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) 

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