That Damn List

The Damn List

Here we go again – summer holidays, the prospect of a couple of weeks of uninterrupted slothfulness. Where you reap the rewards that you imagine you deserve  – in my case sleeping, eating and reading, preferably near a beach (not on a beach – nobody actually reads on a beach). The first two of these require little forethought. Not so the third.

Because you need to make a list. Of books to read. Which you then take to the bookstore and fulfill, emerging poorer but grinning like a kid. (Or Kindle them if that is your preference. Is Kindle a verb yet?). But it is the making of the list that is the subject of this little rant. It is a nasty stressful business, sure to make you more guilt-ridden than you already are.

How stressful, you ask? Let me count the ways.

Firstly there is the not insubstantial matter of Christmas gifts. My friends know not to bother with innovative and clever gifts from unusual sources. They know I would far prefer to receive a book. And this is the rub. How do I buy books for myself when I know that I will receive a bunch more as gifts? What do you say to you eager sister-in-law on your father’s side when you remove the wrapping and find your third brand new copy of that must-have book in your hands? Do you arrange your mouth into a zig-zag Charlie Brown smile and politely say thank you (while secretly wondering how to engineer a quiet exchange)? Do you enthuse – Oh! Oh! Oh! Been dying for this. Thank you so much. How ever did you guess? (while secretly wondering how to engineer a quiet exchange)? Do you say – So thoughtful of you, but I have this already. – now piss off and don’t come back until you can find something else I don’t already own.

Fortunately this year I devised a cunning solution. I have informed all of my friends that I will not be accepting fiction gifts this year, but non-fiction is wide-open territory. This should cut down on those awkward little moments.

Secondly, there is whole recommendation mess. My wife Kate wrote a hilarious column for The Sunday Times about this some time back. She is very funny, my wife. I am unamused. How am I to choose? FT, Guardian, NPR, NYT, Washington Post, online book club recommendations, local newspapers, well intentioned friends. The Booker Prize shortlisters? If I go with the NYT, will I be accused of ignoring my local fellow-authors? If I go with The Guardian will I miss my beloved American authors? And who the hell are they to tell me anyway? For goodness sake. I am a writer. I keep up with this stuff. I know who I want to read. Don’t I? You see my problem here?

Just go to Google and type in ‘best books of 2013’. Set an alarm before you do this, because you can spend the rest of your life there. I mean reading the lists, not reading the books.

Thirdly, now upping the stress levels – genre. I gravitate towards a certain type of book, and in doing so I am always vaguely uncomfortable that I am missing out on other genres, in which I am sure there are wonderful authors. I don’t read science fiction, celebrity memoirs, magical realism, anything translated (I unfairly assume that nuances will be lost), books where the author withholds secrets and reveals them only in the last chapter in order to solve a mystery and, oh shit, I better stop here, because as I reread this I realise that my literary world is restricted enough to be almost claustrophobic, and that more in this vein and I am in danger of losing friends, and being branded as a snobby prick, which I might well be.

OK, I say, holidays are supposed to be light and fluffy affairs, antithetical to gravitas and earnest navel gazing. Go crazy. Branch out. Lighten up, you dick. Buy a book in which the pretty single widowed mother protagonist has a scary dream, after which her child develops a brain tumour, and then she gets into a fender bender with a flawed, lovelorn but handsome ex-alcoholic scientist who has his own scary dream about a baloon popping,  at which point he realises that he can cure the girl, but not before the young mom finds solace in his loneliness, and bonks him with great meaning, and then he disappears without a trace, and is then found with his hands severed and the name of a large pharmaceutical company branded on his scrotum, and we don’t know who dunnit until a deux ex machina in the last chapter, in the form of her long lost cat which suddenly re-appears, and…

Sorry, I can’t. I just can’t. I’m going stick with what I like, OK? Life’s too short.

Fourthly, there is volume. How many books? The goal here is to read the final page of the final book on the last night of the holiday. This requires great mathematical skill. You divide the total number of pages of all the books into the number of days you are away. Do some arithmetic juggling to cater for Christmas, parties, sightseeing and the inconsiderate social demands of your family and friends, and you should be able to consume close the optimum number pages a day. If you are really mathematically inclined, you can use differential calculus to wrangle calories, time of day, horniness, weather factors, and trips to the toilet into the mix to absolutely nail it to the minute.

Fifthly. Yes, fifthly. You have to write a book report. Uh huh. For all those online bookclubs you belong to. Do not try to wrangle out of this. Or else you will get moered by book people.

Have a great reading holiday.


(BTW – so far I have Donna Tartt, James Salter, James Whyle, Nick Hornby, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (if I can find it), Nell Feudenberger’s the Newlyweds,  Rachel Kushner’s so-far truly fabulous Flamethrowers (I must slow down here, because I haven’t left for the holiday, and this book is screwing with my maths), Adele Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (if I can find it), the new Philip Meyer (still to be bought).

Oh, and any non-fiction gifts welcomed with an authentic smile…

Short Stories

Short Stories

I ask a friend for podcast recommendations to assuage the thudding boredom of stationary bike sessions, and the short attention spans of teenagers on long trips, who while away the hours with ears jammed with hearing-damaging earphones listening to stuff which I assume to be awful, as most parents unthinkingly do. Also, I recently took on an assignment which required 90 minutes of driving daily, and having exhausted the desperate efforts of SAFM and 702 and Power FM to hold my attention, am in need of more nurturing fare.

A literate friend of mine points me to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts – free and plentiful. Download onto my iPhone, plug in the Aux cable in the car (or one of at least 3 other easy electronic umbilicals), et voila – an embarrassment of riches.

But there is a difference here. Firstly, The New Yorker magazine has been, since 1925, the most prestigious publisher of short stories in the world. There was a time when a story in the New Yorker was the young writer’s slightly cracked door to the wider world of novelistic legitimacy. The story of the New Yorker editors (particularly fiction editors) are legend, and hold a great chimera for me – fiction between the thin, glossy and hallowed covers of this magazine meant greatness, and I remembered hungrily gorging on them in my two decades in the US (although I was less successful at fully understanding the droll cartoons, often beyond my cultural reference points).

So here is how it works. A famous current author is contacted by the New Yorker fiction editor, and asked to choose a short story from their voluminous archives, and to discuss the choice, then read the story, excavating it in glorious detail the nuances and textures and mysteries of the piece with the editor, currently one deeply impressive, intimidating and (if I may I be impolitic) sexy sounding Deborah Treisman.

Not any old excavation, mind you. The famous author and Treisman burrow enthusiastically and deep, turning over the meanings of sentences and and single lines of dialogue and minute descriptive details in a 10 minute orgy of literary analysis. Remember – the author chooses the piece to read, so it is not really literary criticism ( a scary field peopled by scary people) , but rather a joyous celebration of the wonder of this piece, and its author.

I have not done much reading of short stories. The exhausting investments that I have made in creating the substance for my own novels have kept me away from the bloody truth of a short story collection, which is that some author had to create a separate world, narrative, plot, characters about 10 times over, without repeating him or herself before publication. Too scary for me by half.

But I have  a new appreciation for this genre now. In longer fiction, the margin for error is perhaps a tad larger. A less than perfect sentence, a slightly tinny line on dialogue can be subsumed into the service of the greater good, its influence of excellence or lack thereof diluted by shear volume of 80,000 words. Not so in the short story, where brevity becomes its own microscope, every sentence imbued with greater meaning, fighting for survival in a small pond of possibilities.

But having sat in silent awe of the NY Fiction podcasts, narcotisised by the pure and  spangled talents of these authors ( I listened to Thomas Mcguane and VS Pritchett in the last 24 hours), and their gentle curators, I am sold.

If you love books, stories, writing – treat yourself – this is as good as it gets.