The Girl With the Ikea Furniture

Way back in 2012 I decided to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s not the sort of thing that I usually go for, but every once in a while I like a bit of crime fiction. The Sherlock Holmes books, Agatha Christie, James Ellroy; now and then I get a bit of a hankering for something like that. So given how popular The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was I thought I’d see what it was all about. I hadn’t seen the movie, American or Swedish, and knew next to nothing about it.

I enjoyed it, but it didn’t knock my socks off. If anything, I was still a bit confused about what kind of book it was exactly. It started off like a thriller, built to a crescendo with the awful rape scene… and then it seemed to turn into an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I kept waiting for payoff from the rape/revenge stuff at the start of the book, but it just wasn’t mentioned again.

So I put it aside, went off reading a bunch of other things (A quick glance at my Goodreads shows I read a Lars Iyer, a David Sedaris, and – predictably – a Haruki Murakami) and never thought to look at the second of the Millennium trilogy. Fast forward to this year and I wound up being told by a number of different people that I really ought to go and read the other two books in the series. So I picked up the second and got completely hooked. Almost as soon as I finished the second I went out and got the third and now I have finished them all.

Now I get it. Now I see why these books were so popular. That rape scene from book one that seemed so bizarrely absent from the conclusion of that book, is the catalyst for what comes next. And what came next was about a thousand pages of plotty goodness. I don’t read a lot of heavily plot driven stuff, but this captured me.

And of course, I have finished the Millennium trilogy just in time for the new Girl With the Dragon Tattoo book, being written by David Lagercrantz. It will be interesting to see how a new writer develops the story and the characters. I remember reading Anthony Horowitz’ Sherlock Homes novel The House of Silk. In it, he wrote in the foreword about trying to be true to Conan-Doyle’s style and tropes, but thought he had added to many dead bodies. There were plenty of the usual Holmes details, and ‘too many dead bodies’ was just the unique bit that he had added. Hopefully Lagercrantz has added something unique of his own without losing what made the original books so compelling. I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t at least one long passage detailing Ikea furniture.

Murakami’s early books republished

So it turns out Haruki Murakami’s early novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, are being translated into English and released this August. As far as I know these books were translated once before, but to very limited releases. I saw a copy of Pinball, 1973 on Amazon’s second hand marketplace, but I couldn’t tell if it was in English, and it cost nearly three thousand pounds. So that was two good reasons not to buy it. As soon as I saw the re-release title listed on Amazon I hit the pre-order button, almost instinctively.

My first introduction to Murakami was in a computer games magazine. They had a one page feature every month on Japanese culture, and it ran a piece about his short story collection, After the Quake. I happened to see it the next time I was browsing in Ottakars bookshop (that’s how long ago that was) and then after reading that I picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood. I liked Norwegian Wood a lot, and a while later, when money was very tight and I wanted to buy a book, I decided to just buy something really chunky to get good a good pounds-to-hours ratio. I chose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I read the first hundred pages and then stopped reading it. I’m not really sure why I stopped but one day I put it down and then didn’t pick it up again. It was harder work than Norwegian Wood had been, and a totally different sort of novel.

About a year later I gave it another go. I started from the beginning and this time is clicked with me. After that I read a lot of his books. There are still a few I haven’t read. I tend to save them for for when I really want them. (I think I have said this before on this blog but I had been saving Kafka on the Shore for just the right time, and I ended it up reading it after I had recovered from my brain haemorrhage. I didn’t know that was what I was saving it for, but it was just what I needed at that time.)

Murakami is a global phenomenon that no one I meet seems to have heard of. There are a few writers I can think of that have been incredibly personal to me, and my attempts to write. Murakami, at this point, is the most significant and so being able to look back at those very early works is really exciting. I seem to remember him saying that he didn’t want those books translated and re-released, as they weren’t good enough. I am not sure what I am going to get, but I know what I am hoping for. A rough, uncut, misformed precursor to the books that came later. Like scratchy recordings by a band before they got famous. I would love to find little hints  of the writer he was going to become, hidden somewhere inside.

Now You Have Nothing

January was a good month for books. I read six, three fiction, three non-fiction. Of the fiction 2 were literary, 1 was crime – a not unreasonable breakdown of my general fiction reading.

In my last post, having read about the pleasures to be had of reading at whim, I said I was going to read The Girl Who Played With Fire. I ended up reading Murder on the Orient Express instead. That’s whim for you, so unpredictable. I had never read an Agatha Christie before, if you discount the half of one that I read when I was about 12 years old, which I do, because I don’t remember a thing about it other than it had a skull on the cover. 12-year-old Toby was mad for things with skulls on the covers.

Murder on the Orient Express was fantastic. I didn’t know too much about it. I have never even seen a single episode of Poirot. It was all completely knew to me but it was such a treat. Exactly the kind of fun-crime novel I like. Clever and polite, if you know what I mean. I think Poirot novels might become my new occasional treat.

I also read The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault. This one I had mixed feelings about while I was reading it, was very satisfied with it at the conclusion, and then a bit annoyed the extras that came tacked on at the end. It is about a postman who opens the mail between a man and a woman who are exchanging poems with each other. They only ever communicate in the medium of the haiku. Then, one day, the postman accidentally kills the man and adopts his life, taking over writing haiku to the woman and living in his apartment. It all seemed a bit unrealistic and unlikely, and was conveniently ignoring certain events as it went along. I don’t know about you but if I accidentally killed someone, renting their apartment and wearing his dressing gown and pretending to be him in poetry might cause me some emotional conflict. As the page count dwindled I couldn’t imagine how this could possibly be resolved satisfactorily, but it was. For me anyway. I really loved the ending.

But after that is a Q+A with the author. I’ll be honest, I didn’t read it all. A Q+A with the author is exactly what I don’t want to read once I have finished a novel. I felt like I was being hand-held toward an opinion. And it is not like it is a simplistic novel where the ending wraps it all up neatly, there is plenty to ruminate on afterwards. I felt like I had the author looking over my shoulder and making sure I had read it properly. It’s only a short book (120ish pages) so I don’t know if it was an effort to fill it out a bit, but it diminished the book a little for me, which was a shame because apart from that I would recommend it very highly.

I have always been into the idea that a book comes to exist when it is read, and that the readers interpretation is far more important than what the writers intentions might have been. What you find in a book is more real than what the author left behind. I think this is why I love truly ambiguous novels. They seem to drive some people crazy, but I think when a writer leaves plenty unexplained and open to interpretation it shows a respect for the reader. This is something I try to put into my books and it is really important to me not to didactically insist on every reader drawing the same conclusion. Like the literary equivalent of a Rorschach test.

There is a scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where the main character is given a gift, but it turns out to be an empty box. My first reaction was to think, he hasn’t been given anything, which made sense at the time, in the context of the story. Later in the novel I came to think of it differently. Now he is in possession of nothing. Murakami doesn’t come close to explaining what he might have meant by it. It would have been so much weaker if he had.

The Pleasures of Reading

I just finished reading The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. Scott Pack, over on his blog, gave it such a thorough recommendation that I rushed off to get a copy. It was a really refreshing read, covering ideas like why it is OK to read Harry Potter, why you don’t have to read anything you don’t want to and why those books that tell you what you need to read before you die might be worth ignoring. Those ‘1001 before you die’ books always seemed to be coming at things from the direction to me. And the way they use the word ‘need’ seems so presumptuous.

pleasure of reading

Jacobs book is a fascinating analysis of why we read, how we read and tries to assuage some of the pressures that seem to come with reading. Am I reading the right books? Am I reading them well enough? Am I reading them fast enough? The suggestion, repeated throughout the book, is to read at whim, and to just take slow pleasure in it.

Every now and then someone will seem impressed by the fact that I read a lot. They will say that they wished they could read more, in the same way that I often tell joggers that I wish I could exercise more. Reading is seen as a superior way to spend your time. I think this might be a hangover from childhood where we are all encouraged to read, which is usually met with resistance because reading, when you are not used to it, is actually hard work. In fact it can be hard work even when you are used to it (my copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is still unread). So when we read as children we get praised, same as when we ate the broccoli, and so grow up with the idea that reading is eating vegetables and watching TV is calling out for a pizza.

But that division doesn’t really work. The last book I read before Pleasures of Reading was Do No Harm, the memoirs of a brain surgeon. Once I had finished that I watched a documentary that had been made about the author. Is one more valuable than the other? Did reading his words give me more than watching his actions? (I’ll tell you one thing, the documentary was a lot harder to watch than the book was to read).

Now that I have been reminded that it is OK to read whatever the hell you please and that you don’t need to only read ‘worthy’ (whatever that means) books to be spending your time well I am probably going to read The Girl Who Played with Fire. I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few years ago, liked it well enough, but didn’t get around to the sequel. That book, I am sure, is going to be pure pleasure. My reading tends to be more on the challenging side than on the fun side, but why not have a bit of fun?  It might not change me, but it doesn’t have to.

There was a section in The Pleasures of Reading that reminded me of when I was younger and the way I read. When I was in school I read, almost exclusively, Terry Pratchett, Anne Rice and JRR Tolkien. I did not read widely, but when I did read I felt like the world was opening up to me. This was pre-internet (at least in any meaningful sense) and there were four TV channels of which the odds of there being something on that I wanted to watch was slim. Reading was a way of opening the four walls of my bedroom. That’s different now. Now when I read it is more like I am trying to build walls up around me, shutting the world out and just becoming absorbed in something else. Jacobs refers to building a ‘cone of silence’, I knew exactly what he meant by that.

Reading should be one part of our cultural experience. I don’t watch anywhere near as many films as I used to, and I am sure I am the poorer for it. But I do love reading and so this book was a genuine pleasure to read.

Too dark to read

It is Halloween and so I am engaged in my traditional Halloween activity. I am sat in the dark, pretending not to be in. There are no sweets in the house and so it is imperative that no one should knock on the door expecting some. Hiding in the dark is actually kinda fun, creeping around, whispering, trying to cook a meal by the light of the fridge. It’s fun right up until you need to go to the bathroom. This is what I have discovered. I expect a lot of other people are discovering this also. Looking out of the kitchen window, a lot of people don’t seem to be home right now.

Since it is too dark to read I thought I would write a little about my two new books.

photo (7)

This one I found while pottering around the Waterstone’s in Cambridge. I drove all the way there specifically for a book hunt and I found this tucked away in a corner by the stairs. I was only stood there because the unyielding crowd had forced me out of its way.  It is a collection of short stories and essays from a 22 year old Yale literature student who died suddenly shortly after her graduation. I had a short flick through the book before I bought it, but I knew I was going to buy it just from reading on the back about what the book was and where it had come from.

This slim volume is her life’s work. I really appreciated the tone of the introduction. It doesn’t try to paint her as the complete article, or a prodigal genius. Instead the book is shown as a brief glimpse of something raw that never got a chance to become more refined or finished. The writing is worthy of the attention though. There are little flashes of insight scattered throughout, the kind of insight I was completely incapable of at 22. In fact some of the flashes of insight are not so little. The story Reading Aloud, about an elderly woman who secretly takes off her clothes while reading mail to a blind man, shows a real maturity. But there is a bubbly, young quality about the writing too, which lends even more poignancy to an already poignant book.

I’ve decided I’m going to be a writer. Like, a real one. With my life.

In the end what we are left with is just a little hint of what might have come later. The woman on the till at Waterstone’s told me this book was exceptional, even without the extra layer added to it by its author’s untimely death. I think she might be right.

The second book that turned up this week (and this is actually a bit underwhelming after talking about the last one,) is this;

photo (9)

Yeah, it’s a print version of my own novel. I decided to have a go at this, since Createspace makes it cost-free to have a paperback version on Amazon alongside the ebook version.

I remember being young and talking about how I wanted to write books and occasionally someone would ask if I would ever self-publish. I was always adamant that I would not do that. Back then self-publishing (or the preferable ‘indie-publishing’, or the more accurate ‘guerrilla-publishing’) seemed like a very bad idea. Spending hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds just to have boxes of books that no one has heard of stuffed into the loft? Why do that? I am glad that I have been able to see past my old beliefs and not turn my nose up at this. Self-publishing is changed now and I am having a lot of fun with it, and putting together a print version of Middling has been very satisfying.

I quite like the one-man-bandedness of it all. I went to art-school for six years, worked for two at a design and print company and spent a year typesetting medical leaflets. It was really cool to pool some of that experience on a project all of my own making. I will be doing a Createspace version of my new book when it is ready, and having gone through the process of doing one for Middling has been a useful exercise. A lot of work, but satisfying.

Anyway, it sounds like the local children have stopped rampaging about now. I think I am OK to turn the lights back on and resume normality.