Monday, 6 January 2014

Chickens and luxury cars

This advert makes me feel quite happy but also slightly helpless, like there are too many things I understand but can't explain.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Reading in 2013

So I read less in 2013 than in 2012 and less in 2012 than 2011. I've worked out that at this rate I will read nothing at all in 2019. Here is the breakdown in the same way I've done it for the past two years.
  • Total number of books read: 155
  • Gender of authors of each book: 76 male, 79 female
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 134 to 21
  • Number of re-reads: 63
  • Number read on Kindle: 42 (27.1%)
I reread far more books than last year, and read far fewer on Kindle. This is probably because I've unpacked from boxes a lot of books I haven't seen in ages. And most of the really good stuff I read this year I have read before, which I suppose is also understandable, given that they've withstood multiple paperback culls by now.

It's been a bit of a disappointing reading year in terms of new things. I've read a lot of hyped stuff that I found very shallow. I'm not going to mention which, but at least Hilary Mantel and Michael Chabon did not let me down, with Bring Up the Bodies and Telegraph Avenue respectively. Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis and Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife are both very good, and also disconcerting -- the former because it's about a drugged up unfamiliar world and the latter because it points out the wierdness of normality. I enjoyed two books by Lynn Shepherd: Murder at Mansfield Park is set at a Mansfield Park where Fanny Price is much richer than her cousins rather than much poorer; and Tom All Alone's is based on Bleak House and brings out the uncanniness of Esther's narrative by replacing it with a very similar one by someone called Hester (though to be honest Esther's narrative has always been disconcerting). These are excellent examples of literary criticism as novel in the style of John Gardner's Grendel. Two odd but excellent sci-fi books are Leonard Richardson's Constellation Games and Eduardo Mendoza's No Word from Gurb. The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov is the sort of book I only come across on the tables in the Waterstone's by Exeter Cathedral, an interesting collection of strange stories by an obscure Russian author.

S by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is the most unusual book I read all year. It comes in a slip-case, pretending to be a stolen library book called The Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka, translated by one F. X. Caldeira, who has put in some rather odd footnotes. A English student and a disgraced post-grad who haunts the library where she works start having a conversation by adding notes to the margins of the book, trying to solve the question of the identity of V. M. Straka, an anarchist and possible murderer, perhaps part of a radical literary collective, whom even his translator never met. In the main novel a man with no memory emerges from the sea only to be shanghai-ed onto a strange boat where the silent crew do mysterious things in the orlop. In the margins the students argue, share stories, and flirt rather disfunctionally, and get caught up in something that could be simple academic rivalry but might be much more sinister. The really excellent thing is that the book is full of tucked-in replica postcards, newspaper clippings, even a scribbled map on a coffee shop napkin, and all in a variety of languages from Swedish to Czech (though provided with translations, naturally, since this is the subject of the post-grad's research). It's an excellent artefact, and very pleasing. I love that it so clearly draws on all sorts of high-brow things like Nabokov's Pale Fire or B. S. Johnson's pamphlet book, but it does it all entirely in aid of entertainment. It also reminds me of Corpus Christi College MS 41, often called a "book as archive" because of its marginal additions, and there are tons of other medieval manuscripts like this too. Apparently the manuscripts of Thomas Wyatt's poetry were like that too. Everything post-modern is really pre-modern.

In non-fiction, Carola Hicks' Girl in a Green Gown (about the Arnolfini Wedding) and Tom Reiss' The Black Count (about Dumas' father) were the best conventional history books I read. Tom Lubbock's English Graphic contains brilliant yet very readable writing on art. Soldaten freaked me out a bit. But perhaps a parallel to S, the most striking non-fiction book I read was Humphrey Jenning's Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers 1660-1886. Although this is apparently not to be called an anthology, really that's what it is -- a collection of excerpts from texts of the age of the Industrial Revolution. There are also some notes by Jennings, who seems to have been strongly of Blake and Ruskin's point of view. Apparently it inspired Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony thing, which I've never watched, so I don't know if it took the same line. This book is far more interesting than it sounds, and has all sorts of strange things in it (including the only bit of Smart's Jubilate Agno I've ever seen that isn't about his cat -- I must read that this year). I loved George Ticknor's 1835 description of going to see Babbage's calculating machine:
The first thing that struck me was its small size, being only about two feet wide, two feet deep, and two and a half high. The second very striking circumstance was the fact that the inventor himself does not profess to know all the powers of the machine; that he has sometimes been quite surprised at some of its capabilities; and that without previous calculation he cannot always tell whether it will, or will not work out a given table.
The idea of making a machine the powers of which you don't know is still pretty crazy today.