A strange thing happened at the start of this year – after years of blazing through books at a tremendous lick, I found myself struggling to get into anything. Moving beyond the first few chapters was a challenge, let alone finishing anything.
Given the degree to which I love a good read, this was a concern. Had I burnt out on books? Was this a byproduct of wrestling with the black dog? Either, rather than persevere and force the issue I took a break, did the rare thing (for me) of indulging in episodic television. Then, when the itch to read began to build up to the point of being impossible to ignore again I picked up the first book on my ‘to read’ pile which happed to be Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor.
That did the job. Since then I’ve been pretty much back to business as usual so it feels as good a time as any to summarise the highlights of those collections of words I’ve been consuming over the last six months.
One of my growing joys when it comes to reading, and a mainstay even when I couldn’t get into anything for myself, has been the fact that my son is now of the age where we’ll sit and read through fuller stories and novels over bedtimes. This has meant that, alongside those Terry Pratchett collections like The Witches Vacuum Cleaner, I got to enjoy Journey to the Centre of the Earth again and marvel at the ageless wonder of Jules Verne’s writing. It’s one of those classics that’s been sat on my shelf waiting to be re-read since my days at uni and I couldn’t think of a better reason to have done so.
Rather than set an arbitrary number of books as a target for my reading lately I’ve instead made it a point to read one ‘big Russian classic’ a year. This year that happened to be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s one of those books that I’d put off reading due to some misconception but am glad to have done so – it’s a joyous read (probably depending on your translation) that’s one to cherish – even if I found the the main plot (and character) of Anna herself bloody irritating. Much more the stories of Prince Stepan and Kostya for me.
Keeping on the classics theme momentarily, the Ernest Hemmingway section on my shelves has seen more than its fair share of action lately as I seek to consume more first-person narrative references. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises was the first to be torn through and (as it, too had been sitting awaiting re-read since uni) just how bloody strong a first novel it is. While his mother may have been disappointed that he should squander his gifts writing about a social set she considered ghastly and, like To Have and Have Not which I read shortly thereafter, there are a few racist comments that grate a touch in 2022, there’s a lot to enjoy here. To Have and Have Not was one I hadn’t read before and while it felt like a disjointed story of three different and gradually weaker parts the first part alone is worth the price of admission and it would be followed by one of his finest and I’m sure I’ll be going back that end of the ‘H’ section soon.
It’s not often that I tend to read multiple books by the same author in one year and yet, along with Hemmingway, I’ve double up on Amor Towles this year. Much has been said of A Gentleman In Moscow and it remains one of my favourite novels to date so I was happy to get hold of The Lincoln Highway at the end of last year though it remained unread for some time. Before I got around to it I went back, as it were, with Mr Towles’ first – The Rules of Civility. Set in New York during the ‘jazz age’ and telling the story, in retrospect, of an eventful 1938 this was such an absolute belter of a read that it was a) clear that Towles is one of those astoundingly talented writers b) an immediate push to pick up The Lincoln Highway again – which turned out to be pretty good timing as having the former fresh in my mind allowed me to really appreciate the connection between the two, making some elements all the more poignant. While it may not have been the most practical of books to take to the beach (the hardback pulls in just under 600 pages) it, too, is a masterpiece of both storytelling and narrative (of which there are several) and highly recommended.
Gunnar Staalesen, since my introduction via Orenda Books published We Shall Inherit The Wind back in 2015, has become one of my favourite authors and I’ve made a point of working my way through as many of his extensive older novels that have been published in English as possible while eagerly awaiting new instalments in the Varg Veum series. I was delighted, then, to find a couple of his books – one new, complete with my review, and one old, The Writing on the Wall – in a bookshop earlier this year. The Writing on the Wall was originally written in 1994 (the English translation arriving in 2004) and is easily a highlight of this year’s reading. I always liken to reading to Staalesen as enjoying a good mug of coffee – it’s to be savoured as is gently kicks in. Once again dealing with some particularly dark subject matter (teenage prostitution and addiction) with quiet power, this is a bloody strong entry in a series that doesn’t have a weak point.
I’d seen Danny Goldberg‘s Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain about for some time but hadn’t felt compelled to get a hold of it before – was there anything more to be said about Kurt Cobain. Well, turns out there is / was, a few insights to be gained. Goldberg become Nirvana’s manager ahead of Smells Like Teen Spirit and here compiles a series of insights from his own memories and unique insider perspective as well as reaching out to others both in the industry and inner circle including Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic for clarification (though Dave Grohl seems notably absent in input) on a few details. Some of these insights are at times painful – particularly on Cobain’s mental health – some refreshingly human given how much Kurt has been turned into a myth, and others fascinating (the examination of the Vanity Fair article that essentially deprived Cobain and Love access to their child is a real eye-opener). All of which mean that this is actually pretty essential reading for a fuller picture into Nirvana’s rise and Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.
As has been the prevailing approach of recent months I’m currently steaming through two books: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez – which is proving to be another beautiful novel I wish I’d read sooner – and, as I’ve recently been exploring more of Neil Young‘s music, Waging Heavy Peace is turning out to be a much better read and less about his model trains than I’d been given to believe.