Category Archives: Reading List

2016 in Books

I cannot remember another year where I read so many books that made me sit back, close my eyes, and say to myself, “I haven’t read something like that in quite a while!

African Fiction

  1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The Wizard of the Crow (*****): A brilliant, satirical novel, set in a nameless African country, soon after its independence. A dose of the Latin American magical realists, but in its own unique way, and savagely funny. One of my books of the year. “Queues were a Marxist invention, according to the Ruler, having nothing to do with African culture, which is characterized by the spirit of spontaneity. Mass disorganization – pushing and shoving – was to be the order of the day…”
  2. Kossi Efoui, The Shadow of Things to Come (****): Like Thiong’o, set in a post-Independence African dictatorship, but much more pared-back, spare, almost coldly abstract. A great read, especially the bits about language and nationhood.
  3. Ahmadou Korouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (****): This was written before the two novels above, and you can see how they take some of its main themes, and build upon them. The story is told by an African griot. “Koyaga, you have many faults, grave faults. You were, you are as tyrannous as a savage beast, as untruthful as an echo, as brutal as a lightning strike, as murderous as a lycaon, as emasculating as a castrator, as populist as a griot, as corrupt as a louse, as libidinous as a pair of ducks. You are… You are… You have many other faults which if one were to try to expound them all, catalogue each one at a stroke, it would surely tear one’s mouth at the corners. So specifies the responder, redoubling his jeers, which draw a good-natured smile from him they appear to insult.”

South African Fiction (a separate category, since I was specifically seeking out South African novels)

  1. Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying (****): A powerful novel about South Africa’s first “professional mourner”, during the extreme violence of the transition.
  2. Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness (****): Moves between the Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s and post-colonial South Africa, where a village struggles to resist “development”. A savage and satirical take on the “new South Africa”, and the similarities with colonialism.
  3. Lewis Nkosi, Underground People (****): A political thriller set in the context of the armed resistance to the apartheid regime that exploded into violence a little before Transition – but also a deeply personal work.
  4. Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit (*****): One of my books of the year. An astonishing portrayal of the disintegration of a family in the years after the transition. Issues of race, colonialism, sex, personal relationships, and above all, the constant human need of myth-making and construction of meaning, are handled with deep and profound empathy.

Arab Fiction

  1. Elias Khoury, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol (****): Khoury’s latest novel doesn’t quite scale the heights of Gate of the Sun (honestly, what could?), but it is still a fantastic work, and has all the elements of classic Khoury: yearning, failed love, failed revolution, the weight of history, and such beautiful language. “Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight.”

Asian Fiction

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathiser (*****): An absolutely brilliant novel about the Vietnam War, written by a Vietnamese-American. Nguyen’s way with words, and with sentences, is unalloyed genius at work. One of my books of the year. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  2. Yasushi Inoue, The Hunting Gun (****): A marvellously contained novella that explores human feelings in a uniquely perceptive manner.

European Fiction

  1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda (***): This book was a birthday gift in 2012, but a complicated relationship with the person who gifted it meant that I only got around to reading it in 2016. Certainly worth the wait: this fantastical story set at the time of the Inquisition and presaging the invention of the aeroplane, was notable for a heavy dose of magical realism, and a scattered and fragmented form that still somehow held.
  2. Colm Toibin, The Master (*****): Toibin’s wonderful reconstruction of the life of Henry James, and his sensitive treatment of the failure of relationships, of intellectual isolation, and of the futility of things enduring… one of my favourite books of the year, perhaps one of my favourite books ever. “Only sentences are beautiful.
  3. Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds (**): A dense, modernist style that completely passed me by (unfortunately).
  4. Jose Eduardo Agualusa (***): A surrealistic story about the Angolan revolution, told from the perspective of a woman who barricades herself in her house for three decades, starting the day prior to Independence. I’m not sure what I made of this novel at all!
  5. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (***): Nothing like a Francophile Englishman writing about Flaubert!
  6. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (*****): I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Ferrante. As someone once said of Wodehouse, she “exhausts superlatives.”
  7. Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (*****): See above, but even better.
  8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (****): Finally got around to reading this classic.
  9. Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (***): From a writer I love and admire, this was… disappointing.
  10. Diane Meur, The House of Shadows (***): Poland during the tumultuous mid-19th century. The catch is that the narrator of the novel is a house – an old country mansion, that sees change, transformation, and all the accompanying joys and sorrows.

Latin American Fiction

  1. Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War (*****): Beautiful. And with an equally beautiful introduction by Sandra Cisneros. “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.”
  2. Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of the World (**): Came highly recommended, but I found it disappointing. Must be a subjective thing.

Indian Fiction

  1. Easterine Kire, When the River Sleeps (***): I picked this up at the Book Fair. An enjoyable (and a different kind of) novel about one man’s quest among the Naga forests.

Speculative Fiction

  1. Jo Walton, The Philosopher Kings (***): Book 2 of Walton’s Thessaly series, about the quest to set up and administer Plato’s Republic (and the ways in which it goes wrong, and right). This one didn’t quite reach the brilliance of Book 1, in my view. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  2. Patrick Flanery, I Am No One (***): A story of surveillance and loss of identity in the 21st-century world, that flickered promisingly, but didn’t quite succeed (in my view).
  3. Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges (****): A thrilling – and deeply political – novel about an alternate South Africa in which apartheid never ended. A twist of the knife at the end. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  4. Dietmar Dath, The Abolition of Species (***): An absolutely wild futuristic SF novel that I picked up at Seagull Bookshop in Calcutta. Brilliantly clever and inventive, talking about themes that you’d think need a new language and vocabulary of their own – but at times, almost consumed by its own cleverness!
  5. Nalo Hopkinson (ed.), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (***): A solid collection of short stories, aimed at decentering the SF canon.
  6. Nalo Hopkinson, Midnight Robber (***): An inter-planetary SF novel marked by dialogue in Caribbean American-English, and a very different way of storytelling. Very enjoyable.
  7. Patricia A. McKillip, Kingfisher (****): An almost-Brechtian SF novel by a writer who is normally known for her lush high fantasy. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  8. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (***): Finally got around to reading this chillingly dystopic story about a dying Earth.
  9. Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself (***): There should be a new genre called “Philoso-SF”, for books like this. Roberts’ novel is based on Kant’s argument about the nature of reality.
  10. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (****): The best of SF in this book: hard science combining with all the doubt and questioning about our place in the universe.
  11. Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (****): A sprawling and complex SF novel in a future utopia; maybe a trifle too complex at times!
  12. Jo Walton, Necessity (***): The final instalment of the Thessaly series, with Plato’s Republic now on another planet, and featuring time travel.
  13. Anil Menon, Half of What I Say (***): An interesting, genre-bending novel about a new-futuristic India with a tyrannical, all-powerful and militarised anti-corruption government unit. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  14. Yoss, Super Extra Grande (****): This Cuban SF writer was one of my finds of the year, courtesy Strange Horizons. This book is a rollicking space opera, with seven space-faring species, a lot of inter-species sex, “Spanglish” dialect, and a smash-and-grab in the tradition of the best space opera. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons.
  15. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City (****): The Soviet SF masters’ darkest, most enigmatic work about an imaginary city in which the Sun is switched on and off, and there is a “purpose” that nobody knows. They did not dare to publish it when it was first written (1973); it was published in 1989, and the translation came out this year.
  16. Yoss, A Planet for Rent (*****): See above, but even better. A Planet for Rent is a set of short stories in which earth has been colonised by superior spacefaring species, and turned into a holiday destination. The stories here are savagely funny and darkly beatiful.
  17. Hassan Blasim (ed.), Iraq +100 (****): A set of short stories imagining Iraq a hundred years after the American invasion (2103). Moves between genres and themes.

Historical Fiction

  1. Robert Harris, The Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator) (****): Robert Harris is a wonderfully atmospheric writer, and these three books about the life, rise, fall, and death of Cicero are evocative and deeply moving. Cicero’s epigram – “nothing dries more quickly than a tear” has stayed with me ever since I read the books almost a year ago.

Theatre

  1. John Paul Sartre, No Exit and Other Plays (****): I can’t follow Sartre’s philosophical writings, but I enjoyed his short stories in Intimacy, and I loved No Exit for its remarkably acute, almost forensic, excavations of the human character. Whether it was the eponymous play (three characters together in a room after death, and the famous phrase “Hell is other people“), a retelling of the Oresteia, or a wonderful drama about a Communist Party assassin whose interior landscape and moral assessment about his own actions is subservient to the Party’s ever-changing versions of history, these plays were gripping, evocative, and haunting.
  2. Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (*****): Every once a while, I come back to read this play, to be shaken inside out and to feel tears. Frayn’s play is set in heaven, where Niels Bohr, Bohr’s wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg meet again, and relive Heisenberg’s trip from Nazi Germany to meet Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, at the height of World War II, and talk about… what? The play is a speculation about what happened at the meeting, but is so much more than that: about science, about friendship, and about humanity.
  3. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 1 (*****): Brian Friel’s plays struck me like lightning bolts. I had never heard of him until a friend recommended his work; his plays are a masterful blend of the public and the private, the political and the personal, and they put you through an emotional wringer. Translations, in particular  – a play set during the time when the colonial English were bent upon renaming Gaelic names in Ireland, and dealing with love across linguistic and political boundaries – was haunting. There’s something about the Irish…  “Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?’ Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”
  4. Brian Friel, Plays: Volume 2 (****): See above.
  5. Athol Fugard, Plays: Volume 1 (****): The famous South African playwright, whose works are set in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape, blends the personal and the political in distinctive and empathetic ways. His characters are diverse and all memorable.

Essays/Other Non-fiction

  1. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry (****): So much wisdom, such depth and breadth of knowledge, such an acute sensitivity, and such self-awareness. This book of essays on various poets is a joy to read. “The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour.”
  2. Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe (***): A very well-written, enjoyablem and accessible introduction to existentialism, albeit with some irritating interpositions of the author’s political biases.
  3. Edmund White, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (***): An off-track travel-guide to Paris liberally sprinkled with doses of history and politics.
  4. Sue Roe, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art (***): A companion to The Private Lives of the Impressionists, this is an accessible and enjoyable introduction to that era in Montmartre when Picasso, Matisse and the rest lived in close proximity and created a whole new set of art forms. Guilty of a few omissions that might reflect a little less flatteringly on its protagonists.
  5. Edmund White, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (**): Entertaining at times, but a little too much name-dropping for the uninitiated.
  6. Dominique Eddie, The Crime of Gean Jenet (****): A very perceptive account of Genet.
  7. Tom Paulin, The Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (*****): A brilliant collection of essays taking various poets and discussing their work in the context of language and nationhood. Features mostly English and Irish poets, but there are also excursions (Zbigniew Herbert). His evisceration of Geoffrey Hill was particularly enjoyable.
  8. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Secure the Base (****): A fascinating set of reflections on colonialism, nationalism and language. These essays are made particularly interesting by the fact that Thiong’o consciously gave up writing in European languages in the 70s, and then wrote only in his native tongue, based on his view that language had to be liberated from colonialism as well.
  9. Bashir Abu-Manneh, The History of the Palestinian Novel: 1948 to Present (*****): a very accessible introduction to Palestinian novelistic literature after the nakba, that places it in the context of Pan-Arab politics (featuring Kanafani, Habibi etc.). Some truly eye-opening facts and analysis about the relationship between literature, politics, and revolution – highly recommended.

History

  1. Eric Hazan, The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps (*****): Eric Hazan’s historical reconstruction of one of the most enigmatic cities of the world is a joy to read; much of it is a work of political geography – taking us through each street, each neighbourhood, and telling us about its place in the economic, social, political and cultural history of the city. There are also brilliant sections on the history of revolutions in Paris (Victor Hugo does not come well out of this), and the invention of photography.
  2. Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (***): A fairly comprehensive – and basic – introductory text.

Memoirs/Biographies/Autobiographies

  1. Henri Alleg, Algerian Memoirs (*****): Picked up at The Seagull, a beautiful little bookshop in Calcutta, Algerian Memoirs is a wonderful account of the life of Henri Alleg, an important figure in Algeria’s liberation struggle against colonial rule. Alleg, originally a Frenchman, came to Algeria as a young man, and was a co-founder of its most important pro-liberation newspaper. Alleg was imprisoned and tortured by the colonial regime, and his account of his torture – La Question – was an important book and marked a turning point in the struggle. Algerian Memoirs is a great story of a tumultuous time, told with a clear eye and no sentimentality.
  2. Leopold Infield, Whom the Gods Love: The Story of Evariste Galois (*****): This is a beautiful biography of Evariste Galois, the great mid-nineteenth century French mathematician and political revolutionary, who was killed in a duel at the age of 21. Through the extraordinary and tumultuous life of Galois (expelled from school for pro-revolutionary sentiments and imprisoned twice), it also paints a gripping story of France in the throes of violence and revolution.
  3. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (***): Hemingway’s spare – yet moving – account of writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s. His description of Shakespeare and Co – the bookshop – stood out.
  4. Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land Between (*****): A beautiful and haunting book about a son’s search for his father, who was vanished by the Gaddafi regime. I reviewed it for The Wire.
  5. Dikgang Moseneke, My Own Liberator (*****): From Robben Island to Deputy Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court, via a successful law practice, surviving assassination attempts, and overseeing the first democratic election in South Africa. This is an extraordinary story of an extraordinary life.

Poetry

  1. Tom Paulin, Love’s Bonfire (***): An interesting – if somewhat uneven – collection.
  2. Alastair Reed, Weathering (****): Small, contained, and wonderfully shaped poems. A poem about his dying father was among the best (My Father, Dying)
  3. Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems (*****): I discovered – and fell in love with – Zbigniew Herbert, and his contained poetry that disavows romanticism and grand narratives, but takes no refuge in cynicism. Elegy of Fortinbras is my personal favourite. “What I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.
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2015: The Year in Books

It’s been another year of fascinating literary discoveries. I’ve been able to re-engage with my first love, fantasy and science fiction (seeking out a mix of the canonical and the contemporary). I’ve tried to read more non-fiction (essays) than usual. In some ways, this has been compelled: taking up a day job that requires long periods of non-stop work, interspersed with sudden and unexpected breaks, has necessarily shaped the kind of reading I’ve been able to do – one that is amenable to jerky stop-start bursts. This was certainly why I was unable to finish Cities of Salt, the kind of novel that requires painstaking continuity – and also perhaps why I’ve been able to review less than I’d have liked, since it’s been so difficult to find those uninterrupted three hours that one needs to think through, structure, and write a review. One of the resolutions for 2016 must be to find those pockets of time!

Picks of the year :Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Here goes – impressionistic grades out of five, and one-sentence summaries, as ever:

European Fiction:

  1. Sandor Marai, Embers (****): An explosive novel about memory and desire, in the background of pre-War and inter-War Europe stifled by social conventions. Reminiscent of Ismail Kadare, in its atmospherics.
  2. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (****): Classic Kundera, savage, uncompromising, darkly funny.
  3. Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City (***): Vintage Kadare, with a few twists. Not as convincing as the rest of his work.
  4. Colm Toibin, The South (****): Gossamer-silky story of love, solitude, and loss, moving between Barcelona and Ireland (two places I’ve never been to, but dream of all the time)
  5. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (***): Surreal group of short stories (the precursor of magic realism, it is said), with some painfully sharp imagery.
  6. John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (****): Finally got around to reading this classic, and absolutely loved this. Perhaps one of the first instances of meta-fiction; and definitely, a keen and acute sense of gender politics.
  7. Ismail Kadare, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (***): Another Kadare novel about honour, death and the Kanun in mountainous Albania. Not quite as powerful as Broken April.

Asian Fiction:

1. Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (*****): One of my picks of the year. A sprawling novel about 20th Century Indonesian history, sprinkled with a dose of magic realism and a topping of dark humour. Reminiscent of Llosa at his best.

2. Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (**): Sruggled with this for 150 pages, and then dropped it. Heretical thought: maybe Pamuk has run out of things to say.

Latin American Fiction:

1. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (****): Llosa’s sheer versatility never ceases to amaze. This novel is pure jouissance, with a single-minded focus on the erotic that reminded me of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but much more, er, palatable.

2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Of Love and Other Demons (****): I’m not a great fan of Marquez, but this was my favourite out of the ones that I’ve read. Taut and tightly-paced, with some truly memorable characters.

North Africa/Middle East/Arab Fiction

1. Ahdaf Souief, The Map of Love (***): A riveting politico-love story set during the heady days of 19th century Egyptian anti-colonialism; tended to get a little too descriptive towards the end, and could have been shorter.

2. Latifa Zayyat, The Open Door (*****): Set in the Egypt leading up to Nasser’s revolt, often called the first Arab feminist novel; depicts events that were contemporaneous with the setting of Mehfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, but from a very different lens. One of my stand-out reads of the year.

3. Kamel Daoud, The Merseult Investigation (****): A brilliant story, told from the perspective of the brother of the unnamed Arab shot dead in Camus’ Stranger. In the tradition of post-colonial reclamation of memory and humanity, such as Aime Cesaire’s A Tempest. Read this through the lens of Edward Said.

4. Abdul Rahman Munif, Cities of Salt (***): The canonical novel about the tragedy that befalls an Arab oasis-village after oil is discovered beneath their land. I must confess, I had to abandon this novel half-way. It is clearly a vital and essential work, but the dense description, after a point, made it very difficult to sustain, especially with my stop-start reading schedules.

African Fiction:

     1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (***): Finally got around to reading this canonical work, for a book club. Did not resonate with me as much as Anthills of the Savannah, or his book of essays, but I can sense how it was pathbreaking for its time and place.

2. Nuruddin Farah, Crossbones (***): A harrowing novel about journalism in war-torn Somalia. Tended to get a little too descriptive at times, but an essential read.

Indian Fiction:

  1. Perumal Murugan, One Part Woman (***): I bought this out of a sense of political solidarity, as much as anything else. It felt like a great book bogged down by (what I thought was) an uninspired translation.
  2. Aditya Sudarshan, The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi (***): An eerie politici-fantastical thriller, with some acute observations about urban Indian society, but an unsatisfactory ending.

Fantasy and Science-Fiction

1. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Time Wanderers (*****): The Soviet duo have probably written some of the greatest science-fiction in the history of the genre, but continue to be relatively unknown. The Time Wanderers is less popular even within their oeuvre, but I found it absolutely brilliant (especially the premise, and the ending).

2. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard To Be A God (****): Translated for the first time directly from Russian, I reviewed this for Strange Horizons (here). The premise is utterly brilliant, the execution not always so. Still very much word a read. The Paris Review also carried an article on this earlier this year (here).

3. Robert Jackson Bennett, The City of Stairs (****): Good, old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute, stay-up-till-4AM-reading epic fantasy involving Gods, heroes, and a city of stairs.

4. Anthony Trevelyan, The Weightless World (***): An interesting debut SF novel set in Maharashtra (!). I reviewed it for Strange Horizons (here)

5. Karel Capek, RUR and War With the Newts (****): The author who coined the word “robot”. This classic of SF comes with a sharp, brilliant introduction by Adam Roberts.

6. M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart (**): I utterly loved Viriconium. I was expecting more of the same from this one, but it failed to convince. Seemed to be trying too hard, at times.

7. Samuel R. Delaney, Babel-17 (*****): The canonical SF novel from the 60s is worth its fame. Brilliant exploration of the link between language and the construction of reality, set in the background of thrill-a-minute space opera.

8. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (***): Had heard a lot about it, so approached it with very high expectations – which, perhaps inevitably, it did not live up to. Still, an enjoyable epic-fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist, and some vivid imagery.

9. Salman Rushdie, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (**): Takes itself too seriously, is too self-conscious about its politics, and didn’t really work (for me).

10. China Mieville, Three Moments of an Explosion (**): Definitely heretical, but I think China Mieville should stick to novels (which he’s brilliant at).

11. Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (***): A reliably consistent SF novel from Atwood. I reviewed it for Strange Horizons here.

12. Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road (***): I have very conflicted feelings about this SF novel, set in India and Africa fifty years hence, in a world in which India and China are competing in a new “scramble for Africa”. One of the protagonists is an Indian woman – rather rare in SFF! I participated in a Strange Horizons Book Club discussion about the novel here.

13. Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (***): Lovely, dense, old-school fantasy writing, with intricate world building, layered histories and myth, and conflicted characters. Almost too dense at times, if that makes sense.

14. Jo Walton, The Just City (*****): Beautiful SF novel about Athena’s attempts to recreate Plato’s Republic on an island out of space and time. The kind of novel that is stark in its simplicity, but haunts you for long after.

Miscellaneous Non-Fiction

1. Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature (****): Toibin’s portrait of eight writers, whose identities were at least partially shaped by their sexuality, is a beautiful read, albeit a little inconsistent.

2. V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (N/A): Orientalist, racist, and unreadable.

3. Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity (*****): Technically, this is an academic work of history, but is written so lucidly and simply, that it reads like a story. The account of a slave rebellion on board a ship of the West coast of South America is a powerful and moving tale. A must-read.

4. Italo Calvino, The Road to San Giovanni and Other Essays (****): Six essays that typify Calvino’s ethereal, feather-light touch.

5.  Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (*****): Read this twice – once in March, and then a second time while wandering in Mexico City and Chiapas. Paz’s epistle to Mexico is a thing of beauty.

6. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (***): Fell in love with this the first time I read it, three years ago. Now, in light of all the reading I’ve done in the intervening years, no longer sounds quite as impressive. In particular, the construction of a “Europe” seems essentialist and ahistorical, and the omission of Empire in the historical account of the development of the novel, particularly glaring.

7. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (***): Beautiful, apart from the extended theological musings.

8. Colm Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop (*****): I’ve always enjoyed Bishop. Toibin makes her look like an unvarnished genius. Beautiful set of reflections by one of the finest writers alive today, on a very talented poet.

9. The Edward Said Reader (*****): Collection of essential Edward Said writings across his life and career. One of the seven or eight books always by my bedside table.

Bring on 2016!

 

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2012 Wrap-up

I’m flying back home for New Year with the family, and will have only dubious access to the internet until January 8. So, slightly early, here is my 2012 reading list. I’m going to do two – rather foolish – things with it. First, try to sum up (mad pursuit!) what I consider to be the essence of the book in a sentence. And secondly, rate it on a very simplistic rating scale. I don’t think I’ve read any bad book this year, so the rating system is: * for a good, solid, decent read; ** for something very good; *** for excellent; ***** for brilliance in writing, plot, characterisation or even in episodes (insert appropriate markers for poetry); and ***** for, well, life-changing. I know this simplifies to the point of distortion, but for want of anything better…

A. Literary fiction

1. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables: Annoyed by the constant preachy moralizing, enthralled by the richness of description (Waterloo, sewers, slang), and utterly enraptured by the scope, colour and movement of the 1831 Revolution. ***

2. Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere: A savage – yet brilliant – indictment of youth, lyricism and revolution, and their inevitable, tragic entanglement. ****

3. A.S. Byatt, Possession: Tedious and over-described at points, gripping at times, and fairly compelling both in its parallel descriptions of two love stories spanning two centuries and two very different societies, as well as its account of the literary academic life. **

4. J.L. Borges, Ficciones: Takes our conceptions of time, space and existence, and twists them around until they become unrecognizable, until dreams mingle with reality and we can’t tell the two apart, until our heads are absolutely exploding. *****

5. Oscar Wilde, The Collected Short Stories: Light, darkness and dappled shadows characterise these short stories, ostensibly for children, but clearly of much greater depth – and also, incidentally, possessing in one of them the most brilliant subversion of the soul-body relationship that I’ve come across. ***

6. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel: Borges, in his preface, calls this the perfect novel, and you can understand why – “brilliant” simply doesn’t do justice to the force and power of this short novel to radically destabilise our firmest convictions about the human condition. *****

B. Speculative Fiction

1. Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (re-read): Epic fantasy in the time of the troubadours, and quests, wars, love and poetry, all in language that wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkien. ***

2. Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (re-read): Epic fantasy set in a world resembling the Italian city-states of medieval times, with a dash of sorcery, and a wonderful theme of memory, loss and the power of naming. ****

3. China Mieville, Railsea: Classic Mieville – a brilliant premise, outstanding writing, and an ending that goes out like a damp squib. **

4. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris: I always knew this was part of the SF canon, and now I know why – a profound treatment of the eternal themes of love, memory and humanity, all of which intertwine beautifully within a hard, scientific setting – I cannot recommend this highly enough. ****

C. Poetry

1. Lermontov, Collected Poetry: Brooding, melancholy, ironic and deeply compelling. ***

2. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: —- *****

3. Borges, Collected PoetryA wealth of references, most of which I’m sure I missed, weaving in his pet ideas about time and space into verse, and filled with delightful imagery. ****

4. Milton, Paradise Lost (re-read): Things unattempted yet – or since – in prose or rhyme. *****

5. Virgil, Aeneid (re-read): Epic, lyrical, stirring, passionate – of course, but so much more – musings on the ever-unattainable ideal in the beautiful image of an always-reaceding shoreline, meditations on Empire, a “private voice” that subverts the dominant paean to Rome even as it is being established, constant defamiliarisation of comfortable bracketed categories of good and evil, civilised and barbarian, us and the other. *****

D. Drama

1. Ibsen, Love’s Comedy: Flawed, of course, but brilliantly compelling while reading, and stays with you for a long time afterwards – another destabilizing analysis of the ideas of love, permanence, decay and time. **

2. George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma: One of the few works I’ve come across where a modern writer manages to insert a classical moral dilemma in the style of Greek tragedy without sacrificing plot, pacing, dramatic intensity or anything else, for that matter. **

3. Chekhov, Uncle Vanya: Admittedly, extremely powerful, but I was left numbed, depressed and with the unshakeable – although temporary – conviction that there was nothing in this world but sheer hopelessness. **

4. Goethe, Faust: Musings on the clash between radically opposed world-views of romanticism and the enlightenment, the fragility and incompleteness of all human endeavor, the agony of that realisation, and what a man can do – or wish for – to overcome that agony. ****

E. History

1. John MacLeod, Highlanders: A History of the Gaels: I bought this book at Culloden Museum, while traveling in my beloved Scottish highlands, and found it to be a solid and informative – if unspectacular – account of the history of that tragic region. *

2. James Hunter, Glencoe and the Indians: Beautifully weaved together the stories of the Highlanders and the Native Americans as victims of Empire (as well as mercantile capitalism), with deeply moving accounts of Glencoe, of Wounded Knee, of the Trail of Tears, of the Ghost Dance (and so many more), that all seemed to fit together in one litany of the crimes of colonialism. ***

F. Essays

1. Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An erudite analysis of the European novel, the art and nature of translation, and in particular, Kafka. ***

2. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novels: Focuses almost entirely on the history and evolution of the European novel, in the broader context of European culture (music and art) as well – lyrically written and painstakingly analysed, an exhilarating read. ****

3. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Essays: His thesis on the meaning, nature and purpose of art – the erudition and detail is astounding, and his ideas deeply challenging and subversive – a must-read, especially the four essays on art. *****

4. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism: Probably extremely outdated now, but I did find some good ideas in there. *

5. Hazlitt, Essays on Shakespeare: The interesting thing about these essays is that rather than subjecting the plays to an overarching analysis of theme, plot, characterisation, language etc. – Hazlitt instead picks out one or two themes from each play that he finds specifically interesting, or worthy of analysis, and the result is extremely thought-provoking. ***

6. Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Western Drama: The fact that this was written in the 18th century and reflects the deep-sated prejudices of the time hardly takes away from the fact that it is a brilliant, detailed and erudite birds-eye view (if that isn’t an oxymoron) of the development of the European drama from Aeschylus down to the time of Schlegel, with stopovers in France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy. ***

7. Borges, Collected Essays: See description of Ficciones, and add to that some very thought-provoking analyses of Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge and The Arabian Nights, to take just a few examples. *****

8. Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism: I cannot now imagine reading and appreciating Baudelaire, or the broader context in which he wrote, without having read Walter Benjamin’s stunning analysis of 19th century France and the themes of Baudelaire’s poetry. (Thanks, Aparna, for the heads-up)

G. Miscellaneous

1. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy: Intoxicating and heady, but ultimately, once the (Dionysian) madness wears off, fails to persuade. **

2. Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents: Disturbing and rings disturbingly true. ***

3. Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends: The Inklings at Oxford, of the creation of Narnia and Middle-Earth, of drinks at The Eagle and Child and strolls along Addison’s Walk – what more could a Tolkien-and-Oxford-lover want? ***

**

I also have the beginnings of a proposed 2013 reading list.

1. Jose Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda

2. Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (I saw the review over on ANZ LitBlogs, and knew immediately that I have to read this one).

3. Proust, Swann’s Way (but only after June, and the ending of the academic year!)

Any suggestions of any kind would be appreciated. I know the 2012 list doesn’t really give you anything to go by, since it is utterly random, but I’m game for trying anything, time permitting.

Have yourselves a great last few days of 2012, and a lovely 2013, everyone.

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