January Books - 2023
While most people in January are busy breaking new year's exercise resolutions, or failing to adhere to a new diet, I'm typically lapsing in my promise to keep a list of books read. Not this year though! At least, not yet...
House of Meetings – Martin Amis
A story of two brothers imprisoned in the Russian Gulag after the Second World War, this was my second recent re-read of a Martin Amis book (The Information being the other).
Both re-readings were inspired by The Martin Chronicles, a podcast hosted by Dan Kois (Slate), Parul Sehgal (The New Yorker) and Jason Zinoman (NY Times) in which they tackle Amis’s work ‘one book at a time.’
At the heart of House of Meetings is a love triangle between the two brothers and a Jewish woman, Zoya. I suppose that my most notable reaction to reading this again was to feel that a love triangle is a fairly perverse choice of narrative device on which to hang a history of the brutality in Stalin’s concentration camps, and the late Twentieth Century collapse of the Soviet Union.
Scroll two posts down.
Demon Copperhead by Barbra Kingslover
Listed by The New York Times Book Review as one of its ten best books of 2022, Demon Copperfield was inspired by Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The action is moved from 19th century London to contemporary Appalachia and takes as its milieu the opioid crisis and the horrors of the failing foster-care system.
It’s beautifully done.
There’s a cinematic element to the way some of the scenes are constructed. I expect the movie version is already in preproduction, but do yourself a favor and read the book instead.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
A number of years ago I picked-up a story collection by Gwendoline Riley, Tuesday Nights and Wednesday Mornings. It was her first or second book, and my feeling at the time was that it read like it; which is only to say, it read to me like apprentice fiction. Not to be dismissive – when you’re a young writer apprentice fiction is typically what you have to offer. Riley was still in her early-twenties. The reason I was interested in the first place was that Riley was writing stories set in Manchester, which you don’t see very often. I was curious to see what she made of it.
Recently, particularly over the past last two-three years, her work has become more widely known. The New York Review of Books has published two of her novels in their lovely imprint, with First Love being the first of them.
It’s far from apprentice fiction.
Sharp, acerbic, blazingly unsentimental, it skews towards the current trend for auto-fiction, without being fully of it. It’s not set in Manchester – London, mostly – though the protagonist’s bullying older husband frequently derides her poor background, her past living up north.
She’s received positive notices from critics for a few years now. It’s nice to see her renown increasing in proportion to the praise she’s received. I’m inclined to work backwards a little, explore her work further.
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
I don’t read a lot of poetry. Recently though, I watched a little of a film about the great British poet Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen made an appearance. The film wasn’t very good, which is why I only watched a little of it, but it brought to mind my old high-school English teacher, Frank Davis.
Wilfred Owen was Mr. Davis’s favorite poet, a man he believed destined for true greatness had he not been killed in action at the age of twenty-five, just seven days before the end of World War 1. I dipped into this collection over a few days, and the war poems, upon which Owen’s literary reputation rests, are indeed powerful indictments of war, filled with brutal candor.
And what of the beautiful portrait on the book’s cover? How remarkable that someone managed to capture so beautifully this young (anonymous, then) soldier. A portrait worthy of a book cover.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (Audio Book)
I'm a little over half way through this, and not sure I'll finish it. The narrator has a habit of putting the emphasis in sentences where I don't think they belong. It causes confusion as to the author's intent.
This was another book to appear in the New York Times Best 10 Books of the Year list, back in 2019. I'm not quite persuaded yet though. I'm all for a critique of the British role in The Troubles where criticism is earned. But I'm a bit put-off by what I see as the idolatry and glorification of some of the main players in the IRA, figures responsible for cruel and callous bombings that claimed the lives of innocent people. We'll see, but so far it seems to be a book that definitely takes sides.