This blog goes a bit off topic and takes a breather from all the politics. Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed the habit of keeping note of each book I’ve read. For no special reason, really, other than I like to look back and appreciate anew what’s kept me inspired, entertained and engrossed (or otherwise) over the past year. So rather than write a review of top political events in 2016 (where to even start?), I’m rounding off the year by sharing the list of my 2016 reads. There’s nothing research related or political here, just what I’ve been reading for pleasure. I’ve also added a few thoughts on three books I’ve particularly enjoyed this year.
the reading list
Bill Bryson: The Road To Little Dribbling; The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid; Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent; Charles Cumming: A Foreign Country; A Colder War; A Divided Spy; Stuart David: In The All-night Café; Slavenka Drakulić: Two Underdogs And A Cat; Howard Jacobson: Shylock Is My Name; Coming From Behind; Joseph Kanon: The Good German; Philip Kerr: The Other Side Of Silence; Volker Kutscher: Lunapark; Adam Lebor: The Geneva Option; The Washington Stratagem; John Le Carré: The Night Manager; Haruki Murakami: Hear The Wind Sing; Pinball 1973; Amos Oz: Unter Freunden; Panther Im Kellar; Bernhard Schlink: Die Frau Auf Der Treppe; Jason Solomons: Woody Allen Film By Film; Volker Weidermann: Ostende 1936, Sommer Der Freundschaft; Irvin D. Yalom: Creatures Of A Day.
You might notice that quite a few spy/crime thrillers have made it onto the list. Also, even though I try to read as much as possible in German, I managed only five German titles this year. But then again, these are the books I relax with, curled up on the sofa on a Sunday morning (often before the birds have woken), on journeys and in bed, for those last few heavy-lidded minutes before sleep. Which explains (and, I think, excuses) the lack of anything especially highbrow.
reading highlights 2016
Shylock is my Name (Howard Jacobson, 2016). This is my book of the year. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is recast in contemporary north-west England, in a world (or even a ‘wilderness’) of frivolous and duplicitous footballers and TV presenters. There are several recognisable echoes of the original story (Plurabelle, Jacobson’s Portia character, has her suitors choose between makes of car, while the ‘pound of flesh’ is reinvented as a circumcision). But what makes this so much more than a straightforward retelling is that Strulovitch, a melancholy art collector shaken and betrayed by his daughter’s disrespectful and wayward behaviour, comes face to face with Shakespeare’s Shylock himself. The two build a prickly yet profound relationship in which they reflect on the meaning of Jewishness, non-Jewishness, honour and anti-semitism. And Shylock is at last shown to be the true upholder of dignity and virtue.
Like many of the books I’ve read this year, Shylock Is My Name was featured at Jewish Book Week 2016. Howard Jacobson reads from and discusses the book in this video of the JBW session.
Unter Freunden (Amos Oz, 2012). This collection of short, interconnected stories (English title ‘Between Friends’) gives us a glimpse into life on a 1950s kibbutz. But the stories also tell of friendships and relationships being forged, betrayed and broken and, this being a kibbutz, the constant tension between individual interests and the greater good. In one particularly harrowing story the bullying of a small child in the dormitory threatens to undermine the father’s faith in the kibbutz and, in turn, his relationship with his wife. These simple, poignant tales of ideals, desires and fears, as well as the knocks and kindness of everyday life, leave a lasting impression that keep you thinking about the characters in this book long afterwards.
Lunapark (Volker Kutscher, 2016). The sixth in a series of meticulously researched historical crime thrillers set in 1930s Berlin. Detective Superintendant Gereon Rath, the protagonist of the series, is intelligent, manipulative and ruthlessly self-serving. In this book, the past seems to be catching up with him. His Nazi colleagues are frustrating the murder investigation for ideological reasons, while the involvement of gangsters in the same case threatens to reveal past misdemeanours he’s desperate to conceal. He does love his wife, Charly (every bit as intelligent, but with far more integrity), but frequently lies to her in order to hide the mess he’s created and, most importantly for him, to save his own skin. I know I wouldn’t like Rath one bit in real life. But even though the protagonist in this series so egotistical, arrogant and devious, the web of deceit surrounding his personal life is just as compelling as the convoluted murder cases he must solve (the two are inevitably entangled) — thanks to the strength of Kutcher’s character development and storytelling. Incidentally, the first book in the series, Der Nasse Fisch, has been translated into English (Babylon Berlin). I haven’t read the English version, so can’t vouch for the translation (and sadly, a bad translation can completely kill a great book), but based on the original version and indeed all the books in the Gereon Rath series, it’s well worth checking out.
and in the ‘to read’ pile…
I can’t stand being without a book. But happily the ‘to read’ pile is already shaping up nicely: Simon Sebag Montefiore: The Romanovs; John Le Carré: The Pigeon Tunnel; Thomas Harding: The House By The Lake; Adam Lebor: The Reykjavik Assignment; A.B. Yehoshua: The Extra. So it looks like the new year will begin with my nose in some very good books.