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?

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Loved One

Evelyn Waugh

It's nothing new that Waugh is funny: he's a funny writer, that's almost the point. But this funeral farce is categorically different to his better known work.

It's a love triangle that balances between an embalmer's studio and a low rent pet cemetary; the love notes are the manic grins (or otherwise) prepared on the casket faces of anonymous Loved Ones... for what more tactful way to refer to the clients of a funereal business?

The hero is a poet who seduces a corpse-cosmetician by borrowing heavily from the Oxford Book of English Verse; and who lies about his job at the pet cemetary to avoid the professional snobbbery that his love, an employee of the high-class Whispering Glades, has for it. If I mentioned that he solves his problems by becoming a non-sectarian preacher, you'll probably guess the next thing I'm going to say....

This is a lot like Wodehouse. Really, a lot. I know from reading Donaldson's excellent biography of Wodehouse that Waugh was a friend and huge fan of the man, but that has always surprised me. Because Waugh's comedy is the opposite to Wodehouse's kind, rolling turns and loops. Waugh is barbed, laughing at, cruelly accurate; and serious. Ever so serious, when seen next to Wodehouse.

So The Loved One is something of an anomaly. It doesn't really fit in with Vile Bodies or Put Out More Flags, it's a separate endeavour. It's the missing link between Waugh's own work and the completely different work of Wodehouse that he held in such high esteem. It is, I like to think, a firm, heartfelt, and excellent work of flattery (or a kinder word than that).

This is Waugh gesturing wildly across the canyon, acknowledging the distance between the two writers by trying to imagine it out of existence. It is, frankly, a tribute.

Sunday, 9 January 2011


Toby Litt

Toby Litt writes his books alphabetically. Maybe you've heard about that. His first book began with A (Adventures in Capitalism), and his most recent with K (King Death). Not only will this look excellent on my bookshelves, but it's pretty brave. If he gives up before Z, or breaks the pattern, everyone will know. He will have failed. He will have gone Sufjan on us.

I didn't know about the alphabetic nature of his canon when I first bought I play the drums in a band called okay. I didn't cotton on when I got his next most recent book at the time, Journey Into Space. I found out just before borrowing Hopsital, but it's too late to change now. I'm going backwards.

Hospital is brilliant. It is a force of nature. It is epic in scope, minute in timeline, absurd, ridiculous, hilarious, and many other adjectives. It manages the tricky job of not taking itself too seriously but still providing an oversized cast of characters you genuinely care about.

Hang on, I was talking about adjectives. Let's try vivid. The giant trees crashing down through the building (see cover) are pretty awesome, but I was most taken with another image. It's hard to explain without giving away too much of the premise of the book, but I'll try.

Nurse Gemma Swallow, our heroine, is trapped in a room. She is trapped because bodies all around her are growing to thewir full human size, and the room isn't big enough to hold them all. A quite horrid suffocation-in-flesh is on the cards. But up steps von Sinistre, our pathological friend, with his bone saw. he cuts a tunnel through the mass of expanding bodies, cutting off their legs quicker (just about) than they grow back, and eventually our heroine can crawl out. This makes complete sense in the context of Hospital.


A gripe:

I have one minor issue with this book, that I only mention because Margaret Atwood did the same thing with The Handmaid's Tale which I read the other week.

It ends brilliantly. But then, there's an extra bit. Litt puts a 'fairy tale' in, which is vaguely relevant to the main plot, but completely, utterly unnecessary. And after the whizzing prose that comes before it, pretty boring to read. Atwood ends her novel brilliantly, but then puts a future-lecture about historical context, which is equally unnecessary, mood-killing, and less than entertaining compared to the novel itself. Why don't these authors know when to stop?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Fry Chronicles

Stephen Fry

This book is in turn a frank and amusing conversation with an old friend, an in-depth picture of a world I am fascinated by (Cambridge Footlights and the Britcom scene that stems from it), and a warning-by-example for my own future. I expected the first two, but not the third.

The examples cuts both ways. There's a Do and a Don't.

The Do:

I'm positively not alone in joining Stephen in the battlefield between self-indulgence and self-disgust, nor the similar setting for brutality that lies between needing to be liked by other people and not always liking yourself.

The author states that pretending to be confident and smooth and okay and at ease with yourself can form the habit that leads to a pretty good simulacrum of those same states. But his example speaks more strongly still; pretending to be these things is the same thing as being them. However false that looks from the inside.

The Don't:

Among the many things Fry lambasts about himself, one stuck out to me like a sore thumb on a hand with no fingers. If only I was more focused! he cries. If only I didn't try my hand at everything!

It's no surprise to me that his earliest ambitions were in the direction of novels; after all, his novels are the best thing he's done, without Hugh Laurie's help. And it's no surprise that, lacking boringly singular focus, he is not known primarily as a novelist. It's no surprise that his (excellent) novels never reached the heights he is capable of. If only he was more focused!

When I learnt that he was in his 30s by the time A Bit Of Fry & Laurie started, I was struck by how much time that gave me. Having missed out on Footlights, I've always thought myself far too late to get into comedy writing, but it turns out I have 6 years+.

But no! Focus! Try and write the best novel you can. (And you're a confident lovely person. Deal with it.)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Drought

JG Ballard

I find myself desperately wanting to like Ballard. Maybe I should never have read his coolly endearing memoir, Miracles of Life. Maybe I should stop listening to blurbs that use words like 'unique' and genius' so freely and convincingly.

The fact is, however hard I tried to like The Drought, I couldn't quite manage it. It's impressive, yes. The imagery is untouchably weird, the (bad) feelings it evokes are heady and authentic. His writing has natural authority and a certain completeness of vision.


It's not very pleasant.

(If that makes me sound like a narrative coward, I should at this point explain that I am very much a narrative coward. I can't even watch comedy shows on my own these days, because I will chicken out and change the channel the moment things necessarily go bad for the protagonist.)

Ballard's world, effective and unique though it clearly is, is not enjoyable. It's bleak, disconnected, distant, free of relatable characters. Distant strangers do distant things and there's nothing much to suggest I should be interested. I don't think I ever believed -- not really-- in the existence of unrelatable main characters, before this.

Here's an example. This book is about what happens to humanity, and a man called Ransom, when the water supplies we take for granted disappear (hence the name). Ransom spends every second of this book driven by water. Water would solve all his problems. Water would make him in control. Water could do a lot of things for him, yet not once while reading The Drought -- not once! -- did I ever feel thirsty.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood

I once read an essay about writing fantasy. That's probably not that unusual, except I don't read or write fantasy. I don't look at it in bookshops, wish it merry Christmas, or sit next to it on the train. But this essay was written by Pratchett, and I do read Pratchett. (I don't sit next to him on the train either, but only out of deference.)

And Pratchett said something along the lines of this: good writing shows you the familiar from an unfamiliar angle. It shows you the ordinary in an extraordinary light. (At least, I think he said that. If my memory made that up, then that's awesome too.)

I remembered this when reading The Handmaid's Tale. What's so fascinating about the world of Gilead is not what is different, but what has stayed the same. There are still shops and boredom and gossip. The one thing that has completely not changed, of course, is people.

But this isn't a normal-people-story with a shiny new background. You probably weren't thinking that, and I should apologize for presuming it; but I think I would have thought that, a while ago. It's only this year, readings books like this, The Road, and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, that I've realised how supremely relevant, how utterly foreground, the world of a book can reign. And also, how thoroughly and expertly it has to be handled.

I flinch to think of my first couple of novel-attempts, both set in deeply alternative worlds, both unexplored and incompetently presented. I wasn't taking that side of things seriously. The world isn't just wallpaper, it's context. Context is king, by definition, by constitution, and by creed, in the medium of text.

My favourite things about The Handmaid's Tale are the brief glimpses backwards in time. Offred looks over her shoulder at the world she has left behind -- our world -- and my, how it looks strange.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

What To Read?

There's a frankly ridiculous number of books out there. Even if I only stuck to authors I've already read, catching up on their catalogues would surely take me a lifetime. And there is also -- no offence -- non-fiction. Not to mention that despised indulgence, re-reading. And some people are writing new books. We readers don't stand a chance.

I've read a heady plethora of posts recently in which people talk about their reading plans this year, or their top ten anticipated reads, or which genre/classic author/letter of the alphabet they are expecting to conquer. I wish I had such a clear idea where I was heading across the multi-dimensional vastness of bookspace.

2010 has left me in a bit of a mess. I have nearly thirty books on my desk, waiting to be read. Some of these are lends from friends, some are thick books by untried authors, some others are thin tomes by old favourites; and some are -- no offence -- non-fiction. I have a handful of unrelated titles and authors on various scraps of paper and Word documents. I have book vouchers. I haven't got a map.

I do have some idea where I'm taking my reading in 2011, though. I'm determined not to be so free with new authors. My reading time is too precious to gamble with so freely, when there's over a hundred books out there by authors I love that I haven't got round to. It should mean I'm going to be reading a lot of books that I am very likely to enjoy. But like I said earlier, even that vastly limiting factor leaves me with a small-town library to get through.

And where does re-reading fit into this? Will all the favourites I've stumbled across over the last few years remain doomed to only that single, virginal reading? That's hardly fair. And why exactly am I buying these books, collecting them and organising them, if they're never going to get read again? And why do I still not feel well-read?