Guilty Pleasures – a year or so in books

Another self-indulgent post. Since I don’t have the time for regular blogging, I’m offering a short and eclectic list of my leisure reading this year.

Bookshop of the Year: The picture below is from one of the odder bookshops which I visited last the summer. Squirrelled away in the Southport backstreets, the magic starts at the door where, like the finest of all bookshops, you have to ring a buzzer and be scrutinised by an owner – through murky single-pane glass –  who looks like the villain ‘Mike’ from Breaking Bad.

Despite the alarmingly rickety stairs, and the prospect of dirt-cheap seashells (something for everyone?), the contents proved to be less interesting than the owner. Still, I bought a light-hearted memento to remember our visit. Whilst I was tempted by a watermarked copy of Jackie Collins’ bonk-buster Vendetta (primly dedicated ‘To Carol, from Martin, December 1996’ ), I settled on a small soapstone alligator from the outside shelves. ‘Not Just Any Old Bookshop’.


Book of the yearTraveller of the Century, by Andres Neuman, lovely daffy romance in post-Napoleonic Germany, full of the sounds of Schubert and the whimsical ideas of German idealists.

Other runner-ups:

Americana, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Middle-brow fiction with sharp observation of Nigeria and America. Adichie also captures the urge to hurry home which can seize any long-distance traveller.

Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, by Gordon Young. Published before the Flint water crisis, Young is too easy on authority figures in this part memoir, part investigative journalism. But he’s still good at describing tawdry local politics, the wielding of power, and the difficulties of building communities.

The Motel Life, by Willy Vlautin. Short, melancholy and about the dangerous edge of things: the claustrophobia of big cities, the dangers of familiar places. Reveals more of itself upon re-reading.

A Colossal Wreck: A Road Trip Through Political Scandal, Corruption and American Culture, by Alexander Cockburn. One to nibble through. There are journeys through Indiana and across the Northern Plains. There’s plenty of scorn – for Hilary Clinton, for Orwell, for Christopher Hitchens. And it’s full of gossipy scandal.

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney. An unlikely read. But a searing revaluation of the roles of altruism and confidentiality in organ donation.

Collected Ghost Stories, by M.R. James. Probably best read at dusk, and by candlelight in a dark panelled room. They are of their time – with creaky vicars awakening malevolent powers in old libraries. And they’re full of jokes at the expense of pompous Oxford dons.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. In much of Dickens there is an indefinable feeling very like the one you can still find on dark afternoons in English cities. Victorian stone is solid, brooding, and yet uplifting. So many shades of human nastiness here and a denunciation of class division.

Packmen, by Alan Bisset. Football with tender reflections on masculinity and queer identity, with Scottish accents and the Manchester cityscape.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I looked up the definition of party pooper whilst reading Quiet and it said: ‘One who refuses participate with enthusiasm, especially in the recreational activities of a group’. I read this and thought, ‘That’s me!’. When the clock strikes midnight at a party, I’m usually thinking, ‘Hmm… Let me see. I COULD sink several gallons of alcohol or I could try to gang together with other party poopers whose enthusiasm for the evening is waning make my exit.’ (Hint: classic signs are sneakily ordering a soft drink, taking furtive glances at watches, and vague murmurings of ‘having to do some DIY in the morning’). If you’ve ever experienced the pooper dilemma, then Quiet is the book for you.

My Name is Lucy Barton, By Elizabeth Strout. You could start with any of Elizabeth Strout and end up in the same place. Her heroes are mediocre. Religion is respected but comically useless. Disasters, for the most part, resolve into sad and tolerable outcomes. I prefer Olive Kitteridge but this is worth reading.

The Inoffensive:

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. Brilliant creative type almost trashes his life through imposter syndrome and drunken blunders. Lerner’s feverish descriptions of parties and handsome Marxists have their appeal – but it’s not always enough to sustain sympathy or interest.

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Well, fine. Or quite good. Or, perhaps more dispiritingly, ‘booker-prize-winning’.

Unnatural Causes (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery), by P.D. James. I’m not sure why Adam Dalgliesh took over P.D. James’ career. A published poet/Scotland Yard detective is a stretch of imagination. He sleeks through the book like an expensive cat – I wish P.D. James had written more about other detective, Cordelia Gray.

Your Face in Mine, by Jesse Rowe. Compared to James Baldwin. But whilst Baldwin snarls in the face of empty white liberalism, Your Face in Mine muses on too many political yarns – although there’s good jibes at indie bands and early 90s adolescence.

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. The unsparing bitterness is one of the things which makes Moshfegh’s writing good. But it is strong meat. Don’t expect the eerie melancholy of  her earlier work.

And the not so great:

Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. The Amis slant on Holocaust memory. Mass murderers are terrible. They’re also tedious to the extreme and think that they’re irresistibly attractive to women.

The Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. If you’re a ‘blogosphere busybody’, you had better watch out. One of these days, a demonic ‘dispatch’ from a dead ‘sexual sociopath’ could shimmer its way into your email inbox with occult mumbo jumbo and puerile ramblings. Every single person involved in publishing this deserves to be poked with very sharp sticks.

Maestra, by L.S. Hilton. Bury it at a crossroads at midnight with a stake through its heart.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, by Salman Rushdie. There’s perplexing wordplay and colourful characters. But there’s plenty more to irritate in Rushdie’s latest tome.

There were others which I can’t quite remember. These ‘reviews’ were, in some instances, adapted from thoughts jotted down here.