It happened just before Christmas 2020. I got up early one morning, and felt as if I had walked into a meteor shower. I was beset by flashing lights in my right eye. I managed to get in to see my optician, and was reassured that there was nothing seriously wrong, and the problems in my right eye would settle down quickly, except perhaps for an occasional floater. (This proved absolutely spot on.) However, there was something worrying in my left eye: a build up of cells behind the lens that was put in when I had my cataracts done. If it got any worse, it could be fixed with laser treatment.
Over the next few months it did get worse, if I closed my right eye, everything I saw was blurred. As a consequence my eyes were tired more and more of the time, which in turn meant that I did less and less reading. It just felt like a strain every time I picked up a book. By late spring I was back at the opticians, and she got on to the NHS about the laser treatment. A couple of months later I got a call from the hospital to have my eyes tested. This confirmed everything the optician had said, including showing me an image of the build up of cells. Then I just had to wait for an appointment for the treatment itself. Which eventually came during the autumn.
Now my sight is more or less back to normal, and I can read without strain or tiredness. But during the long summer months something psychological was triggered, perhaps a knock-on effect of all the stresses brought on by the pandemic. I just didn’t want to read: I found it hard to open a book (almost physically so) and harder still to concentrate. That condition is, perhaps, beginning to ease no slightly right at the end of the year, though there is still a hesitation when it comes to picking up a book, even a book I’ve already started reading and which I am enjoying. One other thing I have noticed is that I find it far easier and more satisfying to read non-fiction rather than fiction, even though there is a pile of novels I very much want to have read. And I have, for whatever reason, turned to an awful lot of very long books this year.
The end result of all that physiological and psychological weirdness is that I have read no more than half the number of books I would normally get through in a year. Indeed there were several months in which I only managed to get through one book. There was a moment in November, after the eye operation, when I thought I would end the month having read nothing.
Still, I did do some reading, and as is my usual habit at this time of year, here is the list of what I have read:
Alastair Gray – Paradise: Posthumously published, this was the final part of Gray’s translation of the Divine Comedy. It lacks the interior illustrations, and I think the text would, in normal circumstances, have had at least one more going over by Gray, because the whole thing doesn’t quite have the zest of the two earlier volumes. But the fact that we have it at all is a wonder.
Susanna Clarke – Piranesi: I probably don’t need to add much to the praise this book has received. In fact I’m not quite as enthusiastic as some people seem to be, perhaps because I found myself distracted by too many echoes of too many other works. But it is an excellent novel.
Georges Simenon – The Flemish House: So we have continued the habit of me reading Simenon’s Maigret novels aloud to Maureen. The writing is astonishing, for books that are invariably 11 chapters long and 150 pages, he manages to pack in so much variety, so much observation, so much wry humour. They are an object lesson for any writer.
William Boyd – Trio: I do like Boyd as a writer, and this is, indeed, good, but not quite among his best. I wrote at greater length about it here.
D.J. Taylor – The Prose Factory: There is some interesting stuff in here, but boy do you have to search for it. Taylor is not a good writer, his interests are quite narrow, and he draws on the same examples time and again. But still there are bits here worth reading. I wrote about it here.
J.B. Priestley – An Inspector Calls: To my mind, one of the great plays. I’ve seen it on stage and screen and read it more than once. This time I was writing about it for Vector’s special issue on class.
Philip Kerr – A Quiet Flame: Kerr’s Bernie Gunther sequence is quite extraordinary, not so much for the crimes told as for the milieu in which they are set: the rise of the Nazi party, the mess of post-war Germany, and, here, the flight of ex-Nazi’s to South America.
Lisa Walters – Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Science and Politics: Around this time I had been dipping in to Ritchie Robertson’s huge book on the Enlightenment (see below). While he didn’t refer to Margaret Cavendish at all, there was a point where he was talking about natural philosophy in the middle of the 17th century that made me think about Cavendish and her contemporaries. So this book, and the next two on the list, along with a host of essays and bits of other books and the like, were the necessary precursor to a longish essay I wrote about Cavendish, and which is due in the next issue of Foundation.
Kathleen Jones – Margaret Cavendish: A Glorious Fame
Margaret Cavendish – The Blazing World
Bae Myung-Hoon – Tower: The travails of the year left me less able to read science fiction than any other form of fiction. But this was one of the few exceptions, a superb book that I reviewed for Strange Horizons.
Peter Hennessy – Winds of Change: Another of Hennessy’s rather dense political histories. In this instance he covers the few years of Tory (mis)rule between the start of the Sixties and Harold Wilson’s election triumph. As so often with Hennessy there is rather too much detail about who said what in Cabinet, and not quite enough about the social context in which these events happened. The Profumo Affair, for instance, seems to happen in a cultural vacuum unconnected to social and sexual changes that were starting to take place. And being Hennessy he is rather more forgiving of the Tories than I would be. But there is still a lot of interesting stuff in here.
Georges Simenon – The Madman of Bergerac
Richard Thompson – Beeswing: One of the best autobiographies by a musician that I’ve read. I wrote about it here.
Helen MacInnes – Ride a Pale Horse: Maureen, who has been dutifully buying me a new Helen MacInnes for every gift0giving opportunity, informs me that I am now nearing the end. But still there are books I’d not encountered before for me to enjoy.
Helen Fry – MI9: This should have been so good, only it wasn’t, as I say here.
Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun: I reviewed this novel for Strange Horizons. I was more generous to the book than just about any other sf critic I read; but I was more critical of the book than just about any mainstream reviewer I read. The thing is, there are two scenes around the mid-point of the novel that are extraordinarily good, but then the whole thing fizzles out into one of the most awful endings you are likely to encounter. So it goes.
David Edmonds – The Murder of Professor Schlick: During the summer I got into some rather heavy books on philosophy, of which this was perhaps the lightest but also the best. It helped to generate this post on the subject.
Peter Carey – The Chemistry of Tears: I love most (though not quite all) of Carey’s work, and I had been meaning to read this novel for years without ever actually getting around to it. So this year I made certain, and it is good. Not his best, but very good.
Kate Atkinson – Behinds the Scenes at the Museum: Atkinson has, ever since Life After Life, become one of my favourite novelists, but I had for some reason never gout around to reading her first novel. I’m glad I’ve done so now, it really is excellent.
Wolfram Eilenberger – Time of the Magicians: The other big book on philosophy that I read during the summer (and yes, I also cover it in this post).
Georges Simenon – The Misty Harbour
Georges Simenon – The Man From London: This was a bit of an experiment, one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, to see if I got along with it as well as Maigret. Many, many years ago, I tried reading a Simenon, The Brothers Rico, and didn’t get on with it at all, so I was interested to see what the difference was. In fact this is much the same length as a Maigret novel, as tightly written as a Maigret novel, but it is darker, a sense of doom hangs about the characters right from the start. I did enjoy it, though.
Ritchie Robertson – The Enlightenment: It took me months to work my way through this book. It is huge and dense and complex. And it is fascinating. Some of the thoughts inspired by the book came out in this post.
Ivy Roberts (ed) – Futures of the Past: An oddly haphazard collection of early science fiction that I was asked to review for Vector. I wrote a longish review, around 1,500 words, but happened to mention in passing that my notes on the book were much longer. Which is how come an essay of somewhere around 5,000 words will be coming to a Vector near you in the not too distant future.
Rosemary Hill – Time’s Witness: Another dense book, if not quite so long as The Enlightenment. This is a study of antiquarianism in Britain and France between, roughly, the French Revolution and the Great Exhibition. It is fascinating for the way it reveals how our views of the past have changed over the years.
Michael Walker – Laurel Canyon: Between the late-1960s and the mid-1970s, Laurel Canyon, just outside Los Angeles, became home to a startling variety of rock stars, including Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, and a host of others, some more temporary than others. Given that the canyon is not too far from the Troubadour, the whole area became a crossroads for rock musicians of every kind. This is an occasionally breathless, often starry-eyed account of the whole phenomenon, and its rather sad ending, but the whole book is great fun.
Helen MacInnes – Neither Five Nor Three: If you had asked me, I would have sworn that this was the MacInnes novel I had read on a trip to Greece in the early 70s, and that a Greek Orthodox priest I met on a train to Mycenae used to practice his (atrocious) English pronunciation. Yet when I read the book now I didn’t remember a single thing about the story. Was my memory at fault?
Octavia Cade – The Impossible Resurrection of Grief: a novella that I reviewed for Strange Horizons and which I can’t help feeling should have been longer.
David Edmonds and John Eidinow – Wittgenstein’s Poker: Effectively the precursor to Edmonds’s The Murder of Professor Schlick, though there is considerable overlap between the two works. This begins with the only meeting between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (the two philosophers who were central to my own philosophy studies), at which the two disagreed so violently that Wittgenstein allegedly threatened Popper with a poker.
Georges Simenon – Liberty Bar
Robert Holdstock – Mythago Wood: How many times have I read this now? This time I was making notes for the book about Mythago Wood that I need to begin writing in the next few days. There is always more to discover in the book, it really is fantastic.
Georges Simenon – Lock No.1: This is the novel in which Maigret announces that he is about to retire. Every Maigret novel to this point (this is number 18) was written in a very brief period, 1932 and 1933. The next novel, just called Maigret, came out in 1934 and features Maigret in retirement, but then there is a gap in the chronology. So I’m guessing that this was the point at which Simenon decided that his creation had to encounter his own Reichenbach Falls, only, like Doyle before him, Simenon discovered that he couldn’t quite pull the trigger.
Louis Menand – The Free World: This is easily the biggest of the big books I read this year, over 700 pages of rather dense text. It is subtitled “Art and Thought in the Cold War”, though it brings the story to a close with the Vietnam War, twenty years before the Cold War itself ended. It is an excellent if at times frustrating book. For well over half the book each new chapter takes a different focus, and usually presents it in relation to one figure: George Kennan, George Orwell, Jean Paul Sartre, Claude Levi Strauss, Merce Cunningham, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, the Beatles and so on. (Much of this is covered in the piece I wrote here, at around the half way mark in the book.) But then, suddenly, he starts linking these characters, so that the picture he is presenting in such careful detail starts to become ever more complex. And after complaining that all of his central figures are men we suddenly come upon a chapter which explains why, which points out how women were systematically obscured during this period, how the number of women in universities, the professions, branches of government and so forth was actually less in the 1960s than it had been in the 1920s. It is a huge and powerful book, there’s a lot to take in and nobody is going to agree with everything in the book, but as a springboard for ideas it is unrivalled.
Michael O’Neill – Joni Mitchell: Lady of the Canyon: The book is worth it for the photographs, but the text? It is basically a loose, flaccid essay that tries to encompass the whole of her life and career in no great depth. O’Neill is best in his thumbnail reviews of the various albums, but there is no detail and no insight here. And it is very careless, at one point he talks of a concert “the day after her prison episode” (69) without actually saying anywhere what this “prison episode” might be. Everything is brushed over quickly, lightly, the many quotations are never sourced. It is just sloppy work. (For comparison, this essay says more, more interestingly, about Joni Mitchell, and isn’t that much shorter than O’Neill’s book.)
Rob Young – The Magic Box: I loved Young’s book on folk music, Electric Eden, so I was anxious to see what he made of this book on British film and television. I wasn’t disappointed. It is clearly intended as a companion volume to Electric Eden, because the cross-references are immense. But I hadn’t taken into account how much of the book would be about folk horror with constant reference to the way themes like alien invasion, horrors rising from the ground, and secret societies all reflect social and cultural conditions within Britain at the time. I kept stumbling across ideas that made me go: oh, yes, I need to remember this when I’m writing about X or Y or … This is, I think, a book I will come back to on many occasions.
And that’s it, a very poor 36 titles in all (though there are half a dozen title in there that are particularly long, and the Menand probably counts as three normal books). I don’t think any of the books I have on the go at the moment will be finished before the end of the day, so I might as well close this list now and post it.
Other news: I’ve now read the final proofs and written the index for the book on Brian Aldiss, and that is on schedule to appear in July. Before that, in May, I am due to deliver the manuscript for a book about Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I’m going to be starting to write that in the next week. I have a proposal for another book, which I need to revise and submit also during January. Meantime the next issue of Foundation will have getting on for 8,000 words on Margaret Cavendish from me, and then there is the long review essay on Futures of the Past that is die to appear in Vector sometime during the year. So on a writing front, things have kept going at a steady pace, and I just hope it continues like that over the next year.