2012 books challenge: Half-year review

A lot of people have remarked that they’d like to see me write retrospectively about (or review) the books I’m reading. I must admit I don’t feel much of a natural urge to review books, nor do I think I have much experience or skill on which to draw to do so (I’m much more arrogant about films…).

Having said that, a) I can see that posting a blog before I read each book means I’m essentially just publishing a list of books, which isn’t terribly exciting; and b) we’re more than half way through the year, which seems like an ideal time to do a brief review of the 21 books I’ve read so far in 2012.

The very good

Until recently I wasn’t prepared to say I had a favourite book of the year. I’ve read some very good books and begun some very bad ones, but none stood out as the all-defeating grandaddy of the selection so far. Then I read Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven. It’s difficult to say exactly what mesmerised, moved and enthralled me so much about this meandering, knowing tale of humanity’s clueless adherence to fate and attempts to find meaning in an unexpectedly meaningful reality. Some combination of the sharp insights into human philosophy, the tragicomic fatalism and the fascinating, rhythmic prose just won me over in a big way. This, more than any other so far, has been the book my hands didn’t want to put down and my brain couldn’t, the book I’ve recommended to everyone who’s asked.

The very bad

Since January I’ve probably talked to people about Paulo Coelho more than all the other authors on my list put together. He seems to be a rather divisive figure. People either hate his writing, or they just hate The Zahir (with the exception of Jeroen, who has effectively done penance for suggesting I read The Zahir by suggesting I read The Discovery of Heaven). As a well-meaning joke (I think) Wes bought me Coelho’s most famous and celebrated book, The Alchemist, for my birthday. I’ve recently finished it and (sorry Wes) I appear to fall into the category of those for whom Coleho does absolutely nothing. I can see the appeal for some of his simple, parable-like style, but for me it felt like reading a Ladybird book about the worst (and most predictable) kind of fatalistic, fantastic bunkum.

The very unexpected

I was all set to be miserable slogging through Great Expectations. The last time I tried to read Dickens (a good ten years ago) I was hopelessly impatient with the overlong sentences, the extravagant prose, the constant overegging of the etymological pudding. Great Expectations couldn’t have proven a greater surprise. I craved and loved every last syllable.

With only eight books left on my 2012 reading list, I’m starting to think about what I’ll read next year. Do you have any recommendations based on my experiences so far? What books have surprised you?

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Book 7: Mister Pip (and a note on Great Expectations)

Mister Pip (2006) is a novel by Lloyd Jones, a New Zealand author. It is named after a character in, and shaped by the plot of, Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Lloyd Jones wrote 11 versions of the novel originally setting it on an unnamed Pacific island. The novel was ultimately set against the backdrop of the civil war on Bougainville Island during the early 1990s.

– From Wikipedia

Having read the early chapters of it with dread and dislike in my school years, I came to the challenge of (re)reading Great Expectations with, shall we say, Low Hopes. But it completely reversed my prejudices. It is blisteringly witty, deliciously descriptive and devilishly plotted. How can I have spent upwards of 10 years detesting Dickens’ writing? (The answer, I think, is that it – or at least Great Expectations – is not suited to a teenage readership, complicated and demanding as it is). Mister Pip is somehow – I’m not yet sure precisely how – related to Dickens’ classic. I haven’t begun it yet and I already like it, for prompting me to give Charlie a second chance…

Has anyone else experienced a sudden change in opinion of an author, classic or not?

Book 6: Great Expectations

Great Expectations is a novel by Charles Dickens. It depicts the growth and personal development of an orphan named Pip.

– From Wikipedia

Great Expectations is a new addition to my 2012 26 book challenge list. I needed a replacement for Michel del Castillo’s La Guitare, which is sadly only available in French. I had considered dropping a Danny Wallace-style twist on myself and forcing myself to read the book in [my dreadful, GCSE-standard] French, but Great Expectations seemed a good fit for three reasons:

  • The book representing New Zealand on my list is Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip
  • During the longlisting process, Ben had suggested I read a Charles Dickens novel
  • I’ve never liked Dickens and his paid-by-the-word verbal extravagance. For that reason I haven’t read anything by him in about 10 years, so it will be interesting to revisit his work.

So this is the second (or, rather, the first of two) books by English authors on my list (the other is David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten). Naughty, but justified, I think.

484 pages of Dickens, here I come. Does anyone else find the prospect stultifying?