On Reading, Part One

Some years, I make a list of books I'd like to read that year. Some years I give up halfway through, some years I barely scratch the surface of the list before giving up entirely, other years I get a fair whack of the way through it before I find other books to distract me and I never finish it. So this year, I thought I'd stick to a small list of books that I'd like to read, have been meaning to read, have never got around to reading, that I should've read before now but haven't, and see how far I get through it. As a loose kind of rule, there has to be a modicum of classics balanced by a similar quantity of newer books. Books that make awards lists are generally avoided, as I have found that more often than not, they’re not exactly wholesome and rewarding books. Bear in mind, though, that I will not elaborate upon every book I read, just some that I feel deserve it.

I started this year with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong which, to be honest, I read because I saw the trailer for the BBC’s adaptation of it over Christmas and thought it looked pretty good. But I didn’t like the book – there was something too aware about it, too aware of its ‘period’ setting, something about it was too unsubtle, too inyourface. Towards the end of the book, if you’d been bothered to pay attention to anything that had been going on, you would’ve been able to work out how the story ended by yourself, but Faulks spelt it out for you anyway in minute detail, effectively overstating its plot and themes, tying the loose ends up too explicitly. Sometimes I don’t quite see what all the fuss about some books is all about; this was such a case – it just seemed too concerned with depicting WWI that it became entrenched in its own purpose and raison d’être.

Night Street, by Kristel Thornell, is already one of two frontrunners for the best book I’ve read this year. Compared to Birdsong, there was something exquisitely subtle and elliptical about it, something very much like a painting about it in that it stood rather perfectly by itself as a whole book, but little by little as you read it, parts of it would become more prominent and more noticeable, the details more finely tuned, and it seemed to come alive. I think it was also a conscious thing too, in that being about a painter, it was also about painting, the process as well as the finished works, and how life is kind of like a painting, or a canvas at least (see earlier post.) It didn’t draw attention to itself, it just was; and for a book, that’s pretty much perfect.

Will, by Christopher Rush, was nothing short of brilliant. A ventriloquistic novel about William Shakespeare writing his last will and testament, it was written in his voice, incorporated lines from his work and rambled throughout his life, elaborating upon stories and creating a world of such beauty, warmth, rawness and pain that it made sense of some of the plays. ‘Tempests are kind,’ Will says at one point about his comedy plays, ‘and shipwrecks do save lives.’ Not only was it beautifully written, but it did not shy away from being about the man behind the plays, being full of a human warmth and desire and lust and drive, it really did seem to be written by the man himself, and is the other contender for the best book I’ve read this year.

I finished reading The Hobbit yesterday. It’s been eleven or so years since I read it last (first), and I’d forgotten how much fun it is, how different it is to The Lord Of The Rings. I don’t need to explain it, because no doubt you’ve read it, but it really was quite wonderful to lose yourself in it for a few days. Also, it makes the upcoming films both eagerly-awaited and long-expected, a bit like Bilbo’s party really.

Next up, is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I was talking to Gramps yesterday about how I didn’t mean to get it, I just did. It was there on the shelf at the library so I thought ‘why not?’ Russian literature, I continued (bearing in mind that I have not read any of it before now), seems to comprise of thick heavy doorstops of books, like Dr Zhivago, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, that can be stripped back to a strong central storyline that is solidly grounded in the late nineteenth century. A bit like the Russians themselves, said Gramps, solidly based, hardy, rugged up against the cold in their big coats and hats; solid. And it’s rather true, no matter how much of a cliché it might be. I’ve often meant to read some but haven’t had time or just haven’t bothered, so now is as good a time as any, I thought. Three years ago, I watched David Lean’s Dr Zhivago and loved it – there was something so wonderfully evocative about the snowy landscapes, the snow-and-ice-covered house, the woods and the train journeys – the whole film really – that made me want to read more of those books.

What I’ve read this year, part one
Will, Christopher Rush
Shakespeare’s Lost Play, Gregory Doran
The Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
Men At Arms, Terry Pratchett
Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan
Night Street, Kristel Thornell
The Chemistry of Tears, Peter Carey (unfinished)
Almost French, Sarah Turnbull
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

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