Reading Week …

… well, more Reading Fortnight, to be accurate. It was intended to have much the same function as I guess it does during university terms: a chance to take a breather, stand back from ongoing work and take stock – and actually read a book or two.

I’d reached somewhere around the 40,000 word mark in the manuscript I’m working on, a first draft of the new Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, and needed some space in which to step away from what I’d done and consider what was to come. A chance also for a few trusted others – my agent, my partner and our daughter – to read through the existing pages and tell me what they think. Plus point out some basic errors, such as the  incorrect spelling of ‘vicious’. My other trusted and much-respected reader is, of course, my publisher, but her opinion is SO important, I have to get things in better shape before passing them before her well-honed eagle eye.

So, given the time, what was I going to read? A visit to Nottingham’s Bromley House Library provided me with Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking and Eimar McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; Waterstones’ hip Tottenham Court Road branch was the source of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Speedboat by Renata Adler and Lee Child’s Night School.

All of which I read [well, almost all] and some of which can be dealt with quite swiftly. Although I’d found the Joycean language of McBride’s first novel, the prize-winning A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, difficult, its intensity lived with me in a positive yet disturbing way; by the time I’d reached page 77 of The Lesser Bohemians, however, I realised that I was finding the detailed accounts of her young drama student protagonist’s drinking, smoking and sex life of less interest than my recognition of the many north London street names that were frequently mentioned. Time to stop and move on.

I chose Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, because I’d enjoyed – and admired – many of his short stories so much. The first few pages of the novel are pretty good, too. After which it becomes simply irritating, any attempt at narrative flow being cast aside in favour of a succession of brief extracts from the presumably fictional works of memoirists and biographers, so that, in reading, you find yourself stepping awkwardly down page after page as if participating in some half-arsed attempt to show there is no such thing in fiction as one true point of view. Really? I never would have realised. Back to the short stories, George.

Heavens, you must be thinking, you must have enjoyed something?

Well, yes. And I didn’t think I was going to like A Line Made By Walking at all [even though I do like very much the piece of land art by Richard Long from which the title is taken] and had, in fact, borrowed it so that my partner could read it. I mean, the story, told in the first person, of a former history of art student who retreats to her late grandmother’s country cottage because she’s finding urban life too difficult – and then takes pictures of dead animals which are reproduced here and there in the text – Come on!

Reader, I loved it! Well, okay, liked it a great deal. Without having the same off-the-wall, up-yours humour, it kept reminding me of Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, was my favourite novel of the past twelve months or so. Another book about a young woman who chooses solitude and writes about it. That aside, I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed A Line Made By Walking as much as I did. It’s something to do with the clarity of the prose, the direct description of experience; something to do with the slow unveiling of her feelings; a great deal, I imagine, to do with the fact that inside me there beats the slow but strong desire to follow in Baume’s protagonist’s footsteps and hie myself off to an otherwise empty cottage in the middle of nowhere [the Penwith Peninsula and the North York Moors come to mind] and do nothing much more than tramp around and generally indulge myself in a greater degree of self-absorbed thought than is usually the case. [isn’t that why writers become writers anyway?]

As if to prove I don’t only respond well to books that are clearly written, relatively straightforward and non-experimental, I also very much enjoyed Renata Adler’s Speedboat. [Not to mention, in the past, and more than once – or twice – the novels of Virginia Woolf, clear, direct and, in their day, experimental.]

Like the later Pitch Dark, Speedboat comes close to not being a novel at all [or, at least, a novel as E. M. Forster or Walter Allen would have understood it]. Ostensibly following the jagged progress of a journalist across the United States, it does so by way of a series of not always clearly connected observations and anecdotes that ricochet off one another. A mode of writing that might seem to be in danger of falling into the same trap which swallowed up Saunders in his stilted peregrinations around Lincoln. But the writing is too sharp for that, the observations too brilliant, too funny, too savage.

In his Afterword, Guy Trebay refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who said that the dominant cultural figure of our time is the deejay (DJ?), an suggestion Adler apparently responded to positively. “It is easy to miss the point,” Trebay says.”that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter. … Speedboat is a book without suspense or anything like a distinct plot, a novel whose protagonist is one whose telephone conversations often sound like dialogue from Beckett … a book in which time and tense are unstable, event is compressed, morality subject to constant revision … ”

Adler herself said ” “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read – which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that. I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?'”

What she did, it seems to me, was to create a style more or less all her own, and, in Speedboat and Pitch Dark, two distinctive books that repay re-reading.

What she might have liked to have written, if her remarks are to be taken at face value, could well be something like the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Childs, of which Night School is the most recent and the twenty first. “I know I say this every year … ” Karin Slaughter is quoted on the cover … “But. Best. Reacher. Ever.” Her caps, not mine, and sadly, far from true.

I’ve read almost all the Reacher books and enjoyed them a great deal; you know what you’re going to get and what you get is pretty damn good. [For interest’s sake and since you’re bound to ask, my personal favourite is The Hard Way.] But Night School just doesn’t do it for me. Set mostly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, there’s a sub-LeCarre espionage plot that doesn’t quite convince and too many conflicting layers of US secret service and security from the West Wing on down than are usefully necessary. I appreciate the need Childs must feel to find new territories and different situations for his hero, but this takes Jack Reacher too far out of his comfort zone and somehow it doesn’t really work. Which won’t stop me reading number twenty two, the first chapters of which are conveniently packaged in the back of the paperback edition of Night School, and show Reacher back on more familiar ground.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned packaging, let me point to the New York Review Books editions of the two Adler novels, both featuring details from Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Beautiful, just beautiful.

S'boat

P Dark

Books 2016

Scan

The reading year for me began more or less as the last one ended, re-reading my way through Virginia Woolf – soon to be joined, looking for a little balance perhaps – or is that ballast? – by Don DeLillo. By midway, I was convinced of the excellence of Libra and the brilliant assurance of Underworld‘s first 270 odd pages;  pleased to (re)discover that Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves are every bit as good – as groundbreaking – as I thought when I read them previously and to hope that if I’m still around and compos mentis in another five year or so’s time I’ll enjoy reading them again.

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I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson before this year. Since when I’ve read The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, in which she follows and comments upon the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting and murdering her aunt; Bluets, comprising 240 paragraphs containing her thoughts and memories devolving from the colour blue; The Argonauts, part-memoir, part-intellectual disquisition on the linked subjects of pregnancy, mothering, gender and sexual identity; and – still not finished – Women, The New York School and Other True Abstractions, which does more or less what it says on the tin. Of these, The Red Parts, while being in no sense an easy read, is the easiest to read and The Argonauts, though hard work in places, is the most distinctive and the most rewarding.

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity will know how impressed I was by Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection of (mostly) linked short stories The Pond. As I said before …

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

Pond

Along with The Argonauts, The Pond is  my book of the year. But there were other good things, too. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a nice fat collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, contains a good few of them. James Sallis’ short novel, Willnot (he doesn’t do big novels, not Jim) is a perfectly pitched story of small town American life that somehow doesn’t seem to owe much to anyone else, save Jim himself. Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (soon to be on your TV screens) is an expertly and tightly-wound story of sexual attraction and betrayal that dares you to set it aside and wins hands down. Otherwise, I’ve read and really enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge,  three of Anne Enright’s novels set in Ireland – The Green Road, Yesterday’s Weather and The Forgotten Waltz – and happy submitted to the charms and excitements of Mick Herron’s series about the Slow Horses, a bunch of only oddball and occasionally competent spies put dangerously out to pasture.

And, right now, thanks to Bromley House Library, I’m about half way through Emma Cline’s The Girls, which is pretty compulsive reading and could turn out to be almost as good as many people say it is.

 

Pond

As I’ve recounted elsewhere (a tweet, I think) the first thing that made me think I should read Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story collection, Pond, was the strong recommendation it received from a barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee, where I’d take refuge so as to fill in time before the first day of auditions for the Nottingham Playhouse production of Darkness, Darkness, which I’d adapted from my own novel, and which were to take place in the basement of the American Free Church nearby. There I was, sitting patiently waiting for my flat white (think New Zealand time) and reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, when the barista interrupted herself from her task long enough to call across, “That was the best book I read the whole of last year.” After which, while I was still waiting for my flat white, she further said, “If you like that, you should read Pond.” And I thought she said Pound and was about to say I didn’t think so (my good friend Tom had recommended Pound to me when we were both at Goldsmiths, many years ago – the ABC of Reading, if I remember correctly – and I hadn’t really got on with it, though of course I would never have admitted it at the time) but then I realised she had said Pond and not Pound, at least that’s what I now thought, so,  to be sure, I asked her again and wrote the correct title down in the back of my notebook before leaving.

The book, when I came across it a few days later, face out on the shelf in Foyles (the Charing Cross Road branch) made me want to pick it up immediately, and I would, in all probability, have done so even without the earlier recommendation, it looked so perfect. White text on a strong and plain blue background, just the title and the author’s name and the name of the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Great job, Fitzcarraldo! Just to be sure, I checked with the guy who works in the fiction section who’d previously recommended Lucia Berlin, and whose judgement could therefore be trusted, and when he gave it the thumbs up, without further hesitation, I bought it.

You know how sometimes you start on something you’ve been really looking forward to, the spaghetti vongole your partner has been labouring over in the kitchen, for instance, or an old and lovingly remembered episode of Homicide or Hill St.Blues, and almost immediately doubts appear? Well, I have to say, that happened here. After three weighty quotes in the frontispiece, one from Nietzsche, the first story, “Voyage in the Dark”,  just over half a page long, seemed worryingly precious and rather transparently ‘meaningful’, and I had the kind of feeling I used to get stepping into the rooms at Tate Britain showing the work of that year’s Turner Prize nominees, namely, Oh shit I ought to like this or, at the very least, I ought to defend the right of others to like it, but then, mercifully, and before that thought could be fully formed or acted upon, I turned the page to the second story, “Morning, Noon and Night”, which begins …

Sometime a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take all that well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort.

And so it goes for eighteen pages, expanding its focus outwards and inwards from bowls strategically placed on the window sill to display aubergines and squash, and some more discussion of the possibilities of breakfast, to the place where she now lives, the place where she used to live, her interest in and aversion to gardening of various kinds,  baths, the language of love and her relationship, hinted at, with a man who may (or may not) live close by, finally settling for a detailed description of the stone cottage, in the kitchen of which she’s standing, chopping walnuts. All in prose that could seem long-winded and unnecessarily tortuous if it weren’t for the fact that you can read it aloud almost at first sight without ever stumbling, so well-judged is it in its balance, its distinctive rhythms and repetitions.

As the man from Foyles said, it doesn’t always work but when it does …

The stories centre around the narrator living on her own in a fairly remote stone cottage which I venture to guess from the weather is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. She’s on her own, but not quite on her own; there seems to be at least one gentleman caller, though sometimes she calls on him (them?) and returns with her knickers worn inside out over her tights. As the blurb writer puts it nicely on the back jacket, she is “captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire.”

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s  method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

As the barista might say, it’s the best book I’ve read so far the year.

Pond

 

 

 

 

Last Batch of Books I Read

  • Willnot : James Sallis
  • Point Omega : Don DeLillo
  • The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial : Maggie Nelson
  • The Waves : Virginia Woolf
  • White Noise : Don DeLillo
  • The Crime Writer : Jill Dawson
  • The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson
  • Libra : Don DeLillo
  • Slow Horses : Mick Herron
  • Black Water : Louise Doughty
  • Apple Tree Yard : Louise Doughty
  • The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright
  • The Glorious Heresies : Lisa McInerney
  • Fortunes Neck : Kevin McDermott
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin
  • My Katherine Mansfield Project : Kirsty Gunn
  • Intruder in the Dust : William Faulkner
  • White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World : Geoff Dyer

Poetry :

  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream
  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them
  • Plus lots of Frank O’Hara and, always, Robert Hass

Currently reading :

  • Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett
  • Billie’s Blues : John Chilton
  • Austerity Britain 1945-51 : David Kynaston
  • Pierre Reverdy : NYRB Poets in Translation [Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery et cetera]

As the above suggests, I’m continuing to make my way back through Virginia Woolf’s fiction (aided by her diaries and Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, which nicely links her life to the novels) while working rather haphazardly back through Don DeLillo. (Nearly succumbed to the latest in Foyles this afternoon, but, after looking a the price – £17 almost for a slender book with largish print – opted to wait for the paperback. Writing as good as DeLillo’s doesn’t date, right?)

I’ve avoided reading Louise Doughty for a while; she’s a friend of a friend and frequents some of the same North London cafés as myself – she’s usually working at her laptop or correcting proofs when I see her – and if she doesn’t look too engrossed I’ll say Hi and we’ll chat a little – all of which means I ought to have read her before now, but look, suppose I did and didn’t like what she’d written … ? But the thing is, I did. Read and like. Very much. The most recent novel, Black Water, is largely set in Indonesia, with a background involving the CIA, the Cold War and Civil Rights. If it reminded me of anyone else, it was Graham Greene – partly for the Asian setting, partly the mix of excitement and adventure with the questioning of an individual’s morality. Straight after that, I read Apple Tree Yard, a very cleverly plotted book about latter-day lust, obsession and  betrayal, told within an absorbing courtroom framework and – as it says on the jacket – absolutely unputdownable once you’ve begun.

When she saw me absorbed in Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (more court room stuff here), the barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee told me it was the best book she’d read for ages, and that absolutely the best book she’d read since was Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, which was strongly recommended also by the nice chatty guy who works in the fiction department at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, and since he’d put me on to Lucia Berlin’s stories, I took him seriously. They’re both right: the stories are interestingly off-the-wall and surprising, self-indulgent but in  way that’s oddly acceptable and written in a style that doesn’t remind me of anyone else at all. Not only that, it is a lovely book to look at and to hold, beautifully published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Finally, the most delightful and unexpected book in the bunch was James Sallis’ Willnot.
Mainly known as the author of terse and elliptical crime novels, Drive amongst them, Willnot simply will not be pinned down. Woody Haut writes about it clearly and enthusiastically on his blog and I commend that to you.

Happy reading!