Tuesday, 23 December 2014

On reading: Top 5 books Our Man read in 2014

To be a good writer you need to be able to quote Orwell's On Writing liberally. All Our Man can remember from it is you are supposed to not write more words than you need and something about requiring ego. Our Man has a bit of that, because why else would he keep an extensive record of what he's read this year and want to tell the world about it? And he likes short blog posts. But this one is a bit longer than usual.

Goodreads emailed Our Man that he had read 44 books in 2014. He'd aimed to read one a week this year, but with just a week to go he's going to throw in the towel and settle for just 44. That may seem like a big number, but he read somewhere (Stephen King's On Writing?) that if you have any pretentions of taking writing seriously, you have to read seriously. And not sure if "seriously" accurately describes how Our Man read in 2014, given the number of graphic novels and kids books he squeezed in, but he learnt a lot and has a few recommendations. All the reviews are here. But here are the best books (with Our Man's reviews) in his, er, humble opinion.

Number 5: The City and The City by China Mieville

If it were just the brilliant, warped sci-fi world in which two cities live on one shared space, with its citizens unseeing and unhearing their neighbours as foreigners, that would be enough to make it a great book. But more than that, it's a nuts and bolts whodunnit page-turner complete with good cops, bad cops, buddy cops and a conspiracy afoot that kept me turning pages. Oh, and it's got symbolics coming out the wazoo, if you are so inclined, but that's never overplayed.

The book's all about building a believable alternative world, and this it does brilliantly.

Apologies if I'm gushing (sure, all the cool kids already knew China Mieville was great...) so in the interests of finding some false balance, let me find a few faults. Tough, but if it were me, I'd have pushed the inspector's relationship with his female constable to see where that might go, and I'da thrown in a bit more humour, but hey, I'm just looking for nits to pick. This is great stuff. Loved it.

Number 4: Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the city's most colourful neighbourhoods by Florent Chavouet

Spend six months bumming around Tokyo and draw everything that you see. Then release it as a book. Simple, yet brilliant. The ideas, the drawings, the attitude. Who knew you could do so much with just a drawing pad and some coloured pencils? Inspirational. You read a book like this and think "why doesn't everyone learn to draw and do one for their own neighbourhood?" And, you know what, I think I will.

Number 3: Urban Sketching: The Complete Guide to Techniques by Thomas Thorspecken

This is not just a how-to-sketch book, it's a manifesto for the sketch artist as citizen journalist. It's packed with practical advice and examples of great sketches. After reading this, I shelved notions of buying a fancy camera to capture the world around me. I just need some pencils, paper and a spot of water colours (and a fold-up chair) and I'm good to go. This is inspiring stuff, the best of the three how-to art books I've read this year.

Number 2: The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

I gave myself an evening off and read this short story. What Conrad can pack into a couple of dozen pages would take a lesser writer a lifetime. And we're all lesser writers. Here we have a conflicted hero, an exploration of morality, individual rights, a doppelgänger, a murder hunt, a love story all set aboard a ship and served as a gripping tale of suspense. Now, I want more Conrad. Read this for free from the Gutenburg folks.

Number 1: Invisible Colored White: Being White in a Black World by Richard Rizzo

Received wisdom is that you shouldn't write an autobiography unless you have led an extraordinary life. Richard Rizzo has arguably led such a life. But what makes his autobiography so extraordinary is that it is not so much about him as about the people around him.

We are fortunate to have a narrator with so little ego that he is able to see the good in bad situations and vice versa. And what's around him is nothing less than the story of post-war America. Rizzo is perfectly placed to observe the changes that ripped through the country: he is the son of a white Italian war veteran and the (at first) unwilling stepson of a black Communist Party leader, only to come of age in time for Vietnam.

Each chapter is a detailed vignette, a slice of his life, but the details he shapes into anecdotes reveal a grander story of the struggles of a nation. And by the way, this is excellently written and edited. In fact, it's the best self-published book I've read. I'm in awe. This is what writing is all about. Do Rizzo and yourself a favour and read it.

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