Thursday, 17 December 2015

Books of the Year

In which I run through the novels I've read this year, and what inspired me to read them.

Notes from Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Continuing the Russian theme from the end of last year, I read these two short novels, the latter of which can be seen as an early sketch for his much later masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

The Return of the Native, The Well-Beloved and A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Continuing my Thomas Hardy binge from last summer, I read one of his major and two of his minor novels.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I read this novella, set in a dystopian Manhattan of the near future, after seeing the film version, which I didn't think really worked. The book is much better, as you'd expect from a writer of DeLillo's skill.

Metroland by Julian Barnes

I picked this up after reading a piece about it in The Guardian. It's a semi-autobiographical account of a young man growing up in the London suburbs in the fifties and spending time as a student in Paris in the late sixties before moving back to the Metroland of the title.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This classic of mid-twentieth century teenage alienation had been on my bookshelf for a few years so I thought it was about time I read it.

Brighton Rock, A Gun for Sale and England Made Me by Graham Greene

Greene called these gangster thrillers "entertainments" but they nevertheless contain many of the moral and religious themes of his later novels.

Nemesis and The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I saw a review of Nemesis when it was published in 2010 but only got round to reading it this year. It's basically a reworking of La Peste by Albert Camus, relocated to mid-forties Newark, New Jersey. I read The Human Stain after seeing the film version with Anthony Hopkins. Its tale of a black man "passing" as white has echoes of one of this year's strangest news stories, that of Rachel Dolezal attempting the reverse.

The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

Like her better-known The Group, this, her debut novel, is another semi-autobiographical account set in New York in the thirties of a young women encountering its intellectual, political and literary milieu.

The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

I love sequels, or prequels, to other writers' works (Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is one of my favourite novels) so I was attracted to this reworking of L'Etranger by Albert Camus, seen from the viewpoint of the victim rather than perpetrator of the murder on the beach.

Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn

I find the period between the wars in Britain, described and explored by some of my favourite writers such as Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton, fascinating. This murder mystery is a pretty convincing depiction of it.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, written before it but only published this year, which I blogged about here.

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri

Another reworking of a famous novel, this time transposing Joyce's early twentieth century Dublin to mid-eighties London and replacing Ulyssses' Stephen Dedalus with an Indian student of English Literature.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea

This novel about the relationship between Mancunian-Irish sisters and mill operatives Mary and Lizzie Burns and the factory owner and Marx's collaborator Friedrich Engels ticked quite a few boxes of things I'm interested in: left-wing politics, history, Germany, working-class feminism, and Manchester and Salford.

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

This had long been on my "must read" list and, like Forever Flowing by Vassily Grossman and The Case of Comrade Tulayev which I had read before, is about Stalin's Great Purge of the late thirties.

List of the Lost by Morrissey

Not quite as bad as the reviews suggest but could still have done with an editor chopping the text and Morrissey's long rants about his favourite subjects (vindictive judges, veganism, sadistic teachers).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Dickens' first novel isn't much regarded by critics but I enjoyed this rambling tale of a group of gentlemen getting into scrapes as they travel around 1830's England.

Monday, 14 December 2015

My favourite Alt

I spent a few days in the Rhineland last week, going round pubs, Christmas markets and cathedrals in Düsseldorf and Cologne, which I've made half a dozen or so trips to in the past decade. I also went to Aachen for the first time.

I kicked off at Brauerei Schumacher on Ostrasse, partly because it's only a short walk from Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof, but also because it's got a special place in my beer memories: in 2009, it was the first pub in which I drank Altbier.

When I last went to Düsseldorf a couple of years ago, I wrote that Uerige Alt was "fast approaching Füchschen as my favourite Alt". I reckon it's now finally made it to top spot: it seems far darker, heavier and hoppier than when I first drank it six years ago.

Zum Uerige is easily my favourite pub in Düsseldorf. The first time I went, it was summer and I sat at the tables opposite, drinking Alt and eating sausages from the pub's own butchery under the shade of a canopy, but the real magic is inside the pub itself. I love wandering along its narrow corridors discovering different rooms, each with their own distinct atmosphere, from the long-tabled Neweaan dining room to the large, standing Brauhof at the back. My favourite though is Der Uerige, the taproom at the front, not just for the theatre of wooden barrels being hoisted up from the cellar and lifted onto the bar by the waiters, before being swiftly emptied, but also because sharing the small tables with the mostly sociable regulars means it's easy to strike up conversations with your fellow drinkers, albeit thereby inflicting my no more than passable German on them.