Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My (Writerly) Year in Review.

January: The book launch of SERIOUS THINGS, Gregory Norminton's excellent book. I haven't said enough about this yet, but it was a truly excellent read. Gregory's writing is always beautiful and absorbing, but the plot of this was absolutely riveting too - it's the sort of book that keeps you thinking for a long time afterwards. I highly recommend it.

February: Following Francine Prose's recommendation in READING LIKE A WRITER, I worked through a volume of Chekhov's short stories together with some of his advice on writing. I agree with what Ms Prose says about these - every writer should read them.

March: Two books stand out from this month - Tamar Yellin's KAFKA IN BRONTËLAND - a superb collection of short stories - and also James Meek's NOW WE ARE BEGINNING OUR DESCENT. This is about an unusual love affair of two war correspondents in Afghanistan, but the sections based in London and the US are the parts that affected me the most - an unforgettable book.

April: The month of the Shed - but I also managed to fit in a trip to London to see Marcus Chown - science writer extraordinaire (author of THE MAGIC CRUCIBLE and QUANTUM THEORY CANNOT HURT YOU amongst others), and a talented writer for children. I also attended a fascinating conference at the Louis Pasteur Institute and went to a magnificent gala dinner at the Invalides in Paris.

May: This was devoted to my writing of my proposal for a non-fiction book - an on-going project.

June: My contract with Seren books for the publication of my Patagonia book finally arrived - I was also sent a literary tea towel with a great little Alan Bennett book (THE UNCOMMON READER).

July: One memorable day this month I not only saw the Psychobuildings Exhibition in the Hayward Gallery in London but also went to the 'Creativity in Science and Literature' debate (with unexpected guest-author Ian McEwan) at the Royal Geographical Society. This was also the month that I finally and officially got a new agent (Peter Tallack).

August: I interviewed Eli Gottlieb, author of the NOW YOU SEE HIM - a superlative novel on the theme of loss, and then, at the end of the month, went to the Nature Network Blogging Conference at the Royal Institution.

September: A busy month and hard to choose one thing - but I started Nicholas Crane's GREAT BRITISH JOURNEYS and had the great pleasure of interviewing and meeting the author (again) slightly later.

October was a sad month, but I interviewed Paul Parsons the author of THE SCIENCE OF Dr WHO and went to a few events in the local literature festival. I also took part in Tania Hershman's Book Tour for her entertaining and thought-provoking selection of New-Scientist-inspired stories THE WHITE ROAD.

November: I finished reading and interviewed the author of DON'T SLEEP THERE ARE SNAKES, Dan Everett - an inspiring man and book - and went to Liverpool St George's Hall and saw my friend Jan win a prize for her short story.

December: My book was held aloft by Jack Dee on LEAD BALLOON (a red-letter day) and I read Elizabeth Baines's BALANCING ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. Elizabeth Baines is a superb stylist - a latter-day fabulist in fact - and her writing reminded me of Chekhov's in that it was spare and paid attention to the subtleties of everyday experience. I am looking forward to hosting Elizabeth on one of her stops on her forthcoming book tour.

Anyway, a good year, certainly a lot happier than the last few years, and even though nothing very much has come of it so far, I feel privileged to have experienced it.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

No one speak to me...

...I am filling in my tax form. This is one of the really irritating things about being self-employed. Each time I do it I have to face up to the fact that I can't do paperwork... and also, these days, that I am a kept woman.

I thought you were keeping a ledger, says Hodmandod Senior (I know he doesn't mean to sound smug, but he does), so then I have to confess that somehow I stopped doing this approximately two weeks after I'd started - in the general turmoil of getting things done.

Anyway, I have just unearthed a pile of bills from the drawer of my desk (which is where I stuff bits of paper that seem like they might be important), pulled out a couple of files from my filing cabinet (just in case one or two things happened to land there in one of my rare fits of opening boring-looking envelopes), unloaded the overloaded in-tray and summoned up the on-line bank account and the (unsorted) in-box of my email.

Then, having amassed this mass of real and virtual paper, I enter Her Majesty's Inland Revenue 'portal' (ah such an evocative term for something so very dull) and click through the pages with mounting consternation. What exactly is a tax loss, I wonder. Does it mean overpaid or underpaid tax or the state of my (hypothetical) ledger sheet? In the end I make a guess and hope for the best...

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Friday, December 26, 2008

In Praise of Turkey Fat

Each year it fascinates me; how the juices from around the turkey - a single liquid - slowly separates into two; a clear jelly of cross-linked proteins, and a solid waxy mass of fat.

Today I took great spoonfuls of the fat and melted it in a roasting dish for today's potatoes, and once again examined that place where the two layers meet - like a discontinuity between sandstone and volcanic ashes in the face of a cliff.

Almost pure protein and then almost pure fat; one sort of solid sitting on top of another. Only when they are cold can these two substances be easily disentangled; the artery-clogging creamy-whiteness of triglycerides from the golden muscle-building chains of amino acids. It seems a little like a metaphor for a couple who have fallen out of love - now they have had time to cool down and think about things they can no longer see the attraction.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gifts from my Magi

Look what I got from Hodmandod Senior for Christmas: in this tiny clip I can store as many tracks as I can possibly need so I have no more excuses not to go to the gym (I need music to exercise). If this was my gold, then from Hodmandod Major I got some myrhh... interesting and rather potent air-freshener (the china base holds aromatic oils which travel up the small piece of decorated wood rather like a solvent travels up the paper of a chromatograph);

and from Hodmandod Minor some frankincense in the form of an assortment of lotions and bath oils.

And also this - a rather splendid Dr Who mug, replete with daleks. I am looking forward to taking this out to the shed.

I have also indulged myself looking at some Life photos via the Petrona link, and now am looking forward to reading THE RINGS OF SATURN by W.G. Sebald.

So, a good day, but as I dusted the old candlesticks we only use at this time of year, it was as though my tongue was exploring the familiarity of my mouth and finding gaps and tender places where things have gone missing - and I remembered other kings, and other gifts and other Christmases.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

The Secret of Spirits Bay

Three or four months ago a New Zealand author called Stephen Barker very kindly sent me his children's book. He said there was something in his writing that had chimed with something he had read in one of mine, and he had offered to put my name in his acknowledgements because of this, but I had told him there was no need. All writers are influenced by what they read, I believe, and I was very flattered that Steve was influenced by mine - especially now that I've read it!

So the book, THE SECRET OF SPIRITS BAY, has been in languishing in Hodmandod TBR pile ever since the end of summer, and I have been longing to read it, but only recently has it surfaced.

Surfacing is also a theme in this book; ghosts and memories are uncovered both spiritually and actually. There are two threads - one in the past, about 1882, and one in the present. The two stories interweave gracefully and very satisfyingly, coming together in an extremely exciting and interesting climax. Towards the end it becomes a terrific page-turner, and I learnt a lot about Maori culture and New Zealand settlers. It is well-written, an excellent choice for a boy aged around twelve I would say , and a very enjoyable for the slightly older girl too! I thoroughly recommend it.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Christmas Tree

So, the shopping is done, the cards are all written and sent off (except for one), the presents are wrapped and the tree is resplendent in silver and gold and white (decorated by Hodmandods Senior and Minor).

We have already broken open the tub of Maltesers, and sampled the Bristol Cream, and I am relaxing with THE SECRETS OF SPIRIT BAY by Stephen Barker. More on this, and the other books I am reading, very soon I expect.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My book as prop...!

Tonight two friends just texted/emailed me to say they'd seen my book on LEAD BALLOON - the comedy starring Jack Dee. It is here, 19.58 mins in...

I meant to watch this programme anyway, it's one of my favourite sitcoms on the TV at the moment - but unfortunately missed it so very glad the BBC has 'Play It Again'.

I am so pathetically thrilled about this I feel like I've had Christmas Day already.

Anyway, here is the still from the programme:

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Monday, December 15, 2008

London to Chester in two hours!

If it weren't for the expense it would mean we are within commuting distance.
Here is the journey from London to Glasgow - I know the first half of this very well.

A Plea for Brevity

At the moment I am reading a book for research. It is over 500 (large) pages long. The writing is good in parts, and the topic interesting, but despite this I am worried that I am ever going to finish it.

The problem is that my accommodation has recently weakened so much that the only way I can read now is to either take off my glasses and crane over the book on my desk (which makes my back ache), or else sit back and hold it close to my face (which, since the book is hardback is wearing on my arms).

This makes me less tolerant of what I consider to be waffle - four pages about a man riding a camel just because the man happens to lead a laboratory are four pages too long in opinion.

Enough! I want to tell the author, my arms are aching, please cut to the chase. I really don't need the entire history of camel-keeping in the Nile basin, nor do I wish to know that the scientist in question is wearing the same 'pleasant checkered short-sleeved madras shirt' as he was in the conference two months earlier, which, apparently, is further evidence of 'nonexistent fashion sense of the classic absentminded scientist.' This is not a novel, it is a non-fiction book, and frankly, this sort of detail would be boring and irrelevant in either.

But still the author goes on - endless detail of conversations over lunch and then a minute by minute account of a government press conference and what exactly was said, and how and when. The book seems to grow heavier with each leaden sentence. It's enough to make me long for a Sony reader.

Added later: Er Dr Grump seems to have taken over there. I tried to stop her, but she was too powerful.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

You know that your pre-Christmas diet is in trouble...

when the bird seed starts looking appetising each time you come across it.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

What I'm Doing 26:

What I'm listening to:

Meddle by Little Boots. I've been trying to find this to download from somewhere , but can't find it so far. However, I think it is so good I'm sure it'll be available soon.

What I watched last:

Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson. Excellent film about a man coming to terms with himself, I think. I particularly liked the ending - but Hodmandod Senior did not.

What I'm doing:

Research for a new project in readiness for a meeting in London next week (looking forward to this).

What I'm reading (slowly because of everything else I'm having to do):

Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines. Still loving it, and pretty glad I am reading it slowly because it will last longer.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Noble Art of Procrastination

Before getting down to 'work' (as Hodmandod Minor said to me recently it can't really be 'work' because I enjoy it) it is essential that I:
(i) Check twitter
(ii) Check Facebook
(iii) Have a bit of a trawl through Newsbiscuit
(iv) Look at a few blogs
(v) Make another cup of coffee
(vi) Send an email to Hodmandod Senior
(vii) Check twitter again
(viii) Answer a few emails that have come in since I sat down the first time
(ix) Look at the BBC News Website
(x) Peruse Nature Network
(xi) Have lunch.
(xi) Go through (i)-(x) again.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Newsbiscuit Book

I have mentioned a few times on this blog how much I love the satirical news-site, Newsbiscuit. I have been a fan from the day it started, making tiny contributions from time to time, but mainly cheering on from the side-line - so it is with great delight that I unexpectedly received the first Newsbiscuit book through the post this morning... and consequently feel the need to pose beside it in front of my computer.

Even the back is funny...

I don't even care that I've heard them before, in fact it somehow increases the pleasure.

So I now have Christmas day completely mapped out. Get up, make dinner, eat dinner and then retire to my shed to read ISLE OF WIGHT TO GET CEEFAX then maybe a little Sebald and also look at these Time Life photos mentioned on Petrona a couple of weeks ago. Perfect day. I don't really care if the world (as we know it) is about to end. Just pass me the bottle and leave me in peace.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fungal Flips

Last night I dreamt that where I lived was covered in all-enveloping fungus. It kept growing and drooping over the eaves of the house like a covering of snow that is too heavy and slips. There were things I knew about this fungus: it was soft, it changed colour - from green to orange - and it exuded a vapour that I couldn't smell or see but nevertheless changed anything that it encountered.

I knew I needed to run away from it, but each time I did it made me stop whatever I was doing and then leap through time, so at one time I would be on my way out of the door and then immediately afterwards find myself where I had been a few minutes before.

It's been haunting me all day - that, and my enduring conviction (since last Wednesday) that the world, as we know it, is about to end. Maybe I have not been getting out enough.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Needling Nature.

Why do we do these things: take a place of trees

and lakes

and change it into this: stalls smelling of hot sugar and fried onions,

and a man selling a turn with a bird of a prey for a quid?

Even a single month...

is too long. The trees are bundled, upturned, labelled and carried away to the sound of piped music...

...all this for the faint scent of the forest in our room, and greenery, which we will cover in tinsel and artificial snow. It is a temporary victory; like the stalls and the music and the labels on the trees all this will soon be swept away - and we will be left with less than we started with.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Literary Greed.

This came this morning: Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn. It is published by Cold Spring Harbour Press, and features quite a stunning cover.

As usual I couldn't resist a quick flick through, and was impressed by the way it quickly immerses you into the life of a research scientist, and already have found some excellent sentences. For instance this one about Magritte, an eminent scientist who from a distance looks as if she could be an undergraduate: '...she glanced over and smiled at my approach, setting off a reaction of fine lines that restored her appearance to the appropriate decade.'

Anyway, it has been added to the 'reading for pleasure' TBR pile (as opposed to the 'reading for research but also for pleasure' TBR pile)...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Finished (Part 1)

I just wish to announce to the world that I have finished the editing of my novel (well, except for the Tehuelche bit).

Thursday, December 04, 2008

In which Silas suffers great loss

I am on page 336 now, only 50 pages to go...

(Added next morning): the blog is such a useful bookmarking tool :-)

Balancing on the Edge of the World.

Well, this has cheered up a dismal morning: Balancing on the Edge of the World by Elizabeth Baines (AKA Fiction Bitch) fell through my letterbox just now. Always an impatient woman, I tore open the envelope and started reading it immediately.

Strange how with some writing you know you are going to like it straightaway: it takes just one sentence and you're sucked in. 'We're all drunk and Ellie's the drunkest.' is the first line in the book - and how can anyone stop there? So I didn't. I kept reading and came across one wonderfully quotable line after another: '...fear breeds fantasy, and fantasy's what ninety per cent of the human race is living on right now.' It even has a reference to science: 'What happens in solid condensed matter to the relation between particles when outer forces are brought to bear on it?' Very interesting question: as a chemist it set my mind racing.

From the back of the book I read that Elizabeth Baines is an award-winning short story writer, and I can see why.

Added note: Elizabeth has written a very interesting summary of the Manchester University's School of Writing discussion on Literature and Science (led by Martin Amis) here.


According to this article the publishing industry has always been regarded as 'recession-proof' - but is no longer.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Amazon Primed

I am very impressed with Amazon Prime and have signed up for their month's free trial.

I decided to start preparing for a new project and so needed some rather obscure books in a hurry. I ordered them at 3.17 pm yesterday and they arrived at 11.00 am this morning.

This is not good for bookshops. I doubt any local shop would have stocked the books, and they would not have delivered them to my door.

Presumably, on Kindle or a Sony reader, it could be quicker still - downloaded almost instantaneously as soon as I wanted it. I still like the feel of a book in my hand though. I'm old-fashioned that way.

On page 279. Slow.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tick, tick, tick

The novel editing moved forward no pages today. I am very disappointed in myself and just given myself a good talking to.