Two months in to 2013 and it's time for a New Year's resolution progress check. I'm still taking it all very seriously, probably because this year is a bit of a watershed with my 30th birthday in July. A perfect year to make some changes.
This is the first year in a long time that I have made non-reading resolutions. The first was to pass my driving test; my second was to visit Orkney; and my third, well, that one I will keep to myself for now. I've made big steps towards all three in January. I passed my driving theory test a couple of weeks ago and have booked my practical test for a couple of months time. Lessons are going really well - I love my instructor - and I can now navigate pretty much everything. This week I did a full circuit of the York outer ring road, complete with 6 multi-lane roundabouts, and am starting to feel like a real driver, if a very slow one. I never thought this would happen because I was so disastrous as a teenager. I got my provisional license at 17 but hated every second behind the wheel and gave up before I went to university. Obviously the 13 year break has done my confidence the world of good. (Also, it helps to have a teacher who doesn't shout 'Break! Break! Break! ... You used the break too soon' on the approach to every junction.)
And I booked the Orkney trip for the beginning of July (by which point I should be able to share in the driving to get there). I won't be going alone - all the Alexandrians and their partners and several other friends are coming too - and we'll be spending a week on South Ronaldsay. I'm looking forward to reading more George Mackay Brown, as well as a few sea and selkie stories in preparation. Orkney by Amy Sackville popped through my letter box on Friday and is now enticing me from the sideboard. I want, I want, I want. If you have any other related reading suggestions, let me know!
My reading resolutions were very simple: read more, and blog once a week. Clearly the later hasn't quite bedded in yet, but I'm still trying. The reading more though, that is working just fine. I've managed to keep to my 'hour a day' quota, even on the heaviest and most desperate of work days. I've read twice as many books as last year in January and February, as well as a host of magazines and short stories.
I've blogged about my two favourite fiction books of the year so far - Seraphina and Sisters by a River - but given I'm already behind blogging schedule I will share some brief thoughts on the others now. Fiction first.
The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (2010; trans. Sian Reynolds) was my first crime novel of the year. I picked it up from the library on a whim because one of my colleagues had been waxing lyrical about a later book in the series, and I'd also heard the name several times on The Readers podcast. This is how I knew a) that Vargas is a woman and b) that The Chalk Circle Man is the first in her series of books about Commissaire Adamsberg, a Parisian detective. This isn't a great deal to know when embarking on a novel, but still all my expectations were confounded. I was expecting an involved, cannily plotted police procedural with a prickly, hard-nosed detective at the centre. What I got instead was an intuitive and unfathomable character in Adamsberg, a man who solves crimes entirely by instinct, and a weirdly inconsequential plot. Adamsberg is the antithesis of Sherlock Holmes, distrustful of the evidence and feeling rather than deducing his way to the murderer. He is 'not in the habit of reflecting deeply...inferring, deducing, concluding, all that was a complete mystery to him....he was never sure where his ideas, his decisions, his intentions came from.'
This makes for a rather dreamlike crime novel, where evidence and incident are beside the point as Adamsberg drifts restlessly and apparently aimlessly around Paris. Characters are given much more space to surprise us. Vargas spends a long languid time introducing us to people like Mathilde, a reowned oceanographer who spends her time on dry land following random people in the street, and Charles Reyer, a blind scientist who is bitterly disappointed with the world and his place in it. I liked the way that Mathilde and Charles aren't placed in the novel to *do* anything; Vargas spends a lot of time setting them up but not to be lynchpins of the plot. Rather, to be interesting in and of themselves. Similarly, Adrien Danglard, Adamsberg's deputy, looks as if he is there to play the staple role of sidekick. But we get a lot more of this impeccably dressed drunk and single father of four than the position usually warrants.
Vargas neatly sidesteps the tyranny of the plot; the staple elements of the crime novel are only a faint hum behind the lovely weirdness of her execution. I was excited to discover a crime book where I felt the characters, and the ideas the characters had, were more interesting than the drive of the story - a good job, since the murder plot itself is definitely the weakest thing about the book. Vargas is definitely on my list of authors to pursue further.
Almost immediately after Vargas I re-read Theft by Peter Carey, a book I first reviewed here in 2006. I was refreshing my memory for my book group, which met at the York Art Gallery this month. I don't think I would have revisited it in other circumstances; whilst I enjoyed it the first time, it wasn't a head-over-heels kind of enjoyment. So picking it up again was a very instructive lesson in how rewarding re-reading can be. Usually I re-read out of a desire to capture the pleasure of the first time, to revisit the characters and places that I loved and to eat up the writing again. I embarked on Theft without any such fannish enthusiasm, to dutifully identify discussion topics for the group. And I enjoyed it immensely, much more than the first time around. Chewing over the precision of Carey's prose, I was struck by how many books I read each year that fall into a similar category as this one did - momentarily enjoyable, but not keepers - and what a disservice I might be doing them.
Things have been a little slower on the non-fiction front. One of my abandoned books of 2013 is Clarie Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens. I know this has been well received around the blogosphere, and very well received in the broadsheet media but, hell, I just couldn't get along with it. I found the traditional linear narrative of Dickens' life dull, dull, dull, the discussion of his work and writing life trivial and Tomalin's apologetics for his treatment of his wife distasteful. I read an absolutely fantastic review of it somewhere, that expanded on these flaws and expressed my thoughts completely, but now I can't find it in my feed. Anyway, over 200 pages in I decided I'd rather read Dickens than read about him, and put it aside.I've been reading Diarmuid MacCulloch's magisterial Reformation: Europe's House Divided, 1490-1700 since Christmas and am still only 152 pages into a total of 700. But this book demands to be read slowly and carefully. It has sat and daunted me on the TBR pile for years and years, and with good reason. The theology is complex, the terms of reference wide-ranging - from Aristotle to Erasmus via every thinker in between - and the Europe MacCulloch paints is fragmented and politically unstable. A good job then that he is so eloquent and comfortable on all these subjects. Still, I'm glad I have those second year Modern History modules under my belt, so that I have a framework to place Luther, Zwingli, Hus and the rest in.
There have been some lighter interludes. I picked up Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss in the 12 Days of Kindle sale just after Christmas. You know I'm fascinated by cold northern places ad nauseum at the moment and Iceland especially. Moss is a lecturer in English Literature and a novelist - I have her most recent novel, Night Waking, and am looking forward to it - and in 2009, just after the financial crash, she spent a year teaching abroad in Iceland with her young family. It was a year bookended by the collapse of the Icelandic banks on one hand - meaning the value of her salary halved over night - and the volcanic ashcloud that grounded flights all over Europe on the other. In between it was very, very cold.
Names for the Sea is wonderfully difficult to categorise. It is a sort of travelogue (although Moss admits that they didn't travel very much outside of Reykjavik) and a sort of memoir, with a bit of armchair anthropology thrown in. Moss spends a lot of time thinking about how Iceland is different to how she imagined it would be, and this is where the book is most interesting. She and her family - husband, two young boys - conceived of Iceland as a sort of leftie utopia: the most equal society in Europe, with universal free childcare, free university education, low levels of crime and a lesbian Prime Minster. Somewhere along the way they conflated this with a middle-class lifestyle of boutique delis, organic vegetables, Boden and constant cultural activity for children. A bit of a shock then to discover that Icelanders own more SUVs than any other European country; that buying fresh fruit and vegetables at all is next to impossible and that nobody takes their child to the museum. Moss quickly discovers that what she thought were the signifiers of a liberal society are nothing of the sort. Well worth a read.
And finally: Findings by Kathleen Jamie. After naming Sightlines, Jamie's second essay collection, as one of my favourite books of 2012 I knew that Findings was going to impress and it did. I won't say more, because Litlove serendipitously read and wrote about it this month too. I think that everyone should read a little bit of Jamie, even if you don't think you like nature writing. She is good for soul.
Now I'm off back to dig into Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. It comes out in hardback in the next few weeks - I have a Netgally proof - and I can't wait to tell you about it.