Richard Lutz ends each year with his booklist compiled over the past 12 months.
If there is one New Year’s resolution – actually, the only resolution – that I have ever kept for more than 48 hours, it is my book list.
In 1997 I promised that I would list each novel or piece of non-fiction I digested. I would, in effect, catalogue what I consumed. As a throwaway footnote, I added that I would try for a book a week. And so began an odd hobby that has last for 18 years now.
The first year came with teething problems. I gobbled through four books per month to get me to the required 52 (one a week) per annum. But around mid-October, I suddenly realised while eating a bacon sandwich that four per month is not 52…but a total of 48 as there are four and a half weeks per month
I ratcheted it up and got there in the nick of time. Fifty two books in a calendar year. I never reached that total again.
Other problems had to be tackled , too. Can you crank up the totals by digesting mini-novels, or really short monographs, say of about 80 pages? Do they count? And, on the other side of the scale, do you ignore a hefty bruiser of a book because it will gobble up too much time?
So self-imposed guidelines had to be imposed. No, you can’t include a book you haven’t finished or, well, just really doesn’t cut the mustard because it is simply not long enough. And, I have to admit, come November when you are confronted with an 800 page wrist-breaker, you do weigh it up, check the total pages and possibly mumble to yourself, “Well, maybe next year”?
Anyway, today I counted ‘em up again. This time for 2015. It was 42 books for the year. As a nerdy appendage, I write down how much is fiction and the answer is usually between 25% and 40%. This year it was bang on. A third were novels.
So here is my good, bad and ugly list as I wandered through those realms of gold:
In the non fiction category, (I feel like the announcer in an Oscars or BAFTA awards), I was duly rewarded with a corker for the first book of the year way back in January. It was part one of journalist Harry Evans’ early hack career and was called My Paper Chase.
It is a beautifully crafted and beautifully written autobiography taking in his early life in Manchester before the war, his scrabble to university, his early picaresque forays in weekly Lancashire papers and his rise up the ranks to editor of the Sunday Times. It is self deprecatory and, traditionally for a journalist, full of major stories that are still important to him and fairly meaningless, but fun to read, to a lot of his readers. But that’s journalism; the first draft of history and then usually tomorrow’s IPAD wrappings.
A close second is Music Without Words, an autobiography by Phillip Glass, the avant grade New York musician. There are great stories of learning about music from his father’s Baltimore record store, his love of early rock and roll during the Elvis era and his unformed but fundamental drive to learn how to compose what no one else was composing.
It led him to Manhattan, to the bo-ho Lower East Side in the late fifties, then to India, Africa and South America to learn and learn more about rhythm, melody and style from all corners of this square world. He too is an elegant writer, never overwhelming you with his talent but letting you know he was always peering over the edge of an horizon despite his lack of money or career prospects. He lives, even today, for his music.
Without a doubt, the stand out novel I devoured was The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a brutal and graphic coming of age story about two two young brothers, both in their teens, who make three trips to Mexico to try and unravel a family mystery. The writing is unrelentingly sparse, like the deserts and dry high mountains the boys must travel through. McCarthy, who also wrote No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian, is probably the greatest US writer alive and I am slowly getting through his books though some are simply too harrowing, some murderously violent.
The worst books I gnawed through was a PG Wodehouse rambling wreck called At Your Service, which the old novelist pecked out on his typewriter while asleep and Heartburn by bitter writer Nora Ephron who angrily dissected her falling-apart marriage to uber reporter Carl Bernstein using the novel as a murder weapon. It was like being pinned to a wall in a pub by a ranting monomaniac when all you wanted to do was quietly go home and take a shower and watch the news on tv.
New find is Anthony Powell and his 12 volume sage A Dance to the Music of Time. They were selling each crumbled, well used segment for a quid a throw at my local bookshop. I read two: At Molly’s and also Casanova’s Restaurant. Both are tart and funny while at the same time being void of a plot as far as I can figure, which made them even more witty. The former, At Molly’s, seems to be a portrait of the chattering classes of the late forties getting ready for a party at…of course…Molly’s. And that was that. But Powell really did get under the skin of the post-war crowd as they scrambled in the wreckage of a victorious and bruised Britain.
Two mysteries are there in the list: Renaissance by historian Lisa Jardine (don’t remember a thing about it but I can guess) and a book seemingly called 2015. Lord knows what that was about, though the hit-you-over-the-head title might give it away.
Anyway, away my list plunges into 2016. I am halfway through a Dylan book about the making of Blood on the Tracks and then I tuck into The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes which describes the birthpangs of Australia.
The beauty about the whole exercise is that when a title grabs me on a shelf, on a table, in someone’s hands, I veer into unknown lands and find I never get to the next one I want to read. And that is the way the list forms, evolves and eventually has been completed each December for the past eighteen years.