Saturday, February 28, 2015

Alrightreads: January & February

Last year, my friend/rival Oliver wrote a blog post about his failed attempt to read 100 books in a year that inspired me to try the same before pathetically failing myself.

This year he wrote about his more successful failed attempt that inspired me to try again and do it properly this time.

Maybe when I try again next year they'll even be proper, adult books with hardly any drawings at all.

Even my kind of thing isn't my kind of thing

In January last year, having been reminded that books are ace and with free time on my hands, I signed up to the Goodreads website, since that would usually come up when I was researching books anyway and I found its bookish atmosphere more appealing than Amazon's. I enjoyed having the facilities to rate and review books at my leisure, entirely for my own satisfaction and future reference rather than informing other people.

However, it didn't take long before my desire to succeed overtook the enjoyment and edification I was supposed to be getting out of it, and when I started blasting through appealingly slim graphic novels and 70-page large-print generously illustrated essays on the history of the devil in art to fill up on a few books per day, I killed my own enthusiasm. Plus, people started trying to talk to me and that's never a good thing, so I got out of there.

Without the incentive of a progress bar and a growing virtual bookshelf of 'Did Its,' my reading slumped in the rest of the year and I probably only got through 10 books or so. At least they were proper ones that time, though without a record I won't be able to remember all of them (Dracula; American Psycho; what was that Mexican thing?) or even what I really thought about them before long (excellent; disappointed I wasn't freaked out; he lived in a church or an old house or something?). This used to suffice for keeping track, but I don't even travel any more.

This time around, I've learned from my mistakes. If I want to motivate myself and keep meticulous records of my reads - and why on Earth wouldn't I? - I need to do it in a private abode where no one will ever know about my obsession and my inevitable shame when I fail to hit the over-ambitious target, apart from maybe Oliver when he's looking for mentions of himself and my parents checking I'm alive every few months.

Oh dear, it's March already. Better get cracking.

January 2015

1. Will Self, Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

1998 / Physical book / 256 pages / UK


I started this last year, so I'm cheating already, but I read the bulk of its tales in the run up to Hong Kong, as international guest house bookshelves are the only places I can dispose of books these days since the local used book shops don't take them. They'll sell partially scribbled colouring books shipped over from UK charity shops (this is what happens to your donations), but they don't want my sloppy seconds. I don't imagine I'll read many physical books this year.

Alright, I can see you're getting hung up on me reading some of it in 2014. I also re-read Julian Baggini's The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten over the new year, so that balances it out. I say so.

Oh, what was the book like? This is my website, I'll write what I feel like.

Faves: 'Flytopia'

Worsties: The drug dealing ones, tut tut.

2. Russell Brand, Revolution

2014 / Audiobook / 320 pages / UK


My introduction to this manifesto was some scathing newspaper review or other (I can't find it now - there are quite a lot) that explained in detail how the writer had most of his facts wrong. So I had to read it after that, and like my favourite nonsense merchant David Icke, Brand's at least passionate in his apparent incorrectness. To the extent that I may have passed on a dubious fact or two when they piqued my imagination. What do I know?

February 2015

3. Dan Simmons, Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction

2002 / Audiobook / 272 pages / USA


This is the third of Simmons' books I've read, and the only one that hasn't been great. Since his 'epic' Hyperion was basically six or seven completely different stories flimsily tied together like an Amicus horror film, I expected more from this collection of miscellany that doesn't even bother with the tenuous links.

Faves: 'Looking for Kelly Dahl'

Worsties: 'The End of Gravity'

4. Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time

2002 / E-book / 292 pages / UK


I'd dipped in and out of this memorial miscellany a couple of times over the years, but this is the first time I fully committed and saw how some of the most (seemingly) arbitrary entries on quantum physics and imperfectly brewed cups of tea take on special significance when the same thought processes make their way into Adams' tragically incomplete final novel. It's not only moving, but educational too - whether you become a lifelong devotee of Bach or Procol Harum.

Faves: Half a Dirk Gently novel.

Worsties: Impenetrable 1980s Mac musings.

5. Pitchfork Media, The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present

2008 / E-book / 208 pages / USA


This wasn't released as an interactive, play-along book, but you can easily turn it into one if you possess an impressively eclectic music collection (not that Pitchfork has the broadest scope) or just download the illegal torrent someone made collecting all 500 songs, which taught me a thing or two back in my data entry days. If you're not listening along, or don't have the requisite background knowledge, I don't imagine you'll get much out of the reviewers' imaginative interpretations of what various kids with guitars sound like. It's an insightful history of the evolution of specific genres over an arbitrary time period, but you'll still be annoyed at what they left out.

Faves: Gloomy 80s, but there's not enough of it.

Worsties: I don't want to say in case it sounds racist. But it's not music, is it? It's just aggressive talking.

6. Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium

1998 / Audiobook / 230 pages / UK


If you've ever read a novel set in medieval times (e.g. The Pillars of the Earth) and wished the author would spend more time exploring the humdrum lives of farmers and wretched peasants without getting distracted by exciting stuff like battles all the time, this book gives you the chance to immerse yourself in a 3D 1000AD based on information gleaned from tatty work calendars, wills and coprolites. If you listen to the audiobook in one go like I did, you might also get to enjoy hearing Derek Jacobi's warm tones narrate everything you read over the next few days.

7. Martin Bookspan, 101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers

1968 / E-book / 484 pages / USA


This wasn't as insightful as my previous listen-along experience. While the music may be timeless, Bookspan's analysis (mainly biographical and unhelpfully alphabetical) is a bit old-fashioned, which isn't really his fault considering he wrote it almost 50 years ago. He attempts a few imaginative descriptions when a particularly cacophonous passage reminds him of a battle, or when he reckons a trilling instrument signifies birds, but it's all very conservative - even if he's convinced he's being a maverick by leaving out the Edvard Grieg one you like because his slightly more obscure selection is more worthy. Each entry ends with detailed recommendations of the best LP and cassette recordings to track down, I may have skipped over these completely obsolete bits.

Faves: The Russians.

Worsties: Handel?

8. Stephen Fry, More Fool Me: A Memoir

2014 / Audiobook / 388 pages / UK


I had a couple of worthier tomes on the go, trying to get at least one certified classic in before the end of the month just to prove I could, but when I cracked open this less demanding audiobook it just sort of took over. I don't have a special interest in Stephen Fry beyond Blackadder and QI appreciation, but that hadn't stopped me listening to him narrate his two (!) previous autobiographies down the years, and like a sucker I was drawn in by the scandalous allure of his cocaine confessions. I can't say I got very much out of it, especially when it lazily reverts to verbatim diary entries in the last third. Those hours would have been better invested cracking on with Dickens or Homer, but evidently I'm just as shallow as you when it comes to celeb goss.

9. Homer, The Odyssey

750-650 BC / Audiobook / 560 pages / Greece


How's that for a classic then? Look, the date is in minus, for gods' sakes. I've been a fan of Greek mythology since being enthralled by Ray Harryhausen's Gorgons and fighting skeletons as a child, but I was only really familiar with this granddaddy epic courtesy of Symphony X's prog metal abbreviation (at 24 minutes it's not that abbreviated). The real thing was better than I could have imagined, and was enhanced a great deal by the enthusiastic oration of Sir Ian McKellan.

All the rip-roaring seafaring adventure is there as expected, but it's also bloody psychedelic and bizarrely 'modern,' even featuring female gods criticising Olympus' sexist double standards. Forget your Bible or preferred religious text - every home should have a Bumper Book of Greek Myths and Legends by law.

Maybe I'll try to read something archaic from a different culture every month? Sure, why not pile on the trying obligations?

10. Various, Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories

2014 / Audiobook/e-book / 480 pages / Mostly UK


So I'm shamefully falling back on a TV tie-in, but at least I didn't count these 12 collected 'e-shorts' (sounds fashionable) as 12 separate entries. It's not December yet.

I wouldn't normally expect much from Doctor Who books, but these were comparatively high profile ones, having been monthly 'event' releases through the anniversary year and attracting a few fairly big writers among the majority I've never heard of. So it was a bit disappointing that most of the tales were distinctly mediocre. Hopefully the last time this year that I'll spot the Puffin logo and feel embarrassed.

Faves: It's Neil Gaiman's one, obviously.

Worsties: Paul McGann's Doctor may only have that one lacklustre episode to his name, but it seems Alex Scarrow didn't even watch that.

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