It’s Been a While

I took a year off blogging. This wasn’t like other breaks I’ve taken from it, where I just forget to do it for two months. This was deliberate. I wanted to focus the time I had on working on my novel, and given the way life tends to squeeze writing time, I wanted to make sure I used what I had the best I could.

Given that I haven’t written anything on here for so long it means I have a years worth of reading that I can write about. So I thought I’d do a 2018 retrospective. These are some of the best books I read last year.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I had been meaning to read this one for a long time. I kept hearing good things about it after it was nominated for the Booker prize. It has a beautifully earthy tone, but that manages to feel elevated and almost mystical in places. A gripping, nuanced story of an outside family. Probably the best book I read last year.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of the things I love most in my reading (and that I am constantly aspiring to in my writing) is a grounded subtlety that is quiet and personal with emotional honesty and confidence in the reader. This book is all of that. In fact, this writer is all of that. I read another of her books, Anything is Possible last year as well, and it was just as good as this one. This is a writer I will read more of.

Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom

I have read a couple of Irvin Yalom’s psychology books before. They are made up of anecdotes taken from his life as a therapist, which tell these complex little stories of the struggles and triumphs of his clients. This book is a memoir which stood out to me for a chapter in which Yalom meets another writer, Viktor Frankl., a holocaust survivor who wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I have had Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom side by side on my bookcase for years, and suddenly they were together on the page. Yalom’s writing is gentle and generous and insightful, and this biography was fascinating. Not sure how good it would be if you have never read any of his others books, so if you’re interested, maybe read Love’s Executioner or Creatures of a Day first.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American, who decides to start a coffee company reintroducing coffee from Yemen to the world. He travels there to collect samples, and ends up stranded in the middle of the middle-east crisis, trying to get home with a suitcase of coffee samples under his arm. I love Dave Eggers, and I loved reading this book.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

I feel like what Ryan O’Neill has done here is invent a new genre. A collection of short stories, masquerading as short biographies that are actually an interwoven, ensemble novel. Each chapter tells the story of a single Australian writer and slowly builds a cast of crack-pot, morally-ambiguous characters who criss-cross in and out of each others stories, building a rich, textured landscape, of a completely made up history of Australian literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This book was a gift. Before I left my last job one of the people I worked with gave me a copy of this, saying she wanted to share a book with me that had meant a lot to her. (I had recommended The End of Vandalism to her a few months before). I haven’t read a book like this one for a long time. I read a lot of Neil Gaiman when I was younger and this reminded of him in places. Elements of speculative fiction are layered over the story of a young boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother. It has that honesty that I love in good fiction, and is raw and unyielding with it. Truly excellent.

So there you are, a handful of great books I read last year. There were others, but scrolling through my goodreads 2018 shelf, these ones stood out a little.

Incidentally, it has now been ten years since I started using goodreads, and shelving every book I read by year. I thought about stopping using it, since there is something round and satisfying about ten years worth of anything. But scrolling through my goodreads shelves is just a really pleasant way of remembering my reading. I have added a link to my goodreads on the contact page. If you use it, feel free to add me as a friend.

Another Post Where I Go On About Tom Drury

After deciding to spend the Christmas period reading The End of Vandalism again I think I can safely say that it is one of my favourite books. It’s hard to tell when you first read something if it’s a favourite or just fresh in your mind, but Tom Drury’s first novel was not only as good as I remember, it was improved by a revisit. The crafted layers of repeated motifs are invisible the first time around, but reveal themselves in unexpected ways when you come back again.

It is amazing to me how little of a novel actually sticks in your mind. I guess it shouldn’t be. 350 pages of prose can cover a lot of ground, and Tom Drury covers more than most with his rotating ensemble cast and countless walk-on bit parts. I thought I remembered it pretty well, but there was plenty that had drifted out of my mind. But the stuff that I did remember, and remember as being some of the most emotionally wrenching stuff I had ever read, was just as powerful the second time around.

Do you have to say spoiler alert for a book that is 22 years old? I’ll say it in case these first two paragraphs have inspired you to go read it. Spoiler alert, guys. Spoilers.

The section of the novel where Louise discovers that her unborn baby has died but has to go through with the birth regardless is written in the most unflinching way. I cried the first time I read it, and a little more the second. Drury’s writing style is so spare and minimal, picking out the details that really speak. The tiny nuances of the way people talk, the power of a handful of words. I mean, look at this bit.

Vandal 1

Or this bit,

Vandal 2

The book is littered with these careful little moments that reveal so much depth. The book feels airy as you are reading, but the weight it carries is astonishing. It feels like what Drury has done is curate a series of moments out of the lives of his characters, finding the poetry that rises up like an emergent property, greater than the sum of its parts, like you would expect a good novel to be. It is so hard to explain why this book is so good, there’s not a great deal of plot to hook a person with, but it’s loaded with character.

Like I said in my last post, re-reading is something I want to do more of. Recently I have been reading tons of short stories in the literary journals I am exploring and for years I tried to read as much and as broadly as possible, but going back to something that resonated so much and spending more time with it has been well worth the time, if not just for the pure love of it, but for what it gave me. I can see why some people dedicate their lives to studying a single book or a single writer. When you find something that resonates the depths that it has can seem endless, and the way it seems to change with you can feel pretty surprising. I’m not going to dedicate my life to only reading the works of Tom Drury, there’s too much else out there for me to do that, but I have no doubt I’ll be reading the other two books in the series again soon, and all of them again after that.

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. 😉

Happy new year.

The Girl With Another Book on the Shelf

Mostly when I read what I am looking for is challenging, interesting, deep, thoughtful writing that affects and changes me by the act of reading it. But sometimes I am tired and there is only so much examination of the human condition a person can take. Sometimes you need a break, sometimes you need a little junk food, and this is my junk food of choice.

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I read the first of the Millennium trilogy and thought it was merely okay, then read the second and third and got hooked on it. The first book is like a really sadistic episode of Murder She Wrote, but the rest of the series gets really good when it focuses on Salander’s history and the tangled mess she is in the middle of. I knew that Larsson had died after writing these books, but I had also heard that he had sketched out ideas for a whole series of further books. As it turns out the first three books form a complete narrative and if there had never been any more than those they would still stand alone as a finished trilogy. I was glad it was so complete, but would have loved to have had some more.

So then a couple of years later David Lagercrantz was invited to carry on the series and we do in fact get some more. I was talking to a friend of mine who had really liked the originals and I was saying that I had enjoyed the new one. He said it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the originals. And he’s right, it wasn’t. But it was good enough. Some of the fire seems to have gone out of them and they read like The Further Adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael – like high quality fan-fiction – but still, good enough.

What I hadn’t realised when reading the first of the Lagercrantz series, was how much controversy there was surrounding these books, with his partner opposing them being written at all, and his family, who inherited the estate, allowing the publisher to go ahead with more.

The posthumous wishes of writers not being honoured is an interesting subject. Ever since I heard about Max Brod completely reneging on his promise to prevent a load of Kafka’s work being released, it’s hard to read those books without a sense of transgression. Of reading something you shouldn’t be reading. It makes me feel a little naughty. But The Trial has been such a touchstone for me as a writer, such a source of inspiration and courage, that I’d be a lot poorer without it.

And then recently there was the story about Terry Pratchett’s wish to have his computer smashed with a steamroller so that the unfinished work would never be seen. His wish was carried out, and this seems entirely fair and respectful. I have some crappy half-finished stories on my hard drive that I’d rather people didn’t see. Of course reading Pratchett’s half-finished, unpublished work would be interesting for anyone that loves his books, but would it diminish him? Letting him define his own legacy seems a pretty reasonable thing to do.

But the Larsson/Lagercrantz books are a different kind of thing. Whatever these new Millennium books might be, they have almost nothing to do with what Larsson would have written had he been around to do so, and it’s worth keeping the separation between them clear. A bit like the Anthony Horowitz Sherlock Holmes books. They are good and all, but not canon. Larsson’s original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy deserves to be thought of in its own terms, and these new books are like a little extra treat for anyone that wants it. And I want it, because there aren’t many books of this type that I really enjoy and like I said, I need a break from the ongoing examination of the human condition.

Looking In Both Directions, Autumn by Ali Smith

This week I finally got around to reading Autumn by Ali Smith. I have been meaning to read it for a while because over the years I have been hearing an increasing volume of good things about her but because this was known as being her Brexit novel I ended up putting it off. I followed Brexit closely last year and so by the time this book came out I had become a little burnt out on the subject.

Autumn blog pic

I had a similar thing with Howard Jacobson’s Donald Trump novel, Pussy. I went to see him talk at Cambridge literary festival and picked up a copy but still haven’t got around to reading it. There is just such a lot of Donald Trump in my life right now that what I need is a little less.

From what I understand both of these books were written with a lot of immediacy. Jacobson talked about going to his desk in a fury after the US election to get on with his book, like he was trying to get the rawest form of his own reaction to events down on paper before it became diluted. There will be plenty of time for objective analysis, but you can only have your first reaction once.

So I was expecting Autumn to be a bit like this. An outward looking, political sort of a book. An angry product of an angry time. And there is some of that in it. There are little references to real events in the real world that are still fresh in the mind, indeed that are still actively ongoing, and will be for some time. But it isn’t entirely like that. The scope of a novel about a major political event is going to be broad and far reaching, but the scope of Autumn is narrower, focusing as much on the small events of one person’s life. Brexit lurks in the background like a sinister shadow looming over everything, rarely mentioned explicitly, while the story of an old friendship unfolds. It’s a beautiful novel, and deserving of its place on the Booker longlist.

I was thinking recently that you can possibly think of books as either being outward or inward looking. There’s lots of ways categorising books (fiction/non-fiction, genres etc) but that the separation of books by whether they are exploring the world or exploring the person might be useful. Whether politics is the point of the book, or psychoanalysis. Science or meditation. I’m still trying to figure this idea out, it’s still only hazily formed in my head, but I thought it might be a useful way to think about writing at the point of writing. In which direction are you facing when you start putting the words down on the page? Are you writing about the world, or what it is like to be in the world?

But Autumn is a novel that is successfully looking in both directions at once. A book that isn’t just about politics, but the impact of politics on people, and of the impact of people on politics. The big events that inform our little lives. The narrow focus against a wider backdrop.