Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 In Books: A Year That Wasn't

It's that time of year that the critics come out and talk about all of the books you haven't read, I haven't read, their editors haven't read, and they haven't read either. Sometimes even their authors haven't read them. The critics will usually go on to utter one or two meaningless cliches in order to make one or two nonsensical points about the books that they haven't read anyway, talking about plot twists which may not have occurred, characters who may not have existed, and events in the life of the authors that are probably fictional. When they've done making up nonsense about these books they haven't read (about 500 words in), the critics cease their inane twittering and go and do something more meaningful with their lives - suicide, for instance. It's a stupid, pointless, frivolous, immoral, irritating, insane and, dare I say, banal exercise, so I'm going to do it now.


House of Meetings, by Martin Amis, would make a suspensful, gripping read if you are the sort of person who gets excited at the thought of staring at a brick wall for ten years (but only if we promise him that the brick wall won't move first); and it would possibly make an appropriate gift for somebody hospitalised because of chronic paranoid schizophrenia. For the rest of us, it is an overwhelmingly tedious work by one of the most overblown windbags of literature. Set in a 18th century Russian garret in 1927 France, Amis labouriously describes a day in the night of four Russian triplets who spend their evenings playing in a string quartet and their afternoons working for the Italian mafia. Time and again, Amis builds the prose up to heights of banality and meaninglessness that literature has previously not been capable of. Amis breaks new ground in the boredom stakes, culminating in his penultimate chapter, 2771 Ways of Considering An American Skunk, which sadly delivers on what it promises, focusing especially on the olfactory peculiarities of this creature (there's even a scratch-and-sniff about two-thirds through). Give this one a miss.

Helen Garner's critically acclaimed masterwork, Joe Cinque's Consolation, has an interesting title. Sadly, the title is all it has. For the rest of the book, Garner has chosen to indulge in the idiosyncratic, and dare we say, idiotic project of repeating the title again and again on each page. Sometimes, for purported aesthetic effect, Garner will rearrange the words or place the apostrophe in different places. This goes on for 371 pages, and then the book ends. Frankly, if I never hear of this dog of a book again, it will be too soon.

American master Phillip Roth came out this year with the eagerly awaited work Everyman, and in my opinion, the book should have stayed eagerly awaited. It is a risible work, chosing to focus as it does on what the cover blurb describes as 'the touching relationship between a teenage boy and a fox terrier in the Pyrenees mountains.' Why, at this stage in his life, that phlegm-filled old bastard Roth should start writing Lassie stories is beyond me, probably beyond his psychiatrist, and just possibly beyond the moon as well. I won't be eagerly awaiting his next work, I can tell you that. I will be anticipating the bloody thing in horror and disgust.

The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehmann, is great! Who would have guessed, with a title like that, that the work was going to be a pacy detective thriller set in the seedy downtown area of San Francisco city? There are thrills, chills, spills, and just a couple of lewd scenes involving Jills, on every page! I think we have found a new Raymond Chandler in this author (or editor - whatever) - one to watch!

Disappointments in a generally depressing year: Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, a rambling discussion of fashions worn by the French peasantry in the year 1343. I wish Nemirovsky would quit rambling and just get lost. The Sea, by John Banville, rather perplexingly sets in the first chapter it's task: to discover 1001 words that rhyme with sea. Rather depressingly, it delivers. Peter Carey's Theft is a quixotic tale of three autistic homosexuals chained to a bedhead in a room in a small American town (None of them speak the other's language, and cannibalism is involved.) It's an odd work that I think would have made an interesting short story, but is rather lacking in motivation, one feels.

Worst book of the year? After pondering the issue for long seconds (oh, ALL right then, milliseconds), I feel that I am going to have to award this dubious accolade to Paul Davies, whose bizarre work The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is The Universe Just Right For Life should have remained, not only unpublished, but burnt into ashes, and trampled into the ground, or even better yet, unthought of. Never have I read such a lewd, lascivious, disgustingly vile and pornographic work under the guise of 'Quantum Physics'. On every page, one finds something new to be shocked and affronted at: threesomes are common, as are foursomes, fivesomes, and twelvesomes. Lists of seemingly surreal sexual activities are given at great length, and often repeated on the next page; presumably this author gets 'off' on what he is writing. There is licking, stroking, biting, kissing, sniffing, sucking, chewing, four person press ups, buggery, dutch sex, and sex by any other means possible. Why, oh why, did this once gentle quantum physicist turn to writing pornographic literature? I really, really don't know. But it is certainly a disgraceful joke to try and pass this off as just another work in 'Quantum Science'. I am shocked and appalled. Really, there has been nothing this year worth reading at all, and bizarelly, the way the book market is at the moment, I expect things to get worse next year. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and lie down and put a wet towel across my head for five hours. No, make that a swimming pool ...


Have a happy new year, everyone. Please feel free to go ahead and post reviews of books that you haven't read in the comments. Go on! What else are they for?


Charles Murton said...

My favourite un-book for 2006 is 'Great Mistakes of Australian History' published by the University of New South Wales. This is a book that you can't put down - you have to throw it down with great force.

Paul Davies has been publishing gee-whiz pop physics books since before the Flood. What does he do in his spare time? Teaches physics to undergraduates I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Amongst the most ripsnorting books I've read this year is the very "Rats, Lice, and History" that you and one Charles Murton have both mentioned on this here site within this here last 24 hours. If "Tristram Shandy" were a book about typhus, this is the book it would be. It speaks profoundly to my louse phobia, to my love of rambling digression, and to my conviction that scientists should be literate and the literati scientate. Zinsser takes an anarchic glee in the notion of mere measly bacteria singlehandedly shaping the history of the universe (or thereabouts), laying low archbishops and armies. I've also enjoyed Stephen Bown's book on scurvy: not one hundredth as gorgeously written, but similar in its disease-shapes-the-world thesis.

TimT said...

I love the chapter names: eg "The period of vigour and wild oats." Rarely has there been a better title written for a chapter. And his descriptions of lice and their fondness for aristocratic wigs is wonderfully entertaining. One of the best scientific books I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

The mere mention of aristocratic wigs is more than enough for me, but throw in a sympathetic louse or two, and voila! there is no greater pleasure. (Clearly I don't get out much.)

TimT said...

If wigs and louses is amusing, you should see Marie Antoinette. It has Louis in a wig, which is almost as good as a louse in a wig.

TimT said...

I am rather concerned, however, that we all appear to be talking about books that we have read, which rather shames me in my paltry attempt to make up for not reading many of this year's books by telling whopping great lies about them.

Anonymous said...

But I haven't read any books I haven't read.

TimT said...

It didn't stop Tim Sterne!

Charles Murton said...

Hans Zinsser in 'Rats, Lice and History' even has a go at Paul Davies (or people like him).

I don't have my copy at hand, but I remember he congratulates somebody as being one of the rare physicists who has not ended up talking about God.

nailpolishblues said...

I wonder if they has lice peppered merkins as well?

The book that I didn't read was The Story of Nails, a young woman's journey through the world, chock-full of terribly fascinating and important lessons and/or beauty tips. Alas, not having read it I failed to learn anything last year and have even crapper hair than before. *sigh*

TimT said...

Never fear, Nails, I'm sure the ongoing story will have numerous plot twists and midnight liasons this year. What are merkins?

TimT said...

I guess Zinsser was probably referring to chaps like Fred Hoyle and Arthur Eddington; I think even Einstein raved about God, too, using the rather odd excuse that he was a 'deeply religious unbeliever.'

Anonymous said...

Can't resist answering the merkin question (sorry, Nails; I know it was directed at you, but I'm rather partial to wig-related trivia). A merkin (cover your ears if you're under 16) is, in the words of Grose, author and editor of Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1795), "counterfeit hair for women's privy parts". Besides coming in a range of colours and styles, merkins have the added advantage of being detachable in case of louse infestation. A vigorous boiling should suffice.

To answer Nails' question, Zinsser doesn't refer specifically to pubic lice, but he does touch parenthetically on the bacteria and viruses that waylay us, as he puts it, "in our love".

TimT said...

Three cheers for the Merkin, the most marvellous stuff,
This miraculous, magical man-made muff!
It cometh in mauve, violet or vermillion,
And combineth the
au naturelle with the Brazilian!

I love that that fellow's name is 'Grose', by the way. It fits perfectly!

Anonymous said...

As fresh cucumber to the pickled gherkin,
So wild pubic hair to Madam Merkin.
Its lustrous tangles, its riotous curls,
Are ornament enough for all fine girls.

Let us never speak of this again.

TimT said...

Aw, I had two more stanzas and I was going to make the whole thing into a verse-chorus for my next blog post, no fair!

Anonymous said...

Oh, well, in that case, there's no standing in the way of poetry. Seize the day, by the short and curlies.

TimT said...

Excellent. I'll put your stanza in also, if that's alright ... (and excellent iambics!)

redcap said...

I think we should just take away Paul Davies' pencils and paper and make him sit in the corner.

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Execution Blunders. There are only so many stories of failed hangings that one can read before it all becomes a bit ho hum. Oh, the rope pulled his head off, did it? Oopsadaisy. Are there any biscuits left?

Darlene said...

Roth a genius, Tim.

He writes books. Things with pages.

Mind you, I haven't read his latest but I loved The Human Stain and the other one about his lust for a younger woman (hang on, that's all of them).

TimT said...

The only piece by Roth I've read was a great little novel called Operation Shylock, full of weird organisations like 'Anti-Semitics Anonymous', a group for recovering anti-semites. He is a great writer.

A while ago he had a good interview in the Australia, which I blogged here.

Redcap, Execution Blunders still sounds morbidly fascinating. Given my high boredom threshold, I may have to just go out and get it.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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