July Reads

I haven’t been doing much writing this month but man have I been reading!

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The Multi-Hyphen Method by Emma Gannon

Eugh. I was really looking forward to this book. I felt like it was exactly the book I needed to read at this exact time and the more celebratory reviews it received, the more the buzz around it magnified, the higher my expectations grew. I sat down with it full of enthusiasm, with a notebook and pencil, ready to learn. My anticipation had been on high for what felt like decades and this is where the issue begins.

I can remember when the author, Emma Gannon, who I’ve followed online for years, shared the news about this book – months before it was published or even finished. As Gannon shared snapshots of the writing progress through Instagram and the publishers released the pre-order months in advance it was clear that this was a book on a serious deadline. And I get it, you could feel it – this was the moment for this book, someone was going to write it, and if it was going to be Gannon, she’d have to do it sharpish. This is what comes of playing to the instant gratification generation – yes there is big money to be made, but to make it, business is prepared to push through a process which should not be rushed.

I know this book has gone down a storm online but for me it over-promised and under-delivered on every front with repetitive, half-baked ideas I’d heard before (mostly on Gannon’s own podcast) and bloody awful grammar. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert – my colleagues at work will be the first to confirm it – my spelling is terrible, my grammar is very poor – although in my defence, my syntax is rooted in the Irish language which is utterly backward to Queen’s English (and personally, I’m fine with that) – but at times I had to reread every sentence on the page, rewriting it in my head with plain, clear cut language. It’s almost as if Gannon was on a word count, and finding herself a few thousands words short she went back to beef out every sentence possible. What can be said succinctly in ten words, she waffles through with thirty. I understand that part of Gannon’s charm is her conversational tone, and with the surge of similarly styled, incredible books written over the last three or four years, we know it can be done really well, but when it’s done badly, it’s just bad writing.

The irony of course is that Gannon writes about these dangers herself – Check before you post (ducking autocorrect):

“If an error is spotted it can instantly put someone off. It matters to check things and for things to be presentable even though we live in an emoji era.”

And here I turn to the editor. I’ve been an editor, not a particularly harsh one, but I know what it’s like to have copy land on your desk the night before deadline and not know where to start. I know the feeling when you just don’t have the time or energy to go back through another ten rounds with the writer to try and produce something passable, and honestly, that’s what this felt like. It felt rushed, it felt rudimentary, and I’m sorry to say, it felt like a waste of my time. This book could easily have been a blog post, in fact I think it probably was to begin with. It could have been a podcast, in fact it’s been a whole series. But it just did not have the legs for a whole book.

Perhaps that’s just me, I don’t read a lot of these self-help/business books, maybe my inclination for the literary has set my expectations too high, maybe this genre has no place for Shakespeare. And after all, none of this matters. There was no doubt that this book was going to sell – Gannon and her team know how to market a product – it was the moment for this book. It is the idea that has been blooming and Gannon can’t be accused of fabrication – she has made her personal brand a successful, sustainable business. Personally though, I prefer Shakespeare.

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Investigations of a Dog by Frank Kafka

What to say about Franz Kafka?

I started this book in a bar one tired evening after working late and needing a midweek stout and a moment away from the chaos. This wasn’t exactly the right book for that.

I consumed half the pocket-sized read with my half pint and then put it on a shelf to ruminate for several months. After The Multi-Hyphen Method, I needed something good, something literary, from a writer I knew to be good. Something I could get my teeth into and feel challenged by. This wasn’t exactly the right book for that.

I was challenged alright. I have no idea what to say about it. I was befuddled.

My only other experience of Kafka was a Radio 4 production of The Metamorphosis, read by Benedict Cumberbatch. Personally I think that may be the only way to consume Kafka.

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Why I Write by George Orwell

And so to Orwell.

Again, I picked this one up with a bookmark already some pages in. I’d started it, set it aside and now in a bid to finish off those abandoned titles, I went at it again with renewed zest.

Eughhhh. Again, this wasn’t what I needed it to be. The collection confirmed my desire to write, it confirmed I was a socialist, but it didn’t go so far to inspire. It didn’t light a fire under me. I was glad to be over with it in the end. I can’t say it has put me off Orwell in the same way my previous two reads have done their authors, but man am I ready for something really good.

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Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

Thanks goodness for Emilie Pine.

This is one of the finest collection of essays I have ever read. After noticing a few impassioned reviews from trusted bookish friends on Twitter I made a mental note to check it out. After reading an extract online I was hooked.

This book shook my bones. It spoke to experiences I’ve known and lived. It spoke to experiences I know without having lived, horrors that every Irish woman has heard muttered in hushed tones for decades, deluged to strangers in pub toilets, and finally, this year spoken out loud, honestly, bravely in order to change history.

Pine’s collection hits on the same pivotal thing that drove the success of the Repeal campaign. It wasn’t simply a case of killing unborn babies or not. It wasn’t an us versus them. It was personal. Pine’s experiences tread on either side of the dividing line, so desperately wanting a child, so devastatingly at risk by the reality of a system that valued the heartbeat of a fetus over the heartbeat of the mother.

The whole collection is powerful. It is brave – the word is used too often these days, this redefines it. It made me laugh and cry and snort that horrible snotty, crying laugh that only a dear friend can provoke. Pine takes the most deeply personal truths and gives voice to a thousand other women who have not been able to say the words out loud.

This book was exactly what I needed.

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The Most of Nora Ephron

I mean my god.

Perhaps I even mean that literally. I’ve always suspected that any god I could believe in would have to be a woman, I didn’t quite expect her to be a Jewish New Yorker who wrote the perfect Rom Com roles for Meg Ryan, but why doubt it?

When Harry Met Sally has been my favourite film since I was about 12. You’ve Got Mail could sneak into second place on a good day. This book of articles, essays, blogs and scripts could well become a my bible. It is thick enough, Ephron’s output over her fifty year career is spellbinding, and the breadth and quality of her writing is sickening. As an aspiring writer, Ephron is both an inspiration and an intimidation because Jesus how will I ever compare, by my age she already had such a wealth of experience in newsrooms and New York City, but at the same time, like a fine cheese she improved with age. Between the lines of Ephron’s essays, scripts and blogs, a writer can identify the Holy Commandments by which they should live a good life –

Write about what you know.

Try new things.

Make lists.

Collaborate.

Write about everything.

Own your experience – everything is copy!

Somewhere in Ephron’s essay about adoring, meeting and realising the sadness of Dorothy Parker (who I also adore) I had something of an epiphany. After a few rubbish reads (see above!) I needed good writing desperately, but now that I had it I was having a bit of an existential crisis – how can anyone be this good?? – but the examination of personal pain, the picking apart and remoulding of experience, the different shades and tints through which stories can be told, and all sorts of stories, big and small, groundbreaking and trivial, it was a welcome reminder that it is all there at your fingertips. Everything is copy, you just have to find the right words. And if you don’t make a start you’ll never finish it. You might as well write.

“The point is the legend. I grew up on it and coveted it desperately. All I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker. The funny lady. The only lady at the table. The woman who made her living by her wit. Who wrote for The New Yorker. Who never went home and lay awake wondering what she ought to have said because she had said exctly what she ought to have. I was raised on Dorothy Parker lines. Some were unbearably mean, and some were sad, but I managed to fuzz those over and remember the ones I loved.”

I learned from this book that I write, or at least rewrite and rewrite the same thing again and again until the rest comes, in the same way that Ephron did, although thankfully, with the good fortune of digital developments, my habit is less detrimental to the planet.

I learned that we had a similar reaction to The Golden Notebook (which yes, people still read!).

I learned that growing old can have as much beauty and humour and delight as there is pain and fear and disappointments.

I roared with laughter reading this book, I shed tears and made inarticulate, involuntary splutters and yelps which tripped the spectrum between joy and sorrow – much the same as I do while watching Ephron’s films. I expect I’ll return to her writings as often as I return to When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail for comfort and inspiration.

 

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