Tuesday, 20 January 2015


I can't remember the last time I stayed up to finish a book. I know there've been books that I've longed to get back to; books I've missed the whole day long; books I've rolled around in, luxuriating, like a dog in fox shit. But staying up late in bed, with the light on, reading, just to find out what happens? This felt the other night like an experience I hadn't had for a long, long time.

When We Were Bad begins with a North London wedding: where part of you is drawn up, cringing, waiting for it to go wrong, and the other half is excited because somewhere you actually want to watch the car crash that will occur when this wedding doesn't go quite to plan. You want this outcome increasingly, especially as you feel the resentment of Frances (the character who the book focuses on more than any other) as her mum asks her the Worst Possible Mum Wedding Question: "Couldn't you at least have had a haircut?".

So part of its delight as a novel is just that it's really readable, in an old-fashioned, proper realist novel type way. It plays no tricks, it's no experimental fiction. But on the other hand, there are some set-pieces where you marvel at the technical achievement: for a start, there always seem to be a lot of people all talking at once in this book (perhaps not surprising when it concerns a family with four opinionated grown-up children, who don't all get on). And never confusion resulting. Most impressive for me was a big dinner party, on the night of Passover, where I sort of marvelled at how Mendelson had got across the sense of a massive room full of people where all different undercurrents and oddnesses were happening.

I was left thinking about it, too: was the ending too happy? (One of the main characters is dying in bed, they think, so it's not THAT happy, but certainly, it goes a bit warm and fuzzy round the edges towards the finish.) Were they a believable family? Would I have changed anything, if I was in charge? I found that quite fun to do, when lately, when I've had those thoughts about a book, they've been more of the "I'd have cut about half of it" variety.

It made me think this, though, finally: what is the point of a book like this, when entertaining family novels have been written, many times, and it doesn't push the art form forward at all? And I guess the answer in this particular instance is very simple: it was, to keep me awake at night.

Friday, 16 January 2015


Books about writing generally remind us that authors regard their job as hard work. This comes as bad news. I would guess that most readers - even ones that have ambitions to become writers one day (which is probably most of them)- don’t really want to be reminded that writing is actually hard work. In fact, not only do we not want to be told this, we also deep down don’t want to believe it.

We readers, possessing vague, one-dayish sort of literary dreams, prefer to subscribe to the vision that writers do a day’s work by wandering around the house, imagining, and then sit down for a bit with a cup of tea and write it down. Whilst eating a cake. In other words, that writing a book is a slightly more long-winded dramatic version of what I did for most of 1983, ie. staring out the window and having a long fantasy about kissing Nick Heyward. With maybe slightly more dramatic obstacles standing in the way of the kissing, which have to be got out of the way before a happy ending ensues.

In “Bird By Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, Anne Lamott captures perfectly the reader’s sense of deflation when told the truth about writing. She describes teaching writing classes to students she warns that writing isn’t easy to do as a career, and them looking at her blankly, with a gawp that implies they might seek a refund.

Luckily, she also provides much motivational advice, and this is rather inspiring. Plenty to underline, actually transcribe, and write on your own authorly heart for future consumption. And it turns out that the rest of the internet already joined the party, because Anne Lamott, a writer I’d never heard of before, has 300 billion followers on Facebook. Or something. Anyway, she’s a regular Miley Cyrus of the book world. The point is, she writes funny little stories, regularly, about her life, and people love her for it. Though she never quite solves the problem of how I am going to, eventually, deal with doing all that genuinely hard work.

Monday, 2 March 2009


David Foster Wallace's last novel, found in the garage by his wife, will eventually get published. Howling Fantods already have a guide to which bits of it you can read online. 

Monday, 23 February 2009


The books by my bed are a curious mix. Essays by my favourite writers - Updike, Coetzee, Les Murray - histories of the CIA and the modern Japanese state; there are two unread biographies of Dostoevsky and three books about the Nazi occupation of France. Many apologies if someone else can make more sense of this than I do; they should let me know. 

Are these books here to remind me of who I am, or who I want to be? Or something completely different. Are they the books I most want to read, or the ones I'm slowest to uptake? Are they the ones that make me feel the best about myself? The one I finished last, Matt Ridley's guide to the whole human genome, has fallen down the side of the bed. It's down there with all the dust, no reflection on how much I enjoyed it (a lot). 

Unfinished, but still feeling optimistic:
Gombrich, the Story of Art
Mathieu Enard, Zone
Mikhail Bulgakov, life of Molière

There just because I read and loved them, and can't bear to put them away:
The Sight of Death, T.J. Clark

There, and always will be:
Anna Freakin Karenina

Saturday, 20 December 2008


It's so interesting to see what everyone's writing down as their best of 2008. The omnipresence of "Netherland" on lists frankly baffles me, but then I've been clear about my perplexity in the face of that book, and er, like, 18 out of 21 people agree with me, so, like, ner. 

These are just done chronologically.

1. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

The atmosphere is still with me, of this strange and haunting book about the power of music and the desire to be an artist at all costs. Reads also as a sort of allegorical history of the development of Nazism in Germany, but from the inside. Incredibly meaty, with beautiful prose in every sentence. Just what you would expect from one of the most famous German novels. 

2. Romain Gary, La vie devant soi (1975)

This is incredible.  A little boy, son of a prostitute who has long disappeared, is being brought up amongst the other children of prostitutes by a former sex-worker now too old to make her living. The book is told entirely from the child's point of view. Astonishingly touching. And incredibly "real". An act of stylistic ventriloquism that manages to make you cry too. 

3. James Meek,  We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008)

I loved this book, though I reckon everyone who adored "The People's Act of Love" might have been a bit surprised to find it concerns Afghanistan, c. 2004, rather than snowy Imperial Russia. I love James Meek. A beautifully stylish writer. I would read anything by him. I think we haven't even begun to hear the best from him. 

4. Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (2008)

We have been waiting for Denis Johnson to kick our arses, by extending the subtle, slim books he writes - detailing losers and drunks and visionaries of a lost America - onto a larger canvas. Here it is, spanning the entire Vietnam war. Not for those who cannot manage without a strong storyline. Definitely for those who are looking for poetry, sincerity, human mystery. 

5. Rosamund Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936)

The second of the back-catalogue reads. Gorgeous, delicate depiction of life in thirties England. My grandma remembered reading it when she was younger, and we both re-read it together, agreeing that the crap line on the cover "this book was the Bridget Jones of our day" was total, well, crap. But if you like shivering cold drawing rooms, taxi cabs, party frocks, iron baths and economy Spam sort of books, you will undoubtedly fall under this book's amazing spell. 

6. Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (2007)

I honestly thought this was a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. A simple tale of office folk fighting over who is going to have the best chair. WTF was going on with all the people who didn't like it then? 
Bad taste?

7. Tim Winton, Breath (2008)

Tim Winton is a great writer about the open wild spaces of Australia, but when he turned his attention to surfing this year, one of his favourite hobbies... he blew my mind. A great book. Very slow, hardly anything happens, but with an extraordinary quality of paying attention. As always with him. 

8. John Lanchester, Family Romance (2007)

I'm pretty much a family memoir denier. I just can't bear the whole genre. I don't know how I ended up reading this. But it's amazing! His mother was a nun but just forgot to own up to anyone... And many other bizarre turns of event. Yet of course it's the way it's written that's the treat and a half. He has the most beautiful, cool, translucent style, steering you through the wreckage of his family. Really great. 

9. Anne Enright, The Gathering (2007)

I think I bought this because I was deeply intrigued by her terribly forthright opinions on the McCanns. 

An astonishing book about families, grief, madness, secrets, oh my god, honestly I could be really tedious about it. All the people who have given it one star on Amazon have just read it wrong. Don't let me start ranting about it. 

10. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008)

I know this isn't fiction, but I don't think I said I was going to stick to made-up stories. I included John Lanchester, anyway. 

This is just a gorgeous little read, that makes you think about how people decide how to live their lives, what powers them onwards, and also made me think a lot about how much grit you need to be a writer! Even though the book is ostensibly about running, you learn a lot about Murakami... and become, in my case at least, rather fond of him. Even though he depicts himself as a grumpy old loner. Lovely. 

11. Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident (2006)

I had liked a short story she wrote in a Granta book of the best young American novelists, so I bought this. The book is great: a novel about China meeting America in the form of a young Chinese artist who comes to California on an exchange programme. Delicate, funny, daring, all the stuff you want from a novel, plus a good story and loads about modern China that was ... so evocative. 

12. Gerard Woodward, August (2001)

Just finished this last night. Amazing. I do not for the life of me understand how come this guy isn't better known. Maybe he is the most disagreeable individual known to humanity in real life. I can't think so, though, really; the touches in this book, about a family's series of August camping holidays to Wales, are just extraordinary kind and caring even to the realllllly annnoying characters. Amazing. 



I find this sixties Scandinavia crime series, featuring the policeman Martin Beck, totally irresistible. Firstly, they have great covers. And for bookaholics, they have letters along the spine which, when you have the whole set, spell "MARTIN BECK". Ah, the marketing department know us completists so very well...

But the truth is I wouldn't worry about finishing the set if I didn't love the books. They are a strange mixture - preoccupied with showing a rapidly-changing Swedish social landscape, but at the same time showing a deeply sympathetic Ed McBain-type depiction of a small group of cops in a single police station. 

And evidently they were heavily influential on Mankell's later Wallander series - sometimes you can almost smell the similarities between Wallander and lovely Martin Beck. 

This story, though, is particularly good. I got to the letter 'N', before stopping reading earlier in the year, but I missed out 'T', so I went back this week. What bliss to be reading a detective novel that you know before starting is going to be good. 

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Tuesday, 16 December 2008


I read this book, which had been sitting on the shelf since approx. three weeks after it came out, after The Common Reader extolled its virtues. Actually the virtues of the whole trilogy

To start with I was a bit nonplussed, as the style is fairly undemanding, and there are a few bits that smelt a bit "creative writing" to me. (Sorry, but that's like my worst thing in the entire world.)

But my god, I got so into it that I sat on a chair by the boiler all day to keep warm and read the entire thing, when I was supposed to be making dinner for sixteen people. 

The things I loved: the complications of a properly dysfunctional family, laid out on paper. And like Tolstoy said, this unhappy family is unhappy in its own special way. Alcoholism haunts them, erratic behaviour, and that terrible inconsistency and unpredictability that is the hallmark of the drunk family. 

The fact is though, that amongst all this, you still manage to care about everybody, worry about everybody, and want to know what happens, which is practically amazing to me. And the fact that you sort of laugh at them, even in their tragedy. The motorbike riding through the campsite! The tragic glue-sniffing mum! The therapeutic shop-lifting! The disappearing bathroom pipework! In fact flicking back through I remember finding really quite a lot of it funny. It's a funny, laughable, terrible story. 

A book not like any other I've ever read. Though plenty enough like people I've known in real life. Well, thank you to The Common Reader, and also to my friend Ruth who lent me the book and has never asked for it back (eek). I loved TCR's point that for once the publisher's blurb is right - the characters really do haunt you: I keep thinking about them and wishing I could read more stories about them. Thoughtfully, Woodward wrote it as a trilogy. So hurray, I've got two more to go!