Monday, 6 June 2011

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Michael Chabon

There's something bittersweet about delving into a favourite author's early work. It's pretty exciting to see how an author has grown over the years; what talents they always had, what weaknesses they have or haven't lost, which aspects were seeded long before they were developed.

But on the other, more emotive and less rational, hand; what tainted greatness, how boringly humanising, how utterly demythologising. I mean, it's really comfortable to believe that greatness is something separate, inherent and unchanging; that it is emergent, changable and the outcome of (shudder) work is far more awkward.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a great example of this bubble-bursting, but an even better example of the growth of an author. For all it's weaknesses, it is still undeniably from the same hand as The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Kavalier & Clay (although I know there's people who don't agree with that).

Thematically Pittsburgh is completely on-canon. It's almost a mission statement for the rest of his ouvre to date, complete with a nod to the world of genre in its hidden mafia background. The weaknesses mentioned are not thematic, they're in the prose and structure.

Much of it is overwritten, and the cleverness is pushed too far forward. The structure feels somehow naive, complete with unsatisfying but overly-ended ending. 'But he was only 23 when he wrote it!', some might say. And while that is fantastically impressive, it's not an excuse.

A lot of the novel's strength, its perfect render of the intensity of youth, are due to Chabon's age when writing it; if he gets the praise for age-related pros, he can take the criticism for age-related cons. 23 is not an excuse.

My favourite thing about this novel is what's wrong with it. Unsatisfying structure and unwieldly prose? This is Chabon! Those are among his greatest strengths, in recent works. And greatness as the outcome of (shudder) work is not so bad after all.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

All Fun And Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye

Christopher Brookmyre

Like with every Brookmyre I've ever read, all I could think of after finishing this was how soon I could get another Brookmyre to read. If I saw a granny reading one in the street within an hour of finishing this, I would have robbed her. These books are drugs.

I think I know why. There's a brutal humour, cleverness and charm in Brookmyre's writing, but there's something else too. A third of the way through All Fun And Games, I faced up to the truth that I was reading a thriller. There. I said it.

I don't tend to read thrillers or crime novels. And maybe it's because my system is so unused to them that when I'm tricked into reading one via a very non-genre example, they hit hard. I'm like a teetotaller who's had his water bottle switched with Vodka.

It's good news, I think. As long as I don't become an alcoholic and only read high-percentage books which get you drunk instantly and straightforwardly. It's good that I have that option, now; sometimes you need it. Brookmyre is my crime/thriller writer, and I can go there whenever I choose.

Which is why it's worrying news that I saw his latest on the New In table at Waterstones yesterday, and it was by 'Chris' not 'Christopher,' and was boasting a 'new direction.' The new direction sounded like it was focusing on the serious-crime side, and forgetting the humour and blistering originality that first got me interested.

I'm ten Brookmyre-novels away from catching up, anyway, so it's a long time before I'll have to explore the new direction. I just hope this isn't a gateway drug situation.

Changes of direction, do you follow them? Do you buy the latest from your favourite author because you like his/her writing, or because you like her/his direction? Or is it the way they dress?

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Writing's on the Window

Literary Blog Hop

Talk about one author that you love and why his or her writing is unique. Please be specific.

I'm gonna talk about David Lodge, because a) I love him and b) I never see him mentioned anywhere.

Often writing that is 'unique' -- and especially writing that is unique enough to be noticed and discussed in a blog post -- can be affected. Maybe I mean a less pejorative word than affected, because some of my favourite authors do it. What I mean is, the writing itself is openly, forwardly the point (or part of it). A Vonnegut plot written by anyone else would not a Vonnegut novel make: it's obvious from the first page that how he tells it -- and what drawings there are, and where he puts the asteriks -- are part of the experience.

David Lodge completely does this, and completely doesn't. Orwell said good prose is a window pane, and Lodge strives for that -- you don't notice it, you notice what you see through it. It's harder than it sound. But even so, there are plenty of authors who have a talent for clear prose that puts narrative and character centre stage, right? So that's not unique, even if he does it uniquely well.

The singularity enters when we realise that Lodge is a massive fan (also known as wind turbine) of writing. It's his favourite subject. And so his window pane isn't quite as simple as it looks, because he can't resist playing round with the fundamental idea of writing/writer/reader/page.

In Thinks..., the entire book is a stream of consciousness narrative recorded to dictaphone by a professor of cognitive science, in which he thinks alot about what and why he is recording (writing) it as he goes along. In Therapy, the narrator is self-consciously writing the book, he knows not why, and he openly plays around with writing from other people's perspectives, in an exercise for his therapist. In Deaf Sentence, the narrator decides to tell part of his novel-journal in the third person, because first is too embarrassing.

So Lodge manages the gymnastic paradox of completely clear writing, which doesn't get in the way, with an obsessive, occasionally academic, constantly fascinating study of WRITING at the same time. Lovely.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Nicola Barker

After the massive, incomprehensible, hilarious and bruising Darkmans, Nicola Barker decided to write an almost linear, almost straightforward novel. Then she found herself disappearing down 27 separate fantastic and obtuse tangents within that relatively straightforward, arced novel. Then she went nuts, got rid of the original novel, and just kept the tangents.

I have no evidence for any of that, of course, but that's the story I back-engineered from Burley Cross Postbox Theft. It is, if anything, more marvellously scattered than Darkmans; Barker plays on the esoteric, and makes the lack of connections as much a braggable feature of the novel as the rare/barely there connections.

The conceit of BCPT is that a bag of letters, stolen from the rusting postbox, is found abandoned by the criminal in a back alley. It's these letters, along with bookending missives from the two police officers trying to solve the crime, that make up the book. It's the perfect plan for Barker, who gets to flex her fearsome muscles in constructing wild and vibrant voices. Within the 27 letters, there is enough room to roam far, far away; and enough constriction to keep the book from ballooning into a four-inch spine.

The lack of exceptional length is really important. Because not only does Barker roam/tangent/scatter/explode more than ever before, but she also ties the whole thing together. That she even tried for an 'ending' completely surprised me -- I was fully expecting a non-ending to match the non-narrative before it. But end it she did, surpassing anything I originally expected from this book.

I demanded the impossible after reading Darkmans in January. I wanted Barker -- or anyone, really -- to make virtuoso explosivity of prose the heart of a novel, to completely disprove the need for an actual ending by being so spectacular -- and then to give me the ending to match the spectacular body. And here it is, the impossible, Burley Cross Postbox Theft.

Now I want the sort of rare steak that makes me irresistable to women, and leaves next weeks lottery numbers written in blood on the plate.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

I like reading books in series, but they tend to be the exceptions among my library. When it happens, I am usually acutely aware of the fact that the book I am reading is one of a series; and it will be a series I follow, buy, read, sequentially.

Nothing about Atwood's The Year of the Flood screamed series at me, so none of the above was going on. If somebody had suggested to me that the book was in some way a follow on, I would have laughed, a little cruelly, perhaps, in their face. Such was my confidence.

So, obviously, it is a follow on, after all. Amazon reviewers (where were you before I read this?) make it very clear that this novel contains spoilers for Oryx and Crake -- the next of Atwood's novels, coincidentally, on my random invisible read-next list.

It doesn't really matter. The books are, as far as I can tell, free-standing. Certainly, the narratives are separate, until near the end, and any character overlap didn't stop me enjoying The Year of the Flood independently. And there's a lot to enjoy, all round: Atwood's fully realised, marvellously embellished future world; her serious playfulness; the inherent page-momentum; the messiness.

So it doesn't really matter. Only, of course, it slightly does. Because as I read, I became suspicious. Engaged as I was with the novel, a layer of my attention was taken by the Mystery of the Possible Prequel. And my attention couldn't afford the loss; the book already contains one attention-splicer -- the authorially indulgent sermons and songs, which manage to punctuate (but little else) the more interesting bits.

I accuse myself of cowardice. I lost a good few days to this novel, but it didn't quite reach the heights/hit the mark/pick the metaphor that I was hoping for. And here I am, trying to blame its failure on my own reading-order cock up. I don't think this stands up in Book Court.

How much does readerly context affect a novel's percieved quality? I mean, do I like books more when I'm on holiday? In the bath? In years Norwich City get promoted to the flipping Premier League?

Monday, 16 May 2011


Writers' stories of their public shame, edited by Robin Robertson.

I didn't believe in schadenfreude until I read this. For example: even though it's the funniest show on earth, I have to force myself to sit through an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm: I don't get any pleasure from other people's misfortune.

But most of these stories of awkwardness, disappointment and embarrassment gave me a warm feeling inside, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's jealousy? These authors have 'made it', so they somehow deserve it. Maybe it's optimism? If these idiots can make it, so can I. Or maybe it's recognition. These particular neuroticisms are mine as well! I've certainly picked the right ambition.

There's another pleasure here, besides schadenfreude: I love reading about writers. I read about writers all the time, but those accounts are usually about very successful writers, or newly practising writers, and are sometimes fictional. The writers and poets in Mortification cover the wide gamut of success, but are mostly from the obscure middle: they write, do tours and do readings, but they are not well-known.

For someone who wants to be a writer but is scared of success, it's great to know that this strangely obscure middle exists, and functions, and is even fairly well-populated. It's less great to realise how few of it's members I've ever heard of -- and I am a representative of the bookier end of the public spectrum.Maybe I do want success.

Still. It's good to know writers spend the times between writing getting fully immersed in mortification, over-analyzing the minutest moments in their lives, and honing every minor event into a perfectly sleek anecdote. Once I sell a novel, I'm there. I won't have to change at all.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

This Hop's Question:

What books have you read that have been hyped as literary and, in your opinion, were not?

I can't think of any books that I've read where I've been sold 'literary' but haven't actually got it (though I'm sure they exist). It's not normal for a book to be marketed as literary when it isn't -- for one thing, that's a very short term strategy. The (few) people who buy because of literary hype will soon find out. Secondly, LITERARY is not a big mover. Prize-winning literary, yes, but on it's own the L-word scares off many more than it brings in.

What I can think of, though, are books not marketed or talked about as literary but which have, once innocently opened, great literary qualities. Further evidence for my brand new theory (that I already disagree with, if only out of habit) that literaryism is a turn-off, and should be smuggled in without the reader at first -- or ideally, ever -- realising.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Hunter S. Thompson

I know they made a film out of this in the 90s, but I can't get my head around that. Not because it's an unfilmable mess; I have no trouble imagining this as a film. Almost the opposite. I can picture the film exceptionally well, because I've already seen Withnail & I half a dozen times.

Two drugged and drunk friends go on a crazy roadtrip and mourn the passing of the 1960s, and all those years entailed. Yep, that's the same story. As Withnail and Fear and Loathing are both at least 'based on' true events, though, I'm not calling plagiarism (except in the way that all non-fiction is plagiarism, by stealing bits from real life.)

The fictional truth/factual nonsense angle is undiluted in Fear and Loathing. This is, after all, the textbook example of Gonzo journalism (it was only in the Post Script material in this Harper Perennial edition that I learned that Gonzo journalism wasn't Thompson's own coinage.)

Maybe the lure of Gonzo journalism was contextual to its time. From my perspective, though, there is little that is surprising or original in it. I'd be massively surprised if it really did only take hold in the late 60s -- it's a fundamental tool of storytelling (or truth-telling, whatever) -- just having an identity crisis.

That's not to say Hunter Thompson's own take on the mongrel approach is not frantically exciting and readable. Fear and Loathing paints a very different picture of the end-of-the-decade malaise than that found in the rain-filled English Withnail. Thompson is looking back, mourning the loss of the bigger thing; the movement, the intangible moment when everyone who was there was part of the same cresting wave. Withnail's journey is a much more personal one; looking forward, but not with positivity. He is staring down the barrel of a hopeless life, the decade after Hope reached an all time international high.

How much of that difference in perspective is genuine, and how much is some Gonzo insinuation from the weather the two stories both fight and embody, I wouldn't care to say.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Things I Don't Like

Mr Zimmerman over at The Nude Orc Review of Books posted an excellent list of his literary nemeses, and I'm not only mentioning that so I get to write the word 'nemeses'. I'm mentioning it because I read the post this morning, and spent the day at work trying to figure out who I disliked in Bookworld.

It turns out very few authors have irked me. I could only really think of Martin Amis, and I don't have a 'why' for that. So I came home with a list of literary ephemera that gets me all peeved and shit:

Harry Potter Hype Hate
It's absolutely okay to not like Harry Potter. I think I would like it less if I hadn't been 10 when the first book came out. But lots of literary smirkers in my circle hate on it, not because it's bad, but because it's popular.

It's a kids' series. It's not meant to be great prose or appealingly existential. Acknowledge it for what it is; don't call people stupid for reading it, even if they're adults; try not to sound so bitter; admit that the story is a tiny bit fantastic; be super-excited that books can occassionally reach film-levels of public love; judge less.

The Closed Cirle
This sequel to the fantastic Rotter's Club is terrible. Not only is it a bad book following up on a good book, it is a bad book deliberately out to spoil what made the first book special. Sequels in general: only go there if the second book is twice as good as the first. If you, the author, don't think it's twice as good, then the reader won't find it half as good.

As Good As FAMOUS AUTHOR Or Your Money Back
I see this on the front of books all the time. Do publishers really think they can accurately and objectively quantify GOOD? If you have that superpower, don't use it to sell a few extra copies of the last Mark Billingham, fools! Use it to conquer the moral quandary of multi-cultural relativism, or start the perfect society on a farm in Scotland.

In any decent-sized bookshop, there are hundreds of books on which a critic or fellow author has drooled this most false and demanding word. I would stake a limb that there are more 'unmissable' books than there are hours in the average lifetime, and who could read War & Jest (or whatever) in an hour? Let's be realistic, people.

And while we're on press quotes: Will the Daily Mail stop employing insomniacs? Having 'it kept me up all night/I couldn't put it down all night/I lost sleep by not putting it down all throughout the hours of darkness' on every single copy of every single thriller/crime in the UK does not help anybody discern anything.

Blessed vitriol. Does anyone else get madder at small things like this than big things like Osama, Alternative Voting or Cormac McCarthy?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Empire of the Sun

JG Ballard

You can't read everything. Trying to would be like visiting every village in Norfolk -- you'd stop hanging around for long, you'd concentrate on passing through as quickly as possible. Then someone would show you a map of England, and your heart would sink. Then you'd find an atlas of the world. Scary.

And because you can't read everything, you have to spend some brainpower deciding what to invest your time in. Certain genres are ruled out, at the probable cost of many great books; certain authors sound oddly appealing, others are intuitively ignored. Specific books are tried, and the rest of the author's canon may depend on the success or failure of that book.

So when I found myself frustrated by Ballard's The Drought, I naturally asssumed it was curtains for the rest of his ouvre, regardless of the beautiful covers and unique reviews. But another complicating factor came into play: blog comments. Ballard was ardently defended by his fans, in the face of my criticisms. And as I had Empire of the Sun sitting on my shelf, a second chance for JG didn't seem entirely out of the question.

Well. I am now a fully paid-up member of The Second Chance Club (except for the paid-up part). Empire of the Sun paints a vivid picture of the incoherent, chaotic and arcless nature of a world at war, and the fragments of order held disproportionately dear to those caught in the middle; and it shows all that by being all that. As Jim slowly adapts himself to the war world, the book follows. Its own past becomes irrelevant, its own future becomes a tool to keep heads up in the present.

The symbollism that so bothered me in Ballard's earlier novel is here a more succesful, subservient player. Jim's vain struggle for sense in the senseless world is aptly illustrated by patterns and parrallels that are not really there, that lead nowhere, or that only feedback onto themselves, endlessly.

The lesson here is not only to allow second chances; but to stick up for the authors you love, to argue and insist and enthuse enough that our friends and lovers and colleagues give them another go. I'm left wondering how many friends have left Pratchett by the wayside because they read The Colour of Magic first...

Friday, 29 April 2011

If Not Now, When?

The latest Incubus album If Not Now, When? has leaked, over two months before the release date. Fan Boys like myself are in complete meltdown. I'm planning to wait until the release date, because I'm a morally superior Luddite.

Succumbing to a leak is a bit like finding your Christmas presents early, I always think. When I was younger (so much younger than today) I used to have a sneaky peak behind my parents' bed in the run-up to Christmas, to see what they'd got me. I think they cottoned on pretty quickly and hid the bounty elsewhere, but even if they hadn't, I would have stopped. It doesn't matter what you see, you'll always feel guilty, and a little disappointed (WHERES THE HELICOPTER??); and Christmas day becomes null and void.

What's exceptional about the Incubus leak is that it's come before the album cover art has even been released. That's way early. And it underlines the key thing about leaks; they happen because the digital content precedes the physical content.

That's never been a problem with books. You need to wait for the things to be printed to read them. But, actually, wait. What's that thing everyone's talking about? Begins with an 'e'. Ends with a 'reader'...

So here's my question. Will we start to see high-anticipation titles getting leaked onto the internet weeks (even months?) before the official release dates? Don't they already send out review copes as ebooks?

Monday, 25 April 2011

I'm The King Of The Castle

Susan Hill

I'm the King of the Castle is about the deep isolation and injustice possible in a child's world. Susan Hill is clearly aiming at fear in all its incarnations, but the only fear it really captures is that of being right in an adult world that is wrong; of being misjudged by everyone around you; of having nobody who shares your particular sanity.

Being a child in the circumstances of Charles Kingshaw is to live in a system that makes no sense; a world in which you need to speak out, but has no mechanism for your voice to be heard. The real fear is here. Forget the crow, the moths, the bully and the forest; think Franz Kafka.

I was drawn in to the helpless nightmare Kingshaw lives in at Waring, in time, despite the quite horrendous comma abuse throughout the novel. Every page is littered with twice as many commas as it needs, separating every minor pause of rhetoric, or failing to splice what should be separate items sufficiently. Opening a page at random -- 82:
He wanted to go wild, with the frustration of it, everything was against him.
By referring to it, he might manage to annoy Hooper, though he doubted even that, and in any case, he would never know for sure, Hooper kept a bland face.

Maybe they're not too bothersome on their own, but the sheer cumulative mass of them is overbearing (and there were far worse examples than on that particular page).

Still, Susan Hill can do no wrong in my eyes, for one reason. She has succeeded where almost every author I have read this year has failed, and got an ending spot on. This book ends at the final event of the inevitable chain. It does not have a change of heart; it does not undermine itself, out of authorially insecurity; it does try one clever step too many, out of authorial self-confidence.

Listen: this is what is missing in most books I read. Endings are zeniths, and endings are nadirs. Nothing else.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Book Cover Series

Aren't these beautiful? There's something about book covers designed in series that sends me wild. I love it. I have frequently considered buying a copy of a book I already own just because it goes better with the other books by that author.

They don't even have to be that spectacular. The collective, bordered covers of Michal Chabon's novels are fantastic, but these fairly simple Christopher Brookmyre covers still make me sick with envy when I browse them in a bookshop.

The fact that the amazing McCarthy covers have blurb-quotes as part of their very design is no coincidence, I think. A major draw of the uniform covers is the badge of excellence they represent. This author is good enough to have his back catalogue reissued; and this author's back catalogue is expected to appeal to a more intense reader -- the sort who care that their books match. Cormac McCarthy's novels, by the way, are expected to appeal to the type of reader who runs his fingers across the embossed bumpiness of words on covers.

If I'm entirely honest, I don't just appreciate these covers; I aspire to them. They are how I concieve of writerly success. An author has made it when they have arty-designy uniform back catalogue reissues. My real ambition as a writer, then, is not to get millions of readers (it's more vain), it's not to write the Great Novel Of Our Time (much less ambitious), it's to look pretty damn fantastic oin my own shelves, if nobody elses.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"give me plenty of that guitar"

If I knew the fate of people's souls after death, and what they could do to influence it, I would go on about it all the time. Even when it got really annoying, even when people claimed it was rude or invasive, I would still keep banging on about it. You know what I'm talking about.

I don't know the fate of people's souls after death; but I do know about George Harrison.

I've listened to nothing but Harrison for the last couple of months, and I've decided this isToo Big to keep to myself. So I've made a personal 'best of' mix, and I've burned a dozen copies. Now every time I meet someone -- new friend, old, postman, etc -- they get a copy of it. THEY HAVE TO KNOW THE TRUTH.

George Harrison is so good that this song doesn't even make it on to the CD:

Who's your favourite Beatle? Is that even a fair question?

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Sunset Limited

Cormac McCarthy

The Sunset Limited is Cormac McCarthy without the thick, trippy prose, so it's no surprise that it's both accessible and fantastic.

It's billed as faith vs. reason, but that's not what's going on here. The only point it makes about religion is that the 'debate' becomes emphatically overshadowed by personal temperament when people reach their nadir.

It's testament to McCarthy's skill that he can write a novel even loosely formed around faith against reason and neither bore me nor piss me off. His insert-superlative-here ear for dialogue and his expert balance of humour and weight make this impossible to dislike (prove me wrong....)

There's another dichotomy McCarthy flirts with here, given by the character names: White is the suicidal book-loving intellectual (cheer the fuck up); Black is the uneducated, people-loving ex-con. I don't buy it. Ot at least, I don't think there's anything invested in that distinction, and no comment made by it. It's a cultural shortcut, maybe.

The real divide is opposing temparements, not opposing ideologies, beliefs, intellects or cultures. Any opposition they have in thought is the fruit of their opposition in nature. The Sunset Limited is two boldly drawn characters, brought together for an inevitably brief visit. They are each compelling and real, and it is they who make this book pass far too quickly.

I haven't seen the TV adaption, but I intend to. I'm told that White is more sypathetic than he is originally written, and based on the casting and trailers, I already agree. Too sympathetic, I fear.

Because the real dichotomy at the heart of The Sunset Limited isn't faith and reason, or head and heart, or black and white; and definitely not Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson. It's warmth vs. cold, and hope vs. despair. You can't warm up White without changing the whole thing.

My favourite part is the end. The outcome between hope and despair. I won't spoil it, but there's certain things about the nature of hope and the nature of despair that make only one ending is logically possible.

Friday, 15 April 2011

microthought: cleverness

Cleverness is not an advantage in an aspiring writer.

People talk like it's a headstart.

It's as much of a headstart as wearing stilts is to a mountain climber.

You might be two foot closer to the summit, but you're much going to trip yourself up repeatedly.

Cleverness: good or bad?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Sometimes People Think You're Stupid

Sometimes people think you're stupid. Why not carry around a handful of Scrabble letters in your pocket, and next time somebody thinks you're stupid, reach for your handkerchief. As you do so, accidently spill the Scrabble letters from your pocket onto the table. Casually remark: 'oh look, that spells pluvial,' as you sweep them up and return them to your pocket.

But not everyone is convinced by that. Maybe it was because you said pluvial meant 'sort of balanced looking, I think, but in a negative sense.' Don't fret: simply spend an evening picking out the Trivial Pursuit question card with the hardest set of questions, and memorise the answers.

Then, while having a drink with your friend, let him find the card under his beermat, and wow him with your knowledge: Eric Clapton, Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation, The Big Lebowski, The Parva Naturalia, 4th May 1964, and Buttons. Be sure to wait for him to ask the questions before you provide the answers.

If he still thinks you're stupid, and says they got the answer wrong on the card ( it's actually O Brother, Where Art Thou?) there's still hope. Take a couple of old Monopoly properties with you next time you meet, to let him know you're a seriously succesful businessman. Show him: you can get a £70 mortgage on a whole street, in central London; so don't get any funny ideas.

If he recognises the Monopoly card, don't fret yourself. It's not the end of the world:

Simply buy two-dozen chess sets, until you find one where the king piece looks most like you. Show your friend, and inform him that there is an entire tribe of miniature people living in your wall cavity, who worship you as their benign and hygienic God. Eighty-thousand of the famous Hoolahan Mice-Hunters can't be wrong, so he should treat you with more respect.

Monday, 11 April 2011


David Lodge

Lodge is a novelist fascinated by novel-writing. Nevermind the fictional biographies he's started writing about his heroes (Henry James and HG Wells, so far); nevermind the essays on the components of fiction that he should be more famous for; the real proof of his fascianation lies in his novels themselves.

Therapy sees a successful scriptwriter experimenting with form. Druing his journey of self-discovery, he writes a journal, a narrative memoir, and quasi-fictional accounts of himself through the eyes of his friends. He experiments with elements of voice, deconstructs the amount of truth in fiction (or the other way around), talks us through the production and revision of the text we are currently reading, and even even finds time to analyse some Kierkergaard.

This game-playing is entertaining, and paradoxically genuine. This is a trademark of Lodge; he makes the writing so much a part of the book that it can never seem contrived; it is so openly a written thing that any moments of writerly feeling work to include you rather than distance you from the subject. It's the same trick he pulls in Deaf Sentence, but here it is central to the arc of the novel (like in Thinks...)

That arc is not a new one. Tubby Passmore has Internal Derangement of the Knee (medical speak for I Don't Know) and Internal Derangement of everything else, too. He begins searching, doesn't find what he is looking for, but finds a more acceptable version of himself along the way.

So far, so what. Lodge has a huge amount of fun on the way, and it's impossible not to enjoy his comic expertise, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. What makes Therapy such a treat, especially for anybody who writes or is intrigued by writing, is the parrallel. Passmore's journey is exactly as eye-opening, accidental and self-finding as is his experiments with telling it.

It's not just the old divide of the story vs. the telling; it's the complete blurring of that division. If you take away the experiments in the telling, you change the story crucially. They're at least completely co-dependant; more likely, they're one and the same thing.

Friday, 8 April 2011

:59 Seconds

Richard Wiseman

The world of self-help is thick with urban myths and intuitively reasonable claims, and it's easy to find yourself nodding along to something that, under less emotive inspection, is fatuous.

Wiseman clearly loves that sort of inspection. In :59 Seconds he takes us on a guided tour through all the big names in folk psychology; happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision making, parenting, and personality. And as he guides, he rigorously evaluates, with a big grin on his face.

Through a mixture of wide research and his own often unusual experiments, he comes up with a few surprises.

Positive thinking is a mixed bag; rewards make people work less hard; two minds are not better than one; playing hard to get is counterproductive; taking out anger on a punch-bag (for example) makes you angrier; and many more. Wiseman unmasks these fallacies with infectious zeal and smirky humour (and he is very funny: I first knew of Wiseman by seeing him perform magic/psychology/stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe.)

It's not all debunking, though. The book came about when Wiseman was asked by a friend about happiness; when Wiseman launched into an essay-length answer, his friend interrupted him. I'm busy -- are there any tips that take less than a minute to tell me about?

These tips range from the practical (put a picture of a baby in your wallet, and it is much more likely to be returned if you lose it) to the common sense (stop procrastinating by starting the task you want to finish) to the stupid (grip a pencil between you teeth without touching it with your lips, so you smile, so you feel better) to the creepy (touch someone on the upper arm and they are more likely to say yes to whatever you ask).

There are dozen more tips in :59 Seconds to statistically improve your chances of success in various fields. There are even one or two I might use. Wiseman writes smartly enough to hide the fact that many of his offerings are a little underseasoned, though, and require at least a pinch of salt to be palatable.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Grievous Bodily Press

Grievous Bodily Press is a brand new publishing house, founded just last week by clumsy entrepeneur, Grievous Bodily. Bodily is enthusiastic about the endeavour, damning rumours he is notoriously indifferent to books as 'somewhat exaggerated.' The firm intend to launch five titles by the end of April:

The Parts Of My Body That Shake When I Brush My Teeth Vigorously In The Nude, by SF Nundy, PhD. In this book, Nundy lists the parts of his body that shake when he brushes his teeth vigorously in the nude. There will be an animated 'eBook experience' released in the summer.

Shelf Help: Organise Your Library, Organise Your Life, by failed superhero, Nixon Overthere. Overthere claims that redheads with anxiety issues should shelve Rowling under 'G' in Reference/Miscellaneous, and backs up his claims with a seriously impressive lack of scholarship.

The Outstanding Life, by Keith Swimming. This 100% unofficial biography covers the steamy affairs, failed marriages, battles with drink and inevitable descent into therapy of the person reading the book. All you have to do is write your name in the blank in the first line, and ignore the use of 'he/she' throughout the book.

Stephen King, by Mike 'THE SHINING' Jones. A no-good down-and-out gets elected King of the Stephens, and has to deal with the obvious confusion his new title brings him, like publishers wanting to pay him lots of money. Meanwhile, he must bring lasting peace to the various warring factions of Stephens, by destroying the V Alternative.

Men Are From Earth, Women are From Earth, by Evelyn Hillary. Hillary argues that cats and dogs are also both from earth, but this doesn't mean there should be six of each species whenever there are twelve or more animals in a building. Hillary is said to be working on a sequel, Children & Old People: The Forgotten Genders.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down

Tom Dardis

Buster Keaton's life follows a similar curve to that of Charlie Chaplin, though never in quite the same way. There is trauma and vaudeville in childhood, a few years of excelling in early films, until the artist is recognised and indulged.

There follows a short period of Golden Era: each is completely in charge of their own films, creating every aspect, and making films that are still regarded as masterpieces 80 years on.

This period is exceptional, in both lives. For In Our Hospitality, The Navigator and The General, Buster Keaton has complete control of every shot. He writes as he shoots, directs as he acts, and frequently risks his life. This singularity of vision, unmatched anywhere outside of an author's relationship with a novel (and even then...) is what pushes these films into greatness.

The fall happens to them both in different ways. Chaplin, having cashed in, spends the rest of his life trying to be accepted by critics. Keaton, who always had a more esoteric, less-monied appeal, cannot afford such a luxury, and is forced to become a studio man; then a bit-part man; then a gag-writer.

The fundamental difference between the two, that made Chaplin the more succesful and Keaton by far my preferred choice, is simple. Chaplin was a comedian who wanted to be an artist. Keaton was an artist who wanted to be a comedian.

Chaplin always had popular appeal, but his pretentions could never be truly fulfilled; his story ends, career wise, with him still coming down from that long-ago peak. Keaton always made a unique and timeless product, but his aspirations were harder to fill when he had to compromise on method, for reasons of economy (read: shortsighted studios).

Buster's lifegraph does turn up again at the end, as he is rediscovered and critically hailed. He cannot return to that Golden Era of film-making, but that same Era is now, looking back, eminently justified.

Friday, 1 April 2011

A little hype goes a long way

Literary Blog Hop

The question for this Literary Blog Hop is, this: Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon?

This is fascinating to think about, which is another way of saying I don't have a straight answer.

I think (hell, I know) the most important factor in picking up a book is enthusiasm. I really love to hear someone being enthusiastic about a book; nothing else will get me hungry for it asquickly. Add a declidicous cover to that book and I will have much trouble trying to put it down in a shop.

But when everyone loves a book -- eh. That can annoy me. I know it's mostly snobbery-related, but it's true. One person telling you 'you have to read this book!' is great; 100 people telling you that is not cool. I'm stubborn, and I don't like to be led, even when I know it's for my own good.

There is also a second factor at play, here; expectations. When you read a massively hyped book, you are expecting it to be great. So if it turns out to be really good, instead of great, part of you will process that book as a failure (as if 'failure to live up to expectations' has anything to do with the book itself).

I am slightly (and deliberately) confusing hyped books with classic books, here. I'm not sure if a classic is just a book where the hype reached escape velocity, or the opposite; where the hype never got so high as to provoke a backlash.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Proverbs Reduced To Truth

They say, most cliches contain a grain of truth. THIS IS THE NEWS: a grain is not very much. I mean, look at sand. Tiny. Wouldn't it be good if there were some sayings that contained a more reasonable amount of truth?

Yes it would. In fact, yes it is.

Because I have boiled down some proverbs, evaporating the  excess non-truth, to leave them pure. 100% Polyunsaturated Truth. Each serving contains 100% of an adult's RDA. IT'S GOOD FOR YOU.

Here we go:

1. A watched pot often boils.

2. Three lefts make a right.

3. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts (that contain hostile military forces).

4. You have to accumulate to accumulate.

5. A leopard cannot change a lightbulb. It lacks the manual dexterity.

6. Charity begins with a C.

7. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw orgies.

8. The grass is always greener where there is an abundant supply of water, sunshine and nutrients.

9. Very few men are any form of landmass.

10. Better late than excessively late.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid

Changez, the eponymous narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is charming, polite, and irresistibly likable. It becomes apparent, however, that he is holding something something back; he is not all he seems.

How much of this is the deliberate distancing of respect that his American friends find so endearing, and how much is slick, narratorial deceit, is deliberately unclear.

But this is no con. Hamid draws you in, and it is a cold reader indeed who does not emphasise fully with Changez. And when it is revealed that Changez is, to whichever degree you choose to read into it, a fundamentalist, there is no sleight of hand involved.

The gentle, grey area blend from American success story to riot-stirring anti-American is both the craft and the message of this book. We are presented with two extremely opposite points of view, and the book is a dialogue between them. Are they fundamentally different positions, separate in essense? Hamid doesn't think so.

Changez's own journey to becoming a fundamentalist might feel like a trick, because there is never one moment when something of essense changes. We never feel the train run over the joints in the track; instead, it's a smooth ride from one position to the other.

And that's because there is no defining line in the sand, between one position and the other. They are opposite ends of a completely crossable spectrum.

How far Changez, and Hamid, carry you with them in ideals, is debatable; but also beside the point. It is how far our empathy can be carried that is the revelation.

I was given this book through the very excellent World Book Night: and I'm going to pass it on to someone, soon. Has anyone else recieved a World Book Night copy of anything?

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Alexander At The World's End

Tom Holt

I've read Tom Holt on and off for nearly a decade. He writes comic fantasy -- hilarious but not cheerful, smart, densely plotted and British. I've always viewed his work as a reliably good read, well-suited to my basic tastes and not needing excessive attention. Not the sort of thing I tend to get excited about, or recommend to a friend, maybe, but worth a thumbs-up if I see you reading it on a train.

When I first saw Alexander at the World's End -- or it might have been the first in the series, The Walled Orchard -- I wasn't sure it was the same Tom Holt. Serious historical fiction? Really? Was Alexander the Great possessed by the spirit of a young English temp who got a job in the wrong office?

When it turned out it was  the same Tom Holt, I still didn't dive in. Historical fiction isn't my favourite flavour, and honestly, I wasn't confident how well Holt would cope outside his unique, meticulously carved niche.

For shame, Benjamin, for shame. Have more faith.

Alexander at the World's End is fantastic. The humour is still there, and perhaps has even reached its zenith, in the voice of con-kid turned Yapping Dog philosopher, Euxenus. This book is his story, not Alexander's, though Alexander casts a shadow across the whole thing. In fact, it is his lurking presence, and his strange ties with Euxenus and his family, that keep the musings and memories of an old Greek man compelling.

That's a plus I didn't expect from the jump to historical fiction. Holt's novels are pretty compelling anyway, in their own way, and surelyThe Past could opnly lessen that. But this, that looks like a thriller in precisely no aspect, had me captivated.

Tom Holt did one thing, that nobody else was doing, and did it very well indeed. What gave him the confidence to step away from it, at least for a while, for something completely different? Or maybe I have this backwards, and he always wanted to write about Ancient Greece. How many times has he approached his agent with this idea, saying thi is what I really want to write?

Who else has changed direction mid-career? Have any thriller writers changed tack and tried to win the Booker? Who has succeeded? Who has failed?

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Laying On Of Hands

Alan Bennett

The Laying on of Hands is the story of a particularly well-attended memorial service. Clive Dunlop, who died aged 34, was ostensibly a masseur, but his talents stretched far beyond that.

Father Jolliffe, taking the service, was also a friend and client of Clive. He is surprised by the array of show-business types on display at the service; and the show-biz themselves are surprised at the extent of Clive's connections, too. He was, as well as warmly tactile, scrupulously tactful.

We hear Father Jolliffe preparing mentally for the service, as well as wrestling with the implications of his own association with Clive; we hear Archdeacon Treacher, (standing for dignity, formality and self-restraint, Bennett tells us), vetting the service for his Bishop; we hear the publisher, attending the funeral as a dutiful favour to the author he is probably losing, searching for the easiest way to cash in on the collective and esoteric fame united in the church.

Through whipsered conversation, the mutations of spreading rumour, and moments of inner dialogue, we trace the audience (as Jolliffe has always thought of a congregation as, anyway) question the cause of death. There is the unspoken worry, very practical to many in attendance, of Aids. And as people (invited by Jolliffe) contribute their favourite memories of Clive, it soon becomes far less unspoken, and much more of a worry. Aids is a certainty, then questionable, and then -- hope heartbreakingly dashed -- a certainty again.

By the time Clive's doctor speaks up to finally set the record straight, Jolliffe has completely lost control of his audience. Treacher, hidden away near a pillar, makes a final, scornful note, condemning the service and Jolliffe's role in it. We look over his shoulder as he does so, to Bennett's obvious pleasure, and our own.

In fact, Bennett takes obvious pleasure in walking invisible through the church and the Order of Service, sitting next to whoever he chooses, listening in to any private conversation he likes, pencil and pad in hand. The only cruelty, as always, is in capturing exactly what people do say, and nothing more.

There is a sharper satire here than at first glance. Bennett, who uses such gentle colours and such humble brush-strokes, can paint a far more honest picture than most. How we judge, who we judge, and how we present ourselves are all here, but the real target, as with all good satire, is hypocrisy.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Ad Infinitum

Nicholas Ostler

This history of Latin is a lot more than just that. The changing role of  language in a tribe, nation, empire and church is the perfect window through which to view the growing pains of civilization's teenage years.

There is a tangible tipping point in Ad Infinitum. Before that point, the Roman Empire, standing united and unconquerable, becomes an animal of two halves. The Latin-speaking west, in which the heart of Rome beats, and the Greek-speaking East; this is cellular division, one creature becoming two, before our eyes.

There is a last moment of hope, as this fragmenting empire is united again, perhaps as it has never been united before, by the spread of Christianity and the establishing of the Catholic Church. Catholic, of course, being another word for united.

But then the tipping point. The Church spreads, and with one eye perhaps on the causal crack in the proceeding empire, it actively spreads the use of Latin. And suddenly, it becomes obvious. Language, across barriers, borders and oceans, makes the most natural sense of the extent of a community. More than the economics of trade, or the ideals of religion, the pragmatics of who you can understand is the real divider and uniter.

So when that red shading on the map that represents the (Holy Roman) Empire doesn't match up with green shading of the Latin-speaking empire, there's only one of those that are going to win.

This is a biography as much as a history, because Latin grows and changes and ages. And as such, the massive success story is underpinned with a bittersweet tug of Ozymandias, and this too shall pass. We know where Latin ends up (although whether it is the end remains to be seen), in the backwaters of select English private schools and botanical naming classes.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A Display Of Lights (9)

Val Gilbert

You've got to have a system. I can't imagine going through life without one: simply 'buying' books when I decide to buy them, and 'reading' them when I decide to read them? It's implausible, to say the least.

Having said that, I don't think systems necessarily help; they're just a lot of fun. In fact, if you completely reinvent your system every few months as I do, you're most likely making yourself far less efficient. But: fun.

The last couple of years, my reading has been largely dependent on serendipity. Book fairs, vouchers, spur-of-the-moments and heartfelt recommendations have taken me, non-linear and unshaven, to strange and inconsistent places.

The latest system is a reaction to that. Book-buying was frozen as of 1st January 2011; the To Be Read shelf was edited/pruned/decimated; the rejects were carried (pallbeared) to the nearest Oxfam; the survivors stand in line, waiting to be devoured.

(Once the survivors are gone, I will return to the new favourites the last two years of exploration have unearthed, and a few older favourites, read new works by each and every, discover what my taste actually involves.)

I'm working through the surviors now, and they are a strange breed. They are books I have bought over the last couple of years but never read, but, come crunch-time, they are the ones too interestiong or enticing to be dismissed. They are books like A Display Of Lights (9), an enthusiast's biography of the six most influential cryptic crossword setters in the history of The Daily Telegraph.

When I call the author an enthusiast, I don't mean he is an amateur -- only that he loves his subject and ends many, many sentences with exclamation marks! Val Gilbert (!) was in fact Crossword Editor at the Telegraph  for 30 years, and a good number of the select six he writes about were colleagues of his at some time or other. But it is the cryptic crossword, not its setters, that is his real passion.

And who can blame him? Take this (apparently contraversial) gem from Douglas Barnard:

Burns 'em in boxes (8)

Cremates! 'em in boxes = EM in CRATES = CREMATES = burns 'em in boxes!

It turns out you can't write about crptics without getting enthusiastic. I will leave you with two items:

1. The title of the book is itself a cryptic clue, and the answer is, unfathomably, CROSSWORD. Answers on a postcard.

2. I made my friend a cryptic crossword for his last birthday, and here is my favourite clue: Be agile without me, I'm a dog (6) Can you answer?

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is one of the best novels I have read in a long time (surely this author should get a little hype... oh wait....) It's the portrait of a family, painted viscerally and sentimentally, and written with a welcoming brilliance that nearly matches its cast. 

I'm reminded of one of the first conclusions I came to on this blog, from that old master, David Lodge: great writing is great characters, who care about each other.

I have a thing for long, sprawling, virtuoso novels at the moment. It's a relatively new thing, and I'm still exploring it. One thing that has struck me already, however, is how badly these beautiful, fat children end.

Seriously, I can count the number of heavy novels that ended well on the fingers of one knee. There's no single factor to blame, but a few that coincide:

1. The longer the book, the bigger the expectations of the pay-off.
2. The more an author sprawls -- ie, ignores direct linear plotting and things like The Main Character, The Single Story -- the harder it is to tie things together or even decide what needs tying.
3. The more virtuoso a writer is (whatever that means right this second) the less emphasis there is, generally, on exterior plot events -- the very things that make endings paint-by-numbers easy.

Franzen, I think, answers all these with typically literary non-answers. He overcomes them with limits.

He limits the expectations on the ending by telling us very early on what it will involve -- a Lambert Family Christmas either happening or failing to happen. He limits the distance he can sprawl with that same promise; he cannot go beyond this family, or that Christmas. And his virtusosity is, clever clever, showing how far he can go within those limits.

Now, that's not the real solution to the great-big-novel/piss-poor-ending conundrum, but it is certainly a neat sidestep. So, I should read Freedom?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Death On The Nile

Agatha Christie

Last Thursday, the 3rd of March, was World Book Day, and the evening of last Saturday was host to the very first World Book Night massive book giveaway.

It pains me to say my sole involvement in the whole big, amazing-shaped give-party was watching all the TV shows about it. Really, I need to be better informed. Somebody, do something about that.

One of those shows followed Sue Perkins, wonderful person and former Booker Prize judge, delving deep into the land of the bestseller list... was it Henry James who pointed out that if you can't have a list of a single item, so you can't have a list of best-anythings?

The likes of John Grisham, James Patterson, Lee Child, Jackie Collins and Sophie Kinsella were talked about, some even appearing as talking heads to get very defensive (and I don't blame them).

I sell these books all day long, but I never buy them, and -- having never read them -- should probably have felt guilty about smirking along with Sue at the covers, prose and premises. But guilt didn't really happen. I'm on Sue's side.

I stoped smirking when Agatha Christie got mentioned, though; and interestingly, so did Sue (we have so much in common... it's love). Why is it okay for literary types to read formulaic, dated crime puzzles -- or, why is it not okay for literary types to ignore them -- when they have Agatha Christie written on the front?

Could we cite the lack of cheap thrill, lusty gore and gory lust? The constant cleverness of the plot? (They're formulaic, but you'll never crack the formula before Poirot does. Ever). The I-did-it-first rule? (One third of the cliches and predictabilities of crime novels were started by Christie, so maybe aren't cliches there). How about the sheer, plain, elegance of Christie's writing?

The problem with all these answers is something I've already mentioned: I've never read any of the books I'm snobbish about, so how do I know they don't have these things going on?

Can it really be that I like Poirot novels simply because they're old? Or simply because of David Suchet? Or simply because people like Sue Perkins like them too?

Friday, 4 March 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

Can literature be funny?

This question surprises me. Is that even an issue? All my literary favourites are hilarious, I think. If they're not, they're the exceptions. I hate to bandy around the same few names every time, but the big guns -- Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, David Markson, David Lodge, David Foster Wallace, David-anything, really, PG Wodehouse (heavily dependant on which definition of literary you use); less well known ones -- Toby Litt, Nicola Barker, Andrew Crumey, Matthew Kneale, Mark Watson... I could go on.

That's a lot of names. Every single one of them is some combination of literary and funny. (Notice, I have ignored the second question: what is your favourite humourous literary novel. TOO DAMN HARD.)

Also, some admin: this post marks my return to the land of blogging after a too-busy fortnight. It's my New Year's Resolution to be more punctual, and as such, I have only just made my second New Year's Resolution. That is, to blog more regularly, rather than two weeks of posting every day, and then a fortnight without thinking.

My framework will be every Monday and every Friday, for now. If that isn't enough to contain my unabashed tide of wordiness, et cetera, then Wednesdays might get a regular go to. Lucky Wednesdays, if so.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

If you were going off to war (or some other similarly horrific situation) and could only take one book with you, which literay book would you take and why?

If I was going to war, would I want to read war-books? I'm not sure. I don't think I'd want to be over-reminded of my 'horrific situation', but I don't think I'd want to read about anything else. A book about the social conflicts of a small village community, for example, could well seem bitterly irrelevant and unimportant, when read between skirmishes. At best, it would make you unhealthily homesick.

So I think I would go for a war-book. On my shelves, that leaves Waugh and Vonnegut, primarily. Waugh would point out the frustrations and abusrdities of army life on the every day scale, and it would be good to have someone to laugh with. Vonnegut would laugh, as well, but with a lot less spite, and I could read his heart constantly breaking over the tragedy of humans in war.

So it's Vonnegut. And I have to plump for the obvious answer, Slaughterhouse Five. Becauce if it turns out I don't want to read about war while at war, I can just flick to the time-travelling bits. More importantly, SH-5 is an essay in favour of one idea: that you are the same person when you are at war that you were beforehand and afterwards. You are not just a soldier.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Armageddon In Retrospect

Kurt Vonnegut

In his latter years, Vonnegut started to repeat himself. Not like an old man who can't quite remember that he's told you the story before, but like an old man who has worked out just what ideas are important, and has stop bothering with the rest.

Community, Marx and Jesus, humanism, semi-colons. All these reappear in Vonnegut's speech at Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, included here. But there's one repeated theme, more important in Vonnegut's writing than anything else, that holds Armageddon In Retrospect together.

War. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by the allies. That bombing raid, on an 'open city,' had a higher deathcount than Hiroshima, but Vonnegut himself survived it. He was in the deep cellar of Schlachthauf Funf. Slaugherhouse Five, that is.

They say every writer has one book they are writing, all their life. Indeed, when anybody asked Vonnegut what he was writing, he would tell them: the Dresden book. The war book. Never mind the dozen other novels he must have spent a little time on.

Though Slaughterhouse Five is that book -- the one book that Kurt Vonnegut was a writer for -- the collected short stories in Armageddon In Retrospect study the same themes, albeit it on a lesser scale. And as is often the case, the smaller pictures side by side say as much as the full-size masterpiece on its own.

Every story is about war; more often, about the end of war; most often, about the individuals trapped in the immediate aftermath of war. There's as much cohesion here as in many of Vonnegut's novels. Far from being a cash-in collection of errata and pieces better left unpublished, as post-humous collections so often are, Armageddon In Retrospect can hold it's head up high in the top tier of Vonnegut's excellent canon.

Friday, 4 February 2011


Nicola Barker

Darkmans is long, but it doesn't feel it. It's flippant and compellingly written, and it has it's own grammer -- brackets and page breaks that keep the narration interrupting itself over and over -- which add so much white space that the pages turn twice as quick as normal.

And the size of the cast is important when you're stepping past a quarter-million words. Darkmans gets the balance just right; there's enough people that you never dwell long enough on anyone to wonder whether they can carry you through the next half-ton of pages; but there's not so many that you forget them, get confused, or struggle to see the connections.

Darkmans is certainly enjoyable. I knew it was going to be, after every page I picked at random (when bored in my bookshop) made me giggle. I was hoping, though, that it would turn out to be more.

Here's some background. The last book I read of this length was Infinite Jest. If you've been there, you know. It was hugely entertaining, I raced through it, I loved it, and it frustrated the hell out of me. The plot starts on the page the book ends. It's a nothing book. And yes, I know, that's the point. But I wanted it -- and now, by proxy, I want Darkmans -- to be a something book.

But it's not. There's certainly something more to it than a snappy way with word-hilarity. There's a twisted kind of poetry to it, the tripping, bending, unstable explosion of language; and there's such a huge mystery behind the whole thing, even if we never get a sniff of the 'solution.'

It's all about endings, I think. Nothing books -- entertaining, intriguing, infuriating -- don't have endings. I find it hard to imagine how Darkmans could have 'ended' without ripping me off or slightly cheapening itself (but imagining a way out of it should be the author's job, anyway).

I don't want to criticise a book I enjoyed so much, but I'm hungry for a great book. I want the 800+ pages, the massive ambition and wit and intelligence, and then I want it to get better, and better, and then blow my mind. I want 800+ pages of excellent middle, and then I want an ending that lives up to it.

And it is a good thing, that after the thickest book I've read in years, I'm wanting more. It's two parts Darkmans-awesome, one part greedy-bastard.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Writing And Songwriting

So today I rejigged and recorded three old songs of mine. And... I love them. It's as simple as that. It's not completely normal for me to love the songs I write, but it's not hugely surprising -- I rarely write a song I don't like, these days.

I wish writing (of the non-song variety) was like that. I'm rarely happy with fiction I write, and even when I am, I'm not.

Part of the reason for that difference is inherently in the medium. Songs are small. They're less than five minutes long, when most novels take at least five hours of solid concentration. Songs are 300 words or so, novels are at least 200 times that long. Okay, songs have music, but if your songs are as simplistic as mine, and you've spent your teenage years mucking around with one instrument or another, that's not a massive ask. Songs are easy because they're small.

A more specific reason for my song-easy-book-hard outlook is motivation. I write books because I want to do that for my career; so I don't judge what I write by whether it meets the minimum requirements needed to please me, but by it's ability to wow thousands of neutral or potentially strangers.

Songs are easy because I never intend or expect anyone else to be that into them. I like these, and that's all I'm really bothered by. If I ever get to that stage with a manuscript, I know it's time to have a good long hard long good long look at why I'm writing it in the first place.

Monday, 31 January 2011

February Album Writing Month

 Here's a warning; this blog may stray slightly off topic over the next four weeks. Here's the deal/low down/goose/explanation/goose/truth/goose again:

The last two years, I've taken part in FAWM (February Album Writing Month). The idea is to write 14 songs in 28 days, because of one simple principle: writing a lot of songs in a hurry does more for your songwriting than labouring (or procrastinating) over a single pop masterpiece.

That principle is ridiculously true, for me at least. Before I FAWMed, I had never finished a single song, for a given value of finished. When I FAWM, I always get at least 14 new songs, and at least two of them are far better than I could have come up with without the time pressure of 14 in 28.

This year, I'm not doing it. I'm not writing 14 new songs, anyway. But I'm going to take advantage of the excellent community, feedback and project-mentality motivation to go through older songs, rewrite them and record them. As a new WORLD RECORD amount of my friends (three) are trying it this year too, I might get involved in a couple of original collaborations, if nothing else.

So that's what I'm going to be thinking about/doing/obsessing over this month. The focus on the blog is still going to be books, but some songs might get the odd look in as well. You have been warned.

(And if you think it sounds like the most fun ever, it is. There's still time to sign up here, and add me here.)

Friday, 28 January 2011

Books as Insulation

I collect the books I like. Not in a serious way, not in a series way, but I still collect them. All well and good, you say, but I'm starting to ask why? What for? I have some 400 books in my room, all read, alphabetical by author, chronological within author. Fiction Non-Fiction Biography Entertainment. Yeah. Why?

Well... I like doing it. Maybe that's it. I like collecting things. I especially like putting things into alphabetical order by author, and chronological within author. But if it's as unpragmatic as that, it's a very expensive past time.

Maybe it's because I love to lend books. At least, I've always assumed I do, but it's never really come up. In recent months, I have been asked for a good book to read, and have leant out half a dozen excellent novels. What really struck me about that process, pleasant though it was, was how bloody difficult it can be. Reading -- even to a book-blogger -- is a very private thing. How do I know what this guy will like? Or how this girl will react to that author?

Maybe a better tactic is to lend them to myself. Keeping the books I love, clearly, offers the possibility of re-reads. I now have a personal library selected by the only person who's taste I really trust; it sounds great, but in reality I never do it. I've re-read Watership Down about 5 times; all of Pratchett at least twice; and Harry Potter. All of which re-reading took place years ago.

I have favourite books -- The Great Gatsby, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wittgenstein's Mistress, Bluebeard -- that I've only read once. It's a travesty.

I think -- I have to think -- the point of my shelves and shelves of books is to be re-read, by me, someday. Lending is good, collecting is fun, and they probably do keep my room fairly warm; but they exist for my own future, repeated pleasure.

The problem with that is, where do you find the time? There's also thousands of unread books out there, vying for my reading hours. It's a delicate equation that I have yet to balance. Do you re-read? How often? Or do you give your books away once you get to The End?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood

I talked about great books becoming great films, last month. I thought I'd push the theory, or at least push my luck, by reading a book and watching the film in the same day. Brilliant idea. Stupid idea.

The problem with the film is that the book is brilliant. The other problem with the film is that the book involves mostly normal events going on in the background of the inside of George's head.

The Book is subtle and assured, effortlessly funny and almost heroically intelligent; and human. It works astoundingly well as a book of people, but it's also a 'book of ideas', which is usually enough to put me off. I've read too many recycled philosophical arguments in the mouths of dull caricatures to warm to the term.Book if ideas, indeed. Pshaw.

Geo and Charlotte do openly discuss the novel's themes of holding on to the past, mortality and loneliness... but it's okay. Not only is Isherwood too good at his craft to trip up here, the whole thing is fitted to the dynamic between the characters; the topics come up because of Charlotte's designs on the future, and Geo's resistance to those designs.So even when it's a book of ideas, it's really a book of people.

The Film includes the same characters (or at least the same names) and many of the same details of scene and dialogue; but it changes the entire plot into which these details fall. I saw adverts for it when it was released, and was pretty sure I would have loved it. In fact, watching it two days ago, I was convinced it was -- most probably -- a very good film. But it wasn't A Single Man.

Did I ruin the film for myself by reading the book first? I could just as easily have watched the film beforehand... is it possible to ruin a good book by watching the film first, though? Do films have that power?

And can any Isherwood fans tell me what to read of his next? Because the book really was excellent.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Toby Litt

I have one basic response Litt novels, most of the time. I want to love them, but I never quite do. There are occcasional exceptions (Hospital, Journey Into Space) -- but exceptions is, I'm learning, the right word.

The existence of such exceptional exceptions keeps me hopeful; and I was a fair distance in to Corpsing before I realised it wasn't going to join them.

It's clever and hip and most probably post-something. The prose is frequently hilarious, smart like new shoes on the surface, and the premise is pretty intriguing.

It lacks a little heart, but heart isn't what this noirish revenge novel needs. In fact, for a novel that starts with a shooting in a restaurant and ends with an attempt to re-enact the same shooting, it lacks focus.

Without giving away the 'twist', the book ends with something of a pull-out and reveal. The issues the reader takes seriously in the novel turn out to be wide of the mark, and not what was really going on. Too wide to count as a near miss, but not nearly wide enough to count as astonishing.

Suddenly we should have been caring about the frustration of police inaction, and intrigued by what the officers were really up to. But for the 300 pages up until that reveal, we and the narrator haven't really bothered about that too much. It was a small problem, and now it's pretending to be the whole plot. And the whole plot has now become an aside.

This has happened to me a lot recently. Authors can't end their books properly. It's not that they go completely for option A when I would prefer B: it's that they go for both, or neither, or forget to put an ending in at all.

What should an ending have? What should an ending be? Is it just me that's struggling to find good ones at the moment?

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Blind Eye

Don Paterson

It's right to do something a bit different, today: this is my 100th post, and I've just passed my 100th follower. As one of nature's premiere Giver-Uppers, I'm pretty happy to have got that far.

So here's what I'm doing differently: this is a review of a book I haven't read yet.

Haven't finished, anyway.

But that's okay; it's not a novel. The Blind Eye is a collection of aphorisms by the poet Don Paterson, and you're not meant to read it start to finish.  (Even I, who grew up reading books of quotations and one-liners as if they were novels, prefer to dip in and out of this one.)

The aphorisms stretch from sentence fragments to an entire page, and from flippancy to the murky depths of self-analysis (the obsession is not of his self, as one aphorism points out, but the self; he could be just as easily obsessed with yours, if it was as readily available for study). Often, the flippancy and intensity are, gratifyingly, one and the same; occasionally, left to their own, they become see-through or obtuse.

I love these varying fractions of anti-wisdom, but I must confess love for the form alone. I've already mentioned that I used to (still do) read books of quotations or jokes; starting from page one; with a bookmark; vainly searching for a plot. It's a pipe dream of mine to write a novel that is presented as a book of quotations. The Quotable Edward Awful, or something. What a great gimmick that would be, and I'd only have to write the killer lines! (Vainly searching for a plot...)

I guess I really should quote The Blind Eye, it being a list of the best bits to quote already. And as this is my blog-centenary, I know which one:

You've made a blog... Clever boy! Next: flushing.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

One of my most exceptional readerly skills (out of many), is that I like almost everything. Some could see this as a lack of discernment, or at least discrimination, but I like it: it means I avoid too many 'do I have to finish this?' dilemmas. One of the downsides is that I can't answer questions like the above very easily. I liked everything I read for English GCSE. (For some inexplicable reason, I didn't do English for A-level.)

I did get recommended a book by an English teacher, though, that I couldn't get to the end of. Looking back, I have no idea why Mr James, who I barely spoke to, thought I'd like Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Anyway, I didn't like it. It was a huge long time ago, so there's not much I can say. I remember it being slow, pointless and foreign.

It doesn't say much about the book, but it does say a lot about reading books at the wrong time. I've avidly avoided everything Brontish since, and while some of that is probably due to an essential mismatch of reader and writer, a lot of it could be avoided -- if I hadn't tried reading Jane Eyre before I wanted to. Oops.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Ian Fleming

Bond. That's right.

I once spent a week in a farmhouse in Scotland where I read through half a dozen Bond books, because they were the only things on the shelf. And possibly because they're about Bond, James Bond, as well. Mostly that, in fact.

I didn't read Moonraker then, but I did now (obviously). The best thing about switching books with friends is you end up with things you probably wouldn't pick up for yourself; the worst thing is that you were probably right not to pick them up, some of the time.

Moonraker is a little indecisive compared to most Bond books, but also the best. It's set entirely in England, and here's the main thing: nothing preposterous happens for the first half. Read that again. Nothing. It's all vaguely, squintingly believable.

But it's indecisive: after the halfway point, it gets silly. It's not preposterous enough throughout to be brilliantly insane, but it's not reasonable enough throughout to be any good. 

But even the short break from ridiculum marks it as the best Bond novel, to me. The opening third is Fleming writing about a game of Bridge in a club in London. Fleming knows a lot about bridge, clubs and London -- more than he knows about rockets and women and supervillains, anyway. It's tense, it's a psychological battle, and it's claustrophobic. It's a lot better than I remember any of the other Bond novels I read being.

Up until page 180, that is, when the German supervillain building an atomic warhead in Dover for the Queen explodes a cliff right above Bond's head. Then comes car chases, Soviet submarines, and a girl who knows the co-ordinates for the rocket getting locked up with Bond, by Supervillain -- in the rocket control centre. Unguarded. Mwahahaha.

Oh well. At least it didn't have Roger Moore in it.

Friday, 14 January 2011


Toby Litt

One thing I like about Mr Litt, and I touched on it in my review of Hospital, is his ambition. deadkidsongs is certainly ambitious.

It is written, for the most part, in the collective 1st person. As the 'we' in question is four English boys, called Gang, that turns out to be singular 3rd person for the most part. When Gang does something, it is 'we,' but whenever a member of Gang does something, it is he.

deadkidsongs tries to be a lot of different books, but the one it succeeds at most is that of the tale of the collective 1st person, of Gang. When its membership is altered, the balance disappears, and trouble gets spilt everywhere. That is the central strength of the novel.

But the book is also succesful in other ways. It's an excellent portrayal of childhood, or rather more exclusively, of boyhood. Animalistic politics, strength and the ethics of respect are everywhere. Boys aren't nice. Not by nature.

Or maybe it's a book about fatherhood, and parental responsibility. The Best Father and Worst Father are extreme examples of where the boys are heading, either if they remain loyal to their boisterousness, or if they betray it. (Betraying it, in this sense, seeming the far better option.)

In any one of these ways, deadkidsongs is a success. But that's the problem. Litt doesn't pick one to follow through with. It's a strange flaw to have, being good in too many different ways. The different books, instead of intertwining and uniting,  get in each other's way, and confuse each other. They're like four boys trying to squeeze through one doorway. Gang could get through, because Gang is a unit. But not four individual boys, each wanting to be first.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Books on Film

I've watched three films in the last three nights, and each one of them was a book first. The typical reaction to good books becoming films is negative; fear mingled with contempt, turned up to panic levels by the tiniest glimmer of hope.

But I'm an optimist. Three bookfilms in a row, so at least one of them will be a success, I thought. But what do you call it when all three are awesome? Most book people hate bookfilms... am I too easily pleased? Please tell me.

Slaughterhouse 5

If I was asked which of my favourite authors was least filmable, I would say Vonnegut, every time. It's not that they couldn't be filmed, but that they would lose too much of what makes them special. None more so than S-5, my default answer to the favourite-book question.

But, despite the complete lack of SO IT GOES and the utter non-existence of the sounds of birds, this 1972 film captures the essense of the book, somehow. They ended it with fireworks on Tralfamadore, but I still loved it.

No Country For Old Men

This is a damn good film. I could watch it a dozen times, I think. It's harsh reality verses fiction, and harsh reality wins every time, and it still manages to be likable. It's sparse and beautiful and hardgoing and doesn't talk much and is hilarious and brutal ignores convention.

I've said all of those things about Cormac's books (apart from it's a damn good film), and so if I had to guess, I'd say this was a pretty accurate adaptation. I'll find out for sure when I get round to reading the damn thing.

Bright Young Things

Stephen Fry adapting Vile Bodies, using almost every great English actor who's young enough -- plus Peter O-flipping-Toole -- and it's still better than I expected. It's sadder than I remember the book being, just as funny, and far more beautiful than I managed to picture it.

The ending drags, or can't decide, or something. Nothing I read or see at the moment stops at the point I think it should stop, so maybe don't take this too seriously.

I honestly think I've covered all the bases: a book I know well, a book I've never read, and one I can't remember too well. Each film is great, in different ways. Seriously, am I too easily pleased? Or have I just got lucky with the adaptations I've picked recently?

What do you think about books on film?