Showing posts from 2009

Books of the decade

If the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph can get away with filling space with a book list, then surely I can too. Presenting:

10 pretty good books of the decade

They may or may not be the bestbooks of the decade, but they're definitely the ones (a) I found most entertaining and (b) hadn't slipped my mind while compiling the list. In chronological order,
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000) A serious memoir wrapped in multiple layers of flippancy. This could have been a very irritating formula, but it works. The truly heartbreaking story grounds the knowing humour perfectly (compare the witty-but-hollow feel of the much less serious McSweeney's website). His follow-up novel You Shall Know Our Velocity was a bit of a let down, but I've heard good things about his more recent work.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001) The opening of The Corrections almost put me off reading it entirely. At the time I thought it was pretentious, but re-re…

Unseen Academicals and the meaning of sport

There's nothing like a hardback book to make you wonder: "what's the point of hardback books?". They're more awkward to use and less portable than paperbacks, they take up more than their fair share of space, and they're expensive. They're grandiose relics, like stately homes in a world designed for suburban semis, except you don't even get a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake when you stump up for a hardback book.

They'd be harmless, though, if it wasn't for the hardback-exclusivity of new books. This actually depresses total book sales, at least from me, because the media review books as soon as they come out, but if a review actually convinces me to buy, I then have to wait up to a year for it to come out in paperback, by which time I've forgotten all about it. And unless it makes the Waterstones 3-for-2, I'm unlikely to chance across it again. Nice work, publishers!

The one advantage to hardbacks is that they are impressive. They…

The Card

After the feast, the wafer-thin mint. Arnold Bennett's The Card is just as funny as A Fraction of the Whole and its mood is refreshingly upbeat.

I picked up The Card on a visit to Didsbury with Mrs Tomsk at the start of summer. We stopped off at a tearoom that not only did a mean sausage sandwich, but transitioned seamlessly to a second-hand bookshop at the back. This is what heaven must be like, presuming God is a tea-loving bookworm.

One thing the holy high street would not stand for, however, is political posturing. The bookshop side was at first glance unthreatening, even welcoming. But the European election campaign had begun, and the proprietor was not discreet in his affection for the UK Independence Party. Posters and leaflets were everywhere, all inevitably featuring the 1953 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. I wonder if he would appreciate his presence in a bookshop being reduced to flicking V-signs for the greater glory of UKIP.

The proprietor, of course, can d…

A Fraction of the Whole

Has any prize done more damage to the medium it celebrates than the Booker Prize? Somehow, somewhen, it gave birth to the cliché of the unreadable "Booker book", a po-faced account of a middle-aged widowed playwright, say, who ventures into the mountains to discover that the secret of life is to renounce plot and spend your days in aimless introspection. In short, boring.

Much of the fault lies with the rules. Each publisher is allowed to submit no more than two books, which keeps the numbers manageable but also forces the publishers to second guess the judges. The obvious strategy is to submit the most portentous books they have - the Booker books. So the cliché feeds itself. And for as long as these monsters win the gongs, they send a clear message to would-be booklovers: literature isn't for the likes of you.

It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that many Booker prizewinners are actually genuinely good books. And they can even be (whisper it) enjoyable to rea…

If Chins Could Kill

The first year at university is a rite of passage in many ways, and never more so than when the unsuspecting fresher enters the strange, liminal world of Cult Films. I vaguely remember that one night we watched The Evil Dead (or was it Evil Dead 2?). Not just a cult film, but a cult horror film, which is about as culty as you can get. I'd like to say that it changed the way I viewed cinema forever and left me hero-worshipping the star, Bruce Campbell. But this would be unfair to the truth: I hated it. And I hated him by association (whoever he was).

It wasn't Campbell's fault though. I hate horror films as a genre. I get squeamish at the sight of blood, and more squeamish at the sight of severed limbs with motive power of their own. Nowadays I'm desensitized compared to back then, but I still tend to avoid them if I can. Sorry, horror fans. It's my loss, I'm sure.

So what was I doing reading Campbell's autobiography? It's another selection from the lib…

Miss Tschörmänie

If you're a theoretical chemist with a passable command of German and a secret lust for power, this is the book for you. Miss Tschörmänie (pronounced "Miss Germany") is a comic strip depiction of the life and times of Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor.

The story starts with her early years as a scientist in the East, but really gets going after reunification, when her political career began. She soon signs up with the centre-right CDU party and by 2000 has taken charge. Five years later she has eliminated all other pretenders and become the first female chancellor of Germany. The aim of the book is to show you how she did it.

The story sticks closely to the facts, though there is some room for the authors to speculate about private conversations and thoughts. It's also very respectful to Merkel, who is shown time and again outsmarting her political enemies, both outside the party and within. The only really biting comments come from Gerhard Schröder (her …

The Master and Margarita

A visit to Murmansk, the grimly fascinating Soviet-era port, leaves you marked in two ways. First, with a healthy radioactive glow. Second, with a desire to read Russian literature. Actually, the second is not strictly true. What I really wanted to read was a thrilling Arctic adventure featuring submarines and derring-do, something like an early Tom Clancy, minus the American triumphalism. And I still do. Suggestions please.

Unfortunately, our local library was understocked with Soviet naval thrillers, so I raided Mrs Tomsk's library instead, and came up with The Master and Margarita. While it may not tell you how to break through the GIUK gap, it does illuminate the everyday nightmare of life under Stalin. It does this through a mixture of comedy, satire, religion and fantasy, a concoction so subversive that the introduction focuses mainly on how amazing it was that it ever got published, even if it did have to wait 26 years for the privilege.

The most arresting characters in th…