Sunday, January 22, 2012

Top ten books from 2011

One of the great things about our holiday in Australia was the larger number of bookshops, even though books are more expensive than here. We would come across them in the kind of suburban areas which can’t or won’t sustain a bookshop in the UK or Ireland, as well as in city centres. Glenelg had a couple. So did Balmain. We visited Gertrude and Alice in Bondi and were pleased it survives, even though it’s now more of a café with a bookstore attached than the other way around. We also discovered the wonderful Readings bookshop chain in Melbourne, thanks to our friend who practically lives in the Carlton branch.

So this got me thinking again about whether books really are over. It certainly didn’t look like it on the other side of the world. I saw very few e-readers, perhaps because it was holiday time or perhaps because they haven’t quite caught on over there. Friends said it wasn’t that great, as two chains (Borders and Angus & Robertson) had recently gone out of business. But the most striking feature was the number of independent bookshops or small-scale chains. Clearly it’s still possible to make a living out of selling books in Australia.

And of course holidays are always a chance to catch up on the non-work reading. For this post, I didn’t think I’d be able to find ten ‘top’ books from 2011. It’s been a busy year, but I have been able to produce a top seven, two that are irritating but worthy of comment, and a cookery book which some may regard as cheating:

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage Classics, first published 1987): The first irritating one. Begins well – great writing and lots of anecdotes about the outback and Aboriginal culture in the 20th century (check out the hilarious Qantas Dreaming episode), but degenerates into a series of notes about his experiences with other nomadic people. No doubt intends to make a connection but it doesn’t work. So read the first two-thirds.

Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador, 2010): A controversial book which I loved. Incredible how the author can sustain the child’s narrative whilst also conveying the perspective of the other characters, most particularly the struggle for survival by the mother in the first half of the story.

River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, 2011): The TV series was required viewing in our vegetarian household, simply because it was completely relevant – that was, until the slaughterhouse scene. We know where meat comes from, Hugh. The cookery book is fab, though.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury, 2010): Set in Sierra Leone, the story of two love triangles set in different time periods and woven together very skilfully. The central character, English psychologist Adrian, allows exploration of the consequences of poverty and civil war through the eyes of an outsider.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, 2010): Expresses the complexity of relationships over time in a way almost (but not quite) worthy of George Eliot. Everyone behaves badly and no-one is the villain. The final few chapters will be most appreciated by those who have come through the trench warfare of a long relationship. Let down in places by the writing style.

Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson (Earthscan, 2009): Verging on a work book but I’d like to think I would have read it anyway. Ed Miliband has, apparently, although you wouldn’t know it from Labour’s economic policy. Explains clearly why continuous growth is impossible and how a sustainable economy can be achieved. And, unfortunately, shows why it’s unlikely to happen as it requires both personal restraint and political long-sightedness. The second irritating contribution to the list – but worth reading..

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury, 2009): New York in 1974 - a vivid kaleidoscope of characters and events set against the backdrop of the real life tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.

The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell (Phoenix, 2011): If, in your sixties, you have to reappraise your life, is it devastating or redemptive? An overlooked novel about how when the facts change, we have to change our minds.

Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare (Vintage, 2011): A feckless young man inherits a fortune by mistake and learns about love, misunderstandings and manipulation. Often very funny and a good read.

Just Kids by Patti Smith (Bloomsbury, 2010): I’ve written about this one before. A wonderful memoir.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The importance of holidays

I’ve been back from Australia for nearly a week now, with jetlag and work having prevented me from doing much else. Fortunately, Nick has been able to post a couple of accounts of our brilliant holiday.

Highlights for me included: meeting friends in Glenelg and Sydney, and being hosted by our friend KJ in Melbourne; walking Holdfast Bay from Glenelg to Brighton; re-acquaintance with Sydney Ferries; the walk from Coogee to Bondi; new discoveries Balmain and Balmoral Beach; Melbourne’s funky Carlton area and the marvellous Ian Potter Centre; Bushrangers Bay on the Mornington Peninsula; and the pleasure of sunlight and warmth in the middle of winter. 

I read seven books, including the bizarre and fascinating ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin, and ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen, which is a great novel but would perhaps not be fully appreciated by younger readers.

Sydney CBD from the ferry
It was the most refreshing break I’ve had for years – but why?

Most important was the length of time. In three weeks, it’s possible to have both a proper rest and to do interesting things.

Also, I would usually take some work with
me on holiday, which would never get done.
This time, I didn’t even pretend, but planned
for a complete break.

Minimum access to the internet, including no
checking of work e-mails, was strangely
soothing. A basic Aussie number mobile
phone sufficed for communication with
Manly ferry and the Harbour Bridge
friends and for Christmas messages home.
Finally, going to places we already knew removed a lot of stress, and in the least familiar location (Melbourne) we had the luxury of staying with a friend.

So in future it’s long holidays in the sun for me, travelling light and without much technology in tow.

Unfortunately, long holidays require longer periods of work in between, so for now it’s back to porridge.....