What I’m reading now

Well, I am taking a few of my ten minutes (almost a month) for a holiday from England. I am going to the back of beyond to play Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson on the west coast of Ireland. So I thought I’d leave you with some thoughts about books I like in case you are very bored and have nothing to read without my blog. Ahem.

These books are the ones I am finding helpful in writing my novel.

This is a whole new approach to reading for me and one that doubtless would have helped me a lot on my course but one I somehow couldn’t ‘fake’. What I mean is, this approach only works if you are really struggling with the technicalities of writing and want to see how someone you admire, or enjoy reading, does it.

I think you can’t know what you don’t do well until you try to do it. Or at least that’s how it’s working for me.

My first recommendation, therefore, is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. He got the 2011 Man Booker Prize for the book and in my view deserves it three times over. This is high literature but it does not disdain the conventional plot or characters. When I read it my heart sank as it uses a very similar device to the one I’m using. Then I had an immediate reality check. No one is ever going to worry about my over-similarity to Barnes. In the unlikely event they do, that will be a very good problem to have.

I found the novel absorbing and troubling. It is very easy to read his writing but his meaning is fearful and it ends on a note of ‘great unrest’. Barnes, I have read, suffers from acute fear of death and the book seems full of that despair. That is not to say it’s a cheerless read. It’s quite funny in parts although it’s not a comic novel. But it seems to look at life with few comforting illusions.

When I sit down to write my novel I find the traditional conventions of novel-writing, plot, character and dialogue, so easily slip into banality, into offtheshelfness, into tired clichés of form. James Wood in his How Fiction Works discusses this problem and notes that it is not a problem inherent in the form but, all too frequently, with the execution, not to say murder, of it. Ouch.

Barnes does little new in his novel and I think that is the most daring thing that he does with the form. Because despite the lack of innovation there is nothing tired or clichéd in his writing. So I read it again and again, searching for enlightenment.

I have learnt a lot from Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South. I like the moment of transformation where the heroine steps up, to save her life. Pérez-Reverte writes simply and directly and does action very well. It’s a mysterious book, at least to me. I can’t understand why it’s so compelling, why I’m turning the pages. I think the setting explains some of it. The world of the drugs barons of Latin America and Spain is a world we seem to want to know more about. But it’s also the narrator’s total conviction that his subject is interesting that keeps me reading.

I have also been reading Jennifer Egan (see previous blog) and Kate Atkinson. Jennifer Egan is never afraid to experiment with form and seems especially keen on trying to work out what technology offers, writing one story in tweets and another in a Power Point presentation or flow chart of some kind.

I am trying to learn from Kate Atkinson how to do interior voices and speech as she does it so easily and fluently. I see from The Guardian that I should also be reading James Kelman for this. Finally I have two of Elizabeth Taylor’s books on my reading list. BBC Radio 4 recently billed her as the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike so I’m intrigued.

I’d love to know who you read to help you write (if you’re a writer), or, who just helps you get through the day.

Happy summer holiday.

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Posted in characters, criticism, James Kelman, literature, narration, reading, Writing, writing novels
18 comments on “What I’m reading now
  1. P. C. Zick says:

    Hope you have a super trip. I always recommend reading (or rereading) The Great Gatsby to see how major and minor conflicts all come together in the end in a masterful short novel. It’s very helpful to see how all the threads have been woven and then brought together for the whole tapestry.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I’m a huge fan of Kate Atkinson. Occasionally I read badly written books – it’s so much easier to see how not to do it!

    Happy holidays!

  3. Justin Bog says:

    I have the new Barnes novel to read next on my kindle as I try to read while you are on your vacay. Love that you are taking time for yourself. Elizabeth Taylor’s books were some of my mother’s favorites. I don’t know if she ever saw the film made of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. That is a keeper. And Arturo Perez-Reverte’s books are always high on my list. His new book sounds like a gem. Happy reading to you. I may have to reread The Great Gatsby now too after what P.C. said (plus the new movie version is coming out soon).

  4. Emily says:

    Hmm… I would like to say I am re-reading Ulysses, but actually I am reading ‘Siblings without Rivalry’ by Faber and Mazlish – which gives you a clue about how our summer is going… Have a super time in Ireland!

  5. Have a lovely holiday! 🙂

    Oh dear, I think my Amazon wishlist is gunna be hit this afternoon 😉


  6. Have a luvverly hollybobs. I always read John Irving when I need to be reminded of what I would like my own writing to be like. But I could never emulate him. Dreams.

    Otherwise, Margaret Atwood, Daphne du Maurier, David Mitchell, and William Boyd. My go-to authors for good reads.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations and a month in the west of Ireland. I love hearing about books that are important to other people – sends me off in directions that I wouldn’t normally go in…Just started Desert Island Reads column in What the Dickens magazine (online creative writing/creative reading bi-monthy) books that you’ve read & re-read and would willingly read again (should have been eight like the radio programme but I’m better with words than I am with numbers and I chose nine by mistake). Mine included Lewis Carroll, John Irving (yes!), Edna O’Brien (very good for west of Ireland reading), Michael Rosen and Zola.
    What about non fiction? Any that you could happily load onto Kindle and sit under a palm tree with….
    Two that spring to mine are Citizens by Simon Schama and The Men Who Built Britain: A History of the Irish Navvy by Ultan Cowley

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      I do have the Elizabeth Taylor novels with me but am making slightly slow progress due to wonderful book of Fairy Legends from Donegal and the almost complete works of Norah Ephron. Ephron’s are comic essays. Joyous. I don’t know how you categorise the Fairy stories – they’re clearly cultural history but hardly nonfiction – unless you believe in fairies. Thanks again Bridget. Cathyx

  8. Top of my list of authors for inspiration and admiration are Steinbeck, Golding and er-hum, Roald Dahl.

    I can take a chunk of Steinbeck or Golding, read it, mull over it, read it again. It’s a process not dissimilar to reading meaty poetry.

    Roald Dahl..? I feel I should almost apologise for liking his work, but thankfully I’m not one for following fashions of who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ in the world of literature. Don’t be mistaken about his subject matter. You only have to read ‘Switch Bitch’ to realise he’s not just for kids. If you’re looking for some basic tips on how to write a gripping short story there are plenty of good lessons to be learnt in his work. Ditto Ray Bradbury (whether you’re a sci fi fan or not).

    It appears that I like my authors dead.

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