My year in books 2011

When I decided I was going to write a review of my reading year, I had a bit of an anxious moment: totting up my annual literary consumption, it seemed that I hadn’t read very much at all. I was wrong, it was just that I’d blanked out the 4,576 pages of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence that dominated my recreation hours between March and September. My original plan was to read just the first novel, then pick up the second after the second TV series, and so on. I did not do that.

Instead, I became a dragon-fevered fantasy obsessive for a season, tugged along from book to book by some downright cynical plotting – Martin breaks the story up into various POV chapters, and he exploits this constantly to withhold information and generate cliffhangers. As much as I couldn’t stop reading, I’m not sure if I’d definitely recommend to anyone else. For one thing, at least two books’ worth of plot points are invented just to be whimsically annihilated later on. For another, the story still isn’t finished, meaning there’s an outside chance that I could be cheated out of an ending even after reading all those pages.

And last of all, in between the pulsating action and dazzling magic scenes, there’s some of the most abysmal sex writing you have ever read. Breeches tent. Nipples stiffen. I don’t know how that’s more unpleasant that the beheadings and eviscerations, but there you are. Unlike Sady Doyle, I didn’t feel like Westeros was just some kind of rape culture theme park – it’s a dense, backstabbing world of enticing characters, which happens to feature quite a lot of rape. Also some pretty broad strokes of orientalism, and a little dash of old-fashioned racism.

But even if I felt ambivalent about Martin by the end of a Dance With Dragons, I’d at least developed a profound respect for fantasy readers, and their willingness to crawl through miles of type with only the vague promise of an ending decades away. Also in the fantastical mode, I finished off Titus Alone, the third and final part of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. After the heavy gothic of the first two, Alone is romantic Bildungsroman – the hero making his way in the world, while that world appears to be falling to bits. It’s an extraordinary object, more 18th century than 20th, even if the contemporary uncertainties of devastating war and receding empire are clear within the grotesque and anachronistic world of the Groans.

My greatest reading pleasure last year was introducing my children to the Moomin books. They’re perfect for shared reading, because Tove Jansson’s funny world of hippo-like trolls is pitched precisely at children, but contains all the wisdom of adulthood. As an emotional observer, she’s every bit as acute as Katherine Mansfield or George Eliot, regardless the tails and fur her characters wear; I’ve written more about a favourite part of Moominland Midwinter here.

In non-fiction, my reading was mostly focused on trying to understand the economic crisis (John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone And No One Can Pay was invaluable in that regard), considering alternative systems (GA Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? is an elegant, persuasive and concise tract for anyone wondering if neo-liberal capitalism is actually inevitable), and understanding what we’re liable to lose in this rule of cuts (The Five Giants: A Biography Of The Welfare State by Nicholas Timmins, started but not yet finished; it’s really big).

But Cordelia Fine’s Delusions Of Gender: The Real Science Of Sex Difference is probably the most important book I’ve read this year, at least in terms of my own politics: I’ve written about it several times, and continue to be impressed with how sharp, supple, thoughtful and witty it is, even while it’s dismantling the most wearisomely pervasive tropes of neurosexism. In between George RR Martin novels (and swallowed by them in my memory of last year, so I’m editing to add this) I galloped through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, which was just about funny and wise enough to get away with the odd “needless to say, I had the last laugh”-ism, until I got to the chapter about Moran’s abortion, at which point I wanted to paint her splendid sentences all over city walls. (Edit ends.)

Also on the feminism shelf, Half The Sky was semi-satisfying: as a journalistic exposé of global misogyny, it was vital and shocking, but its prescriptions for improving conditions were suspiciously glib and flattering to individual heroes, some of whom weren’t exactly honest. And then there was Pornland by Gail Dines, a clanging polemic against pornography which mixed scaremongering (porn will turn you into a paedo!) with shockingly bad evidence. (Who says porn makes paedos? An incarcerated paedophile – always a source of moral wisdom and honest self analysis, those ones.)

Another book I didn’t much enjoy was Robin Harvie’s Why We Run. I love running, and I love reading about it; pity then, despite the universalist claims of the title, that this book was really just a memoir of the not-so-interesting author. Running an ultramarathon is impressive. Turning it into a cloying emotional journey, less so. Pegging it to the death of your father in law? Embarrassing. And the weird pride Harvie takes in pissing blood when a badly-planned run ends in dehydration is probably why he, personally, shouldn’t run at all.

If you want to read about running, the book you need is Born To Run by Christopher McDougall – not just the best sports books I’ve ever read (slim field), but one of the best works of long-form journalism on any subject. McDougall’s private efforts to overcome injury bring him to the ultrarunning Tarahumara tribe of Mexico and an extraordinary race. By the end, you’ll be prepared to believe that running could be the foundational act of humanity; but if you’re not, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers And Others: The Evolutionary Origins Of Mutual Understanding is a more scholarly take on anthropology, arguing that our species’ social instincts go deeper than you ever thought.

This year, I’ll be reading Alasdair Gray’s insanely rich A Life In Pictures (a Christmas present), catching up on a couple of things from 2011 I didn’t quite get round to (Chavs for one, The Coalition Chronicles for another), and re-reading Middlemarch. Plus, of course, anything you’d care to recommend in the comments – just so long as the author definitely isn’t going to die before they get to the finish.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012

7 thoughts on “My year in books 2011

  1. Lest anyone reading this should think me presumptuous, you did just say on Twitter that you’re looking for reading recommendations (the blog post above doesn’t ask for them)!

    So, given that your list doesn’t include any fiction that isn’t fantasy, and my books of the year list includes almost exclusively fiction that isn’t fantasy, choose at will from my own selection. It’s almost impossible for me to say which of these you might like, but I loved them all…

  2. For me, Iron War, the story of Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s epic 1989 Ironman triathlon race came in super-late as possibly the best book I read all year, and I basically don’t care about triathlons at all. Like Born To Run, it’s a nice blend of science, history and gripping descriptions of superhuman feats of endurance, and if you can read it without knowing who wins (as I did, being a triathlon ignoramus), all the better.

    I also read a shitload of PG Wodehouse, which is basically all great.

  3. Excellent stuff – if you haven’t read the collected short stories of Amy Hempel I massively recommend them. Also read and loved Tove Jansson’s non-Moomin novel The Summer Book in 2011 and really want to try The Winter Book and True Deceiver too.

    Have you read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami? I haven’t so can’t vouch for it but he’s generally pretty good value so could be worth a go.

  4. This post has made it very clear to me that I did not read enough books in 2011. I must do better.

    I did read “My name is Red” by Orhan Parmuk. Which was mostly brilliant: by turns inventive, heart breaking and beautiful. There were sections where it got a bit bogged down in art theory for my tastes, but perhaps I just lost the thread a little on that score. We can probably assume that a Nobel laureate is cleverer than what I am.

    I also read “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” by Christopher Booker. Despite the fact that he is a bigoted climate-change denier (among other things) and I can’t really stand him, I found this book to be pretty remarkable.

    In many ways Brooker is not articulating anything all that new in the book: most successful stories follow a small number of common plots which have stuck with humans through the ages, and many of these plots tally quite closely with Jungian theories of human psychology. But, by taking the reader through a (very) great number of famous stories as examples, he makes you think much more clearly about why they work. Or why they don’t.

    I read some other stuff too. But I can’t remember it right now, so let’s assume it was pish.

  5. Ooh, I’ve read Hempel’s Tumble Home – it is good, and Chuck Palahniuk uses it as the Platonic ideal of non-lazy minimalist writing. Well worth a go. I’ve also read Murakami’s running book, and it is indeed worth a shot.

  6. Despite all the people who said it was very good, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman really was very good. I feared that it would too obviously be a pile of columns (the technical term is a Cropliss, right?) but it, like, wasn’t. A few quibbles, but it’s a proper piece of work, and she doesn’t use laughs to dodge or duck actual arguments too often. That said, I dropped the book twice on public transport doing proper zero-dignity snorting-bellow-laughs.

    Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin probably isn’t a good book but it is a great one. He lived through horrors, and one gets the slightest, merest glimpse of what it must have been like for ordinary people to endure such things, particularly those multiply disenfranchised by history, even if his characters do keep on doing things that only characters seem to do in books.

    I went finally slogged through James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover and felt a bit sad. I don’t know if I’ve changed as I’ve got older or he’s reached the end of what his muse and methods can compass but it felt like diminished returns. Moving from the LA/LZ-centric to the Cold War abroad, the old post-war-isms brought into the post-Hoover era just seemed the same damaged, damaging men doing the same savage things, and it seemed true of the author also. His material overbrimmed his cup. It felt like reading a writer come up hard against the edge of their talent, puzzled why the old bits weren’t working, but forging ahead regardless. Actually, make that one of those 1950s swing bands, trying to play the new Rock’n’Roll, and wondering why they can’t make the kids dig it even though they’ve gone to the trouble of making the guitarist change to a solid-body electric. I’m a bit cautious about going back to the LA Quartet, in case they too smell of younger men’s enthusiasms. Yes I turn 40 this year, what of it?

    I’m 40 kilometres into the second Game Of Throne and still can’t quite get the extended fingertips of my mind around what the deal is. They’re sort of terrible: material is clunky, characters aren’t really alive (not for long, anyhow), dialogue interchangeable, decreasingly comfortable with the grip the author has on his material…but engineering genuinely surprising plot twists and cliffhangers every other chapter is no mean skill, and as a primer for understanding actual Medieval politics it is without peer. They’re all 15! They hate their siblings! There’s no strong centralised state, nor a national identity, nor non-dynastic civil institutions! No one has a good claim on the throne AND an army! If kids have read this, teaching them the Middle Ages will be a doddle. Er, but they probably shouldn’t read it. Hmm.

  7. Brilliant recommendations here, and I will be doing my best to read everything offered. I’ve already done the Murakami running book, which I enjoyed a great deal (it’s a much wiser and more modest version of what Harvie was aiming for), some of the Jansson adult fiction (coldly wonderful) and the Moran, which came in the middle of the dragon fever so I somehow forgot it like an idiot. (Editing now to correct that.)

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