Sunday, August 26, 2018

Consumption diaries: June, July & August 2018

Here's what I've been reading and watching, and what music has delighted me, as I've trudged through the last three months...



Motherhood by Sheila Heti (novel, audiobook)

For a writer that struggles with over-thinking things (me), Heti's reconstruction of the novel form as something based on thought and deliberation (in this case, whether it's okay not to have kids), rather than drama and conflict, is both appealing and incredibly dangerous.

For all it's seriousness, I found it incredibly funny. Especially the way the adapted I Ching (the writer tossed three coins to determine the answers to YES/NO questions and plugged the answers straight into the text) gives the novel a feeling of being written in real time. Even though it's random, so many of the responses are so perfectly mischievous and gnomic (like a good piece of AI poetry) that I couldn't help be tickled.

Pops by Michael Chabon (non-fiction, audiobook)

From motherhood to fatherhood, from innovative to pedestrian: Chabon's collection of essays makes some attempts at being 'woke', and it contains a few genuine moments of truth/power/heart-string tugging, but it still feels incredibly self-centred and as a whole it doesn't really know what it is or what it's saying.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (novel, audiobook)

Loved it.

The kind of book you nestle into, not because the content is comforting, but it;s clear from page 1 you are in the hands of a master and you can just let yourself go with it. 

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (novel, audiobook)

Loved this, too, for quite different reasons. All those extended sequences that fly the geek flag high (the immersive world of the Three-Body Problem game; the challenge of unfolding a proton into an 11-dimensional shape and then folding it back up again).

I'm not sure how this gets turned into a TV series, or if I'll ever get around to reading/listening to the next book in the series (now that we know the aliens are real and what they want, I'm not sure where the mystery lies except whose gonna win).

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (novel, audiobook)

Since finishing my undergrad degrees, I probably only read 2-3 "classics" a year. Which is a small enough number to be frequently surprised by how different the received version of a story is from the original book.

What you probably don't know if you've never read the book: there's a series of nested narrators and the Frankenstein's monster gets a turn at the mic. And the horror is mostly metaphysical.

The scariest thing: that Mary Shelly wrote it in her teens. Or, forgetting myself and looking beyond the date of publication: the miserable run of miscarriages and dying infants and her own health battles (smallpox, brain tumor) AND YET she wrote more books (!) AND YET she was seen as her husband's wife for so long and she's remembered mostly for this (very good, if misappropriated) teenage novel.

Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen (novel)

Apparently this is considered a classic in Canada.

Huck Out West by Robert Coover (novel, audiobook)

I enjoy Coover's short fiction. And I enjoyed this novel in chunks, and appreciated the corrective lens Coover provides to Huckleberry Finn's (later) life and times, but I typically struggle with the picaresque -- it so often feels like a TV show in it's third season with no idea where it's going but knowing what it has to do to keep it's core fans and knowing what it can't do if it's to get renewed and having something to write about in season four.

And I struggled with it here.

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon (short stories, audiobook)

I really didn't take to the titular story, which opens the book, but from then on Haddon's stories grew on me. I liked the way he took ideas or set-ups that might be considered a bit disposable or "popular" (a mysterious man interrupts a family gathering at Christmas; the misery of a morbidly obese man) and just goes with them, lifting them above a Dickensian knock-off or a story buried in the centre of a woman's magazine, through depth of characterisation and generosity of spirit.

Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories by Thomas McGuane (short stories, audiobook)

Another story collection by another dude (sorry). This one contains a lot of stories and I had to break them up by listening to other books in between, as they do start to run into each other.

And the non-ending endings can get a little annoying.

But taken in small doses, one can appreciate the artfulness with which McGuane gently skewers his men in quiet crisis.



Silicon Valley (seasons 1-5)
The Big Sick
Thor: Ragnarok
Print The Legend
The End of the Tour
Into the Inferno
Date Night
Baby Driver (yawn!)
Westworld [TV show] (abandoned after season 1, episode 1 - I don't want to see extreme violence, even if it's upon robots - it feels like a way to pander to base instincts while dishing out moral get-out-of-jail-free cards... At least crime dramas are willing to be upfront about their (and their audience's) fascination with a female corpse) 
Dark Tourist (also abandoned after the first episode, but I might return to it one day)

MUSIC: August

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The empty chalice

So it’s the first of August, which means I owe cyberspace two months’ worth of consumption diaries and probably a whole lot more.

Like, what’s going on with my novel? The one I had 12 months full-time to write in Dunedin in 2017 and for which I am leaving money on the table in 2018 to work part-time and finish the f**ker off.

Well, for starters it’s called Nailing Down the Saint. For now at least.

In May I sent the manuscript to one of the US agents who came a’knocking when The Mannequin Makers started getting good reviews in the States. I also sent the manuscript to the publisher here in NZ that’s put out my first two books.

I have comments from the NZ publisher, which translates to a bunch of small tweaks and some more fundamental questions that I may or may not have to action (I’m doing the tweaks first and hoping for a eureka moment that tells me exactly what I should change and how). If I can turn around the next version of the manuscript by mid-September, then it’s on track to come out in July 2019. No contract or anything yet, but that’s the pipeline. My experience of these processes is that the publication date inevitably gets pushed back. And I’m not going to send something off in September if I don’t feel happy with it.

Right now, I’m a little tender about it all. I find it hard going through the edits. I could tell when I got my wife to read the version before the one I sent to the agent and the NZ publisher that she wasn’t that into it. And there’s a lot of “I didn’t get this” or “explain this for the reader” type comments on this latest version that I have to weigh up. Which I might ordinarily find helpful, but at this stage in the process I’m like a baby rat: pink, hairless, vulnerable. Any breeze is chilling. Any light too bright for my still-sealed eyes. I feel attacked. Which is weird. I’ve written before about how necessary and, ultimately, positive the editing process is. Even with this perspective, I feel an uneasy and contradictory mixture of exposed, misunderstood, worthless, frustrated and tired.

Mostly tired.

(Meanwhile at my day job, I’ve spent the last six months trying to get the green light for a multi-million dollar change project. A green light I received in July, about the same time I got my NZ publisher’s comments. However, trifling things like the budget and resourcing are proving harder to nail down than “Approved” might have you believe.)

It doesn’t help that it’s radio silence from the US agent. Of course she hated it. Look at everything that was wrong with it. All those basic errors: “bought” instead of “brought”, “disinterested” instead of “uninterested”. The slow patch in the middle. The too-fast, too-oblique patch towards the end (okay, the whole last forty pages).

At times like this I feel like I should never write a novel again. The short story is so much more forgiving. My writing muscles are fast twitch, meant for sprints not a marathon. When I look at my manuscript, all I see is text. Words placed for manipulative purposes. No matter how much I want it to be a story, to have narrative, to be an immersive experience for the reader, it’s the opposite.

The Chalice
The image in my head is Neil Dawson’s sculpture, ‘The Chalice’, which stands in Cathedral Square in Christchurch. The words are the structure of the chalice, starting solidly enough at the base, but getting more and more sparse as it rises. And at its centre? Nothing. The further from the base you get, the clearer the nothingness is.

Writing a novel is a confidence trick twice over. First, you need to trick yourself, then you need to trick your reader. Right now, I’m falling at the first hurdle (albeit with a 110,000 word manuscript to wring my hands over).

I keep saying things like “right now” and “at times like this” because I know it’s just a mood. I’m at a low ebb. It’ll get better. But the peril is real. This book might suck. The tweaks to make the intended meanings more clear might just bring out the suckfulness. The wordiness. The nothingness.

A lot of this stems from how and why I attack the novel form. I do so as a short story writer with oodles more space. I want a patterned, complicated web of meaning. I don’t ever think in terms of “theme” while plotting or writing, but the best term I’ve come up with for my novelistic approach is “thematic maximilism”.

I begin to build a novel around two unlikely elements. With The Mannequin Makers it was shipwrecks and department store mannequins. With NDTS, it’s Hollywood and a levitating saint. I then build a bridge between these two elements, which inevitably centres on characters.  For TMM the most obvious bridge is The Carpenter/Gabriel Doig, who goes from being a figurehead carver to a mannequin maker, via a shipwreck and extended period as a subantarctic castaway. For this current novel, it’s my protagonist, who is a floundering Kiwi filmmaker in Hollywood, given a lifeline in the form of a location scouting gig for film about the life of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Once I have the two poles and the character-based bridge, I go about filling in all the blanks that are necessary to translate my daydreaming into something that might be meaningful and enjoyable for another human being. So characters need other characters to interact with, they need jobs and motivations, passions and secrets, they need to have a look and a way of talking. When searching around for one of these things, let’s say it’s a job, I wait until I hit something that chimed with, or off, an element that’s already in the novel.

In TMM, when I was looking for what Eugen Kemp would be after he left New Zealand, and I came up with a surf lifesaver, that clicked because of the link with physical culture and the teachings of Eugen Sandow, and also the idea that he would spend the rest of his life trying to save people after not being particularly save-y (and in one case, being the exact opposite) in his teens. With surf lifesaving in place, the final section began to echo the first and second, while also pushing the interest in physical perfection (which might get called a “theme”) somewhere a little different.

In this next novel, there are clusters of association around scepticism and belief (Catholic saints, the feats of mystics, a modern cult; but also: Hollywood visual effects). The process of writing the novel was one of challenging my innate scepticism and the general laziness of my generation when it comes to anything beyond the superficial and instantly gratifying. The surface of the novel is still papered over with scepticism and contemporary references (the playlists the characters make for their roadtrip, the machinations involved with making a Hollywood movie), but underneath it there should be something more timeless, more confronting. I want people to see both the surface and the subterranean. I don’t want the chalice to be empty. But I don’t want to be too obvious about it. And that’s where I’m mired at the moment: an endless string of decisions about what I spell out, what I foreground a smidgeon more, and what I let lie beneath.

All the while having more instantly gratifying and superficial pleasures like playing Fortnite or watching Netflix instead of the mental gymnastics required to decide what are my minimum requirements and what are my readers’.

At the moment, I’m questioning if my imagined reader really exists. Like, there are people who’d get the references to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Wolfenstein, but do they read for pleasure anymore? Do they?

Should I spell things out for a more likely readership, and in the process alienate the one or two readers who come closest to what I’d be like if I was to pick up this book with no prior knowledge?

I don’t want to write something for Boomers or even Gen X. If they get it, great. But I wanted to make a book for cuspers like me, with one foot in the digital but one back in the analogue. People who vaguely remember having a rotary telephone, distinctly recall the first time they used the internet (that dial-up modem screech!) and spend most of their waking life trying to be good people on an ever-shifting identity playing field.

I’ve tried to write a novel about (inter alia) being a middle class, cis, heterosexual, pakeha male; one that is honest about the blind spots such characters can possess and acknowledges the bar must be raised for what passes as good enough when white dudes grab the mic; that suggests passing the mic down the row without adding your self-aggrandising reckons is acceptable without having to make it heroic (aside: how fucking hard is it to make your protagonist do the right thing in a traditional Western narrative from without it having to be heroic?)…

But at the same time I wanted the book to challenge where we draw the line about what’s important and what should be re-evaluated. If levitation is possible for some people (I know this is a big IF, but if it helps to suspend your disbelief try and think of this as a metonymy for anything the conventional materialist worldview dismisses as paranormal) does that mean there’s a kind of psychokinetic fluidity? How would you respond when asked to consider this possibility in the context of a traditional quest narrative?

Maybe I should just give up trying to order this spider’s web of words and meaning and just pass the mic down the row. Because Fortnite and Netflix and spending time with my kids and taming my garden and delivering a kickass change programme for the way we measure the quality of learning environments at schools is a pretty full and potentially fulfilling life… if I draw the line short of where I’ve gotten to in my head and step back over it.

Maybe I should just write about the music, books, film & TV I’ve consumed these past two months and pretend everything is hunky dory (when it’s more Aladdin Sane).

Or maybe I should give it a day, let my baby rat eyes open, my translucent skin toughen, and get back to nailing down this novel that keeps threatening to float away.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

April and May 2018 consumption diary

To start, a bit of news masquerading as an excuse (or vice versa):

I sent the manuscript of my location scout novel off to an agent today.


I've been head down these last six weeks, moving through draft after draft after finally penning the ending in mid-April. Which left little time for reading or watching (or writing about my paltry intake). But all that time writing means plenty music has been consumed.

My plans after today? Keep going hard. When I had a sleep in two weeks ago, after a string of 10+ 5am starts in a row, I felt awful all day. I'm going to tinker with a few short stories and update my CV (shh, don't tell my boss), while I play the waiting game on the novel -- I'm fully prepared to make the required changes through the publication process and am kinda of enjoying the sick-to-my-stomach anticipation this time around.

Give it a week, though...


April playlist

April's concert

Camp Cope, with Bad Friend and LEXXA, at Caroline, Saturday 28 April

Camp Cope's debut was one of my top ten albums of 2016. Their new album, How to socialise & make friends, was only a couple of weeks old when their first ever NZ tour rolled around, but I was there, not-quite-front and very-much-not-centre for their Wellington gig.

It was a great show. Barring the anthemic 'The Opener' off the new album, the highlights tended to be all the old stuff, including 'Keep Growing' and 'Footscray Station' from their Split EP with Cayetana (by old, I'm talking about songs released in 2016 and 2017).

So the moral of the story is they need to come back next year, too, though the greatness may be fatal.

May's playlist


The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (novel, audiobook)

Weirdly, I'd only ever read Ford's short stories before (I like them individually but his collections tend to get a bit samey).

I liked this, the first of his Frank Bascombe novels, though it took an absolute age to get through. And something bugged me about it, too. I think it's that Bascombe sounds like an Obama speech writer, which the present moment tells us isn't the worst thing in the world to sound like, but that jagged, grandiose grammar is just as much an act as the deliberately typo-laced tweets of the current POTUS.

The Cage by Lloyd Jones (novel, audiobook, NZ)

This is a book no one seems to be talking about - or maybe I missed all the talk? I can kind of see why it didn't have the penetration of Mr Pip or even Hand Me Down World. It's deliberately vague about time and place. It's dark as fuck. And, as often goes hand in hand with such darkness, it's about urgent matters (people fleeing unspeakable atrocities and being treated unspeakably) that both seem to be over- and under-covered at the same time.

And, perhaps understandably, it feels a bit joyless.

Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (novel, NZ)

Firstly let me say I hate Brannavan for publishing an ungodly amount of books in an unreasonably short amount of time, while having a day job and a family, and doing it outside the usual routes (no VUP/IIML associations here).

This was a worthy short-listee for the big fiction award this year (which Pip Adam won and Bran graciously responded with this review of The New Animals).

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (novel, audiobook)

In an all-too-believable near future, the US has outlawed abortion and IVF and is in the process of banning unmarried people from adopting kids. Four women (a pregnant teen, a 40-something trying to get pregnant/adopt, a mother of two, a wood-dwelling healer) navigate these waters, while we also get glimpses of the life of an historical Faroese polar explorer.

Where The Cage goes for fabular and generic, Red Clocks is specific and familiar and just as scary and urgent.

The Philospher's Flight by Tom Miller (novel, audiobook)

An epic historical fantasy according to the blurb. I got bored and abandoned it before the midpoint. Soz.


Wild, Wild Country
Atlanta (season 1)
How to be single
Monty Python's Holy Grail*
Funny People*


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Deliverables and milestones

Second draft calls for a second screen
(NB: that's the Productivity Commission's draft report on Low-Emissions Economy to the left, not my novel.
And yes, I get the dissonance of printing a 500 page report on low-emissions economy.)

So I finished the first draft of my location scout novel 11 days ago. “First draft” is an accurate description of the last maybe ten pages. The first ten pages are more like “thirty-seventh draft”. Everything else sits somewhere in between.

How’d it feel to reach that point? 

Well, I used to feel stink that I had all year in Dunedin to finish it and I didn't, but that pity party petered out.

There was some elation 11 days ago, but it was specific to having had a successful day’s writing.

Back in Dunedin, I had jumped ahead and written most of the final chapter, with a square-bracketed statement at the end that indicated a one-off shift in perspective that’d last a page at most. It took me months to fill in the other blank spaces and get to that last, unwritten passage, but on the morning of Thursday 19 April, I’d reached that point, but still didn't really know how to pull it off.

It was a strange ‘writing’ day for other reasons. I had to go in to my dayjob for two meetings that were two hours apart, despite it being one of my days off, and I decided to write in town before, between and after the meetings to be efficient and avoid school holiday distractions at home. When I got set up in town, I decided to do some automatic(ish) writing to lower the stakes in a brand new environment and maybe get into this new perspective for writing later in the day. But straight away the voice just clicked. I wrote two-thirds of a page and pasted it wholesale into the end of my novel. Re-reading it after my first meeting, I repeated the first three lines at the end, wrote a better transition between the old and the new, and just like that, I was done.

Only, I wasn’t’. I’m not. But I’ve reached a milestone.

After finishing the first draft, the first thing I did was go back and change the first sentence, which alluded to a scene that no longer occurred in the novel. After that, I spent two days going through all 170 notes I’d made in Evernote, from the first one in April 2015 about what I thought might just be a short story through to notes I’d made a couple days before about things to address in the next draft. Now I have a 120-row table in Excel which I'm working my way through.

It was interesting to see that it was three years, almost to the day, since I started on this path (sometimes it feels longer - there were the two years between finishing The Mannequin Makers and the idea for this novel occurring to me; sometimes shorter - I basically started afresh in late Feb 2017). However I accounted for my time, I now had a 105,000 word manuscript to show for it. 

The quantity is there, now it's a matter of making sure there's quality, too. 

I made a mistake last week with my one pure writing day (my other day off work was a public holiday spent with family). In the spirit of gearing up for a great, systematic, enriching second draft, I decided to re-read Michael Grosso’s The Man Who Could Fly, which, despite the fact I read it two years into the project, represents a kind of ur-text for my novel. The problem with re-reading this book a year later was it was the same slog it was the first time (though without as much of my own cynicism getting in the way). Whatever momentum I’d worked up with my string of 5am starts, with every session at the keyboard moving the book forward, with the small sense of accomplishment of finishing the first draft and surprising myself with a passage that clicked this late in the process… that all drained away as I slogged through the first 100 pages of Grosso’s book.

So I put a stop to that and I’m back into my text. Making it better. Or making it different and then letting time tell me if it’s better or worse.

I’m not sure if there’ll be a clear demarcation between a second and a third or a fourth draft. Between now and the end of May I’ll go through it as often as I have to, making sure character X’s motivation is consistent, the logic for twist Y is embedded in earlier moments, the chapter titles are that right mix between intriguing and meaningful, that all the references to music on the roadtrip are absolutely necessary (my wife’s main suggestion when she read the manuscript in January)… and then I’m going to let a second person (and maybe a third) read the thing.

Maybe then, to bide my time, I'll return to Grosso...

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

March 2018 consumption diary


(A heavy weighting to the old timers this month, thanks to road-tripping to the Taranaki in an old-timey mood)


Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow by Noah Yuval Harari (non-fiction, audiobook)

I've recommended this book to three people since I read it, each for different reasons (the link between the science behind our soullessness, animal suffering and veganism; the future of automation/an algorithm for everything and what it means for education; how it uses Kahneman and Fredickson's peak-end rule to explain how unreliable a narrator we are of our own lives) - but each time with the caveat that the book is confusingly structured.

I get that it's a bunch of conjectures that spring from the central premise (homo sapiens has done a good job of minimising the impact of famine, plague and war and is able to focus elsewhere for the first time in forever), so it was never going to be the most cohesive thing, but it has a couple of (long) false starts and, while it builds well in each chapter, the book itself never seems to culminate. It's definitely more rumination than fulmination.

Still, it was the right mix of a secondary explainer of the work of others and more adventurous, more challenging thinking.

Good stuff.

Sex Object: a memoir by Jessica Valenti (non-fiction, audiobook)

The pat thing to say here might be: this is the kind of book all fathers of daughter should read if they want to understand the world their daughter is/will be part of. But I think fathers of daughters are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to activating their empathy for females. The challenge is to get to the budding dudebros a decade before they procreate, just before they leave their first half-cocked abusive message on social media.

But then again, isn't it wrong to talk about this books value in terms of what it can do for (or "to") men? Yes. Yes it is.

It's clearly a bit of a tangle for me to talk about, briefly. But the book is its own tangle.

Yep, here comes that word again: structure. I felt off-balance throughout, the way the present and a variety of past eras intermingled, and how the same incidents (eg Valenti, as a schoolgirl, finding cum in her backpocket after a subway ride in a crammed car) are referred to multiple times, which seems to lessen their impact.

Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

I feel like I've been on a run of these books the last 12 months or so. Trees, cephalopods, Noah Yuval Harari's long excursion into the immorality of factory farming, and now this. Young doesn't just talk about cows, there's sheep and chickens in her book too. And it's a fine addition to this genre which I call: Make Craig go vegan.

But I am incredibly lazy and am able to shoulder incredible amounts of guilt and shame if it means my comfortable life can be maintained.

I'm not sure if this genre needs to throw more books at me, or if the books I've read just need to sit with me a little longer...

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (short stories, audiobook)

Like everyone whose ever done a creative writing course (it seems), Jesus' Son when I first encountered it, and still do I guess. I loved Train Dreams, too, which felt more like a long story than a short novel. I wasn't so fussed about his 2000 campus novel, The Name of the World (also short for a novel: only 144 pgs), and didn't finish his biggie, Tree of Smoke (pace Denis).
I loved

Johnson, of course, died last year, and Largesse was published posthumously in January this year. The title story originally appeared in the New Yorker in 2014 and you can read it there. Seriously, read it now. It's the absolute stand-out of the collection. Somewhere between Train Dreams and Jesus' Son. There are only four other stories in the book (three previously unpublished) and though nothing else quite reaches the same heights as the opening, it's required reading for everyone who had Denis Johnson phase and needs some reacquainting.

Saga Land by Kári Gíslason and Richard Fidler (non-fiction, audiobook)

Gislason and Fidlar blend travelogue, contemporary family saga, retelling of medieval Icelandic sagas and a biography of sorts of Snorri Sturluson.

I was into Norse mythology in a big way in my early teens and was therefore familar with Snorri as the author of the Prose Edda, but didn't know that much about the sagas of more contemporary (for the time) Icelanders. Saga Land provided a good background and a taster of the sagas themselves, but I don't feel sated in the least. MORE SAGAS PLEASE!!

But all of the components of the book held my interest, and were stitched together well. The ending of the contemporary story (which also served to conclude the book) was missing the bloody end of the sagas, but again, that's non-fiction for you.


Midnight Special
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Derren Brown's The Push
In Search of Fellini
Atlanta Season 1

Monday, March 12, 2018

February 2018 consumption diary

Joe Casey, late blooming rock star, Valhalla, 20 Feb 2018

The absolute highlight of the month was seeing Protomartyr at Valhalla.

Like many bands I fall in love with, Protomartyr make good music for solitude, headphones and repeated (if slightly distracted) listening. And like many of these artists, who I like and then eventually get to see live (semi-recent examples being Parquet Courts and Courtney Barnett) there's a period of readjustment at the gig, with the music going from intimate to intimidatingly loud. And, I mean, of course Protomartyr thrash it live. That makes total sense.

But hearing them go hard showed me new sides to the songs (even if the lyrics were harder to parse) and I listened to their last three albums just as much the week after the concert as in the weeks leading up to it - a sure sign of an awesome live show.

A few days later I was talking about Protomartyr to someone who'd never heard them and I described them as a combination of young Nick Cave doing Joy Division covers backed by The Stooges. I'm not sure how I would have put it before seeing them live, but it wouldn't have been that.

Anyway, here's a playlist of my Feb faves, with more than a little of my favourite Detroit post-punks...


We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (novel, audiobook)

I feel like I should have read this twenty years ago. I also feel like, resist as I might, I'm gothic at heart.

The Clasp by Sloane Crossley (novel, audiobook)

This was fine. My negative reactions were me projecting the current failures of my own incomplete novel onto this one. I think.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (novel audiobook)

I read this because Tregillis was coming to Writers and Readers Week (which ended yesterday) and it sounded like it was about Project Mistletoe (Ian Fleming and Aleister Crowley vs the Nazis), which I got interested in for about three hours a couple months ago, but it was much more outre than that. I guess I like my fantasy elements suppressed.


The Good Place - season 1 and about 5 episodes of season 2 before getting bored.
The End of the F***ing World - season 1 (basically just a feature film split into eight 22 minute episodes)
...and finishing off Easy season 2 and Black Mirror season 4.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

January consumption diary



As I mentioned in my post about my reading in 2017, one thing I wanted to do in 2018 was read less white dudes, especially anglophone ones. 

Nothing against them -- some of my best friends are anglophone white dudes! -- but, y'know!

I started out four-for-four in 2018, then read three straight anglophone white dudes... BUT I didn't break my hard rule about about no physical books by white dudes. 


Four of these books (Batuman, Whitehead, Stephenson, Hodgman) would have contended for a spot in my Best of 2017 list, if only I'd read them before New Years. 

Oh well, hopefully this bodes well for a killer Best of 2018 list!

Looking ahead, I want to keep posting consumption diaries, if only so I can remember what I read a couple months down the track. 

But this is the last from my blessed Burns year, and I'll be much briefer with my notes about each book in future. 

Partly because I feel I never really do justice to individual books by spewing forth 100-300 words on them at the end of the month (in some cases 4 weeks after finishing them), but also because I can't see myself having the time to do even that when my writing days are squished down to two.

So make the most of the spewing while it lasts...

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel. audiobook)

The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.

I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

The novel's appeal rests on how the reader responds to its protagonist, Selin. She's a freshman at Harvard but she's the idiot from the title (or at least the main one), spending most of the novel baffled - whether she's in the US or in Hungary. Her love story, with the post-grad Ivan, stumbles at almost every hurdle put up by the romance genre. And yet she is pleasant company. She's the well-meaning friend, the younger sibling. There's the sense that she might get it right one day... But the bigger question might be, what is lost when she get's it right and slips into line with everyone else's way of thing?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (novel, audiobook)

This is the kind of novel you need to read around as well as read into, and then re-read.

Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal underground railroad, carved out of earth and rock by nameless men and presumably a few women (the novel is deliberately vague about the builders).

It's the kind of high concept fulcrum point upon which a lot of alternate history novels are built upon.

But to me it felt less important than, say, if the Jews set up a nation in Sitka, or if the Berlin Wall never fell or whatever it is the Game of Thrones producers are set to do with the Civil War.

Which is both a compliment and the nub of what gives me pause before praising this book unreservedly upon a first reading.

There's a tension throughout between the plight of the slaves, the moral implications for the whites who help or hinder their passage to safety -- all of which is meant to conjure the same emotions as the historical reality -- and the novelist's decision to warp this vision of the past in one particular way. It has to be for a better reason than just to give the novel a 'hook'... Right?

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (non-fiction, audiobook)

This hardly counts as a book in its own right - it was adapted from a TEDx talk / the audiobook runs for less than an hour. But Wikipedia describes it as a book-length essay, so...

Maybe the fact it was rushed out on its lonesome, back in 2014, rather than bolstered by other pieces of fiction, says something about the appetite (perceived or real) for bold statements such as the one encapsulated in the title.

Although, it isn't that bold, is it? Indeed, the whole thing felt a little de-clawed, a little dated. It doesn't touch on intersectionalism, and even its discussion of feminism is narrow and dislocated from much of history.

But again, it started as a TED talk, so.

Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (novel, NZ)

I read this to review, so my lips are sealed.

61 Hours by Lee Child (novel, audiobook)

If you're gonna read a white dude, why not the ultimate white dude? 

The number of literary types who've tweeted gleefully about reading Jack Reacher novels over the summer (and Danyl Mclauchlin's piece at the Spinoff) wore me down, alright?

I mean, I'm not against genre. See hard sci-fi below. But also crime and thrillers. I've read Elmore Leonard and Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin and (pauses to think of a female crime writer) Vanda Symon (double points for being a Kiwi - yus!). But I'd never read a Reacher book (though I'd seen the first movie and now understand how ludicrous it is to have cast tiny Tom Cruise in the role).

Anyway: 61 Hours. It was brisk, brash and blokey, but not so much that I couldn't see my wife enjoying it while in a bach one rainy weekend. 

I figured the mystery out early (please, hold your applause) and so the twist fell flat, but it all happened so swiftly I could hardy feel miffed. 

The brevity is what makes having a twist such a challenge - only a handful of characters can be introduced in any detail, and even then those details tend to weigh heavily on the memory. A longer story would be able to throw up more red herrings (I'm thinking about all those The Killing-esque shows) but then it would just take longer. 

Get in, get out - that seems to be Child's/Reacher's M.O.

Fair enough.

Will I read another? Well, summer's pretty much over...

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, audiobook)

This is the first book by Stephenson that I have read, though I've been vaguely aware of him and the fact he's lauded (in certain) circles for the scientific veracity of his fictions.

In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.

So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.

But I like a strong brew.

I could poke holes in things like character development (actually, handled well for the most part) and perhaps some of the higher level things the second half implies about genetic and racial predispositions. But most times I felt he was wading into territory I felt I was about to be blessed with that modern tonic -- a dose of moral superiority -- the narrator acknowledge my facile point and undercut it with science or philosophy or -- shock horror -- a dramatic sequence.

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Vacationland by John Hodgman

If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.

Structurally the book was a little misshapen. But Hodgman was such good company. I might have to read him again in 2019.


Um, honestly, I can't remember watching much. I took my kids to Ferdinand, which was average. Where was that blockbuster kids film over Christmas? And I've watched most of Season 4 of Black Mirror, which seems to have tailed off. I mean, the episodes get more and more beautiful, but my responses to their conceits are less visceral.

Oh, and I finished Werner Herzog's filmmaking masterclass and feel like he's my gruff-but-well-meaning German uncle now. He's gonna regret doing that gig now that thousands of nobodies will have spent so long sitting at his feet listening to his stories about guerilla documentaries and fighting with Klaus Kinski.

Next up, Marty Scorsese and Ron Howard both have new masterclasses. Scorsese looks like he'll just be doing his usually thing about classic films that have inspired him, while Howard's looks to be more technical and workmanlike. Both (or neither) may be worth the time.