Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Best Books of 2012 Part 3


I was given a Kindle for my birthday in 2012 and as a result I keep an eye out for books that are super cheap that Amazon occasionally decrease significantly, seemingly at random, so they end up costing around 20p. “An Idiot Abroad” is one such book but I have read Karl’s other books  in the past and enjoyed them enormously.

Karl Pilkington is a Mancunian former radio producer who worked on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s XFM radio show in 2001/02 and Ricky got so taken with him and his appearance, coupled with his somewhat uneducated, somewhat simplistic, almost childlike worldview, that he became part of his close circle of friends. Since the radio show ended, Karl has become the focus of a series of podcasts which have been incredibly successful, and launched his career in front of the camera with cameos in Ricky’s projects and a TV show for Sky, “An Idiot Abroad”.

The comedy stems from the fact that Karl doesn’t enjoy leaving his comfort zone, that is, his flat in London. Sending him into the big wide world and some truly astonishing locations, far from the food and routines he’s used to, make for some pretty enjoyable television, and the accompanying book is also very funny too. It’s easy to read, includes some excellent jokes, and readers will fall for this grouchy everyman as he grumbles his way across the globe.



“It's been a few years since I checked in with Karl. I used to love the Ricky Gervais show on XFM and even the podcasts/audiobooks that followed have been good (but not as good as the radio shows) and I loved the subsequent books "Happyslapped by a jellyfish" and "Karlology" and would recommend anyone who enjoyed "An Idiot Abroad" to check those out. So it was interesting to check back in with Karl after a break of years to see what he's been up to. Thankfully, he hasn't changed. At all.

The moaning Manc is still talking about his various body parts as if they're individual to him: "me legs get tired before the rest of me body does" and "me brain was stressing me out - it knows I don't like it so why does it do that?". And of course he's still being picked on by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, this time from afar, as they send him into the world to see the Seven Wonders and throw obstacles in his path. When he goes to Israel he's kidnapped and held captive except Karl doesn't know it's not for real, it's training. When he goes to China he's made to fight trained Shaolin experts and when he visits Mexico he's put in the ring with other Lucha Libre wrestlers. And of course wherever he goes he's challenged to eat the local delicacies involving animal parts like eyes, brains, as well as various bugs.

Karl handles it as best he can but as a reader you're always rooting for him, he's just too likeable. His no-nonsense approach to life coupled with his strange outlook and way of seeing the world are what has made him so famous, and if you're a fan (a KP nut) of his previous books and recordings, you'll enjoy seeing Karl deal with these odd situations and places in his own unique way. "An Idiot Abroad" is a great read and had me laughing throughout, the only thing missing was Monkey News. Karl really is a national treasure and should be titled the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington

*

Nick Hornby wrote a column in “The Believer” magazine from McSweeney’s called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” which was a monthly column that talked solely about books he’d been reading. He also included, at the start, two columns: “Books I’ve Read” and “Books I’ve Bought”, ingeniously showing what every bibliophile already knew, that they bought far more than they read. Hornby’s first book of collected columns was fantastically entertaining, especially as reading reviews (and writing them!) is something I enjoy and reading reviews by famous writers? That’s the jackpot, for me anyway. Also I discovered a number of excellent books from his recommendations. Which is why the second book, “Shakespeare Wrote For Money”, disappointed me so much as it felt like Hornby had tired of the format and begun to lose interest in writing the column. His picks were dull, his reviews unfunny, and it was no surprise when he packed up the column.

For a year and a half anyway, and it turns out the break did him good because “More Baths, Less Talking” came out this year and it was gravy. Full of the kind of energy and wit that has made Hornby such a popular writer, this collection reminded me why I’d enjoyed this column so much the first time around. For people who enjoy reading about people reading – yes I know it’s weird – this is a must-read.



“I was surprised to hear Nick Hornby had another book of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns as he said the previous one, "Shakespeare Wrote for Money", would be the last of them (not a bad decision as I felt it was tired and unenthusiastic). More surprising was that when I decided to buy it, I really enjoyed reading it. It's like running into an old friend after a few years apart and it turns out you both have a lot to talk about - or in this case, one person has a lot to say and the other wants to read it.

After a nearly 1 and a half year break, the book picks up the first column in May 2010 to the last in December 2011. Hornby's humour is as sharp and effervescent as ever but more importantly his enthusiasm for reading and the books he's read is infectious. I think what made me like the book more was that this time around he picked books that weren't necessarily well known in the mainstream and consequently I wound up picking up some excellent titles from the columns, one of which I'm two thirds of the way through and enjoying the heck out of - "The Driver's Seat" by Muriel Spark.

Recommendations like "Book of Days" by Emily Fox Gordon, "Whoops!" by John Lanchester, and "Charles Dickens" by Claire Tomalin, are all books I wouldn't have heard of without him (maybe not the Tomalin) nor would I have felt the urgent need to read them. It's also enjoyable to read Hornby's reviews of books I've already read. Books like "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker, "The Psychopath Test" by Jon Ronson, and "Huckleberry Finn" are all reviewed well (except "Finn" which is just one word - "meh". The Believer, which publishes these columns, doesn't believe in negative reviews so Hornby has to keep the pages bile-free).

One of my favourite things to do after reading a book I liked/disliked is to go online and read what others felt about it. Sometimes it's cathartic if I hated it and sometimes I learn something about it I missed when reading it; but reading others' reviews is always enjoyable and when it's someone famous for their writing doing it, so much the better.

Hornby's ingenious format of putting two lists at the start of the column "Books I've Bought" and "Books I've Read" is still fascinating to look at from the perspective of someone who loves books as much as Hornby and buys far more than he reads.

Well, I'm glad he's back doing it. This is a fantastic read which I flew through in two sittings writing down titles to pick up and laughing at Hornby's assessments of some books as well as digs at his publishers, and I really had a great time with this book. For bibliophiles everywhere, this is a must-have.”

More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself

*

Christopher Hitchens’ final book is a collection of brief essays he wrote while dying from throat cancer. “Mortality” contains some excellent essays and some lesser ones, but it’s remarkable that he was able to write at all when taking into account his condition. His strength to keep going every day, doing as much as he was able that he had done in all the years past, is nothing short of admirable and his integrity in remaining his own person, meeting death with dignity, shows the enormous will of the man. It is a brief but sobering book but well worth your time.



“Most of us have had contact with cancer in our lives - we've either experienced it firsthand or know (or known) a family member or friend who has had it - and in each instance it's been horrible, an experience unlikely to provide you with much and likely to take a lot from you, if not everything. But most of us aren't Christopher Hitchens - if fact none of us are, and that's why we know who was. He was a unique voice whose essays, columns, articles, and books made the person reading them much more enriched having read them.

"Mortality" is his last book (though I'm sure further anthologies of unpublished material will appear in the years ahead) detailing his fatal encounter with esophageal cancer, from discovering it while on a book tour promoting his memoir "Hitch 22", to the final pages which are scraps of notes for future (and now forever unwritten) writings.

But it's not a sad book. Hitchens was ruthless in his approach to subjects and he is no less so when dealing with himself and "the alien" (which is how he characterises his cancer) - no sentimentality or feeling sorry for himself is allowed on the page.

He is informative, funny, and stubborn all at once when writing on the reaction among religious groups when news of his cancer was reported with some Christians instigating a "Pray for Hitch" day - a day he encourages everyone to ignore. He also reinforces his atheist position, almost aggressively, writing "What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating." As if he wanted to die to once more further his argument that there is no God! If this book shows anything it is that death and the prospect of death does not change the person, and that Hitchens remained dignified and his own person right to the end.

There are essays on coping with the cancer treatment which is almost as bad as the cancer, and a fantastic piece on Nietzsche and the etymology of the phrase "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger". The book is full of rich writing displaying a luminous and inquisitive mind, questioning death, the mundanity of illness, and moving from issues of existence to anecdotes of past columns such as the time he underwent waterboarding to experience how bad a torture it is (very bad as it turns out, traumatising in fact).

Also included is a foreword by Hitchen's editor at Vanity Fair Graydon Carter and a moving afterword by his wife Carol Blue. Our culture lost a brilliant mind on December 15, 2011, and "Mortality" is a fine coda to a man who lived life fearlessly and wrote some of the best reportage of the last 50 years. Christopher Hitchens remains an essential writer to read.”

Mortality

*

This book came out last year but I only got around to reading it this year. Grant Morrison, comics writer extraordinaire, writes down all he knows about superhero comics, their history, and throws in a kind of potted autobiography as well. Morrison is an amazing writer with a 30 year career in the field and an enviable list of titles under his belt, notably “All Star Superman”, “WE3”, and his current work on Batman. His writing in this book is lively, chatty, enjoyable, and informative. For a comics fan like myself, it is an excellent book to read when you want something more substantial than graphic novels to sink your reading teeth (?!) into.



 “One of the most interesting and best comics writers, Grant Morrison, has produced a chronicle of comics from their inception in the late 30s to the present day, along the way talking about superheroes and their effect on our culture as well as providing a look into his own turbulent life from quiet teen to superstar writer. "Supergods" is throughout a fascinating look at this wondrous creation, the superhero.

For me, a huge fan of comics and superhero comics, the book was great fun to look at the inauspicious beginnings of the genre, the creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel and Bob Kane and the oft forgotten Bill Finger, through its various incarnations through the years. Morrison goes through the book chronologically and devotes the first chapter to an extensive look at the front covers of "Action Comics #1" and "Detective Comics #27", the first appearances of Superman and Batman respectively, setting the tone of the book as an in-depth look at Morrison's two favourite characters in comics.

He divides the evolution of comics into different "ages" from the Golden Age, Silver Age, Dark Age, and Renaissance Age (which we're currently in), and I won't go into detail as to every age but suffice it to say for those who believe Morrison wasn't detailed enough, I found him more than adequately explaining the relevant heroes and writers of the time in the context of the era and its effect down the line on future writers, innovators and characters.

Morrison could quite easily have written a memoir of his own life in this book but chooses to occasionally throw in tidbits of his autobiography amidst the intricate pontificating upon superheroes. We find out about his modest childhood and his journey into comics through endless writing and drawing and sheer persistence before landing a job with 2000AD and from there to DC's "Animal Man". There are some gossipy bits thrown in like an anecdote of Glenn Fabry biting Karen Berger's ass during a party welcoming the British Invasion of writers and artists to America, as well as a glimpse into why Morrison's relationship with Marvel soured following the dissolution of "New X-Men" (it also might explain why Marvel didn't allow Morrison to use any of the covers of their comics for reproduction in this book, unlike DC who did) though Morrison's breakup with protégé Mark Millar is ignored (unlike in the documentary about Morrison "Talking with Gods" where he says if he was in a car and saw Millar on the street, he'd change course and accelerate).

Then there's the vast wealth of information scattered throughout the text like a shotgun that fires genius like buckshot onto the blank page. Morrison stayed up writing for 50 hours straight before ransacking his teenage dream diaries to get into the mindset and create the nightmarish imagery to write "Arkham Asylum", a book he wrote in 1 month. He gave to Neil Gaiman a book with a story called "The New Mother" by Lucy Lane Clifford that set him onto the path of creating "Coraline". Jim Lee is a Princeton Physics graduate. He also provides an explanation for Warren Ellis' series "Planetary" which I'd read recently, baffled - it's an abstract reckoning between "good" imagination and "bad" imagination. He also explains the even more baffling "Final Crisis" book he wrote a few years ago - it was a story of a bad story devouring a good one. Who knew?

One of the best chapters in the book is "Hollywood Smells Blood" which goes into great detail about Batman's on-screen adaptations which for me began with the Adam West TV show but Morrison goes back to 1943 when Batman had his own TV serial. This part of the book was utter hilarity and showed Morrison's strengths as a comedic writer in the description of these early serials. One of my favourite passages describing Robert Lowery's Batman of 1943: "This wrinkled costume he wore would be unable to stop a lit cigarette let alone a slug from a .45. With his pitiful fighting skills, which relied on clumsy haymaker punches and off-balance lunges, Lowery's Batman could expect a crime-fighting life span of three weeks, with a career ending abruptly the moment any half-trained yellow belt tae kwon do novice punched him in the head." (p.333)

And his teardown of Joel Schumacher's Batman films is equally hilarious.

Morrison occasionally lost me such as when he described in painstaking detail his journey to Alpha Centauri where he saw beings of another dimension and spoke with what we call Gods. He really does believe this happened and I totally respect him for it, but I feel the story loses some of its impact when he begins it by telling you he swallowed a ton of hash before the aliens stepped from the walls. Some might also criticise his views on comics such as his excellent interpretation of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" which he does not hold in the same high regard as many of his peers do - he felt it was too self-referential and knowing.

As long as this review's been, I haven't tapped the surface of the content of this book. I'll just say that any comics fan would love this book as it's written by one comics fan for others. It's full of knowledge and views on comics that are well worth reading, it feels like you're eavesdropping on the most interesting conversationalist you'll ever meet. And his writing style too is of such shockingly high quality, you'll be astonished of his vocabulary and descriptive abilities.

I was glad also to know that my favourite of Morrison's books - "All Star Superman" - is also his favourite and his anecdote of meeting the real-life Superman is also included here. He finishes the book with a powerfully inspiring message of hope and optimism that I dare anyone to feel cynical about, it's so purely expressed and beautiful. So I'll end it here, urging you the reader to pick up this book and see the superhero through Grant Morrison's eyes.

In Morrison's own words that end this book "There's only one way to find out what happens next..."”

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

*

That’s it for my favourite non-comic books of 2012. They’re all fantastic reads and I hope I helped inform you make some interesting picks. Next blog post, and future blogs, will turn back to comics and pop culture in general. Meanwhile, pleasant reading!

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