2011 Reads

Here’s a quick look at some of the reading highlights of the last year for me:

Lord Of Light (S.F. Masterworks)Lord Of Light by Roger Zelazny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a difficult book to start and to get into and I would not have persevered with it except that it was highly recommended by its Hugo Award and by a friend whose taste is unerring. It turned out to be well worth the effort, a powerful adventure in the imagination, highly unusual and, perhaps, irreverent. This was clearly the fruit of the author’s thorough assimilation of Hindu mythology and I think I would have got even more out of it if I had been better versed in Hinduism myself. It also inspired me to read the Upanishads, which is a whole other trip!

Collected Short Stories (Twentieth Century Classics)Collected Short Stories by E.M. Forster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wonderful collection of stories really helped me to “get” E.M. Forster in a way that I was not able to access through his more famous longer works, and sealed him to me as a kindred spirit. This is a very coherent collection where we see Forster worrying away at the same bones he digs up in Howards End, A Room With a View andA Passage to India. He was essentially a romantic with a prophetic view of where the Victorian obsession with progress, novelty and mechanisation were leading. In most of these stories it is nature and the spirits who animate her who triumph. Especially notable is “The Machine Stops”, a visionary piece of early science fiction in which he seems to foresee the deprivations of the Internet Age with disturbing accuracy. These tales are melancholic and magical and strangely accessible, a real delight.

Rama Revealed (Rama, #4)Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had to read this book to satisfy the curiosity for answers that the first three “Rama” books set up although I suspected that finding the answer to the mystery of Rama was bound to be an anticlimax of sorts … and it was. However, the story was saved by the grandiose imagery and complex characterisation that marks Arthur C. Clarke’s work. I enjoy his portrayal of the relationships between his characters as they struggle to resolve the agonies imposed on them by every turn of the plot. Of all the books in the Rama series, none have quite come close to the mind-blowing sci-fi scenery of the first volume, but the political intrigue and machinations of the characters become more developed. This closing story aims to tie up the grand picture and to say something about God, Humanity and the Universe in the process – ultimately it doesn’t quite satisfy (and it is hard to imagine how it ever could nail this), but it’s a good read nevertheless.

ShaneShane by Jack Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic, and my first introduction to the “Westerns” genre. I had never quite understood the appeal of this genre until a friend recommended and lent me this book. What stands out for me is the perfect pacing of the novel, it moves slowly (but not too slowly) and menacingly towards the climax and then punches in with a dizzying burst of adrenaline, which is completely satisfying. I read it in one go, and it left me with a whole bunch of unprocessed emotions, a sense that my compass had been jarred. Shane still haunts me. Apparently the place to go after this is Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Placówka [The Outpost.]Placówka [The Outpost.] by Bolesław Prus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my best discoveries of 2011, tucked away in a collection of Polish stories that I bought on a whim many years ago. The Outpost is a very funny and somewhat tragic portrayal of the “peasant mentality” that takes the reader back to rural Poland in the 1800s. The stubborn main character, Ślimak, resists the colonisation of his locality by the forward thinking and economically shrewd Germans who are buying land and building a railway nearby. The plot is populated with affectionately and humorously painted village characters: the local aristocrat, the inn keeper, the Jewish peddlar, the nagging wife, the alcoholic old lady and the slow-witted farmhand. This book is not only a fascinating piece of social history but a warmly told story and I’ll jump at the chance to read some more from Boleslaw Prus.

One Soldier's WarOne Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hell of book, a first hand account of an 18 year old conscript in the Chechen war of 1996, torn from his mother’s apron strings and brutalised beyond belief by both the training and the fighting. The most telling effect of the horror is that Babchenko chooses to return to the battlefield as a contract soldier to fight in the second conflict, not because he believes in the war but because it has become part of him and he cannot stay away. Later, still, he goes back as a journalist and still fails to make any sense of it. “Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.” (I reviewed this book more substantially in this post)

Lila: An Inquiry Into MoralsLila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a sequel to the cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, and Pirsig, by his own admission, anticipated that it would stand the test of time even better than his first work. Philosophically it is more conclusive and I found it more satisfying than ZAMM. The “enquiry into morals” seems to actually lead to some more concretely applicable conclusions than the previous “enquiry into values”. We journey with the same character, Phaedrus, several years after the motorcycle trip with his son. He seems to have mellowed but is still obsessively seeking a grand unifying theory of some sort. He begins with anthropology (my home territory) and the Native American Indians, arguing that the “cowboy” philosophy and hence “white” American mores owe more to the Native Americans than they are given credit for. By degrees, Pirsig goes on to describe “dynamic” and “static” moralities and the progressive evolution of morality by means of these two types of force. Phaedrus takes a passenger on his yacht (Lila) who he is quite sure is a woman he remembers from his past. She becomes a sort of “case-study” for his enquiry. As in the previous work, not a lot actually happens in the story, but everything is dissected until the kernel of a resolution is uncovered.

Twenty-one Stories (Vintage Classics)Twenty-one Stories by Graham Greene

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was my first exposure to Graham Greene. I very quickly found myself reading (and more or less enjoying) these perfectly crafted stories as items of social history and examples of wonderfully understated prose in which no word is wasted. (Click here for my fuller review)

View all my reviews

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6 Responses

  1. I’d really like to try Arthur C.Clarke, does the first book stand alone as a read? I’m thinking of reading The Zoo also. Inspired by the sci-fi exhib at the British Library.

    Have you read Tom McCarthy- Remainder? I’ve yet to find something that grips me as much as this….

    • Yes, “Rendezvous with Rama” does stand alone, but you will be tempted to read the sequels which have quite a different feeling to them (in my mind). I have not read a huge amount of Arthur C. Clarke. In my limited experience his books seem to promise more than they deliver (like the discovery of the answer to everything), but you can’t beat his imagination, and the way he binds his concepts to “real science” as much as possible. Characters are generally better developed than a lot of Sci-fi although I do think the women in his stories are little bit too much like the stereotypical average male Sci-fi reader would want them to be.

      I have not read any Tom McCarthy … but you are not the first to recommend him …:-)

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions. I’m especially interested in the E.M. Forster stories.

    I’ve had his name crop up a number of times in the past few months. Perhaps Someone is telling me I’ve yet to discover some treasures in his work.

    Happy Christmas/Holidays/New Years!

    • Yes … As I mentioned, I think the short stories are a good “way in” to E.M. Forster. I think his novels have become so associated with the films and the “Merchant Ivory” treatment in my mind that it is harder to come to them afresh. I’m very excited about E.M. Forster at the moment, and will definitely be diving into some more next year. I’d love to hear if you get round to reading some of his stuff.

      Thanks for commenting, and a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

  3. Some interesting reads. I read two biographies this year, Just Kids by Patti Smith and Life by Keith Richards and I enjoyed them both a lot. The best bit of fiction I read was Solomon Gursky was Here by Mordicai Richler. That was a great read. Strangely, this was the first book I’ve written by Richler, a celebrated Canadian author. I’m going back to that well soon, to read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and more. I also read a couple books by Charles Portis, the American author who wrote True Grit. I read Norwood and Dog of the South. Both were very good books. I found their minimal style a little disconcerting but at the same time very compelling.

    • Well, a crop of authors and books I had never heard of before now, for sure!

      There is so much out there to choose from that I am quite dependent on recommendations.

      I don’t know why I don’t read more biographies, as I always enjoy them, especially if they are concurrent with a time and place that interests me. I’m reading on Gandhi at the moment, and I have read half a dozen Jazz biogs, but not a lot more in that department.

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