I normally do a holiday reading blog around this time of year. We’ve been unable to get away, although a weekend in Whitby beckons. However, I’ve been enjoying the sunshine and my last month running our UNESCO City of Literature, whose first director, Sandeep Mahal, starts today, which is very exciting. I’ve been helping sort out the publication of the Dawn of the Unread book, and I’ve also done plenty of reading, finishing a book I started nearly forty years ago (see the post below), dipping into numerous short story and poetry collections and devouring a few novels. Here they are, in the order in which I read them.
Alison Moore – Death and the Seaside
The third novel from one our UNESCO patrons is allusive and multi-layered. Moore keeps you alert and uses plenty of post-modern tricks, but in a unique, very personal way which always keeps the reader on board. I discussed it last week with the Arts Council’s new literature director, Sarah Crown. I liked it a lot, but not as much as the review in The Guardian, I told her. Oh yes, she said, I wrote that. Oops.
David Mitchell – Slade House
I normally rush to read Mitchell’s novels, but I read part of as a short story that he published it over a few days on Twitter and was – how to put this? – less than impressed. Yet, when I got round to this shortish novel, which I polished off on a long train journey, I soon discovered that it’s a very good kind-of-ghost story, one that gets increasingly satisfying as it develops. Isn’t that the problem with long ghost stories, that they frequently fizzle out long before the end? There is one problem with the book, which, like all of Mitchell’s novels, turns out to have references to other novels, especially his last one, the uneven The Bone Clocks, and you really need to have read that for part of the new novel to work. But fair enough. Alison Moore’s novel also expects us to have read and thought about other novels. This is, surely, a reasonable expectation.
Sj– Moonstone: the boy who never was
Another from a UNESCO city of literature, this time Reykjavik, where the Spanish flu epidemic sweeps the city at the end of the First World War. A young gay man survives it, while coming under threat because of his sexuality. A short, satisfying afternoon’s read, beautifully written.
Elizabeth Strout – I am Lucy Barton
After the rave reviews, and seeing the terrific TV adaptation of Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, I had high hopes of this. While it’s very well written, I came away slightly disappointed. I was expecting interconnected short stories but found a thin, fictional memoir about a sick woman’s relationship with her mother, with a little about a failed marriage and quite a lot about her relationship with a woman writer who may or may not be based on a real figure. It’s good, but, for me, didn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, as a good novel should.
AD Miller – The Faithful Couple
This, on the other hand, got better as it went along. I picked it up cheap on Oxfam, having enjoyed Miller’s Russia-set debut, Snowdrops. The new one’s subject, male friendship, is typical first novel terrain and I wasn’t impressed at first. Reading on the lounger in the lawn, one hot day this week, I was annoyed to find that I’d got past page fifty. That’s my rule, you see. If I get past page fifty of a novel, I have to finish it. But, in this case, I’m glad I did. The writing is strong and the relationship (charting the fortunes of two very different friends who meet on a USA holiday, and are implicated in something bad that they did there) credible. Miller chronicles the messiness of life, with its built-up resentments and broken ambitions, very well. This would be a good novel to read for a take on metropolitan life over 18 years, from 1993. That said, there isn’t much call for novels like this these days, so, unless someone’s enthusiastic enough to turn it into a TV mini-series (hard since so much of it happens in the characters’ heads, it probably won’t get noticed a lot, which is a shame. Anyway, I’ve got thirty pages left, and I want to know how it end, so I shall be finishing it over lunch before going into town for this evening’s City of Literature board meeting.
What to read next? I’m rather spoiled for choice, as the photo above demonstrates. The bookcase used to belong to Stanley Middleton. Nice to see Alison Moore give him a nod in her top ten books about the seaside for The Guardian. Click on the picture for a closer look. The bottom shelf needs a little explanation. The novel on display is one that took me ages to track down, written under a pseudonym by my favourite novelist, Brian Moore, at around the time of the publication of his first novel under his own name, Judith Hearne. All of the books to the right of it are poetry collections. I’ve built up rather a backlog in the three years that I ran Jazz and Poetry Nottingham (now, sadly, in hiatus). I should probably start that fat Elvis Costello autobiography and read it before Bruce Springsteen’s memoirs come out. I’ve heard mixed reports of David Szalay, which is on the Booker longlist. Maybe I should try that. And I’ve been saving up Graham Joyce’s final novel. Also, the new Ian McEwan is published today, and Robert Harris has a promising looking one out in a couple of weeks… so many books, so little time, as the badge I bought at City Lights says. One of these days, I might even start writing another one myself.
Thirty-nine years ago this month, I set off to hitch-hike around Europe. I took, as I recall, only three books with me. The Hitch-Hikers Guide To Europe, of course. Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler (I’d already read On The Road and Dharma Bums) and a notebook to write in. Back then, I wrote a lot of poetry. I’d been working for seven months after dropping out of university so had saved up enough to last for up to a month, depending on how well I eked it out, before returning to Nottingham, where I would study English Literature and American Studies.
I’d long finished Lonesome Traveller by the time I got to Genoa, by way of stops in Boulogne, Paris, Digne and Nice. It was in Genoa that I succumbed to joining the Youth Hostel Association so that I could stay in a hostel just outside the Italian city. I bought the required sleep sheet, a thin cotton sleeping bag thing that saved on their laundering bed linen. Bit of an expensive investment, as I didn’t stay in a hostel again for the rest of the trip. Tried to get into the one in Athens, but it was full, and I slept on a roof instead. It was in the Genoa hostel that I met the Australian, a few years my senior, who was also travelling alone, and we agreed to hitch together for a while.
The Australian and I got up early to hitch to Rome, hoping to get to St Peters Square in time for the Pope’s midday mass. Instead, we landed at a campsite just outside the city after four, the Australian sharing my tent. He lent me the book that he’d brought with him to read on his trip: James Clavell’s Shogun, which I hadn’t heard of, while he ripped through Lonesome Traveler. In Rome, we wasted precious travel money on black market Rolex watches while we queued to get into the Sistine Chapel. An Italian spiv displayed them from the inside of his jacket, like in the comic books, and offered a discount for two. The Australian talked me into buying one. Then we hitched to Naples and, from there, to Pompeii. I loved Pompeii, and was to return there seven years later on my first foreign holiday with Sue. But I got food poisoning and the Australian didn’t want to hang around waiting for me to get better. Also, we’d been travelling together for a week, and were probably a bit tired of each other.
I was OK with that, and it only took me another day or so to feel up to moving on (I ended up getting as far as the Greek island of Naxos) but the Australian hadn’t finished Shogun and took it away with him. I was only about 500 pages through the 1000+ page novel. So I never found out how it ended. There was, I recently learned, a very successful TV adaptation in 1980, but I didn’t notice: probably too busy writing a dissertation and preparing for my final exams. It starred Richard Chamberlain, who I find hard to imagine playing Anjin-san, the English samurai, so was probably best avoided. In 1990, there was a musical, which took great liberties with the plot. Why didn’t I buy or borrow a copy? Probably some innate distaste for best-sellers. I assumed that my holiday reading standards were lower and I would be disappointed. Also, it was so long and I didn’t want to have to read the first three books all over again, not when I had all that great literature to get through for my course.
At the beginning of this year, Shogun showed up as an Amazon Daily Deal (once a big boost – Bone and Cane went back to the top of their charts when it was in the deal). I was about to go to New Zealand and stocking up my Kindle for the four flights. So I paid my 99p and, in February, on the endless flight back to the UK, began to read it. And, you know what, it was really good. A terrific plane read. Easy to follow, crisply written, with good characterisation, lots of exciting events and some insight into Japanese culture. The depiction of seventeenth century Japan reminded me of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2011) which is set a century or two later. However Shogun is essentially six novels in one, and I was taken ill two days after I got home, so didn’t start the third book for a few weeks. Eventually, though, I made the novel my bedtime read. I would aim to read 1% before I fell asleep (that’s around 6000 words, at a guess) and often managed it.
Last night, I finished the novel. It goes off a little bit towards the end. There are a few sentimental passages and overlong sentences that suggest the author was getting tired. He holds back information. This is partly to create suspense as to why characters are behaving as they are but, nevertheless, it gets clunky. There’s a long passage towards the end when the principal Japanese character, Toranaga, thinks about his motivation and plans for Blackthorne, the novel’s hero, that no self respecting writer would be happy with. But these are minor caveats. It was one of those books that you look forward to reading in bed, with a style that was easy to follow but content complex enough to tire the brain and send me to sleep. It’s one of six Clavell Asia saga novels and, while I wouldn’t rush to read the others, I wouldn’t rule it out, either.
This morning, I read up on Clavell, surprised to find that this Australian-born Englishman wrote The Fly, The Great Escape and was writer/director of To Sir With Love, amongst other movies, on top of the big Asian books. He translated Sun Tzu’s still hugely influential The Art of War. He was also a Japanese prisoner of war, which inspired his first novel, King Rat. He sounds like an interesting guy and I’ve downloaded his Desert Island Discs to listen to on my morning exercise bike ride (the photo above is from their site). The Anjin-san in Shogun is based on a real English sailor, William Adams, who had a fascinating life. Several other novels have been written about him.
My Australian wrote to me that December, with a cheque for the twenty dollars he’d borrowed in Rome. The gold had quickly begun to rub off the fake watch, he told me. He’d told a sob story and sold his to some Americans in Italy. I still had mine, which had stopped working within a week. When my mum took it to be mended the first thing the jeweller said was, ‘you didn’t think this was real, did you?’ The Australian had a temporary job lecturing in Engineering at a university in Arizona. For all I know, he’s still there. And I have to find a new book to read at night. I’m halfway through David Gates’ Preston Falls, which is a cracking read if you like novels about fifty-something blokes whose lives are falling apart, but isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep. I’ll turn on my Kindle and see what takes my fancy. By the way, if you like novels about Japan, as I do (hoping to go back there next year), my favourite two are Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and J David Simons’ terrific, too little known, An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which I wrote about three years ago.
The second night of Ryley Walker’s UK tour comes two weeks ahead of third album Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (no, that second word isn’t a typo) which only the illegal downloaders in the crowd will know. Walker was meant to appear in a duo with legendary former Pentangle double bassist Danny Thompson, fifty years his senior (Ryley is 27). But Danny is ill – at least that’s the official story – so we get his regular trio, featuring two musicians from Oslo. It’s hard to imagine how this show would work without terrific drummer Stale Liavick Solberg, whose flamboyant jazz chops propel the evening’s tight, spacey improvisations. Walker’s intricate guitar work soars, while understated bassist Julius Lovid holds it all together. They create a wide, absorbing soundscape, more exciting and absorbing than on the impressive album (which I have heard a few times).
The 70 minute, eight song set is dominated by material from Golden Sings. I’ve had my doubts about Walker before. Those early John Martyn and Tim Buckley influences seemed too obvious and it was the appearance of Danny Thompson (who I’ve seen many times, with John M and Richard Thompson) that persuaded me to check him out tonight. But live, Ryley’s his own thing, an absorbing showman with terrible hair and engaging humour. If the vocals remind me of anyone, I realise as the evening progresses, it’s Tim Hardin’s late 60’s jazz slur. Walker namechecks the Miles Davis of that era, especially praising the On The Corner LP. These are the things he loves, he tells us. Well, them and chips with mayo.
Two thirds of the audience is my age or older, well placed to have seen Walker’s influences in their heyday, but there’s a healthy sprinkling of young hipster types too and the the evening goes down a storm with everyone. 76 minutes rush by, concluding with the opening tracks from his breakthrough album Primrose Green, with its imitation Van Morrison sleeve. Watching him yelp and swagger through encore Summer Dress, you can be sure he’ll be back, bigger. What his next stage will sound like is anybody’s guess.
Lawrence Block is best known for the Matt Scudder novels and Burglar series, although these form a relatively small part of his output over the last fifty years. I used to have a triumvirate of favourite crime writers: him, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard. The other two are gone now, which makes Larry the King of Crime, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve met a couple of times and correspond occasionally. Back in the day he did a guest blog on this site about one of his many pseudonyms (pseudonyms, and why writers use them, always interest me). He’s an accomplished, original short story writer, too, going back to before most of us were alive, when a writer could make serious money out of the things. And the Kindle single format (10-30,000 words) works a treat for him. His latest, Resume Speed, is an interesting one-off.
Is Resume Speed a Crime story? Not exactly. It is a mystery, but in the sense that most fiction is a mystery, exploring the mysterious human condition, than Block’s best known work. Describing the plot, without spoilers, is bound to make it sound humdrum. Bill, a guy of indeterminate age, arrives in a small town, gets a mundane job and meets a woman. The subject matter is more Munro than McBain but it is, nevertheless, a page turner and the writing – as ever with Block – is top notch. There are repeated hints that one of Block’s most frequent (and personal) themes is at the heart of the back story. But I won’t say what it is. What I will say is that I read this in bed over three nights and it was ninety minutes well spent: a story I relished going back to. As always with Block, I look forward to finding out what he does next.
‘City of Words’, I titled a recent article about Nottingham for The Author, but I’ve since discovered that, when it comes to UNESCO City of Literature status, Dublin coined this phrase some years ago! We’ve just been to the first conference for the Cities of Literature network, with seventeen of the twenty cities represented. This couldn’t have come at a better time for Nottingham, as we find our feet as a City of Literature and prepare to hire our first director (applications are open until June 13th). I’ll be reporting back to the board on a load of strategic areas and future possibilities when we meet this Thursday, but here are a few observations.
For a start, there are signs or window stickers that use Dublin’s UNESCO logo in every appropriate venue, reminding residents and announcing to visitors that they are in a Creative Literary city. It’s not expensive and we ought to do the same soon. Secondly, it was great to be in a big room (in the Pearse St library where the Dublin City of Literature offices are) with such a group of dedicated, creative, interesting people – mostly directors or employees of cities of lit, with one councillor (from the smallest city of lit, Óbidos) and two other chairs – Margaret from Dublin and Abigail who, like me, was covering for an unavailable director (congratulations to Edinburgh’s Ali Bowden, who has just had a baby daughter). I learnt a lot from them. That’s Celeste and Julita from Óbidos standing as JJ from Krakow, who coordinates the network, gives Dublin’s Jane Alger a thank-you present in the photo below.
And I’d like to add my thanks to Jane and her team here, too. Irish hospitality is, of course, legion and we were looked after magnificently, put up in a great hotel opposite Trinity College, taken to a reception at the Mayor’s mansion (see photo above) and a meal afterwards, given a private tour of the Book of Kells and Trinity’s library, given a bus tour of Dublin’s literary sites, including the James Joyce Museum and tower and the huge house where Samuel Beckett grew up, which was a stark contrast to the modest terrace that Seamus Heaney bought when he got a job as a Head of English and stayed in for the rest of his life. We also passed rather bigger piles belonging to Enya, Bono and Van Morrison. This is the door that Joyce climbed a ladder to get to when he went to stay with Oliver St John Gogarty in an episode that formed the first chapter of Ulysses (follow the link for a drawing of the top of the tower, where we went next, and took numerous photos, one of which is now my profile pic on facebook (this links to a photo album if you’re on there) and Twitter. That photo and the one below by Sue.
On the last night we forsook the literary pub crawl for a visit to the packed Trinity theatre for the first appearance in Western Europe of Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich,
which was fascinating, then found our way to Keogh’s pub, where there was a traditional music session in an upstairs room and the Guinness was top notch. Thanks again to Jane and everybody in Dublin for hosting this very useful conference, that is bound to lead to new collaborations and which I hope will become an annual event, one that we can host one day. Two final points. Several people expressed concern about the state of UK libraries, which used to be seen as a beacon but are becoming regarded as a disaster zone (I repeatedly explained how Nottingham has protected ours, as befits our new status). And, finally, it wasn’t discussed formally, but in a group of talented people, primarily from Western Europe, all committed to creating international cooperation, there was general disbelief and much trepidation about the possibility that the UK might leave the EC and what the consequences might be for each individual’s own country. Just saying.