Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Abide with the handmaid’s desire: recent reading

I totted up my reading for the year this morning and there were about eight books jostling for the ninth and tenth spots on my top ten reads of the year. So I’ve decided to leave it another week and see if I don’t stumble on something that can leapfrog these ‘good, but’ books.

Until then, here’s what I’ve been reading of late...

Abide with me by Elizabeth Strout (novel, audiobook)

Abide with MeStrout’s 2006 novel reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead: small town America in the 1950s, church ministers at their centre... But Abide with Me is colder, less lustrous. No doubt this is in part due to the contrast between Tyler Caskey’s New England Protestantism and John Ames’ Midwestern Congregationalism. In Strout’s next book, Olive Kitteridge, she finds a way to turn this bitterness into something compelling (see the title character; the novel in stories structure helps too), but Abide with Me is no Olive Kitteridge.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (novel, audiobook)

The Handmaid's TaleI spent the first half of this dystopian novel thinking: if this was really a dystopian novel something would be happening right now. Of course, the quid pro quo of a real dystopian novel (read: genre fiction) is less character development, less controlled writing (and less acclaim for its author). Things pick up eventually — we even get the staple of the genre: a long, thinly disguised information download to explain how things got so... dystopic. And hey, I wasn’t complaining. All up, I liked the book, but at this point in time I might have liked it more if the needle moved a notch or two back towards genre.

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (non-fiction, audiobook)

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThis is the second Pollan book I've listened to this year after A Place of My Own. This one delves into the history of the apple, the tulip, cannabis and the potato to tell the story of how humans have changed plants and how we might have actually been doing the plants’ bidding. There was plenty of interesting stuff (I didn’t know that all commercial apple varieties are grown from clones rather than from seed; I’d never heard of Tulipomania), though each section seemed to lose momentum three-quarters of the way in and the wheels were allowed to spin to fill the page-count or hammer home Pollan’s thesis. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Welcome to What Next, Population: You'

I’ve been MIA for the last couple of weeks. No, the baby hasn’t come yet (due date is tomorrow: 12/12/12, which was always too perfect to ever happen; I’m just hoping it doesn’t arrive too close to Christmas).

But I have delivered my other baby (for the second time).

Last Tuesday I sent The Mannequin Makers back to my publisher after spending two months making some tweaks, thanks to the useful feedback I received.

(In truth, I spent the first month watching Australian TV shows from the 1970s on YouTube -- Number 96, The Paul Hogan Show, The Great Temptation -- which was a research dead end. Even at this late stage, it isn’t always clear what belongs in a book and what doesn’t.)

Now the manuscript is with an editor who I’m excited to work with. Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I enjoy this process of giving my baby over to someone else and letting them cover it in red ink, this game of manuscript tennis that eats up month after month. So long as you don’t forget who you are and what you set out to write, you’ll make the right changes, lessen the areas readers can get mired, lost, annoyed, or misled and amp up those moments you always thought should sing but maybe never quite nailed.

Every new version is an improvement on the last. Every new version is an improvement on the last. Every new version is an improvement on the last.

Maybe, by the end of this, we will have a book that some readers read through to the final page. Maybe some will like it, steal it from the library, name their children after its characters… Maybe it will annoy great swathes of people, get thrown across drawing rooms (I don’t think my target market has ‘drawing rooms’…), prompt lengthy ad hominen blog posts and snarky tweets. Maybe it will sink like a stone next year and I will be too busy fathering a real baby to notice. Maybe I will be juggling a real baby and another book-baby.

At this stage, I cannot say – not because I am being coy, but because I do not know.

I have entered the territory of ‘What Next?’ I have no map. I don’t speak the language here. Maybe I do, but I speak it poorly and when I ask the locals for directions they turn their noses up at me and walk away.

Deciding on your next project is a lot like your first week in Paris. You’re busy, confused, bumbling. Embarrassment is there to meet you at every turn. You’re surrounded by houses with plaques declaring the famous writers who’ve lived there. They’ve made their name, staked their claim. There’s nothing for you here, move along.

But eventually you will find that small café down an alley the other tourists don’t seem to notice. A place where the waiters humour your mangled recitation of the menu. A place to sit and let the world come to you. To get to know the regulars and the pigeons, the bitter kick of the coffee, the quiet hour after lunch when the wind toys with the morning’s newspapers.

Soon it will feel like home, this place. It will be knowable. Your knowledge of it will become comprehensive, then godlike, omniscient. You will use this knowledge to toy with the regulars, the pigeons, the headlines on the morning papers – petty games, but it keeps you occupied.

And then, one day, you are done with this place and it’s time to move on. It’s off to the airport and another foreign city, another busy, confused, bumbling week, or month or year.

As you lie on another lumpy hostel mattress, you tell yourself: next time I will read the travel guides in advance. Next time I’ll take language lessons beforehand. Next time I will draw up an itinerary and stick to it.

Or maybe you’ll just write short stories…