Shadowplay 1: review of my reading in 2013

In losing my hard drive in September I lost some of my record of reading for 2013 – here are some of the books I read but haven’t mentioned before and an overview for the year:

1.  Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, Stephen Moss, Vintage, 9780099552468

 2. War Horse, Michael Morpurgo, Egmont, 9781405215879

 3. Animal Farm, George Orwell, Penguin, 9780141036137

 4. Skellig, David Almond, Hodder, 9780340997048

 5.  Down’s Syndrome: The Biography, Chris Nancollas, DLT, 9780232528800

6. Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones, John Murray, 9780719569944

7. A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming, Harper Press, 9780007118441

8. Graham Sutherland: A Biography, Roger Berthoud, Faber & Faber, 0571118828

9. Wassily Kandinsky, Hajo Düchting, Prestel, 9783791339580

10. Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and the making of “London Calling”, Marcus Gray, Vintage, 978099524205

 11. Notes from an Exhibition, Patrick Gale, Harper Perennial, 9780007254668

12. God in Our Midst, Trevor Dennis, SPCK, 9780281069279

 13. Steam Wagons, Derek Rayner, Shire, 9780747805519

 14. Boxen, C.S. Lewis & W.H. Lewis, HarperCollins, 9780007260768

 15. Adrian Plass and the Church Weekend, Adrian Plass, Hodder & Stoughton, 9781444745443

 16. Jesus & Peter, Michael Perham, SPCK, 9780281067541

 17. Cross Roads, William Paul Young, Hodder & Stoughton, 9781444745979

 18, 19 & 20. The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus, all Roberston Davies, Penguin

 21. Music and Silence, Rose Tremain, Vintage, 9780999268550

 22. The Seven Sisters, Margaret Drabble, Penguin, 9780141010193

 23. Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting, Gilles Weissmann, Search Press, 9781844487943

 24. Uncle Obadiah and the Alien Geoffrey, Philp, Peepal Tree Press, 9781900715010

 25. Tail of the Blue Bird, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Vintage, 9780099526124

 26. The Daylight Gate, Jeanette Winterson, Hammer, 9780099561859

 27. The Eve of Venus, Anthony Burgess/’The Venus of Ille’, Prosper Mérimée, Hesperus Press, 9781843914166

 28. It Had to Be You, David Nobbs, Harper, 9780007286294

 29. Weight, Jeanette Winterson, Canongate, 978184157753

 30. The Colour, Rose Tremain, Vintage, 9780099425151

31. The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker, Pocket Books, 9781847397829

32. Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe, Vintage, 9780099578536

33. – 39. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis, HarperCollins

40. Boneland – Alan Garner, Fourth Estate, 9780007463251

41. The Passion – Jeanette Winterson, Vintage, 9780099734413

42. In Ashes Lie – Marie Brennan, Orbit, 9781841497181

43. Haphazard by Starlight – Janet Morley, SPCK, 9780281070626

44. Medusa – Jonathan Miles, Pimlico, 9781845951450

45. How a Steam Engine Works – Dominic Wells, Ian Allan, 9780711034341

46. Howard Hodgkin – Andrew Graham-Dixon, Thames & Hudson, 9780500092989

47. Titus Awakes – Maeve Gilmore, based on a fragment by Mervyn Peake, Vintage, 9780099553765

48. Black Sheep – Susan Hill, Chatto & Windus, 9780701184216

49. Generation A – Douglas Coupland, 9780434019830

50. The Woman in Black – Susan Hill, Vintage, 9780099288473

Last year was a quiet one on the reading front. I probably bought only about 100 books and I seemed to only read about 50. Of course, most of those read were from the library, so the amount of books bought which I actually read is probably only 10 to 1. But that’s not the point, is it? You don’t just buy books to read, they are bought for that time when they might be needed and because they are beautiful objects in their own right.

Compared with 2012 there was no Murakami moment – no author quite caught my consciousness so that I had to instantly devour all their works. There were several disappointments, a few surprises and some ineffable pleasures. How a Steam Engine Works was a let down mainly due to mistakes. When you open a book and an errata slip containing eighteen errors slides out you know that something has gone badly wrong on the editing front. Especially so when captions are misplaced or left hanging mid-sentence. Otherwise the text was informative but dry – I’ve yet to find a writer on railway matters who can convert their passion into elegant, humorous prose. Cross Road by Paul William Young I read with the expectation of disappointment. His previous book, The Shack, I had found leaden, in places unnecessary but containing interesting, thoughtful and challenging insights. The same was true of this second novel, except this time he was setting his work against one of the greatest works of literature – The Divine Comedy, which he badly misrepresented. If I had wanted to read a poor piss-take of Dante I could have read Dan Brown or A.N. Wilson.  The Woman in Black was masterfully written but not half as scary as I was expecting, however, it was probably a mistake to read the whole of Hill’s Black Sheep in bed on New Year’s Eve. Sparely and carefully constructed it was simply a bit of a downer at the end of the year – everyone either dies of cancer, mining accidents, by hanging for accidental murder or just disappears. However, the most disappointing book of the year by far was Generation A. Coupland is an author I have a great deal of affection for. Generation X captured the essence of the agony of existence for those of us who are post-Boomer. Several of his other novels have felt inventive, prescient, lifestyle changing and great fun. Generation A was mono-focussed and tedious and while perhaps containing hints and guesses at prophetic truths also drifted over me in a patronising, limping, blousy tone.

So, who gave pleasure? Well, Jeanette Winterson was my most read author of the year – three short books, each containing her trademark inventiveness, mystery and beautiful prose, but The Daylight Gate was the standout here. The Pendle Witchcraft Trials of 1612 push out of the pages with verdant and mordant horror, grasping the throat with a choking cry which seems to echo ever after. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s overview of the life and work of Howard Hodgkin was revelatory and bursting with colour and texture that was infectious. It evinced a carelessly careful sensuality, a jewel like use of paint and a form of abstraction that was not pure, not-semi but was amorphously figurative, elemental and virtuous.

I’ve enjoyed a number of novels by Nicholson Baker and have always found him witty and sexy and observationally acute. What I’ve read I have found to be not malicious, playful but not cynical, at times satirical but never vicious. The Anthologist was more than all this, it was heartfelt and emotionally engaging, perceptive and informative. It contained much of the humour of the everyday and the pathos of ennui. The protagonist was an American poet with a modest reputation who had known or knew most of the greats of contemporary US and British poetry. He explains the reasoning for his inclusion in and exclusion from the anthology he is compiling of particular verses. But this is part of his stalling tactics as he cannot get down to write the book’s opening introduction. This block has caused his girlfriend to walk out. He distracts himself further with house painting, with office tidying and with explaining why rhyme is vital to poetry, especially his poetry. It seems a sedentary sort of novel, but it opens out rhythm and rhyme, stress and metre while also evoking the stagnation of a blocked mind and the graft required to bring verse onto the page. It is a quietly masterful book which has stuck with me.

One or two of the poets mentioned in The Anthologist appear in the Advent to Epiphany collection Haphazard by Starlight, compiled by Janet Morley who has contributed a commentary on each verse. It is a sumptuously evocative and at times hugely challenging collection which has fuelled many of our Advent and Christmas services as well as been a powerful discussion starter for our reading group. Richer by far than the most luxurious Advent calendar it can be used in the same way with a poem a day to open and indulge in, savour and ponder. Morley’s notes are full of sustained and sustaining insights, her choices are unusual and provocative – both ‘seasonal ghazal’ (Harry Gilonis) and Charles Causley’s ‘Innocent’s Song’ spring immediately to mind – and there is a vision here that goes way beyond the immaculate placidity of the traditionally gabled nativity. Lose a single one of these poems and the whole collection would be irrevocably marred. I could list the poets – but that would spoil some of the journey, check it out for yourself, it will surprise, delight and enlighten you.

Which brings me to Boneland. Most definitely my book of the year. I’m one of that generation who was brought up with Elidor, was scared by The Owl Service and disturbed by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath’ Later I read, and recently reread Red Shift. In each and every one of Garner’s novels there is an elemental intensity that fossicks deep inside the marrow and maw of storytelling. Boneland, which may, or may not be his final work, is declared to be the closing of the trinity which began with The Weirdstone and continued in The Moon of Gomrath. Those were children’s books, this, written fifty years later, is most definitely for adults and, according to many other readers is informed by and informs not only those early works but also his later adult fiction such as Thursbitch, Strandloper and The Stone Book Quartet. I haven’t yet read these, but intend to do so very soon for Boneland is one of those short novels in which not a single word is placed unnecessarily – everything is there for a reason, even if the reason will only turn to the sun on a second or third reading.

The plot is for all time and beyond time, it centres on the physicality of Alderley Edge and the spirituality of the stones – the bones of the earth, the scions of the stars trapped in every molecule of our bodies, the interconnectedness of all things and the individuality of no thing. It brings us Colin, who we left at 13 in The Moon of Gomrath, now reaching retirement, a savant, multi-academic, professionally both an ornithologist and an astronomer, out of sync with ordinary humanity, yet tuned in to the ageless dance of the shaman in the cave whose ritual movement keeps the sky from falling in. Language is used like concrete – hard edged and precise – but also like mercury, slipping and sliding between the cracks in between lines, in between time. There are strands and connections made all over the place – with the old gods and their stone carved triple mothers, with astronomy and physics, with Gawain and with ornithology, with cave painting and with fine wine. Not all the strands are threaded together – Colin’s missing twin Susan appears but is she cipher or goddess, ghost or alter ego – and that seems right, even if there is a sense of finality about this book, and even if it is not Garner’s concluding work it is both conclusive and the ‘ite missa est’ the sending out – the beginning of another storyline in which we, and the earth in which we stand, are the players, the blocks of stone on which a new dance will be carved.

Now let’s see what reading delights 2014 will bring…

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