It has been a rough year. But, even in rough years, there are plenty of good books to read (I’ll make an update to the list if I read anything else really excellent before the 31st). As always, there are no rules etc. – these are just books I particularly enjoyed over the past year (previous years’ lists can be found here). Ok, here we go, with a quote/comment for each:
Dark, Salt, Clear (Lamorna Ash): “We want to know places. When we begin to, we believe such knowing will be reciprocated, that our indentations on the landscape will hold so that those in future generations will continue to see traces of us upon that land. Through Newlyn I learn there is value in being forgotten. Though the town felt a huge experience for me, I was a blip, barely even that, in the long lives of most of its residents: a kid with a smart London accent who stuck out like a sore thumb, who asked a few questions and then left again. The town went on without me. Of course it did. But, somehow, naively, I thought it might not have.” (An unexpectedly vulnerable book).
A Sportsman’s Notebook (Ivan Turgenev): “‘Allow me to observe to you,’ he drawled at last; ‘all you young people criticise and form judgments on everything at random; you have little knowledge of your own country; Russia, young gentlemen, is an unknown land to you … You are forever reading German.” (A Knausgaard reading recommendation – Turgenev! Who knew?).
The Coast of Utopia (Tom Stoppard): “TURGENEV My purpose? My purpose was to write a novel. PEROTKIN So you don’t take sides between the fathers and the children? TURGENEV On the contrary, I take every possible side.” (Worked through a number of Stoppard plays this year, including Leopolodstadt, his most recent and most emotionally intense play – but his “Russian thinker” trilogy seemed to stick with me most).
Be Brief and Tell Them Everything (Brad Listi): “And now here I was, up to my neck in it, at large in a world of selfies and influencers and bottomless psychological need. Like a dad in pleated khakis, crashing a crowded house party.” (“Our job, I said, or one of our jobs, I think, is to figure out what we’re called to do. And then do what we’re called to do. So what are you called to do? she said. I’m called to articulate my confusion, I said.”).
Super-Infinite (Katherine Rundell): “It would be a mistake, though, to imagine that all this time Donne was filing his verse away, keeping it safe, copying it by candlelight into leather-bound tomes in his bedroom in the great house. Donne’s early writing life was one of papery disarray. He made very little effort to keep versions of his work; he did not write with an eye to future fame, immortality. Poetry was the best possible way to set down the unwieldy human truth as he saw it, but it was for himself and his close allies.” (A book that deserves the wide praise and recognition it has received – this section on Donne’s lack of preciousness regarding his poetic output was a sobering splash of cold water).
How to Write One Song (Jeff Tweedy): “To me, the difference between one song and songs is not some cute semantic trick; it’s an important distinction, and it’s more precise about what you’re actually doing. No one writes songs—plural. They write one song, and then another.” (I enjoyed this much more than I expected).
The Leopard (Giuseppe Di Lampedusa): “… all this amused Don Fabrizio, and in people of his character and standing the faculty for being amused makes up four fifths of affection.” (A book only its author could have written).
Unformed Landscape (Peter Stamm): “She had never been in a garden café before, but she knew right away what it was, and perhaps for that reason mistrusted it. It looks, she thought, the way a Norwegian who has never seen a garden café might imagine one to look.” (I read a few Stamm books this year … I think he can only be taken in small doses).
Termination Shock (Neal Stephenson): “This country is a mess,” Rufus allowed, “but it’s still one of the only outfits that can pull a fleet of lead-lined bulldozers out of its ass on short notice.” (I continue to admire Stephenson’s ability to just write whatever he wants).