15 December 2005

Nick Hornby: Off the Fiction Island... For Now

It's exam week in my casa and I've been desperate for a little literary distraction. I tore through Karyn Bosnak's I-canceled-my-debt-with-the-Internet memoir SAVE KARYN last week -- it's not just entertaining, it keeps me off stress shopping! -- and this week my friend Mel lent me Nick Hornby's latest novel A LONG WAY DOWN, which I saw all over bookstores this summer but never picked up.

One of the first books I read this year was Hornby's collection of essays THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE, a compilation from his columns in anti-snark mag The Believer. Hornby's column chronicles the books he receives each month and the ones he actually reads, along with facts about those books and about his life in general (and, not occasionally, the confession that as a successful author he has both money and time that most people don't have). The columns are charming and actually inspired me to keep my own lists by month of books going in and out. (I also use mine as a damper when I'm tempted to One-Click a cartload of books from Amazon. I mean, sometimes it works...)

Well, as far as finals week went A LONG WAY DOWN did the trick as far as distracting me. But the story? As my theatre professor say, it's precious. The book got some terrible early reviews (I think this one was my favorite, although I disagree on SONGBOOK) but I gave it a shot anyway... and was, really, quite disappointed. I was willing to forgive a certain contrivance in the set-up (four would-be suicides meet at the top of a building in North London and attempt to straighten out each others' lives), but it never left Twee City on its way to believable. The funny moments (like the invention of a miraculous vision for the tabloids) are outweighed by the tiresome, the unbelievable and the lazily written. And I found that strange, because THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE is jammed with minor tender moments from Hornby's life, which (with little to do with his reading life) still enliven the narrative. Is this the same Hornby who wrote HIGH FIDELITY?

The Hornby case is troubling because it seems to suggest that writers can't be masters of both fiction and nonfiction (at least not simultaneously), which I guess is what I've been feeling a little bit lately. I started out writing only fiction (well, along with my journal, whose version of the truth is occasionally questionable) but these days when I'm in front of a computer what comes out is usually some form of nonfiction. I still read as much fiction as I used to, but I feel like now I read it as a reviewer, not as a connoisseur. Besides NaNoWriMo, I don't write much fiction any more. I miss it, but I'm not sure if I can go back.

I'm not saying Nick Hornby is feeling the same way, but if his last two books are any indication he may be at some kind of crossroads. I don't know if Hornby should stop writing fiction or if he needs to take a break from nonfiction in order to work on his fiction. I'd like to believe he can do both, but I'd rather one more POLYSYLLABIC SPREE than six more LONG WAY DOWNs. But whether that's true for me as well... I don't know.

04 December 2005


I used to be a stickler about finishing books. It didn't matter how bad they were, I stuck it out to the final page, even if I spent the next year whining about the waste of time. I attribute this habit to my fifth-grade reading teacher, although it's not entirely her fault.

To encourage us to read outside of class (we had ORBs, or Outside Reading Books), Ms. VV gave us a sheet every month with a space for the date, the title of a book read and -- here's the rub -- the number of pages in the book. At the end of the month we would all dutifully total up the number of pages and compare it to last month's, hoping to show some improvement.

I was a slave to that number. I was a pretty addicted reader by that time anyway, but I got it into my head that I had to hit 10,000 pages per month, or else. This emphasis on the number convinced me that a bad book read was better than no book, because you didn't get any points for pages in books you didn't finish. Sometimes I would even pump up my totals by choosing the easy read over the over-my-head classic, just so I could. (Sorry, Ms. VV!)

Of course, now I can only wish I had the amount of time I had to read that much. I guess if I counted magazine articles, Weblogs, scholarly excerpts and class reading I might get there, but it's not about the number so much any more. This year I've been trying a little harder to be choosy about what I read, because (although I won't admit it) I will not get around to reading every book in the world. At least, not if I'm a teensy bit more choosy than I have been in the past. Here's a list of a few books I didn't finish or gave up on this year:

- Ian Gibson, LA VIDA, PASION Y MUERTE DE FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA I love García Lorca and I love two-volume biographies, but this just wasn't a good fit. There was too much name-dropping, and Leslie Stainton's LORCA: A DREAM OF LIFE is better. (Alas, I lent that one to someone I don't like and now I don't have a copy.)
- Jorge Semprún, AQUEL DOMINGO This was for a class I took on Spanish novels since 1939, and our professor proclaimed its brilliance constantly. But with 45 minor characters and a main character who, having lived his life in espionage, had a new alias every chapter, I just couldn't keep up.
- Carmen Martín Gaíte, IRSE DE CASA I loved Martín Gaíte's other book I read this year, NUBOSIDAD VARIABLE ("scattered clouds"), but this one just didn't take.
- Jay Cantor, GREAT NECK I challenge you to read this every-moment-can-foreshadow-unspeakable-doom-for-all-characters novel and not throw it out the window. Seriously. That's what you get for choosing a book by its cover (literally; I saw it in Borders and it looked interesting). Sucker.
- Marian Keyes, SUSHI FOR BEGINNERS The first month of my stay in Madrid I read about 10 Marian Keyes books in Spanish to adjust myself to thinking in the language. I know, they're trashy, but I picked up a lot of useful slang. (The word ligar, for example; it means "to hook up" or "to flirt," depending on context.) I snatched this one from my sister for the trip back to school, but they aren't as good in English; when I realized I'd left it on my first flight, I didn't bother buying another copy.