Sick of lists of ‘greatest’ or ‘best’ things for 2015? Well, sorry but I’m going to add another one, only this isn’t the ‘greatest’ anything. Just a list of the books I read this year.
I have kept a list of books read since my first year at secondary school when our English teacher required us to. So, I thought I’d add my first list (you have to remember I was only aged 13!) and this year’s list.
What can I say about my first list? I read mostly fiction at the time – action or murder stories, with occasional humour. I was not into reading ‘classics’ and I didn’t hesitate to add a few extra books to try to impress the teacher! And my spelling has improved since then too.
But first, I couldn’t resist adding this Italo Calvino quote, though it has nothing to do with my reading this year. And many of the books on the bookshelf (photographed in 2012) have since been read and disposed of.
1972 list of books read (spelling as in original. I later made comments: one asterisk meant I actually read the book sometime previously and two asterisks meant I didn’t read it (or much of it) at all.)
My side of the mountain – Gean George (F): Comment: Quite an interesting adventure story about a boy who runs away to live in the country by himself.
Mowgli’s Stories – Rudyard Kipling (F); Comment: Bit old fashioned (with words like thou and art) and sort of childish. * *
The Mirror crack’d from side to side – Agatha Christie (F). Comment: a good interesting murder story.
Evil under the sun – Agatha Christie (F); Comment: holds the reader’s attention, about a murder on an island.
Hallowe’en Party – Agatha Christie (F); Comment: About a girl who gets drowned at a Halloween party and the mysterious unravelling, to find the Criminal murderer, that follows – suspense.
Doctor at large – Richard Gordon; Comment: rather Humourous, about a doctor just graduated from med. school.
The Parent Trap – based on Walt Disney’s movie (F); Comment: a good humourous book where two girls who hate each other at first find out they’re sisters then try to bring their parents back together. *
Follow my leader – James B Garfield (F); Comment: A very good book about a young boy who becomes blind thinking that he’ll never have any fun again until he mets ‘leader’ his “four-legged eyes”. *
The Creeping flesh – Douglas Rutherford (F); Comment: an Interesting story with Drug addiction in the Paris Underworld as the main theme.
Horror Stories – Herbert Van Thal (F); Comment: A book with about 19 short scary stories in it. Very good just before bed! *
Ned Kelly’s last stand – Frank Clune (NF?) Comment: A book about the life and times of Austrailia’s Ironclad outlaw – with a Picture of Mick Jagger (as Ned in the film) on the cover. *
Clearly I wasn’t sure what constituted non-fiction and I’m sure it was the Mick Jagger picture that enticed me to read this.
The Boston Strangler – Gerold Frank (NF?); Comment: A very interesting first part after that it seems to go on just a bit too long – but still good.
The Guns of Navarone – HMS Ulysses – Alistair MacLean (F); Comment: Very interesting book set in the second world war. * *
Don Camillo meets hell’s Angels – Giovanni Guareschi (F); Comment: Fairly dull, not very humorous as I had expected by looking at the cover. * *
* * [Added later] “Never read them!!”
Flight of the Doves – Walter Macken (F) The story of 2 children who run away from their cruel stepfather to Ireland – where their grandmother lives.
True Confession Stories (F!) Monotous after awhile, usually about the same thing.
True Detective stories (NF?) Not as bad as ‘confession’ stories but some are monotonous.
A kiss before dying – Ira Levin (F) Comment: Fantastic! A guy who is greedy and wants to marry a girl with a rich father. When she gets pregnant he kills her, then goes after her 2 sisters, killing one and finally ends up getting killed himself.
Run for your life – David Line (F) A good story about 2 boys who overhear a murder being planned and then witness it – in the end they have to run away. But it ends up alright [added later: “naturally!”]
Four novels… The Bronte Sisters (F) * *
Jane Eyre – Emily Charlotte Bronte; Wuthering heights – Emily; Villette – Charlotte; Agnes Grey – Anne; All set in the 1800s. Quite enjoyable. [added later: “altho’ I hardly read any!”]
Joy in the Morning – Betty Smith (F). Rather Interesting. A young law student, against everybodies wishes, marries. About their marriage, first child and how they gradually win everybody over.
[Added later] Otterbury Incident – read it for school. Not bad – kids gangs etc. Snow Goose – Paul Gallico – good.
The Mountain Lion – Robert Murphy (F) ‘It would be hard to top this unspoken plea for conservation of land & Wild life’. A good book.
Women who murder – Gerald Sparrow (NF) ‘Entertaining’. Not quite as good as I’d expected after reading the introduction.
The house of Elnora Garland – Wanda Lutterell (F). O.K in parts but “queer” in others, about a ghost occupying a house and how they contacted her, etc.
Barnabas Collins and the gypsy witch – Marilyn Ross (F). Not too bad, a bit like the last one with Vampires, etc.
1972 – 26 books.
Best book read in 1972: ‘A kiss before dying’ Ira Levin
2015 list of books read (the ‘BG’ means I read it for a book group I’m in. The Shakespeare plays are for a Shakespeare-reading group – and also because I did a MOOC on Shakespeare (click for my blog on it). I don’t usually add comments now! However, I realise they make it more interesting, so I’ve added some for this blog.)
Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2013), Eric Pawson & Tom Brooking (eds) (NF)
Ngaio Marsh: A Life in Crime, Joanne Drayton, (NF) [The Ngaio Marsh theme was because I visited her house in Christchurch in January – click to see my blog about it.]
Died in the Wool, Ngaio Marsh (F) – I have never read any Ngaio Marsh murder mysteries, despite her being a New Zealander and my earlier love of murder fiction. I bought this story as part of three-in-one-book at the Ngaio Marsh house. I enjoyed them (the other two are a couple of books below) and thought they stood the test of time fairly well.
The age of grief, Jane Smiley (short stories) (F)
Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, Jill Trevelyan (NF), 2014. (BG) A very well written and researched biography of a man who was instrumental in promoting the careers of many of New Zealand’s modern (and later) artists – dedicated to his job, but probably difficult to live with! We read this in our book group as it won the ‘NZ Post award for book of the year’ in 2014. Usually we have the NZ fiction award winner as a category in our group, but we also have the Man Booker award winner, and as Eleanor Catton won both with ‘The Luminaries’ we didn’t want to read (or discuss) that twice!
Final Curtain, Ngaio Marsh (F)
Swing, brother swing, Ngaio Marsh (F)
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (F) – according to her website, “Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest.” This novel was short-listed for the Booker in 2013. I enjoyed it (on the whole). It is told in two parts by two narrators – a Canadian woman, Ruth, and a Japanese teenage girl whose story is told through her diary that Ruth finds.
Country Girls, Edna O’Brien, (F) (BG). Our book group reading was this book, her first novel, and A Country Girl – her recent memoir. I listened to the novel on audio book – it is only six CDs so it’s quite short. It took me awhile to get interested in it. But although I started her memoir, I didn’t finish it. Why? The domestic abuse and domination by her husband were difficult to read about; but I also didn’t enjoy reading about the stultifying conformity and everyday little cruelties that seemed to characterise Irish society in the 1940s and 50s.
Lost for Words, Edward St Aubyn (F) – I’m lost for words, as I can’t remember anything about this book! I just googled it, and see it described in the Guardian as a ‘tart farce’ about a literary prize.
Confessions of a young novelist, Umberto Eco (NF) Didn’t read it all.
Pacific Highways, Griffith Review, 43 (New Zealand-writing edition)
Austerlitz, W G Sebald (F) – Sebald’s The Emigrants is a book group book, so I (sometimes) like to read others by the same author. This novel is about forgetting early childhood memories of traumatic events, which later surface subconsciously. He often seems to blend non-fiction with fiction – or you feel he is, especially in his use of photographs. I also read an interview with him and his book On the Natural History of Destruction (2003) about the destruction of German towns and cities in WW2. On the use of photographs he sees two purposes for them – the first is verification: ‘we all tend to believe in pictures more than we do in letters’ and legitimisation: ‘I think this has always been a concern in realist fiction, and this is a form of realist fiction’; the other function is the possibility of arresting time: ‘fiction is an art form that moves in time, that is inclined towards the end. Looking at a picture you are taken out of time. I think that is positive – slowing down the speed of reading as it were’. However, he doesn’t use paragraphs in Austerlitz – I think they would have been another way of slowing down reading – at least a little! Sebald: “I’m essentially interested in cultural and social history and the relationship between the Jewish minority in Germany and the larger population is one of the most important chapters of German cultural history from the 18th century to the present.”
Through the Window: 17 essays and one short story, Julian Barnes (NF, mostly), 2013. I usually enjoy Julian Barnes’s writing and this was no exception.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks (homage to P G Wodehouse) (F)
The Emigrants, W G Sebald (F) (BG) – this starts like memoir (and maybe it partly is?) It features a few emigrants from Europe to England and America and a narrator who has links with them. Themes of journeys, hotels and ruins, suicide, desolation and Jewish history…
Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Botticelli to Picasso, Paul Barolsky, (NF)
How Architecture Works: A Humanists’ Toolkit, Witold Rybczynski (NF) – I read this and the one above for evening courses I’m offering this year.
The Memory Palace: A book of Lost Interiors, Edward Hollis (NF) – click to see my blog about this.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, William Shakespeare (F) – the recent film of the RSC production was more enjoyable than reading the play!
The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot, Rebecca Mead (NF) – this is one in the seemingly endless contemporary genre of ‘how X writer influenced my life’. I did enjoy it at the time, but it hasn’t left too many memories. If I was to write one, it would be about Jane Austen, who was my introduction to reading the ‘classics’.
The Informed Eye: Understanding Masterpieces of Western Art, Bruce Cole (NF)
Aunt Effie, Jack Lasenby (F) – a children’s book. I sometimes enjoy reading children’s or ‘young adult’ fiction. This was amusing and quite anarchic.
Paper Love: Searching for the girl my grandfather left behind, Sarah Wildman (NF) – recommended by a friend, this is a WW2-related story of the author’s search for a woman in a photograph that her grandfather had – the ‘girl left behind’ after he managed to get out of Europe just before WW2.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare (F) – I wrote out some of the famous lines from the play in a notebook and they spread over four pages! Justifiably one of his most well known plays.
The Periodic Table, Primo Levi (mix of F / NF) – a survivor of Auschwitz. This book doesn’t include a lot about that experience as he wrote separately about it (see ‘Is this a Man’ and ‘The Truce’, which I later read). He was a chemist so he writes about his life structured around the periodic table. Recommended.
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (my first e-book!) (F) – I think this was my second reading of the book, but I’ve also seen a film version of it.
Facing the Music: Charles Baeyertz and the Triad, Joanna Woods (NF) – a very interesting account of a little known period in New Zealand cultural history (around the 1890s – 1910s). The “Triad” was a literary and cultural magazine that Baeyertz ran for many years and somewhat disrupts the view that NZ of that period was a cultural wilderness.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (F) (BG) (second e-book read – free copy with typos!) – This was the first time I read this, although I had seen a TV adaptation. I found it difficult as I didn’t like any of the characters! However, I did persevere and finish it and can see why it was a revolutionary novel in its time.
41 False Starts: Essays on Writers and Artists, Janet Malcolm, (NF) – a very interesting writer who I only just ‘discovered’.
Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, Janet Malcolm (NF) (click for blog post)
A Simple Heart, Gustave Flaubert (short story) (F)
If This is a Man & The Truce, Primo Levi (NF) – difficult content (his experience of WW2 and Auschwitz), nevertheless, it is well worth reading. ‘The Truce’ covers the period after the camp was liberated by the Russians and his getting back to Italy. This ‘post-Auschwitz’ experience I think is not so well known or as much written about, but should be. He writes well.
The Narrow Road to the North, Richard Flanagan (F) (BG) – another book with difficult content – I had to skim some, especially perhaps having just read about WW2 experiences in Primo Levi’s books. Flanagan’s is about the Australian POW experience in Burma. I think I preferred the non-fiction of Levi’s books over the fiction of Flanagan’s (although based on real experiences).
Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector, Donald Kerr (ed) (NF) – Brasch was a fascinating person from Jewish families in Dunedin, NZ. I enjoy reading about NZ literary and artistic milieus from earlier periods, although (and, perhaps because) it is so different from my own background.
4 architects: William Alington, James Beard, William Toomath, Derek Wilson, 1950-1980, Stephen Stratford (ed) (NF) – I read this as part of my preparation for my evening class on Wellington’s architectural history.
On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does, Simon Garfield (NF) Click to see a post about maps.
Conversation with Primo Levi, Ferdinando Camon (NF)
Lisa Reihana: In Pursuit of Venus, Auckland Art Gallery catalogue, multiple authors, 2015, (NF); click to see my blog post.
The Good Life: What Makes Life Worth Living? Hugh Mackay (NF) – occasionally I like to read these kinds of books to see where I’m going wrong! He is “referring to a life that is characterised by goodness, a morally praiseworthy life, a valuable life in its impact on others, a life devoted to the common good.”… “Happiness is not our default position and it is meaningless to pursue it”… So there!
Splendid Slippers: 1000 years of an erotic tradition, Beverley Jackson (about Chinese women’s foot-binding) (NF) – a fascinating book about an outrageous tradition. I was surprised at how widespread it was practised; I thought it was mostly among ‘upper class’ women, but it was much wider.
Shane Cotton, Linda Tyler (ed), 1998, Hocken Library (NF) – I read this book about the NZ artist Shane Cotton as my great-niece was doing a school art project relevant to his work at the time and I was trying to offer helpful advice!
Sea Change, Elizabeth Jane Howard (F) – I enjoyed this novel, although I can’t remember a lot about it now.
The Nose, Gogol (F) short story. We read Gogol’s Dead Souls in our book group a few years ago, so I had some inkling already that he has an unusual style to say the least.
Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris (NF) – amusing stories. Perhaps it’s actually fiction?!
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (F) – I have seen a film and/or TV version of this so hadn’t ‘got around’ to reading it till now. The plot is so well known, I think, but I did enjoy reading it. I’m afraid I still prefer Jane Austen and George Eliot to the Bronte’s though!
Victoria: A Life, A N Wilson, 2014, (NF) – a very readable and interesting biography.
Daniel Deronda, George Eliot (F) (BG) – I still prefer Middlemarch, but this was interesting as it tries to tackle the Jewish experience in mid-19th century London. I did skim a few pages of the more esoteric Jewish discussion sequences, but was glad I’d read it. However, I can heartily recommend the TV (or was it film?) adaption that I watched about the same time, borrowed from the library.
We are all completely beside ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (F) (BG) – an interesting novel; unfortunately many of the reviews and even the blurb on the book spoil the plot! So if you haven’t read it, and want to – don’t read any reviews or the blurb first! Fortunately I didn’t, so I was taken by surprise.
The Lives of Colonial Objects, A Cooper, L Paterson & A Wanhalla, Otago UP (NF) click to see my blog post.
Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare, (F)
Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing, Hermione Lee, 2005 (NF) – very interesting writer.
Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, Robert Gottlieb (NF) – and what a life!
Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare (F) – I read this in school, but I re-read it now for the online course I did on Shakespeare. The course material – and for this play I thought some of the online discussion was particularly interesting – was thought-provoking.
Death in a Strange Country, Donna Leon (F) – I don’t read much murder fiction anymore (unlike my 1972 book list!), but occasionally read one of Donna Leon’s for its Venice setting and ‘murder-lite’ reading.
Owls do Cry, Janet Frame (F) (BG) – I enjoyed this ‘NZ classic’. Previously having read more about her life than her fiction, I could see some of it was autobiographical.
Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, Claire Tomalin (NF) – this was a good biography and also tells quite a lot about the times he lived in – most of the second half of the 19th century and first part of the 20th. I often find Hardy’s fiction difficult to get into – I’ve seen more as TV or film adaptations than I’ve read.
Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (a small book of 5 or 6 essays) (NF) – the title of the book is the subject of the first essay. They are fairly brief and interesting, but don’t go very deeply into their subject. In 2013 I read an interesting book she wrote called ‘Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas’ in preparation for our trip to America, which started in San Francisco.
Staying Home and Being Rotten, Shonagh Koea, (F) – I think this is the second or third novel I’ve read by New Zealand writer Shonagh Koea. I usually enjoy them, as I did this one.
Wilkie Collins, Peter Ackroyd (NF) – another interesting biography of a 19th century writer. I didn’t realise he was so friendly with Charles Dickens (at least for some years), although Dickens was older. Wilkie’s brother Charles married Dickens’s daughter – Dickens didn’t much like him as a son-in-law though!
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (F) – it doesn’t have much of a plot, but that wasn’t her point. She wanted to write about the ‘inner experience’ of people and the book does this well, I think. I had a Longman student text version, so I read the critical analysis in the introduction after I finished the novel. I hate the way introductions to ‘classics’ give everything away, as if we’re already expected to have read them. Perhaps they should be put at the end?
Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art, Julian Barnes (NF) – I enjoyed this collection of essays that have appeared in other places before. One of his main themes, I think, was not to see the art through the artist’s biography – but I find that hard with Lucian Freud in particular! One of the amusing things he said on Edouard Vuillard: “In Montreal, the big show was marketed with an alarmingly crass slogan: ‘The experts call him Vuillard. You can call him Edouard’. As if you go to an exhibition in order to get to know the artist better, rather than to get to know the art better…. See the show twice and you can call him Ted.”
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens (NF) – a slim volume of writing from the time he was diagnosed with cancer – he died about 18 months later. He called it his ‘year of living dyingly’. It’s hard to understand some of the people who (usually online) wished him ill, or said he deserved it – even if they disagree with his views, where’s their humanity?
At Home in New Zealand: History, houses and people, Barbara Brookes (ed) (NF) – I read this as I’m thinking of offering another evening class on the “Changing New Zealand house: inside and out from colonial to now”. It is a collection of essays, and I learnt many new things!
2015: 64 books read.
My cat enjoys Oscar and Lucinda more than I did (2012); and the cover of my book-recommendations notebook (with a photo of one of my bookshelves).