Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Life the damper: Fortnight 22 of the Burns

Addendum to consumption

In addition to all the November reading and watching I discussed yesterday, I should also say I've been working through Werner Herzog's filmmaking masterclass on, uh, Masterclass.

I actually did the Aaron Sorkin scriptwriting masterclass at the start of the year (it costs money but it's for my novel so: tax deductible) and it helped me get inside the mind of a scriptwriter and to think about structure for film and TV in deeper and more nuanced ways (not saying it's totally deep and nuanced, just that my starting point was pretty superficial).

But my novel is more about filmmaking rather than scriptwriting. I didn't really know that in January but I do now.

Because I did the Sorkin course, Masterclass spams me with other courses I should take. I took notice when they said there'd be a Martin Scorsese one in early 2018. And if I paid the cost of that course now, I could have access to ALL masterclasses for 12 months.

(This sounds like a paid advertorial at the start of a podcast, but I promise it isn't.)

So I started watching Herzog's videos and he got his hooks into me. I've watched Fitzcarraldo (didn't like it) and Grizzly Man (meh), but that's probably it. I did listen to a DIrector's Guild of America podcast where Kevin Smith interviewed Herzog after the premier of Fire and Blood. Herzog says some of the same things in his Masterclass as he does in that podcast, but it's much easier to focus on Herzog's message when it isn't accompanied by Kevin Smith's post-ironic wonder at the fact Herzog reads books or goes through the films budget with the accountant every night during the shoot.

Herzog is better without that. As a character study of him alone, the masterclass is worth the time.

Oh, alright...

I was stalling, but here are the numbers from last fortnight:

Fortnight 22 wordcounts
Total words: 6,899 (17% on the novel, 26% on this blog, 57% on non-fiction)
1st week: 3,018
2nd week: 3,881

The non-fiction was prep for two talks I gave and an email interview with a website in the US ahead of THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS release there on 12 Dec.

But yeah, a crappy fortnight in terms of productivity and quadruply so when you think I really wanted to leave Dunedin with a first draft of my novel complete but I could only muster 1,150 words on the beast in 14 days. 

The last time I worked on the novel was 22 November.


How come?

Here's how come

Well, I was in Wellington for five days (school visits for my daughter, catching up with friends and Ministry colleagues). 

And we stayed in this cool old place right by the beach at Island Bay and the weather was great and, and, and... I'm not really complaining.

And when I got back from Wellington.I prepared for and gave two talks, and took part in a daylong workshop.

My first speaking engagement was at the Southern Cities Creative Hui on 30 November. I spent the whole day there, because the lineup of speakers was pretty darn impressive, with Kiwis like Hera Lindsay Bird, Shayne Carter and Victor Rodger, and visitors from Italy, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

Shayne Carter reading from his memoir-in-progress
My keynote was on digital and analogue perspectives on storytelling, keying in on what a novelist (me) thinks when playing a narrative-driven game mode of a basketball simulation (NBA 2K18's My Career mode).

At afternoon tea I bonded with Shayne Carter over our shared love of the NBA. I had a slide of my created player in a Sacramento Kings jersey, and he told me how much he loved the Kings when they had Demarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, and I was like, Bro!

I'd previously confessed to him that I'd used a computer programme to mash his lyrics from Straitjacket Fits days with a bunch of other Dunedin Sound bands to make "poetry" and he'd seemed genuinely interested instead of horrified or, worse, bored.

So I'm left with one question: did I just make friends with a rock star?

(Pause for effect)

Did I mention that his memoir will be amazing if the snippet he read is anything to go by? I think I did on Twitter, at least.

The next day of the Hui was a collaborative futures workshop in the basement of the Athenaeum (an old library on the Octagon).

Basement of the Athenaeum
I took part because I'm kind of in love with this city and even though I'm moving back to Wellington (*sad trombone*), I wanted to be part of brainstorming ways to take the UNESCO City of Literature thing further and connect Dunedin more widely with other UNESCO creative cities.

(Did I mention that, as a Burns Fellow, I'm now eligible to go on City of Literature residencies, even if I stop living in Dunedin? It's like an open relationship without the bit where one or more people get their hearts broken.)

I had to head up the hill during the lunch break to talk to the Otago Association of Teachers of English. 

Their Big Day Out for Professional Development had two keynote speakers to break up their workshops. In the morning they heard from someone from the Dunedin Study (so, you know, evidence based and world renowned) and in the afternoon they heard from me.

Addressing OATE
I had an hour to fill, and did so by talking about to join two bad ideas to make a novel (stepping through the genesis of both THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS and my location scout novel-in-progress), read from the novel-in-progress (the chapter 'Pietrarubbia'), talked about my experiments with artificial intelligence and read one of the Dunedin poems (see above), and also covered video games (see above), before ending with my reckons on teaching English in 2018 and beyond.

It was a bit weird talking about St Joseph of Copertino and questions of faith in a high school chapel, and the mic crapped out after about 15 minutes with a lot of time and a large space to fill, but all in all I had fun and some of the teachers (the younger ones) commented that they got something out of it.


Past tense

After that rush of public appearances, my dance card is pretty clear.

I've got to judge the Robbie Burns poetry comp and attend the ceremony on 25 Jan, and that's all I can think of.

But don't think I'll suddenly get back on top of the novel and knock out a couple 20K fortnights. 

There's this thing called Christmas (we'll be spending it in Chch). 

And the move back to Wellington (the packing, the logistics, the drive up with a few stops along the way).

And I've agreed to review four books in the next two months.

And my son is sick again and my wife has run out of sick leave (her contract is up just before Xmas).

And there's already a photo of me up on the second floor of the Uni library, as if I've already left, or died, or both.

May my tombstone read: He set terrific goals.

Monday, December 4, 2017

November consumption diary


After years of steadfastly holding out till the year was actually complete, I feel pressured to declare my top albums of the year this side of Christmas. I think it's all this time I'm supposed to have, being a full-time writer. I've been run off my feet lately (Fortnight 22 post to follow) without making any tangible progress, so a trivial listsicle probably shouldn't be top of the list. But I also want to know what my top albums have been this year... and the only way to figure this out is to do the mahi and create the post.

Anyway, here were the tracks that tickled me in the eleventh month of 2017 (recency bias suggests artists appearing here could be heavily represented in my end of year list):


Human Traces

This one gets a special mention as it's a NZ film and I saw it in the cinema (11am session on a Thursday in Dunedin... there was one other dude in the theatre - I'm gonna miss the freedom to watch serious movies during the day on my lonesome). 

The film is set on a subantarctic island (like a chunk of my novel THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS, but the island in the movie is fictional and the setting is contemporary rather than historical), although it was filmed in the Catlins and Banks Peninsula. Speaking of the Catlins, in the novel I'm working on, the main character is a filmmaker whose first feature film is called CURIO BAY, and is set entirely in... the Catlins. 

So, like, there's a similar wavelength thing happening here. How could I not check it out?

And those first ten minutes, I had trouble getting over myself and just sitting in the film.

Like, there's a scene where there's a party to farewell the departing ranger and welcome the new one (so: 5 people in a hut listening to a cassette) and the song that's playing is 'Death and the Maiden' by The Verlaines, which just so happened to be the first song on my playlist for THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS. (And because the film is told in three, overlapping parts, this song features more than once).

A few seconds later, a character uses the term 'acolyte', ('Are you happy just being his acolyte?') which seems a little high-flown for the character and setting, but it's used a couple more times, calling back to this question.

And guess what? I used the term 'acoltye' in THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS! Chapter four is even subtitled: 'In which the acolyte makes himself at home'.

Such is the lunacy of a writer in NZ watching a film by another NZer. Or maybe it's just my own special brand of lunacy?

(This tendancy to see your work in others' is a distant cousin of 'outspiration',which I discussed in July.)

Like I said, after a while I got over myself / the film sucked me in. I would have liked more wildlife (no albatross? sacrilege!), but I understand the practicalities of getting those shots in a fudged location.

In terms of cinematography, it's a challenge to depict slices of mainland coast as an isolated island in the Roaring Forties. There are a lot of handheld shots, which seemed to push too hard for 'thereness', as if the crew was never quite sold on letting what was in frame tell the story.

This is Nic Gorman's first feature as both director and writer, and there's so much to like about what he's achieved.

In terms of story, I love how it goes dark at the end of the first third -- like, real dark -- without then descending into horror or pointless gore. Sadly, we make so few feature films in NZ that many will see this darkness as a typical feature of our filmmaking (like our fiction) and dismiss it as unoriginal or dated, when in fact it's just part of this particular story. The battle of man versus the rest of mankind who are against mother nature - how could it not get a little gory and nihilistic??

Without wanting to get too spoilery, I really liked how the reveal of what Riki had done to Pete early in the third section. It was such a light touch and left me space to fill in the gaps. I was satisfied with what must've only taken thirty seconds of screen time. Sadly the film felt the need to cut back to this backstory again later, and again, until it was all explained and over-explained and (of course) I liked my version better.

One other gripe: How could Riki know the internal antenna bit was missing? Tellingly, this scene (from part 2) does not recur in part 3 when we know how much of a greenhorn Riki is. Of course, if the film did explain that Riki had done a polytech course in radio repair I would have griped about having too much explained, so I'm tough to please!

I want to balance this nit-picking with more of the stuff I liked, but I also want you all to see this movie. If not on the big screen, rent it, stream it, do whatever you need to do when you next encounter this film. Because it's worth your time and money, and it's cool that people are allowed to make movies like this and we gotta support them, eh?

Other films this month:
  • John Wick
  • The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  • The Centre Will Not Hold
  • La Dolce Vita


The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (short stories, audiobook)

I’ve read a fair number of DeLillo’s novels and my initial responses (noting these were read over about 15 years) range from love (White Noise), like (Mao II), ambivalence (Underworld – though I’d consider re-reading it – and the two shorter books that immediately followed: The Body Artist and Cosmopolis) to outright dislike (Great Jones Street).

This collection falls into the 'ambivalent' basket.

I’d already heard the first two stories before. But no, this wasn’t another Bark episode. I hadn’t read the entire collection before and forgotten about it.

But am I a chance of doing that some time in the future with this collection? Perhaps. There’s something so distant about these stories that doesn’t leave much to latch onto.

A Game of Thrones Pt 2 by George RR Martin (novel, audiobook)

The second half of the first book in the Song of Fire and Ice, but another 16 or so hours of audio if listened to at single speed (I listened to it faster). 

I think I’ve found the perfect kind of audiobook to race through: one you know the main plot points but are actually interested in the minutiae or being reminded of things you may have once known.

A Feast for Crows is up next. At this pace (one half-book a month) I should finish all the extant books before the final season of the TV show (let alone when GRRM gets around to finishing the final book).

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushie (novel, audiobook)


This is one of those books that I can’t react to in any other way than as a mirror held up to my own writing, or the tendencies I see in my writing. 

Like: the whole magic-realism thing, which doesn’t often fly for me as a reader (I tend to love the first 100 pages of a Garcia Marquez novel and my enthusiasm gets whittled down to nothing by the end) and yet my own writing is drawn into this sphere if I’m not careful. 

Then there’s the linguistic excess and the dexterous/devilish narrator. All things I’m screwing down at the moment in the service of telling a story about fantastical things without sounding like Marquez or Rushdie or one of the Apostles.

Anyway, this particular book. It was long (22 hours as an audiobook), with lots of sub- and parallel plots, and my interest was whittled away rather than held.

But I did take things away from the process. 

Like: the irony of the Fatwa that followed the publication of the book. 

And what Rushdie is saying about the immigrant experience. 

And just some stunning lines about contemporary Britain, which were relevant in 1988 but are probably more so now… which says something, perhaps, about the uselessness of literature – even literature paid the compliment of taking seriously / taking offence.

Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies by Blaise Cendrars (non-fiction, translated by Garrett White)

I have the third book of Cendrars' memoirs on my bedside table. The one in which he discusses San Giuseppe da Copertino at length. In English the title is rendered as Sky: memoirs, though a more direct translation would be The Apportionment of the Heavens.

But I read THIS book first because it was in the Otago Uni library and I won’t always have the luxury of being two minutes away from it (or having a valid library card).

Cendrars visit was in 1936, but much of it rang true for me (and the Hollywood I’ve been writing about this year / the Hollywood that is going through one of its semi-regular implosions).

As Garrett White puts it at the end of his intro: “He [Cendrars] was here for two weeks. He got it right.”

Like this description of mementos sailors sought while on shore leave in LA: “Mickey Mouse dolls and toys, Charlie Chaplin’s tiny moustache stuck to an elastic string, Greta Garbo’s alleged wisdom teeth, Mae West’s alleged fingernails in a jewellery box, tufts of hair, unpublished photos, sachets containing a glove, a slim stocking, a flower, each worn by this or that star in such and such a movie - suggestive fetishes these brave sailors carry off to their distant countries as the holy relics of the modern navigator." (p20)
Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (poetry)

Reading ahead of my judging duties for the Robbie Burns Poetry competition. Might say more about this after I'm done with that.

Cart and Cwidder – Dianna Wynne Jones (novel, audiobook)

I don't consume a lot of YA fiction, and will be demonstrating this when I say that this novel, the first in the Dalemark Quartet, reminded me of The Chaos Walking trilogy (without the aliens or talking dog or...). 

It's the kind of novel where not a lot happens. And even when it does (Clennen's murder), it is described so plainly it's impact isn't immediately felt. 

Did it feel like it was written in 1975? No. It could have been written today. I could see my daughter enoying it in a scarily small number of years. Heck, I enjoyed it, I think. I was certaily sucked into the world and the character of Moril in particular.

Maybe all the Game of Thronsing has tenderised that particular part of my reading brain and now I just can't get enough about divided kingdoms and downplayed magic?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Cream of the sun: Fortnight 21 of The Burns

Sandfly Bay
Fortnight 21 wordcounts
Total words: 10,945 (81% on the novel, 16% on this blog, 3% on non-fiction)
1st week: 6,113
2nd week: 4,832

My son was sick all last week, so I had Monday off to care for him (after taking the previous Monday off to be with my mum & step-dad), and the rest of the week my wife and I split time with the sickie   so I could put in 3 or 4 hours on the novel each day and she could keep her experiments on track at her job. There wasn't any sort of manuscript-magnetism at play. It's a slog, but the only way to rekindle the magic is to grind until the next breakthrough, and that means making time when suddenly time is sparse.

If I'm sounding like a stuck record, good. That's how I feel.

The good news is that on Thursday last week I got to the end of tweaking earlier sections so that I can rewrite completely the last 30 pages of the manuscript-so-far (which is to say this won't be the last 30 pages of the novel, but maybe falls somewhere in the 3rd quarter). And I felt positive for the first time in maybe three weeks. Like, maybe people will read this far without throwing the book (or their device) across the room.

So: progress!

The challenge will be keeping up any momentum over the next couple of weeks, with a trip to Wellington to take my daughter for 2x school visits before she starts on day one next year, and then when I get back it's the Creative Cities Southern Hui. I'm also talking to a group of English teachers from Otago/Southland on 1 Dec, so that's another talk/presentation I have to prepare this fortnight. Plus there's more logistics to sort for the move back to Wellington, including what I'm gonna do when I go back to the Ministry of Education (my manager has resigned so Gord knows who I'll be reporting to come February).

And then there's the growing trauma of having to leave this bloody wonderful part of the world.

Today we went to Sandfly Bay, which is only about 15 minutes by car from our house, but thanks to a pretty crazy, duney path down to the beach, is dominated by sea lions rather than humans.

My son pointing (not shooting, no, never shooting) at a sea lion
from a respectful distance.
Yesterday we went to Mosgiel. I know, Mosgiel. But the playground at Memorial Park there was great, and we found a great dairy with real fruit ice cream (we found one in Green Island two weeks ago... tis the season for tracking down real fruit ice cream).

And the only way to get my son to nap these days is in the car, and being sick, he really needed the rest in the middle of the day, so I've been slowly clearing the fog of war from every corner of the map of greater Dunedin. It's crazy how quickly the city ends and you're suddenly atop a hill with a great view of the city, the harbour, the peninsula or some combo of the three. 

Luckily my son was better by Saturday night as my wife and I had been booked in for a degustation dinner at Bracken for months. This was the first dinner out as a couple we've had this year/in Dunedin, so it's only fitting we crammed in seven courses...

The verdict: there were two deserts, but neither compared with the mini pavs I made for the English & Linguistics Dept morning tea on Friday.

I know, photos or it didn't happen, but I was preoccupied with constructing them on site, and then wham, people arrived and I forgot all about it.

But here's a shot of my trial personal pavlovas (which I decided were too big for single-serve morning tea eat-with-your-hands fare, but my wife's colleagues loved them):

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Wet matches: Fornight 20 of The Burns

I did some graphs back at the end of Fortnight 10, and should probably do some again now, but it's already Tuesday (I had the day off yesterday to spend with visitors) and I don't really want to diddle round with Excel right now.

Better to open with Dunedin and its surrounds!

All photos from the last fortnight.

Yellowhammer in the gorse, Tunnel Beach

Fur Seal, Aramoana
Sheep, blocking the way to Cape Saunders, Otago Peninsula
(no metaphor intended)

Fortnight 20 wordcounts
Total words: 11,034 (60% on the novel, 26% on this blog, 14% on other non-fiction)
1st week: 5,524
2nd week: 5,510

Two equally disappointing weeks, symptomatic of the slough I’m in with the novel. For weeks I’d persisted in moving forward, trying to get a first draft done before Christmas, but as the section in San Marino continued to grow, I could feel the tension and interest (mine and the imagined reader’s) trickling away. Something was wrong back at the beginning of the Italian section, but I wasn’t sure what.

So I printed out the 84,000 words I had and read through from the beginning.

Last time I did this (about two months ago), I was pleasantly surprised how much fun it was to read. This time, the first section remained unproblematic, but the laws of diminishing marginal returns had sapped the fun from it.

I managed to find a number of things at the start of the second section that were sapping the potential of the later chapters (and promised to unbalance the whole shebang).

As always, it boils down to a protagonist being too passive, or his/her intention not being clear enough or believable.

I’m in the midst of rewriting these early chapters now and the process will take weeks for me to get back to where I was mid-October.

It’s a pain in the butt, but I think it’s far more efficient to do this work now than keep rambling toward an unsatisfying and ultimately arbitrary finish line.

As for the ending of the book, I see that quite clearly (it’s a shorter section, maybe 10k words, set two years ahead of the rest of the novel) and it hasn’t changed since I dreamed it up back in July.

So it’s really just the large middle section that’s causing all the problems. But nothing is fatal.

Just more work/rework/binning/recycling.


Hoopers Inlet, the peninsula
Short Story Club

From the files I have with me in Dunedin, I can only ascertain that I wrote the story before July 2008 (when I submitted it to Sport). I’m pretty sure this is one of two stories in A Man Melting that I wrote before I did my MA in 2006 (the other being ‘The Tin Man’, though it had a different title). Around the same time, I moved from Hotmail to Gmail, so the trail goes cold in my online archives then, too.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure ‘Manawatu’ is it at least 10 years old. It definitely bears the marks of being written while I lived in Australia (and by an angst-ridden twenty-something).

Re-reading it now, and hearing it be discussed, I’m pleased with how it goes about its business (that very interior, very analytical beginning, carried on to the point it feels confronting, to then have some external action, which is only fully explained when the interior is understood). Not bad for someone a year or two older than the protagonist.

It’s the story I’ve thought about the most this year while writing my location scouting/levitation novel. In part it’s to do with the incredibly close 3rd person narration, and in part the fact my protagonist is a year or two younger than me and there’s that tension between loading him up with autobiographical elements and letting him realise his true (and truly different from me) character.

So ten or twelve years or whatever it is later, I’m back where I began, angst-ridden and uncertain.

Yep, feels about right.

Mist on the water, Kaikorai Estuary
Creative Cities Southern Hui

I was on RNZ National myself on Sunday, along with Nicky Page, to spruik the Creative Cities Southern Hui which takes place in Dunedin at the end of the month.

Details about the hui here. (It’s a pretty cool lineup when I follow [alphabetically at least], Hera Lindsay Bird and Shayne Carter).

And on my bio page for the hui (and in the radio interview above) I hint at what I’ll talk about. For now the working title is: ‘We are all storyteller: analogue and digital perspectives on narrative’. It basically takes some of the deep thinking I’ve been doing about NBA 2K18 and similar games, and looks at the crossover between writers/readers and game designers/players, and what we could learn from each other.

For the birds

Shags and gulls, Andersons Bay inlet
The raw materials of a short story set on the Andersons Bay inlet and adjacent playing fields are slowly gathering. I seem to add to the store every time I bike passed.

Birds play a big part in this not-yet-story. There's a grandson and his grandpa. And the grandson twenty years later watching his son play cricket, which is to say, not really watching his son play cricket. And birds. Did I mention birds?

The photo above was taken on a cold and rainy day last fornight. It was rare on that account (the weather last week was AMAZING, and though the temperatures have tailed off since Friday, it's still been suitable for outdoor adventures). And perhaps because of the weird, icy late October downpour, the inlet was alive with dozens (possible more than 100??) shags and a similar number of gulls (both black-backed and the smaller red-billed). Based on the group feeding and appearance, I'm 90% sure the shags were Otago aka Stewart Island Shags, most likely from the population that breeds at Harrington Point. They're stunning birds and seeing that many after some kind of feed in the inlet, and being pestered by the gulls, was quite a sight.

My tally of other species seen on or around the inlet in recent weeks includes: grey duck/mallard hybrid with nine ducklings, paradise shelduck, royal spoonbills (up to half a dozen at one), white heron, white-faced heron, white-fronted terns, sparrows, chaffinch, goldfinch, blackbirds, starlings, welcome swallows, variable oystercatcher, spotted and little shags (far more common than the Otago shags). 

Completists only

Or you could go for a walk!

Tunnel Beach

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

October Consumption Diary


While I read nine books in October, music was the real highlight. Without a consistently compelling 'Working' playlist, a mix of old and new, upbeat and down, I'm not sure I would have spent half as much time plugging away at my novel, especially with the heatwave we've been having this week.


RedEdits by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, NZ)


Ever since I read all of GC’s poetry collection in existence when living in Edinburgh ten years ago, two years has felt a long time to wait for a new book. 

Then again, it’s kind of amazing GC is putting out collections every two years (both on demand and supply sides of the equation). Fanfolks like me are the beneficiaries of this universal oversight, so let us not speak too loudly of this.

Diesel Mystic by Gregory O’Brien (novel, NZ)

I hunted down a copy of this book after I read about how it featured two churches on either side of the road who competed for believers by publishing ever more exaggerated bios of saints on their feast days, including one St Joseph of Copertino. Turns out, this takes up all of four pages (it’s fun while it lasts!).

Over the thin narrative skeleton (a young guy is driving back and forth between Dargaville and Ruawai) O’Brien throws dozens of prose flights of fancy, some poems, some monochrome paintings and even some painted poems.

Some of it is great (the feral kids in among the carbodies who lock a policeman in a trunk; the rival churches); a lot of it washed right over me.
(Rather than making me want to write a novel like this, it just made me hanker to write short (and very short) stories again, or be at that point where I can piece together a new collection.)

Oh, and I’m totally jealous of that title.

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (novel, audiobook)

Image result for i the jury audiobookMike Hammer, eh?

My first Spillane novel. It’s so stark, in terms of style and substance. No wonder it’s over so quickly.

It’s always hard to judge crime fiction from an earlier era (this is set just after WWII), especially from writers that later writers in that genre have read and admired (not to mention people behind films and TV shows). So I guessed the twist by the midpoint? Big whoop. Would I have done that in the fifties? Who knows?

Will I read another one? Maybe not.

Image result for zink nicotineNicotine by Nell Zink (novel, audiobook)

This one never clicked for me. 

Zink is doing a very deliberate, very cool, disconnected narrative voice thing. Which can work if the subject matter is strong enough to pull me in, but I never really go the answer to So What?

Maybe this was a case of racing through it in audiobook form not really being the right vehicle for the work?

How to Stop time by Matt Haig (novel, e-book)

Image result for matt haig time
I read this as an e-book on my phone, which is a first. Again, maybe this was not the best way to do it (and maybe I'm just projecting my own misery re: my cockamamie novel-in-progress), so take this with a megabyte of salt.

I first came across Haig as a writer of massively retweeted tweets. Then read a few of his longer thinkpieces in The Guardian. But I’d never read any of his novels.

How to Stop Time is high concept, alright: the narrator has a genetic condition which means he ages far more slowly after reaching puberty than the rest of us. He was born in the 1500s but looks in his early forties in the present day.

The problem is the book never really gets out of blocks in terms of developing character or forward momentum. Or maybe the problem was the writing felt so facile? He does use italics a lot. I mean, a lot.

Compare this with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (which I didn't love), which also features long-lived others. Mitchell is always prone to over-doing it (whether that’s narrative shifts, verbal pyrotechnics or mystical underpinning), but after reading Haig, I think that’s preferable to workmanlike execution. 

But again, grain of salt!

Autumn by Ali Smith (novel, e-book)
Image result for autumn ali smith
The second book I read on my phone, and hey, this was great. Better than Lincoln in the Bardo (sorry Booker judges).

Smith’s staccato prose and frequent paragraph breaks really suited the format. And it felt right (in an oh-so-wrong way) to be reading a post-Brexit novel on a phone. That early scene in the post office, trying to get a passport renewal form pre-checked, sheesh!

I also have a copy of Knausgaard’s Autumn (like, an actual, physical, real life book) on my to read pile. Both authors are working on seasonal quartets (though given the translation lag, I think Knausgaard started first and is further ahead). We’ll see who does it best in about four years.

And you know what they say in Autumn? Winter is coming (sorry)...

A Game of Thrones (part one) by George RR Martin (novel, audiobook)

Image result for game of thrones audiobookThis seventeen hour audiobook is only half of the first book in the Song of Fire and Ice saga, but I’m counting it as a book in its own right. (I have part two on reserve, so should knock that of sometime in November).

I once tried to read this book on a plane. Someone lent me their copy. I got about fifty pages in: so far, so much like the show. After the flight, I never felt compelled to go back to the books.

But with the TV show wrapping up sometime in the next two years, and a steady dose of book-only content from The Ringer’s 'Talk the Thrones', I thought I’d try listen to the first book.

And it took some getting over that first hump again. The déjà vu was hard to kick. So was the very Swords and (suppressed for now) Sorcery feel of Martin’s prose. But then it clicked and I listened solidly and knocked the thing off in four days.

It was nice to jump around and inhabit different perspectives. And the novel was able to work the historical information into the flow of the story better than the TV shows (where it’s either signposted to hell or breezed over so that only book-readers would get it).

So yeah, bring on the gazillion other hours of audio that remains in the (incomplete) saga.

Bark by Lorrie Moore (short stories, audiobook)

Image result for bark moore audiobookI'd read/heard the first story before, and the second, and the third. I knew for sure this last one had been discussed by Gary Shteyngart on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and guessed I'd read the others in the The New Yorker (or heard them on the author's voice podcast). But there was that nagging feeling I was having one of those ‘Oh, I’ve seen/read this before’ moments that parents have an impossibly long way into a movie/book, and as a young’un, you’re like, That’d never happen to me…

To have this happen to me now, at 34 (albeit technically a parent), is kind of terrifying.

(And Moore is terrifying for other reasons, as a writer reading her. Especially someone mired in the second half of a novel that feels too boring and procedural, and would give anything to just riff the way Moore’s characters do, except Moore’s able to make it all stick together.)

But story number four didn't ring any bells, so I was safe.

I mean, I love Lorrie Moore. Her stories especially. I’d remember reading a whole collection, wouldn’t I?

Then the last story was familiar too, but only when the bikers showed up at the wrong wedding. So I'd forgotten the non-memorable parts of a standalone story I'd read a couple of years ago. Big deal.

But that lingering dread! The terror of turning into my mother / step-dad / father-in-law (now there's a fearsome-yet-forgetful troika).

So I search my own blog (!) and found that, yes, I had listened to this entire collection back in 2014 (!!!) when the book came out, and wrote about it disparagingly (!!!):
… I felt the collection was uneven. The stories themselves shifted between classic Moore sardonics and a kind of creative writing student's knock-off version of Moore sardonics.

Not only had I consumed the same audiobook twice without cottoning on to it, I'd come out the other end with different opinions each time. Maybe this isn't a big surprise. (Any writers I've slagged off above, you can take solace in this fact... maybe in three years I'll totally love your book).

At the risk of further providing evidence for whoever holds my power of attorney and wants to send me to the looney bin and claim my millions (ha!), this time around, when I thought I was listening to the collection for the first time but in some cases it was the third time I’d heard individual stories, I thought it did hang together and it was great. GREAT. 

As for the state of my memory… less great.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (novel, audiobook)

Image result for manhattan beach eganThis book just came out, so I’m confident this was my first time reading it (phew).

This profile in The New Yorker was interesting and confirms a lot of what I surmised, like:
The novel is a conventionally structured work of historical fiction set in Brooklyn during the nineteen-thirties and forties, a period that she became curious about in the wake of 9/11. The attacks felt like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world, snug in its supremacy. “And that led me to think, Well, what was the beginning of that something?” she said. “Somehow it felt like it was World War Two, this violent conflict in which we played a critical but relatively small part in such a way that it left us quite unscathed and tremendously dominant.”
While this might seem fascinating for Americans, it can feel very insular for those of us elsewhere.

The shipwreck/lifeboat survival sequence was really well handled, and there’s some real subtlety in terms of the structure (like the presence/absence of Anna’s father and Dexter, her father-proxy/lover), but it never took that next step from being highly proficient to become enjoyable or challenging or fresh.


High and Low & The Hidden Fortress – the start of my wife’s Kurosawa education
La Strada - the start of my Fellini education
Spectre (James Bond, yawn)
Rick and Morty, Season 3
Stranger Things, Season 2 (incomplete, possibly permanently)
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron about a million times and Spirit: Riding Free, Season 1 about five times through (my son’s into horses at the moment)