A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Lately …

Lately I’ve listened to a lot of music, intensely, for two to three hours a day. My musical taste is shaped by the punk era, though by the time I discovered punk, it was all over. I’m a child of the post-punk period. Those are my formative musical years – about the only time I wish I was ten, even five years older is when I dream of being present for the early years of the Sex Pistols and the Bromley contingent. But it is post-punk that I still turn to: bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, it has survived a lot better than most of the earlier punk stuff, which sounds crusty.

I’ve also been playing a fair amount of classical music, Schubert, Sibelius, Pärt, Ligeti and, of course, Beethoven whose late music is rough, abstract, beautiful and I’m kidnapping him as protopunk. The whole 60s-70s musical thing bores me to tears, with the exception of 70s Bowie (and from time to time, Dylan). I’m glad that I’m far too young to not remember the sixties. Jazz, which mostly I don’t get and what I do like is inextricably caught up with context, mostly from reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Colour of Memory, hence Mingus, Monk, Chet Baker, but dominated by Miles Davis, mostly because he so fucking cool.

Lately I’ve been to the cinema at least once a week, mainstream films like American Hustle (intelligently written, captivating), Wolf of Wall Street (usual bloated Scorcese male-ego study), and Gravity (silly but technologically fascinating). Despite twice lapping up all fifteen hours of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, my film tastes feel uncultured. I’ll watch Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Yasujirō Ozu films with great pleasure, but also with the sense that I am missing a lot of depth and meaning. Watching Room 237 (after reading Molly Laich’s top 2013 films list) showed me depths to my favourite horror film The Shining that I hadn’t even considered after watching it at least a dozen times.

Lately, surprise, surprise, I’ve also been reading a lot. Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination is one of the most intelligent, sensitive readings of art and literature that I’ve read, ever. Both Carole Maso books were worthwhile but I preferred Defiance to Ava. Defiance succeeded in making a female psychopath multi-layered and sympathetic. It is also deeply upsetting. There were many beautiful moments in Ava but for me its fragmentary form never quite cohered into a sustained narrative, and I’m ambivalent about the literary romanticising of cancer and death. I had a fascinating debate on Twitter with @DeathZen about Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. In a moment of afterglow I compared it to Greek tragedy, a bit silly, but its portrayal of mental collapse and fury is reminiscent of the aftermath of Jason’s desertion of Medea. Ferrante is no Euripides but she can write with great potency, and to borrow a phrase from James Woods, is able to rip ‘the skin off the habitual’. I’m reading Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal, which is quietly devastating, immensely personal, and also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Carole Maso’s Defiance

How to purge the horror. Not possible. At best give it shape and name.

Incarcerated, awaiting the death penalty, the protagonist of Carole Maso’s Defiance, depicted in the tabloids as a modern-day Medea, gently discloses her devastating, destructive life. Presenting the novel as the journal of an unrepentant double-murderer gives Maso the freedom to explore a story of victimisation and sexual abuse from an unfamiliar angle. That Maso brings to Defiance the intelligence and erudition evident in Ava also helps to lift her novel from the more mainstream discourse of victimhood.

Though beautifully written, the essence of the novel that male violence is endemic in our culture is authoritative and unyielding. Maso’s story is in many ways reminiscent of the Aileen Wournos narrative (as played memorably in Monster by Charlize Theron), the essential difference being that Maso’s protagonist, Bernadette, is a mathematical prodigy. Throughout the story Maso challenges the reader to question the game Bernadette is playing with her readers, her social worker, and others.

An Idiotically Decorated Box

Both intrigued and undecided by Carole Maso’s Ava. A fragmentary novel, which impels with the force of allusion and cadence of the sentences. As with Markson’s fragmentary novels, I am not certain that the fragments cohere sufficiently as a narrative. But I am only two-thirds into Ava and will finish (and then intend to read her Defiance.) I want to capture here a couple of the fragments that accord so neatly with my view of the world I wish that I had written them (I did in my notebook, uncredited, so in a few years time I will think I did!):

No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn’t, after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonising loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company?

And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman’s carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology-fiction all. We’ve made it all up, to hide the mystery in an idiotically decorated box.

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.