Friday, 31 December 2010

Books of the Year

I finished (at last) Neal Stephenson’s Anathemata, which had the weight (both physically and in terms of its content) of a philosophical encylopaedia. It was hugely involving on the level of ideas, but rather petered out into standard, old-fashioned space-operatics in terms of its plot. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a supernatural satire which gleefully visits anarchy upon the streets, apartments and theatres of Moscow in the form of a worldly (and bipedal) cat and various other cohorts of the devil. Knights of the Cornerstone saw James Blaylock return to his tales of mythology and magic disrupting the mundane reality of everyday places and people, this time relocating to the Californian desert from his usual Northern Californian locales. The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford is an imaginatively twisted example of the ‘new weird’, with a thoroughly loathsome and self-absorbed narrator and protagonist guiding us through the novel’s fantastic dystopian wonders. The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick was a good winter’s tale for the end of the year, the days in question being those between Christmas and New Year. Another fantastic, labyrinthine city, dark and richly imagined. China Mieville’s Iron Council is another of his novels set in the teeming world of New Crobuzon. This one features a revolutionary train whose inhabitants build and take up the track as they move across the world. Good, but the action was unrelentingly violent and the invention at times too profligate, leading to a definite sense of overload, an excess of grotesquerie. I’m half way through Mieville’s The City and the City at the moment, and have as yet found its central premise of overlaid cities unconvincing and a little sketchily conveyed. Perhaps it will become clearer as I progress. Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron is the second in his ‘Anno Dracula’ alternate history series, this one set during the First World War. He manages to fit in a massive range of cultural references from the time, ranging from DH Lawrence to Biggles, whilst also saying something about the period.

A Handbook of American Prayer was the first book by Lucius Shepard that I had read for a long time. It was a lean fable about the nature of faith and prayer in modern America, and the expectations which people have of it. I read and immensely enjoyed Glenn David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, which was full of optimism and faith in human nature. His follow-up, Sunnyside, was its penumbral shadow, full of sour experience and bitter ironies, centring around the First World War and the emotional and creative crises of Charlie Chaplin. It’s multi-stranded narrative tried to cram too much in, attempting an all-encompassing summary of the birth of the modern age. The warmest relationship in the book is between a man and his dog.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream was a biographical fantasy centring around the Renaissance astronomer’s discoveries and trials. It also allowed him to travel to the end point of the scientific world to which he had given birth, witnessing a ‘men like gods’ utopia of the far future, replete with human problems of its own. Robinson’s Sixty Days and Counting concluded his Washington politics and climate change trilogy. The interest in the New England transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau) and Tibetan religion alongside rigorous science and geological description made this feel like the kind of balanced and inquisitive novel Carl Sagan might have written had he been alive today. William Heaney’s (aka Graham Joyce’s) Memoirs of a Master Forger was a wonderfully warm story of fakery and self-deceit, filled with the spirit (revolutionary and visionary) of William Blake. The same could be said of David Almond’s Skellig, with its cantankerous, arthritic angel in a shed. Almond was a great discovery this year. I also read and enjoyed Kit’s Wilderness and Secret Heart. They are books whose surface simplicity of language and storytelling disguise profound depths. Alasdair Gray loomed large this year, too. I read Rodge Glass’ A Secretary’s Biography, an intimate and close up portrait of the Glaswegian author. Also the novels Old Men In Love and 1982 Janine. A Life in Pictures was my Christmas present, so I’ve not got around to reading that yet, but the pictures themselves are wonderful.

Delving back in time, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter was a beautifully elucidated dream, reading like a prose poem as much as a novel. William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki: The Ghost Finder collected his tales of the Edwardian supernatural detective, following on the heels of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence. Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem was a dream of pre-war Prague, full of mystery and menace, the promise of transcendence and the threat of spiritual damnation. JK Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against Nature) was essentially a ‘how to’ of 19th century Decadance, as expressed through the highly particular tastes of its passive and studiously aesthetic protagonist Des Esseintes. Mark Gattiss’ The Volcano Club finds one of Des Esseintes’ decadant disciples playing a rather more active role in an enjoyable fin de siecle detective romp with distinct gothic undertones. I read two books for the club which I’ve just joined, both of which I’d read before but which were definitely worth rediscovering: David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes. Both featured youthful dreamers, one conjuring a neon dream of a modern, ultra-technologised Tokyo, the other dreaming the way back to a rural England nearing the end of the First World War. Both youthful protagonists are faced with the awareness of mortality.

Two books of essays, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, contained fascinating material. Lethem’s essays on Philip K Dick and John Cassavetes were good, as were Chabon’s on MR James, Arthur Conan Doyle and the ‘borderlands’ of literary and genre fictions. Harlan Ellison’s Watching contained some engaged and engaging film reviews with plentiful autobiographical asides and the occasional morally-fuelled rant (as you’d both expect and require from Ellison). Mark Radcliffe’s Thank You For The Days and Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas (his journey through middle England) transferred their affable and self-effacing radio personae onto the page, and provided some genuine insight and wry observations along the way. It was nice to see Stuart giving mention to Ghost Box in complementary terms, too.

England in the Age of Hogarth by Derek Jarrett sketched in some of the social and historical detail of the world which the artist depicted, and indicated how well Val Lewton had done his research for Bedlam. Moving forward in time, I read Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent, comprehensive two volume history of sixties Britain, Never Had It So Good (covering the Macmillan years) and White Heat (Wilson). These embraced history, politics and culture in equal measure to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the age. Moving on to the seventies, I followed these up with Andy Beckett’s When The Lights Went Out, which concentrated more on the political side of things (well, there was a lot of it about in the seventies). It did give space to the politics of the free festival culture, however. This also cropped up in Rob Young’s Electric Eden, an expansive history of a particular stream of English music which has drawn on ‘traditional’ sources from the beginning of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was a book with drew together so much which I have listened to over the years, plotting connections between Holst, Sandy Denny, Talk Talk and Belbury Poly, and revealing so much more that I didn’t know. I particularly liked his Rocket Cottage fantasia, which indicated a desire to uncover the spirit behind the music, rather than just to relate biographical detail and cite album release dates. I also read biographies of Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke, and Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius). Ingrid Pitt’s Life’s A Scream was a great record of an indomitable spirit. Me Cheetah by James Lever satirised the clichés of the Hollywood autobiography. It also acted as a clandestine love song to Johnny Weismuller, and was, in the end, rather a touching homage to the transformative power of Hollywood dreaming.

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