13 July 2006

My summer books

I've been thinking that the idea of an 'easy' summer read is a huge waste of time. Holidays are probably the only times in the year when you can actually sit/lie down for extended periods and concentrate properly, so why throw the time away on a crap book? I'm not saying you have to read Macauley's complete works, or get to grips with string theory (not that either choice would be wrong), but there are thousands of really good books that are worth reading well.

Rebecca Front in the Guardian (8 July 2006) is put off by the newspapers' annual summer reading recommendations, and I agree that choosing a book from these round-ups can be dispiriting, but if you want a little guidance, why not?

My biggest complaint about these lists is that they invariably recommend hardbacks. I suppose this is inevitable, but why not choose paperbacks of last year's most highly regarded titles instead? Who wants to lug a load of hardbacks around? They're heavy, they cost at least £15, and they're so badly made that they will get bent and warp on the slightest contact with - respectively - luggage handlers or water.

Anyway, here's what I have been reading this summer:

> Per Petterson's gentle, absorbing and deceptively simple novel Out Stealing Horses.(OK, this is a hardback, but it's a very small one)
> The Subterranean Railway, Christian Wolmar's lively history of the London Underground
> Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon, a new collection of short stories that are set for the most part in the American Midwest
> James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, a book I never would have got much out of by reading three pages every evening on the train.

1599 was a real favourite of the newspapers in their end-of-year recommendations for 2005 (hardback present at Christmas = good) but deserves another boost in paperback as a poolside book.

You get my point.

The summer reading whirligig

Having undertaken the admittedly anal task of collating the newspapers' summer reading recommendations, I can (exclusively?) reveal that this year's most popular choices are:

Everyman by Philip Roth, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, and Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey.

No surprises there. A clean sweep for fiction, in spite of the fact that almost half the books chosen by the critics were non-fiction. Among the latter, Jason Elliot's book about Iran, Mirrors of the Unseen, was selected three times and especially praised. So was John Burnside's A Lie About My Father, a harrowing memoir that appears to transcend the genre. And Jeremy Harding's search for his birth mother in Mother Country moved the Daily Mail, the Sunday Times and Kate Kellaway in the Observer.

Other less obvious choices:

Rousseau's Dog, David Edmond and John Eidinow's book about Rousseau's flight from France to England with his dog Sultan.

Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, an investigation into how animals - and autistics - perceive the world.

After the Neocons, Francis Fukuyama's about-face on the Bush administration.

Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, chosen by St Etienne's Bob Stanley.

Biggest editing blunder goes to the Observer:

One of Alex Clark's tips on how to choose your holiday reading was 'Avoid the temptation to ... take all 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time; entertaining and palatable though they are, they're best spread out over a longer period of, say, two or three decades.'

Observer writer Kate Kellaway' s 'best holiday read ever'? 'Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Quickstep through this 12-volume classic.'

The most-chosen publisher (am I the only person who cares about this? probably) was Faber, followed by Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus.

21 June 2006

Top Tens

A couple of recent - and pointless - top tens:

The New York Times asked 200 writers and literary experts for their choice of the greatest American novel of the last 25 years:

Beloved by Toni Morrison
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Rabbit novels by John Updike
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
White Noise by Don DeLillo
The Counterlife by Philip Roth

Two Times journalists had a go at creating reading lists to help members of the opposite sex understand each other:

For men (chosen by Jane Shilling)

The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by Helen Simpson
The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter
Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David

For women (chosen by Ross Anderson)

Don Quixote by Cervantes
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Summer Lightning by PG Wodehouse
The Times Atlas of the World
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Playfair Football Annual
Wisden Cricketers' Almanac

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (chosen by John Carey)
For Whom the Bells Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (chosen by Alexander McCall Smith)


To Flanders last week to spend a few days with Stichting Lezen (Reading Foundation). SL's campaigns, publications and websites aim to get as many people reading as possible; if the efficiency with which they undertake their work is reflected in the number of people who read, Belgium must be the most literate country in the world.

Handed out booklets produced by SL for their iedereenlest - everybody reads - campaign at Antwerpen-Centraal station (an enormous and imposing edifice built by King Leopold in the nineteenth century). The booklets celebrate reading and football, which on the one hand is ironic (no Belgian presence in the World Cup) but on the other inspired (more time for reading). Belgian footballers like Dan Brown, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch. One Belgian sports journalist recommended The Good Soldier Svejk.

Belgian commuters are very friendly.

Also heard about the work of the Flemish Fund for Literature, which supports Flemish authors and organisations, and Antwerp's experience as a UNESCO Book Capital. Visited Passa Porta, a literary house in Brussels that organises readings by both French- and Dutch-speaking authors in an attempt to bridge the seemingly uncrossable divide between the two language groups. They have a beautiful, light and airy multi-lingual bookshop/events space (

Also went to Ghent to hear about the PoëzieCentrum (
http://www.poeziecentrum.be/), which houses a collection of Flemish poetry and promotes Flemish poets. They are based in a beautiful timber-beamed tower overlooking one of the city's beautiful market squares.

Everyone was welcoming and friendly and, shamefully, spoke superb English.

01 June 2006

George Saunders for President

To the London Review Bookshop to listen to the American short-story writer George Saunders in conversation with novelist Scarlett Thomas (her novel PopCo explores the absurdity of marketing and brands, one of Saunders' favourite subjects).

In spite of his self-deprecating comments, Saunders is clearly a genius. His collections CivilwarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation (published in the UK with the novella - and under the title - The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) cut right to the heart of the vapidity and the frightening absurdity of western culture today.

He was funny, passionate and engaging, and particularly animated about how the obfuscation of modern discourse reflects a greater malaise in our society. In other words, fear prevents many of us - often those in positions of power - from coming right out and saying 'I killed your cat', instead burying the news in a cloud of meaningless verbiage.

Saunders mentioned several times his respect both for Chekhov, reflected in his dedication to making his stories work at the level of the sentence, and for Tolstoy, whose dictum that 'everything is true' is reflected in his writing. When asked whether his satirical stories represented alternative presents or possible futures, he immediately chose the former.

Scarlett Thomas, in her introduction, said that sometimes modern life is like living in a George Saunders story, a thought that had occurred to me as I made my way to the event, staring at the new advertising screens beside the escalator at Tottenham Court Road tube station and thinking about the grandfather in 'My Flamboyant Grandson' who is "written up" by a Citizen Helper for removing his shoes, causing his Everly Strips to be rendered Inoperative and "thus sacrificing a terrific opportunity to Celebrate My Preferences" via the advertising holograms all around him.

It's only a matter of time ...

24 May 2006

On the Wall

Some of the things on the wall above my desk:

> 3 Posy Simmonds Literary Life cartoons
> a very small photograph of Richard Ford
> a photo of a worried-looking puppy sitting next to the words "I'm worried"
> a Steve Bell cartoon
> a Modern Toss cartoon
> a Peanuts cartoon: Snoopy receives a rejection slip from a publisher, rather than the expected fifty thousand dollars
> an Edward Ardizzone drawing (not original)

22 May 2006

Black Juice

I have been reading Black Juice, a collection of short stories by an Australian writer called Margo Lanagan. The stories are superb, but are almost impossible to describe. Some of them remind me in a funny way of John Christopher's amazing trilogy of books set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Written in the 1970s (ostensibly for children), the books - Beyond the Burning Lands, The Sword of the Spirits and The Prince in Waiting - describe a world where machines are shunned and feared for the damage they have wrought during a major conflict, and people have reverted to an almost medieval way of behaving and speaking.

Lanagan's stories have a similar feel, but she adds twists of real strangeness which halt you in your tracks, and she writes about young people with the same sensibility as Christopher.

19 May 2006


So Jay McInerney has had a go at the 9/11 novel with The Good Life, as has Jonathan Safran Foer with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Later this year, John Updike wades in with Terrorist, the story of an 18-year-old Muslim man who finds work in a New Jersey furniture store and hatches a deadly plot in a reaction against the materialism around him; one of the three novellas that comprise Martin Amis' new book (House of Meetings) is about the activities of one Muhammad Atta on 10 September. And Ken Kalfus will bring us the blackly comedic tale of an unhappy husband and wife who are both disappointed to discover that their spouse has not been killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Nice.

Obviously the unspoken moratorium on writing fiction about the disaster is well and truly over. But will these books be any good? Kalfus' book in particular - A Disorder Peculiar to the Country - brings to mind that great Woody Allen line, uttered by Alan Alda's character in Crimes and Demeanors: 'Comedy is Tragedy plus Time.'

11 May 2006

Too many words

While it is obvious to anyone that there are already too many books in the world, I am coming to the conclusion that many of them are too long as well. I have been trying to get to the end of Rick Moody's The Diviners for three months now, and although I am enjoying the stampeding nature of his writing, there is simply too much of it.

A small piece in the Daily Telegraph (8 April) shows that I am not alone. A man called Mike Furrow is advocating that we should turn over the pages of books two at a time, saving ourselves valuable hours and not losing much in the process. He also wants to ban enormous books like War and Peace (which I remember Linus from the Peanuts cartoon strip reading - he 'bleeped over' all the complicated names).

He has a point, although I'm not sure about the banning bit.

Alternatively, maybe we should all read shorter books. A few recent titles spring to mind:

The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs
The Lion and the Tiger by Denis Judd

And what about short-story collections? Again, some recent titles:

The Hill Road by Patrick O'Keeffe
I Could Ride All Day on My Cool Blue Train by Peter Hobbs

And some forthcoming ones:

George Saunders' The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon

And what about the Very Short Introductions series, published by Oxford University Press?

Books like these are brilliantly written and concise; they also look good and are desirable objects in their own right. Perfect wallpaper, and more likely to be read as well.

Having said that, I still intend to read all 641 pages of Richard Ford's forthcoming The Lay of the Land, his third book about American everyman Frank Bascombe. Oh well.