On Pulphead, the best book I’ve read so far this year

‘It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.”’

That’s a stellar paragraph I clipped from Pulphead, the widely praised collection of essays by US journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan. The essay in question – Mr Lytle – can be read in full on the Paris Review website. I’ve still not finished the book itself, but it’s really terrific, each essay a well crafted story with sentences that confound the reader in the best possible ways. Recommended.

Year in reading, 2012 (first half)

One of the few regular things I’ve done regularly on this blog is tracking books I’ve read; I started the year off  by defecting to Pinterest, but got nowhere with it. Something about that layout. For all that people make out Pinterest is a site for curating and collecting, it’s really a shop, isn’t it? Showing all these book covers makes it seem more like the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones than a library…

So, here I am, back on the blog. After the jump, books from the first half of the year, summary verdicts and mistake filled summaries.

Continue reading “Year in reading, 2012 (first half)”

My new photo project

It’s been over a year since I walked slowly away from Flickr; I really love Instagram, but I take Instagram photos for my Instagram friends with it. Since my quiet exit from Flickr the pictures I take with my dSLR have just been sitting on my hard disk, and every now and then I’ve taken them out on my iPad. Until now, that is: I think Tumblr is terrific and I found an excellent photo-friendly theme, so I’ve decided to try and run a daily photo blog.

It’s called Malevolent Aesthetic Bacon Takedown, just so I can prove SEO hasn’t won. That, and I’ve had the name on the shelf for too long. Take a look, daily updates, pretty pictures, it’ll be great.

Michael Lewis: You are lucky and so there is a debt there

“This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”

Michael Lewis’ speech at Princeton has some great one liners wrapped around a really interesting point, and one that’s come up in a few things I’ve been reading recently: the importance -unfashionable and anti-individualistic though it is – of luck. Or positioning, or being on the right side of big shifts. I think about it a lot when it comes to my work (digital product design), and the decline of print. I think about it when it comes to success and attention, and politics too, given the UK’s current government, and their desire to reduce the reach of the welfare state.  And I like Lewis’ speech especially because it’s not just about recognising the role of luck and saying, “yes, luck helped me”; it’s where he takes that message:

“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

The thing is not just about the thing

“If you think you’ve got writers’ block after 45 seconds of not writing, you don’t need an app, you need someone gently to tell you that you should consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”

Jenny Diski

Sometimes I am amazed about how much Apple’s approach has infiltrated so many areas of life. Thinking more carefully about objects, about tools, and about their design is great. It leads to improvements, to little epiphanies and moments of pleasure. But the problem with obsessive focus is when the focus is in the wrong place. A tool, after all, doesn’t have any life itself. That’s what you need to bring to it.

[via Noah Brier]

Bill Murray on dying

“You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You’re goin’ out there with just a whisper of an idea.”

Half decent Bill Murray interview in Esquire; I’d say he’s earned the right to give the kind of advice you’d imagine Hemingway would.

Some thoughts on the books I read last year

Yes, yes, I’m only getting round to this now. I was going to leave it, but then I was chatting with the Canadienne about The Lighthouse, a strange, light and surprisingly strong Icelandic novel I read in 2011 and I suddenly realised I had a few things to say.

Maybe I was tired at the end of the year; I had travelled a long away, after all. And maybe I was looking forward to the new year.

Just now I’ve written up my notes on the books I read in 2011. 26 books, which is pretty much the average number I get through; a higher number of non-finishes than usual, which included being extremely disappointed by William Gibson’s woeful Zero History. One thing that tracking the what I’ve read has done is make me aware that I should be more judicious of how few books I read – 26 or so a year isn’t a lot, especially when I can easily add one or two a week to my Amazon wishlist.

That said, 2011 had some real highlights, books that even on a quick scroll through the list really light up some fond memories: Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope trilogy was incredible, so compelling that the moment I finished it, I grabbed my coat and went looking for a bookstore to buy the sequel.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut was equally transcendant. The writing has the beauty of a cold, clear winter day – unflinching, technically marvellous – but there’s a tremendous empathy in it, which is often missing from literary fiction. The coldness is all on the outside of this one; the deeper you go, the softer and more human it gets.

My favourite records of 2011

Though of course, my favourite records aren’t records. They’re bits, 1s and 0s. They’re not even being read from my hard disk – they’re on a NAS box downstairs, so they float to my laptop through the air, weightless as a shadow. Funny then, that my favourite record of last year is the one with the most weight –

1) Yuck. It’s not original in the slightest; on first, second, and third lesson, it sounds far too familiar. You think it’s something light and silly, a pastiche of the 90s, of Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana’s blearier moments. But the more it spins, the heavier it and heavier it gets, and the more there’s a pull to the songs, and they begin to generate a real gravity of their own. They have the most beautiful momentum to them. Inside the feedback and verse-chorus-verse, there’s a tender core of something familiar delivered in such a precise way that it feels completely new and totally fresh. It’s £4 at the moment on Amazon, an absolute steal.

2) The Antlers – Burst Apart. The problem is that the opening song is so incredible that it’s all downhill from there. I Don’t Want Love is a tremendous performance, slow and confident, a damaged, inverted Feeling Good where the sound is a shimmer against a great voice. The rest of the album is still good though; soft songs that manage to be delicate but not insubstantial.

3) EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints. For one reason and another, I ended up listening to a lot of Hole this year. There’s some of Courtney’s bile to EMA’s album, but less bombast. Like Yuck, another album with great cocoons of feedback hiding pretty, sticky melodies that really fly. It started getting into my head from the first listen of the first track.

4) Let England Shake – PJ Harvey. It’s as good as everyone says. And it’s only £4. Weird and witchy, but emotional too.

5) Drake – Take Care. Not often I really get into hip-hop/r n’ b, but this is really something different. Well, it is if you skip the dreadful, one dimensional opening track, which features a joke about Asian girls that wouldn’t even pass muster on an ITV sitcom. After that though, the core of the album is bleak, sparse and unsettled. It twists and turns, doubting and believing, wrapped up in a nocturnal bleariness and creating a very specific mood and place.

And a few more that I enjoyed: Bombay Bicycle Club (and not just because I like bikes), though aside from Shuffle it all slips by a bit too easily. The War on Drugs – crap war, great band, Sbtrkt for late night working (not sure I want to remember that) and the Vaccines were tremendous fun.

Best reissue? The Smashing Pumpkins Gish and Siamese Dream. Before these, I thought Billy Corgan was determined to destroy any sense of affection his fans might have had for him (a wrestling league?!), but these reissues are sensitively done, nicely packaged and Corgan’s commentary was great.



December BHAG update: this is the end

Throughout the first couple of weeks of December I keep up a steady pattern and plug away with the commute ride, so by the time the days of the year are dwindling, the end is in sight.

The sales started early, so I bought myself some new gear to help with the final push (if anything, in addition to the year of steady riding, this has been the year of buying clothes for cycling in) – some bib tights, which the Canadienne refers to as a ‘penguin suit’, thanks to its sleek wetsuit appearance, and finally, clip-in pedals and shoes. The first use of the bib tights is on the loop out to Meopham again, with Sasha. Amazing how different the scene is from just a month ago. All the cleanness is in the sky now, silver and solid, while the roads are mucky, and the fields muddy. Bare trees, and darkness all around. Cold, cold, cold.

It’s a rush finish to 2011 at work, long days and nights, and as usual, when I am finally done for Christmas, I was slapped down straightaway by another cold. Full of it, I drive to Mum’s in Sussex on the 23rd, bike in the back, new pedals still in their box. The BHAG has become famous, so they ask me how many miles to go; I sleep and drink lemsip and when I come round on Christmas Day, her husband helps me fit the pedals, and she parcels up the Christmas cake, and in the afternoon, all three of us head out.

The route is around the South Downs, towards Ditchling. I cycle the whole way; my Mum and her husband drive to the car park for the main ride, and they stop on the road waiting for me, checking. The three of us slip through the quiet villages and stop for our cake in the wintry countryside. In the evening, when we’re back, Mum makes me tea and cooks Christmas dinner. This is how you do the things you care about: buoyed by the people around you, carried by the words and the help of the people who care about you.

Continue reading “December BHAG update: this is the end”