2019 – A Year’s Reading

My year began in Uganda…

Podcast 2

…followed by extended stints in Turkey and Greece, before returning to UK in August.

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Robert Shaw Sun Doctor

Wherever I am, I have a sixth sense for tracking down English language books. In a stall in Izmir, I found The Man in the Glass Booth by Robert Shaw. I didn’t immediately twig that it was the Robert Shaw, the actor of Jaws fame – and that he regarded himself first and foremost as a literary novelist. Months later, I stumbled across another Shaw novel, The Sun Doctor, in the 50p bargain box on the pavement outside a Hampshire bookshop. While neither book qualifies as a lost masterpiece, they’re both testament to a literary talent that might have flourished had Hollywood and drink not got in the way.

The Hunter

My to-read list will take years to get through, but chance finds or intriguing recommendations instantly vault to the top. My Twitter friend Nicholas Royle provided two excellent recommendations: Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, atmospherically set in Tasmania;

The girl

and Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing, which takes place in the same part of southern England (not far from my base in Hampshire) as his famous Watership Down. In tone and content, it’s on a different planet.

 

Wilson

Backlisted podcast, as ever, propelled me in new directions. Their episode devoted to Angus Wilson sidetracked me onto his literary executor, Francis King (a former British Council colleague of my father). Much as I appreciated Wilson’s work, I became hooked on Francis King’s. He was a prolific author (of more than 30 books) who never found the readership he deserved.

King
Alms

Last year Backlisted inspired me to read Anthony Powell’s 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. This year, thanks to them, I started Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which will be a long-term project. Continuing my fresh interest in multi-volume works, I embarked on Simon Raven’s 10-book Alms for Oblivion series. Six in, I’m thoroughly enjoying it (as the blurb says, he had ‘the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel’). Then, on a rec from Ann Patchett, I quickly completed Jane Gardam’s exquisitely structured Old Filth trilogy.

Old Filth
Harris 1

The worst book I read this year was Thomas Harris’s Cari Mora. His The Silence of the Lambs blew me away when I read it in a single sitting in Malawi in 1989. His subsequent novels have delivered diminishing returns. I sincerely hope he’s done.

Harris 2
Seal
Morris 2

Despite being a travel writer, I wax and wane when it comes to reading travel writing. The landscape has changed immeasurably during my career, and many far-flung destinations of my early years are now served by budget airlines. Armchair travel seems redundant. While I was in Turkey, I read my old friend Jeremy Seal’s Meander – and my faith was restored. In describing his journey along the full course of the River Menderes (Meander), he unlocks some of the country’s mysteries. I subsequently moved on to Jan Morris’s novel Hav, which I read while in Izmir; the real city that approximately overlaps her fictional creation. I was much more impressed by her travelogue Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. What a book.

Morris

During our stay in Athens, to distract from earthquakes and anarchist riots, I returned to two of my favourite American writers, Norman Rush and James Salter. Both are consummate crafters of prose, and perhaps unfairly have been shunted into the ‘writers’ writer’ annex.

Salter 1
Norman rush
Salter 2

In October I finally tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. If I’d read it earlier in my career, I’m sure its stamp would have been on everything I ever wrote thereafter – not necessarily for the better. I have no regrets about coming to it so late. I was able to read it through the prism of a lifetime’s reading, and to appreciate depths I would have missed in my 20s or 30s.

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JAN

  1. Panther in the Basement by Amos Oz
  2. The Re-Origin of Species by Torill Kornfeldt
  3. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald
  4. How to be a Public Author by Francis Plug
  5. U & I by Nicholson Baker
  6. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
  7. Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik
  8. Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
  9. Turbulence by David Szalay
  10. Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich
  11. Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin
  12. Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
  13. Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena
  14. The Tango War by Mary Jo McConahay
  15. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson

FEB

  1. Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson
  2. Normal People by Sally Rooney (AB)
  3. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (AB)
  4. The Sunlight on the Garden by Francis King
  5. The Firewalkers by Francis King
  6. My Dog Tulip by JR Ackerley
  7. Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque
  8. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
  9. Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown (AB)

MARCH

  1. Utz by Bruce Chatwin
  2. The Parade by Dave Eggers
  3. Why Mahler? By Norman Lebrecht
  4. The Heavens by Sandra Newman

APRIL

  1. Meander by Jeremy Seal
  2. Punishments by Francis King
  3. The Waves Behind the Boat by Francis King
  4. Outside Looking In by TC Boyle
  5. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  6. Spring by Ali Smith
  7. Greek to Me by Mary Norris
  8. Robert Shaw by John French
  9. At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
  10. The Man in the Glass Booth by Robert Shaw

MAY

  1. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee
  2. Murmur by Will Eaves
  3. The Brighton Belle and Other Stories by Francis King
  4. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima (R)
  5. Hav by Jan Morris
  6. Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (R) (AB)
  7. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  8. Star by Yukio Mishima
  9. The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
  10. Cari Mora by Thomas Harris
  11. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
  12. Ariel – A Literary Life of Jan Morris by Derek Johns

JUNE

  1. Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald
  2. Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
  3. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  4. Act of Darkness by Francis King
  5. The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark
  6. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (R)
  7. Conundrum by Jan Morris
  8. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
  9. Lanny by Max Porter

JULY

  1. The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald
  2. The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day
  3. Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon
  4. All That Is by James Salter
  5. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
  6. Light Years by James Salter
  7. The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo by Peter Orner
  8. Whites by Norman Rush (R)
  9. The Chain by Adrian McKinty

AUGUST

  1. Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett
  2. Voyage to Desolation Island by Jean-Paul Kauffmann
  3. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (AB)
  4. Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald (AB)
  5. Quicksand by Emmanuel Bove
  6. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  7. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
  8. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (AB)
  9. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
  10. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

SEPTEMBER

  1. The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
  2. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  4. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (AB)
  5. This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev (AB)
  6. The Rich Pay Late by Simon Raven
  7. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (AB)
  8. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
  9. Island by Aldous Huxley (AB)
  10. Friends in Low Places by Simon Raven
  11. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller (AB)
  12. Girl by Edna O’Brien

OCTOBER

  1. The Sabre Squadron by Simon Raven
  2. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (AB)
  3. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (AB)
  4. The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald
  5. The Hunter by Julia Leigh
  6. Fielding Gray by Simon Raven
  7. Ulysses by James Joyce (AB)
  8. The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier
  9. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

NOVEMBER

  1. Me by Elton John
  2. Binstead’s Safari by Rachel Ingalls
  3. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  4. The Judas Boy by Simon Raven
  5. The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
  6. The Sun Doctor by Robert Shaw
  7. There and Then: Travel Writing by James Salter (AB)
  8. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (AB)
  9. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
  10. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow (AB)
  11. The Train was on Time by Heinrich Böll
  12. The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

DECEMBER

  1. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
  2. Joy in the Morning by PG Wodehouse (AB)
  3. Last Friends by Jane Gardam
  4. The Ascent of Rum Doodle by WE Bowman
  5. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
  6. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (AB)
  7. Cove by Cynan Jones
  8. Unquiet by Linn Ullmann
  9. The Divine Comedy by Dante, trans by Clive James (AB)
  10. The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by Boyd Varty
  11. Places Where They Sing by Simon Raven
  12. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
  13. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell
  14. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (AB)

(AB) – Audiobook; (R) – Reread