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┬ámayhem 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!

In meatspace

Though not a particularly appealing term, the mention of meatspace as the opposite of virtual space did make me laugh today. I attended a Writers’ Toolkit event in Birmingham, which is probably the most assertive step I’ve taken in relation to writing in a while.

The event was organised as part of Birmingham Book Festival (as ever, can’t link, but do find the website on my blogroll), which has had a spectacularly varied and high profile programme this year. The event was the first of its kind, and I hope it will continue, as it’s the most valuable writers’ event I’ve been to. Ever.

My elected day consisted of discussions about: emerging writers and progressing careers; non-formal training for writers; the value of formal training for writers; and a look inside the world of book publishing. Together, the sessions formed a provocation, and I’ve come home with a head brimming full of ideas, and a notebook full of questions and things to look up, which is exactly what happened when I met Jonathan Davidson, who organised the event alongside Sarah Beale.

I’ll write more about the ideas and questions when I’ve had time to digest and reflect, but in the meantime, and as this blog is about observations if nothing else, I’d like to report on a few things that I noticed.

One is that there’s a real divide between people who come along with an agenda and people who come along with a more open idea of what will happen – the former, generally, engage with the stimulus in terms of how it relates to them, and seem to have a hard time talking abstractly. I’ve noticed this kind of split at every single conference type event that I’ve attended, and it is especially noticeable at events centred on creative activity, which is totally understandable (if a tad annoying).

Two is that I was far too nervous about speaking up, which is possibly an indication of my confidence about writing. Today I felt like a writer, which was a curious feeling. In the session about emerging writers, we talked about writers groups and the developmental benefits they can have. The writers group I’m part of is beneficial not in terms of development (perhaps because I’m not at that stage, or haven’t quite found the right group) but because it’s a real pleasure to meet people socially who are aware of the sometimes galling task of writing and the solitary nature of the activity – there’s a heck of a lot to be said for moral support and understanding!

Three is that it’s very easy to find something that you have in common with another person. This event was absolutely the best environment for networking I’ve experienced so far. Maybe this has a lot to do with the fact that I love talking about writing, about the unique nature of putting pen to paper, or finger to key to make words and sentences and paragraphs.

Finally (for today) I realised that the reading voice inside my head is male. I’ve never noticed that before. I was reading Travels in the scriptorium by Paul Auster, and though I’ve always liked his books because they make you aware of your position as a reader, I’ve never felt it so acutely as today.