05 January 2013

Did you know books were published in 2012?

Of course you know that. Sometimes I feel like I don't.

Long before I took up the challenge to read one book from every year of the 20th century, I found myself mainly reading books that couldn't really be described as new or recent. Since so much of what I wanted to read was already on the dusty side, it didn't seem like much of a challenge to focus on books from the 20th century. And with my usual obsessive flair I focused on them to the exclusion of most everything else.

Add to this self-imposed constraint, my inability to trust book recommendations from other people. The more I have immersed myself in the book blogging world over the past six years, the more I have valued blogger recommendations over the recommendations of people I actually know. (Of course I have met quite a few of you in the past few years so the real and virtual worlds have officially collided.) It also doesn't help that the corner of the book blogging world that most intrigues me is the one where Persephone and Virago and NYRB Classics are household names. So even if I did trust a real person's recommendation, I sometimes couldn't get over the fact that the book being recommended was written during my lifetime let alone in the past year.

So this Christmas day I opened a gift from two friends and it happened to be Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. My first thought was "But this isn't on my Century of Books challenge reading list." My second, perhaps slightly more embarrassing thought was "But Ian McEwan's newest book is called Solar. I've seen it all over the blogosphere." [Pause for laughter.]

That's right. I am so out of the loop with recent fiction that Ian McEwan managed to pop out a new, and I must say, stunning, novel that makes Solar old news.

I loved Sweet Tooth. I picked it up after finishing Catch-22. And I mean immediately after. I was so annoyed as I finished the last tedious word on the last tedious page of C22 that I needed something to prove to myself that reading can be enjoyable. [Interesting side note. I first attempted to read C22 about a fifteen years ago. Kind of enjoyed the first 100 or so pages and then started to get bored and never finished it. Well the same damn thing happened this time. I kind of found it amusing and interesting until about 150 pages in and then I couldn't wait for it to be over. But this time I forced myself to finish it. I don't think it was worth the effort.]

Sweet Tooth is the story of a young Cambridge graduate who ends up working for the MI5 in the 1970s. I was immediately taken in with Serena Frome's story and McEwan's writing. I love how McEwan manages to make this story cozy and subversive at the same time. Like the literary love child of Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym. I found the political background interesting, I was intrigued by the milieu of Serena's job, and I loved all of the literary allusions. In some ways this is a book about books for people who like books about books but want to read more than just some book about books.

The thing that so impressed me about this novel is the way McEwan weaves in three or four short story plots into the narrative--essentially Serena describes the stories she is reading. Normally this kind of story within a story annoys me. But McEwan executes them in a way that I found totally fascinating. The man knows how to come up with a good plot. And speaking of plots, I was never sure where Sweet Tooth was headed. There were many points where I thought I knew where things were headed only to find out that I was wrong. He manages to keep up the guessing game right through to the final paragraph.

I wonder if every novel published in 2012 is this enjoyable?

Probably not, but maybe I should make more of an effort to find out. Especially since I have heard rumors that more novels will be published in 2013.


  1. This sounds really good, just the sort of thing I'd like. And personally, I wish authors and publishers would take a year off for me to get caught up -- I know I'll die without reading everything on my owned-and-unread shelves, much less my entire TBR list. I read 100 books last year and I'm not making any progress.

  2. Catch-22 is a reading nemesis of mine too, I think I've had three attempts and each time retreated in bafflement that people enjoy it. Hurrah for you discovering modern books though, there are indeed some good, future classics amongst the class of 2012. ;)

  3. What you said about Catch-22 confirms my suspicions about it. I tried reading it in high school and barely made a dent before giving up.

    I also like what you say about Sweet Tooth being a book about books that's more than just some book about books. Because I usually enjoy characters who love books, but I also worry that the bookishness of a character will feel pandering.

    - Christy

  4. Thanks for the heads up! I've been wondering when he'd get a new book out. It's going on my wish list right now!

  5. The blogosphere don't seem, on the whole, to have been as interested in this one as they were in Solar, so it's a forgiveable mistake ;)

    My book group is actually doing this, but on the same day as my other book group - so I went with the one doing Vanity Fair instead! My relationship with McEwan is very up-and-down.

  6. Karen: That is the joy and frustration of reading, one never makes progress in denting the pile of books left to read.

    Alex: I am glad others join me in not quite enjoying C22.

    Christy: There is a reference or two to the Booker that felt a bit pander-y, but over all I thought the book stuff was well integrated.

    Gilion: Definitely worth a look.

    Simon: I agree with you on McEwan's up and downness. This one is less twisted than so many of his so you might find it on the up side.


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