Friday 30 December 2022

The Year in Reading: 2022


Although this blog is about the books I read, what can often happen is the things going on in your life can have a strong influence on what you end up reading. This year was eventful and life changing. I began it pretty much crippled by a right hip that needed replacing. I ended up having nine weeks off of work and had the surgery in May. This meant that I've read less book club books this year, which also meant I got around to reading some books I had been meaning to read for a while, such as The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002), which is my book of the year. I read Mars by 1980 by David Stubbs (2018) during this period as well, which meant that I had time to listen to the weird early electronic music referenced by the book. It really helped me get through the recovery period, as did reading Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (2020), which, for obvious reasons, was really appropriate. 

Donna Tartt - responsible for the read of the year

I'm pleased to have finally read some Philip Roth (Sabbath's Theater  - 1995), and the Alan Garner novel I'd been carrying around from move to move since 1980 (Red Shift - 1973). Some of these were fitted around and during two great holidays post hip replacement, including a cruise off the Kimberley coast, which was a life-changing experience. Weirdly this was were I finished reading Sabbath's Theater! Reading is also somewhere you can take solace, and it helped enormously during the aftermath of my mother's death at the end of October. Appropriately by the time that had happened I'd finished Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021), which thematically was mainly about her mother's death. Strangely even reading The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971) helped in this regard, perhaps because it was so irreverent. As usual I wished that I'd read more, but there was a lot going on. As always there's the worst book of the year, and that prize goes to Something to Hide by Elizabeth George (2022), which I could not even get half way through. By default it was also the worst book club book, the best being Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (2021), which featured the usual Franzen qualities we know and love. So, onto next year, onwards and upwards - ever upwards forever in fact!

Tuesday 27 December 2022

The Velvet Underground: New York Art - Edited by Johan Kugelberg (2009)


Rating: Excellent

I've again been making an effort to read my many large coffee table style books, as usual at a very gradual pace. The Velvet Underground are my all time favourite band for all kinds of reasons, some obvious and some for personal reasons of my own. Fittingly this book is made for fans such as I. It was deliberately put together as a quality coffee-table arthouse book focussing specifically on media that hadn't quite been captured by other publications and the various Velvet Underground box sets. It's a brilliant celebration of this unique and highly influential band. The main focus of the book is a multitude of incredible rare photos of the band throughout its history. It's worth owning just for that reason. There's also a large collection of posters and flyers advertising their live shows, a great portion of which I have never seen before. 

The book's text entails such curios as newspaper cuttings of reviews of some of the shows they did during the Andy Warhol era, including one great headline that reads: 'Shock Treatment for Psychiatrists.' There's an amazing short essay written by guitarist, the reticent Sterling Morrison (RIP), about the band's early days. Perhaps the best section of text is a long interview with Lou Reed and Doug Yule from 1970, in which they talk about such topics as recording Loaded (1970) and their opinions of other acts, such as the Beatles (they loved them) and Frank Zappa, whom they loathed (something that is well known, but to read the details of Lou's antipathy is fascinating). Among other highlights is Lester Bangs' long review of the Loaded album, which is entertainingly verbose. This is just a superb book. I'd recommend Velvet's fans to search out this book, but unfortunately it is now worth $600+ Australian dollars, which is a bit rich for even the most rabid fans. Hopefully it will be republished one day, meanwhile listen to their sublime albums, some of the greatest in the rock canon. 

Monday 19 December 2022

Red Shift - Alan Garner (1973)


Rating: Excellent

Alan Garner is a relative of my family on my mother's side, and when my mother and I travelled to England in 1980 when I was 11 we went to the area known as Alderley Edge in Cheshire, where Garner had grown up and had set many of his fantasy novels. Alderley Edge features a hilly wooded area (The Edge) which has ancient mystical traditions involving an army of knights who sleep under The Edge, guarded by a wizard. Consulting Wikipedia reveals that the carving of the face of a wizard over a well in The Edge, that I distinctly remember seeing, was carved by Garner's great great grandfather in the mid nineteenth century. Talk about getting your imagination going! I didn't meet Garner on that visit, perhaps because by that point relations were distant, but my mother bought me all of his books, including Red Shift. I read the others, including his first, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), but not Red Shift, which has been in my possession for forty two years! It had been too adult for me at the time. Supposedly a young adult novel, it in fact reads as a complex work of high modernism. Set in three time periods, the first during modern times (the 1960s I assume), Roman Britain and during the English Civil War (1642 - 1651). The narrative alternates between the three, often without much warning. All three time periods are set in the region around Alderley Edge, mostly to its south in Barthomley and a place called Mow Cop (I checked on Google Maps). The novel is thematically dense, almost to a gnomic degree, although at its heart is a love story. I deliberately did not look up any explanations of its plot and themes, but now that I have it does make much more sense. However I'm pleased that I read it without guidance, as I feel that it is a work that you need to interpret yourself.

Garner at home in 1967
Garner at home in 1967

Although Red Shift is wilfully opaque, it features some beautiful prose which, although simple at times, flows along at a pace of its own devising, including some dialogue-heavy passages that sometimes just consist of one word exchanges, particularly in the modern parts. In this regard the narrative is stripped back to its bare-bones in these sections, perhaps reflecting the character's difficulties in truly connecting? Despite this there's enough there in the narrative to latch onto. There's three different love stories, interconnected through place, but separated through time. A stone axe also seems to link the three stories, with it ending up being found by the modern day semi-estranged couple, Tom and Jan. This couple and their circumstances give the reader a narrative anchor from which the other two time-lines are better absorbed, as often it is hard to fathom what is going on during these parts of the novel. The colour red is a thematic link also, with the stone axe being coloured with red ochre (and blood, I assume), red painted faces appear during Roman Britain and Tom alludes to the red shift of galaxies as they recede ever away from our own galaxy. I assume that this is also a metaphor for his alienated mental and emotional state, particularly toward his parents and, to a lesser degree, Jan. Like many modernist texts, it's best to just flow with the narrative, allowing certain themes and plot devices to penetrate. It's a novel that would benefit from multiple readings. If you really want to know what is going on, the previously mentioned Wikipedia entry is long and informative. I'm amazed that Red Shift was marketed to young readers, but perhaps they were more sophisticated in the early 1970's? Overall it's a difficult, but strangely enjoyable novel, manifesting like a mysterious dream that you enjoy during the night, but can't make sense of the next day, and to me, that is a good thing. 

The Wizard at Alderley Edge