CategoryDasgupta Rana

Ten favourite books read during the lifetime of this blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m joining in this week because I was really taken with the theme. I’ve been reviewing books online since 2004, but this blog started in 2009, and I’m concentrating on the period since then. What follows here is not a definitive list of favourites, nor is it in a strict order – it’s a list of highlights. It’s a snapshot of what I like to read.

1. The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

This is a tale of pure serendipity. I was visiting Cambridge, and saw the hardback of The Rehearsal in a bookshop. It wasn’t the subject matter that grabbed me, but the blurbs promising something different. I took a chance on it… and really didn’t get along with its mannered prose style at first. But I persevered and, once I realised what Catton was doing – how completely the novel’s different aspects embodied its theme of performance – I got into it, and ended up absolutely loving the book. The Rehearsal is the fondest memory I have of reading a book in the last few years, and it showed me a new way to appreciate fiction.

2. Pocket Notebook – Mike Thomas

A few bloggers enthused about Pocket Notebook in 2010 – and I really liked its Clockwork Orange-inspired cover – but I never got around to reading it. The following year, I started reviewing for Fiction Uncovered; when I saw Pocket Notebook on their review-copy list, I decided to try it. I was utterly blown away by the vividness with which Thomas created his corrupt-copper protagonist. My only regret is that I didn’t read this novel a year earlier.

3. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This book has 661 pages. I devoured the whole lot in a weekend. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added quantum physics, Skippy Dies goes from humour to sharp characterisation to social commentary to pathos to the borders of science fiction and back again, without putting a foot wrong. Stunning stuff.

4. Solo – Rana Dasgupta

When I started this blog, I was just beginning to investigate the parts of the contemporary British literary scene that would most interest me. The website Untitled Books was (still is) a great resource, and it’s where I found out about Solo. I love books with wide-ranging sensibilities, and Solo – with its account of a life that feels like a daydream, and a daydream that feels like life – is that sort of book.

5. Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

One of the great joys of book blogging has been discovering small presses. Peirene Press are one of the fine publishers who’ve emerged in the last couple of years, and Beside the Sea is one of their best books. Ostensibly the story of a mother taking her children on a trip to the seaside, darkness gradually emerges from behind the happy façade to build up a brilliant but tragic portrait.

6. Yellow Blue Tibia & New Model Army – Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia was the very first book I reviewed on this blog. I was wanting to catch up on some of the contemporary sf authors I hadn’t read, and my first Adam Roberts novel just blew me away. My second, New Model Army, did the same the year after – a novel that I can genuinely say did something I hadn’t come across in a book before. I can’t choose one of these books over the other for this list, so here they both are.

7. The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Being surprised by an unfamiliar author is great; but so is reading an excellent book by a writer you already know. A Christopher Priest novel is a maze of realities and unreliable perceptions, and The Affirmation is up there with his best. Priest’s narrative shifts between realities, and his masterstroke is to make our world seem no more (or less) real than his fictional one.

8. An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

You can’t explore the world of book blogs for too long without coming across books that you’re unlikely to hear of elsewhere. I first heard of An A-Z of Possible Worlds through Scott Pack’s blog, and it really ought to be better known. Lovingly produced by its publisher, Roast Books, this is a collection of stories in a box – twenty-six individual pamphlets, each about its own place. The stories are very fine, too.

9. Coconut Unlimited – Nikesh Shukla

Here’s another way of discovering books in the blog age: finding a writer to be an engaging presence on Twitter; then, a year (or however long) later, reading his or her newly-published book. That’s what happened with Coconut Unlimited, which turned out to be a razor-sharp and hilarious comedy. More interconnectedness: I met Nikesh Shukla last year at a Firestation Book Swap, which Scott Pack usually hosts (although he wasn’t there for that one).

10. The City & the City – China Miéville

The City & the City generated one of my longest reviews, and I can’t remember reading another book that had so many interpretations from so many different people. It’s a novel to argue with, and argue about. At the time, I hadn’t read one of Miéville’s adult books since The Scar; I remember thinking that The City & the City was good enough in itself, but too quiet to catch on as some of his earlier works had. Of course, I was wrong. It was fascinating to see how the novel was received beyond the sf field, and the book blogging community was a big part of that reaction for me.

2009 favourites

It’s been a good year for reading, watching and listening, I think; so here’s a look at my favourite books, movies and music of 2009.

BOOKS

Here are my favourite books whose first publication was in 2009, with links to my reviews. (NB. The order isn’t meant to be too strict; all these books are warmly recommended.)

1. Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

My favourite book of 2009 is an extraordinary work of literature which examines the masks people wear and the shows people put on in life, against the background of a school scandal. Catton doesn’t put a foot wrong, and the result is a novel that’s both highly experimental and compulsively readable.

2. Keith Brooke, The Accord

Brooke is, in my opinion, a vastly under-appreciated writer; this story of a virtual afterlife is the best of his works that I’ve read. The Accord works on so many levels: as a novel of ideas, as a novel of character, as a thriller, as an experiment in style… It’s a heady concoction that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

3. Rana Dasgupta, Solo

An elderly Bulgarian man looks back on his life in the first half of this novel, then dreams of a new life for an old friend in the second. A beautifully written, richly rewarding book.

4. Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

At the behest of Stalin, a group of science fiction writers dream up an outlandish enemy for communism, and discover that the truth is uncomfortably close. Enormous fun, and a feast for the imagination.

5. Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

A powerful fairytale about the difficulty of looking life in the eye, and the possible consequences of not doing so. A deserved co-winner of the World Fantasy Award.

6. Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

A deeply atmospheric detective story whose heart beats with a unique strangeness.

7. David Vann, Legend of a Suicide

A mosaic portrait of a father’s suicide, with a strong sense of place and a sharp eye for character. A unique work of literature.

8. Conrad Williams, One

Williams evokes the profound horror of apocalypse whilst maintaining an intensely personal focus. Harrowing, but powerful.

9. A.C. Tillyer, An A-Z of Possible Worlds

Twenty-six individually bound portraits of what-if. The most beautifully made book of the year, with stories to match.

10. Evie Wyld, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

A quiet, insightful tale of silence between fathers and sons, and the consequences of leaving things unspoken.

11. China Miéville, The City & the City

A murder mystery set in overlapping cities, and a fascinating fusion of fantasy and crime fiction.

12. Trevor Byrne, Ghosts and Lightning

A young man returns to Dublin after the death of his mother, and struggles to anchor his life. Well written and nicely observed.

And the best from previous years…

Ken Grimwood, Replay (1986)

A perfectly constructed and beautifully observed tale of a life lived over and over again in different ways. This is an absolute jewel of a book which I am enormously glad to have read this year.

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

A marvellous coming-of-age (or beginnings thereof) story told in a brilliantly realised voice. A page-turner of depth and richness.

FILMS

Though I didn’t intend it to happen, I got somewhat out of the habit of watching films in the latter half of 2009, so my view of the cinematic year is a bit skewed. But my favourite film from 2009 was a brilliant British fantasy called Franklyn; and, from previous years, I was most impressed by Once and Hard Candy — both excellent films, though very different in mood.

MUSIC

Instead of picking out albums, I’ll present a list of some of the best songs that sountracked my year (though not all originate from 2009); but, if it’s on here, you can (in most cases) consider it a recommendation for the relevant album:

Bat for Lashes, ‘Daniel’ [review]
Doves, ‘Kingdom of Rust’
The Duckworth Lewis Method, ‘Jiggery Pokery’ [review]
Florence and the Machine, ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ [review]
Franz Ferdinand, ‘Ulysses’ [review]
Friendly Fires, ‘Paris’ [review]
Glasvegas, ‘Flowers and Football Tops’ [review]
Lisa Hannigan, ‘I Don’t Know’ [review]
Charlotte Hatherley, ‘White’
The Invisible, ‘London Girl’ [review]
La Roux, ‘Bulletproof’ [review]
The Leisure Society, ‘The Last of the Melting Snow’ [review]
Little Boots, ‘New in Town’ [review]
The Phantom Band, ‘The Howling’
Snow Patrol, ‘Just Say Yes’ [review]
Stornoway, ‘Zorbing’
Super Furry Animals, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ [review]
Sweet Billy Pilgrim, ‘Kalypso’ [review]
The Temper Trap, ‘Sweet Disposition’
White Lies, ‘Death’ [review]
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Zero’

So, that was 2009. I hope that 2010 holds as much to look forward to.

Solo by Rana Dasgupta (2009)

512UYEBskDL._SL160_AA115_Solo is the story of Ulrich, a blind, hundred-year-old Bulgarian man who has little to do with his days but reminisce and daydream. He does both during the course of the novel.

By most standards, Ulrich’s life would be considered a failure. Thwarted (by his father) in his early ambitions to become a musician, Ulrich turned instead to chemistry; but abandoned his studies in Berlin and returned to Sofia when his family’s investments failed. He became a bookkeeper and married a pianist, but that relationship was ultimately doomed; then came the Second World War, and after that, the rule of communism. Regarded with suspicion by the ruling party, Ulrich is nevertheless given a job in charge of operations at a chemical factory, where he works until made to retire. He then does his own experiments at home, until the Party closes down his laboratory. And that, more or less, is the sum of Ulrich’s life.

The second half of Solo consists of an extended daydream of Ulrich’s, in which he reimagines his friend Boris (whom in reality was executed as a young man in the early 20th century) as a young, successful musician in the present day. Also in the dream are Plastic Munari, the music producer who ‘discovers’ Boris; Khatuna, a Georgian girl who goes up in the world when she gets a job working for a gangster-politician, but flees to New York when he’s shot, and later becomes Plastic’s girlfriend; and Irakli, Khatuna’s wayward poet brother, who becomes dazzled by Boris, though Khatuna hates the musician. There is happiness, of a sort, to be found in the daydream; though it’s not for this post to say which characters find it.

Solo is an exquisite book, one of the best I’ve read all year; but trying to encompass why is quite difficult, because it could go in so many directions — Solo is ‘about’ many different things, so consider this post only a partial treatment. On a stylistic and technical level, the novel is superb. Here, for example, is how Dasgupta describes a change in Ulrich’s mother when her husband dies:

While he was still alive, Elizaveta would say, ‘All he ever does is sit in that chair and look out of the window.’ It infuriated her to see him so inactive. But after he died she never said anything but, ‘That was the chair he loved.’ Or, ‘How he loved sitting in that chair.’ Or, ‘They are spoiling the view your father loved so much.’

The contrast between the novel’s two parts is also well-handled and subtle. It’s not simply that one depicts failure and the other success. It’s that, in life, one of Ulrich’s obsessions caused so much tragedy — chemistry destroyed his marriage, poisoned his country, took his sight; but, in his daydreams, it is Ulrich’s other obsession, music, that brings so much joy. And it’s that Ulrich’s memories, being somewhat hazy and episodic, feel much like daydreams; whilst his daydreams have a structure that make them feel more like reality (come to think of it, isn’t that often the way in our own lives?).

Yet there’s much more to Solo than technique. There’s a political side, too, though it tends to stay in the background (or, more accurately, often has the feel of staying in the background), because Ulrich is rather naïve politically (in retirement, when the police describe his unofficial experiments as ‘dangerous’, Ulrich takes them literally, replying, ‘I wear a gas mask’). Now, admittedly, I don’t know much about the history and politics that the novel’s concerned with, so it may be that my reading is sketchy; but my overriding impression of the politics in Solo is that, whoever’s in power, they’re out largely for themselves, and it makes little difference to Ulrich’s lot.

I’ve heard Rana Dasgupta say (see Postscript) that one of Solo‘s themes is the ‘Faustian bargain we make with modern life’. Looking at the novel through this lens… well, the twentieth century is not very kind to Ulrich, or to Bulgaria in general; and I’ve already mentioned the fruits of Ulrich’s love of chemistry. The daydream is interesting in this regard, because it’s Ulrich’s attempt to make a better life for his friend Boris, and so he does — but the imagined reality is hardly the best of all possible worlds; there are prices to be paid for the glory. Perhaps Ulrich cannot bring himself to create a world without tragedy; perhaps, Solo suggests, it isn’t really possible (‘if we are to feel the thrill of progress and achievement, there have to be sacrifices elsewhere,’ says Ulrich at one point).

Then there is the question Ulrich thinks about at the end of his reminiscing: what does it truly mean to call a life a failure? ‘How can a dog fail its life, or a tree?’ he thinks. ‘A life is just a quantity; and he can no more see failure in it than he can see failure in a pile of earth, or a bucket of water. Failure and success are foreign terms to such blind matter.’ Well, perhaps if Ulrich can imagine a better life for someone else, that can be his success (the way Ulrich thinks and imagines, his daydreams have equal weight to his life). And if Ulrich must fail, at least it will be — in his words — ‘a fantastic failure. A triumphant failure.’

Solo is no failure, but it is triumphant.

Postscript

Earlier this week, whilst I was still reading Solo, I discovered that Rana Dasgupta was giving a reading near me; so I caught the train to Cambridge yesterday evening (around the houses, naturally, given the sorely-neglected state of the British rail system) and went along. I am pleased to report that Dasgupta is a very nice chap, as well as being a great writer. He also has the second-coolest signature I’ve ever seen (sorry, but Stephen Jones’ just edges him out). Some of the things Rana said helped illuminate and clarify the ideas I was having, thus providing some of the hooks on which this post hangs.

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