I begin most years with a resolution to keep a record about the books I read and my impressions of them. I get to the end of each and every year reproaching myself the fact that I haven’t. I vow -more in hope than expectation – to be more diligent for 2019. That, and a resolution to update this blog more often.
As a ballpark figure, I reckon I have read between forty to fifty books this year for pleasure, and I know from my Audible account that I have listened to fourteen. Not too shabby.
In terms of genre, a lot have been non-fiction travelogues, read in order to to gin me up/guilt me into finishing my own non-fiction travelogue about the island of New Guinea (about halfway there). I’ve also read some popular history, some crime novels, more literary fiction than I normally do and rediscovered a love of Irish poetry.
So, out of all this, and in no particular order, here’s the five books that I enjoyed the most
I remember being blown away by David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tombabout the last days of the Soviet Union when I read it as a teenager. The combination of individual stories as an entry point into wider history, the active role for the author in the story and on-the-ground reporting replete with idiosyncratic but revealing anecdotes felt perfect. Walker’s book about Vladimir Putin’s Russia is very reminiscent. It is written in a similarly engaging and ‘intelligence lightly worn’ style. He has winning descriptions: of crazed rebels, of half-finished hotels at the winter Olympics, of towns so desolate and melancholic you can almost picture the brown curtains in each home. I finished his book informed and entertained in equal measure.
Guy Stagg The Crossway
This is an extraordinary book about a walking journey-come-meditation on faith. Guy Stagg sets off one frigid New Year’s Day from England with the plan to follow by foot the old pilgrimage trails from England to Jerusalem. Stagg himself is without faith much of the time but there is an inner zeal that pushes him along through slippages and debilitating bouts of loneliness. Even though he did the walk a few years ago, there was something gloriously old-fashioned and timeless about this book. It was like something Patrick Leigh Fermor or Robert Byron would have written.
Nick Laird Modern Gods
To the best of my knowledge, I am only one of two Northern Irish who works in New Guinea and was as if this novel - set half in Northern Ireland and half in Papua New Guinea – was written especially for this rather select audience. The book tells the story of Liz Donnelly, a dissatisfied anthropologist who, following her sister’s wedding to a suspiciously well-mannered man who no obvious past, goes off to make a documentary about cargo cultism in the (fictional) island of New Ulster (geddit?!). Life unspools for them both in slow-moving car-crash fashion.
Some of the reviews found this book less than the sum of its parts but I found it a deeply satisfying read. Laird gets 10/10 for getting to the underneath of things and silences of Northern Irish small-town life and comes pretty close in his New Guinea part of the book. I also read his book of poetry Feel Free, which captures so well the way that Northern Irish people construct phrases.
Ian Sinclair American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light
I found this book in the remainders pile in the National Library Bookshop and handed over $10 based entirely because I was smitten by the cover, a powder blue map of the continental United States marked with little signposts adorned with the names of poets and beatnik authors (The hyperlink I found for the book is slightly different). I had never heard of Sinclair before but he is now my #2 favourite author. The book a mash-up of memoir, off-beat back stories of authors , literary meditations and diverting gallimaufries. Sinclair has a most singular and enthralling writing style. I’m hoping to read his new book on London over the Christmas break.
Paul Theroux Figures in a Landscape: People & Places
I love Paul Theroux and I track the publication dates of his books as I once did with Alistair McLean (ages 9-13) and Stephen King (ages 13-early twenties). I met him by chance once in Hawaii and it is one of my fondest memories; proof positive that meetings one’s heroes is not a guaranteed recipe for disappointment
I bought his collection of essays on the day of publication. There are twenty or so pieces: travelogues; perceptive musings on writers like Paul Bowles, Hunter S. Thompson and Somerset Maugham, an interview conducted in a helicopter with Elizabeth Taylor and another where he chews over the oeuvre of Joseph Conrad with Michael Jackson. Paul Theroux is incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. His book was the most unabashedly entertaining boo I have read this year.