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.