It’s all about those books

The clutch of books that started my year, and a very special event:

Let’s start with the event, though, just in case all those doomsayers are right about attention spans. A week tomorrow, that’s Thursday 26th February 2015, Bookseller Crow will be hosting a very special event, launching the UK publication of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. What you need to know about this book, from the mouths of three men I greatly admire:

“If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try to foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it.”   JON MCGREGOR

“I’ve just read The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury. FUCKING HELL. It is INCREDIBLE. Ben Fountain levels of brilliance.”   SAM JORDISON

“This is very special. One of the finest writers in America… Many things are described as once in a lifetime, but this one genuinely is.”   JONATHAN MAIN

The last is referring to the event as once in a lifetime – Jonathan has been effusive about Tom Drury in person, and that enthusiasm obviously rubbed off on the peeps over at Old Street Publishing who are responsible for the new UK publishing of Drury’s trilogy. So, what are you waiting for? Book. It’s free.

Now, onto the books. Finished in this order…

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH – RICHARD FLANAGAN. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just that it didn’t grip me. A dramatic love affair fizzles into a scene like ships passing in the night; hero status becomes a gauze obscuring a person; war elicits honour, and thereafter men are stripped of purpose. So much of the book pits life, in all its chaotic permissiveness, with the exacting conditions of conflict – and life leaves the protagonist floundering, bereft of his purpose to be an example to his men – to hold it together so that they have a chance to.

THE BRIDGE – IAIN BANKS. I was being provocative when I opened bookclub saying that The Narrow Road… and The Bridge were essentially the same book. But the themes – how people respond to arresting trauma; the different guises of the self; the vagaries of reality – are surprisingly similar. The reading experience, however, is not. The Bridge is imaginative and undermining: just as we begin to get a handle on a world, it mutates and challenges our assumptions. It’s part ridiculous, part seductive and ineffably vital.

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE – MURIEL SPARK. This short, stylish novel is a curious mix of domestic drama and symbolic prose. Featuring a host of characters, and stamped firmly in the late 1950s, the story begins and ends with a wedding. What happens in between is attributed by the community to the impact that ‘Art man’ Dougle Douglas has on those he meets. Or is that Douglas Dougle? There’s a con that is hilarious, and characters that are deftly drawn and compelling – but the novel works best for me as a metaphor for ‘cold feet’, having no reference point for the reality that infuses the ballad.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION – JENNY OFFILL. A powerful, compact and punchy story about the texture of love and the nature of holding together a monogamous relationship. It was close to the bone – suggesting that a deeply reflective disposition does not for contentment make. It was also slippery, seemingly an expression of mutability: passages that had meant one thing as I read them seemed to mean something else if I came back to them. This book is definitely one to be experienced, rather than related.

NOWHERE ENDING SKY – MARLEN HAUSHOFER. Given to me with a note of ‘I’ve been reading the LRB for three years, and I finally found something I think you will like’, Nowhere Ending Sky didn’t disappoint. It’s a dense and evocative hymn to a self-proclaimed unruly child, growing up in rural Austria. It paints a vivid picture of a girl with an active imagination and a tensile bond with nature – one who makes friends with the inanimate. Glorious and terrifying, ending as it does with the precipice of pubescence.

THIS SHOULD BE WRITTEN IN THE PRESENT TENSE – HELLE HELLE. Another compact and crafted tale of a woman at odds with her life, but utterly different in texture to Dept. of Speculation. Dorte is a drifter, who has convinced herself and others that she is studying at university. But Dorte is without drive, and life blows her this way and that. Interspersed with her days alone in a flat outside Copenhagen, we learn about her past and begin to assess her present as lovelorn.

PLAINSONG – KENT HARUF. A stunning, moving depiction of a small-town US community told through the lens of four sets of characters: Guthrie – whose wife is ailing and ultimately absent; Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s young sons; Victoria – a senior at high school, whose Mother kicks her out when she learns she is pregnant; The MacPhersons – cattle farmers and brothers who have lived together for fifty years since their parents died. The book presents a journey for all of them – sometimes gentle, sometimes wrenching – which carries the reader right into the heart of the town.

BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER’S SMILE – ALICE WALKER. Cementing Walker’s reputation as one of my all time favourite writers is this tale of an estranged family. Positing an unashamed connection with our sexuality as one of the core components of strength and self-belief, the story contrasts the life of two daughters – one denied sexual expression of a deeply felt affection; the other denied a relationship with her father. It has incredible sex scenes, ghosts and a host of observations about a wholesome spiritual life. Phenomenal.

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION – BEN LERNER. It took me a while to work out this was fiction, which changed my reading of it in a fascinating and as yet inexplicable way: self-doubt in an actual person seems endearing, but the same in a fictional character? Questionable. Anyway, that weirdness aside, I think it’s a commendable exploration of the torture of creation, and the elevation of soul, spirit and intellect (with all the problems that brings) in the consideration and production of art. I understand completely why Auster is quoted on the back, but I also observe that my appetite for intellectual gymnastics is not what it once was. What I did love about it, though, was the way the narrative dwelled in the gaps between languages, between tongues, between motivations. Every thing is up for grabs…

Randall, meet What I Loved

Some time ago, I was blown away by Siri Hustvedt’s astounding achievement, in What I Loved, of creating, and containing, an artistic practice in a novel. I wrote:

Hustvedt brings to life numerous bodies of work that are conceived and created, that are critiqued and dissected, that are received and reviewed, that fester and mutate… and it strikes me that this as authentic and ‘real’ as art gets. There is so much work that can’t be touched or viewed ‘in the flesh’, that operates on a premise of concept: the legend of a piece is bound by language and permeates cultural society through media that often belie the fact that the work existed to the point that it is inconsequential whether it did.

I thought the feat was utterly unique. Until now.

Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall is an ‘alternative’ view of the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that we all know, and love or hate to varying degrees, from the nineteen-nineties. It’s alternative because, though it draws primarily on fact, Damien Hirst is notably absent (accidental death) and his void is filled by Randall, the figure around whom the novel revolves. Gibbs brings this startling, rambunctious, and borderline offensive character to life with a deft drawing that teeters between narcissism and pseudoism – a drawing conducted through unlikely friend, Vincent Cartwright.

The artistic practice that Gibbs invents is gloriously wicked and clever – ranging from the scatological to the destructive – and it embodies countless art school debates that I’ve either overheard or (to my minor embarrassment) been a part of. These arguments get boiled down, repeatedly, into ‘Randallisms’: Contemporary art: art you don’t have to see to get; art you don’t have to like to buy. Gibbs plays with the reader with these pithy statements that seem contemptuous in tone – it’s impossible to know if celebration or denigration is the point. This Schrodinger’s box, this keeping the lid on the simultaneous possibilities of futility and vitality, is mirrored superbly in a scene later on in the book, when Vincent recalls one of Randall’s arguments about daily encounters with artwork – at your workplace, at home – the work is physically in stasis, but its effectiveness, its meaning, alters with the gaze, with the myriad emotions and preoccupations of the viewer that colour the encounter. The work holds all those possibilities – it is objective – and the viewer opens the box in the moment of looking.

So far, so brilliant. What makes this an extraordinary novel though, and something else it has in common with What I Loved, is that it is essentially about friendship. About how a shared passion, a point of contention, can be fertile soil for friendship. Vincent writes of Randall:

He shaped me. There, if you were looking for one, is my definition of friendship. If knowing someone doesn’t change you as a person, then they’re not a friend, they’re an acquaintance.

The book interweaves Vincent’s attempts to record the man and the work, with action in the present – a discovery, by Randall’s widow, and Vincent’s former lover, Justine. This layer of the story is totally compelling, and provides a counterpoint to Vincent’s recollections that is full of tenderness, muted agony and frustration. If Randall, in life, is unpredictable, then in death he becomes a seemingly immoveable obstacle to gleaning understanding. This foray that Vincent and Justine take into the hinterland is precariously poised – a maelstrom of doubt, of fear and of contradictory desires – and it is no surprise that Randall’s progeny (both his vindictive paintings, and his wilful son) bring a host of possibilities crashing to earth in one inevitable trajectory.

What I loved (sorry, couldn’t help it) about Randall, though, is the sense of vulnerability that resonates between the lines, between the characters, between the ‘doing’ and the ‘doer’ of art. Vincent is an art novice (at times, I think this is the absolute best kind of audience) and Randall takes him under his wing, educates him. Vincent is aware of this inequity, aware of his role as ‘douchebag’, that he’s been bestowed this friendship precisely because he will ask what it all means. We have momentary glimpses that Vincent realises the potency of being a blank canvas for Randall, allowing him to impart his intentions in their purest form. In the main, Vincent consciously plays the part of dupe, valuing his role as insider, but he is at a loss when this is challenged by the discovery that Justine makes. She asks:

Are you angry with Randall because of his paintings, so you don’t want to be his friend any more, or are you angry at yourself because you were tricked?

Echoing Lily Briscoe’s thoughts as she’s painting in the third section of To the Lighthouse, we see Vincent struggling to accept that even after their death, our friends, and friendships, are still mutable.

What I Loved, by contrast, concentrates on the friendship between two respective ‘experts’ and their families. Over the course of the book, the painter’s career comes to eclipse the achievements of his friend the art historian, but this is less critical than the way in which their friendship develops through a mutual wrangle with art. But, being so heavily invested in ‘the scene’, these characters are less able to convey its precariousness – are further from the dalliance with invective than we get from Randall and Vincent.

The experience of reading these two books, despite their similarities, was wildly different, even if they engaged similar memory muscles of artistic debate. What I Loved stimulated an intellectual, discursive and reflexive side of me. But Randall burrowed into the core of me, bypassing taste, rejecting solitude, and directing my gaze not at the monstrous jokes we can have at our own expense, but at the compulsion to push at the boundaries, to find meaning where there seems only a vacuum.


A bookish August

With a bumper eleven books under my belt this month, and the restart of Readers’ Circle, I can’t but start this monthly check-in with a round-up of books.


From my own List of Betterment I knocked another three off the list: Absolute Beginners, Sacred Hunger and Wide Sargasso Sea. Sacred Hunger was a long time in the convincing, but then it is a long book (I’ve no problem with long books generally, Wolf Hall was a swift and breathless read for me). It charts an adventure (or perhaps misadventure) of a slaveship called the Liverpool Merchant and two men tied to its fate: the son of the ship owner, Erasmus Kemp, and the ship’s surgeon Matthew Paris, cousin of Erasmus. The ship is declared missing two thirds of the way through the book, and it’s then that the detailed knowledge that has been provided about characters aboard comes into its own. The ideology and consideration of liberty that becomes the main discourse between Paris and a ship passenger Delblanc, is stimulating.

Wide Sargasso Sea was heady right from the start – the child’s eye view of a family cast out by society is compelling and full of vulnerability, and it contains all the ingredients necessary for the ultimate madness. The perspective shifts among characters as the story unfolds, and these different windows, looking upon the same view, couple exquisitely with the frank inner dialogues that we are privy to. Light suggestions of sex as intoxicating and mind-altering become amplified in an exotic landscape, and this completes the potency and seductiveness of this brief novel.

There’s so much to say about Absolute Beginners that I was compelled to write a whole post. As for the others, four books were Readers’ Circle books, which I’ll not say too much about now for fear of pre-empting discussions about their relative merits for selection into Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads programme. They were Every day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert and Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister.

That leaves the four I read for fun, rather than betterment: Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: bookshops and the delight of not getting what you want which was admirable but (inevitably) failed to get to the heart of why Bookseller Crow, my local indie, is so wonderful; Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, which is much more fun than you imagine a non-fiction book about mental health should be, and which has some startling and provocative reflections at the end (in hindsight, with reference to her diagnosis); A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter was neither about sport, not the Qu’ran, and it got a pretty hefty drubbing at bookclub, but I really enjoyed it. It’s impossible to read without thinking of Fight Club, and the bizarrely omniscient narrator, being both jealous of and desiring to possess his friend, who laughs in the face of loneliness. Its suggestion that anal sex is the height of a woman’s submission was my only grumble. Finally Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs. When I picked this up from Bookseller Crow, Jonathan said “You read some stuff, you” and I didn’t know whether to be proud or afraid. I think a good mix of both was appropriate, because it’s definitely a book that will kick your modesty to death while you look on helplessly, but is also a book that makes you feel very pleased with yourself if you finish it. Cocks, sodomy and wild masturbation aside, I thought it was a book about the mystery, and potential mysticism, of writing – the story takes massive turns each time we encounter something authored – a book, a screenplay, a stage play – the last of which seems to sum up the entire plot. Overall? Impossible to pin down, but quite a ride to jump on (ho ho).


Boyhood. Make sure you’ve emptied your bladder before you go in, because it’s long, but it’s also compelling viewing. It’s special because of the scale of the ambition – filmed over twelve years, whilst the central character, literally, grows up. It left me with so many questions about what film-making is…

The Tove Janssen exhibition at the ICA was contained in a little room, but the quiet setting seemed aptly reverent, and in keeping with Janssen’s world – remote, private, industrious.

In contrast, the Barbara Kruger exhibition at Modern Art Oxford was bold and brilliant. The first room had been totally vinyled, and I couldn’t keep my hands off the walls, nor stop myself from crawling on the floor, over huge words in black and white. In a world obsessed with stuff, where everyone feels entitled to expressing their opinion, Kruger holds up the perfect mirror to show us just how ridiculous we are.

Attending the first in a series of provocations about reading, writing and the business of making books initiated by Writers Centre Norwich, I heard Michael Rosen at an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I recommend you listen to it/read it, too. On listening back, one of the sentiments that strikes me is:

Modern day pardoners walk among us with falsenesses to sell. We need Chaucers to show the ironies of their trade.

It made me think a lot about reading, about ‘how we are educated as readers and writers’. I don’t have much memory of English at school, about how I was taught to read and write (though I do remember that my school thought me slow to complete such tasks), and know that most of my development as a reader happened off my own bat, as a result of enthusiasm and curiosity. That made me think in turn about how, as a society, we understand the need for writers to develop and hone their craft: we know it takes time to play with ideas, to develop a style and a voice, to put things down on paper, to consider them, reflect on them, edit them and fashion them in the best way to serve the story; we know writers will mature, and that time and space is essential to that; we also know that great writers don’t just spring from the ground – they nurture their talent, either in isolation, or more likely through the judicious use of a network of peers that can engage critically, intelligently and above all sensitively to the text. But what about readers? I guess that I’d be shocked to learn how many people in this country, let alone the world, can’t read. When we can read, what then? Reading is an active, imaginative, creative and empathetic act, one that takes practice, and sometimes hard work. I think conversation can be a critical part of working out what we think (as I try to elucidate here)*. But I don’t think we converse nearly enough about the craft of reading, nor how essential readers are to the business of making books. Michael Rosen praises the ‘slowness of literature’ – its ability to solicit contemplation – but I notice a fetish, in public discourse about books, for reading first, and fastest, and more prolifically than everyone else. So, I welcome this National Conversation about reading, writing and the business of making books, and I encourage you to join in and add your voice to the debate.


This month’s crowdfunding wasn’t, strictly speaking. But it was a pre-order of a Fairphone from a socially-minded company that want to change the way phones are manufactured, reducing the damage to people and environment. It’s really important work towards a worthy cause, and I encourage you to check it out.

*With immense gratitude to Sam Ruddock, whose conversation in the last few months has helped me understand what I think about reading, and how essential it is to my life (and, for the featured image). Thanks also to Andy Miller, who, without meaning to, has become the national spokesperson for quiet, reflective, contemplative reading.

June’s dues

June was a phenomenally bookish month – yes, even more so than May – so I’ll start this round-up with the books that I read.


Yes, I finally read To the Lighthouse. After years of it sitting on my bookcase. After A starting it and giving in after 20 pages. I popped my Woolf cherry and got a big red tick into the bargain (thanks, Andy):lighthouse tickWhat was it like? Well, I could barely put my response into words, but felt I had to try to work out what I thought. Now I think of all the clamour, the noise and the fickle affections of the first part of the book, in which everything seems to be happening, but nothing really is; and I think about the third part of the book, in which nothing seems to be happening, but something really momentous occurs. And I think of the second part, when the house and its fleeting occupants age and wither, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the passage of time that I have ever read.

So, that extraordinarily perplexing and stirring experience was a result of attending READ Y’SELF FITTER, which I wrote about in last month’s round-up. It is the brainchild of Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously that was my second conquest of June. A more timely and pertinent read, after the devastation of A Man in Love I can’t imagine. After the Knausgaard I felt broken apart, electrified and hateful: I thought I’d never be able to read in the same way again. But TYoRD made me whole again. It described – so thoughtfully, so humourously, so truthfully – why it is that reading can have such a strong effect – because the greatest artistry of literature is the pinnacle of humanity, it’s the best we can ever be, and for the vast majority of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to perfection. That description makes it sound unbearably worthy, so let me reassure you – it’s achingly worthy, but so fucking bearable that I wish I could live in it.

Notable because it heralded the re-birth of bookclub (yes, the one that I’d travel all the way from Nottingham for because no bugger in Notts would meet to talk book) is The Testament of Mary. Notable too are the vastly different interpretations of so slim a volume. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice – her obstinacy and her skepticism. I thought it was strongest when it seemed to question the veracity of events that were taking place, and least interesting when it could only be read as an alternative/insider view of the persecution of Christ.

I found a train ticket bookmarking my place in In a Free State dated February 2013. So that’s proof that this one didn’t strike me as a page turner. It’s another notch on my booker bedpost, but aside from that, I don’t have much to say about it – yes, it’s probably my failing. Or it could just be too fresh.

Ooh, this one makes me all tingly just thinking of it. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld – my Flight Club book – is winner of no less than three awards in the last couple of weeks. It pitches Jake Whyte’s current shepherding on a remote island – where some unknown menace is brutalising her flock – with her shady past, a continent and a climate away. It’s a story laced with mistrust, misdemeanour and mistakes; it’s provocative and unsettling; it’s also the only book on the Summer Reads list that didn’t need to be argued for (I hope it’s okay to say that). The evocation of two distinct places, the strength of the central character with the deftly drawn portraits of many men who briefly play their part, the subtle undermining narrative and the sophisticated structure that serves to distance these two separate phases of life are all undeniable hallmarks of quality.


Borough Press launched a great campaign on twitter to get people tweeting about books (actually, I say it was a great campaign, but I’m not sure what it was in aid of, so…). It was glorious. I noticed that lots of people tweeted first thing, over breakfast, and I still haven’t shaken the habit of opening up my timeline with my coffee to see what books are being talked about. I blogged about my June-long daliance with #bookadayuk for posterity. Doubleday UK took over for July, and you should join in, but I spent too much time tweeting in June, so have to now catch up with life, the universe, everything.


The lovely Sam Ruddock took me along to Jerwood Fiction Uncovered, where eight books were announced as winners of a prize for outstanding fiction – check them out – a great selection. Delightfully, it introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before, and was further accolade for a few of my favourite publishers – Salt and Granta Books. It’s a prize that cares about what comes after winning – getting involved with writers and their publishers to promote the titles in bookshops, at events and on their very own radio station. As an added bonus, the writers each had tin-type portraits created – gorgeous! Just like Sam’s fetching blue jacket.

fiction uncovered

Sam Jordison, one of the Fiction Uncovered judges, Sam Ruddock, programme manager at Norwich Writers’ Centre and me, looking dweeby (and not a Sam).


You think Bookseller Crow is just the best bookshop ever, and then it goes and puts on an event like this, and you think you’ll burst because you’re having such fun, in company, about books. The stuff of wildest dreams. To open Crystal Palace Overground Festival, Jonathan invited three writers to read from their new books. Jonathan Gibbs read from Randall, an alternative take on the YBAs with the immortal sentiment ‘art you don’t have to see to get’. It contains more shit than Manzoni’s tins, and is so close to my art school education it’s excruciating (and hilarious). Will Wiles read from the The Way Inn a story that takes the conference industry as its leaping off point, before it postulates conference surrogacy (which, come to think of it, is a damn good idea if conferences can’t be abolished entirely) and then, I’m assured, goes very, very weird. It’s incredibly well observed, and had my toes curling in recognition. Then there was a fabulous interlude by Barbara Brownskirt, poet in residence at the 197 bus stop, and I haven’t shaken the thought of faberge eggs between my legs since. Finally, J. B. Morrison read from The Extraordinary Life of Frank Derrick, aged 81, a touching portrait of an aged man, reliant on the weekly visits of his carer, and what blossoms in the gaps between personal and professional relationships. And, there was beer. Marvellous!


I went along to Stoke Newington Literary Festival, but hearing about it late and having other plans, I only got to The Future of the Book event. I should really stop going to these things, because I do get annoyed listening to, but not joining in with, a debate. But there were some great people on the panel – writers Nick Harkaway and Polly Courtney, found of Made in Me Eric Huang, editor of The Bookseller Phil Jones and publisher Stephanie Seegmuller of Pushkin Press. Eric made a distinction between ‘lean forward’ activities (gaming) and ‘lean back’ activities (reading) – which served to highlight to number of books I’ve read in recent years that made me lean forward.

I also attended ‘Your First Novel’ – an event in the lead up to the announcement of the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction – mainly to see Emma Healey whose debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, published the following day after causing a huge stir at London Book Fair. Kate Mosse chaired the panel, composed of Sarah Waters, Charlotte Mendelson and Felicity Blunt alongside Emma. It was a frank and funny conversation about getting started, keeping going, the editing process, submitting to agents, book titles, and then when it opened out to the floor, plastic surgery and lesbian Kurt Vonnegut. Major props to Emma for taking on such a big stage with such a stellar panel, and for charming everyone in the room.


I had planned to spend my crowd-cash this month on something other than theatre, but China Plate were desperately trying to reach their target for Blood will have blood, an adaptation of their popular production of Macbeth for 9-13 year olds. Their magic idea has the porter, played by the wonderful Richard Kidd, as sole performer, backed up by a digital cast.

Coming up in July – a literary salon with Mrs Trefusis and Andy Miller, an evening at Bookseller Crow with Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist and then open to offers!