01 January 2010

A Book A Week: What I Read In 2009

I kept track of my 2009 reading using LibraryThing. It turns out I read a book a week in 2009 - excluding the many books I consulted as part of research for my novel, and a few I read for work. With rough divisions by genre, they were:

1. Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (cartoons)
2. The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman (short stories)
3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (novella)
4. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter by Benjamin Woolley (nonfiction-biography)
5. From Elfland to Poughkeepsie by Ursula K. Le Guin (criticism)
6. A Good Walk Spoiled by J. M. Gregson (novel-detective)
7. Swings and Roundabouts : poems on parenthood, edited by Emma Neale (poetry anthology)
8. Believers to the Bright Coast by Vincent O'Sullivan (novel-literary)
9. Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages by Bill Watterson (cartoons)
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (novel)
11. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, by Rob Hopkins (nonfiction)
12. Improbable Eden: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica by Bill Green (essays) and Craig Potton (photographs) (nonfiction)
13. The Six Pack Three: Winning Writing from New Zealand Book Month (fiction/poetry anthology)
14. Speaking in Tongues by L. E. Scott (poetry)
15. Thornspell by Helen Lowe (novel-fantasy)
16. Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard (novel-romance/historical)
17. Father India: How Encounters with an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West by Jeffery Paine (nonfiction-history)
18. George Gordon, Lord Byron: selected poems (poetry)
19. The Discovery of India (Abridged Edition) by Jawaharlal Nehru (nonfiction-history)
20. In a Fishbone Church by Catherine Chidgey (novel-literary)
21. Cretaceous Dawn by Lisa M. Graziano and Michael S.A. Graziano (novel-SF)
22. The Lakes of Mars by Chris Orsman (poetry)
23. Winter Study by Nevada Barr (novel-thriller)
24. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (novel-literary)
25. Time of Your Life (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 4) by Joss Whedon (graphic novel)
26. India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (nonfiction-history)
27. A Dream In Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu (novel-literary)
28. The Sword in the Stone by T H White (novel-fantasy)
29. Tom by Mark Pirie (verse novel)
30. Banana by Renee Liang (poetry)
31. Nearest & Dearest by Mary Cresswell (poetry)
32. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (novel-SF)
33. The Summer King by Joanna Preston (poetry)
34. made for weather by Kay McKenzie Cooke (poetry)
35. The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel (novel-magic realism)
36. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (novel-literary)
37. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (novella-ghost/horror)
38. Letters from the asylum by John Knight (poetry)
39. The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia (novel-fantasy)
40. A House on Fire by Tim Upperton (poetry)
41. The People's Act of Love by James Meek (novel-historical)
42. Dressing for the Cannibals by Frankie McMillan (poetry)
43. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Predators and Prey, Season 8, Volume 5, by Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson et al (graphic novel)
44. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (novel-bildungsroman)
45. Watching for Smoke by Helen Heath (poetry chapbook)
46. The Coldest March by Susan Solomon (nonfiction-history/exploration)
47. Curved Horizon by Ruth Dallas (literary autobiography)
48. The Abominable Snow-Women by Dorothy Braxton (nonfiction-exploration)
49. The Last Church by Lee Pletzers (novel-horror)
50. The Year of Henry James by David Lodge (memoir/criticism)
51. Feeding the Dogs by Kay McKenzie Cooke (poetry)
52. Sorry, I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Peter Bland (literary autobiography)

I haven't kept track of my reading before, so I don't know how this compares to a typical year's reading. My sense is that I have read somewhat less fiction and rather more poetry than usual, with the proportion of nonfiction about the same.

I think, overall, it's the poetry - almost all, this year, New Zealand poetry - that I've enjoyed most. I have read some excellent collections; some I have admired for their technical excellence, while others (without lacking in poetic technique) have moved me: often, these are collections that have featured poems about places or situations I have been to our lived through.

I was highly impressed by the technical accomplishment of Joanna Preston's The Summer King, Chris Orsman's The Lakes of Mars, and Tim Upperton's A House On Fire, yet despite this, it was Kay McKenzie Cooke's made for weather and Feeding the Dogs, Helen Heath's chapbook Watching For Smoke, and Renee Liang's chapbook Banana that made the most impact on me - together with Emma Neale's excellent anthology of poems about parenting, Swings and Roundabouts. I also had a lot of fun with Mark Pirie's verse novel Tom.

In fiction, five novels stood out for me. Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise was the best novel I read this year, by a short head from Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which was wonderful right up to a somewhat underwhelming ending, and Helen Lowe's Thornspell, an excellent fantasy for older children and younger young adults (I think this may be what is called "MG" rather than "YA" fiction). I also very much enjoyed A Dream In Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu, and (a re-read after many years) To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Tania Hershman's collection The White Road and Other Stories includes many fine short - and short-short - stories.

My resolution to read more New Zealand fiction didn't get very far this year. I was underwhelmed by Catherine Chidgey's In a Fishbone Church and Vincent O'Sullivan's Believers to the Bright Coast, both of which, in my view, have the fault common in New Zealand fiction of sacrificing story for style. I think my favourite New Zealand fiction this year was David Geary's entertaining story "Gary Manawatu (1964–2008): Death of a Fence-Post-Modernist", included in The Six Pack Three.

Other disappointments included Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and T H White's The Sword in the Stone, neither of which, for me, lived up to their reputations.

I read some fine nonfiction this year, but the stand-out was Ramachandra Guha's superb history India After Gandhi, with an honourable mention going to Improbable Eden: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica, a superbly illustrated book of essays (or superbly essayed book of illustrations).

Finally, neither volume of Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a continuation of the TV series in graphic novel form) that I read this year were up to the standard of their predecessors in this series, but Buffy seasons often have a sag in the middle, so I'm going to stick with the series to see how it ends up. Therefore, last as it was first, my final highlight of the year was Alison Bechdel's Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which I was given for Christmas 2008. It contains about 70% of all her Dykes to Watch Out For cartoons, and it's both great fun and great social commentary.


Helen Lowe said...

Happy New Year, Tim! And thank you for the positive feedback on "Thornspell", which had a good year with both the Storylines Notable Book award/citation and the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel: Young Adult. I am looking forward to seeing the paperback out in May and of course "The Heir of Night", the first book in The Wall of Night quartet, will be published in September, so some excitmeent ahead.

I also read a huge number of books this last year but failed to keep such good track of them. Like you, I very much enjoyed Irene Nemirovsky's "Suite Francaise" and my last book for 2009 was her "Dogs and Wolves"--interesting, but I enjoyed "Suite Francaise" more.

Other books that really stood out for me in 2009 were Christos Tsiolkas's "The Slap" and Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games", although the sequel (Catching Fire) was probably my greatest disappointment of the year.

Poetry-wise, I was also very impressed by Joanna Preston's debut collection, "The Summer King", while Michele Leggott's "Mirabile Dictu" was my top read from an established poet. And of course my favourite anthology was Voyagers--a well deserved placing in The Listener's Top 100 list.

I will have to try and keep a better record for 2010. :-)

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Helen. That is exciting news for 2010! And thanks also for the shout-out for Voyagers.

I have never kept track of my reading for the a year before now - LibraryThing comes through again!

I am currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson's "Galileo's Dream". It is two books which would each be very interesting in its own right smooshed up together - I'm not (yet) convinced it works as a whole, but nevertheless, it still has many of KSR's virtues as a writer.

Helen Lowe said...

I meant to add, I too have found it hard to get into the new Buffy, but so far the new Angel series (Angel After the Fall, I think) is rocking along.

Next up to read on my list is Hilary Mantell's "Wolf Hall"--I am very keen to see whether it lives up to recommendations.

Tim Jones said...

I've never been that much of an Angel fan - an episode here and there, but not the whole series - so I hadn't tried the Angel comic series. I shall have to do so!

Of the five-issue Buffy Season 8 volumes, Volume 1 was so-so, Volumes 2 and 3 were very good in my opinion, and Volumes 4 and 5 have been bags of a distinctly mixed sort.

I read much more literary fiction than SF last year, but it looks as though the balance may reverse this year in terms of what's on my TBR pile- there is plenty of poetry there was well, starting with collections by Emma Neale and Sue Wootton. I'm also lined up to do a couple more reviews for Belletrista - one of which I need to start on soon (http://www.belletrista.com

Helen Lowe said...

Hot off the press in 2010, I recommend Max Brooks' "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse". I saw it recommended by a poster on Rachael King's blog at the end of last year and I have to say, I found it compelling reading. You have to take the zombies as read, of course, but I thought it was a very authentic imagining of human response to mass trauma.

Poetry-wise I have the NZPS anthology, "moments in the whirlwind" (edited by Barbara Strang), next up to read and then Robynanne Milford's "Songcatcher"--but first up, "Wolf Hall".

Tim Upperton said...

I have to disagree with you about James's "The Turn of the Screw", Tim. The one ghost story ever that made the hairs on my neck prickle. The possibility that it's all in the head of the governess makes it all the more scary, I think.
Like Helen L, I've enjoyed the Voyagers anthology - interesting and revealing to read some poems I know well in a different context. Happy New Year.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for these further comments, Helen and Tim. I started "The Turn of the Screw" expecting to enjoy it, but I found James's prose style maddening, and the characters' reactions unconvincing - the ontological intrigue of the "reality" or otherwise of the narrative wasn't enough to rescue it for me.

Despite this disappointment, I read David Lodge's book "The Year of Henry James" a few weeks ago. It contains the story of how Lodge's novel "Author, Author" and Colm Toibin's novel "The Master", both centering on the same incident in James's life, appeared within a few months of each other, and how this affected the reception of Lodge's novel, but also includes other criticism: and one of these pieces showed that James had a much less ornate prose style when he began writing. I far prefer James' earlier and less cluttered style, which, based on our previous discussions, probably won't surprise you!

Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

Tim - thanks for the lovely comments about my poetry collections. It's so very encouraging ... I think 2010 may be a poetry-making year for me, so it's particularly warming and motivating to get such positive feedback.
I must keep tabs on my reading this year - I'm sure it would prove helpful and surprising.

Tim Jones said...

I hope 2010 is a poetry-writing year for you, Kay, because then, in due course, I will get the chance to read more of your poetry! And, in any case, I hope it's a good year for you.

Once I got over the delusion that I would review every book I read in 2009, keeping track of my year's reading proved to be quite easy, so I'm planning to do it again in 2010.