Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Big Ten Books of 2014

London Pub Walks: The Counting House

The North by Paul Morley (2013)
"Oddly enough, in the first few years of the twentieth century, the Hyde Seals water polo team were the best in the world, three times world champions, but that fact has not infected the psychology of the town."
A sprawling, mad, brilliant, quirky, 600-page history of the North of England. So good it made me wonder why I ever left and reminded me why I did. A poignant, personal love story about the unique people and places that ultimately fashioned Morley into the best pop wordsmith of his generation. He makes Bill Bryson look like a lightweight. (In an ironic twist, I read most of this book while so far south that the water went down the plughole the other way round.)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami (2007)
“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they'll go to any length to live longer. But I don't think that's the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you're going to while away the years, it's far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that.”
I did a lot of running this year - two half-marathons, a couple of ten-mile races, a 15km cross-country around Wimbledon Common and all the solitary hundreds of miles of training along the Thames. So it was fascinating to compare my mental experience with that of Murakami. His is a downbeat, uplifting philosophical whimsy that will feel as familiar as a chafed nipple to anyone who regularly laces up a pair of trainers.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
I re-read this masterpiece because both the kids were studying it at school and also because it's one of the novels Murakami talks about translating into Japanese in his running book. A timeless account of a messianic outsider shattering the shallow, double lives of the idle rich and leaving the battered survivors to pick up the pieces with faint and fragile hope. Every sentence is perfect.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (2014)
“When the future looks back on the National Socialists, it will find them as exotic and improbable as the prehistoric meat-eaters.”
This could just have easily been called Carry On Concentration Camping. Only Amis could write a movingly comic novel about the holocaust. It's his most conventional book for years;  a three-way point of view narrative: the Jewish prisoner forced to gas his own people is the most distressing and the most unAmis; the nephew of Nazi propagandist Martin Boorman is an honourable man trapped in the wrong time and place; but the camp Kommandant Paul Doll is a classic Amis comedy monster. An impotent, raging, sadistic madman who unleashes some tortoise-smashing moments of pitch black slapstick to make the unimaginable compulsively readable.

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (1992)
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.” 
I re-read this immediately after The Zone of Interest. It shares the same recurring theme of the inhuman horror of the holocaust summed up by concentration camp survivor Primo Levi: "Here There is No Why." The gimmick, you'll remember, is it's told backwards. A retired doctor in America is revealed to be a former Nazi - but the baffled narrator sees everything back-to-front. Tortured bodies are miraculously healed by Dr Tod Friendly as time goes into reverse, shattered lovers are made happy again by Friendly as the narrative backs into their first meeting. But who is this detached narrator? Perhaps the soul of Friendly himself. I still can't get it out of my head.

Words and Music by Paul Morley (2005)
"Kylie looks at me out of the side of her face. She is in profile but she is looking at me. She uses one of her eyes to defy logic. Her face is not smiling, which is quite an event."
As different to The North as the north is to the south. Kylie Minogue sets off to drive to a futuristic city she never seems to reach, pursued along the autobahns by Kraftwerk and joined in the passenger seat by a rogue's gallery of characters from pop music history. The conceit allows Morley to trace the history of modern music's outsiders and influencers, written in the style of a music svengali trying to baffle the world with erudite sleeve notes to an Art of Noise album. Dazzlingly pretentious.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
“The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”
I like hawks and I like the Brecklands of Norfolk, where it's set, so this was well worth a try. A woman mourning the death of her father returns to her childhood love of falconry to cope with the loss. But to enjoy this non-novel you've got to be an emotionally damaged, desperately miserable, deeply introspective self-obsessive who sees the world through the prism of an airport self-help book. I loved it. (Boom-tish.)

CAMRA's London Pub Walks by Bob Steel (2013)
"Reaching the road at the far end, bear left under the railway bridge at Turnham Green station, then across on the right, just beyond the corner, is the architectural highlight of this walk, the Tabard."
Never have 200 pages given so much pleasure to so many London drinkers. Steel details 30 tipplers' tours dotted all around the Capital listing the beers, the buildings and the booze-hound history. I've spent many happy hours this year discovering new favourites and revisiting old ones. As essential as an Oyster card.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy."
Written twenty years before anyone had heard of Downton Abbey but now impossible to read without hearing the rich, sonorous tones of Mr Carson in your head.  It's a magnificent book - a post-war butler on a road trip to meet the only woman he nearly loved reveals a buttoned-up, emotionally-crippled, utterly wasted life of service to a British Nazi sympathiser. This is a man who carries on pouring the port with silent tears rolling down his cheeks while his father lies dying upstairs. Every page drips beautifully with dignified, inarticulated shame and frustration.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)
“Love doesn't conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.” 
People have been recommending this to me for years so when The Goldfinch came out I thought I'd give it a go. It's horrible. I hated every character and everything they did. It reminded me of that nasty Alfred Hitchcock film, Rope - posh American students killing for fun and trying to get away with it. I honestly don't know why I bothered wading through the never-ending, pretentious tosh. Apparently, only 44 per cent of people who bought The Goldfinch on the Kobo e-reader reached the last of the 784 pages. I don't blame the rest.

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