I’m a bit late with the books round-up this year. I read 40 books in 2017—notes on some of my favourites below. Full list here if you’re interested; feel free to ask me about any of them.
The Secret History & The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.
Donna Tartt is an extraordinary writer who I’ve come to a bit late. She’s a master at writing the kinds of books the reader can live in. With The Secret History this is a straightforward evocation of a place and time—it somehow verges on the fantastical without ever leaving the mundane world. I’ve no doubt that I would have been obsessed by it had I read it aged 19. It’s less obvious where this liveableness comes from in The Goldfinch, skipping place to place and spanning decades as it does, but it’s clearly there too. Both novels are remarkable achievements; I’m looking forward to reading The Little Friend some time in 2018.
Against Everything, Mark Greif.
Mark Greif is co-founder of the highly influential literary magazine n+1. Against Everything is a collection of his best essays from the last decade. I’d never read any of Greif’s writing before, which I regret because it’s really, really good—to have a whole book at once was a real treat. Looking back through my copy I’ve underlined something on almost every page. Some of my favourites:
- Octomom and the Market in Babies
To summarize in the language we were all then coming to learn: Nadya had leveraged her disability payments into six babies, collateralized them (as a state liability likely to pay revenues for years to come), and then quite brilliantly leveraged these six babies into eight more.
When Wall Street had done this—tried to wring profit out of bad risk by climbing deeper into the hole—the taxpayer money doled out to rescue their misbegotten investments was called a much-needed “bailout”. On Fox News and MSNBC, Nadya Suleman was called assorted names.
- Learning to Rap.
It’s a fortunate fate to have your life be contemporary with the creation of a major art form. Embarrassing, then, not to have understood it, or appreciated, or become an enthusiast, even a fanatic, from the first. Especially shameful when it could have carried you, if only in imagination, across a racial barrier in America—at least as far as you can go without kidding yourself, when you’re white, and therefore approaching from the wrong side.
- Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy, or Heroes Without War
We are witnessing a temporary reconvergence with an ancient bit of history, caused by technology and the superior value the United States can now afford to put on the lives of its citizens and soldiers. In contemporary US warfare, the hero returns, in the manner of the Illiad, and “hero” has here a purely technical definition. He is the lone fighter, who takes the stage amidst a sea of mere mortal beings—one of only a few other heroes who are comparable to him in abilities and significance.
Somebody once said that as soon as they read David Foster Wallace’s cruise ship essay they knew they had literary cocaine on their hands. Greif is slower and more careful than Wallace, less pyrotechnic and more subtle. A different style. Literary opium perhaps.
Do No Harm, Henry Marsh.
A memoir of sorts from Britain’s most prominent neurosurgeon, telling stories of his successes and failures and how he copes.
I’d been putting off reading this for a while, despite several recommendations, because of my utter horror of severe mental disabilities and personality change that can result from brain surgery. I think this stuff scares me for the same reasons that talk of strong or superintelligent AI scares me: because it reveals personhood to be a nothing, a spook. What am I if what I am can be destroyed or utterly changed by a matter of millimetres?
There is some of of that in this book, but actually it’s much more about the surgeon than the patient: how you deal with the responsibility of a mind, a life in your hands, how you decide whether or not to take the risks, and how to live with yourself when it goes wrong. Henry Marsh is brilliantly human throughout.
The actual descriptions of surgery are gripping, the human drama playing out while the gore is ignored in the way only a surgeon could ignore it. As I said before, for the most part it’s the philosophical horror of brain surgery that upsets me rather than physical discomfort, but I did have to suppress a small gag at “open [the patient’s] head”. Marsh uses this phrase often and with obvious relish, as though he’s cracking open a soft-boiled egg at the breakfast table.
The Blue Fox, Sjón.
I bought this lovely little novella in Reykjavík airport and read in one sitting on the flight home. It is set in hunting territory in Iceland in the winter of 1883. Its author is well-known in Iceland as a novelist, playwright, poet and lyricist (he has written lyrics for Björk and for the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark). It’s hard to say exactly what this story is: a historical novel, a fable, a modern saga. It held me captivated though.
La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Vol. I, Phillip Pullman.
I spent the evenings of a week’s walking holiday in Snowdonia re-reading His Dark Materials in preparation for the first book in Pullman’s new trilogy in the same world. To be honest I fully expected to be disappointed, as I always am by long-anticipated sequels. In fact I was so relieved it wasn’t awful that it took me a long time to realise just how good it is.