The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 3, 2014

2013 Bookwise 1

Happy New Year, folks. Here's wishing all good things in 2014!


Last year was a prodigious one book-wise. My decision to power my way through my local library's fiction - books under 200 pages - proved fruitful in manifold ways. I discovered new authors. I read a large number of translated works. Indeed, from my record-keeping of books read since 1982, the year 2013 has been particularly fertile: I read 234 books, which after the 248 in 1984 and 239 in 1997, is third in the ranks of prolificity (prolifitude? prolificness? prolification?)


On the other hand, I have discovered a newfound impatience with fat books. If so many books are sub-200 page and can state their cases in sparkling prose and taut plots, why waste time over chunky tomes? Avast, I say.

In particular, non-English authors seem to have mastered the art of concentrated writing. If nothing else, that discovery alone makes me grin from ear to ear. Thin books henceforth!


Okay, that's probably a bit extreme. 


2013 has been a year of remarkable discovery - a surfeit of superb writing. Alan Garner's Thursbitch was a linguistic tour-de-force and a moving piece of historical fiction. Equally lovely was George Mackay Brown's fictionalised exploration of the history of his native isles in Beside the Ocean of Time. A fictional autobiography of vividness was Dimitri Verhulst's The Misfortunates. Katie Kitamura's The Longshot was outstanding - a penetrating view into the world of machismo and competitiveness, written with terseness and barely suppressed power. Equal understanding and immersion in an alien world (that of Saudi life) was provided by Zoë Ferraris' wonderful trilogy (The Night of the Mi'raj, City of Veils, Kingdom of Strangers) - books with a glorious protagonist in Katia Hijazi. Herta Müller's The Passport was a deeply troubling and painful depiction of the tribulations of a Romanian German family during the corrupt and evil Ceausescu regime. Barry Unsworth's Morality Play equalled the brilliance of Alan Garner's novel mentioned above - a superbly written historical crime novel steeped in the idiom and atmosphere of medieval England. Another example of fine historical fiction was the farcical description of the snobberies and jazziness of 1930s Vienna in Alexander Lernet–Holenia's I Was Jack Mortimer. Vignettes of violent true crime, some bewilderingly Tarantino-esque, are the oeuvre of Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt is staccato, dry, and veers between the impersonal and deeply troubling. To round off the excellence of translated fiction, I would heartily recommend Hiromi Kawakami's Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is a gorgeous and whimsical love story between a loner and a perfectionist.

Leo Rosten's The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n provided hearty humour after the bleakness of much of my reading, as did Karan Mahajan's Family Planning. Erlend Loe's Lazy Days was a side-splitting story of obsession and middle-aged angst, and strangely prescient about the fate of Nigella Lawson.

Fantasy was well supported by Andrzej Sapkowski's Time of Contempt, one in a series starring Geralt of Rivia, an assassin of supernatural creatures. Sapkowski's characters are ironic and the books are darkly humorous, providing considerable relief from the usual black-and-white nature of common fantasy.

In non-fiction, my top reads would be Norman Davies' Vanished Kingdoms – The History of Half–Forgotten Europe, a timely reminder that even the mightiest empire is not far from obsolescence and the reasons for decrepitude are often folly and unforeseen consequences of ostensibly rational decisions; and Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame Be Great – Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus, on the terrible consequences of Russian state policy (both imperial and Communist) on the mountain peoples of the Caucasus.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the book recommendations. Will try out the historical fiction ones


Anonymous said...

Cannot decide what's more impressive - that you have kept records since 1982 or that you read 234 books last year. Bravo. If you read so much you must also enjoy the process of selecting books (I enjoy it almost as much the actual reading). It'd be interesting to hear about that.

Fëanor said...

JK: Please do review them yourself when you're done. Always good to get another opinion.
Nandana: The selection is not really systematic, except perhaps this past year when I was grabbing all fiction under 200 pages in my local library. Maybe another post on selection at another time...

Post a Comment