Sunday, 19 July 2009 21:26
People are always asking me for book recommendations. Why just last year someone said to me “Hey, Paul. I’ve just finished a really good book. Any suggestions as to what to pick up next?” Except they didn't. Because people don't read books in 2009 any more than they pay for music or have sex with snowmen.
So it's at the risk of looking practically medieval that I've decided to list some books I've enjoyed so far this year. Not even books that were published this year mind you, just books I happen to have read. Some of them are two decades old for Christ's sake. How indulgent is that?
Anyway it's a totally random selection based on word-of-mouth recommendations from the three people I know whose eyes still adjust to text that's not backlit, the odd newspaper review and careful selections from the dust-strewn tomes stacked around my office like outlandish paper cairns.
You can click on the thumbs for a Wikipedia profile of each book. If you'd like to complain about the thumbnail images being slightly irregular sizes by the way, please contact me here and tell me why -- in no more than ten words -- I should listen to your anal grievances.
This was an important book for me to read as soon as I moved to Berlin. I trawled many online and physical bookshops looking for the one tome that would introduce me to the city in an impressive way. This one prevailed because of the number of recommendations and also because of the author's fantastic name. It subsequently became my literary introduction to the host Hauptstadt. It covers the unification periods from 1871 to 1990. The attention to detail and vibrant storytelling really brought the city alive for me, especially as so much took place in the former East (where I happen to dwell). In fact there was so much info crammed in I probably need to re-read already...
Žižek is a loon. A friendly, brainy Lacanian Marxist loon -- but a loon nonetheless. This book wins the "You Must Read Numerous Passages Repeatedly To Understand Them" award. It's the kind of book that probably makes even veteran cultural theorists want to dash their brains out against the wall. The problem isn't so much his arguments (they're about violence, apparently) but the evilly dense complexity with which he presents them. Why say in a simple sentence what you can posit in an entire chapter using only words with a minimum of eight syllables? Still he's energetic, prone to cracking jokes and is much more fun to watch than he is to read.
This is a monumental book from New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who presents 20th century classical and avant-garde music in a fresh and meticulously researched way. Covering all the main eras, from pre-WWI Vienna through 20s Paris, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, right up to NYC in the 60s and 70s, this is an endlessly engrossing book made all the more impressive by a lucid, funky writing style. Only a few music writers can bring sound alive on the page consistently and vividly -- and Ross is definitely one of them. A definite revelation on all counts.
10 years later than everyone else, yes, but that's par for the course with me. Nothing worse than being caught with your nose in a current best-seller is there? You know, being so goddam "slavish" to mass consumer tastes? No, better to miss the boat completely then think to yourself later on: "Oh shit, that's what all that fuss was about." My bad. A thoroughly enjoyable romp of course and despite critic James Woods deriding this kind of fiction as "hysterical realism" I found the characters vivid, the story sprawling and sassy and the writing well-paced and occasionally even sizzling. So suck on that Woods.
20 years late this time. And I'm still actually reading this postmodernist "classic", even though I started it way earlier in the year. That makes it officially the longest book (time-wise) I've ever read. It's a mammoth tome (800-odd pages) but the real reason it's taking so long is because I've been admittedly a bit too busy to engage properly with its vertiginous scope -- and also because I discovered it's one of the few books that can be read slowly and intermittently and still deliver an immense readerly rush on pretty much each page. Granted I lost track of some of the story's smaller intertwining threads a while ago but this is one of DeLillo's finest moments and his writing is just so ridiculously potent you wonder if one man could really have achieved such a consistently compelling book. Is DeLillo superhuman? I think he might be. One of the best this year and probably also in my All Time Top Ten.
Earlier this year British fiction lost one of its most original and prophetic voices with the sad departure of J.G. Ballard. Like many, I came to him by way of his controversial novel Crash. Kingdom Come, like many of his novels, is eerily Delphian in its depiction of British suburbia as a potential hotbed of rampant consumer fascism. And though his characters are less than three-dimensional at times and the dialogue often not so convincing, the general premise is just too good and juicy to resist. "The Suburbs Dream Of Violence..."
It's been Bolaño's year this year. Despite being officially dead he's been everywhere on the lit scene, mostly due to the long-awaited English translation of his (alleged) final masterpiece 2666. Anyway, he was news to me but for once the buzz seemed authentic and almost Pynchon-esque in its underground allure. So I checked out By Night In Chile, the first of his novels to be translated into English. And -- "woah". Hallucinogenic in that classic South American 'magic realist' way, but clever and dense like Borges as opposed to eloquent and romantic like Marquez. Can't wait to read more.
Now here's a rare thing -- a book borne from a truly original idea. Penned by British artist and literary theorist Tom McCarthy it's one of those extraordinary debuts that comes spinning out of nowhere with is own idiosyncratic logic. Set in Brixton, South London, Remainder tells the tale of a man that emerges from a coma having inherited a LOT of money for an accident he can't remember anything about. He can't recall anything about himself either, other than a few random memories. So he decides to spend all of his money on hiring people to re-enact his memories with macabre, philosophical and sometimes hilarious results.
Will Self is probably one of my favourite living British authors. You can always rely on him to bring out the weirdness. This short story collection features four tales ranging from the surprisingly sentimental opening gambit ("Leberknödel") about euthenasia to the quintessential Selfian "Foie Humain" (set in The Plantation Club) plus a story told from the perspective of a blood cell and one that twists up the myth of Prometheus. A mixed bag as always, but mostly on form. Oh yes, and all the stories have something to do with the human liver. Hence the title, duh.
This book really represents three books this year since I've read it three bloody times. The reason I've absorbed it in triplicate is because I'm using it as a guide for a photographic project here in Berlin and wanted to get into the nuances and details a little more. That aside though it's still a pretty interesting read for a general overview of the concept of Supermodernity. It's a deeply secular work but its more ecumenical follow up Nun Places is supposed to be out soon...
Um, that's it. What on earth are you doing down here?