Saturday, 31 December 2016


I love the yearly recap. It’s fun to look back and remember what I read. It’s like taking a quick bite out of all the meals you ate this year, one after another. I find I’m often reminded of where I was when I read a particular book – that sun lounger, or that flight – or sometimes of what I was trying to avoid while reading it. Reading the posts themselves is also very weird, in that I’ve often forgotten what I thought of the book at the time, and it’s strange to encounter what must be my own narrative voice, and to meet myself again from the outside.

What’s the best of the year? There were not any huge standouts, as has sometimes happened, but lots of books I really enjoyed. I have a huge fondness for THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, which this person who wrote my blog described as ‘like drinking family life from a firehose’. I also enjoyed SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth book in his wonderfully dull saga of his life; THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley, an unusual coming-of-age story, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma, a fun story of heroin addiction and sex work.

There were books I’m less grateful for. I gave up a lot of books this year – about ten – which is unusual for me. I think as I get older I realise how short a single life span really is, and am more careful what I spend it on. I really loathed WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt, and THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson, both equally uptight stories of the British bourgeoisie, and THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen, an unnecessarily fraught tale of adolescent love.

For the second year in a row, I managed to read about as many women as men, which I’m happy about, though it was not a particular goal.

My books have been a real joy to me, this year, as every year. I’m so grateful for all of them, both the good and the bad, and for all the people who wrote them for me. They’ve taken me to Libya, and the Discworld, to the First World War and 1970s New York, to Tsarist Russia and future London. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them

1) MISLAID by Nell Zink
2) WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt
3) LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker
4) THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
5) MORT by Terry Pratchett
6) HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
7) THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson
8) YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
9) SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard
10) A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
11) GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
12) NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
13) NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
14) FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev
16) MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring
17) BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
19) THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons
20) THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead
23) BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey
24) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
26) THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
27) THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage
28) BEING BROOKE by Emma Hart
31) THE BEACH by Alex Garland
32) GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
33) PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma
34) THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
35) THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
36) THE RETURN by Hisham Matar
37) MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub
38) THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras
39) THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Gacigalup

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.

THE RETURN by Hisham Matar

I love the end of the year, because it gives me a chance to read all the “Best of the year” lists and thereby find new books. THE RETURN was on many of 2016’s lists, and it is indeed a fine book. It’s the true account of a family’s twenty five year search for their father, who was disappeared by the Gaddafi regime. He was abducted in Cairo, with the active connivance of the Mubarak regime, and for some time his family thought he would soon be back – his wife recorded football matches for him for months – but in fact he never returned; or, at least, he has not so far.

The story is in many ways deeply familiar, the terrible story of the disappeared all over the world, but’s it beautifully and honestly told here:
When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle

I learnt a great deal about Libya while reading this book. While I knew Gaddafi was a monstrous dictator, of course, I did not realise that he was also crazy – like Idi Amin levels of crazy. Apparently there was a rumour of a prison actually underneath his compound in Tripoli, which most people did not believe. After the revolution, they found there was indeed a prison, buried deep underground, for his most notable opponents – “both the living and the dead. Freezers were discovered there with the bodies of long deceased dissidents.”

He also enjoyed darkly comic dictator behaviour. For example, once he set a trap: He "invited young literary talent to take part in a book festival, then arrested them.” He held most of them for ten years. I still find it hilarious that among Gaddafi’s last words to the soldiers who found him in the culvert (after some no doubt enjoyable begging for mercy) was “What did I do to you?”

Matar describes himself as “infantilised by exile” as “if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya,” and covers the back and forth of immigrant life very well:
Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Lydia. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.. . . In the thirty years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled into indefinite exile the following year; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of 15 for my studies and where for 29 years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me . . . that old tiresome question “where are you from?” And I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, “New York”
. However he never quite manages this, because as he explains:
I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who, unlike me have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect – this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.

The book focuses on Hisham’s return to Libya immediately after Gaddafi’s fall. There he is able to meet many old men, who have been released from various prisons as the regime has collapsed, and is able to see that his father is not among them. It is almost a relief:
For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me. Now I can say, I am almost free of it. All that remains are a few scattered grains

Already sad, this book is made sadder by what has happened to Libya since his return - the brief hopeful period after Gaddafi's fall has been followed by full civil war. Clearly this is a great book; it's made me mourn a country I barely know.

THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

Let me tell you that Marguerite Duras had a tough childhood. This semi-autobiographical novel gives the outlines. Poor, white, French Indochina. Unstable mother makes a terrible investment in farmland which then sinks into the sea. Older brother has a gambling problem and is unhealthily attached to unstable mother. Teenage girl wears old dresses of her mother’s (“It’s the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear,” she tells us, as if we all know what that’s like), and strange gold evening shoes, and a man’s fedora. One day on the ferry across the Mekong to boarding school, which she is the only white student, she meets a Chinese millionaire, and becomes his mistress. Everyone believes it must be for the money, and so she tells them, but in fact it is some kind of wild romance, with lots of showering each other and weeping. His father won’t let him marry her, and eventually her mother sends her off to France. She doesn’t see her family again for decades, not so much because of the shame as the cost of travel by ship.

This is the sharp end of the colonial experience, and is a beautiful, dream like sort of book, capturing Vietnamese gardens by night, mixed race high schools of the 1930s, and family dysfunction in a strange and gorgeous way. Here’s a taste, in speaking about her mother, who while unstable was also indomitable in her own way:
She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon – the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valour, human, absurd, that I see true grace.

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

Enjoyable story about a pair of families in New York. Sort of tiptoed around being literary fiction, but ended up simply well plotted and briskly paced. Largely forgettable, and indeed I’ve almost already forgotten it.


I’ve abandoned a lot this year, and often when I was quite some way through. Most recently:

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY by Robert James Waller: Rare example of movie being better than book. Book is horrible schmaltz

VOSS by Patrick White: This sounded so good – foundational text of contemporary Australian literature, love story based on real life nineteenth century German botanist who journeyed into the Outback – what could go wrong? Everything apparently

Friday, 30 December 2016


I had five minutes of wifi available before we left a Bangkok hotel, and so I downloaded Thoreau’s WALDEN. I had a long flight ahead of me, and I suddenly thought – really? No doubt it is a towering classic but it may also be a very dull account of living by some pond. So with two minutes remaining I chose a title from the bestseller lists. This is partly so I was sure of having something pacey and plotty to read, but also because as regular readers will be aware I just finished a mass market thriller (Paula Hawkins’ GIRL ON THE TRAIN) and figured maybe I am just that kind of person now – the kind of person who reads mass market fiction.

Apparently I am not yet that person. I did read it, and it made the flight pass, but it was sort of lame. Girl is in love with gorgeous best friend who is with obviously inappropriate girlfriend. You pretty much know the plot from there. It was all set in Georgia, and everybody was very salt of the earth. There was a lot of stuff which I found surprising but the characters seemed to think was quite normal: people fighting in bars, littering like it wasn’t a big deal, and talking about PMS as accounting for womens’ behaviour. I guess this is what Trump voters mean when they say ‘real’ America. Shiver.