One of my new year's resolutions for 2017 was to read a book a week. And, ladies and gentleman, I did it. *inexplicably waits for applause from readers who are too busy raising a family or tending the sick to read a biography of 1930s gossip columnist Walter Winchell*
I come here not only to brag, though, but to share. Here's a whistle-stop tour of the high and lowlights of my year of books.
My favourite book of the year, and the only thing to make me cry in 2017 (I am hard), was Kazuo Ishiguro's justly-celebrated The Remains of the Day, (1989) a work of sublime brilliance with a guarded, reticent narrative voice that gradually unfurls the book's devastating secrets, both professional and personal. From its gloriously stilted ruminations on motoring and "bantering" to that incomparable climax, in which the floodgates open, just an inch, it's the book that taught me the most about writing and about life. Another book that was incredibly special to me was Timequake (1997), by my favourite writer and human, Kurt Vonnegut. Supposedly his final novel, though it's not exactly a novel, it's been unjustly dismissed, perhaps because he spends such little time and effort dealing with his alleged plot: that of luckless citizens (including recurring character Kilgore Trout) forced to endure a ‘rerun’ of the past decade following the ‘timequake’ of the title, in which they go through every moment of every day of every year in exactly the same way, the only novelty being that they are aware this is happening. Instead, he leaves us with just "choice cuts from the carcass" of that story, shooting off at glorious tangents. The book shakes with pain and sadness in its early passages, as Vonnegut details his crippling writer’s block and rails at the innate cruelty of the world, appearing almost defeated by it. After all, he says, “No-one asks to be born”. Soon, though, he’s brimming with brilliance both comic and humane, picking himself – and us – off the floor and arming us with compassion, insight and practical ideas for combating the societal plagues of poverty, loneliness and despair. I see it as a self-help book for sarcastic socialists.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), I knew from Elia Kazan's 1945 adaptation: despite considerable competition, his first and best film. The source novel doesn't just come with deleted scenes, but a greater scope in terms of time and characterisation, though its great virtue is what it shares with the movie: its detail, its unsentimental sensitivity and its atmosphere of hard-won wisdom and desperate yearning. Another American classic, recently added to the canon, is John Williams' Stoner (1963), an extraordinarily sad, straightforward but poetic book about a life: that of ungainly farm boy William Stoner, who becomes an academic but finds disappointment and disillusionment in the compromise of adulthood. I picked up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) because I loved the front cover (in fact, all of its front covers are amazing ), and it was wonderful, so Rick 1, Cliches 0. After 150 pages I was wondering how it had won the Pulitzer, 450 later, I was wondering if it was possible to give it some more. Telling the story of an ink-stained immigrant comic book artist fighting Nazis on the page and in secret, it's a tremendous feat of storytelling, completely impossible to second-guess, with a consistently confounding sense of irony, and a mind that won't always allow its warm, beating heart to get what it wants. I'll be reading much more of Michael Chabon's work.
Another author I 'discovered' this year was Elizabeth Taylor (my first reaction being, predictably enough, "I bet she's crap, it's easy to get a book deal if you're famou- oh, it's a completely different person). Her 1957 book Angel is an impeccably restrained work by a great and hilarious author, about a poor and humourless one. Its heroine is Angel Deverell, who seeks to transcend the pathetic life of servitude mapped out for her, through sheer, incandescent genius. Her genius, though, isn’t for art but for matching the taste of the public, which greets her epic, florid, ‘risqué’, wildly inaccurate tour-de-force, The Lady Irania, with little short of hysteria, catapulting the waspish, selfish and humourless egomaniac into a life of which she has merely dreamt, and yet has dreamt relentlessly. Similar in subject matter, but not as rich in scope, was Jane Gardam's fascinating, funny A Long Way From Verona (1970), which also deals with a brutally honest teenage writer and outsider in a vanished England. And like Angel, it has an innate, fierce unpredictability and a rapturously distinctive voice (ideally utilised in a first person narrative) which, by definition, make it nothing like Angel. Its wartime Yorkshire setting is intrinsic – the story set against the mercilessness and the brutal lottery of war, even on the Home Front – and it crashes into the narrative, but it isn’t a book about war. It’s a book about Jessica Vye and the world she inhabits, ridicules, abhors and attempts to negotiate, with uncertainty and arrogance and perseverance, and a conviction that never shakes, but does latch onto passing whims, and falls prey to her explosive temper.
One of the greatest treats of the year was Truman Capote's Music For Chamelons (1980). Comprising six short stories, seven conversational portraits, and a non-fiction (?) centrepiece about a serial killer, it's a book of extraordinary grace, incisiveness and honesty which further bolstered my impression that Capote remains one of the most important, original and underestimated writers of his era. Fuck his artificial image as a catty, trivial, morbid starfucker, and study the work: dark, devastating, morally decent writing shot through with his actual character, the shadows of an encroaching darkness creeping across the sun-dappled idyll of his New Orleans childhood. Perhaps my favourite piece is 'Dazzle', a multi-layered story with a time-shifting perspective that’s about love, fear and guilt, as Capote relives the story of his paternal grandfather, a fortune teller and two terrible secrets: one comic, the other tragic. It is flecked with wonder, touched by horror, and redolent with an unstudied compassion for his younger self, before a climactic sucker-punch that knocked me sideways. But it’s just one masterpiece among many.
The Heart of the Matter (1948) was my favourite of this year's two Graham Greene books: a masterwork about Scobie, a rigorously upstanding colonial policeman in an unnamed African state, whose unimpeachable integrity is challenged by his capacity for pity and lust, threatening him with eternal damnation (at least in his fevered Catholic mind). Greene crystallises the nature of memory in 56 words, the colonial experience in a sentence or two, and the nature of its protagonist through a description of a room containing nothing of his own, all within the first five pages. The Quiet American (1955) covers similar ground, and both starts and ends tremendously, with real economy coupled to mystery or revelation, but the mid-section isn't as compelling, plodding in places. That was matched pound-for-pound in terms of nihilistic bleakness by Jack Kerouac's miraculous Big Sur (1962), a sort of journal of self-abasement, written in his familiarly roving, unstinting style, and basking in naturalistic, colloquial language, in the juxtapositions of ideas and words, in the unvarnished, unprettified honesty of a man at the end of his tether, who despairs at his lack of 'human beingness' and yet displays both the compassion, innate, clear-sighted judgement of character and the ruthless, pitiless self-awareness that is being human. Camus's short, unsparing The Fall (1956) was a little light on laughs too: a brilliant book which is radically conceived, simply written, and almost endless in its potential interpretations, though it is, primarily, a book about conscience, judgement and the loss of innocence. And I completed the cycle of six 'proper' Jane Austen novels with the witheringly sarcastic Northanger Abbey (1917): not quite the spoof of Gothic literature suggested by its reputation: that's merely one of its many facets, and accessible at that.
Those are all the cast-iron classics, but I found joy in plenty of other fictional forms: in the parts of The Amber Spyglass (2000) dealing with Lyra and Will, and in Pullman's new voyage into the world of His Dark Materials: La Belle Sauvage (2017), a very wet story of nobility, bravery and sacrifice: moving, magical and brilliantly sentimental, though with some increasingly samey imagery and a villain who was more nasty than novel. Other British authors I explored included Ian McEwan, whose On Chesil Beach (2007) relies so heavily on its ending to enter the pantheon of the greats that it seems a truly special book only in retrospect; John Mortimer, author of The Sound of Trumpets (1999), an astute, immersive, neatly (and viciously) plotted book with a few shortcomings; and Nick Hornby, whose concentration of hard-earned wisdom in the accessible and funny High Fidelity (1995) took me completely aback.
My further adventures in Philip Roth were mixed: The Ghost Writer (1979) is the first book narrated by his serious-minded, horny and human alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and a vigorously and continuously brilliant story of three father figures and a barely acceptable reverie, but I Married a Communist (1999) felt like a pale retread of American Pastoral and The Human Stain. It has some great passages, and credit to Roth for twisting something as tangible as HUAC into a story about his enduring preoccupations (irony, chance, the unknowability of everyone), but his resistance to capitalising on his premise's obvious potential may be ultimately what scuppers it. I really liked The Lathe of Heaven (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin, a high-concept slice of sci-fi with a sure sense of its self, but Stephen King's stab at a time-travelling tale, 11/22/63 (2011), was less impressive: blessed by a gripping, meticulously plotted story and an unexpected moral grace, but also overwritten and overlong, with clunky prose, a silly climactic dystopia and a lot of superfluous, blunt humour.
Donald Trump's favourite book, which he definitely hasn't read, is The Fountainhead (1943) by Ayn Rand, a strident, remarkable, often ridiculous crowdpleaser that lays out her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, in which self-interest is the driving force of progress. It's violent and nasty and has a lot to answer for, but it’s also enormously readable – far more so than I was expecting – with a patented contrariness and counterintuitiveness in its language and ideas, a starkly impressionistic vocabulary full of “smears” and “smudges”, “parapets” and “porticos”, and bursts of sudden, shocking violence: in its architecture, its relationship with an imperfect world, and its characters’ creativity and cruelty. The first time that visionary architect Howard Roark reshapes a hackneyed, ignorant design by slashing thick black lines through it, you can’t help your heart beating a little faster. Her earlier book, Anthem (1937), rewritten and republished after her success with The Fountainhead, is less arresting, but not bad: a short, precise critique of totalitarianism, with flashes of stark, brutal poetry, as Equality 7-2521 learns to love and question and create.
I also read several books about race and diversity, a couple of them novels. James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), the first book by the great poet-philosopher of the Civil Rights movement, isn't the easiest to read or to like, with a relentlessness that becomes more like reputation, complex characters and an obscure frame of reference – the intricacies of rebirth within a specific section of the black Christian church – but it's well worth it: a deep and profound and sustaining work. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008), a white author writing about race in the late-1940s, is the opposite: a pageturner that's undoubtedly sincere, but ends up feeling rather synthetic and shallow. I read both that and On Chesil Beach before I saw the movie adaptations at the London Film Festival.
Among my books about movies was one piece of fiction: Nathanel West's legendary work, The Day of the Locust, nasty, nightmarish blast of Hollywood alienation, full of foreboding. Written in Hollywood’s greatest year, the near-mythical 1939, it’s an unremitting horror story in economic sentences: an acidic counterpoint to Steinbeck’s contemporaneous novels, depicting the unified masses not as a humane, nourishing whole, but as a blankly vicious mob, hooked on an unfulfilling dream, and chillingly ripe for fascism. It's still not as sour as Kingsley Amis's The Folks That Live on the Hill (1990), though, a mystifyingly joyless, poisonously misanthropic book about an outwardly avuncular academic and his troubled family. It makes the early '90s in England seem like the most awful place on earth.
Two absolute stunners this year. The first was Journey to the River Sea (2001) by Eva Ibbotson, a beguilingly beautiful novel about orphan Maia, who travels to Brazil in the early 1900s to stay with distant relatives. There, she’s tormented by her new-found family, but finds solace in her friendships with governess Miss Minton, a child actor named Clovis King, and a mysterious boy named Finn, while discovering escape in her exploration of the seductive, enrapturing world of the Brazilian jungle. It’s timeless but modern, character-led but immaculately constructed, and paints a vivid and unforgettable portrait of early 20th century Brazil, while drawing much of its humour and conflict from the virtues and vices of Englishness. It’s unquestionably a great book, but perhaps more importantly it’s a good book: rich in human decency, and as deeply and desperately moving as anything I’ve read in years. It knocked me absolutely sideways, and by the end I was choked to let it go. The second was Allan Ahlberg's The Bear Nobody Wanted (1992), concernsing a nameless bear who arrives off the production line feeling smug and superior – after all, a bear’s character is defined by his facial features – only to be tossed into a bin, rescued, rejected, burnt, used as a duster, savaged by a dog, repaired, briefly welcomed, relegated, forgotten, lonely, nameless, catatonic and bombed by the Nazis, en route to a happy ending. A couple of other favourites were lovely gifts from close friends: Katy Laura and the Dream Boat (1984) and Dr Seuss's inspiring Oh! The Places You'll Go (1990).
In terms of non-fiction, I tend to read 20th century history – especially biographies – and about cinema, but if my interest is piqued by a subject, or I feel hopelessly out of my depth when I hear it talked about (which is often), I'll try to read up about it. I know the limitations of my brain, though, and that rule applies more to, say, philosophy or fast bowling than, for example, chemistry.
The two best biographies I read in 2017 were Neal Gabler's Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (2007) and Jean Edward Smith's FDR (2000). The two characters weren't unrelated: FDR was Winchell's hero, and the president's unexpected death sent the muckracking tabloid-journalist-turned-political-commentator spinning, with no North Star, towards McCarthyism. Smith's moving, powerful book shows how America's greatest president, for all his errors and failings, dragged the country up from its knees (I've written about it at length here). Gabler's incredibly entertaining mix of biography and social history explains much that has happened since: after all, Winchell's protégé was Trump's mentor.
I also enjoyed Evan Thomas's Robert Kennedy (2000), which rejects the lionisation and demonisation of RFK for something more complex and credible: a psychologically insightful portrait of a decent but deeply-flawed subject who felt deeply, erred frequently and grew through tragedy to become a great man. And I finally got around to John Lahr's celebrated Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978) prior to seeing him speak at the BFI's brilliant What the Butler Saw event (part of an 'Orton at 50' celebration that also included 'Loot' at the Park Theatre): a literary biography that remains controversial for its fatalism, psychological studies of Orton's work, and sympathetic approach to his murderer (and lover), Kenneth Halliwell, in whose crime Orton is supposedly complicit. I thought it was exceptional. In the 'bad biog' corner, we have Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives (2013) by Karen Wieland which stank the place out in its interminable closing chapters. It's not entirely without merit, but I'm sure you can find better.
Another sub-par film book was Anne Helen Petersen's Scandals of Classic Hollywood (2014). The author is currently being pilloried for her nasty pseudo-woke take on the career of Armie Hammer, but I was calling her book on Harlow, Brando et al 'unsatisfying' months ago. Easy Riders and Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures was a highly readable account of the indie film distribution wars of the 1990s, which painted Harvey Weinstein as a cruel, capricious, manipulative, finagling, terrifying bully, but missed the story. Biskind responded to this accusation by saying that covering the rape allegations would have made his story "juicier", from which we can deduce that he's an absolute waste of a human being and shouldn't be listened to any more.
There were a couple of film books I just loved. Pamela Hutchinson's brilliant new study of Pandora's Box (2017), in the BFI Film Classics series, is an extremely astute, readable reading of a fascinating film, explaining the enduring appeal and allure of both the picture and its heroine, the shimmering, sensual, black-helmeted Lulu: chauvinist avatar turned feminist icon. Paul Seydor's unapologetically obsessive The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2015) is invaluable for anyone who's still not quite over Peckinpah's imperfect 1973 masterpiece. I collected its liveliest revelations in this blog entry.
My younger brother bought me a copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden: Uncovering Britain's Visionary Music (2012) for my birthday, which was why I spent the entire summer listening to the Incredible String Band, and saw both of the band's visionary songwriters live. It's an elegant, passionately-argued history – and defence – of British folk music from its origins in the pastoral socialism of William Morris and classical composers Holst, Vaughan Williams and Delius, through to Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk in the 1980s. The meat of the book is a conversational, amusing and astute evocation of the British folk boom of 1965-74, with vivid, condensed portraits of the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and ISB, their origins, obsessions and place in the canon impeccably but accessibly explained and elucidated, alongside that of an abundance of odd, often forgotten contemporaries, from the bleak and furious art rock of Comus to a moonlighting Playaway presenter involved in naked pagan rituals.
Patti Smith's Just Kids (2010), a memoir of her life with idiosyncratic, doomed artist Robert Mapplethorpe, is probably what you'd expect from one of the most important and pretentious voices in modern music: at its best, uncommonly insightful, raw and moving, but decreasingly revelatory and compelling as it progresses, with Smith slipping into unbearable posturing with increasing frequency and intensity. By contrast, I unequivocally adored Robert Webb's wonderful How Not to Be a Boy (2017), an extraordinarily perceptive, funny and moving memoir about masculinity, familial relationships and loss. I lost my mum at 17 too, but Webb – with his characteristic self-analytical unsentimentality – shows how I could have used that to get laid at university. Bit late now. Even the incidental, throwaway gags (like the one about David Mitchell "bumming some fags in a pub") are fantastic.
Lost at Sea (2013) was yet more Jon Ronson goodness, each of his (sometimes formulaic) features revealing something about humanity or the world we inhabit, whether looking at bravery, open-mindedness or the rationalisations we make for being callous. Speaking of being lost at sea, my friend Jess and I have been watching all the films we can find about the Titanic. After seeing A Night to Remember, I read the 1955 source work by Walter Lord, an invigorating, intensely moving work that counterbalances the tragedy of the sinking with the triumph of the rescue, which is exhilaratingly brought to life. The chapter headings may be the greatest ever written, loaded with emotional import: most of them made me want to burst into tears.
The release of Denial made me finally get around to reading Deborah Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust (1993), a self-congratulatory, endlessly repetitive book that's on the right side of history. Its most interesting aspects are the way it anticipates the far right's move into suited respectability – a move far more advanced now than then – and her astute, academicised rejection of presenting hate speech as a credible force in a two-sided debate (note to Piers Morgan: you do this whenever you're feeling unpopular, so several times a month). It's quite long-winded and dry, though, so congratulations to David Irving for getting to the end of it so he could sue her for libel (and lose, lol, the twat. *SPOILERS*).
The prize for the year's most unpleasant book (I'm not sure why there's a competition, but there is) goes to Black Dahlia Avenger (2015) by Steve Hodel, who remains convinced that his dad was one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. The revolting close ups of a severed corpse turned out to be Not Really My Thing, and I'm pretty sure Hodel's wrong, though his father was unquestionably a monster.
Being enormously woke and therefore attractive to women at music festivals, I read a few books on diversity. One of them was superficially about cricket: the tremendously readable if choppily non-linear Fire in Babylon (2015), which tells the story of the brilliant West Indian sides who played under Clive Lewis and Viv Richards. At times it reads more like a series of loosely connected newspaper features than a coherent, complete history, but exploring subjects from slavery to seam bowling, it explores the phantom nation at the team's centre, how its success fostered racial pride in Britain's booming black immigrant population, and the fires of injustice that burned within the side's most remarkable players. James Baldwin's miraculous The Fire Next Time (1963) simply changed the way I see, and engage with, the world. Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race (2017) was, I think, an attempt to do something similar for Britain in 2017 but, reader, it was shit.
My final book of the 52 was James Naremore's The Magic World of Orson Welles (1978/89) (more about him in Part 3 of the annual review, I've been on a Welles bender), an acclaimed study that's great (if brief) on the director's technical innovation, and incisively considers his essential duality, but undermines the validity of its often valuable psychological and thematic analysis through an overly Freudian approach that sees sexual repression everywhere, rather than just in The Trial.
Thanks for reading. My resolutions for 2018 are to keep plugging away with my own writing and to be kinder. I probably won't blog about that. Unless I am very kind.
Part 2 will be about LIVE STUFF.