The year 2006, in books

I was going to start this post with "Another year, another list --- " --- but I already used that line last year. Damn.

If you haven't read my annual lists before and you're curious why I do it, read the first paragraph of the very first list in for the year 2003.

In terms of sheer quantity, this list beats last year's shabby tally of 19, but it's nowhere near 2004's record of 44. (How the hell did I do that? Oh yeah, by rereading a whole bunch of stuff.) This year's count would've been better if not for the total dearth of completing any books between August and November: consider that I finished 19 books by August and then nothing till the 4 I squeezed in before year's end.

In my own defence, August was also the start of my goodbusy period, during which commuting time that I used to spend reading was instead diverted to checking email on the go (correspondingly, my 3G cell phone bill went up). For instance, I definitely started on Spoken Here (#21 on the list) in August, but only finished it a couple of weeks ago.

But enough with the excuses. On to the list.

1. The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (January)

A university alumni pal recommended this after one of our lunch conversations wandered into the realm of "Do you believe in God?" The next time we met, I proudly told him, "You know that book you recommended? I read it and now I really don't believe in God anymore." His response: "Oh dear, I think I'm going to hell for that one."

As I was quick to reassure him, it's not so much that this book entirely transformed my religious worldview, as that it sharpened some of the doubts I already had about Christianity. And I'll admit it was somewhat unsettling as I worked my way through the book and towards the conclusion that God doesn't exist. It doesn't come easily, for someone like me who grew up going to church, to decide that there really is no God. It's a pretty hardcore decision, not merely like being disillusioned with the church while still tossing out the occasional desperate God-can-you-fix-this-please-please-pretty-pretty-please petition.

Anyway, so I don't believe there is a God/god and this book helped me to figure out why. Which may or may not make other people want to read it.

2. 50 Facts That Should Change The World, Jessica Williams (January)

One of those books that I probably wouldn't have bought if I wasn't trying to make up a combo for Borders' 3-for-the-price-of-2 deals. Well done, marketing strategists! Anyhow, it was a good read and elicited about as much middle-class liberal guilt as it was intended to, after which I, er, put it back on my bookshelf. I should pass the copy on to some General Paper student before its information becomes completely outdated.

3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (January)

Ah, Murakami --- always so strange, yet so satisfying.

4. The Lemon Table, Julian Barnes (January)

I don't usually buy hardcovers , but this one was available for a few bucks at some warehouse clearance book sale. I liked the heft it lent to a light (okay, I always refer to short story collections as "light", even though that doesn't do justice to them) and good read. I can only remember one short story offhand, but it was one of the more poignant ones so maybe that's the kind that sticks in my head.

5. Invitation To Treat, Eleanor Wong (January)

I've only seen the staging of the last play in this trilogy, so it was great to pick up the full set and see how the characters got there from the start (even though each play can be appreciated as a stand-alone piece). I can't think of a better way to say it, than to say that Wong writes with great craft yet humanity. To paraphrase what I said about Alan Hollinghurst a few years ago, she's a good writer of drama, not just a good writer of gay drama.

6. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (February) *
7. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman (February)
8. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman (February)

After years of procrastination (I read The Golden Compass when it was first released in 1995), I finally hijacked the National Library's copies of His Dark Materials trilogy and gave them the attention they deserved. And yes, now I'm fully aware of what I've been missing all these years. Cameron, as usual, writes about it much better than I could, so let me redirect you to her post (spoiler warning), which starts off assessing the audiobooks but also gets to the heart of the philosophical worldview Pullman's created.

9. Talking It Over, Julian Barnes (February)

Familiar characters, dancing a new dance (or maybe just a variation of the old one). The characters are older and bitter-er --- I like!

10. The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited, Francis Seow (March)

One of the first books I pulled off the shelf at work when I started work on the National Museum project --- but for leisure reading, of course. Francis Seow provides a not-too-pedantic survey of the Singapore press vs. the Singapore government from the post-World War 2 period, amidst the earliest stirrings of national independence. The book's replete with delicious quotations from Lee Kuan Yew, as uttered at different points of his political career (and of Singapore's relative press freedoms). It should be absolutely required reading for anyone who still thinks the current Singapore media isn't a mouthpiece of the Singapore government. The recounting of the 1971 Singapore Herald saga is reason enough to pick this up.

Now if only we could get an updated edition that assesses the impact (or lack thereof) of the 2000/2001 "opening up" of the local media with new TV stations (the uninspiringly named and short-lived TVWorks) and newspapers respectively, as well as the September 2004 merger of media companies that returned Singapore to, more or less, the status quo.

11. Life Is Not Complete Without Shopping, Chua Beng Huat (April)

Another one snuck off the office shelf. I have to say that the book's title is sexier than its contents. Yeah, it's fun to read about shopping and consumerism, but this isn't the most riveting account of why Singaporeans are absolutely obsessed with both. Nice bits about the elevation of ah beng/ah lian (sub)culture and local food, though.

12. Marry Me, John Updike (April)

In case you didn't know already, marriage is a very strange institution and good fiction writers have spun many an entertaining tale of it. A compact and compelling story of two couples. To say any more would spoil it all.

13. The Accidental, Ali Smith (April)

I might have bought this because it had a sticker saying that it'd won the 2005 Whitbread Novel of the Year award. Talk about unreliable narrators and dysfunctional families, and then some. How is it that writers make dysfunction so beautiful and so heartbreaking at the same time?

14. Oscar & Lucinda, Peter Carey (June)

I attempted to read this a couple of years ago and didn't get more than a quarter of the way through before I gave up, too impatient to wait for the parallel narratives of the eponymous characters to dovetail. This time around, the story engaged me more and the payoff was well worth it. What a peculiar story to weave in a historial setting, though.

15. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides (June)

After reading Middlesex, this seemed like an oddly light concoction: a bunch of boys, after a bunch of sisters, who then killed themselves. On the other hand, a creepy version of the venerable coming-of-age tale, perhaps?

16. Everyman, Philip Roth (June)

More death, reversed into life. Roth is good at writing about the angst of old(er) men, but I'm glad he kept this to a compact 200-plus page novel. It made the point far more effectively than some of his more belaboured treatises.

17. In the Miso Soup, Ryu Murakami (July)

The other Murakami and, based on my reading of this one book, the infinitely weirder one. I can't remember the name of the antagonist offhand, but just thinking about him creeps me out.

18. Memoirs of My Melancholic Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (July)

More memories of old(er) men. As with the Roth, it offers a taste of what the writer's done with his longer novels, here sharpened into focus.

19. Down Under, Bill Bryson (August) *

I read it every year (okay, except that I missed it last year), whenever I need a break from new reading and want to go back to something familiar and friendly. Just call it my Linus's blanket. If you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for? Nothing makes me want to revisit Australia like this book. Oh, and this ad.

20. Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson (November)

This is exactly the kind of pop culture book I hope to be able to write some day --- with a fluffy title that will make my father wonder why he ever bothered to send me to school, yet packed with insightful observations and accessible ways to understand a potentially bothersome topic. Also, for any gamers and TV-series DVD addicts out there who need to justify your respective obsessions to your loved ones, this is the book you should study, then give to them for Xmas.

21. Spoken Here, Mark Abley (December)

Okay, so if I'm not going to write a pop culture book, this is the other kind of thoroughly researched and absolutely engaging general non-fiction that I would like to be able to write. Mark Abley spends what I can only imagine must have been years and years, all told, with people who work to reclaim various endangered languages all around the world (not just the Third World with its "primitive" languages, as one might assume). But this book is more than about individual languages; it's also about how our ideas and our very understanding of the world we live in is shaped by what our language permits us to express. To a fairly monolingual speaker/thinker like myself, it's a startling reminder of how limited English --- or any one language, for that matter --- is, if that one language is all we know.

22. Media Unlimited, Todd Gitlin (December)

I can't remember how this book wound up on by "books to read" list, but I finally picked up a copy at Borders and got it done. It provided an interesting counterpoint Everything Bad Is Good For You, which deals largely with media content, while this book looked at the sheer volume of the media onslaught instead.

23. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (December)

I kept hearing David Sedaris's name mentioned, and then there were all these glowing blurbs on the front and back cover of this book --- but somehow it didn't quite do it for me. Yeah, it was entertaining, but it wasn't as addictive or wicked as I expected. So it was a bit of a flat note on which to end the year's reading.

And so in 2006, I managed to avoid J.M. Coetzee even though I've vowed to read him for at least two years now. There's something about the author that's intimidates me, though. The closest I've come is to buying one of his books for my cousin off her Amazon wishlist; even when I was at Kinokuniya for the 20% off sale on Tuesday, I sailed right by his shelf.

2007's off to a good start with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Then there's Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, Julian Barnes's Arthur and George, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close all waiting in the wings (courtesy of recent book sales). Further reading suggestions are, as always, welcome!


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At 1/05/2007 1:31 am , Blogger avalon said...

Do re-reads count or only new ones? How about those books I did not finish reading? :P

Darn I really cannot remember the entire list of what I have read in the year past. List 2007 I shall create now.

At 1/05/2007 5:38 am , Blogger strangemessages said...

Have you read Edith Wharton?

I think she's better than Jane Austen. Austen is overrated. (omg that sounded so scandalous!)

At 1/05/2007 6:51 am , Blogger Tym said...

avalon > Rereads count. I mark them with an asterisk.

strangemessages > Yeah, I went through Edith Wharton some years back. I love Ethan Frome and the Age of Innocence, less so The House of Mirth.

At 1/05/2007 11:07 pm , Blogger strangemessages said...

Really! I abandoned Age of Innocence halfway because it was too boring. I thought it was one of her lesser works, despite its colossal hype. Now, The House of Mirth was my favourite book of 2005. Hahaha. I'm reading The Sanctuary now, I <3 Edith.

At 1/06/2007 3:33 am , Blogger ragingyoghurt said...

hey! i just finished reading "oscar and lucinda" too, after giving up in the first few pages the first time... way back in the early 90s. i read it as a chronological follow-on to "the secret river" by kate grenville (which i'm recommending to you for this year), and also because i was so SO sucked into the "kelly gang" book a couple years ago. such a storyteller, that peter carey.

also, i think david sedaris is best read in small amounts, with some time in between each session; as he appears in "the new yorker" work well. otherwise it's probably like watching the "borat" movie.

say, would you like some chocolate from australia?

At 1/06/2007 3:57 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you want a book that will strengthen your atheist perspective, you must read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, an atheist manifesto if there is such a thing.

Also, Love Etc, a follow-up to Talking it Over is a good read as well.

At 1/07/2007 3:03 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the 'being disillusioned with church', you should try out New Creation Church at Suntec City. If you're going to give church-going just this ONE chance--this is the place to go.

At 1/07/2007 4:16 am , Blogger Tym said...

bowb > Yeah, I really enjoy Peter Carey and I suspected as much about David Sedaris being better in small doses. Chocolates! When are you back? Call (or email) me!

thom > Damn, I have read Love, Etc. but wrote down the wrong title (Talking It Over) in this list. Corrected! As for The God Delusion, I don't think I need further convincing plus I hear he belabours his point quite a bit ...

Anonymous > 2 things: I was disillusioned with the church, not merely with church. So going to another church isn't likely to address that. Secondly, see the paragraph following the "disillusioned with the church" --- I don't believe there is a god/God. So going to church (or any other place of religious worship) is moot.

At 1/08/2007 5:08 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't let 'churchianity' disillusion you. The 'God' that you've heard about from churchianity probably really doesn't exist. But it would be truly despairing if God doesn't exist for you at all..

in my 20 years of being a church-going Christian, i had never really got to know God until I went to NCC! I thought I knew all there is to know in christendom, I thought as you do that going to any one church wouldn't make any difference, but I went as a challenge and it made all the diff'ce. My hardened, rebellious teenager said that was the first pastor that really 'spoke' to her about God. Just don't give up on God because religion failed you... Keep searching. It's probably the one quest that will answer all questions in life.

At 1/08/2007 11:45 pm , Blogger Tym said...

Anonymous > Questions --- answered. Quest --- over. You find it despairing that I think god/God doesn't exist --- I don't. Let's agree to disagree and move on.

At 1/10/2007 7:59 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh... The House of Mirth... I really like that one but mainly because in darker hours, I feel not unlike Lily Barth. Nothing moping self-sympathy to get a book on your good list.

Other than that... a good list... funnily enough, I also read the Virgin Suicides for the first time this year. I thoroughly enjoyed it, the creepiness, the voyeurism, the violent incomprehensibility young girls inspire, and the plain not-knowing despite all the yum details. Plus, it was funny.


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