Confessions of Another Common Reader

José Saramago – Blindness

January3

Jose Saramago - Blindness - jacket imageSaramago’s 1995 novel is a classic “what if..?” story: without any warning or prior symptoms, one by one, the citizens of a vaguely authoritarian state begin to be struck by a “white sickness” as they go about their daily lives, which effectively renders them blind – they see only a luminous whiteness before their eyes. Acting on initial suspicions that the sickness may be contagious, the government reopens an old mental asylum to quarantine the infected and those who have had contact with them, each group in a separate wing of the hospital. But as the fear and chaos grows, and the epidemic spreads, the care afforded to the asylum’s inmates deteriorates rapidly – as do their moral standards.

Saramago is interested in big questions about human nature – how we would behave towards each other if the ordinary checks and balances of society were removed, and nobody could see what we were doing? At a very basic level, standards of hygiene lapse entirely. Saramago’s descriptions of the state of the asylum – as viewed through the eyes of the one sighted inmate, “the doctor’s wife”, who has pretended she has been struck blind in order to accompany her husband to his incarceration – are revolting.

More significantly, Saramago wants to explore attitudes and adherence to (or lack of it) sexual morality, and law and order. As chaos outside the asylum increases, the support systems fail: the electricity switches off, the water cuts out, and the food supply becomes unreliable. A gang of “hoodlums”, in the “third ward on the left” assume control by force, restricting the availability of food still further in exchange for at first the few valuables and useful items the inmates have brought with them, then later for a disturbing ordeal of systematic rape, ward by ward, of the women inmates.

The style won’t be to everyone’s liking – there are no paragraphs, no speech delimiters, and little punctuation, mimicking the blanketing confusion of the blindness and forcing the reader to proceed slowly and cautiously. And Saramago pushes his pre-apocalyptic vision to levels of almost unbearable grimness, before allowing some light of redemption to filter through towards the end of the book. Without the eyes of society on us, Saramago seems to say, we will quickly degenerate to a base selfishness. Those characters that do act with philanthropy and care for others have all at some point come under the influence of the sighted doctor’s wife and are ‘seeing’ through her eyes, coping thanks to her care. Yet in the end, Saramago seems to say, this is the only way we can survive.

A Confederacy of Dunces – Am I the Dunce?

May16

There’s a certain kind of queasiness that accompanies not loving a book that appears to be universally raved about. What did you miss? Were you not paying attention? Is there something wrong with you? Sometimes it passes quickly, a quick flick back through the pages reaffirming your well-placed confidence in your own literary taste (I’m looking at you, One Day). Sometimes it lingers for longer, scratching away at the back of your mind like an unshiftable stone in the shoe, and this is where I find myself with A Confederacy of Dunces.

Published posthumously thanks to his mother’s unflagging commitment to seeing it in print, I’ve always seen John Kennedy Toole’s novel hailed as a comic masterpiece. Set in New Orleans, it follows the enormous Ignatius J Reilly, lazy, overeducated, staggeringly self-absorbed, and suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Ignatius is tortured by poor digestion (nothing to do with his poor diet, of course) and a slave to his “valve”. Obsessed with his own genius, he is tormented by the need to prove said genius to one Myrna Minkoff, who he met while at college and who goads him from afar with aggressive, scribbled notes describing her own successes in transforming the political landscape through the magic of sex. As he endeavours to do as little as possible in order to create a space for his literary talent to flourish and bear fruit, Ignatius blunders through New Orleans, chaos rippling outward from his searingly self-centred acts of random cruelty.

Ignatius is an unforgettable creation: utterly ruthless, addicted to medieval culture and excess verbiage, living his life at a tangent to the rest of the world. Yet I can’t laugh at him, or at any of the other equally well-drawn characters whose lives he disrupts. Partly this is a fault I’ve been noticing more and more in my own literary appreciation – a tendency to place too much emphasis on character as I read. I increasingly seem to be running the risk of mistaking characters in books for Real People, over-empathising with their suffering.

But this is also more generally true of how I feel about humour: I cannot laugh at monsters. I’ve never been able to find David Brent funny in The Office, or others of his ilk. Those with a white-hot belief in their own centrality to the universe – whether in books or in real life – inevitably damage those with who they interact. And all too often, they get away with it; their self-belief wraps around them like a cloak of invisibility, insulating them from outrage and disapproval, while others around them pick up the pieces and deal with the fallout. Being habitually a picker-up rather than a distributor of such pieces, my latent levels of resentment at this kind of behaviour are already too high to tolerate further augmentation without discomfort. I just don’t find it funny, even when it’s only make-believe.

In other words, despite no longer being in my teens or twenties, I’m still incurably romantic and idealist, and want to believe that the world should be fair. I am doomed.

Vintage Books Open Day I – A Short Story

April26
Vintage Books jacket images

Showcasing cover design trends - hand lettering

I first fell in love with Vintage Books back when they coyly hid behind a mysterious initial – that subtle upticked V on the spine. Alongside all the weird ancient Penguins in my school bookshop that no one else wanted which I picked up weekly for 80p (because that was the price on the jacket – that’s how long they’d been sitting on the shelf), I regularly treated myself to a William Faulkner, a Kurt Vonnegut or an Ian McEwan, amongst many, many others. I love the authors they publish, I love their jacket designs (though I never collected as many of the fetching old cream-and-green-spined Classics as @meandmybigmouth), and I can’t not mention their Twitter account – social media done properly, interactive, informative, friendly and varied, refreshingly free of wearying overpromotion.

So when Alison mentioned it on Twitter, I jumped at the chance to part with 30 of your best English pounds and what would normally have been a day off to spend time hearing people across the business talking about their work at the inaugural Vintage Books Open Day. Yes, I am that much of a book nerd. See above about those weird Penguins. Over the course of the day, we heard from editors, writers, designers, marketers, salespeople and booksellers (well – one bookseller), giving us a fascinating picture of the life of a book from commissioning through to sale. I’ll spare you blow-by-blow coverage – others have already blogged about this – but I wanted over my next couple of posts to pick up on a couple of themes that cropped up that have been ringing through the industry recently.

Same Old, Same Old

Or in the case of my first, not so recently – because we’ve been hearing that ‘people don’t buy short stories’ for what seems like aeons. Commissioning editor Dan Franklin kicked things off with a rumination on the multi-book deal, whereby a collection of short stories – “horror upon horror, you can’t sell them etc etc” – becomes “a sprat to catch the mackerel” of the novel that is bought alongside it. In the panel discussion that followed, senior editor Alex Bowler echoed his sentiments, stating plainly that as editors at Jonathan Cape, if they buy short stories they are almost honour-bound to assure their colleagues, “The novel’s coming in a year”. Agent Lucy Luck added, “I would never call them stories on the cover – I’d say ‘interconnected’ or something.”

The same panel, however, showed that the short story can be crucial both in discovering exciting new voices and in the writer’s progress to selling a book. Lucy originally found author Kevin Barry via his story ‘See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown’, which in 2004 was shortlisted for Davy Byrnes’ lucrative Irish short story competition for the Bloomsday centenary. Barry himself noted that Cape’s apparent enthusiasm for short stories was a big factor in his decision to sell his book to them; his first story in the New Yorker (about the fifth he’d submitted) was a huge boost to his confidence; and his first collection There Are Little Kingdoms, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2007 sold 7,000 copies in Ireland – the best kind of proof that there can be an appetite for the short story.

Digital – Friend or Foe?

The question was posed: will the Kindle kill off the short-story collection? Lucy felt we’d lose something if it did – that there’s still something special about a collection that has been designed as such, where the stories build up into a cumulative whole. She posited a ‘build your own’ concept, picking from a selection of stories to make up a custom collection, while Kevin Barry drew an analogy with the music business, pointing out that “iTunes has made downloads a huge business, but it hasn’t killed the album.” Generally, the panel preferred to promote the idea of digital as an opportunity for the renaissance for the short story – Kevin Barry thinks it’s “not as much the technology as the attention span…readers are prepared to give a book about the same length of time as an art-house film”, something he believes will lead to the resurgence of the novella.

Yet I still haven’t heard anyone explain how this enthusiasm for the potential of digital can be reconciled with what has, for the longest time, been believed to be a fundamental lack of interest from the reading public in the short-story form. Alex felt the short-story collection would not die “as long as there was also a publishing ‘event’” involved – but all too often, the only ‘event’ for a short-story collection is the bare fact of its publication date. Collections are apologetically sneaked out under the radar, quietly released as ‘another book from an established author’ with as little fanfare as possible. Given the sway we know that the marketing of books holds over what we notice and buy, how much has this influenced the supposed lack of appetite for short stories?

Efforts to sell short stories via digital are arising – Clare Hey’s Shortfire Press already has an impressive roster of both debut and established authors, and scifi publishers Orbit and Angry Robot have both capitalised on a strong fanbase to launch short fiction stores, selling stories from their own authors. Even Amazon has made an attempt, with its Kindle Singles (though at time of writing, there are still only a handful of titles available – at least to UK readers). But there’s a sense in which online marketing, although it feels exciting and buzzy, is preaching to the converted. ‘Hardcore’ readers, science fiction fans and the publishing crowd hang out on Twitter, but the mass-market don’t. Those hailing digital as the short story’s saviour seem to be expecting it to happen by some sort of ‘build it and they will come’ alchemy – we create the concept, and magically, the reading public suddenly love short stories. If “people read stories but you can’t get anyone to buy a collection,” as one speaker put it, how is this going to change online, where the prevailing ethos is still one in which people expect content to be free?

Publishers fear short story collections and the reading public won’t buy them – but they’re a key part of writerly development and discovery, and digital could help them take off again. Which bit of this do you think is going to win out? And, please – how?

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The Coincidence Engine – Sam Leith

April22

Those who know me well IRL may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing for the coincidence as literary device. I’ve worked my way through all of Barbara Trapido, devoured Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, and still experience a little shiver of delight when something extremely improbable happens in a book’s plot (tastefully, of course). As Jackson B himself puts it, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen”. So I’ve had Sam Leith’s book on my wishlist ever since I saw it in the Bookseller‘s new titles selection. Coincidentally, the day I read the Grauniad Review‘s piece on it was Mother’s Day, and I happened to be visiting the London Review Bookshop to pick up my mother-in-law’s present. Self-gifting can’t be wrong on Mother’s Day, right? Even with three books in my bag already? Especially when the people who should have been gifting didn’t bother, the rotters.

The Coincidence Engine follows Alex Smart, a clueless Cambridge mathematician, on an roadtrip-on-a-whim across America to meet (and propose to) his girlfriend in Las Vegas. Unbeknownst to him, Alex is carrying a coincidence engine – a device that improbably manipulates the circumstances around it – and at least two shady organisations, one corporate, one governmental,want it. The Directorate of the Extremely Improbable (or DEI – “It’s a silly name, but it’s always been called that, and the silliness acts as a sort of camouflage,” the organisation’s director, Red Queen, tells a hapless physics professor who has been pulled in for questioning) dispatch a couple of its agents in pursuit of Alex, while MIC Inc. has set a couple of its hired thugs on his tail with the same objective.

The broad canvas is of the Douglas Adams/Jasper Fforde school of daft probability, albeit with less aggressive and outlandish comedy. Yes, the book begins with a plane constructed by a hurricane from junkyard scraps, piloted by a somewhat surprised male stripper who’s only stepped out of his car a moment before to relieve himself, but Leith doesn’t overegg the coincidence pudding; the book is seasoned with just enough of these sorts of events to remind us of the Point Of It All without becoming repetitive, and there’s just enough ‘sciencey stuff’ to convince us to suspend our disbelief. The Grauniad called it a “comedy thriller”, but the comedy is, for the most part, gentle, and the thrills often mined with slapstick grenades.

Three main areas set The Coincidence Engine apart from others of its ilk. Firstly, the skilful pacing: too often authors can allow the plot of this sort of novel to spiral wildly out of control, until the book generates into a kind of silliness we become weary, as readers, of tolerating. There’s none of that here – there is silliness, but it’s kept firmly within the bounds of our patience. Secondly, the quality of the writing – unexpected similes and thought-provoking observations pepper the narrative, and the descriptive passages are beautifully done. Finally, and most surprisingly, perhaps, for a comic novel, the book is noticeably infused with melancholy. As much as the making of connections, The Coincidence Engine is concerned with the breaking of them, and the inability to make them in the first place; with the difficulty of being and knowing one’s own self. Behind the farce, the exploration of the human engine is what makes this book stay in your mind long after you’ve finished chortling.

Elizabeth Knox – The Vintner’s Luck

December7

Since loving Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal earlier this year (and interviewing her for Belletrista, which was one of the high points of the year for me), I’ve been making an effort to get to know more New Zealand writers. Ellie recommended Elizabeth Knox, some of whose work is published in the UK rather than requiring ludicrous shipping charges on top of NZ’s already-high book prices. I’ve been looking out for The Vintner’s Luck for a while as a result, and recently managed to swap my definitely-not-wanted copy of The Angel’s Game (ugh) for it on ReadItSwapIt.

This book was not what I expected at all – although I find it difficult to articulate what, exactly, I was expecting. It begins as much more of a historical novel than I anticipated, but ends up further towards the fantastic than I’d thought would be the case. It tells the story of a young vintner, Sobran, who meets the angel Xas in his vineyard one midsummer evening in 1808 – and then continues to meet him annually (at first, although the relationship changes over the years) over the course of his life.

The novel is divided into very short, essentially self-contained sections, one for each meeting. Short sections made it a very easy book to read in either short chunks or all in one go, because it seemed to start afresh so often, with the arrival of a new year. The characters are reacquainting themselves after a year’s separation with each new section, and the sense of story arc reflected the gaps in their personal chronology very accurately.

The Vintner’s Luck is at its heart a book about loss, lack and loneliness: Sobran’s marriage is difficult; his childhood friend dies very early on in the Napoleonic wars; his patroness Aurora nurses an unrequited passion for him; the angel is not all he seems at first meeting, and has dark struggles of his own to contend with, amongst many other troubled and difficult relationships depicted in the story. Yet this is something I only really noticed with hindsight, reading back through my notes. While I was reading, I found Xas and Sobran so profoundly irritating that it got in the way of my appreciation and understanding. There’s something about the way their relationship is described that lays bare the total egotism and self-absorption which lies at the heart of intense love affairs, and can so effectively alienate those that are outside the magic circle.

Guardedly recommended for those who like their reading a little weird: Knox does write beautifully, and as long as you’re able (unlike me – and this does seem to be becoming a bit of a recurring failure) to project beyond the characters, there is a lot in this to intrigue and delight.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

November20

I have spent most of my reading life firmly believing that John Le Carré was pulp fiction. He was on my parents’ bookshelves nestling up against Robert Ludlum, the tyopgraphy screamed ‘airport’, ergo he couldn’t be any good. For the corrective to this worldview, once again I have LibraryThing to thank: rebeccanyc read a couple earlier this year, and posted some very thoughtful comments.

In a seemingly unrelated incident, we spent the August bank holiday weekend staying with my college room-mate (technically, anyway, though she spent most of the year at her boyfriend’s place) in her grandmother’s house in Somerset. Said house just happened to be endowed with the most glorious library, from which I ended up borrowing an embarrassing number of books (yes, yes, in spite of (a) all the ones I’d taken with me (b) all the unread ones I have at home) – including an omnibus edition of the Smiley novels (sentimentally, I am deeply moved by the fact that it is a St Michael, aka long-lost own-brand of Marks & Spencer, edition).

GENDER STEREOTYPE ALERT: Rebecca notwithstanding, I have a feeling that this is a book generally more readily enjoyed by boys than girls. The essential plot device is the ‘one last job’ retired, respected spy George Smiley is called in one final time to investigate the allegation that there is a Russian mole embedded in the British secret service. But it’s tied up in so many knots it can sometimes be impossible to work out where the ends were. I have to admit that I found it very hard going after the first few pages – I was lulled into a false sense of security by the public-school setting of the opening pages, which introduced a whisper of mystery around Jim Prideaux, but kept the tone nice and middlebrow.

George Smiley – the ‘one last job’ fall guy – is a wonderful character: hopelessly tied to his similarly hopelessly adulterous wife, patiently and quietly unpicking the knots to see justice done. However, I found it extremely difficult to remember who everyone else was and where their loyalties were supposed to lie.This is obviously deliberate: Le Carré is depicting a service so murky and characterised with bluffs, double-bluffs and personal politics that to lay everything out in a neat flowchart would totally defeat the point of the novel. The technical side-effect, however, is that it the reader (well, me, anyway) can sometimes struggle to stay engaged. This is particularly true because the muddled cast of characters is overlaid with a near-impenetrable framework of secret-service jargon. I reached the end of the book none the wiser as to what, exactly, a ‘lamplighter’ was (amongst many others, though at least ‘the Circus’ I had just about figured out by the end: slang for the Secret Service, not-coincidentally based in Cambridge Circus in London, which is just up the road from my office. Always helps being able to call up pictures of a real location when you’re floundering.)

Halfway through, I put Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy down for a couple of weeks and read several other novels. This was clearly exactly what I needed, because a couple of weeks later, I found it much easier to stop caring about whether I was understanding everything and just accept that I was tagging along on Smiley’s coat-tails, and therefore had to trust him. It helped that the plot had picked up a bit of pace at that point.

Cautiously recommended (especially for jargon-lovers). Still slightly undecided as to whether I’m going to attempt the other two books in the trilogy.

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Renaissance

March6

As you will see if you can bear to scroll backwards, o unwary visitor, my commitment to this site has been fickle at best. Moved around, abandoned, repurposed, generally mixed up and messed around, it’s rather a wonder it has allowed me to log in again… who knows where this could lead.

I need a place to put my reading thoughts, and rather than create a whole new site, thus neatly doubling my commitment headaches, I’m going to try for a fresh start over here. But being an incorrigible hoarder, I can’t bear to throw out the garbage (sorry). Hopefully when I play with all the shiny new stuff WordPress has sprouted since I was last here I’ll find some way of tucking it away neatly so it doesn’t interfere.

I’m only just starting a new book so I may not be back for a while. But I wanted to draw the line now.

And so to bed.

Setting priorities

May8

Wonderful evening on Sunday made up for the mess the rest of the day had become through lack of forward planning. I realise I am very bad at standing up to be counted in more ways than just the political-protest one: sometimes when I know what the right thing to do is I still feel too embarassed to insist on it. And I can’t spell “embarrassed” either. Anyway, my failure to press home the “pre-booking strongly advised” message about the Star Wars exhbition at the National Space Centre meant that we ended up there at 1:30 on Sunday afternoon, with all exhibition tickets sold out, no lightsabres in the gift shop, and a departure deadline of 3:00 to allow Himoutdoors to get back for singing. Which it later turned out we didn’t need to do as he actually wasn’t on the rota.

Thrilled to spot old friends at (very stressful for me) evening service. Elizabeth and family moved away from us last year and we miss them, but since we are equally bedecked with offspring, meeting up is like the proverbial military campaign only more inflexible. We managed to lure them back to our cave for “just a quick drink”, the first baby step on the slippery slope to DVDs and popcorn (air-popped, no sugar, naturellement) for the smalls, curry and gin for the grown-ups. It was really great to see them, and to feel that it is possible to still do fun and spontaneous things without causing massive upheaval to everyone. (Doubtless the second this is published Liz will post a torrid tale of hell on the London Eye the next morning, thus proving me wrong. Bad, bad mummy.)

Something Liz said made me think about the nature of priority-setting and what is important to us. There are so may things that I feel I should do as a parent but don’t. Just saying I don’t have the time to and that’s that doesn’t feel good enough. Sneakingly, deep down (OK, actually not very deep down at all, but a small distance below the surface at least) I believe that actually I do have the time, and it’s just my own selfish need to do other things that prevents me from doing all of these things. Ergo, I am a terrible parent.

Late last night I decided that instead of going to sleep to prepare for the week ahead (are you spotting a pattern here?), I was going to finish reading the Grauniad Weekend magazine. This dreadful piece of tat annoys me so much I really am at a loss as to why I still bother reading it. But currently enjoying Oliver Burkeman’s This Column Will Change Your Life, on self-help etc. etc. but with a strong emphasis on the productivity angle. This week, he covered a book by Arnold Bennett, How To Live On 24 Hours A Day, which I am looking forward to adding to my ever-growing list of 5,000,000 Books I Don’t Have Time To Read. Apparently it’s online which makes it even more likely I’ll never get round to opening it. A pity, as this quote really got my attention:

His central idea echoes down the decades: cultivate your capacity to pay attention – to not let life go by in a distracted blur – and time expands. His book is full of techniques for finding a few hours a week to study music, history, public transport systems. His point isn’t what you pay attention to; it’s that you pay attention.

This was one of the most wonderful things about my year off with Smallest. I felt that I had suddenly discovered how to pay attention to time passing. I don’t think I had yet moved on to the next step of discovering how to set some of it aside to do important things, but it must have been a good first step.