The Vague Days of 2017

This is my favourite time of year, the vague days after Christmas where all the urgency has gone out of everything, all the pressures of the festive period are lifted. There’s still chocolates and biscuits and cake, but I don’t want to eat them. Every year, by about the 27th what I really want is abstinence and sleep. And it is hard not to reflect on the year, and look forward to the next, while I look out of the window at the inexplicably snowy landscape, sipping my mint tea.

2016 was the year I gave up self-publishing. 2017 was the year I saw some of my stories in print. 2018 is the year where I keep trying. It’s a pretty simple resolution. Just keep trying.

Normally for my last blog post of the year I look back at what I read and talk about some of my favourites, and scrolling through my goodreads 2017 folder I keep seeing Tom Drury’s name whiz past. After reading his first novel, The End of Vandalism, a while ago I decided to read the other two books in the series, and then his other two novels as well, and then, having enjoyed them all so much, I am reading The End of Vandalism again. His writing is so delicate and carefully assembled; all the humour is sad, all the sadness is funny. It’s hard to really describe what it is about these ambling novels that is so good. But they are perfect.

I also read Ali Smith for the first time this year, reading Autumn and Winter, and now very much looking forward to Spring and Summer, whenever they come out. I think as a writer sometimes it is hard to just read for pleasure, there is always a sense of mining other peoples brilliance for little clues to how it is done, and the way she has written about contemporary political issues in novels that you would struggle to describe as political is brilliant. It is like incidental commentary, rather than overt criticism, and still none of it gets in the way of the smaller, more personal, stories that the novel focuses on.

Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my long-time favourites, had a book of short stories come out, spanning the length of his career. He is one of the most discouragingly brilliant writers I have ever read, but I have thought that about him since I read The Virgin Suicides back in 2000. These short stories have lots of allusions to the novels that would come later, including one with a lot of medical detail on gender conditions that made me nostalgic for Middlesex.

I think my reading resolutions for 2018 are going to feature more re-reading. I don’t re-read very many books at all, and there are a number that I feel like I should. And I plan to spend more time having long browses of bookshops for novels I have never heard of. I used to do that a lot, but not so much recently. I made an enormous effort this year to up my writing and be more productive, and I want to keep that going, but sometimes writing can be like a second job, and as expansive as a second life. It could fill every minute you have if you let it. One of the best things I did this year (with my wife’s help) was structure my writing time. I wrote a blog post about it a while back. An average day doesn’t give you much time, and an average year breezes by in no time at all. For a long time I didn’t re-read because I had a feeling of urgency about reading as much as possible in the little time I have. It’s amazing how little of the average novel you actually remember.

Maybe I’ll make a goodreads shelf for the books I re-read, so that I’ll have a metric to feel good about. ūüėČ

Happy new year.

Go Wide Or Go Deep

Is it better to read a wide variety of writers, or to read a small number of writers more deeply? When I was in my early twenties I was starting to take writing very seriously and so I figured I needed to take my reading very seriously as well. I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near well-read enough so I stopped reading the same writer two books in a row thinking that reading as wide a variety of writers as possible was the best way to get caught up, and I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. For a while I wasn’t reading the same writer twice in a year. I covered a lot of ground that way but I couldn’t really get a deep understanding of any one writer. In that time I read one Salman Rushdie novel, one Dostoyevsky novel, one JD Salinger novel. Lots and lots of one off’s.

There were a few writers I read more often simply because I liked them so much. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example. I have read all of his books but he has only written three and there are such long gaps between them when the next one comes along (should be soon*) it won’t count as binge reading any more. Haruki Murakami too. I love his books so much that of course I read new ones instantly but for a long time I had his back catalogue to make my way through and so there was a lot of Murakami in my life for a long while. But mostly, even if I really loved a book or really felt interested in a particular writer, I would space the books out so that I wouldn’t be saturated with any one writer.

Do you know what book it was that caused me to break my own rule? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I read the second one about two years after the first just because someone told me I ought to keep reading them (I had enjoyed the first one but not enough to go straight to the second and after a while I just lost interest). But a friend insisted I go back to them so I read the second and then instantly read the third and then a little while after that the new one by David Lagercrantz came out and I read that too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo isn’t exactly the sort of thing I normally go for but it was fun reading those books all at once. So I started doing it with other writers too. I had loved The Lighthouse by Alison Moore a lot, so I just went out and got all three of her other books and read them all in a relatively short space of time.

Obviously what you get from doing this is a deeper understanding of a writers work. A deeper sense of what they are all about. Naturally with a series like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you get a coherent single narrative, but even outside of a series you can start to see the little trends that emerge in their work. The themes that keep coming up, the tricks and tropes that they use. The voice starts to sound a little clearer.

There have been a couple of writers I discovered recently and I’m not even bothering to try and space out their books. I did that for a long time so I don’t feel like I have to do it any more. One of these writers, Cormac McCarthy, has a big back catalogue and I don’t want to wait to read them. So I’m not. Same with Tom Drury. I read his trilogy and he has a couple of others which I would have read by now, if they were a little easier to get hold of.

I have no idea if reading a wide range of writers is better for fuelling my own writing than deeply reading a few. I am sure that to be a serious writer you need to be a serious reader, and that probably you should be a reader first and a writer second. At least that’s how I feel. For a long time spreading out and reading widely felt right, now I am enjoying sinking into a handful of writers.


* I googled Jeffrey Eugenides while I was writing this because it occurred to me that he might have something new coming out. His books tend to come out about seven years apart, roughly, and I figured he was due. Sure enough, new one is coming out this October. I’m excited already. I’m having a holiday in November and if I can resist I might make it my holiday reading.

Re-reading old favourites; The Virgin Suicides

I don’t tend to re-read books very often. Sometimes I dip back in and read little bits, but not the whole book. Whenever I pick an old favourite off the shelf I end up feeling like I ought to stop and read something new. As though time is so precious and finite that there isn’t a moment to waste treading old ground and that time is better spent making my way through the great many books that deserve to be read. But recently I decided to make time to re-visit a book I haven’t read for a long time. I gave myself permission to pause the two books I am currently reading (Moby Dick and 1Q84 volume 3) and read The Virgin Suicides again, cover to cover, guilt free.

Continue reading “Re-reading old favourites; The Virgin Suicides”

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I first discovered Jeffrey Eugenides after seeing the film adaptation of his debut, The Virgin Suicides. I liked the film so much I read the book, and promptly fell more in love with the book than I was with the film. It is darkly poetic and had the tone and quality of magic realism without any actual magic in it and was incredibly tightly written. It feels longer and deeper than the page count suggests. When his second novel came out, the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex I was surprised to discover it was a sprawling family epic. The books seemed so disparate and different from one another that I wondered for a long time what his third, The Marriage Plot, would be like. As it turns out it is also quite different from his previous novels.

At its simplest, The Marriage Plot is a book literally about the marriage plot. A girl,¬†Madeleine, has two guys, Leonard and Mitchell, interested in her, and needs to choose between them. Being set in the 1980’s however adds a twist to the marriage plot of old. In the Victorian novels, marriage was an unbreakable vow¬†and so who the heroin chose to marry had a greater significance and an absolute finality. This book is set in a time when divorce is legally and socially acceptable. The novel then seems to ask a simple question; with divorce, can the marriage plot still function within literature?

As a piece of literature exploring literary concepts the book often feels reflective and self-referential. Madeleine herself is a literature student exploring the marriage plot in Victorian novels. The two guys are also students, one in science, the other in religious studies, forming a complex triangle of academic disciplines. Leonard, the scientist, who also suffers from manic depression, has a kind of carefree pragmatism and Mitchell, the religious studies student, seems to be struggling with a crisis of faith. Both of these qualities do much to call into doubt the absolution of marriage.

As I was reading the book I started to form an opinion on whether or not the marriage plot could still work in literature. An opinion that was then echoed in the book itself.

A thing like that, once said, was not easily unsaid. It would be there from now on, whenever Leonard and Phyllida were in the same room.

This quote, taken slightly out of context admittedly, sums it up quite nicely. Divorce, and even annulment (which is discussed in the book), might be able to remove a marriage, but it can never erase the fact that the decision to marry was taken. Its like standing at a crossroads and choosing to go left. You can turn around and go back to the crossroads if you want to but you can never undo the fact that the first time around, you chose left. The point at which the heroine picks one suitor over another creates an¬†unchangeable¬†dynamic between the three of them. The rejected man must go and live his life and even if the marriage fails and ends in divorce he will have been irrevocably altered by the rejection. Divorce doesn’t just offer a second go to try all the options that were initially ignored, going back to the crossroads might lead to the discovery that some of those paths that weren’t taken are no longer there.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the book was that all three principal characters were given equal standing. Rather than a central female protagonist and two loosely defined male caricatures all three were explored sympathetically and given plenty of space. This is not a book about judging its male love interests and hoping that the woman makes the right choice, it is a book about the complexity of love.  The final page of the book is a brilliant, if slightly self-conscious, breaking of the fourth wall that talks about the insufficiency of a simplistic romantic conclusion.

As a ran of Roland Barthes there were enough¬†references¬†to him in the first half of the book to make me smile, and there was some stuff toward the end that really highlighted the quality of Eugenides research. I was very impressed by references to electrophoresis tanks and Rhone-Poulenc; sciency stuff that I knew about, as well as a worryingly familiar student at the start of the novel who was so pretentious he actually made me a little angry. Writing the words ‘not real skin’ on someones skin is lazy and obvious and something I might have thought was really, really clever fifteen years ago, which is, I suspect, the real reason it made a me a little angry.

So, in conclusion, another fine novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. May the next one take less than eight years to write.

Summer’s gone

Seems summer has finally ended. Last Sunday, against all expectation of how my Sunday’s usually happen, I was in a forest in Rugby with some friends playing laser-tag for a stag-do and worrying that I didn’t have any¬†sun-cream¬†on. This weekend we put the heating on and I had to wear a coat when I went out. Not that I’m sad about it. There comes a point during Summer and Winter when I get tired of the weather and begin to pine for its opposite. I am more than ready for an extra blanket on the bed and trying to find my gloves in the mornings.

So the booker prize short-list came out and I had a look through for what I fancied reading. There were three that appealed to me, two of which I have since read. The first, Snowdrops by AD Miller, was a book I had seen on the shelf a while back and almost bought but ended up buying something else instead. I had fancied a thriller since playing LA Noire on the xbox and when I finally got around to reading one I went for a well-regarded classic, The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. So when I saw Snowdrops on the booker long-list I was reminded of it and bought a copy on my kindle. It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. There was a lot of discussion around about the booker judging panel perhaps being more drawn to crime and thrillers this year so I went into Snowdrops with an expectation of spies and stuff. My expectation was wrong but the book didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a slightly hapless English lawyer in Moscow and how he gets caught up with a pair of sexy Russian girls and a property scam they are perpetrating. I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of Moscow is – never having been there – but it’s strongly and evocatively written. The simple plot actually relieves some of the problems I have found in other thrillers; namely that plot, in an effort to be intriguing, becomes overwhelming.

The other booker short-listed book I read was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had never read any of his stuff before, but he comes with a lofty reputation. I read the book in very short order. It’s not long, only 150 pages, but it’s also very hard to stop reading. It skips along, scything out decades of superfluous story in order to remain on point. The point mainly being an examination of an event from when the¬†protagonist¬†– Tony – was young, many years later when he is older. The tacit acknowledgement right at the beginning regarding the reliability of memory and historical fact announces early on that our narrator is going to be, somewhat classically, unreliable. He reveals himself to himself as the novel progresses toward the – I hesitate to use the word twist, which doesn’t seem to quite fit even if it is apt.

So, very good books both. The third book that I fancy from the short-list – Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman may have to wait because Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot finally appeared this week. I started reading it, only about 20 pages, before I decided to read Sense of an Ending first, but now I can’t wait any more. It’s been eight years or so since Middlesex, I feel like I have waited long enough. And very soon Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is set to arrive in the post, and that’s another book I won’t be able to hold off of reading. A while ago I decided that I would not read two books by the same author back to back like I used to. When I was younger if I found a writer I liked I would read that writer exclusively until I either ran out of books or lost interest. I gave a large chunk of my formative years to Terry Pratchett and Anne Rice. By insisting on switching author every book I read more widely. In anticipation of IQ84 I have been holding off of the remaining books on Murakami’s¬†back-list¬†that I haven’t read. Murakami’s books are always a treat. I deliberately avoided reading Kafka on the Shore for a long time, until I really needed it. I ended up reading it while I was recovering from my brain haemorrhage. I was glad I waited.

So between The Marriage Plot and IQ84 I couldn’t be happier that summer is finally making way for winter; it gives me a great excuse for staying in.