Thursday, March 17, 2011

I Write Like a Soldier - No Interruptions

I've always loved reading about how writers work, the rituals and processes that go into sitting down and making a novel. It should come as no surprise, then, that I wasted many an hour at my desk today reading through the archives of Daily Routines, a blog about "how writers, artists, and other interesting people organise their days."

The site features many authors and other creative types across a variety of media and genres. My personal favourite though? Gertrude Stein. Perhaps we should all try to schedule in an hour or two each day for quarrelling with our famous and accomplished friends?

Gertrude Stein with her portrait painted by Pablo Picasso. Photographed by Man Ray, 1922.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beware the Crooked Man

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things found its way into my hands by accident – I’m leaving my job soon, and so was rummaging around for stray personal effects in my desk when I found it in a drawer. There’s every possibility that I put it there, but I have no idea when or why I might’ve done that, so I feel rather like it found me instead of the other way around. I suppose when you consider the nature of the book, that’s probably appropriate. 

Although I have been known to like a good fairy tale, I think I’ve more or less grown out of the medium in its various forms and appropriations when it comes to full length novels. An Angela Carter short story here and there, sure, but I’d rather not spend a weeks’ worth of lunch hours reading about Little Red Riding Hood, despite what she might have to say about the state of modern feminism, or whatever it is authors appropriate fairy tales for these days.

With that preamble, then, it surprised me just how much I enjoyed this book.  Connolly tells the story of a David who, after the death of his mother, finds himself living a solitary life in the vast country home of his new stepmother, with only his books for company as his father dotes on his new stepbrother and devotes most of his waking hours to working as a code breaker for British Intelligence. Naturally, David stumbles into a twisted fairytale land and becomes trapped there, facing sinister threats at every turn. Like all good heroes, David not only has to discover his courage and intelligence, but he must also interrogate his own dark whims and pride, and decide what he is prepared to sacrifice in order to get his old life back.

All fairly standard stuff, I suppose, but I loved Connolly’s uncompromisingly gruesome approach to fairytale retellings. I won’t give too much away, but my favourites were Little Red Riding Hood, who fell in love with a wolf and gave birth to the first Loup, a bloodthirsty mutant that is half wolf and half man; and the huntress, who traps children and fuses their heads on the bodies of animals, so that she can hunt beasts with human cunning and animal strength and speed.  It’s all quite dark and nasty, and so it should be. It might not be anything too new, but a fairytale isn’t a fairytale without a few good beheadings, infanticides and disruptions of the natural order, after all!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Country House Revisited

I'm a month late in discovering this one, but the Guardian ran an interesting article back in February on the English country house as a literary device and looming cultural institution. For those who are so inclined (as I certainly am), it does discuss a couple of newer takes on the genre, like Toby Litt's Finding Myself, which I'll be adding to the wishlist.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Summer Reading - In Conclusion

Somehow, we've found ourselves in Autumn already and so technically, the days of Summer reading are over. As usually happens once the new year gets underway, my ability to stop and digest what I've been reading slips to the bottom of the mountain of tasks required for basic life maintenance. Nonetheless, I have still been reading, which is probably the most important thing (although does not in itself make for the most interesting blog posts). The last month in books, in summary:

John Brandon's first novel, Arkansas, landed in my lap as a result of a McSweeney's subscription program and I loved every page of it. His newest offering, Citrus County, is just as good. I challenge you to find a more cutting, deadpan writer!

 Another author whose first novel I adored - Keith Donohue's The Stolen Child is one of my favourite urban fantasy/magical realist novels (what are we calling that genre these days?). I was very excited to discover his not-so-new book, Angels of Destruction, a story about the past, and the line between the real, the imagined and longed for impossibilities. It pains me to say it, but it left me unsatisfied. The sophomore novel is a difficult beast.

Annnd there goes my literary credibility, if I ever had any. Let me say nothing more than that the outcome of this tangled web of angsty teenage lust was quite satisfactory!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Irrelevant Complexity of David Foster Wallace

Wallace was youth and doubt, from the very first sentence he published to the last - Don DeLillo

This fantastic BBC radio documentary about David Foster Wallace popped up in my Twitter feed last week on DFW's birthday. If you're a fan at all, I highly recommend you have a listen. It includes interviews with Don DeLillo, Mark Costello, Ricky Moody, and a number of other interesting folks who have much to offer the conversation on DFW's life and work. Best of all, this documentary contains some excerpts of his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which is coming out in April.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Summer Reading #5

Freedom, being one of the most eagerly awaited novels of 2010, has already been reviewed all over the place, so I don't have much to add to all of that. If you've stopped by before, you may know that I'm a bit of a Franzen fangirl (a Franzgirl?), although I think I have greater enthusiasm for his essays than his novels, which is not to say I dislike his novels at all.

Once again, Franzen has successfully, painfully captured human beings' scope for truly banal unhappiness, and if this ending is anything to go by, I think it's starting to get to him. I suppose it must be difficult to be a bird enthusiast without cultivating at least some sense of hopefulness, in something. In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen describes the propensity for bird watching to transform into a competitive sport (which may have some bearing upon the nature of familial and conjugal interactions in Freedom), but surely it is also, ultimately, an optimistic pastime?

Considering that, then, perhaps my conclusions about Freedom are unfair. Am I alone in thinking that in the last quarter of the novel, some punches were unsatisfactorily pulled? Should I try to be more open to the pure, unadulterated joy of catching a glimpse of an almost-endangered warbler in the wild?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Beaucoup Bad Shit - Summer Reading #4

If you recall, this was my re-read for the summer. I first read this book in high school, I think I was 15 or 16, and as usual I remembered almost nothing about it except that I lapped up every page. I was curious - the premise is not one that I imagine appealing to me now, but I wondered if my teenage self was really onto something, and a muggy, tropical summer stuck in the city seemed like the perfect time to read about a commune dwelling in a hidden tropical paradise.

The verdict? At about 100 pages, I think I told my better half, "I can't tell if I like it or not, but I am enjoying it." I'm not sure if that actually means anything, but it seemed to make sense at the time. Now, having just finished the book, I can say, yes, I did like it. I liked it a lot. I haven't been able to look away from it and have consumed it within a couple of days.

The backpacker thing is... well, I don't know. I couldn't help but think, isn't this a bit of wild, adolescent, orientalist fantasy? It's hard to argue otherwise, but Garland absolutely knows it. There's a great scene, pretty early on, where Richard (our narrator) and Keaty (another inhabitant of the beach) discuss the notches in their backpacks:

He lit up. "Got a favourite?"
I thought for a couple of moments. "It's a toss up between Indonesia and the Philippines."
"And your worst?"
"Probably China. I had a lousy time in China. I went for five days without talking to one person except when I ordered food in restaurants. Terrible food too."
Keaty laughed. "My worst was Turkey. I was supposed to stay for two months but I left after two weeks."
"And the best?"
Keaty looked around, inhaling deeply, then passed me the joint. "Thailand. This place. I mean. It isn't really Thailand, considering there's no Thais, but... Yeah. This place."

And there aren't any Thais, apart from the armed men who guard the marijuana fields on the other side of the island, and they are really only a plot device. It's a kind of wayward, middle-class, white people fantasy land, and look how horribly wrong it goes. Lord of the Flies, but with career backpackers and a shitload of drugs.

Though I might dislike more or less every single character (including Richard, who starts off as unbelievable, boring on the page but an intrepid adventurer in his own mind), I was completely sucked in, I had to know where they were going to end up (my terrible memory again). I can't resist an unreliable narrator, and Richard is a great example. Mr Duck, Vietnam... the line between reality and pure fantasy is pretty opaque in this universe. And the ending - spoiler alert, kind of - do you think they actually made it back? Can you return to The World, after all that?

A trivial afterthought - I was plagued by the thought that these people spent months, years, on this island without a single book. Isn't that the first thing you would take? Wouldn't you spend months and months re-reading the same novels over again, indiscriminately, until the next run to the mainland brought back some new treasure? Perhaps reading novels not set on the beach would be too great a reminder of the outside world, thoughts of which all characters are eager to banish. If that's the way things roll in this tropical paradise though, you can count me out!