A little later than planed (nearly a week, but who’s counting?) here is my list of the top books I read in 2014. I’ve decided to do five books, partially for the sake of brevity, partially to force myself to be selective. Only three of the books were actually published in 2014; Woman On The Edge of Time and Six Memos For The Next Millenium were first published in the 80s. With the price of books, and extensive University reading lists, I don’t actually read that many books in the year they are published. I don’t think that including a couple of older books does the list any harm. In fact, hopefully it will bring a few forgotten gems a little more attention.
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
Mitchell appeared on most people’s radars with the publication, and subsequent movie adaptation, of Cloud Atlas, the delightfully nebulous Russian Stacking doll of a novel that was as fascinating as it was frustrating. The truth is that Mitchell is a highly devisive writer; you love him or you hate him. Cloud Atlas remains one of my favourite books, while my mother despaired when reading it for her book club.
The Bone Clocks meets all the expectations that Mitchel’s work has garnered. Complex, mercurial, and downright weird, the novel follows the life of Holly Sykes from a sixteen year-old runaway in the 1980s through to her old age in 2045. Of course, Mitchell spins in plenty of weirdness. As with Cloud Atlas, Mitchell uses this new work to explore questions of the soul and reincarnation, although in a more overtly fantasy tone as the plot progresses. The continual shift in perspectives between characters (Holly’s boyfriend, friend, partner, and Holly herself all tell a section from their own perspective) can sometimes feel a bit confusing. Mitchell is has mastered the art of withholding information, giving readers just enough detail to keep us hooked without giving anything away. The final section, focusing on the collapse of Western civilisation, the reversion to a pre-industrial Europe and the end of modern technology, is a little hard to swallow not because it is outlandish, but precisely because of the sense of realism. Mitchell expertly captures the apathetic pessimism of a small community as the lights go out and society collapses in the distance. The final, hopeful note of the novel is, in itself, a bitter pill with only a thin sugar coating; the escape and survival of the young exchanged for the inevitable decline and death of the old.
Check out The Bone Clocks at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bone-Clocks-David-Mitchell/dp/0340921609/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1420577683&sr=8-1&keywords=the+bone+clocks
The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer
The keen eyed among you will notice that The Art of Asking also featured on my list of top Christmas presents this year. The fact that I finished the book in a little over three days, while working a full time job, should give some indication of how much I enjoyed it. The book comes somewhere between personal manifesto and memoir, chronicling Palmer’s life and career from her days working the streets (as a living statue. Get your mind out of the gutter) to international tours. Palmer’s writing is easy and unaffected, with a level of directness which only adds to the emotional impact of some of the episodes related over the course of her twenty-something year-long career. Figures such as her writer-husband Neil Gaiman, friend/mentor Anthony, and the myriad of performers and friends that make up the secondary cast of Palmer’s book feel that much closer because of the intimate tone she achieves and maintains.
There are, admittedly, points where The Art of Asking does stray dangerously close to becoming a self-help book, exhorting uncertain artists and individuals to accept help when it is offered, to let go of the difficult times, to just get on with it, but these can be forgiven for the simple reason that there is none of the forced niceness, the slightly two-faced tone, the one-solution-for-everyone that is so common in the multitude of books claiming to make you a happier/fitter/stronger/richer person. At the root of it all, there is simply a feeling of love, and an honesty of expression. A larger number of readers claim to have been moved to tears by Palmer’s writing, and I’m honestly not surprised.
Find out more about Amanda Palmer’s book, music, and philosophy at amandapalmer.net
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1988)
Originally published way back in the 80s, Woman On The Edge of Time is a brilliant piece of science fiction that appeared on the reading list for an English Literature module last spring (the title of the module, for those interested, was Utopia: from Suffrage to Cyberpunk). The novel tells the story of Connie, a Mexican American woman who is incarcerated in a mental hospital after she assaults her niece’s abusive pimp. On its most basic level, it is the story of a single minority woman struggling against an oppressive society which inevitably favours white males. However, the tale takes a turn into science fiction with the appearance of Luciente, an inhabitant of a progressive utopian civilisation from the future. The question of how real Luciente’s appearances, and Connie’s subsequent journeys into the future, is something that each reader has to decide for themselves. And although the futuristic hippy commune of Luciente’s society may grate a little with its mixture of hands-on-work, faith healing, shared property and free love, Piercy’s text stands out among the shelves of Utopian literature precisely because this is a utopia in progress, rather than the more traditional, fixed-state Utopia in which every problem has already been solved and everything’s just a little bit boring.
Unfortunately, Woman on the Edge of Time has itself been out of print for several years now, a fact not checked by my University professor until it was too late. I was only able to read it because there was a single, dog-eared copy in the University library. But I not only read the novel; I read it twice, and used it as the basis of my final essay for the module, focusing on the difference between fixed-state and progressive Utopias, and comparing it with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (both excellent books, which only just missed out on this list because they are more well-known than Piercy’s).
You can buy a secondhand copy of Woman On The Edge of Time on websites such as amazon.co.uk and ebay.com
The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman
Part Sleeping Beauty, part Snow White, part pure imagination, Gaiman sticks everything you know and love about fairytales into a blender, throws in a little extra magic and madness, mixes in some modern day issues and views, whizzes it round, and comes up with something truly amazing. Fairy-tales survive because, despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old, they are still relevant today. At the same time, they have to evolve and adapt. The Disnification of these stories is well-known, but few remember that the original stories collected by the likes of the Brothers Grimm included rape, murder, incest, violence. These were definitely not for children. With the aide of the extraordinary artist Chris Riddle, Gaiman has created a new *ahem* children’s story which once again breathes new life into existing narratives, revitalising these much-loved, if a little careworn, stories and giving us something both entirely new and beautifully familiar.
The brevity of the tale has been highlighted as a fault, but I would argue that it only adds to the magic of the story. Gaiman is, very explicitly, working in the same fairy-tale genre as the oral tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and the fables written by Hans Christian Anderson. Brevity is a key component of this kind of story. Gaiman could, if he wished, spun out the story further. He could have added more detail, extra characters, subplots, and so on. But would it have made the story any better? Maybe, but it would have lost the sense of fairy-tale magic that lies so close to its heart. Quality not quantity, kids.
And, of course, there has been some debate over that kiss. A single illustrated page has been called art and porn, an expression of equal rights and a statement of corrupting propaganda. For my part, I’ll just say this; the image illustrates an event in the story. It fits perfectly within the narrative. Without it, the story wouldn’t make sense. It’s not corrupting anyone, it’s not making any particularly bold statement, if you want to define it as art or porn (or both) that’s up to you, but banning it from you bookshop/ library will only encourage more people to read it. Actually, in that case, DO ban it. Everyone needs to read Gaiman’s work.
More information about Neil Gaiman’s work can be found at neilgaiman.com
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino
Graduating from University was brilliant, because it gave me the chance to read all the books that had piled up over the last three years. This was actually a recommendation by my personal tutor in my first year as a means of improving my essay writing. I bought a copy (they didn’t have any in the library free) read the relevant section, and then hung on to it. Six Memos is based on a series of lectures written by the Italian writer Italo Calvino, intended to be delivered at Harvard University. Unfortunately, Calvino died before leaving Italy, and before he finished composing final lecture (so there are, in fact, only five ‘memos’). The lectures focus on values which Calvino felt would be crucial for literature to survive, and thrive, in the 21st century. As such, the book provides valuable insights, and useful food for thought, for anyone who writer, be it in fiction, nonfiction, or academia. The memos are full of interesting tit bits and excerpts from other writers, many presented in their original Greek, Latin, Italian, French or Russian. Fortunately, translations are included, so you can look nice and intelligent while you skim through four of five different languages, then skip ahead to read the same passages in English. With topics including Lightness, Exactitude, and Visibility, this is an ideal text for experience writers looking to polish their craft. The book also serves as something of a road-sign, pointing to the work of some of the most experimental and skilled, if lesser-known, writers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Actually reading the memos in the new Millennium is slightly disconcerting. It’s easy to forget, as Calvino describes the changes in society wrought by globalization and the rise of technology, that he never lived to seen the advent of the personal computer or the mobile phone. The fact that these articles were written by a man before the age of the internet began makes his comments all the more fascinating and insightful. Here is a writer who seems to have predicted, with a startling level of accuracy, major changes to our relationship with information in the decades following his death.
A catalogue of Italo Calvnio’s work can be found at http://www.italo-calvino.com/
And that’s it. I’ve read some other amazing books, but these are the five that stood out at the end of the year. Did you read any of them? Do you agree with my assessment? What were the best books you read in 2014?