- Just So Stories | Rudyard Kipling
- Rambo Goes to Idaho | Scott Abels
- The Stranger’s Child | Alan Hollinghurst
- Riddley Walker | Russell Hoban
- The War Against Cliche | Martin Amis
- Middlesex | Jeffrey Eugenides
- A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush | Eric Newby
- Listen to This | Alex Ross
- Wulf | Hamish Clayton
- The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
- Sacred Hunger | Barry Unsworth
- Coming of Age in Samoa | Margaret Mead
- Skios | Michael Frayn
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | John Le Carré
One of the best things about a holiday somewhere remote is reading solidly for days. D and I took a stack of books to Samoa for a week, and whole afternoons were spent ploughing through them. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger was one I’d been meaning to get to for years, but I was always put off by its length, so having days to devote to it was a blessing. For some reason I had the impression it was a dense philosophical work, but it turned out to be a fine historical novel, in the Patrick O’Brien mould, on the malleability of human nature. Samoa also seemed the ideal place to finally read Margaret Mead, and her lyrical descriptions of village life did have extra resonance in that setting. The rampant sexuality she claims to have found apparently needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and her grand conclusions about reforming the entire American educational system (based on interviews with 50 girls in Samoa) can be safely skimmed.
Another read that would be good for an island holiday is Skios, a charmingly-written frothy entertainment. It’s a farce of shuffled suitcases and mistaken identity which works through all the expected permutations right up to the final dénouement, when it suddenly loses patience with itself and its genre conventions. Transcending the genre is probably what got Skios onto this year’s Man Booker longlist, where it sits somewhat awkwardly, but Frayn is really a splendid playwright, a sublime humourist, and an accomplished novelist on a good day, so the recognition’s deserved.
Wulf picked up the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book award this year, and it really is something different from a standard NZ historical novel, more CK Stead than Maurice Shadbolt. My only quibble is biological anachronism: it mentions moa stories and giant eagle bones years before they were actually unearthed, and describes pohutakawa flowering along the Kapiti coast when their normal range is north of Kawhia.
The Bailey was a pleasant light read, but for some reason didn’t grab me. I guess I was expecting some sort of larger payoff than the book intended to deliver. The faintest of faint praise I can give is that it will encourage someone to keep a snail in a terrarium and learn to watch more closely. The Le Carré was likewise a filler; casting no aspersions on a fine spy novel from an author I love, but my memory of the film was still too fresh, and I couldn’t reconcile Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch with the middle-aged warhorses on the page.
This month my best reading was the Alex Ross. This collection of essays is mixed but full of great music journalism, from Brahms to Björk. He has a refreshing eclectic tone of voice, so I’m very much looking forward to spending a month working my way through The Rest is Noise, his history of 20th century classical music. Both are best read in conjunction with his website, which, I discovered afterwards, has numerous audio clips: sometimes it’s a bit frustrating to read a musical analysis of a Schubert song cycle you’ve never heard. The best I can say is his writing even made me want to try listening to Bob Dylan. And that is not faint praise.