Category Archives: Books

Reading. You know, Books.

Something happened to me recently. I started reading again.

Not that I’ve ever stopped, of course. It’s just that, following a real explosion about a year ago where I started devouring literature of all kinds, my stamina for reading seems to have tailed off over the course of the year, until it reached the point where I had four or five books on the go at once but very little real prospect of ever finishing any of them. (Actually, I’m sure some of the blame for this rests with the fact that I was acting – reading the same script day in day out, trying to learn lines and spot other subtleties, with very little brainspace left for other types of literature).

Anyway about two weeks ago, all of this changed. I’m not sure exactly what brought it on: partly the realisation that I have so many good books piling up that I really want to read, partly the need to push my life in some direction or other. To kick off with, I spent a Sunday afternoon and evening ploughing through Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club. Actually, I can see what series of events made me plunge into this: firstly, I picked the book up at a Bookcrossing meeting a few months ago, and felt some kind of duty to its previous owner to read and comment on it. Secondly, I’d heard that the TV adaptation of the book was starting shortly (actually the Wednesday after I read it) and I wanted to read the book before seeing the adaptation, otherwise I knew I wasn’t likely ever to read it. And thirdly, I’d recently read a short story by Jonathan Coe (from the Time Out Book of New York Short Stories, which was very kindly sent to me by Nicholas Royle, the book’s editor). Anyway, I loved the book (and the TV adaptation wasn’t bad either), read it on one sitting (starting mid-afternoon and finishing at about 2am) and am craving to read the follow-up.

From that, I went on to another Bookcrossing book, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. An even better read, the first science fiction I’ve read in a long time (although Atwood would prefer that I call it “Speculative Fiction”, I’m not exactly sure why), it reminded me of some of the things I used to so love about the genre, how it can make me feel genuinely passionate and afraid for the future.

After Oryx and Crake, I moved on to Jonatham Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. I’m finding that somewhat slower going, the prose is not very engaging (so far) and I just got a delivery from Amazon yesterday so I have temporarily put it down while I get on with Slavenka Drakulic’s (very short) They Would Never Hurt a Fly (about the Hague trials of Yugoslavian war criminals) instead. And also try to pick out some plays from Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror which we might be able to put on this Summer.

Meanwhile, I’m working my way more slowly through Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights – A Companion (so far, more scholarly than I had expected) and Alex de Jonge’s The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin (started off very promising, but seems to get duller by the chapter), plus dipping into a few short story collections: the aforementioned The Time Out book of New York Short Stories, A Book of Two Halves which is a collection of football stories (something I never expected to find myself reading), but is also edited by Nick Royle and has some great contributors, so is actually turning out to be a great read. Finally, I am still dipping into and slowly savouring M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen, which is a bit of a masterpiece and, although I’ve read most of the stories previously, I could read and read again and never tire of.

So, that’s me. What are you reading?

Now, I must go… Casa Moro just arrived in the post!

Slavenka Drakulic

I just listened to A Good Read on Radio 4. They mentioned (and praised highly) a book They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulic. I absolutely must get hold of it. The Amazon synopsis:

Slavenka Drakulic attended the Serbian war crimes trial in the Hague. This important book is about how ordinary people commit terrible crimes in wartime. With extraordinary story-telling skill Drakulic draws us in to this difficult subject. We cannot turn away from her subject matter because her writing is so engaging, lively and compelling. From the monstrous Slobodan Milosevich and his evil Lady Macbeth of a wife to humble Serb soldiers who claim they were ‘just obeying orders’, Drakulic brilliantly enters the minds of the killers. There are also great stories of bravery and survival, both from those who helped Bosnians escape from the Serbs and from those who risked their lives to help them.

Ten years ago I read Drakulic’s earlier book of essays How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. It sticks in my head still, from its vivid orange cover to its moving, extremely informative, highly readable account of the minutiae of everyday life in various Eastern European countries under communist regimes (particularly the lives of women). A very good read. My colleagues Doina (from Romania) and Cathy (from Poland) both borrowed it from me and also sang its praises.

More George Saunders

Been hunting the web for more stuff on George Saunders. He’s recently written a piece, A press release from PRKA, for the Slate website:

Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction, orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe.

At precisely 9 in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At 10, Phase II began, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to suck another man’s penis. Also, none of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. No civilians were literally turned inside out via our powerful explosives. In addition, at 11, in Phase III, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings.

read more…

Sea Oak

I just discovered that Sea Oak by George Saunders is available online! Go read it now. Then buy the book, and everything else he has ever written. This is the funniest, saddest, most realistically surreal thing I have read in recent years, imagine Will Self, Alexei Sayle and Magnus Mills multiplied together and then doubled a few more times, this is fucking excellent shit. Erm, freaking excellent shoot, I mean.

A sample:

At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min’s my sister. Jade’s our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain. Today’s show features a ten-year-old who killed a five-year-old for refusing to join his gang. The ten-year-old strangled the five-year-old with a jump rope, filled his mouth with baseball cards, then locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until his parents agreed to take him to FunTimeZone, where he confessed, then dove screaming into a mesh cage full of plastic balls. The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it’s a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.

“You’re lucky, man!” my sister says. “You did high school. You got your frigging diploma. We don’t. That’s why we have to do this GED shit. If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted.”

“Really,” says Jade. “Now shut it, chick! We got to study. Show’s almost on.”

Read more…

Cloudy Vision

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

A few months back, I read Cloud Atlas and was duly blown away. I said at the time that it would win the Booker. I’d even had an urge to put money on it, though I had no idea of how to go about doing so.

Then a couple of weeks ago they released the longlist for this year’s prize. Guess what, Cloud Atlas was on there. And The Guardian ran an article on including Booker odds. Cloud Atlas was sounding good, 3/1 favourite at William Hill “the shortest odds ever quoted on a Booker novel at the longlist stage” and yet 8/1 at Ladbrokes. I fancied sticking 25 quid on it at Ladbrokes. I could see myself making a couple of hundred quid.

I didn’t know quite what to make of the fact that I was not alone, William Hill’s spokesman said:

“We have been inundated with people wanting to back this book ever since it was published.

Does this mean that Cloud Atlas is a shoe-in, or that its fans are all people like me, who never usually bet but suddenly felt they were onto something this time. Is this a good sign or a bad sign.

Whatever, I left it too late, as I knew I would. Ladbrokes now have their odds on the book down to 3/1, the same as William Hill’s, it seems to be clear favourite. I stuck the £25 on at Ladbroke’s anyway, because I’d promised myself for so long that I’d do it, but I do feel rather like I’ve just missed out on a hundred quid.

Of course it’ll never win anyway, favourites never do (do they?) and this whole discussion will be adademic, but right now I feel like a right plonker for not acting right on time.


Today I went out and bought Antwerp by Nicholas Royle, on Mike’s recommendation. I shall take it with me to Antwerp in a fortnight’s time, if I can hold out that long, and read it sitting on bar terraces. I’m not normally one for themed holiday reading (when we stayed in Kefalonia, everyone else on the beach or around the pool seemed to have their head buried inside a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I spent the holiday reading The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman), but in this case I’ll make an exception.

Cloud Atlas

I recently started reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Fucking excellent. With every book – from Ghostwritten to Number9Dream to this one, he grows in stature and range (Number9Dream, being much more ambitions than Ghostwritten, lost a bit in cohesion. This book seems to combine the best of them both).

There are still bits in the book which feel contrived, inner voices which don’t quite ring true, but this can be excused on several levels: firstly because, in true Mitchellesque style, the book is a whole series of interlinked writings, not by the author of the book but by his main characters. Any inadequacies of language and thought are hence devolved to the characters. And secondly, because it’s such a cracking good tale (or rather a necklace of tales) that I really couldn’t give a shit if he slips up here and there.

Random quote from my current page (170):

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Really looking forward to the rest of this and all his future novels. If this one doesn’t get the Booker (the last one was shortlisted) I’m sure he’ll clinch it within the next ten years.

Misjudgements of the Century

Here’s a quote to add to IBM chairman Thomas John Watson’s famous “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers” as a leading misjudgement of the 20th Century:

As far back as 1931, when an American geologist called Karl S. Twitchell had begun an oil survey in the eastern Nedj [in Sa’udi Arabia], the green-eyed British legation staff in Jiddah, the administrative capital, were derisive: “It seems fairly clear,” one of them wrote, “that nothing of much importance will result from Mr. Twitchell’s investigations.”

(quote taken from Thesiger by Michael Asher, who refers to The Kingdom by Robert Lacey as his source).