Click on the link below to read my review in the Irish Times of Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, Feel Free. My review was edited for length, so I’ve included the original opening paragraph below:
A few years ago, Zadie Smith reviewed a collection of Geoff Dyer’s essays for Harper’s magazine, and praised his “tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition – the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Whether Smith was hoping that one day someone would say the same of her, who knows – but here it is. These are... read more
Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:
About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit... read more
A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual... read more
This year, the tenth anniversary year of my blog, which I celebrated by not adding any new content to it, I nonetheless kept a note of books I read that thrilled or tickled or astonished me. And here it is, with links to added commentary on Twitter where applicable (which usually follows in a thread from the first tweet I’ve linked to).
Trends are: (1) brevity continues to win the day; (2) most of these books are, in style if not in subject matter, straightforward to read—they slip down easily; and (3) there is more non-fiction than in previous years. All... read more
Click here to read my review in the Irish Times of George Saunders’ long-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Short version: I liked it, but am less enthusiastic than many seem to be.)
... read more
Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in 2017 containing embedded photographs. You can see bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo. I also maintain a more complete bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo). I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books. If you know of a book that I have not mentioned, please let me know in a comment. My thanks to Vertigo readers who have already pointed out books that I had not known about! [Updated February 15, 2018.]
Mary... read more
Han Kang. The White Book. London: Portobello Books, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time not yet lived, into this book I... read more
Since 2014, the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Company has been developing a trilogy of major, evening-length dances, one of which is based on the Ambros Adelwarth segment of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. That trilogy is about to be performed in Seattle at the University of Washington on the evenings of February 1, 2, and 3. Here are the details from the University’s website.
Bill T. Jones’s latest work, Analogy: A Trilogy, is comprised of three evening-length works that reflect Jones’s fierce engagement with race, class, gender, history, and identity. Over three nights, Meany Center will present the entire trilogy (one of the... read more
Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.
“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity... read more
Jenny Erpenbeck. Go, Went, Gone. New Directions, 2017. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Writers of fiction (however you define it) have no obligation to make their writing relevant to the present moment; one of the great freedoms of fiction is its ability to be irrelevant, even frivolous. Still, there is a certain frisson that strikes me when a writer brilliantly encapsulates the specific now that we live in. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone does just that. It’s a book that deals with the range of conflicting emotional, political, and legal responses to the current refugee crisis. Among the many... read more
In Ann Quin’s first novel, the black comedy Berg, “Alistair Berg, alias Greb, commercial traveler, seller of wigs, hair tonic, paranoid paramour” has set out to murder his father, a semi-itinerant womanizer living in a flop house with his current girlfriend Judith. Alistair’s father abandoned him at such a young age that he does not know that the young man who has moved into the adjacent room is his own son, bent on parricide. Alistair befriends the couple, then proceeds to spy on them, listening to them making love and fighting through the thin partition that separates their rooms. He... read more
Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by... read more
Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.
Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less... read more
"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air." Peter Handke"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air." Gabriel Josipovici I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling... read more
A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey
Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in... read more
What draws me back to Thomas Bernhard's novels is the wish to appreciate again how each is set in motion. The Loser begins like this. Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn. Now of course he didn't kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death. [Translated by Jack Dawson] There is the familiar subject matter of early death pressing on the narrator, which is compelling in a regular way and enough... read more
Televisions schedules have lately featured many programmes following chronic hoarders as they try to overcome their pathological behaviour. The process is always the same: film crews enter outwardly normal homes to find labyrinths of cardboard boxes, magazines and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Interviews with the inhabitants follow that invariably reveal the hoarding is compensation for a great absence. When attempts are made to clear a room, the owner panics and refuses to let anything go. One man in his sixties insisted on keeping a school textbook found at the bottom of a box because, he said, he was thinking... read more
I've been watching a lot of book videos on YouTube recently, with a growing desire to contribute to the conversation. At the same time I've wondered if making videos might be an answer to those times when writing a longish blog review is beyond my powers. Somehow a couple of thousand words seems like a lot more effort than talking to myself for 10 minutes. Anyway, I decided to give it a go and do a 'tag' video by way of introduction, without any special equipment or editing or, well, forethought really. It's taken me almost a week to... read more
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate, 14th June 2016
E-book, 736 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.
Annie Proulx's new novel is about devastation, both cultural and environmental. Over the course of 700 intensively researched pages and 300 years it charts the story of the colonization of North America, and the landscapes and ways of life it destroyed,... read more
Forgive me lovely people for I have slumped, both in my reading and in my blogging.
It's been over a month since my last confession and I've had to drag myself back to the keyboard like a stroppy teenager.
After a phenomenally good January to May of books, June was a bit of a wasteland. Thankfully July is looking up, but after an absence it's always difficult for me to get back on the horse and write again. The longer the gap the more books there are to be read for review, the more reviews there are to write, the easier it... read more
The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
Bloomsbury, 2 June 2016
E-book, 355 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
At nineteen Katherine North is the oldest Phenomenaut at Shencorp, the world's leading Consciousness Projection provider. Recruited at the tender age of twelve she has spent much of the last seven years hooked up to life support in a lab while her mind inhabits the bodies of other animals. In that time she has contributed enormously to scientific research on endangered species - her specialism - bringing back data and the lived experience of being an animal into the human... read more
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
Fourth Estate, 2nd June 2016
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
The 2nd of June seems to be this year's fashionable publication date for all the books designed to appeal to me. I count four ARCs on my TBR coming out that day and all of them sound ruddy amazing. I've been psyching myself up for a personal mini-challenge of reading them in quick and glorious succession, so that I can write about them in the run up to the Big Day. First up is a debut by Eleanor Wasserberg, a recent graduate from... read more
Journeyman by Marc Bojanowski
Granta, 5 May 2016
*My copy provided by the publisher for review.
Just a year ago the look, feel and blurb for this book would have sent me running for Bailey's Prize hill and the safety of my comfort zone post-haste. A carpenter has a dark night of the quietly masculine soul in mid-2000s California against the back drop of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Take note of how I'm trying to extend my reading repetoire by trusting to the judgement of Granta and ploughing on in. As brave ventures go, this one turned out surprisingly... read more
I didn't know Helen Dunmore and I don't know Susan Glickman, but when I bought my copy of Helen Dunmore's poetry collection Inside the Wave last year, a few months before Helen died, one of the first things I noticed was the book's dedication
'For Susan Glickman'
Having also had a book dedicated to me for the first time recently I now understand quite how special this is. Jacob's Room is Full of Books might have been written by Susan Hill, but it's my book really; it's like a baby of mine. I look on the book fondly when I spy it in... read more
I feel a bit of a lightweight wading in to write about La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy by Philip Pullman. The thing is so much has been written, spoken and generally debated about it already, three months on from publication. After all, I saw my first copy on day of publication in the hands of someone at Auckland Airport on my way back from New Zealand, and whilst I had a bit of a covet for something that might help pass the thirty-two hours it would take to get to Heathrow, I hadn't really... read more
Bless Kerry Andrew, singing as You Are Wolf, because she has made a recording of that magical spell for Bluebell which she premiered at The Lost Words event at The Foundling Museum a few weeks ago.
I'm putting it here so that I can find it and dream of bluebells whenever I want to....and you can too.
... read more
I don't know about you but I am in need of flowers.
Like plenty of Northern Hemisphere gardens ours is looking ever so glum at the moment. Winter shrubs are trying hard but we don’t have that many of them, whilst everything else just looks matted and muddy and messy. Add in a hefty gust of wind through the greenhouse which took out two panes of glass this week and there was the potential for a slough of despond...
I'd gone in to check my penstemon cuttings with which I am well pleased...
and something else with which I am also well-pleased..
Felt the... read more
It is September 1785, Deptford, London and shipping merchant Jonas Hancock, widowed and childless, is awaiting news of his ship, and I am waiting too, deeply embedded in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock in my little corner of Waterstones, Exeter. And having just been immersed in some eighteenth century art I couldn't help but think back to the exhibition we had just seen; Francis Towne might have been painting this view of Exeter as Mr Hancock waited...
A View of Exeter - Francis Towne c 1773-1787 (copyright RAMM Exeter)
But what do I make of Jonas Hancock...
'He is a portly gentleman of... read more
I think it's time we went to another art exhibition, you can't get enough of them at this time of year.
The word on the street was that Waterstones, Exeter was much improved and worth a visit, so Bookhound and I set off one rainy day to take in the exhibition 'Dartmoor a Wild and Wondrous Region' at the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) and a sojourn in Waterstones while we were in the city.
Plymouth Art Gallery and Museum is currently closed for two years whilst undergoing major refurbishment and expansion and we are missing it, though a revamp (especially the... read more