Sunday, February 4, 2018

January consumption diary



As I mentioned in my post about my reading in 2017, one thing I wanted to do in 2018 was read less white dudes, especially anglophone ones. 

Nothing against them -- some of my best friends are anglophone white dudes! -- but, y'know!

I started out four-for-four in 2018, then read three straight anglophone white dudes... BUT I didn't break my hard rule about about no physical books by white dudes. 


Four of these books (Batuman, Whitehead, Stephenson, Hodgman) would have contended for a spot in my Best of 2017 list, if only I'd read them before New Years. 

Oh well, hopefully this bodes well for a killer Best of 2018 list!

Looking ahead, I want to keep posting consumption diaries, if only so I can remember what I read a couple months down the track. 

But this is the last from my blessed Burns year, and I'll be much briefer with my notes about each book in future. 

Partly because I feel I never really do justice to individual books by spewing forth 100-300 words on them at the end of the month (in some cases 4 weeks after finishing them), but also because I can't see myself having the time to do even that when my writing days are squished down to two.

So make the most of the spewing while it lasts...

The Idiot by Elif Batuman (novel. audiobook)

The Idiot is smart. And charming. And funny.

I was expecting something overtly smart (ie not that smart), like Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, but The Idiot isn't one of those campus novels. I mean, there is stuff about linguistic theory and Russian literature, but it's not like a hammer on an anvil.

The novel's appeal rests on how the reader responds to its protagonist, Selin. She's a freshman at Harvard but she's the idiot from the title (or at least the main one), spending most of the novel baffled - whether she's in the US or in Hungary. Her love story, with the post-grad Ivan, stumbles at almost every hurdle put up by the romance genre. And yet she is pleasant company. She's the well-meaning friend, the younger sibling. There's the sense that she might get it right one day... But the bigger question might be, what is lost when she get's it right and slips into line with everyone else's way of thing?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (novel, audiobook)

This is the kind of novel you need to read around as well as read into, and then re-read.

Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal underground railroad, carved out of earth and rock by nameless men and presumably a few women (the novel is deliberately vague about the builders).

It's the kind of high concept fulcrum point upon which a lot of alternate history novels are built upon.

But to me it felt less important than, say, if the Jews set up a nation in Sitka, or if the Berlin Wall never fell or whatever it is the Game of Thrones producers are set to do with the Civil War.

Which is both a compliment and the nub of what gives me pause before praising this book unreservedly upon a first reading.

There's a tension throughout between the plight of the slaves, the moral implications for the whites who help or hinder their passage to safety -- all of which is meant to conjure the same emotions as the historical reality -- and the novelist's decision to warp this vision of the past in one particular way. It has to be for a better reason than just to give the novel a 'hook'... Right?

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (non-fiction, audiobook)

This hardly counts as a book in its own right - it was adapted from a TEDx talk / the audiobook runs for less than an hour. But Wikipedia describes it as a book-length essay, so...

Maybe the fact it was rushed out on its lonesome, back in 2014, rather than bolstered by other pieces of fiction, says something about the appetite (perceived or real) for bold statements such as the one encapsulated in the title.

Although, it isn't that bold, is it? Indeed, the whole thing felt a little de-clawed, a little dated. It doesn't touch on intersectionalism, and even its discussion of feminism is narrow and dislocated from much of history.

But again, it started as a TED talk, so.

Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry (novel, NZ)

I read this to review, so my lips are sealed.

61 Hours by Lee Child (novel, audiobook)

If you're gonna read a white dude, why not the ultimate white dude? 

The number of literary types who've tweeted gleefully about reading Jack Reacher novels over the summer (and Danyl Mclauchlin's piece at the Spinoff) wore me down, alright?

I mean, I'm not against genre. See hard sci-fi below. But also crime and thrillers. I've read Elmore Leonard and Jo Nesbo and Ian Rankin and (pauses to think of a female crime writer) Vanda Symon (double points for being a Kiwi - yus!). But I'd never read a Reacher book (though I'd seen the first movie and now understand how ludicrous it is to have cast tiny Tom Cruise in the role).

Anyway: 61 Hours. It was brisk, brash and blokey, but not so much that I couldn't see my wife enjoying it while in a bach one rainy weekend. 

I figured the mystery out early (please, hold your applause) and so the twist fell flat, but it all happened so swiftly I could hardy feel miffed. 

The brevity is what makes having a twist such a challenge - only a handful of characters can be introduced in any detail, and even then those details tend to weigh heavily on the memory. A longer story would be able to throw up more red herrings (I'm thinking about all those The Killing-esque shows) but then it would just take longer. 

Get in, get out - that seems to be Child's/Reacher's M.O.

Fair enough.

Will I read another? Well, summer's pretty much over...

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (novel, audiobook)

This is the first book by Stephenson that I have read, though I've been vaguely aware of him and the fact he's lauded (in certain) circles for the scientific veracity of his fictions.

In the wrong hands, Seveneves could go down like the proverbial nickel and iron asteroid/balloon. All that detail. How the International Space Stations works is one thing, but how public transport works across a network of orbit chain-shaped habitats 5,000 years after the moon explodes... that's something else.

So I get that this isn't everyone's cup of tea.

But I like a strong brew.

I could poke holes in things like character development (actually, handled well for the most part) and perhaps some of the higher level things the second half implies about genetic and racial predispositions. But most times I felt he was wading into territory I felt I was about to be blessed with that modern tonic -- a dose of moral superiority -- the narrator acknowledge my facile point and undercut it with science or philosophy or -- shock horror -- a dramatic sequence.

It was both too long (880 pages or a day and a half of non-stop audio) and not long enough: the second half feels slighter that the first; it's revelations were satisfying but I could have spent another hundred pages each with the Pingers and the Diggers and how they worked.

Vacationland by John Hodgman

If you're going to write about yourself as a white dude in 201X, I'd recommend reading Hodgman's book. He walks that tightrope between self-effacement and gratitude, and is funny the whole way through.

Structurally the book was a little misshapen. But Hodgman was such good company. I might have to read him again in 2019.


Um, honestly, I can't remember watching much. I took my kids to Ferdinand, which was average. Where was that blockbuster kids film over Christmas? And I've watched most of Season 4 of Black Mirror, which seems to have tailed off. I mean, the episodes get more and more beautiful, but my responses to their conceits are less visceral.

Oh, and I finished Werner Herzog's filmmaking masterclass and feel like he's my gruff-but-well-meaning German uncle now. He's gonna regret doing that gig now that thousands of nobodies will have spent so long sitting at his feet listening to his stories about guerilla documentaries and fighting with Klaus Kinski.

Next up, Marty Scorsese and Ron Howard both have new masterclasses. Scorsese looks like he'll just be doing his usually thing about classic films that have inspired him, while Howard's looks to be more technical and workmanlike. Both (or neither) may be worth the time.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

My Burns Year: By The Numbers

Like I said when I did this after the first 20 weeks: "What follows is, on one level, meaningless. It doesn't matter how many words I write, or how quickly. All that matters is what ends up getting published."

But I'm gonna do this anyway.

Let's start with the biggest number:


That's how many words I wrote towards things I deemed meaningful enough to record in my almighty spreadsheet from 1 February 2017 to 31 January 2018 (a.k.a. my Burns Year).

Just how were these words expended, you ask? 

Why, here's a pie fresh from the Excel oven:

Or put another way:
  • Four-fifths of a novel manuscript (more on this later)
  • Blog: 26 fortnightly updates and 12 monthly consumption diaries on my blog
  • Essays about NBA2K18 and narrative, the moves in contemporary NZ short stories, the end of the world, Recurrent Neural Network poetry, Chris Cornell, writing my previous novel and a review of three books
  • Short stories: one completed (and submitted) story, one half-finished first draft, one quarter-finished first draft
  • A handful of poems produced used a recurrent neural network trained on Dunedin Sound lyrics.
  • Other: pitches for articles/essays/conference papers, responses to journalists, preparation for talks delivered.

All of those bullet points beneath the first one fall into the category of nice-to-have. They're what made my Burns Year fun and varied. I said YES to many, many things, and I sought out even more side-projects. Sucker. Glutton. Dope.

Because it's all for nought if the novel I set out to write isn't finished.

And it's not. Not yet.

But it's getting there!

By one measure -- the raw tally of words I added to the manuscript each day -- I wrote 142,436 words towards my novel about a dude sent to scout locations for someone else's biopic of San Giuseppe da Copertino.

Taking these numbers and plotting them against time, you get a worm like this:

What happened in those flat patches? Mostly travel. And my deliberate decision to start my Burns year bashing out short stories before resurrecting the novel. And all the nonsense that happens when Christmas and moving back to Wellington and roadtripping collide.

But this count of 'added words' oversells the total size of the manuscript I printed out in early January. 

That manuscript stands at only 90,090 words.

So a better indication of my year's work on the novel looks more like this:

I can't bring myself to go back through my working versions of the manuscript to see exactly when I 'lost' large chunks of the text. In broad terms, these were times when I realised I was going off-track, or stumbled upon some change that needed to happen...and went back and changed it.  

I'm not one of those writers who can bash through to the end of a first draft with BIG THINGS left to change. I've tried that before and I couldn't unpick just one thing without the whole thing falling apart.

So my 90,090 words is four-fifths of a first draft that'll be 110k-120k words, but most of that 90k is a fourth or fifth draft. 

A lot of my two-steps forward, three-steps back moments occurred in the second half of the year. I still haven't properly cracked the section in San Marino - which is at once the most important and potentially the most extraneous. I would write a couple of pages, or a scene, or a whole chapter, then realise it had to be handled differently a day or a week later.

This is part of the natural process, so it's only fair those thousands (THOUSANDS!) of futile words count towards the blue line alongside those that make the final cut. 

Most productive day

Friday 15 December: 3,426 words (1,758 on the novel, plus work on my best albums of the year blog post and answering questions on the NZ short story from a student in Sweden)

In second place:Monday 13 February: 3,215 words (923 words on a short story - the one I actually finished and the rest toward my first fortnightly blogpost and consumption diary)

No other day cracked the 3,000 word mark all year.

Most productive day on the novel: Friday 21 April, 2,500 words (a suspiciously round number, but there you have it).

The next two most productive on the novel were  4 April and 28 March, so I must've found a sweet spot around then... before my trip to Italy fricked it all up (boo-hoo!).

Lessons in productivity

Here's something I was surprised by: 43% of the days during my fellowship, I didn't write a single word.


Okay, 84 of the 158 non-writing days were Saturdays or Sundays, and I made a deliberate effort to spend weekends with my young family and exploring Otago and beyond. When you add in my various trips (see above) and the days I spent in conferences and the like, you get 158.

The days of the week with the fewest goose eggs were Thursdays and Fridays (12 apiece). Monday (18) was the weekday upon I was most likely to leave the keyboard be.

If you take the total words written by weekday and divide by the total number of those days during my Burns year (there were 53 Wednesdays and 52 everything-elses), this is what my average productivity by weekday looks like:

So Tuesdays are King, trailed slightly by Fridays. Okay. 

And Wednesday sure looks like hump-day.

When you get rid of the non-writing days and divide only by non-zero writing days:

Monday and Tuesday are virtually identical. Friday drops back into the pack. But Wednesday still looks sluggish.

This is pretty similar to the picture after 20 weeks... so there's clearly something about Wednesdays that weren't doing it for me.

Back at week 20 I thought blogging dragged up my averages for Monday and Tuesday and this held true. I also said I hoped to get my average writing day above 1,000 for Monday to Friday (Wednesday was standing at 740 and Thursday 788), and I did this comfortably, breaking the 1,100 word barrier for all five and even getting Sunday into four figures.

(I'd forgotten completely about this goal, so there's no way I wrote something last Sunday to make this one graph look better).

Takeaways and targets

My clear goal for this first part of 2018 is to knock the bastard off and get my novel into the hands of publishing types. 

To that end, how about a completed first draft by Easter Monday, 2 April?

I'll be in paid employment three days a week from the week after next, with Wednesday and Thursday as my allocated 'writing days'. 

(I'll be treating Wednesday as my 'writing Monday' to get that productivity boost, rather than falling into a midweek slump.)

That gives me 14 'writing days' between now and the end of Easter. Assuming I do nothing on the novel outside of those days, and I have 30,000 words left to write (I could be way off, but), 
I'd need to write over 2,000 words a writing day - and all of it must count! 

If I waste a third of what I produce like I did in my Burns Year, I'll need to aim for more like 3,000 words, which I did twice all year and never on the novel alone.  

So I'll have to make progress on 'non-writing' days, too. 

Which is fine. I want far fewer goose eggs than in my Burns year, and should have fewer excuses (I've already explored Wellington; no one is gonna ask me to do anything).

Ideally I'd write in the 5am-7am slot every day -- though this relies on two kids sleeping until 7. My son (the problem) has been doing better lately, but he's one bout of sniffles away from completely changing his sleep cycle again.

But this process (a 1,400-word blog post and a few shitty graphs), which might seem the height of writerly onanism or nerdy procrastination, has helped me shape what the path to completion (no pun intended) will look like.

Now, to deliver on that plan!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Best Books I read in 2017

I last did one of these best books posts for 2014

What can be said of 2015 and 2016? The less the better. Fatherhood and middle-management and riding my bike in Wellington traffic (no way you can listen to an audiobook while riding in the capital) meant I didn't read enough to make such a list meaningful.

But 2017 was different.

2017 by the numbers

In 2017 I read at least 66 books (40 novels, 15 non-fiction, 7 short story, 2 poetry collections, one graphic novel and one play-as-an-audiobook). 

This isn’t counting the story collections I binge-read/re-read to research my paper on the moves in contemporary NZ short stories, or podcasts that closely resemble audiobooks (S-Town, The Butterfly Effect, Missing Richard Simmons) or anything else that didn’t self-identify as a book.

Of these 66: 47 (71%) were consumed as audiobooks, 17 were physical books and 2 were e-books I read on my phone (a first).

The earliest published book came from 1927. 13 of the books I read came out in 2017 – probably a record for me. The average year of publication was 2003.

In terms of authors:
  • 32 (48%) were from the US, which is way too many, followed by the UK (22%) and NZ (9%). Other nationalities read: Italy, Australia, German, Ireland, France, Canada.
  • 45 (68%) were male, 21 were female
  • Only four authors were non-white
  • Only six books were works in-translation (4 by Elena Ferrante)


This is the part where I castigate myself for myopic reading and make excuses like it’s hard to find books by authors outside of the US/UK as audiobooks...

But I could have tried harder if I was really paying attention. I wasn’t. I was happy to be getting through more than one book a week and biting at whatever took my interest.

So for 2018 I’m imposing one hard, ALL CAPS rule (No Physical Books By White Dudes) and a some of softer guidelines:
# a 50/50 gender split would be fine in the context of 2018, but more females would be a better start in redressing what has surely been a longstanding deficit.
# more variety in terms of countries and work in translation (it wouldn’t be hard)

I’ll try keep track of this in my monthly consumption diaries so I don’t revert to type.

(This isn’t about saying you should never read a book by a white dude, but you’re missing something if that’s always the bulk of your reading.)

Anyway, here’s my top nine, headlined by a white dude.

The best time I had between two covers in 2017: 

The Ask – Sam Lipsyte (novel, US, physical book)

What I said about it in July:
Or, as my wife would put it, this is a “ranty” book. Which means it keeps company with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, the fun half of every Jonathan Franzen doorstop, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Martin Amis – so, just the swinging dicks of the last 75 years. Not bad company. Not for everyone, but definitely for me in certain moods. This is the kind of book I wanted to write when I started writing seriously (...stops to do the maths…) fourteen years ago, when all I really knew were the swinging dicks. Now? I think it has definitely challenged me to ensure each page of my current novel is funny. Is tight. (So much of the humour comes from the concision.)

Autumn – Ali Smith (novel, UK, e-book)

What I said about it in October:
The second book I read on my phone, and hey, this was great. Better than Lincoln in the Bardo (sorry Booker judges).
Smith’s staccato prose and frequent paragraph breaks really suited the format. And it felt right (in an oh-so-wrong way) to be reading a post-Brexit novel on a phone. That early scene in the post office, trying to get a passport renewal form pre-checked, sheesh!

The Neapolitan quartet – Elena Ferrante (novels, Italy, audiobooks)

What I said about these four novels in June:
Did it hook me? Well, I finished all four books (none of them are particularly short - the audiobooks are 12.5hrs, 19hrs, 16.5hrs & 18.5hrs long respectively; 10 hours is kind of standard for a novel) in just over two months...  
I can’t decide if the quartet is the result of incredible ambition or incredible restraint. Is it complexly simple or simply complex?...  
Having freshly finished the books, I haven't gone back and read much writing about them, but I'm sure there's another four books worth of stuff on the question of authorship within the novels (let alone the 400-books worth of dross on the elusive author herself... All I can say is, if anyone had read all four books and still wants to track down the real Elena Ferrante, they're beyond dense).

A Game of Thrones – George RR Martin (novels, US, audiobook)

I’m cheating again, as GRRM gets this high on the list on the strength of the first two books in the Song of Fire and Ice saga, which actually come as four audiobooks, each 16 hours or longer.

What I said about A Game of Thrones Pt II in November:
I think I’ve found the perfect kind of audiobook to race through: one you know the main plot points but are actually interested in the minutiae or being reminded of things you may have once known.

This may seem kind of high for some swords and sorcery doorstoppers, but the most recent season of the TV show (where they are well and truly ahead of the books) demonstrates how important the books were to the success of the show. I like the show and I liked the books I’ve read and I’m not snooty about giving props to someone who has entertained me for hours and hours.

Time Travel: A History – James Gleick (non-fiction, US, audiobook)

What I said about it in April:
Gleick's book was really good. Like one of those popular histories for people who like to think they're too smart for popular histories. Most of the recent time travel books/films I thought about during the earlier sections were mentioned later on in the book - but by then Gleick has abandoned literary criticism for theoretical physics and philosophy. Which is fine. This is the guy who wrote a book about chaos theory.

But I think there's another book (or at least a few decent chapters) on what people are doing with time travel after a century of the genre, and dismantling this from a predominantly literary perspective.

Honorary mention to The hidden life of trees by Peter Wohlleben, which I read soon after Gleick’s book and is about another kind of time travel (life at a different speed).

Thank You for Being Late – Thomas L. Friedman (non-fiction, US, audiobook)

What I said about it in July:
Oh man. I don’t know how Thomas Friedman gets so much (the rapid pace of change of technology, the nightmares of climate change, demography, economic and political destabilisation) and yet comes out the other end as an optimist. I mean, I follow his logic every time, but it takes some fricken fortitude to stare into the omni-headed monster and prescribe the right dental regime to tame the stank and calm the beast.  
I fear I’m becoming one of those middle-aged, middle-income, white dudes who loves non-fiction and wants to foist the latest book they’ve read on other people as it’ll explain the way the world is now. Because I had such thoughts with Thank you for being late. But then, when I was all in on fiction, I never went around foisting novels or story collections on people. 
So maybe it’s just this book / this moment? I do think, if you’re going to read it, read it now. 2018 will be too late. The world will have moved on, and I fear Friedman’s optimism may be even harder to comprehend.

Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout

What I said about it in September
Anything is possible is certainly closer to Olive Kitteridge in scope, and the fact it picks up where My Name is Lucy Barton [which I read in August] left off might make it even more ambitious. I got the sense, mid-way into the second book, that both MNiLB and AiP had been originally conceived as a single book of connected stories, but the Lucy Barton section grew too big / had sufficient exit velocity to become its own thing, while the gravity of it still influences the stories/chapters in AiP.

The Animators – Kayla Rae Whittaker
What I said about it in August:
…I’d recommend this book to most anybody. Whittaker not only gives us two memorable protagonists and embeds the creation of not one but two feature length animated films within the text, but totally gets inside the process of creating something other than a novel and the way an animator might see the world.

4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

What I said about it in September:
...Auster’s two key weapons in sustaining interest and momentum over such a long book are prolepsis (telling us what will happen ahead of time) and ellipsis (leaving things out). I’m particularly fascinated by prolepsis – it’s a move a lot of writers don’t pull. And Auster isn’t a virtuoso like Muriel Spark in the way he uses it – he’s more plodding, more deliberate, less playful. But it’s still fascinating, especially as you need to keep straight which version of Fergusson's future we've been told... 
But then, in the novel’s final movements, Auster attempts to tie things up in a way that befits the Master Metafictioneer he showed himself to be with books like City of Glass. But here it only served to unravel what had come before and leave me reluctant to defend his book in online comments sections. Maybe it was laboured and worthy? I mean, I wasn't listening to the same book as Auster was reading [the audiobook was read by the author].

To which I say now: Yeah, the ending still bites, but for everything that came before, I’m squeezing it into my top nine.