherwise have considered buying. I can only read so fast though, and those sensible purchase decisions add up over time to hundreds of unread books. They’re intangible, digital, so you don’t see them piling up as you would physical books, but they’re there all the same.

When I noticed this I stopped looking at Amazon sales. Savings make sense, but not as much sense as not accumulating vast numbers of books I may never read. It turns out book buying is like many other things – it’s not the conscious choices that catch you out, it’s the choices you didn’t realise you were making.

On a last note, #tbr20 itself is a bit risky. I thought the other day about what I’d put on a new #tbr20 after this one and ten of the books were ones I would have to buy. From reading other blogs I’m increasingly wondering if #tbr20 is the literary equivalent of a crash diet, with the same consequence that once you stop you put back on more than you lost.

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Oh say can you see…

America in tweets

I recently returned from my three-week road trip across the US. One day last week I summarised my thoughts on the trip in tweet form. For those who don’t follow me on twitter or didn’t see the tweets, I thought I’d set them out here as my review of the US.

San Diego, really nice: Tucson, definitely worth a visit, great scenery; Phoenix, a 16 lane highway? Really? 16?

LA, we didn’t leave the freeway; SF, lovely and great shopping in Hayes Valley but the worst disregard for the homeless I’ve ever seen.

Coastal Highway, very pretty; redwoods, very big; Seattle, really really nice. Seriously, why doesn’t this get more attention? Great place.

Grand Canyon stunning, especially at dawn as colours soak in; Montana, there’s a lot of Montana. It’s the Hotel California state. Endless.

Jackson, most patriotic; Wyoming, rugged landscape; Yellowstone amazing; Glacier really pretty, exceptional too. US has great national parks

Vegas, didn’t need the extra day. Restaurants shut surprisingly early. Chicago, best food on the trip, attractive city, good for walking in.

Chicago also had the only bookshop I saw on the trip. I wasn’t looking for them, but most places you don’t need to seek them out.

In all seriousness I saw more open carry handguns (is Walmart so dangerous?) than bookshops.

Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, Seattle and Chicago among highlights. Haven’t listed everything of course.

Food mostly awful to mediocre, and insanely huge portions. Took to skipping meals.!Amazed anyone isn’t fat.

Ate in a McDonalds that only played Christian Rock; ate chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy; ate many, many hamburgers.

Saw only one classic diner, and that was intentionally retro. Casinos seemingly everywhere. Fireworks on sale at every national park border.

Vegas, everybody having fun except the people at the tables. They look like they’re losing money. Slot people look dead.

Gathering around a craps table not nearly as fun as it looks in the movies. Mostly as in movies people are winning, in Vegas they’re losing.

It was a great trip, and Seattle and Chicago in particular really are worth a visit (it’s hopefully obvious that the national parks merit a visit). Still, while a long holiday is good, it’s also good to be back. Of course, being back does mean I have hundreds of emails, missed blog posts, articles and whatever to catch up on…

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My #TBR20

Scroll down if you just want to skip straight to the pictures of books…

TBR20 is an idea of Eva Stalker’s, with the aim being to focus on reading more and on buying less.

The concept is very simple, and since I’m very late to it already familiar to a lot of people. Basically, you read 20 books you already own before buying any more.

Most people who’ve taken it up have interpreted that as pick 20 books you already own and read those before buying any more, but strictly speaking that wasn’t the original concept. Originally it was just read any 20, deciding which out of the ones you own as you go along.

I rather like the idea. I’ve posted before about my own concerns with buying replacing enjoying here and by way of follow-up here. I also link in that first post to an article by an old friend of mine about why people buy things they don’t then use, that’s here to save digging around and it’s very much worth reading.

The interesting thing about following the pick 20 approach is it forces you to think about your reading. 20 books is probably two to three months reading, quite possibly more if I get very busy at work. That’s a hell of a commitment.

What do I actually want to read? How much literary fiction? What if I feel like some SF? What about books to unwind to when I’m under pressure elsewhere in life? All Modernism and no crime sounds indigestible.

On the other hand, making lists is sort of fun if you’re the sort of pedantic individual I am, and there are quite a few books I’ve been wanting to read for a while but which keep getting put off for no particularly good reason. A little discipline pushing me to read them would be no bad thing.

So, after much amendment, consideration, reconsideration, re-reconsideration and so on, here’s my #TBR20:

Physical

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Kindle

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The Grimwood is an SF/crime title, because potentially three months without any SF seems excessive. The Killer inside Me is just long overdue, and fills the hard-bitten noir gap. The rest are a mix of books I’ve wanted to read for a long time chosen in part though to give me a little variety.

Diving Belles and Jesus’ Son are both short story collections, but both are better read as single works in one go rather than interspersing them between other reads. As such I’ve effectively treated them as novels. Otherwise, I’ve not included any short stories or poetry and I plan to let myself read as much of those as I want along the way (provided I already own them of course).

I do plan to break the rules in one way, because there’s a good chance this project will overlap with my Summer holiday in the US, and I don’t own some of the books I’d planned to read on that trip. I may therefore allow myself to buy Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men specifically to read while out there, if I haven’t finished the #TBR20 by then (which I probably won’t have). I considered having an exception for Seth’s Golden Gate on the same basis, but practically I doubt I’ll take a hardcopy book with me on holiday when I have a kindle so unless I’m sure I can read it immediately before I go that would just be a fudge.

Eva’s original post, for the curious, is here and her #tbr20 posts generally can be found here. Her original post in particular really is very good, and very well written, so if you haven’t already I do encourage you to read it.

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Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year

I didn’t read a lot of books in 2014, fewer than ever I suspect, but I did read some damn good ones and a fair few chunksters so the year certainly wasn’t all bad. The biggest impact on my reading in 2014 was from #readwomen2014, so I’ve divided this post into two parts first considering how that campaign affected me and then setting out my personal best books of the year.

PolishCasablanca

As best I can tell that poster was inspired by the film, rather than being used to actually market it, but who cares? It’s a wonderful piece of design. It also bears no connection to anything in this post.

#readwomen2014

I posted originally about the #readwomen2014 campaign here, back in April when it first caught my attention. It made me realise how disproportionately I read books by men, with only 14% of the authors on my kindle being female. A statistic that stark demanded a little reflection on my part, and my goal with #readwomen2014 was to try to rebalance my reading and to find some hopefully new favourite authors who I’d been unconsciously overlooking.

On a personal level #readwomen2014 was a huge success. I finally read Eleanor Catton, whose work I loved. I read more Abbott, Winterson and Didion; my first (but I hope not last) of each of Martha Baillie, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Enright, Amy Sackville and  Claudia Piñeiro. I read literary fiction, crime, SF, essays, there wasn’t a single time when I felt like a particular type of book and couldn’t easily find an example of it by an author I could trust.

None of that surprised me. What did surprise me though was that as the year progressed I started to feel slightly left out of what I tend to think of as the literary conversation. By that I mean the world of newspaper reviews, twitter, the blogosphere, the places I go to read about and discuss books. For me there’s an ongoing discussion between readers, publishers, authors and critics where we share our sense of achievement or excitement at new reads and new discoveries.

Women are well represented in that conversation, though perhaps more often as bloggers than as professional reviewers. Women authors though began to seem less so. The books that were getting the most attention, the most hype, were mainly (Jenny Offill being an obvious exception) by men. I was trying to read books by women, but to do so meant relying less on newspaper and journal reviews because they didn’t seem so interested in what women were writing.

What I’m reporting here is really a sense of distance, a feeling that the more I spent time reading books by women the less I was part of a conversation that was largely about men. It’s an odd feeling, and not a particularly pleasant one. It’s a sensation though that has some statistical backing, thanks to the US campaign Vida. This page shows a US-focused pie chart for 2013 showing reviews of books by men (red) against books by women (blue). 2013 was actually a pretty good year for women in this sense, the chart for 2012 is much worse.

I think we are seeing some progress in this area, not least because of campaigns like #readwomen2014 and Vida, but not enough. It’s noticeable if you spend any time on the blogosphere how much more diverse it is than the literary pages. Women writers aren’t sidelined and books in translation get covered far more with the overall result being that significantly more voices are heard.

The blogosphere though, much as I’m fond of it (and I am after all part of it) is vastly less important than the newspaper and journal review pages, and is completely ignored by the bulk of the reading public. Professional book review pages still matter, but there’s scope for most of them to be a lot better.

My favourite books of 2014

These are in a very, very rough order of increasing preference, though no great weight should be put on exact positions and on a different day I’d probably swap some of them around. The further down the list, the more it’s stuck with me.

Best novel about adultery and economic collapse featuring a protagonist who’s more likable than she has any right to be: The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright. I hummed and hawed a bit about whether to include this one or not, but in the end I thought it captured something of the feeling of living in a boom time that few novels manage, and at the same time it managed to make that most tired of literary subjects adultery actually interesting. Suggestions for other Enrights to try would be welcome.

Best piece of sheer and utter schlock that really shouldn’t be on this list if I have any pride in myself or this blog at all but I still liked it so here it is: The Devil Rides Out, by Denis Wheatley. What can I say? There’s a reason this man sold so many books. This isn’t remotely literary. It’s dated, the style is meat-and-potatoes plain writing with no frills and it’s snobbish to a level that makes Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust look like Marxists.

Despite all those actually fairly serious flaws I really enjoyed this. It’s preposterous, yet somehow while you’re reading it Wheatley makes you suspend a mountain of disbelief just long enough for it all to be a lot of fun. I’ve always loved pulp, and this is good pulp.

Best essay about getting a Kindle: I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant. This is a slightly odd inclusion, but Linda Grant’s essay about how she came to dispose of most of her books and grew to love her Kindle struck a lot of chords with me and got me thinking about my own relationship with books as objects and the way how I’d like to buy books differs from how I actually buy them. I think it’s an interesting read for anyone who loves books, which is anyone reading this, but perhaps fittingly it’s only available on Kindle.

Best novel using crime as a vehicle for social critique: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France. A tremendous examination of social tensions in Argentina and quite how ugly things can get when the money’s gone, all through the lens of a prestigious gated community. This is a fascinating novel in a great translation and one I’m really grateful to Guy Savage for pointing me towards.

Best melancholic novel which I found quite sad even though it’s been widely reviewed as a biting black satire: Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen. This fell into my period when I just got swamped in work and fell badly behind on the blog, so I haven’t written it up yet.

It’s in part a satire on the UK publishing scene and the sheer oddity of promoting books by having authors, generally not the most outgoing of individuals, read out bits of their books to audiences mostly composed of people either already in the publishing business or wanting to be in it; in part a series of comic interactions between Paul Ewen’s drunk and slightly delusional Francis Plug alter-ego with various Booker-prize winning novelists; and in part too a critique of contemporary UK culture and the utilitarian value we place on art.

Best novel by Eleanor Catton that’s not The Luminaries: The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. I loved this. I loved its tricksy nature, the absolute skill with which it’s put together and the fact that I never knew quite what I was reading. It’s an exceptionally accomplished first novel, and on its own catapulted Catton into my personal “writers to watch” category.

Best novel that if I didn’t like it I’d be thrown out of the Modernist-novel-liking community: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. Being honest, this is a novel I respect more than love, but I do respect it a great deal. It’s tremendously well written and structured, has passages of great beauty and power, and could repay reread after reread with more to find each time.

It’s also though written in the context of a social and historical milieu so specific that chunks of the novel are fairly hard to understand without having first read some background notes. While I don’t think this would ever have been an accessible novel, its connection to such a specific place and time has made it now fairly difficult for reasons largely unconnected to its style, which perhaps helps explain why it’s a book more studied than read.

Best what exactly was that about again?: The Yips, by Nicola Barker. The last book I read in 2014, but definitely a good one. This is one of those Marmite novels which either resonate with you immediately or which will be extremely annoying. I find myself reaching not only for the obvious words like funny, but also for words like luxurious, abundant, fecund even. I’m not quite sure what that means I’m saying about it, but since I’m not quite sure what it was about either I think that’s ok.

Best novel I can’t help but love and why would I want not to?: Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell. This is just an utter delight. It’s a spoof crime novel with possibly the worst amateur detective in the history of fiction as its lead. It’s warm, funny, charming, skilfully written and observed and just generally an absolute joy.

Truth be told I probably have more affection for this than any other book on the list – it’s that sort of novel. It’s also the second Argentinian novel on this year’s list which is interesting. Looking back it reminds me slightly of Szerb in style, which is about as high praise as I can imagine.

Best clean-lined novel filled with empty spaces: Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion. Ok, we’re into the seriously good stuff here. Didion’s novel is a cocaine-blast of light and nothingness, a marvel of haunting and arid beauty. As I think about it now my mind’s filled with imagery of deserts, identikit motel rooms, snakes, a car racing down highways insulated from heat and life and mess but never insulated enough. This is intensely cinematic; a book that’s learned the language of film in an utterly different way to that used by Döblin in his Berlin Alexanderplatz but which is just as effective, perhaps more so.

Best novel featuring over a 100 pages on a single dinner party, observing it in slower than real-time gloryThe Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright. This was a serious challenge. The first half, while necessary, is a slog. It pays off, but you work to get there.

Proust continues to have moments of incredible insight. The depiction of the narrator’s grandmother’s death is awful because it’s so ordinary and so sad as she becomes lost to her illness long before she’s actually gone. Equally, the dawning realisation that the Guermantes and their world may not hold up to close scrutiny, that what was worthy of worship from a distance seems all too human close up, is brilliantly realised. Proust remains for me among the greatest of authors, not least because his subject matter is so very specific and yet somehow within it he finds all humanity.

Best ancient Greek epic which I’ve read now three or four times and yet which never pales in interest or excitement: The Iliad, by Homer and translated by Richard Lattimore. This is another one that fell into my review black hole when work swallowed me, so the writeup’s still outstanding. This though is a high quality muscular translation with a real feel for poetic rhythm and a genuine sense of the epic. It’s a fluid and rewarding read, powerful and resonant and while I can’t say if it’s the best translation out there (views differ) it’s a bloody good one on any account.

If you’ve not read The Iliad you really should (and it’s the only book on this list I say that of). Even after 3,000 years this remains an exciting and essential text packed with humanity. The older I get the more tragic I find this, the senseless waste of years and lives for so little point or gain.

Best faux-19th Century novel undermining its own narrative concepts and also my best novel of 2014: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. Just wonderful. This is an intricately structured novel capable of being read on multiple levels every one of which is rewarding. It’s filled with rich characters and descriptions, the prose is dense and satisfying and the whole book just shines with intelligence and the comfort that comes from reading an author absolutely in control of their material.

And that’s it! Not a bad list even if it wasn’t the best year. 2015 currently promises to be much better though, getting off to a roaring start with incredibly impressive books like The Good Soldier and Jacob’s Room. I enjoyed Hamid’s How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and look forward to his next, and so far at least I’m hugely impressed by Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

I’ll end though on a book that I think I read in late 2013, but it’s hard now to tell. For some reason it didn’t get included in my 2013 list, so I’ll mention it here as a final category at the end, a sort of lifetime achievement award. Here it is:

Best novel set in a roadside diner: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. Classic noir, tautly written and effortlessly quotable. If you have any interest in noir fiction at all then this is just a must-read. Also a strong contender in the best novel about people making truly bad choices category. No idea why I overlooked it last year.

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Backlogs, review copies and catching up

I’ve just got back from a very welcome, and very overdue, two week holiday. I’ve not been doing any blogging while away (or much in the weeks prior due to pressure of work), but it gave me the chance to think about my review backlog.

Alphaville_Japan_MPOTW

My review policy, as per my About page, is generally not to accept books for review. Mostly I stick to that, but not always. Sometimes I get offered something that tempts, sometimes I just get sent something without asking. The result is that over the years I’ve built up a fairly sizable number of books which I do feel obliged to review (and which in pretty much every case I do actually want to read), but which don’t necessarily fit my current mood or reading plan.

At a rough and probably incomplete estimate, I have the following review copies waiting to be read (in no particular order, but the most recent arrived sometime in 2013, most are quite a bit older):

Spurious, Lars Iyer;
Exodus, Lars Iyer;
Tan Twan Eng, Garden of Evening Mists;
Antal Szerb, Love in a Bottle and Other Stories;
Ellen Ullmann, By Blood;
Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, Home;
Jim Murdoch, Milligan and Murphy;
Lorinda J Taylor, Monster is in the Eye of the Beholder;
Lochlan Bloom, Trade;
Andrew Lovett, Everlasting Lane;
Jonathan Gibbs, Randall (though I paid for a copy too so not sure this still counts, still want to read it though either way);
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (but again I’ve bought my own copy since, phew!)
Wu Ming, Manituana (I suspect I’ve had this several years now, and it’s by my favourite Italian Communist writing collective…);
Alvaro Bisima, Dead Stars;
Elisa Ruotolo, I Stole the Rain;
Adrian N. Bravi, The Combover;
and finally, every one of the Richard Stark Parker novels.

If you’ve sent me a book and it’s not on the list, please feel free to remind me in the comments.

At the same time I’ve been sufficiently busy at work of late that I’ve built up a review backlog of books that I actually have been reading. Currently it stands as follows:

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Pineiro;
Play it Where it Lays, by Joan Didion;
Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald;
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton;
Francis Plug: How to be a Public Author, by Paul Ewen;
Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník; and
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes.

That doesn’t include several kindle singles and Galley Beggar shorts I’ve read and intend to review, nor some comics I’d hoped to cover.

The thing is, after a while a backlog becomes a burden. It’s something that looks awfully close to work, unpaid work. It’s not fun, and what’s the point of blogging if it isn’t fun?

So, I do still intend to review everything in my current backlog, not least because several of them are very good and even the ones I didn’t take to are still interesting and would work well for other readers. I still intend to read every book that’s been sent to me for review, though I make no promises at all as to when. What I also intend though is to be even more careful what I take on going forward. If I accept a book for review it means adding it to a pile that’s already years old and yards long, which is silly and only worth doing if I’ll be prioritising it ahead of all the existing books in the review pipeline.

Otherwise, going forward I’m going to go back to reviewing the last book I read, and the books on the review backlog will get fitted in when I get a spare moment to do so and in whatever order I happen to feel like. That’s not ideal as it means some of them may end up unreviewed for quite a while, but I don’t want to go on being permanently months in arrears – I don’t enjoy it as much as I do blogging as I go along.

Anyway, that’s it by way of update. Any thoughts you might have on how you deal with reading or reviewing backlogs (including the dread TBR pile which every reader has whether they blog or not) will of course be very welcome in the comments, as they always are.

On a final note, some of you may wonder why I have the Japanese poster for Alphaville, a film I haven’t even watched yet, as the image for this post. Actually, there is no good reason. I just like the poster.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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