Category Archives: Literature

2016 in books

img_2530Next to running, the thing I most enjoy doing is reading. I set myself the challenge of trying to read 52 books a year sometime ago, and though I’ve only ever got as close as 51, I now keep a running list of books I finish every year.

So here’s my list of books I’ve finished in 2016. By “finish” I mean: read total contents thereof from front to back. As a result, this year’s list obviously does not reflect books begun in 2016 but not completed: they will go on next year’s list.

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  2. The Shaking Woman, Siri Hustvedt
  3. The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
  4. What Goes Around, Emily Chappell
  5. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
  6. A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland (re-read)
  7. The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami
  8. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden (re-read)
  9. The Night Bookmobile, Audrey Niffenegger
  10. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
  11. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf
  12. To the River, Olivia Laing
  13. The Life Writer, David Constantine
  14. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
  15. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  16. Modernist Estates, Steffi Orazi
  17. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
  18. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee (re-read)
  19. The Three Hostages, John Buchan (re-read)
  20. Clear Waters Rising, Nicholas Crane
  21. The Gifts of Reading, Robert Macfarlane
  22. The Past, Tessa Hadley
  23. Railtracks, John Berger and Anne Michaels
  24. Solo Faces, James Salter
  25. Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson (re-read)
  26. The Isle of Sheep, John Buchan (re-read)
  27. The Devils of Loudon, Aldous Huxley
  28. A Summer of Drowning, John Burnside
  29. Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane
  30. Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist
  31. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
  32. Some Rain Must Fall, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  33. City of Glass, Paul Auster
  34. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger
  35. Style Council, Sarah Thompson
  36. Ghosts, Paul Auster
  37. The Locked Room, Paul Auster
  38. Walk Through Walls, Marina Abramovic
  39. Dubliners, James Joyce
  40. Nutshell, Ian McEwan

Not a bad haul, really! Being in two book clubs helps for sure. I’m pleased to see that the first six books of the year were by women, and 17 in total had female authors. I don’t choose my books based on gender, but it’s interesting to observe nonetheless. There are some very thin/slim books on the list too (nos. 9, 21, 23), a couple of photo+interview books only included because the interviews were quite long-form, so I thought they could count (nos. 16 and 35), and some sharp-eyed readers will quibble with my decision to class Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy as three books (nos.33, 36 and 37). But I shall live with their quibbling! In the “should have read” category (i.e. books I feel that by now I should have already digested) there are fewer than I would wish for (no. 39 is the only candidate). And there are six re-reads (nos. 6, 8, 18, 19, 25 and 26) largely because I was in the wilderness and wanted to read about people in similar situations, and my kindle curation is geared towards such novels.

So what will next year hold? Perhaps tackling the big Russians I’ve previously overlooked in favour of fewer re-reads. Since reading Adam Curtis on how to be more Tolstoy and less Wes Anderson, I’m gravitating towards a lower overall number of books in favour of longer, more difficult texts. And there there’s work and running to balance with all that… more on those subjects later!

What about you? Any books I shouldn’t miss in 2017? Any thoughts on the list above? Talking about books is one of my favourite things to do, so go ahead!


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Into the Stacks at the London Library

Shhhh. The London Library, that secret and impregnable hermitage of knowledge in St James’ Square, offers free tours.

Rosanna from No Fixed Abode Club wrote about our visit here. The Library is just about to embark on a new phase of building works to expand their collection of 1 million books (or 70 miles of shelving). While the collection is strongest in the humanities and the arts, there are books about cartography, biography and almost every edition of the Times newspaper can be browsed in vast broadsheet folios.

The building itself was one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. In fact, the bookshelves themselves are the load-bearing elements for the building, a clever way of utilising the weight of books to keep the building upright. When they move the books out of the stacks for the buildings works to take place, the library is expected to rise by a couple of feet.

We also heard about the library’s own literature festival, Words in the Square, which will debut this May. Expect speakers such as Sara Wheeler, Ian Hislop, Nick Hornby, Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Deborah Levy and Simon Schama.



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Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

When I started writing this post, I was in the midst of hating Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Now I realise, it’s not the book’s fault: I just don’t really like New York. Or I don’t like characters that don’t evolve and have perfect legs. Or I don’t appreciate books that make me want to drink way, way too much – rather like Chocolat makes one want to eat Thorntons. Or perhaps it made me fearful, being in my twenties, of the decisions that I am making that, the author warns, are the “individual choices [that] become the means by which life crystallizes loss”.

But there were other, structural difficulties I encountered. The level of debt to Breakfast at Tiffany’s or any of the Fitzgerald novels was maddening. The heavy dusting of literary references – Dickens, Wharton, James, Hemingway, Christie, T.S. Eliot – meant that the book had difficulty breathing for all the worthiness of the author’s reading list. Then there were the painfully stereotypical characters – brawny Yale types, sharp older women who live out of hotel suites, megalomaniacal magazine editors, matronly matrons, blonde midwestern girls… Boy could this book do with sounding a little less like a story that desperately wants to be made into a film. (The rights are currently in negotiation).

Katey Kontent, born in a dodgy part of New York is making her own sweet way up the secretarial chain as a bright, bored and beautiful young thing. She hangs out with rich Tinker Grey and her blonde-bombshell friend Eve, who end up in a car crash, leaving Eve disfigured but still gorgeous. Tinker and Eve leave together for Europe. Meanwhile Katey reaches the apex of her career at “quintessential” Quiggin and Hale, at which point she “quits”. Then a job for a week in a dusty publishing office before being snapped up by Conde Nast big-shot Mason Tate as his personal assistant. (And now I’m thinking Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, and the comparison isn’t exactly illuminating). Throw in sex in a bathtub, a speakeasy, a gun shoot, a down-and-out painter, a camel coat and a pair of diamond earrings – oh, and copious amounts of privilege, braying and booze – and this is the world Towles has conjured. Perfectly researched, but somewhat obsessed with The Great Gatsby.

Some will adore this. It’s indulgent, fun, frivolous. And there was, of course, the evident value of a book that I feel reluctant to put down. (Well, at least once I started skim-reading). But there were too many ostentatiously-researched asides: Tinker’s visit to London and his one-off appreciation for “Brits” and their shoemakers; Katey’s understanding of cards; the war and how one got there as WASP (on the Queen Mary, then hot-footing it out of Paris to go fight). Everything was right, it was the substance of the atmosphere, but history has a habit of leaving loose ends, and the asides were rarely revisited, never structurally important. You get the feeling they were more fun to write than to read.

One reviewer says: “All you care about is what Katey Kontent does next” (that’s Kontent, as in a state of being, not Kontent, as in the content of a book, Towles helpfully points out to us halfway through. As if the double-edged pun wasn’t already thriving in her name, as sophisticated as a fungus under damp plaster.) But no, I didn’t particularly care what Katey did next, but I was vaguely interested – a bit like someone you know as a friend-of-a-friend with a glamorous life you partially understand. I wasn’t convinced by the photographic exhibition that loosely underpins the whole narrative. I was confused by the sudden and infrequent shifts to Tinker’s perspective, marked by italics and the heavy-breathing third person. And I found I couldn’t care less about the denouement, absent as it was of any personal growth on the part of Katey. The real “character” (to steal a bad trope from any reviewer of the urban novel) is Manhattan – the place of dreams, possibilities, the place you don’t ever quite want to get to but want to spend your whole life in anticipation of it. Rules of Civility is a book, like Manhattan is a city, in which the excitement of the expectation (see, for instance, the best-seller lists of all the US east coast papers) fails to live up to the actuality. But it did make me long for a martini. Damn.

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A year of reading?


I’m making a special effort for 2013. One hundred books. As close as I can get. It started well. A chance discovery through my book club put me on the rich and wry trail of Alice Munro, the Canadian author of whom no one has ever heard but is about as famous as Margaret Atwood. I snapped up Dear Life, Runaway, The Beggar Maid and Too Much Happiness. I’m still carrying the smart resonances of her perfect, sad worlds – the girl who saves up her year hoping to see the man she met on the way to see Shakespeare and mistakes the snub from his mute, sick brother as a true response from her beloved. Or the woman with the woodworking husband who falls for his apprentice; years later, she discovers herself in a short story by the apprentice’s delicate daughter. Jonathan Franzen writes warmly of Munro, his sincere admiration for the pleasure of her storytelling – but, he says, her fame is dismayingly obscure to some for some simple reasons: she writes about people, she does not give her books titles with grand, national overtones, she does not give her readers the impression they are learning, strictly, anything from her text. She is hard to sum up. She is a pure short story teller. But, he writes, “She is speaking to you and to me right here, right now,” and that is all that matters.

Munro was followed by a few familiar favourites: The Hobbit (in honour of the film release) and When the Greenwoods Laugh (good old Bates discovered on the shelf of a B&B in the Lake District). Then some new finds: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (thanks to Murakami for stamina in my half marathon training), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (yes, I really did), Sweet Tooth (enigmatic, peculiar, diluted satisfaction from McEwan), Nemesis (my first Roth), and glorious finale on A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor. An interwar account of a young man walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople, he reminds me sharply of my friend Charlie, currently cycling around the major continental mass and blogging brilliantly, as well as my Iceland trip last year on the Laugavegur. Plans afoot now to walk the first part of PLF’s journey, complete with tiny knapsack and walking staff, this September.

So, to date: 14 books, excluding the two children’s books I read – I Want My Hat Back, and Katie Morag Delivers the Mail. They don’t really count, do they?

Which means I should be on track for about 80 books. Let’s see if holidays can make the difference.

What about you? Do you have goals of reading a certain number of books? How do you fit it in around work, etc.?

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The Mad Scene

Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards.  We had just met.  I watched
From outer darkness.  I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin,  The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward.  There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mare unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch?  I loved you.  And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
as the lean tree burst into grief.

—James Merrill, from In the House of Night: A Dream Reader

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