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.

Well Spent Lunch Breaks

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This is what I am reading at the moment. I ordered it ages ago on Amazon at the same time that I pre-ordered Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and because I forgot to tick the box about sending the books separately ended up having to wait months to get it. Then, of course, by the time Tsukuru Tazaki arrived I pretty much threw this book out of the way to get to it. I wait long enough for new Murakami novels to hold off on them when they arrive.

I actually only bought A Girl is a Half Formed Thing because I liked the cover. I had heard it was good, but had no idea at all what it was about.  As you can see from the picture, I am only a little way into it, but it really is good. The writing style is a kind of broken, lyrical stream of consciousness, hard to read for the first couple of pages, but I found that by just letting it flow as I read it made perfect sense and has some amazing turns of phrase that could only have come from this particular style. I was listening to the Guardian books podcast and they started talking about this book, saying it has an excellent ending, at which point I stopped listening so as not to spoil it, but will go back once I have finished it to see what they had to say.

Speaking of Murakami, Tsukuru Tazaki was fantastic. I read a number of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads which were quite critical of the usual things. He does have a recurring set of tropes that crop up book after book. Some people take this as a sign of a writer regurgitating his only good ideas. I can see that point, but don’t agree with it. I want those recurring tropes, in the same way that when I watch a Wes Anderson movie I don’t want to see Kung Fu Robots or something. (For reference, I never want to see Kung Fu Robots.) The other standard criticism is to do with lack of endings. The thing is though, Tsukuru Tazaki has a proper ending. It’s just not necessarily the ending you might expect. At the risk of spoilers, though I’ll try to limit the impact, just because some¬†books end with resolving the romantic status of its principle character that’s not necessarily the true ending of this book. This book has a definite and proper ending, it just doesn’t involve the will-they-won’t-they thing.

Also recently watched a heroic amount of Christopher Hitchens debates on youtube. I was reading a collection of his old essays and articles in a gigantic book of his from the library and discovered a huge amount of videos available. I was watching them on lunch breaks at work and while I was doing the washing up at home. He’s a fascinating guy to watch, clever, witty, controversial. I think there is a limit to how much of him you can watch though. I found the same thing with Bill Hicks, it’s brilliant stuff but both emotionally and physically draining. But if you’re the kind of person that likes to while away a lunch hour watching structured debate about the merits of religion (and who isn’t, right?) then you can’t do much better than watching him. Would also recommend his book Letters to a Young Contrarian, which is designed to be read while still young and impressionable, but is still worth a go if you are thirty-something-mumble-mumble, such as I am.

1Q84 books 1 and 2, Haruki Murakami

Recently I have paying more attention to the one star reviews on amazon than the five star ones. It’s not as negative as it sounds, I have found that gauging what the one stars are saying can give an interesting perspective. Five star reviews can be a bit gushy, but if they are tempered by one star reviews that offer thoughtful critique then a more balanced view starts to form. If, however, the one star reviews are just raving on about something much less thoughtful then they can actually add weight to the good reviews.

Looking at the one star reviews for 1Q84 (books 1 and 2 only, I have yet to read book three and will more than likely write about it separately) I see that a number of the reviews are suggesting that the book is over-long, derivative, not as good as his previous work, and the product of a writer who is more powerful than the publishers.

Thoughtful critique or tosh worth ignoring?

There can be no doubt that Murakami is a writer with a significant weight behind his name. Doubtless, that will influence the way he is edited. At 623 pages (with a further 364 to come in book 3) it is a pretty long book, but Murakami isn’t exactly new to writing long books. My paperback copies of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are 607 and 504 pages long respectively. A debut author wouldn’t get away with a 900 page epic, as one reviewer suggests, but Murakami can because he has earned the right to do it. I’ll happily embark on a book that length by him because I trust he knows what he is doing.

But is it 623 pages well spent, or should it have been ruthlessly edited down to something a bit more sensible. Could the bloat have been trimmed? I guess it could have, but would we, as fans of Murakami, want it to? There is a chapter in the book in which Tengo, one of the point-of-view characters, does nothing more than muse about things while cooking dinner. Sounds like exactly the sort of bloated, empty prose than could easily be chopped out, but I want¬†chapters like that. I want precise description of expert cookery set to classical music. It’s part of Murakami’s signature.¬†Not every book needs to be set at an electric pace. Sometimes that slower speed with more breathing room is the right thing.

Another part of Murakami’s signature is a lack of explanation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle doesn’t make any attempt to explain itself or answer any of the questions it poses at the start of the book. By the end of the book none of the questions posed at the beginning have been answered, and that is, I think, largely what that book is about. 1Q84 is a little more explicit. Indeed Murakami seems to make a statement in the prose that almost feels like his remit as a writer.

If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with one.

Which, ironically, is about as heavy handed an explanation as he has ever made. Toward the end of 1Q84 a lot of the questions posed at the start of the book are, if not answered, at least explored in a fairly literal way. We, along with the characters, understand quite well what has actually happened (I’m being careful not to spoil it) in a way that is unusually definite for Murakami. But 1Q84 is not The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and it seems worth letting it be its own book. Murakami has his own particular style and¬†oeuvre, but this doesn’t mean he has to write the same book over and over again, ticking off the boxes of what has made his previous work a success.

Personally, I found the concrete explanations a little frustrating. I know that for some people 1Q84 is going to be their first read of Murakami, but it did occasionally feel a little heavy handed. I didn’t mind the repetition too much (another point raised in those one star reviews) but setting key points in bold was a bit much. It was like having a big arrow pointing at the bit you really need to be attention to. When I see bold text in a body of prose I can’t help but glance down at it and read it out of sequence with the rest of the page. That felt a bit much. Not enough for me to go and write a scathing one star review over, but a small frustration.

I don’t really know what would make a legitimate one star review. I don’t really know how to write a review at all. Certainly this post is testament to that. But the idea that this book is lazy, derivative and not as good as his other books doesn’t seem fair. Neither is it perfect. All I can say with any certainty is I enjoyed reading it a lot, and am looking forward to reading the third book.

The Art of Planning Ahead

I’ve not been buying many new books lately. It’s not because I’ve gone off them or anything, its because I thought it would be a good idea to work my way through the backlog of unread books lying around the house before I started adding to it. I had this idea that it would be really nice to have no unread books in the house at all, so that when I was out looking a new one I could buy it knowing that I would take it home and start reading it right away, rather than throwing it on the pile and maybe getting around to it in a few months, or maybe losing interest in it and never reading it at all.

It was going well too. I found some hidden treasures mixed up in the pile that I had forgotten I had. Slowly the towering mass of books began to dwindle. But then I panicked and bought a copy of The Art of Fielding well ahead of schedule.

You see, I tend to read several books at once. I like to have either a light paperback or something on kindle for taking to work and reading on the train. For books that I am more excited about or will want to keep a copy of on the shelf I tend to get a nice, big hardback, which is no good for taking on the train. Those big hardbacks become my at-home reading. My special treat for Saturday mornings. My current big hardback is 1Q84 (I have been reading it for ages, but I am enjoying it so much I have been trying to take my time with it, like chewing excellent food slowly between sips of water.) The Art of Fielding was another in the big hardback category. I was looking forward to it so I didn’t want a kindle version or a paperback, I wanted the big, delicious hardback that I had seen in the shop. But then I was worried the hardback might disappear before I was ready to buy it and be stuck with the paperback, so I bought it anyway, and shoved it to the bottom of my to-read list.

And then today I was in Smiths for no good reason at all and bought a copy of The Etymoligicon. I just can’t seem to help myself. I don’t think I will ever get to the point of having no reading backlog. Book buying will always be about planning ahead several months.