Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Best Books I read in 2017

I last did one of these best books posts for 2014

What can be said of 2015 and 2016? The less the better. Fatherhood and middle-management and riding my bike in Wellington traffic (no way you can listen to an audiobook while riding in the capital) meant I didn't read enough to make such a list meaningful.

But 2017 was different.

2017 by the numbers

In 2017 I read at least 66 books (40 novels, 15 non-fiction, 7 short story, 2 poetry collections, one graphic novel and one play-as-an-audiobook). 

This isn’t counting the story collections I binge-read/re-read to research my paper on the moves in contemporary NZ short stories, or podcasts that closely resemble audiobooks (S-Town, The Butterfly Effect, Missing Richard Simmons) or anything else that didn’t self-identify as a book.

Of these 66: 47 (71%) were consumed as audiobooks, 17 were physical books and 2 were e-books I read on my phone (a first).

The earliest published book came from 1927. 13 of the books I read came out in 2017 – probably a record for me. The average year of publication was 2003.

In terms of authors:
  • 32 (48%) were from the US, which is way too many, followed by the UK (22%) and NZ (9%). Other nationalities read: Italy, Australia, German, Ireland, France, Canada.
  • 45 (68%) were male, 21 were female
  • Only four authors were non-white
  • Only six books were works in-translation (4 by Elena Ferrante)


This is the part where I castigate myself for myopic reading and make excuses like it’s hard to find books by authors outside of the US/UK as audiobooks...

But I could have tried harder if I was really paying attention. I wasn’t. I was happy to be getting through more than one book a week and biting at whatever took my interest.

So for 2018 I’m imposing one hard, ALL CAPS rule (No Physical Books By White Dudes) and a some of softer guidelines:
# a 50/50 gender split would be fine in the context of 2018, but more females would be a better start in redressing what has surely been a longstanding deficit.
# more variety in terms of countries and work in translation (it wouldn’t be hard)

I’ll try keep track of this in my monthly consumption diaries so I don’t revert to type.

(This isn’t about saying you should never read a book by a white dude, but you’re missing something if that’s always the bulk of your reading.)

Anyway, here’s my top nine, headlined by a white dude.

The best time I had between two covers in 2017: 

The Ask – Sam Lipsyte (novel, US, physical book)

What I said about it in July:
Or, as my wife would put it, this is a “ranty” book. Which means it keeps company with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, the fun half of every Jonathan Franzen doorstop, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Martin Amis – so, just the swinging dicks of the last 75 years. Not bad company. Not for everyone, but definitely for me in certain moods. This is the kind of book I wanted to write when I started writing seriously (...stops to do the maths…) fourteen years ago, when all I really knew were the swinging dicks. Now? I think it has definitely challenged me to ensure each page of my current novel is funny. Is tight. (So much of the humour comes from the concision.)

Autumn – Ali Smith (novel, UK, e-book)

What I said about it in October:
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!

The Neapolitan quartet – Elena Ferrante (novels, Italy, audiobooks)

What I said about these four novels in June:
Did it hook me? Well, I finished all four books (none of them are particularly short - the audiobooks are 12.5hrs, 19hrs, 16.5hrs & 18.5hrs long respectively; 10 hours is kind of standard for a novel) in just over two months...  
I can’t decide if the quartet is the result of incredible ambition or incredible restraint. Is it complexly simple or simply complex?...  
Having freshly finished the books, I haven't gone back and read much writing about them, but I'm sure there's another four books worth of stuff on the question of authorship within the novels (let alone the 400-books worth of dross on the elusive author herself... All I can say is, if anyone had read all four books and still wants to track down the real Elena Ferrante, they're beyond dense).

A Game of Thrones – George RR Martin (novels, US, audiobook)

I’m cheating again, as GRRM gets this high on the list on the strength of the first two books in the Song of Fire and Ice saga, which actually come as four audiobooks, each 16 hours or longer.

What I said about A Game of Thrones Pt II in November:
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.

This may seem kind of high for some swords and sorcery doorstoppers, but the most recent season of the TV show (where they are well and truly ahead of the books) demonstrates how important the books were to the success of the show. I like the show and I liked the books I’ve read and I’m not snooty about giving props to someone who has entertained me for hours and hours.

Time Travel: A History – James Gleick (non-fiction, US, audiobook)

What I said about it in April:
Gleick's book was really good. Like one of those popular histories for people who like to think they're too smart for popular histories. Most of the recent time travel books/films I thought about during the earlier sections were mentioned later on in the book - but by then Gleick has abandoned literary criticism for theoretical physics and philosophy. Which is fine. This is the guy who wrote a book about chaos theory.

But I think there's another book (or at least a few decent chapters) on what people are doing with time travel after a century of the genre, and dismantling this from a predominantly literary perspective.

Honorary mention to The hidden life of trees by Peter Wohlleben, which I read soon after Gleick’s book and is about another kind of time travel (life at a different speed).

Thank You for Being Late – Thomas L. Friedman (non-fiction, US, audiobook)

What I said about it in July:
Oh man. I don’t know how Thomas Friedman gets so much (the rapid pace of change of technology, the nightmares of climate change, demography, economic and political destabilisation) and yet comes out the other end as an optimist. I mean, I follow his logic every time, but it takes some fricken fortitude to stare into the omni-headed monster and prescribe the right dental regime to tame the stank and calm the beast.  
I fear I’m becoming one of those middle-aged, middle-income, white dudes who loves non-fiction and wants to foist the latest book they’ve read on other people as it’ll explain the way the world is now. Because I had such thoughts with Thank you for being late. But then, when I was all in on fiction, I never went around foisting novels or story collections on people. 
So maybe it’s just this book / this moment? I do think, if you’re going to read it, read it now. 2018 will be too late. The world will have moved on, and I fear Friedman’s optimism may be even harder to comprehend.

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

What I said about it in September
Anything is possible is certainly closer to Olive Kitteridge in scope, and the fact it picks up where My Name is Lucy Barton [which I read in August] left off might make it even more ambitious. I got the sense, mid-way into the second book, that both MNiLB and AiP had been originally conceived as a single book of connected stories, but the Lucy Barton section grew too big / had sufficient exit velocity to become its own thing, while the gravity of it still influences the stories/chapters in AiP.

The Animators – Kayla Rae Whittaker
What I said about it in August:
…I’d recommend this book to most anybody. Whittaker not only gives us two memorable protagonists and embeds the creation of not one but two feature length animated films within the text, but totally gets inside the process of creating something other than a novel and the way an animator might see the world.

4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

What I said about it in September:
...Auster’s two key weapons in sustaining interest and momentum over such a long book are prolepsis (telling us what will happen ahead of time) and ellipsis (leaving things out). I’m particularly fascinated by prolepsis – it’s a move a lot of writers don’t pull. And Auster isn’t a virtuoso like Muriel Spark in the way he uses it – he’s more plodding, more deliberate, less playful. But it’s still fascinating, especially as you need to keep straight which version of Fergusson's future we've been told... 
But then, in the novel’s final movements, Auster attempts to tie things up in a way that befits the Master Metafictioneer he showed himself to be with books like City of Glass. But here it only served to unravel what had come before and leave me reluctant to defend his book in online comments sections. Maybe it was laboured and worthy? I mean, I wasn't listening to the same book as Auster was reading [the audiobook was read by the author].

To which I say now: Yeah, the ending still bites, but for everything that came before, I’m squeezing it into my top nine.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Return to Fire Island: Fortnight 26 of the Burns

I'll have you know, this is NOT the end of my Burns year. I'm still on the university's payroll for another three days. As such, I must refrain from doing any number crunching, graph making or sweeping generalisation until at least 1 February.

Biggest new first...

My book got reviewed in the New York Times yesterday!

In his debut novel, the New Zealand writer Craig Cliff adds to the canon, but with such ambition, creativity and sheer energy that he shows there’s still something new to say about a national narrative that can seem, at times, to hold no surprises.
I tend to agree with everything in the review (apart from the bit about Marumaru being in the North Island, and maybe the way it makes it sound as if The Mannequin Makers follows on from The Luminaries, when TMM was launched in New Zealand a handful of days before Catton's book in 2013). It is "almost Shakespearean in scope" (emphasis on almost) and ambitious (see first point) and the final part probably is the weakest (oddly, some American reviewers have struggled with the third part, which is clearly the greatest extended epistolary subantarctic castaway yarn by a mute Scottish woodcarver in the history of the printed word).

So, yeah, I was happy to be reviewed in the fricken' New York Times, and doubly so that it was strongly favourable (I've spent too much time on review aggregator sites!), but I think it would feel different (more immediate?) if this was happening in 2013 or 2014. Right now, I can't help thinking about my location scout/levitation saint novel (how I need to finish it; how a good review in the NYT might help it find a publisher and a readership).

My US Publisher (Milkweed Editions, an indie press based in Minnesota) - who've been fantastic the whole way - have been extra excited the past 36-hours. When you see your editor's mum congratulate her on Facebook for a review of your book, it reminds you how many other people it takes to get your book out there, and how each of them stake their reputations on you. 

At some point this year I'll be putting my next novel out there with agents and publishers and I'll try remember all this when the rejections come. 

Better to be loved late than strung-along early.

Fortnight 26 wordcounts
Total words: 6,620 (40% on this blog, 60% on other non-fiction - book reviews and judges comments)
1st week: 0 (travelling)
2nd week: 6,620

My 100-words-a-day story hit a snag somewhere around Christchurch. It was boring me, and it was turning into something that would need around 5,000 words to complete it, which meant more than another month doing something I wasn't feeling in tiny chunks. So I took a breather to reconsider. I'll hit restart again for February with a different story.

Roadtrip continued...

Following on from the end of Fortnight 25... after two nights in Christchurch we drove to Nelson for three nights, then Picton for one night, before catching the ferry back home (?) to Wellington.

We rented our house out while we were down south. I inspected the place back in August and it was looking good, but it was depressing to return for real this time and find they hadn't cleaned inside very well (like, trail mix on the carpet in one of the bedrooms), the fabric softener part of the washing machine was full of washing powder (so they'd been washing their clothes with plain water all year) and the outside (not the renter's responsibility) was going to take A LOT of work to wrestle back to respectability.

Every time I went out my front door to bring in another box, I was greeted with this young flax growing from the garage gutter.

Oh, and that room I built in my garage to store the stuff we wouldn't need in Dunedin (beds, books, toys, suits) and save the cost of a storage unit? Half the stuff was moldy. Not incredibly moldy - the room stayed dry, it's just whatever moisture or spores were present when the stuff got shut away last January had been trapped there for a year. So there have been many loads through the washing machine (putting the washing liquid in the drum!) and kitchen stuff through the dishwasher and everything else wiped down by hand and left in the sun's life-zapping rays.

After four days of this (and weeding and keeping the kids from killing each other), I was well and truly missing Dunedin.

So I flew back to Dunedin...

...for this guy's birthday

Fittingly, January 25th is when the prizegiving is held for the annual Robert Burns Poetry competition, for which I was one of the two judges for this year.

You can read about the winners in the ODT article.

I landed mid-morning and had time to kill before the ceremony at 5pm, so I went back to my bare-looking office at the university, procrastinated, got a haircut and spent a bit more time with the Gordon Walters exhibition at the Art Gallery.

Gordon Walters: it's not all about the koru.

The ceremony itself was a treat - getting to hear the poets read their work aloud, especially the ones written in Scots, really brought them to life.

And afterwards, judges and winners were given free tickets to the Burns Night Dinner at Toitu.

Those brackets on the "(and woman)" part were a bit weird. Especially if you've already clicked on the ODT link and read Jill O'Brien's winning poem from the published category ('Reply from the Lassies') or read about the current debate in Scotland about whether the bard was a "sex pest"

Whether it was the impact of #MeToo or simply a coincidence, the night became a kind of conversation about the role of women and what should and should not be celebrated about Burns.

For the first time in the 157 year history of the Dunedin Burns Club, a woman, Ayrshire-born Donna Young, delivered the 'Address to the Haggis' (and did so splendidly). 
Peter Sutton reading his winning poem from the unpublished category

Jill O'Brien, winner of the published category

Donna also sang Jill's poem (which was written to be performed), and local writer Lisa Scott excoriated Burns and resuscitated his reputation over the course of an hilarious (and at times hilariously uncomfortable) ten minutes, before the toast to the lassies.

Everything was taken in good spirit and I felt proud to be there as the Burns Fellow (and that I whakapapa back to Scotland - Clan Ross represent!), but also to be knocking around in 2018 when dumb reverence or pregnant silence is so passé.

The next day it was my farewell morning tea at the Department of English and Linguistics. After that, I knocked around in my office for a few more hours, graffittied the desk, then caught the shuttle one last time to the frustratingly distant airport, and back to Wellington.

But but but

As I said, I'm still technically the Burns fellow for another three days!

Maybe I can finish my novel in that time?!?

Um. Alright.

But, my daughter starts school and my son goes back to daycare on Wednesday. I don't go back to the Ministry officially until 12 Feb (though I will be popping in and out before then) and even then I'll only be 0.6 of an FTE, which means I'll still be a writer two days (and whichever early mornings I can scrounge) a week.

This last week, it's been frustrating to be home and not working but not have the time to touch my novel, after travelling for a fortnight and not touching the novel (after cleaning and packing and not touching the novel).

I had four books to review when I first got back to Wellington (I'd read them but hadn't written the reviews, having run out of time in Dunedin), which soaked up a good many evenings. (And the review I did of three books for NZ Books will probably close more doors than it opens... oh well.)

Former Burns Fellows inform me there's a thing called the Post-Burns Blues... But hopefully I'll be too busy to notice. 

Like, I've got three more blog posts to write (best books of 2017; January consumption diary; graphing my Burns Year productivity). How could I possible have time to get depressed!

And I'll be back in Dunedin in September for the 60th anniversary of the fellowship.

And I have something to aim for fitness-wise: being the spritely elder statesman at the  100th anniversary of the Fellowship in 2058.

Pass me my running shoes!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Extinguished gentleman: Fortnight 25 of the Burns

Hi-ho campers!

This post covers the period 1-14 Jan. Over that period, I had a birthday, my daughter 'graduated' from pre-school (gown and mortarboard and everything), and we left Dunedin (but only got as far as Christchurch).

The leaving part was hard. Not least because we were renting a large house which meant a lot of cleaning!

Our stuff got picked up by the movers on 8 January, and as of today (27 Jan) it still hasn't made it to Wellington. Last I heard it was in Chch, waiting for more people's stuff to fill a truck. ETA: This coming Frida.


Anyway, not a lot of writing took place that fortnight...

Fortnight 25 wordcounts
Total words: 6,088 (41% on the novel, 33% on short stories, 26% on this blog, 26% on this blog)
1st week: 5,388
2nd week: 700 (that is, 7 days worth of 100 word chunks, as per my 2018 project, while travelling)

Meanwhile, in the land of the free and the home of the microwave burrito

The Mannequin Makers got a bit of coverage during Fortnight 25, including:
  • An excerpt ran on Lit Hub (an early chapter from The Carpenter's tale). It was more than a little cool to see my book feature the day after Robert Coover's (and on a day the homepage was all about J.M. Coetzee on Samual Beckett.

Before you leave

Port Chalmers
We still had some downtime (read: needed to get the kids out of the house to stay sane) amid the cleaning and packing. We went to Orokonui Ecosanctuary (sorry birdlovers, my camera is on the moving truck, so no photos today), Port Chalmers, Brighton and our favourite haunts closer to home (the elephant park on Highcliff Road, the dinosaur park and St Clair beach).

Before packing up my office at the university, it looked like this (note the post-its still hanging in there from back in Fortnight 1).

After cleaning, I printed out THE NOVEL as it stands. 90,000 words, 260-something pages, one title I'm still not sure about (hence the spoon). 

Roadward hometrip

We left Dunedin on the tenth (a year to the day since we departed Wellington) and stayed two nights in Naseby. We then drove to Twizel via Clyde & Cromwell, and stayed there for two nights, before sliding back down the plains to Chch and the in-laws.

Naseby Indoor Curling Rink.
Te kids were fascinated by curling (I got bored way before they did)

Blue lake, St Bathans

Clyde Dam

Lake Tekapo
And just like that, we were done with Otago (*sob*) and my penultimate fortnight as the Robert Burns Fellow was over.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The slightest wick remains: Fortnight 24 of the Burns


This box arrived a few days before Christmas...

These are the copies my US Publisher, Milkweed Editions, sent my Australian Publisher, Penguin Random House, who then sent them on to me (I'm not sure if they kept any for themselves), even though Milkweed has sent me at least one copy directly (though I told them to send it to Wellington).

So yeah. Not only is the old girl out there in the world again, I now have physical proof.

One side effect of having a "new" book arrive is that my son (2.5) asks to see my picture inside of any book he catches me reading. I'm not sure if he thinks I write ALL THE BOOKS, or that grown-ups get personalised copies with their own picture inside the front cover, as if the reader was the most important person involved in the grand production of a novel...

Maybe he's onto something.


Fortnight 24 wordcounts
Total words: 9,337 (68% on the novel, 28% on this blog, 4% on book reviews)
1st week: 8,142
2nd week: 1,195

Christmas came at a bad time for work on the novel. 

I’d gotten almost everything in order so that I could break new ground (the existing chapters are now somewhere between 2nd and fifteenth drafts) and coast the rest of the way to a completed manuscript.

But I find it nearly impossible to write at my in-laws in Christchurch, where we spent seven nights.

(Almost impossible, because I did work on this novel way back in August 2015 while in Christchurch, getting up at 5am and working until someone else woke, not knowing how short-lived that window of both kids sleeping would be…)

So I read books and ate and did family things like visit Orana Park and the Air Force Museum (and eat some more) instead. 

It’s a hard knock life.


Well, actually…

[This is where the 500-word rant about how Slingshot cut my internet three weeks early and am still waiting for it to be reinstated used to sit... but you don't need all that.

Cliff notes: Slingshot suck. Boo Slingshot. Woe is me. The end.

PS - I’m posting this using my phone as a hotspot and churning through data I’ll probably need when I actually move out… Wah!]


Daily centuries

Yesterday I outlined my project to write something in daily 100-word increments in 2018. 

Day two is in the books and the manuscript stands at 200 words. Hurrah. 363 days to go.

I know this is actually about Fortnight 25 but 'tis the season for repeats and rookie newsreaders, so go easy on me.



We're leaving Dunedin on 10 January and will take our time heading north, getting back to Wellington on the 20th. So Fortnight 25's post might be a week late and full of photos from Central Otago and Nelson and hopefully the pristine state my house has been left in by my wonderful ex-tenants.

After a few days of unpacking and totally not spending anytime on the phone with my ISP, I'm flying back down to Dunedin for Burns Night (haggis!!) and a couple other final acts as the outgoing Burns Fellow.

Then it's back to Wellington to watch the clock tick down on Fortnight 26 of the Burns, at which point I will crunch the numbers, make pretty graphs and see what that tells us about my year of being paid to write that maybe my fortnightly downloads and monthly consumption diaries haven't comunicated.

Oh, and I'll have to write up the best books I read in 2017. By the end of Jan, I promise!

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018: the year of 365 hundred-word chunks

Andersons Bay inlet at low tide, November 2017
It’s ten years (fuck me) since I set out on my quest to write a million words in a year. I only wrote 800,737 words, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without setting myself that audacious goal and giving it a darn good go.

To commemorate, I’m going to do another of my constrained wordcount experiments (see here, here and here), but this time keep it up for a full year rather than just a month.

So, yeah: every day this year I will add exactly 100 words to a brand new manuscript.

I haven’t planned anything, so I don’t quite know what the end product will be. A single 36,500 word novella? A series of linked short stories? A procession of unlinked stories?

All I know is this will be fiction. And I don't want the final form to feel chunky, at least not a consistent bit-size chunky. The rhythm will vary with what's occurring in the story. The finished product(s) should just read like normal prose, though perhaps a little more condensed than my normal style.

Also: the 100-word chunks will be separate from my location scout novel (which hopefully is done and dusted by mid-year) or any short stories I begin writing in a more traditional (get it done quick) way. This isn't meant to be my BIG THING for the year, just something to make sure I write every damn day, especially with the end of one novel in sight and no idea what I'll do after that (beyond write some short stories).

I only decided what I’d write about today when I attacked the blank page an hour ago. (It's based on a cluster of thoughts I’ve had while biking past the Andersons Bay inlet in recent months... I've the sense of a character, the setting (obviously), two time periods and a lot of birds, but nothing you might call structure or drama).

I’m leaving it incredibly vague because I know from past experience with this sort of SLOW WRITING that you spend a lot of time thinking about what you will write that day (or the next), and how it might work, that solutions abound, and I don’t want to close too much down.

I’m NOT going to post every daily century here, but I will post today’s one, just to give you a taster...

The inlet
There are many ways to pass the three or four hours it takes to complete a game of schoolboy cricket on a Saturday morning. You can be the husband-and-wife one-two-punch that lingers in back of every team huddle, every harmless conversation, to pull up mono-gendered terms – you guys, next batsman, schoolboy cricket – while coddling and cajoling their right-arm off-spin daughter as if this was Soviet-era gymnastics or tomorrow’s UFC pay-per-view. You can be one of the parents who talks to other parents about everything but cricket. You can be one of the parents who talks only about cricket.