Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reading in 2014

I read too many books in 2014. I think next year I will try replacing every fourth book with a hearty walk or something. Here is a breakdown:
  • Total number of books read: 217
  • Gender of authors of each book: 107 male, 108 female, 2 not sure
  • Number of non-fiction: 22 (10.1%)
  • Number of re-reads: 66 (30.4%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 89 (41%)

As usual, many of the best books I've read this year have been rereads, but I have read some good new stuff too. I think the most memorable books I've read are the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. They're set in the near future after something odd has happened somewhere on the American coast. It starts with a research expedition, the eleventh or twelfth, entering the affected area. Everyone on it is known just by their job title; one of them, the biologist, lost her husband to the previous expedition. When I read the books I thought they were good but not startling, but they stayed in my mind for ages.

My favourite new author of the year is probably Angela Thirkell. She's like a less snide E.F. Benson, or a softer version of P.G. Wodehouse, or a more middle-class (and less brilliant) Jane Austen. She wrote many gentle social comedies set in the 1930s or so. The Brandons is probably a good starting point. It's about an attractive and lovable widow, adored by everyone, with two grown-up children. Her deceased husband's dying aunt summons them all so she can decide who is to be her heir, and mild but interesting social problems ensue.

I loved Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and so did my mother. Karen Joy Fowler is a very good author and everything I've read by her has been great, including the odd sci-fi-ish Sarah Canary. Also loved by my mother, but more straightforwardly a fun book, is Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway, the story of a man who loves pheasant shooting and comes back as a pheasant after he dies. It has talking dogs in it without being sentimental. Also excellent are the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, a series of murder mysteries solved by a bratty upper-class neglected little girl. I also like Marie Brennan's Lady Trent memoir books. They are set in a Victorian-like world with dragons and are about a woman's struggle to be accepted as a serious naturalist in a very constricted world. Unusually they also deal with the problems of class.

Unsurprisingly Kate Atkinson's Life After Life is great. I quite liked Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries but I thought her The Rehearsal was really brilliant, conveying the strangeness of female adolescence.

In non-fiction, John Drury's biography of George Herbert was very good. But probably the most surprising book I enjoyed this year was Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel Von Grimmelshausen. This is a seventeenth-century picaresque novel set during the Thirty Years' War and was actually very readable and good. I found it on the Classics shelves of the excellent Waterstone's by the cathedral in Exeter. Apparently Thomas Mann said about it:
It is the rarest kind of monument to life and literature, for it has survived almost three centuries and will survive many more. It is a story of the most basic kind of grandeur - gaudy, wild, raw, amusing, rollicking and ragged, boiling with life, on intimate terms with death and evil - but in the end, contrite and fully tired of a world wasting itself in blood, pillage and lust, but immortal in the miserable splendour of its sins
though presumably he said it in German.