The year 2005, in books

Another year, another list --- this one the most dismal yet. My excuse is that my daily schedule switched from having a 45-minute commute to/from work, to a 30-minute walk-bus-walk commute that wasn't as conducive to uninterrupted reading, particularly since I can't read on the bus without becoming violently ill.

Nevertheless, 19 books, down from 44 last year and 24 the year before, and I only completed the first book in May? That's pretty dismal. And I didn't get around to trying Coetzee, like I said I would, either. And a number of books were things I had to read for work, so.

At any rate, here's the rundown. An asterisk indicates a book that I'd read before.

1. The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst (May)
I've really enjoyed Hollinghurst since I picked up The Swimming Pool Library a few years ago, and this one took the Booker in a really strong Booker year too, so there's no excuse for why I took six months to read it. All I can say is that with the aforementioned change in my daily commuting schedule, it took me a while to settle down and find any regular reading time, and my enjoyment of The Line of Beauty suffered for it. I must've reread the first one-third of the novel at least three times before I worked up the momentum to finish it. I'll be the first to admit that I didn't understand all the political context, but with Hollinghurst, I never feel I have to because it's his characters that carry the story --- every last emotionally raw and compellingly flawed one of them.

2. Philosophy: The Basics, Nigel Warburton (June)
Something I had to read for work, but Warburton is so eminently readable that I finished it in five hours. An excellent introduction to general philosophy. I should get a copy for our home library.

3. Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes (June)
I dimly recall that this book was on the recommended reading list my English teacher gave us on the first day of school in junior college. I've read (and enjoyed) other Barneses and was happy to pick this up for a few bucks at one of those massive book sales they have at the Singapore Expo. Unreliable narrator, ahoy!

4. An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Jonathan Wolff (June)
Another one for work, and another good introductory-type book. Wolff is the first guy who's helped me make sense of how Hobbes, Locke and Mill stand in relation to each other --- though if you asked me now, I'd have to go back and reread those chapters just to be absolutely sure. (Some things refuse to stay in my head, like the number of 'r's in "harassment" and the different broad trends in European thought.)

5. The Theory of Knowledge, Peter Cole (June)
Also for work. A cut-and-dried guide to philosophy for the AS Level in the UK. Blah blah, blah blah.

6. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (June) *
Realising that the movie adaptation would be out within the year, I hastily reread this for the first time since I was a teenager, and was brought up short by how straightforward and short it was. Aslan doesn't really do anything in the book, does he?

7. The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law (June)
Yeah, yeah, another one for work. Everyday situations and issues to puzzle over from a philosophical perspective. Entertaining, but honestly, I lack the true discipline required to do this, on my own, all the time.

8. Inventing Herself, Elaine Showalter (July)
A survey of feminist figures of the past century or so. Very educational. In addition to art history, I clearly should've dabbled in some women's studies in college.

9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (August)
Don't even get me started on what a weak book this was.

10. Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, Daniel Harris (August)
Ever wondered why we buy what we buy? A really engaging examination of not only marketing tactics, but also how certain broad social assumptions about cuteness, quaintness, hunger and romance basically screw up our ability to enjoy or appreciate anything. If nothing else, it made me think twice about what toys I ever buy for any children that we might hypothetically have.

11. Kafka by the Shore, Haruki Murakami (August)
The first Murakami I've read, and a really beautiful novel. I'm quite enchanted by the real/surreal, and of course, the cats.

12. Eucalyptus, Murray Bail (September)
A gem of a novel, which Stellou sent me from Sydney. More of the real/surreal, and I never thought I'd be so taken in by a wealth of information about eucalyptus trees.

13. Postmodernism : A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Butler (October)
I read this for work, but also because I thought I was at a stage in my life when I ought to have an inkling of what postmodernism is. Interestingly, the author isn't shy about highlighting what he perceives are the limitations of postmodernism, so it reads as both an introduction and a critique.

14. Postmodern Singapore, William S W Lin (November)
I quite naturally went on to read this, after the previous book. A look at how postmodernism is manifested in Singapore's architecture, literature, social attitudes and so on. The more I think about it, the less "real" anything is in Singapore.

15. Aloft, Chang-Rae Lee (December)
Redemption, at last! Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, is one of my favourite books, but I thought his second, A Gesture Life, was a huge melodramatic debacle. With Aloft, he's back in top form. On the other hand, I freely confess that I have a weakness for these paeans to the unreliable narrator/middleaged patriarch in crisis/dysfunctional family with estranged intergenerational ties.

16. Kiss and Tell, Alain de Botton (December)
Another of those unreliable-narrator novels, except that the character the narrator's writing about proves to be more interesting than him. I just wish the publisher hadn't given it a dreadful fuschia cover that, together with the title, made it look more chick lit than literary exploration of the biography. Yeah, yeah, so I'm a book snob...

17. Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story, Tony & Maureen Wheeler (December)
An Xmas gift from G-man, which I read lickety-split in two days. If you can't tell from the book title, it's a recounting of how the Lonely Planet guidebooks and the ensuing media empire came to be. It turned out to be less interesting than I expected --- some chapters pretty much read, " ... and then in December, I travelled to countries A, B and C, finishing up a review of the ABC guidebook, before moving on to countries D, E and F over the following six months, despite a delay due to visa blahblahblah ... ". Nevertheless, the overall narrative was strangely engrossing, as evinced by the fact that I had no trouble finishing the book that quickly.

And it made me think twice about travelling with children: while my parents have always had what seemed to be a sensible philosophy of not taking us kids anywhere fancy travel-wise till we hit our teens, because we wouldn't remember or appreciate anything if we were too young, the Wheelers traipsed all over Southeast Asia with their kids when the latter weren't even old enough for school yet. Maybe it's not so much if you take kids someplace as what you do with them when you get there?

18. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R. Tolkien (December) *
Because watching the movies back-to-back made me want to reread the trilogy. It's only the second time I'm reading this book, and the first time since I've been ODing on the movies, so there were plenty of moments when I was like, "A-ha, another point where the film diverges from the novel."

19. The Plot Against America, Philip Roth (December)
I'm a big fan of Roth, despite the "manliness" of his books, and I could see where he was going with this exploration of alternative history --- what if Charles Lindbergh, with his Nazi sympathies, defeated FDR in a presidential election. But as the novel wore on and the plot began to turn on the fictitious Lindbergh administration's accumulated anti-Semitic measures, I couldn't help but wonder why any author needed to bother imagining this alternative history, when reality offers up the FDR's administration's equally racist and intolerable policies against Japanese-Americans (see John Okada's No-No Boy and Joy Kogawa's Obasan for fictional responses to these events). Unlike the Jewish community described in Roth's novel, Japanese-American and -Canadian communities were in fact completely disenfranchised, forcibly removed from homes and jobs, and haplessly scattered across the country to which they had sworn allegiance and been promised citizen's rights. It seems a little disingenuous for Roth to paint a what-if situation, when the reality for another minority group was much, much worse. It doesn't stop me from enjoying how his characters responded in the world of his imagined history, but I wish he'd written a different book for them in the first place.

So that's the list for 2005. Obviously, I best remember the ones I just read, and even though it was nice to improve my mind with all the books I read for work, I feel pretty meh towards those. Also, I did most of my reading during the long school vacations in June and December.

This year, I will get around to some Coetzee, dammit, and finish all the books I bought in 2005 that I haven't read, before I allow myself to buy any new ones. Nevertheless, suggestions for what to read are always welcome in the comments!


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At 1/01/2006 11:20 am , Blogger cole. said...

whoa! 19 book reviews in one sitting?
maybe i should count the number of books i read...

At 1/01/2006 1:46 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

Roth could have read Obasan, by Joy Kogawa, for your Japanese-Canadian ghetto experience.

Funny, I didn't know you read all those summaries on philosophy. The only book in common on this list is the Potter book... speaking of which, I couldn't agree with you more on the film. What a waste of time that Goblet of Crap..

Happy 2006. You should try reading short stories, like I do, to cure yourself of any novel-guilt.

At 1/01/2006 1:47 pm , Blogger limegreenspyda said...

wow! impressive!

off the cuff, i can only remember reading, cover to cover, an alain de botton book (of which i've already forgotten the title), harry potter and the HBP, and re-read alice in wonderland for the third time!

and the rest of my reading endeavours lie in the dust with a host of half-read books, more for research purposes than leisure, sadly.

here's to a year of good reads ahead!

At 1/01/2006 11:25 pm , Blogger Sheena said...

woah, there's many reads more than i do, excluding the chick flicks!

cheers to more good reads in 2006!

At 1/02/2006 2:10 am , Blogger The Screwy Skeptic said...

I'm absolutely in love with your reading list - the PoMo, the fantasy, all that good stuff, but I'm probably biased, being a philosophy major and all.

I just finished a few by Nietzsche which were excellent (Beyond Good and Evil was standard but The Gay Science is definitely recommended), and if you're into philo-intros/broad skimmers, check out Sophie's World. It has an intertwining fictional story in addition to the history of philosophy.

P.S. I'm linking to, if you don't mind.

At 1/02/2006 9:42 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good list.

'cept for the Harry Potter ones.

PS: How in the world do you squeeze in time to finish them books? I could do that easily when I was back in uni but once I started to work ...

At 1/02/2006 11:05 am , Blogger Tym said...

tinkertailor > I wouldn't really call my blurbs book reviews...

Nardac > I get that, about Roth, but I don't quite get why he needed to go to such imaginative extents for his book. Anyways. Yes, must read more short stories. I just prefer the meat of the novel --- with good short stories, I feel like I'm brought up short just as I was getting into it.

The Screwy Skeptic > I've never read Nietzsche, but hey, 2006 might be a good year to start.

Chandler > See the first paragraph about how much I used to read during the commute to/from work. Of late I also find myself sick of the internet and the TV, and choosing to curl up with a book instead. A good read is worth making the time for.

At 1/02/2006 11:55 am , Blogger ejl said...

i put off reading 'a line of beauty' for ages because i thought it'd be just another one of them award books that aren't that great really, but i took it out of the library and finished it in 2 days. it's so funnily tragic.

'the plot against america' is boring. and a waste of my money. it now sits at the bottom of my bookshelf, and has been designated for the rare position of giving/selling away.

murakami is wonderful! i read 'kafka on the shore' a couple of months ago, and have just finished 'the wind-up bird chronicle'. i will be going through his section in the library slowly but surely.

At 1/02/2006 5:32 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

to tell you the truth, I put away the book after the first twenty pages. It didn't grab me at all.

I don't think one reads short stories for the same reason one reads a novel. A short story, a good one, should never leave you feeling short. It's like a perfect snapshot vs. a long film. They are different.

I was at the FNAC the other day, and I picked out a Raymond Carver collection. I went to the counter, ordered a chai latte and read the story while drinking my latte. It was perfect. Story over. Latte over. And one very interesting story to mull over for the rest of the day.

The last book I read this year might have been 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

At 1/03/2006 3:08 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm ... You're right. My reading opportunities have been cut significantly ever since I started driving as well.

I've always prefered a book to the Net. Primarily because I don't last very long in front of the PC screen. :)

At 1/05/2006 12:13 am , Blogger The Screwy Skeptic said...

oh oh i have one more recommendation!

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy, if you're interested in women's studies and pop culture. It's an easy read and really did a number on me.

ok i'll stop harassing your book list now.

At 1/05/2006 4:02 am , Blogger Tym said...

ejl > The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is my pile of books-to-read-in-2006, yup.

Nardac > I don't think I've ever read an unabridged Jules Verne novel. ANd yes, will give short stories another try...

Chandler > Some people read as they drive...

The Screwy Skeptic > Yes, I've got that in my books-to-buy-and-read list. Have you seen it in local bookstores?

At 3/21/2006 3:23 am , Blogger Tym said...

I haven't been able to find Levy's book at local bookstores. Will probably order it from Amazon or something, the next time I put together a package. It's aggravating that a lot of these books aren't readily available here, while there are a horrifying number Dan Browns and Chicken Soups.

Btw, the Levy book is in the National Library Board Catalogue --- but as of today, it's "not available for loan yet". I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up in the Reference section, like many other good books I want to read.


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