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.