Fourth gear


HERE AND NOW: LETTERS 2008-2011 – PAUL AUSTER & J. M. COETZEE. I bought this for a friend: he’s into Coetzee, and I had a thing for Auster in my younger days. I was curious about whether it might illuminate our friendship. It didn’t land as I expected (we both wanted Paul’s easy manner, but felt we actually embodied John’s argumentative spirit) but it was an interesting collection of letters with wide-ranging subjects – especially on the nature of friendship.

1Q84 (vol 1&2) – HARUKI MURAKAMI. Lordy. Sentence by sentence, this book was torture. I read it for hefty book club, and was the only person who came to discuss it that hadn’t been compelled to read the final installment of the trilogy (I say final. There is rumour of a fourth). So the language was clumsy, but my main criticism was the strange apathy and bizarre passivity of the main characters Aomame and Tengo. Apparently, this is a phenomenon widely observed in Japan, so forgive me (or don’t) my cultural ignorance. I found it utterly incomprehensible, which got in the way of what might have been an interesting story. Also, ‘we held hands at ten years old and have never loved anybody else’? FFS.

ALL INVOLVED – RYAN GATTIS. Glory be, a novel that not only blew Murakami out of the water, but that would restore anyone’s faith in fiction. All Involved is fucking epic. Set over the six days of the ’92 LA riots, it serves up 17 successive first-person accounts of the black hole of mayhem that opened up whilst the emergency services were stretched thin and largely distracted. The lawlessness seems to go without saying, and the characters – ‘those that just know how it is’ – are either determined to keep a low profile, or seize the opportunity to settle some scores. It is vital, compelling, heart-rending and exquisitely poetic about love, faith and the cities that surround us as cradle and grave. Go listen to him read Ernesto and try telling me that your heart isn’t thumping. Oh, and next time you want my attention? The name’s B-Dawg.

FACES IN THE CROWD – VALERIA LUISELLI. Tricky one, this. I love Luiselli’s command and bravura – employed to great effect in her collection of essays ‘Sidewalks’ – but here, it disarmed me. The story bobs and weaves, tying up writer, narrator and fictional (is he?) subject as a series of beings that have glimpses of one another on subways and sidewalks. The characters become ghosts, and it may have been suggestion, but I felt like one myself when I finished this slim book.

INFINITE HOME – KATHLEEN ALCOTT. What a corker! A charming, edifying and unforgettable story about a confluence of misfits in a Brooklyn brownstone. Infinite Home deals with a plethora of socially difficult conditions – dementia, Williams syndrome, agoraphobia, technophobia, new physical impairment and the fall from (wealthy) grace – upon which, lovingly grafted, are exceptionally mesmerising characters. Alcott’s sentences are, in the words of bookseller Jonathan Main, to die for. One of my favourites:

Paulie asked Claudia, who said, “Friendships are more like oceans than rivers. There are high tides and low tides but not a steady rush. You’re up against a lot of currents, not just one.” Paulie was wordless at that, so Claudia said, “Sometimes people have a hard time looking out of themselves and need to just be alone and listen to all the conversations in their head.”

BARTLEBY & CO. – ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS. Bonkers, and brilliant: a book of footnotes, a book with a ‘missing text’ that playfully investigates the phenomenon of Bartlebyism – the ‘art’ of saying no. Sontag says it best: ‘The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a ‘means’ to something that can perhaps only be achieved by abandoning art’.

THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD – ANTHONY TREVELYAN. I described this, in the breathless moment of finishing it, as an arabian riptide, pulling the reader along for the ride. Starting as the familiar tale of the assistant in thrall to an overbearing boss, The Weightless World wrong-footed me at every turn, challenging every assumption I made about what kind of story it was. The depiction of India is on the nose, and the focal point of an ‘anti-gravity machine’ is a magical vortex that it’s impossible to avoid getting sucked into.

NOW AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH – SUSANA MOREIRA MARQUES tr. JULIA SANCHES. This book softly treads through the valley of death, charting Moreira Marques’ response to a palliative care village in Portugal. What is most striking about it is the way the writer casts off what she expects to find, and dwells with those for whom death is not the end: those who are left behind.

THE CREATIVE HABIT – TWYLA THARP. This book is not without its tips and trick for a creative life (project boxes helped me enormously six years ago when I started this book), but what’s memorable about it is what a fantastically dedicated and determined artist Twyla Tharp is. I’d want her on my team, any day!

Line ’em up, knock ’em down

Some fantastic books in the third clutch of the year – and a little bit of book club naughtiness to boot. If books were like bowling pins, quite a few of these would just keep standing no matter what you threw at them.

WHITE HUNGER – AKI OLLIKAINEN. The first of Peirene’s current series ‘Chance Encounters’ is this Finnish tale of a family trying to survive the seemingly country-wide famine. For, everyone that the family meet are desperately hungry – so hungry in fact that their humanity seems threatened. The family work their way to a desperate end, whilst those better off struggle to understand that goodness is easy when your stomach is sated.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS – MIRIAM TOEWS. Blimey. If I tell you this is a story about two sisters – one intent on ending her life, the other intent on saving he sister – you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds depressing. That it is, in no small measure, joyous is testament to the astonishing power of Toews prose. Full of the very essence of what makes us human, and indeed what makes it hard to be human, All My Puny Sorrows is vibrant, warm and surprisingly comic.

NOSTROMO – JOSEPH CONRAD. Yes, I was dreading it. Yes, my friend and I made a ‘cheat’s plan’ to reading it (to save face at book club). But no, I hadn’t expected the plan to add to, rather than detract from, the book. Read about the tag-team adventure.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO – JUNOT DIAZ. What a book. In rude style, Diaz tells us Oscar’s story – tracing back to the fortunes of his grandparents, covering the dearth of love from which he suffers – from different points of view. The distinct voices are fresh and fantastic. The albatross (Oscar’s virginity) cleverly exposes what it means to be a dominican male. And the way the story is anchored by references to fantasy fiction (LOTR especially) made me giddy with pleasure. Spectacular.

CHATTERING – LOUISE STERN. An impulse purchase (see ‘When I shop elsewhere I feel unfaithful‘) and a stunning surprise is this collection of short stories. What ties them together is a sense of disconnection – sometimes as an overt consequence of a language barrier (many of the stories oscillate around characters that are hearing-impaired), but more often as a subtle discord that seems to resonate off the page. It made me think about how the ways in which we communicate shape our personalities – and made me yearn for other selves that I could inhabit through other languages.

ALI SMITH’S SUPERSONIC SEVENTIES – ALI SMITH. My first taste of Smith in a skinny pamphlet, and what a way to whet an appetite. Sparkling, lucid, containing yearning and shot through with hope – I need more of that kind of prose in my life.

STATION ELEVEN – EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL. Mandel’s tale is about a post-apocalyptic society: one in which a pandemic has drastically reduced the population and decimated society as know to Westerners. It has warmth, optimism (the central action follows a theatrical troupe that tour from village to village) and a host of interesting characters. If Oryx and Crake is the definitive pandemic disaster story, then Station Eleven is its fluffy we-won’t-reject-our-humanity counterpart.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT – ELENA FERRANTE. A brutal novel about a woman staring into the abyss after her husband leaves her and their two children. A hurricane of emotion, and a finely wrought unravelling vie for supremacy, and the fallout affects Olga’s children, her dog and her downstairs neighbour. I still wince when I think about it, about how close it seemed to bring me to the brink even as observer.

THE POLISH BOXER – EDUARDO HALFON. Tonal similarities between Halfon and Diaz might just be a symptom of proximity, but both take an obvious joy in prose that is sexy and cheeky. The Polish Boxer skips a line between fact and fiction, between reality and representation. But in spite of its intellectual prowess, it’s a highly readable, emotionally engaging collection of linked stories that explores what we seek in fiction, and the way it helps us to connect and make meaning in our lives.

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!