Thursday, 30 June 2011

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET by David Mitchell

David Mitchell is famous as an author of literary fiction, so I was unsure what to expect of this novel, some six hundred pages set in 18th century Japan. I feared for lines like this:
Tea is cool lush green in a smooth pale bowl.
And indeed, there was quite a lot of this sort of thing, and, initially, a fair amount of lengthy and suddenly poetic speech-making from uneducated labourers/surly deck hands, as well as learned and unmotivated discourses on early medicine.

I had serious concerns, but I soldiered on, as the setting was interesting. Jacob de Zoet is among the very few Dutch who have managed to gain a toe-hold in Japan as traders, while the country is still resolutely insular, not allowing its citizens to leave the country, or foreigners to go further than a tiny section of the port. On page 100, I was still worried I was in for an elaborate metaphor on the birth of modern science; when all of a sudden, the novel took a bizarre and spectacular left turn. Skip the next paragraph if you plan to read the book.

Jacob falls in love with a heavily scarred Japanese woman, who is then abducted and forced into a CULT FOR BREEDING BABIES which are later MURDERED TO GIVE THIS CRAZY ABBOT ETERNAL LIFE. Safe to say, we have left the realm of the well-behaved literary novel. There is even a failed rescue attempt, with sword fighting, and face-to-face encounters with the deranged Abbot; and then, if this was not enough, we suddenly switch to a being on board an English ship preparing for battle. Apparently, Holland has fallen to the British, so the Dutch on Nagasaki are essentially stranded. There is a big sea battle, and Jacob more or less saves Nagasaki, single-handed, don't ask me how, because I didn't really follow. The book ends the traditional way, with a ritual disembowelling and a triple-cross poison plot.

So in short: literary potboiler. I loved it. There was lots of beautiful writing – try this:
An enterprising fly buzzes over his urine in the chamber pot
I can't think when I've heard sewage more elegantly described.

There was also a staggering amount of research, and historical detail, woven neatly and elegantly into the deranged plot. I learnt, for example, that to get a gouty toe to heal, doctors of the time thought it a good idea to put mouse droppings in the open wound, to produce more pus. Thank god for the birth of modern science.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I really enjoyed Adichie's novel HALF OF A YELLOW SUN, which seemed to me a fresh and interesting picture of a small corner of 20th century Africa. I was therefore excited to read her latest release, THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK, a collection of short stories.

It was, I'm sorry to say, a rather disappointing experience. I did appreciate the unselfconscious way in which Adichie writes about contemporary Nigeria, and in particular the Nigerian diaspora, and some of the stories were quite sweet, and affecting. I especially admired 'Imitation,' a story in which a Nigerian wife, unhappy in the US, eventually gets up the courage to insist her family move back to Lagos.

However, I found many of the stories to have an unpleasantly and obviously didactic edge. Now, I don't mind if an author has an agenda, and feels a need to educate, but I'd appreciate it if they could try and be a little subtle about it. Here's an example, a girl thinking about her sister while hiding from a riot outside:
She imagines the cocoa brown of Nnedi's eyes lighting up, her lips moving quickly, explaining that riots do not happen in a vacuum, that religion and ethnicity are often politicized because the ruler is safe if the hungry ruled are killing one another
This is a very unsubtle elucidation of a very obvious point. Indeed, many of the 'lessons' seem rather second-hand and obvious, the sort of stuff that is taught in first year Politics classes at liberal American universities. There is even a really embarrassing section 'educating' us about how the British stole African artifacts during colonialism. I think I may have found it particularly toe-curling because I've just read THINGS FALL APART, in which a truly great Nigerian writer handles such issues with immense delicacy and insight.

As an avowedly African writer, I was also disappointed to see how very limited Adichie's understanding of Africa is. The book deals almost exclusively with middle class black Nigerians, and where it steps out of this world tends to fall into caricature; there's a particularly crude caricature of a Jewish American, and a portrait of a white South African that I found almost poisonous.

In an novel, this limited imaginative world may work quite well: we can accept why there is a single atmosphere, and a single sensibility. Short stories are a very different, and a very difficult medium, and for me, in THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK, Adiche's limits became apparent.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

NOT ANOTHER DAY by Julius Chingono


Julius Chingono was born on a commercial farm and worked for most of life as a blaster on the mines before late in life becoming a published author.

I have reviewed his very fine collection of poetry and short stories, NOT ANOTHER DAY, at Africa Book Club. If you're not going to click through, let me just leave you with this lovely little sample of his work, the poem AFRICAN SUN:

The African Sun
shines bright
even upon dictators
warms even
absolute rulers,

Sets even upon despots

Thursday, 23 June 2011

HISTORY OF A PLEASURE SEEKER by Richard Mason


I read this ages ago, and entirely forgot to blog it. Here's the back cover. It will give you an accurate idea not just of the plot of the book, but of its style:
The adventures of adolescence had taught Piet Barol that he was extremely attractive to most women and to many men. He was old enough to be pragmatic about this advantage...' It is 1907. The belle epoque is in full swing. Piet Barol has escaped the drabness of the provinces for the grandest mansion in Amsterdam. As tutor to the son of Europe's wealthiest hotelier, he learns the intimate secrets of this glittering family - and changes it forever. With nothing but his exquisite looks and wit to rely on, he is determined to make a fortune of his own. But in the heady exhilaration of this new world, amid delights and temptations he has only dreamed of, Piet discovers that some of the liaisons he has cultivated are dangerous indeed.
Yes, yes, I think you get it. 'Glittering family,' 'exquisite looks,' 'heady exhilaration.' Say no more.

On the positive side, it was interesting to learn about Amsterdam at the turn of the century, and it's strong economic links with America; I had no idea that Holland was so rich or so influential at this time. Also interesting was the child Piet is hired to tutor, who has a raging case of OCD some decades before anyone is equipped to understand it or help him. There is plenty of sex in this novel, and while it's no Portnoy's Complaint, and there were a lot of pulsing mounds and so on, it was in general not embarrassing or sordid, which is I think impressively difficult to achieve.

Encountering this book entirely without context, I read and immediately forgot it, as a piece of mass market pulp. I've been surprised since to find it quite extensively reviewed as literary fiction, and to discover that its author, Richard Mason, is famous for having received one of the larger advances ever recorded for a first book, at the ripe old age of 19.

When he was an old Etonian in his first year at Oxford.

But let's try not to hold that against him. He sounds quite nice here.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton


Edith Wharton was born Edith Jones, in 1862, to a wealthy New York family. Just how wealthy they were can be judged by the fact that they were the original Jones who one is supposed to keep up with.

HOUSE OF MIRTH is set in this wealthy world, and deals fundamentally with the problem of money.

It tells the story of the poor but beautiful Lily Dart, and her hunt for a husband. Lily spends all her time playing dumb and available, while making private calculations as to how long she can keep this gown going, and how far she will have to go to get Mr Dimwit to offer for her. She does get several Mr Dimwits to come to the point, and though she desperately wants to escape her relative poverty, somehow cannot get herself to go through with the sale of herself. However, when she finally received an offer from a man she very much likes, Mr Selden, who is poor, she cannot bring herself to commit to a life of old clothes and small rented rooms either.

This may make it sound like a rather serious book, but it is actually frequently very funny. Here's Lily's aunt's ideas on leaving New York:
Mrs Peniston thought the country lonely and trees damp, and cherished a vague fear of meeting a bull.

There is definitely an idea still present today in our culture, coming mostly from the the 19th century, of the desirability of the sweet young ingenue - weak, innocent, and pure. In HOUSE OF MIRTH, Wharton allows us to see the complicated scheming women put into creating this impression of docility and stupidity that they knew was required. It's an entire re-examination of the idea of young womanhood. Lily has a sharp intellect and a tortured soul, and remains torn between her lower and higher selves, gradually falling out of good society, and eventually having to join the work force. I can't think of another young woman in the literature of this period who would make the following speech:
I have tried hard – but life is difficult, and I am a very useless person. I can hardly be said to have an independent existence. I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.
At the end of the book I had the odd feeling that I actually knew Lily, and thus (SPOILER ALERT) when Wharton kills her off in an apparently almost intentional overdose, I felt both sad, and cross.

I really wanted this clever and rebellious girl to triumph over her environment, and wanted Wharton to have written that book; but perhaps the book she has written is more accurate. Perhaps clever and rebellious girls do generally get what is coming to them. A luta continua, and all that.

Monday, 20 June 2011

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro


This is a strange and wonderful little novel.

It follows the apparently ordinary lives of three children in an English boarding school in the 1990s, and their slow growth into adulthood. Much of the charm of the book inheres in its accurate depiction of the small battles of childhood, and the awkwardness of adolesence. However, as the book goes on, it becomes clear that this is not an ordinary school, and that these are not the 1990s as we know them.

The children seem to have no parents, and there is a constant focus on their health, as well as a sort of vague sense that they have a special destiny.

Chaps, they are clones. It's a clone story. Awesome.

Once you leave the boarding school you are a carer for some years, looking after those who have already begun to donate vital organs. Then you become a donor yourself. Most people do not make it past their fourth donation.

What makes this book so compelling is first of all the interesting and believable characters (there is a sort of long term love triangle); secondly, the slow revelation of what is going on; and thirdly, the calm and unspectacular narrative voice, that somehow seems to make the story all the more grisly. I will never feel the same about the phrase “a little bit of bleeding.”

Here, for example, the narrator, Kathy, is caring for her boyfriend Tommy after his second donation:
A mix-up at the clinic had meant Tommy having to re-do three of the tests. This had left him feeling pretty woozy, so when we finally set off for Littlehampton towards the end of the afternoon, he began to feel carsick and we had to keep stopping to let him walk it off.
Somehow Littlehampton makes it all so much grimmer.

Kathy and Tommy had hoped there might be some chance of a deferral. Incredibly depressingly, they don't even seem to think about exemption, but pin all their hopes on a deferral. They find out this is not possible, and depressingly, accept it. Tommy completes, as they call it, after his third donation, and Kathy accepts this. This is pretty much the end of the novel.

I was gutted. I guess because I cared about the characters, I also felt really irritated with them. I had really, really wanted the book to suddenly get all action-packed, where all the clones would rise up and kill their human overlords. I wouldn't even have minded if we had to have some car chases.

I struggle to believe that human beings (clones or not) could be so effectively brainwashed as to accept their own slow and painful deaths. I don't think so. I hope not. But this novel of course also operates on another level, that of myth.

M John Harrison for the Guardian puts it as follows:
This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.

I am not sure what I think of that.

Friday, 17 June 2011

GIRLS ON STICKY WICKET by George Eliot

Here's another worm from the can opened by V(ery) S(exist) Naipaul. A Guardian columnist, Bidisha, has weighed in with an interesting if very angry piece.

She has collected the statistics on how relatively few women are shortlisted for major literary awards. I suggest you click though, but if not, here's the nub of it:
This year’s Dolman travel writing book prize has longlisted 8 men and 2 women. The previous year the shortlist was 6 men and 1 woman. The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction has shortlisted 5 men and 1 woman this year. There were double that number of women on the shortlist last year: 2. One of them, Hilary Mantel, won. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has returned a shortlist of 5 men and 1 woman every single year for the last five years. In 2006 it went totally mad and had 2 women and 4 men! Since 2001, the IMPAC prize has had 11 men winners and 0 women. The Samuel Johnson prize has a 2011 longlist of 15 books by men, 1 co-authored by a mixed pair and 2 books by women. In the previous 12 years it has had shortlists of 5 men and just 1 woman 7 times. In 2009 it was 6 men and no women. It has been 4 men and 2 women three times. In 2003 they had their year of insanity: 3 men, 3 women. The Ondaatje Prize has honoured 7 men and 1 woman.

I already knew this about ratios for reviewing (my post on the Vida count), but didn't about prizes. Of course, this could simply indicate that women are just not writing very good books; but it seems unlikely.

In this connection, the column also points out that as consumers, men tend very markedly not to buy books by women. This obviously has a big impact on sales figures for female authors, but I also wonder what this reluctance to engage with women's work means in terms of the gender make-up of reviewing and awarding bodies?

Honestly, given the choice, I would totally rather have been born a boy. I can't be bothered with all this.

I was led to this link by Annie Holmes, whose book you may be interested in, by the way, Zimbawean readers, being verbatim stories of life in Zim. I've heard only fabulous things.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth


This gentleman just won the International Booker, so despite this blog's last painful experience with that award (the dire Finkler Question) I decided it was time for some Roth. I am not sure I will ever be the same again.

The entire book is a monologue, delivered from one Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist. It is 300 pages of one man's self-centred whining, and, incredibly, it works.

As he explains early on “Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain't no joke” His family is full of neurotics: his mother is controlling, his father is constipated, and he himself his obsessed with masturbation. It all goes down hill from there, as he finds people to have sex with and thus becomes obsessed with sex. Essentially, it's Adrian Mole, but dirty.

This is such an odd novel, that I think the best way to give you an idea of how it works is to quote. Now, skip this if you have a delicate constitution, as I regret to inform you that it is all about masturbation:
I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment (and with the aid of my obsession) what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. Oh shove it in me, Big Boy, cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you've got, begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright. Come, Big Boy, come, screamed the maddened piece of liver that, in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and believe it or not, violated behind the billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

And it's pretty much all like this. Sex, sex sex. Literary though it is, I bet it's hidden under lots of teenage boys matresses.

I found it a hilarious and technically accomplished work, the greatest feat being the narrative voice: always whining but somehow also always interesting. He did lose me a little at the end, when he goes to Israel - perhaps I dont understand enough about Jewish life in the 1960, or something - but it struck me as a something of a damp squib.

As a side point, much though I admire Philip Roth, I have to let you know I won't be seeking to date him. I'm pretty sure he doesn't see much of a women beyond her bits.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe


I'm reviewing occasionally for AFRICA BOOK CLUB at the moment, a very worthwhile venture, giving African literature a higher profile on the web. My review for them, which is much more formal and well behaved than is usual for this blog is here.

Let me just give you a charming little story from the book, that tells us pre-colonial Ibo had the same problems as us . . . .
Mosquito had asked Ear to marry him, whereupon Ear fell on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. "How much longer do you think you will live?" she asked. "You are already a skeleton." Mosquito went away humiliated, and any time he passed her way he told Ear that he was still alive.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy


This novel begins with a bizarre dedication:
To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958 – Mother – Twenty-Nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood

Ellroy's mother was murdered when he was ten, and the perpetrator was never caught. Apparently, for much of his early life he confused his feelings about this murder with another sensational case, the torture and killing of a woman called Elizabeth Short, whom the press nicknamed the Black Dahlia.

This novel tells the story of two fictional detectives' attempts to find Ms. Short's murderer. Given the biographical background, you'd think it would be a deeply felt examination of violence, and how it affects us. Instead, it is a straightforward and enthusiastic police procedural.

With very enjoyable energy and verve Ellroy manages to include just about every single element of any detective formula you can think of, into just this single story. It's sort of an incredible feat. Thus we have:

-rookie who learns quick
-sexual torture of lithe young woman (I always need more of that!)
-partners who fight, but end up best friends
-detective who gets too personally involved in the case
-dirty informants
-room with meathooks
-surrendering your badge and gun, because you are a loose cannon!
-great sex with people we hardly know
-detective eventually has to face killer on his own
-wait! that wasn't the real killer! stupid twist!

While I appreciate that this formula is almost always misogynist to some degree, BLACK DAHLIA really distinguishes itself in this department. The torture of the young lady is described with a degree of lascivious enjoyment that made me uncomfortable, and I found it deeply creepy when the main detective eventually started needing to imagine that every woman he had sex with was Ms Short.

That said, I quite enjoyed this formulaic and misogynist book. It has a strong and compelling, if stupid plot, which kept me turning pages. In addition, the writing style is endlessly creative and quite unusual, being a sort of pastiche of period slang. The dedication gives you a flavour of it, but try this:
Russ straightened the knot in his necktie; I clammed up. Sally jabbed a finger at the couch. “Let's do this quicksville. Rehashing old grief is against my religion”

He also routinely refers to rapists as 'rape-os'.

I don't even know how to respond to that.

Top tip: People are apparently still obsessed with the Black Dahlia case today, which makes a Google search - specially an image search - something to be avoided. I have put a respectful picture of the lady up here.

Monday, 13 June 2011

I AM AMERICA (AND SO CAN YOU!) by Stephen Colbert


I AM AMERICA continues my unexpectedly in-depth exploration of books written by American television comedians.

“I have so many opinions,” Colbert tells us in his introduction, “ that I have overwhelmed my ability to document myself.” Thus this book, which purports to be a series of essays expounding his views on major issues in American life.

It's a very fun, if silly and forgettable little book.

On the Elderly:
Make no bones about it, old people are tough. Many of them grew up having to scrap for every penny. They made shoes out of newspaper and twine, and subsisted on a thin stew of newspaper and twine. Sometimes they had to go without shoes and stew altogether so that there would be enough newspaper and twine to treat the baby's Scarlet Fever.

On Religion:
Some are put off by the labyrinthine structure of Catholic dogma, but many of its rituals are quite beautiful, and not just when edited together as a tense, poetic counterpoint to brutal violence in Mafia films.
And
Here's an easy way to figure out if you're in a cult: if you're wondering whether you're in a cult, the answer is yes.

On Science:
Reality has a well-known liberal bias. And who can you depend on to kowtow to reality like it's the only game in town? Scientists. They do it religiously. With their fanatical devotion, scientists are no better than cult members – only difference is that they put their blind faith in empirical observation instead of in a drifter who marries 14 year-olds and declares himself the reincarnation of Ramses II.

So, funny and stupid. Because I like to bring you the best in blog accuracy, I often Wikipedia authors before I blog them. I know: what extensive research! Anyway, as a rather sad side point, I learn that Stephen Colbert lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash when he was ten. Poor man. It's an unsettling thing, because one doesn't think of him as a real person, but as a television character.

If you read this blog regularly you will be able to figure out without too much trouble that this is one of my night books – books I read when I can't sleep. I'm finding not sleeping frees up an incredible amount of time. I should probably stop wasting it reading silly books and get focused on world domination.

Blog Trivia! Stephen Colbert got his big TV break with Amy Sedaris, the sister of David Sedaris, who I read in bed a lot too. My night books are all connected. I am sure this is a sign! Possibly a sign that comedians tend to work together.

Friday, 10 June 2011

REUNION by Alan Lightman


This short novel tells the story of a professor of English who on impulse decides to attend this thirty year college reunion. In the best tradition of college reunions, all his former classmates seem to be old, fat, and miserable, as indeed he is himself. He wonders into an empty room, and remembers his first love, who was a ballerina named Juliana. This memory sequence abruptly and unexpectedly then consumes the whole rest of the book.

If you think it'd be difficult to keep a flashback going over two hundred pages, you'd be right, but Mr Lightman struggles valiantly.

The memory is a compelling story: as a student he fell madly in love with this Juliana, who was obsessed with ballet. She got pregnant, and he desperately wanted her to keep the baby, despite the fact that this would likely ruin her career. She disappeared, and he never saw her again.

Most interesting to me in this book was Lightman's concept of life as a river, which can split suddenly. You meet a beautiful girl in a park, for example, and do or do not take her number; and that's a split. It could be your life ought to have changed, but you were so used to the path you were already on that you did even notice that the river had branched until you were too far downstream to go back. A very worrying and very probably accurate picture of the choices we make.

We've talked before in this blog (here) about how I really can't bear a certain brand of contemporary literary fiction, which tends to involve excessive use of the present tense, a lot of prepositions, and the ending of every paragraph on a profound, or - just as bad - a poetic note. Curiously, this kind of fiction seems to be dominated by men, and Mr Lightman unfortunately undeniably falls most horribly into this category. I'll let him speak for himself:

The four ballerinas move across the floor like a fluttering of wings, back and forth, around and around, changing shape again and again. At times they became a sequence of snowflakes. At times they are caged birds, beating for freedom. Angles and curves. Solids and lace. Filigrees of light trickling through trees. His heart cannot hold all the images and sounds.

In response, I can only say: barf.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

ARE YOU THERE VODKA? IT'S ME, CHELSEA by Chelsea Handler


As previously mentioned on this blog, I am now dividing my reading between day books and night books. Day books are so named, you will be astonished to learn, because I read them during the day. Night books are chosen to keep me company when I can't sleep, and are generally cheerful and silly.

ARE YOU THERE VODKA? IT'S ME, CHELSEA, seemed to fit the bill as a night book, being a loosely autobiographical collection of comic short stories, written by a quite successful female American comedian. I always want to support women in comedy, as it's such a misogynist field, with the two available roles for women (virgin and whore) providing not much space to be funny in.

Unfortunately the book also didn't have much space for funny. It badly needed an editor, being sloppily and repetitively written. It also seriously needed some fresh ideas. There is an entire story about midgets. You'd think every joke that could be made in that area had already been made, and you'd be right, but this didn't stop this writer. There's also a lot of stuff about vibrators, which while less overdone that midgets is hardly comedy gold.

I do like the title, based on the young adult classic ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume. But that's about it.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

BABBITT by Sinclair Lewis


His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.
This is how Sinclair Lewis describes our central character, Babbitt, who, when the book opens, believes he is happy. He does what everyone else does, thinks what everyone else thinks, and is dedicated to material wealth and the myth of the white picket fence.
When he laid out the Glen Oriole acreage development, when he ironed woodland and dipping meadow into a glenless, orioleless, sunburnt flat prickly with small boards displaying the names of imaginary streets, he righteously put in a complete sewage system.
His best friend from university, Paul Riesling is deeply unhappy, and when they go on holiday together to Maine, Babbitt begins to question his life. Says Paul:
But I do know that about ten times as many people find their lives dull, as ever admit it; and I do believe that if we busted out and admitted it sometimes, instead of being nice and patient and loyal for sixty years, and then nice and patient and dead for the rest of eternity, why, maybe, possibly, we might make life more fun
Paul eventually shoots and wounds his wife, and this affront to accepted behaviour jerks Babbitt out of his stupor. He attempts to make some resistance to the norms of his world, and finds himself slowly excluded from that world. He is immediately unhappy. His wife develops acute appendicitus, and in sympathy his bourgeois circle opens a little to let him back in. He leaps back into their waiting arms, glad his revolution is over.

I love this:
Though he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves
There is some redemption in the end, through these very children, because the book ends with Babbitt supporting his son against all their family in choosing to get married young, and become a mechanic, rather follow the traditional route of university and a showy wife.

It's now a commonplace that the accouterments of late capitalism – cars, shops, housing developments – cannot make you happy. What is interesting about this book, written as it is at the very birth of this kind of capitalism, is to see the very birth of this critique – when the idea that money will not make you happy was still new, and unusual. He writes about it terribly seriously, and it's very sweet, rather like having a child show you how to ride a bike.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

VS Naipaul: I have a lot of issues


You may have heard that poor old VS Naipaul has embarrassed himself rather, once again. He claims that no female writer is as good as he is, not even Jane Austen.

Now, let's leave the misogyny aside for a second, and just be kind of amazed that he can possibly think he is that good a writer. I mean, I loved A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS, but let's be serious.

He also cliams that within a few paragraphs he can tell if something is written by a man or a woman, and the Guardian has created a brilliant quiz so you can see if you can too. Here it is - try it, it's fun. I got 7/10.

I want be restrained and end the post there, not engaging in any ad hominem attacks that would be below the dignity of this blog, but let me just suggest you Google 'VS Naipaul wife beating' and see what you can learn.

Friday, 3 June 2011

THE EAST OF EDEN LETTERS: JOURNAL OF A NOVEL by John Steinbeck


Every day before he began work on his novel EAST OF EDEN, John Steinbeck wrote a letter for his editor and friend Pascal Covici. These were never really intended to be read by Covici, but instead functioned as a warm-up for Steinbeck's day's writing, in which he ruminated about his ideas for the book, and his process in writing it.

The book is thus an interesting insight into the working methods of an experienced author. Aspiring novelists, give in to despair right now: he routinely cracked out 1500 words a day, and considered this a leisurely pace.

There are lots of interesting and entertaining observations. Regarding having his book read by his editor:

I am never shy about it when a professional is doing the reading. But God save me from amateurs. They don't know what they are reading but it is much more serious than that. They immediately start writing. I never knew this fail. It is invariable. For that matter, I think I dislike amateurs in any field. They have the authority of ignorance and that is something you simply cannot combat
.

Or, regarding his original plan, to have every second chapter be more philosophical than plot based:

Such readers as only like plot and dialogue can then skip every other chapter and meanwhile I can take time for thought, comment, observation, criticism, and if it should seem a good thing to throw it out, I can do that too.

I often skip or skim boring bits in books, and I am pleased so great an authority as John Steinbeck clearly operates on this principle on occasion too.

Anyone who has ever written a diary knows how maudlin anything we write just for ourselves can be, and the letters are frequently of this nature, with moaning about DIY and needing to go to the toilet. This can sometimes be dull to trudge through, but was also I found curiously compelling. You do not often get a day-to-day account of someone's year, and this made me feel strange close to the writer, and to his period.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

DAVID SEDARIS at 3am


I'm not doing so much of the sleeping at the moment, which is not good for the health but is extremely good for the reading list. Usually one chooses books by a series of criteria, such as – I've heard of it, it sounds interesting, it's free; at the moment, I am choosing books based simply on the question: how will it read at 3am?

David Sedaris reads wonderfully well late at night, and thus over the last weeks I have read THE SANTALAND DIAIRIES, BARREL FEVER, DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDOURY AND DENIM, and NAKED.

Sedaris has made a career of writing humorously about his own life. It is the apotheosis of anecdote. This is a pretty small niche, and it sort of staggers me he can get this much material out of one little life.

Interestingly, it's quite hard to give you a little excerpt that gives an example of how funny he is; it's not a one-liner kind of thing, more a comic point of view, that's hard to define precisely. That said, here's him sleeping on the floor of a Greyhound bus:

The bus's colossal engine lay just beneath my head, providing warmth for the countless bits of misplaced candy that melted to form a fragrant bed of molten taffy
.

Sedaris had some trouble with drugs, and with being a general layabout, for much of his twenties and thirties, and some of his stories are about this. I don't know what it means about me that I find this procession of failures strangely comforting; I think it's just that one isn't used to anyone being so honest about where they went wrong.

He clearly had no career plan, but was eventually discovered reading aloud his diary ,which he had kept from age 21, in a Chicago club. This got him a spot on NPR with THE SANTALAND DIARIES – his essay about working as a Christmas Elf at Macy's (say no more). He then wrote BARREL FEVER, which is the only one of his books I've read that is 'fiction,' and indeed the only one I gave up on. It's interesting to see how difficult it is to be what you are: a personal essayist – in a world of novelists. No doubt there's a moral in there somewhere. Then came NAKED (my second favourite, after WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES)and DRESS YOUR FAMILY.

So, apparently, I am now a Sedaris expert. And all the rest of you were wasting your time sleeping.