Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Older Men Don’t Read Fiction…

April 8, 2018

I recently alluded to some research suggesting that older men didn’t read (very much) fiction and, as I fall into that demographic category, I have been thinking more about it, and about my habits. I’ve been prompted to revisit it because of the difficulty I’ve experienced in choosing a couple of books to take away with me on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes.

How is that difficult, you may wonder, as I’ve often mentioned having piles of books waiting for my eyeball time? And those piles include a fair number of novels that I’ve bought, with the obvious intention of reading them; recommendations by friends or ones that had good reviews, or books by writers I already know and want to explore further. But I can’t decide: shall I take a new novel, or a history book? Shall I take some old favourite novels which I’ve been promising myself to re-read for ages? I can see I shall reach the stage of randomly grabbing a pile and thrusting them into my bag early on the morning of my departure, a last-minute eeny-meeny-miny-mo…

So, I asked myself in the middle of the night, what on earth is going on? I went back to my reading journal: this year, out of 22 books read so far, two (!) have been novels, and one of those was a re-read. Last year, 27 out of 64 were novels, of which only five were new. In 2016, 10 novels out of 52 books, two new novels; in 2015, 20 out of 71. I have to go back to 2014 to see more than half of the books read being novels, and even then, there were an awful lot of re-reads. There’s the evidence.

Next, the excuses. I haven’t felt there are an awful lot of good new novels being published, or at least, ones that call to me to read them. I am in the middle of a history and travel reading phase which has been going on for several years. Pretty thin as explanations go, I have to acknowledge.

At the moment I feel happier re-reading novels I’ve read previously, even if a long time ago. Here I think there’s something of a comfort factor going on, re-acquainting myself with old favourites, old friends – and there are times I look wistfully at a book on my shelves and think to myself – am I ever going to find the time to re-read that one? A new novel feels like much more of a challenge: am I going to enjoy it? can I actually be bothered? will it make that much of a difference to me? And it’s easier for non-fiction to draw me in at the moment. If a novel is vicarious living, vicarious experience, perhaps I’m not in need of so much of that in my retirement, perhaps I’m getting on with my own living at the moment…

Yet somewhere in the back of my mind there is a nagging doubt or uncertainty; I cannot quite believe that I’m avoiding reading novels, that I’m actively expecting to be disappointed, and feeling that I don’t want to make the effort. So, if there are any other men out there who count themselves as ‘older’, I’d be interested to hear from you. And from anyone who has ever ‘gone off’ reading fiction, for whatever reason. I’d like to get to the bottom of this one.

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Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

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A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been reading quite a bit about schools and education recently, and started to think about how writers treat the topic in literature, too. Although I’ve been retired from the profession for over six years now, I still keep in touch with some former colleagues, and my impression is that things have got worse, in terms of pressure, stress and workload since I left; there is less trust in teachers, and the notion of teaching as a profession, where teachers have been trained and acquired specific skills, rendering their work and opinions worthy of a certain respect, has diminished considerably.

Partly I feel as a society we are unclear what we want from schools: I’d suggest literacy, numeracy and oral communication skills to a level where people can understand the possibilities open to them, and have the opportunity to develop themselves further, when and how they wish, as a minimum… many people settle for school as a free child-minding service. I think it’s important that opportunity for education is available life-long: I’ve picked up two new languages and yoga, to name a couple of things, since leaving school.

Young children need the opportunity to play, mix with peers, and learn to be sociable. Older children need to have the opportunity to use their imagination, and to be creative; they need to be give freedom, and trusted as far as it’s possible. Such approaches foster open-mindedness and tolerance, and our entire society suffers – has suffered over recent decades – when we lose sight of these important values.

So I found myself wondering why school and education seemed to have by and large received such an appalling press in the books I recalled! Did all these writers have such awful memories of their schooldays? Charlotte Bronte‘s account of Lowood School in Jane Eyre is horrendous, and partly autobiographical, I understand. Mark Twain paints a ridiculous picture of small-town US schooling in Tom Sawyer, and the teachers in Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird don’t come off very much better.

Looking more closely, we have Dickens‘ satire of English education in Hard Times, with Mr Gradgrind as a cannon waiting to fire facts into the little girls and boys; no room for feelings, emotions, creativity there. A horse is a graminiverous quadruped, we are informed; Sissy can’t have pretty wallpaper in her bedroom with animals on it because in reality miniature animals don’t walk up and down walls… And although by the end, we see where such attitudes and practices get you, I often have the growing impression we’re headed back in that direction today…

Then there’s the truly evil account of Stephen Dedalus’ schooling in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce‘s thinly-disguised autobiography. There’s the vicious physical punishment with the ‘pandy-bat’ for something that was no fault of the boy’s, and there’s the horrendous hell-fire sermon which sends the adolescent into something verging on insanity, or at least a nervous breakdown.

I racked my memory for positive accounts of school and only came up with Josef Skvorecky‘s The Engineer of Human Souls, which hardly counts anyway, as we are with Canadian high school students studying literature for goodness’ sake, and anything and everything is grist to the mill in the author’s classes, although some of what we encounter there also testifies to the stultifying nature of education in earlier years…

At the moment I put it all down to the opposition between the creativity that is so embedded in the soul of a real writer and the rigidity of so much of schooling in the past. And yet, isn’t school where writers learn at least the rudiments of their craft?  I can see that a necessary drilling in the basics is necessary for survival in a relatively complex society can be – but doesn’t have to be – rather soul-destroying and dull. And this is one of the reasons why I really feel it’s time there was a proper, dispassionate consideration of what we want education to provide for our future citizens. I’m not holding my breath…

This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

Newspapers: do they have a point any more?

January 15, 2018

Today my newspaper of choice, which I’ve read daily for nearly half a century – The Guardian – became a tabloid. It looks okay, but no longer has anything which makes it stand out from any of the other dailies. The short-lived bold Berliner experiment ran out of steam and money: no-one could have foreseen how rapidly so many people would give up print for online news… and I found myself thinking: is there any real point to newspapers any more?

Once, newspapers were the only news; first radio and then TV scooped them. And now the internet offers instant updates. Once newspapers offered news; now they try to offer everything: a whole range of features, opinion, columnists trying to be funny, cookery, lifestyle, advice on relationships. Once newspapers had relatively few pages and were readable on the day of publication in a reasonable space of time; now there are pages to plough through. Once the Sunday paper was a treat to gorge on.

I only occasionally buy a print Guardian at a weekend, and when I do, it’s frustrating, because I’ve read half of it before, at different times during the week: online articles aren’t attached to particular days, and the overall effect is to make it even less likely I’ll bother with print. And I suspect I only look at about a quarter of what appears online, anyway.

I could never have imagined life without my daily dose of print, and yet, here I am, reading the paper online every morning – no more cold and wet trips to the corner newsagent. It comes rather cheaper, of course, and this is an issue for all newspapers: where’s the money? The Guardian seems, slowly, to be finding its way with a subscription and donation model, helped by the web broadening its world readership. And I grind my teeth about the random and irrelevant US and Australian stories. But they get some cash from me because I love the online crossword app.

The Times disappeared behind a paywall, but I won’t give money to Murdoch on principle, end of story. The Daily Telegraph, which I used regularly to look at to see what the enemy was up to, has developed a ‘premium’ (ie give us money) label for an ever-increasing number of its stories, and this has led to a bastardisation of good journalism, in that most stories now begin with a couple of paragraphs of knitted words that tell you nothing, in order to tempt you to stump up money to read the real article just as it disappears behind the paywall… ha ha, fooling no-one there… On the other hand, I do have access to far more titles, whereas I only ever bought one print newspaper a day.

As I grow older I regularly have to remind myself that I’m not the regular or average punter that most newspapers (or shops, for that matter) actually want; I’m on the margins, looking for something that doesn’t really exist. When I began reading newspapers, I wanted (and found) the news reported clearly, fully and intelligently, and some detailed and thoughtful analysis to develop my understanding of issues. That’s pretty rare now, particularly the analysis, for which I’ve gone to a French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique (there is an English edition) for the last twenty years. English newspapers are full of rent-a-scribe columnists paid by the yard to pontificate, to provoke or to try and be funny, none of which is terribly useful in terms of trying to understand an increasingly mad world.

I can’t see print newspapers existing for much longer; I can see them shrinking to weekly publications focused on analysis rather than news, although I suspect the ‘infotainment’ angle will still dominate. There will be far fewer of them. Someone will eventually sort out how to make micropayments work, I hope.

The thing that depresses me more than anything is the large number of people I see picking up and paying for the Daily Mail, imagining they are buying a proper newspaper, rather than a nasty, right-wing propaganda-sheet. It says something about the very sad state of this country at the moment.

Who controls my brain?

January 1, 2018

I’ve been wondering whether the ways I read have changed with the advent of the internet, and reading onscreen and online. I’ve always been a fast reader, and able to speed-read when I need to; I followed a speed-reading course while I was at school at the urging of a teacher, and have never regretted it; it meant that as a student I was able quickly to scan and if necessary skim-read large amounts of text and pinpoint and extract what I needed for my purposes. This was obviously incredibly helpful when doing research. I’ve also been able to skim-read newspapers and magazines, glancing to see what it was worth spending eye-ball time on.

But I have the feeling that things have changed radically now, because of the ubiquitous hyperlink – the ability to click on a link in an e-text and instantaneously be somewhere else, relevant or not. It’s possible to come back, of course, but we don’t always – or even often do that: what is this particular possibility doing to my reading?

Glancing at a newspaper or magazine in the olden days, one’s eyes could always be caught by a headline: one might be drawn in. And headlines were crafted to attract the reader, but not in the same way as today’s clickbait seeks to entrap, because a click means a possible ad-opportunity and therefore fractions of a penny for someone. Once I’d paid for my old print newspaper, that was it; a good advert might sell me something, but otherwise there was no more money to be made until I bought it again the next day…

Clickbait is like a honey-trap, a bottomless pit if one is not careful; it seems to encourage and develop the butterfly mind to devour small gobbets of text and pictures, and most web-pages are designed with this in mind… reading lengthy articles can actually be quite tricky, and as for saving them for future reference, well. I know there are tools like Pocket, but even these try and ‘recommend’ things an algorithm imagines I might like.

Am I gradually being trained to be increasingly superficial in my reading? I know I can exert control, I can choose what I read, but there’s another issue, it seems to me, as well: information overload. Such an enormous array of information is now at my fingertips, via a search-box. I can find out about anything I like. And, of course, I can be interested in far more things than I used to be, if I choose to… but far more superficially.

Let me illustrate. When I researched science fiction, some thirty-five years or so ago, I had my topic. Initially, I read a scholarly text or two, scanned relevant periodicals in the field, and built a reading list, and then I had physically to visit libraries, hunt down books via catalogues, order them, perhaps consult them in situ; I had to make notes on paper, longhand, painstakingly, and collate them… Did I manage to find and read everything of significance in my field? I don’t think so. Today I could literally swamp myself in material, without ever leaving my study. And would this have done me any good? I don’t think so. It would have taken much longer to wade through all the material; who can say whether I would have discriminated adequately between the dross and the worthwhile? Would I have finished before the research grants ran out?

I produced – in the interaction between my brain and the materials I had access to, a thesis which passed muster. True, with a computer, the typescript might well have had fewer typos in it. But…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and the access to information about all sorts of things I come across, that I couldn’t have looked up without major effort thirty years ago. So then, I didn’t bother, just got on with my life. Today, I just have a niggling awareness that things may be going on that I’m not completely clear about and not completely happy about, because I think my brain may be being manipulated. Am I paranoid, or what?

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

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