Friday, March 09, 2007

Let's just try that again

Oh dear, look at this poor shockingly neglected blog.

For some reason, posting about things literary on a separate blog got much harder after the Google/Blogger upgrade made it impossible to keep this blog completely separate from Pavlov's Cat. That and the flat-strap workload since Boxing Day have kept me away from here, but I'm going to have one more go at keeping this as a separate reading/writing blog, rather than merging it with PC completely.

I wouldn't want the people who are only here because they're interested in literature to have to wade through all the other stuff at PC (photos of cats peeking up out of shopping bags or sound asleep on piano stools in front of the opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata, long raves about movies, bits of song lyrics, short raves about the lies of politicians, recipes for gingerbread, polemic, garden photos, cultural analysis, smart-arsed remarks about Ralph Fiennes, Peter Garrett, Dolce e Gabbana and so on, tales of What I Did on My Holidays, hymns of praise to the ripeness of the tomatoes, and various other such grab-baggy threads and patches as daily life is made of) just to get to the bits about books and writing. So I will try to write here regularly at least once a week.

Let us begin, then, with the ongoing task for which I've been trying to get into a method and a rhythm (though perhaps not the rhythm method -- productivity is the goal here) of reading four novels a week to write short reviews of them for the Sydney Morning Herald. I've been doing this job since Boxing Day and it is, as I was warned by my editor, gruelling -- especially as it would be suicidal to give up any of my other gigs, even if I wanted to -- but it is also quite exhilarating.

There's the excitement of finding unfamiliar writers whose work I really like, the discipline of reading the occasional book I hate and then writing a fair review of it in 180 words, the sanity-enhancing requirement of the routine necessary to meet a regular deadline, and the pleasure of being able to pass on the books when I finish them to people I know will really appreciate them.

(I'm trying to remember when it was that I stopped collecting and hoarding books and began to do desperate, frequent culls in order not to get pushed out of my own house by the encroaching piles. Probably about 1990.)

But the best thing about this gig is the astonishing breadth of subject matter and material in the books that arrive at my door. In only two months of doing this job I've read books set in France, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Botswana, Nepal and Wales; in Beijing, New York, Canberra, Oslo, London and Vienna; in 19th-century Louisiana, 1940s East Germany, the Arctic in the 17th century, and in various fantasy worlds both futuristic and medieval-derived.

I've read novels translated from the Norwegian, the Spanish, the Danish and the Dutch. I've read crime fiction, romance, fantasy, chick-lit, high-lit, low-lit, lit lite, and lit extremely heavy. I thought I knew a fair bit about fiction, but it turns out I only knew a fair bit about the fiction I knew a fair bit about.

People who don't "get" fiction no doubt think that it teaches you nothing. But I know a hell of a lot more than I did eight weeks ago about Cuban refugees to New Jersey in the 1960s; about the state of Christiana (old name for Oslo) in the late 19th century and the fact that the Missing Link between Crime and Punishment and The Trial is Knut Hamsun's Hunger; about the forced evacuation -- Die Flucht, 'the Flight' -- by the Russian Army of twelve million East Germans in 1945; about the Sri Lankan civil war and the methods and motives of the Tamil Tigers; about class tensions in the town of Syracuse in upstate New York; about octopusesque corruption in contemporary Beijing ...

You get the picture.

During my life as an academic, fiction was what I mostly taught and a lot of it was 19th-century fiction at that, so reading two, sometimes three novels a week, some of which were six or seven hundred pages long, was the norm -- and as all academics know, reading or re-reading the things you have to teach is the most pleasant part of the work and is merely the tip of the iceberg.

So by comparison, this job is heaven. Occasionally when I'm whingeing about my Wednesday deadline, my best mate reminds me that what I do for a living is read stories, at home, and, more often than not, lying down on the sofa.

It's a hard life, but somebody's got to do it.


redcap said...

Aye, there's the rub! I don't get paid for my reviews and (perhaps, therefore) get to choose what I read. If I don't fancy it, I don't have to review it. Perhaps it would be better if I was just pitched something and forced to read it. It would be like being back at uni.

I'm afraid that I also still hoard books (including review books) and am consequently suffering from a truly awful shelfspace shortage. The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of many things. Carpenters and shelving are among them.

But do tell, PC - what are the most surprising/enjoyable books you have read of late? I've followed your Aus columns, but what have been the most toothsome?

lucy tartan said...

Well, I'm in awe. Four novels a week. Cripes.

Must tell you about the "teaches you nothing" rant I copped from a taxi driver today. Still smarting a bit from that one, though I should be getting used to it by now.

Francis Xavier Holden said...

whatever. So what day will you be putting cat pics on this blog?

Ampersand Duck said...


What I know of the world, I know from reading novels, and true life experiences only really serve to reinforce any fictional lessons learned.

Heroic effort, 4 novels a week. I quite envy you, although I don't envy that 'having to' bit.

genevieve said...

Kerryn, how the you remember which one is which? I would be having many more senior moments than I suffer at present.

Mindy said...

I thought once that reviewing books would be a lovely job, but I have since realised that as most of my time is not really my own at the moment, I wouldn't have a chance of reading four novels a week, especially ones I didn't much enjoy. Add to that writing something coherent and interesting about them, and I'd never have time to sleep.

So reading remains an enjoyable pastime, when I get time and the job thingy is still problematic but I'm putting of thinking about it until about June.

Perry Middlemiss said...

My major worry about reading four novels a week under contract would be that it could do my head in - thereby wrecking my enjoyment of those books I really wanted to read. Lucy Sussex used to do four or five a week for "The Sunday Age", but now appears to be down to three.

I heard once that one book a week puts you into the top 5% of all readers. Four a week puts you into the stratosphere. Good luck.

I don't see your reviews on the SMH website. Does this mean they'll let you post them here after a few weeks?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Redcap, good books:
Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and One Good Turn (sequels) are terrific, as is
Emma Donoghue's Touchy Subjects.
Debra Ginsberg's Blind Submission is good fun.
There's a surprisingly good novel out called Tomorrow They Will Kiss by Eduardo Santiago, about Cuban immigrants to New Jersey in the 1960s,
and a terrific new American crime writer called Cornelia Read whose first novel A Field of Darkness is an absolute cracker.
The new Alexander McCall Smith ( a Precious Ramotse book, not one of the Scottish ones) is up to the usual standard.

FXH, should cats come up in literature at any point I shall post an appropriate illustration.

Lucy T, it is unfortunate that one must be polite to taxi drivers, as they hold one's life in their hands. This is why one must finish one's thesis, so that when monstered by cab drivers one can say to oneself 'Ahem: I am Dr Tartan, and will allow no cab driver to upset me.'

&D, yes, the 'having to' is unusual, but I'm getting used to it.

Genevieve, that's an excellent question and I have been thinking about it a lot. The more well-constructed the imaginary world of the novel, the easier it is. My understanding of memory is that it works by association, as in memory palaces and so on, so one thinks of characters, plots and settings in relation to each other ('If this is Beijing, it must be the one about the private detective called Wei') and keeps them separate that way. What I can't readily remember is the titles and authors' names about a week later, except with really exceptional books, even though I still remember their plots and atmospheres quite clearly.

Perry, 'those books I really want to read' are largely remaining unread, at least until I clear the backlog of other work. Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons is sitting bookmarked and half-read on the bedside chest of drawers and I haven't even bothered to buy We Need to Talk About Kevin (correct title?) yet.

GoAwayPlease said...

"completely separate from Pavlov's Cat" - Yes yes oh yes (as the girl said).

My 'other persona' blog lost it's 'other persona' gravatar in the Big Change, and now I have lost interest in the other blog.
It just doesn't work if I say the same stuff as the 'reclusive brown forest goblin', that I want to say as the 'drunken blonde nightlifer' I used to be.

re the Melb grogblog photos: email me (pyrenees)(at) for full disclosure off-web if you like.
First I can say I look exactly like my gravatar, whereas, Lucy (while very attractive) does NOT.
Everybody was excellent company, so strange to immediately 'know' a person you have just seen, and everybody just 'besties' straight off the bat. unique to this ethereal communication obsession.
The other impressive thing to me, was the intelligence gathered. Everybody there articulate and frightenly clever and funny (I was certainly the only impostor in that group - true dinks).