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.