Thursday, 23 December 2010

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

Greetings, one-legged literatti.

It's been a pretty busy time here at Learning To Read. Check out reviews of The Subject Steve, Cold Comfort Farm, and the rather good Five Boys for evidence. There's also thoughts on what age is a good age to be published by, and the lack of female writers on my shelf.

This Hop's Question:

What literary title (fiction or non-fiction) do you love that has been under-appreciated? We all know about the latest Dan Brown, and James Patterson isn't hurting for publicity. What quiet masterpiece do you want more readers to know?

We all know Richard Adams' Watership Down. But How many people have read the beautiful, sexual, frightening and dark The Girl in a Swing? Remember, Watership Down is his idea of a kid's book, so imagine how serious he gets when he writes for adults.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Where's All The White Girls At?

Yesterday I posted a list of my favourite authors, looking at when they first got published. While the list was in no way a definitive or thorough survey of my favourite writers, it was a fairly good cross-section. And it's struck me, now I see all their names written down side by side, that they're almost all menward. Two of the nineteen mentioned are women.

I don't like the idea of tailoring my reading, of meeting gender quotas, of any sort of positive descrimination. But I really don't like the idea that I'm missing out on whole swathes of great literature.

Maybe it's because I just read a novel by a female author, who I'd heard about for years but never picked up, and it turned out to be excellent. Or maybe it's because that author was Margaret Atwood, and the book in question was all about gender roles in society. Either way, I want to change the fact that only three of the nineteen books on my To Be Read pile were written without recourse to being a man.

This isn't a new manifesto or anything. I'm fairly happy with stumbling blindly through the world of books. But a shove in a new direction is always welcome. Recommend me some great books by female authors, please.

Hit me.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Time Is Runing Out

It's cards on the table time. I'm 23, and have yet to finish writing a novel. I've got to the end of the story a couple of times, but never to the end of the writing process.

Terry Pratchett had his first novel published when he was 23. Not just finished, not just sent off, not even just accepted. Published, in shops, the whole caboodle.


I might as well give up and get a job in a bookshop. I even have the job already, all I need to do is stare into a mirror and say 'I don't believe in CS Lewis' three times. I won't be a writer anymore.

Okay, maybe not. But it's become an obsession of mine recently to look up when the author I'm reading had their first novel published. Then I work out how long I've got, realistically, if I want to stand any chance of beating them.

It's not pathetic, I promise. It's motivational. Here's the league table:

The Wonder Boys:

1. Terry Pratchett, 23
=2. F Scott Fitzgerald, 24
=2. Mark Watson, 24
=4. Michael Chabon, 25
=4. David Lodge, 25
=4. Evelyn Waugh, 25
7. Tom Holt, 26
8. Christopher Brookmyre, 28
9. Toby Litt, 29

The first half of that list is already way out of my reach, once you factor in agent/editor/publisher turnarounds. And when you factor in writing quality, the second half is pretty much out of the question as well. So, ignore the spectacular young guns, they probably burned out before they were 40 anyway, am I right? Terry who? F Who Fitzgerald? Well... moving on. 

The Second Wave:

 =1. Agatha Christie, 30
=1. David Mitchell, 30
=1. Kurt Vonnegut, 30
=4. David Markson, 32
=4. Cormac McCarthy, 32
6. Andrew Crumey, 33
7. Stephen Fry, 34
8. Mick Jackson, 37
9. Lynne Truss, 39
10. Jasper Fforde, 40

I'm aiming for Markson and McCarthy, I think. Though anything before Stephen Fry would count as a lifelong brag.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Five Boys

Mick Jackson

This is the second Mick Jackson I've read, after his intriguing Booker-nominated The Underground Man. I picked it up in a charity shop in Edinburgh this summer, because a holiday isn't a holiday if you don't use it to buy books.

Five Boys is both less linear and more singular than The Underground Man. Browsing the author's website, I find it interesting and unsurprising that the book had a completely different title, The Bee King, until the last minute. It certainly doesn't read like the story of the five boys, beginning to end. It doesn't read like the story of the bee king, either.

It reads excellently, though. Eccentric and witty I expected from Jackson, but humane and a touch of sadness are happy additions. I don't want to kill the allure of the book by saying this, but it is uncompromisingly pleasant to read. That feels a bit like the Hitch Hikers Guide calling Earth 'harmless,' but I mean it as a compliment.

Five Boys is mysterious, in that it doesn't bother to explain itself on most occasions. That fits, I feel, with the children's perspective that a lot of this book is told from. The world is what it is, and most young boys take it on those terms. It's only when you're older you sometimes recognise how weird some childhood incidents were.

The mystery is never solved; the book doesn't have a loose end-tying, all together-bringing finale. It's uncohesive, but not in a bad way. The whole thing is episodic, almost like a series of interconnected short stories at times, so there is no expectation of a last chapter to make it all make sense. It's not like reading Infinite Jest, where the reader is teased with glimpses of potential but never fulfilled cohesion. Five Boys is in no way frustrating.

The lack of cohesion, of a continous line joining the beginning and the end and everything inbetween, is in reality the lack of a main character. It seems like Bobby, the young evacuee, is the subject of the book--until the second half, in which he doesn't appear.Go figure, says the book, and I went and figured.

I figured that there is a main character, in a sense. It's the Devonshire village of Dartington, and its story is told through the partial lives of the people that make it up, good and bad and weird and stupid. Their little stories make up the bigger story of the village, just like each bee buzzing contributes to the singular hum of the hive. And the bee king is not really a king at all, but the queen of the Dartington hive.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbons

I'm going to get through this entire review without once mentioning that Stella Gibbons is just another way of saying Excellent Apes. Watch me.

I don't think I've enjoyed a novel so much--or so easily, at least--in a long while. I'm not sure why only one person has been recommending it to me. Where were the rest of you at?

The succesful heroine, Flora Poste, is something of a new favourite of mine. She is orphaned without fuss, and goes to live with a family of crazy cousins on a cursed farm. As each family member's troubles are piled up, one by one, there isn't a second when you doubt that Flora, armed with common sense and all-round aptitude, will overcome them in turn. This is in no way a 'how will it all end?' novel. You know how it's going to end, and it's going to be happy, so you might as well enjoy yourself on the way.

And it's easy to enjoy, on account of being frankly hilarious; while nobody can deny that there's still something satisfying about a problem being solved, however easy it was. Possibly my favourite laugh was at Adam Lambsbreath, the ancient farmhand type, practising clettering.

Clettering is basically washing up, but using a dry twig of thorn instead of a cloth. When Flora buys Adam a proper little mop, he recieves it with awe and sombre glee. Then he hangs it up somewhere safe in his cowshed, because it's too nice to use for clettering, and picks another dry twig off the thorn bush. Flora is more succesful in her spurning the sexual advances of the young men around her; the sexual predator and future filmstar Seth, and the enlightened, modern intellectual and unattractive Mr Mybug.

A lot of Cold Comfort Farm is parody. At least I think it is. It's hard to tell, because most of the novels it's parodying are long gone, and the ones that are still around I don't want to read. There's plenty of deliberate allusion, and there's probably tons more I missed. That's the only problem with parody--once your subject matter is gone, the book loses a dimemsion. I've thought the same thing reading Waugh before. Oddly enough, this doesn't affect old episodes of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. That stuff is still gold.

But the over-my-head parodies didn't get in the way. Like a good builder, I hardly knew they were there. Except, that is, for the rather annoying asterixing of certain passages. These are where Gibbons goes all out attack on flamboyant purple prose, with mixed and misguided metaphors all over the shop. It wasn't these passages that annoyed me--they were funny. And truth be told, I skim-read most passages of description. I can't help myself. But the bloody asterixes everywhere, what a palaver.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Subject Steve

Sam Lipsyte

I took a gamble on this novel, having never heard of it or its author before, mostly because of the Toby Litt quote on the front. Which reminds me, I really need to get my hands on another Toby Litt novel soon.

The Subject Steve is funny. That's basically it. It's funny in a clever, lippy, attitudinal American way. And that's a good thing, of course. But this flippancy, a quality I am more than a little acquainted with, goes a little to deep for me.

It's not just in the dialogue, and it's not just in the prose; it's not just the narrator who is flippant, or the characters: It's the author as well. The plots and events and situations of the novel are played with fairly fast and not a little loose. I can understand why the quotees on the back of the book see this as a good thing, but it was a little lost on me. That's not where I want my flippancy.

All my favourite, funniest writers are deadly serious. Vonnegut jokes inbetween mourning mankind and loving them. Pratchett isn't joking when he gets excited by the power of stories or angry at the power of people. Evelyn Waugh was angrier yet. Even Wodehouse, the archetypal please-don't-take-me-seriously, plotted most rigorously, demanded the most consistent, believably-motivated characters.

That said, I did enjoy the high creativity in The Subject Steve, and it was funny everwhere it tried to be. It just wasn't quite the novel I wanted to read. If I come across another of Lipsyte's titles--there was a new one out this year, apparently--I will investigate it thoroughly. If he's still funny, that's okay, but hopefully he'll be serious as well.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Whatever Happened To Happenstance?

My personal gripe with the coming eBook revolution involves book acquisition. If I'm given unlimited and pure access to the unuverse of books, I will have no choice but to choose logically.

There will be no limits. There will be no bias. You will not be guided by geography or happenstance orthe texture of old books. All these distractions will be cast aside. Only you will have a say in the navigation across this perfect mathematical plane of possibility. Only you are responsible.

Bugger that.

I don't have a system strong enough to navigate the L-Space of all the books out there. What I like is serendipity, sale prices and forced hands. My reading is guided hugely by what books are presented to me and what mood I'm in at the time and how generous my wallet is feeling.  It's not ideal. Thank God it's not ideal.

If book-reading was evolution, and I sometimes think it is, serendipity would by the random mutations. Complete with ugly and disfunctional creatures. Complete with the only real way forward.

All this is here to justify: me buying 9 books last week.

Two bastards of serendipity, two demons of careless fate, came at me like velociraptors in a kitchen. Firstly, we got a pallet of return books in at work, from Harper. These books weren't the usual fare, lest you think they were. These were odds, ones and twos of strange, unusual titles. Literary titles, modern classics and shadowy first novels, a bunch of pre-Booker Hilary Mantel, some Patrick Gale, a hundred names you've never heard of, countless Ballard and a few Henry Miller.

The second bastard of serendipity was our annual Christmas 'bonus' of 50% off one transaction. Well, these books were £1.99 to start with, and 50% off that is incalcuably small. Literally, it will break your calculator if you try, so don't try. I bought:

mortification: writers' stories of their public shame
The Drought and Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard.
Darkmans by Nicola Barker.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte. 
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson.
Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and the World it Created.
The Qi Book of Advanced Banter.

All beautiful, decent-sized paperbacks. All for £9. Google makes that $14.

Now, I have £11 in my pocket right now, and I need approximately three weeks to read all these. Can I get three weeks at a knockdown price in a bargain shop? Or is it cheaper online?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

All The Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy

I'm still quite new to McCarthy. I'm completely fascinated by his polyrhythmic prose, at once crystal clear and deliberately obtuse; completely fascinated by it, I am, but I'm not completely sure I like it. And even if I did like it, I wouldn't like it, I'd love it.

I guess I must love it. It certainly compels me. All The Pretty Horses, for instance, is the first book of a trilogy. The question of whether I would get hold of the others at some point has never come up. Of course I will.

I love John Grady Cole's taciturnity, and the little gaps between that cowboy front and the young boy behind it. They're hard to spot, those gaps, because the novel is unflichingly distant from its hero. What makes Cole so intriguing is that we never see inside his head. That's not unusual, but add to that the hero's youth and inexperience and the eye-opening shitfest he rides into, and you've got something. There's a whole novel here that isn't even written. A whole tumultous storm going on under the surface that we only see second-hand, shadows and winds, in the book.

The prose is distant, but not spare. The impression I get is that his earlier stuff is fuller, and if that's the case, I might struggle with them, but All The Pretty Horses is pitched in my reach. I love the beating horse heart that makes each sentence roll into the next, and I especially love the calm intervals between it: the dialogue.

Some of that dialogue is Spanish, though. Every now and then it's made clear what the gist of those conversations were, but mostly not. Is McCarthy writing for an audience who mostly know Spanish, like a British author would use O-level French twenty years ago? Or is this the most extreme example of McCarthy happily muddying his picture?

I don't know. I'd believe either. Reading All The Pretty Horses never felt like less than reading a book from another world entirely. Maybe in that world, everyone knows Spanish. Maybe that world doesn't really exist. 

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Clicking Of Cuthbert

PG Wodehouse

I don't give a damn about golf. Not the slightest damn. And I'd put off reading The Clicking Of Cuthbert for precisely that reason. Why put up with moments of golf in my Wodehouse when I have plenty of golf-free offereings to be getting on with? Well, precisely.

But when reading Frances Donaldson's biography of the man, she claimed Cuthbert among her favourites. And as she came late in life to Wodehouse, and read the whole lot over a couple of years, she's in a much better position than anyone else I know to pick between them. Most people are like me: they've read anything from one to two dozen, mostly chosen at random, with a little unjustified balance toward the Wooster end of the canon, and they've read them at different times of their life, with different intensities, and most probably with changing tastes.

You could say my interest was captured; or that my appetite was well and truly whetted; or that I was hooked and lined, if not yet sinkered. Plum would say something funnier, obviously. So with some trepidation, I picked these golf stories off of shelf. Was I about to be disappointed by a favourite author? Was I acting rashly, blindly, no doubt leading myself into the inevitable despair that the tainting of the Wodehouse name would spin me into?

No. I was half-expecting to write a post about this book in which I would say that subject matter is not important when you're reading from the pen of Pelham Grenville. That's what I was half-expecting. I was right, it turned out, not to commit my expectation fully to this vision, because it turned out to be nonsense.

The subject matter is important. What makes The Clicking Of Cuthbert stand out from the Wodehouse crowd to the likes of Donaldson, is completely and utterly it's golfcentricism. I wish I was being insightful here, I really do, but the author points out this exact thing in the foreword ("Fore!").

As a writer of light fiction, Wodehouse often suffers from not actually straining, torturing and generally self-pitying his way through the writing of a novel. There is no pain at the heart of his prose. But when he writes about golf... he has been hurt. Clearly, he has strained, tortured and generally self-pitied his way round many a link. There is a hint of agony, never more than hinted at, that certainly sets this apart from Aunts Aren't Gentlemen or Something Fresh.

The other factor that marks the Cuthbert stories out is their narrator, the Oldest Member. Let me quote him.

Imitate the spirit of Marcus Aurelius. "Whatever may befall thee," says that great man in his Meditations, "it was preordained for thee from everlasting. Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear." I like to think that this noble thought came to him after he had sliced a couple of new balls into the woods, and that he jotted it down on the back of his score-card. For there can be no doubt that the man was a golfer, and a bad golfer at that. 

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Manhood For Amateurs

Michael Chabon

This is a collection of autobiographical essays about being a father and a husband and an ex-husband and a brief son-in-law. I don't know if it says more about me or Chabon that I read it is a stand-alone love letter to childhood.

I was particularly taken with the fact that he and his children are all massive Doctor Who geeks. Not because I like the show, though I do, but because I'm deeply attached to the idea that people need to share the same cultural environment, the same atmosphere of stories.

References are so important. They're the shortcuts and exploded diagrams of conversation. It's not always easy to communicate a particular situation, a particular relationship, or the significance of a pareticular event, from first principles. And if you can point your listener to a story that you know and that they know and that echoes what you wish to explain, you don't need to.

That's the best reason I can think of to mourn the loss of the classical education. I get sick of characters and their authors in old books always referring to Greek myths and the like, because I don't share the references. But the intended readers would undoubtedly have got them. These days, there's not many stories an author can point to and be completely sure the reader knows them. I don't even know with any certainty which stories are the wallpaper in my sister's houses. There's too many stories to choose from.

It's why it's so important to watch the same comedy programs as your friends. Even if they're crap. Making sure all my friends have seen the same comedy that I've seen has become a personal mission of the religious variety, in recent years. I want to live in the same richly textured storyworlds they do, so I can talk to them properly.

(An aside: That's also why every book or story I write is full of other books and stories. Salvage, in which a woman fantasises about the end of the world, is full of the characters from Friends. Full of them.)

That's all a long and laboured way of saying how excited I was to discover that the Chabons all watch Doctor Who, and quote it and discuss it and make sense of their lives in accordance to it. Let's not mourn the classical education, but let's all start watching Jonathan Creek. Or Band of Brothers. Or anything, it doesn't matter. Wodehouse and his daughter swapped letters about trashy American soaps for years. That's fine.

But while Chabon is keen to create a shared environment for his whole family, he is also keen to protect the independent world of childhood that he fears is a dying space, a swiftly dwindling rainforest. He makes the decision to disapprove of the mildly gross Captain Underpants books, despite secretly liking them, so his children have the start of somewhere to go where he is not allowed to follow. When adults start moving in on the cultural items of childhood, the children have nowhere to grow. They need their own world, and their own language. They need a basement.

When Chabon finds himself in a house without a basement, he worries for his children. Where will the 'dark tide of magical boredom' collect, ferment and inspire? So he builds them a treehouse. That's the one practical tip I picked up from this self-help guide. Build them a treehouse, and don't skimp on the dank. And hope,  with the same pure memory and desperate awe of my own childhood places that Chabon does, that 'they lie up there on their backs for hours, feeling tragic, and happy, and terribly, terribly bored.'

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Being a novice writer reading about the life of a professional writer is always hard going and endlessly fascinating and slightly queer. I repeatedly switched from wanting to take notes to wanting to give up writing to wanting to tell Agatha Christie what she was doing wrong. What she did wrong, by the way, was to not write in the way she writes here when she's writing about Poirot.

Because, and maybe this shouldn't be surprising, this is a brilliantly written book. I've read a fair amount of Christie--all the Poirot short stories, and half a dozen of the novels--and she doesn't write like this in them. I loved them, of course, but not in the same way I loved this memoir.

So. I have made it a personal mission now to track down at least one of Christie's Mary Westmacott novels. These were her more 'literary' works, or at least I imagine they are. They are certainly free of detectives. They are also, more importantly, the works she was most proud of, and most personally connected with. She wrote one of them in three days, even bunking off war-work for one day, and thought it the best thing she ever did. She was basically crazy. And I basically have to read that book.

Writing came accidently to her, as a career. She reckoned she could do it, but only as a challenge to her sister. She got involved in it, but only in the way her grandmother had got involved in embroidery--an abosrbing craft to fill the evenings. Even when she'd published half a dozen novels, she didn't think of it as a job, didn't put 'writer' down on her passport forms, and didn't see the cheques from the publisher as a genuine source of income.

It's hardly fair, I thought to myself, that this author, of such natural prose yet crafted plots, this gifted storyteller who is both loved and acclaimed, took to it so easily. So casually. Without fuss. When I want to do it more than anything else, and (occasionally) work really hard for it... et cetera, et cetera. Clearly, real writers are naturals, and I'm kidding myself that I can get there just by trying.

But the flipside of that thought is, if she can be this good by accident--imagine how good I can be on purpose!

Of course, the first thing you do when reading about a successful author is to isolate the similarities between their life and your own. Me and Agatha were both youngest children, who grew up in places they loved, with a large, loving family. We were both left to our own devices, extremely happy on our own, inventing worlds to play in and people to populate them, which I hear isn't the normal way of going about things. I don't know about that.

But that's what Mrs. Christie puts down much of success in writing down to, so... you know. Quid pro quo, or quad erat demonstratum, whichever is more plausible (I have a biography of Latin sitting on my shelf, so I'll find out soon).

Childhood A led to Huge Success.

Ben also had Childhood A.

Therefore Ben will suffer from Huge Success in later life.


Friday, 10 December 2010

PG Wodehouse: A Biography

by Frances Donaldson

Two things stand out most about this man. The first is his epic output, and the love of work that allowed it. Donaldson doesn't even bother trying to catalogue his work, talk about it in a chronological way, or approach it in any way as a unit. She is quick to point out, on a number of occasions, that it would require a much longer book, without the trifling distractions of the author's life, to make any sense of it.

Wodehouse's work ethic is the great triumph of his life. Of course, he had a natural way with the rhthym and nuance of The Great Sentence, and a good if not exceptional ear for comic dialogue, but those things were not responsible for his greatness. Greatness came, with more graft than glamour, from his plots.

Every archaic or stand-in or mill-running plot he wrote around was the result of weeks of agonising over every point. Every river-dunking had strictly apportioned motives, every failed plan was meticulously storyboarded and reshaped. If it couldn't hold itself up, if it couldn't float without the buoyancy aid of funny prose (and Wodehouse prose is the most buoyant) he would scrap it--or more likely, retinker it. If it wouldn't fit in a book, it became a musical.

Comedy is the easist place to look like an idiot; Wodehouse found that out in his war years. But in his books, he certainly took great measures to make sure he was never left looking like a fool. Every novel functioned--something he could control and predict--just in case the funny didn't stick. That's why he has an ouvre of about 100 novels, which vary in hilarity, but are remarkable consistent all the same--there isn't a single failure, not a single book that cannot entertain on the basic level. Every narrative narratives.

That's why Wodehouse was never comfortable with being highly thought of in literary circles--he was more proud of his constant functioning than of his frequent excelling. As Donaldson points out, he was incurably low-brow in tastes (not in a crude way, but in a John Stuart Mill way). And as her description of his working methods makes abundantly clear, 90% of his time was spent on the basic form a book would take. Writing it was the easy 10%, during which he felt guilty because it wasn't really work.

The second thing that stands out about Wodehouse is his inability to deal with people. There are few close relationships in his life, and while those few are sweet and deep and heartfelt, they still contain something impersonal, something distant. Even to his beloved stepdaughter he writes about his work, his dog, and later his favourite soap operas. He was never a soul-barer.

His lack of understanding about people is at the heart of his naivety, and at the heart of his alleged treason. As a prisoner of war in Germany, he didn't see the problem in broadcasting a few humorous monologues on a German worldwide radio station. He was showing how well the English in trouble were coping with their situation, stiff upper lipping and silver lining finding; and on a personal level, responding to the mass of mostly American fanmail he had recieved in his internment camp. If there was any more base motive behind his talks, it was simply his lifelong desire to write, to work, and to make people laugh, shining through four years of war-frustrated output.

The funny thing is, when you get into the unique rhythm and flavour of his life, you begin to forget about real life and normal approaches, and see things in the innocent way that he did. When I first read the passages quoted from the English press in response to him broadcasting on enemy wavelengths, being light-hearted and anything but serious, I couldn't understan the backlash. I mean, it was still funny, wasn't it? That's the main concern, isn't it?

But that's not the main concern, not in wartime, and Wodehouse realised later in life what a fool he had been. But how easy it is to forgive him, when he's left 100 novels, in each of which that unique rhythm and flavour of life is present, and the reader forgets about real life and normal appraoches, and sees things in the innocent way that he did. It's funny, isn't it?