The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church (Daniel Kitson)

I saw Daniel Kitson a couple of years ago, when he hosted a charitable comedy gig in aid of orangutans. He’d arrived late and then seemed unsure how to tackle his duties, interpreting them variously as exploring the confines of the orchestra pit, lying down, staying on stage for far too long and eventually hurling chocolate bars into the crowd at nose-bruising altitudes. He was a shambles, but gloriously so.

His new performance, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, shows Kitson in his element. I use the word ‘performance’ because I can’t think of a neater term – it has all the trappings of a stand-up gig, but the structure of a one-act shaggy dog story. Wandering onto the stage before attaching his microphone, Kitson begins his tale by stating ‘The rest of this isn’t true, I made it up. But this bit is absolutely true.’ Then follows his story of discovering 25-years’-worth of correspondence between an irascible old man and the people that irk him.

Kitson’s summarisation of the 30,000-plus letters takes the form of considered research: he refers to a notebook for exact quotes and describes the limitations of his knowledge about Gregory Church. He also weaves in his (Daniel Kitson’s) own life, as he claims to have read the letters over a two-year period – many of the contained revelations are framed by the circumstances in which he read them.

He’s a unique performer. Kitson’s delivery is at breakneck speed, punctuated only by freezes caused by his stammer, or by his getting distracted by people in the audience. He portrays himself as a shambling amateur, yet the sheer volume of content that he’s memorised suggests otherwise. And his story, although seeming aimless at first, becomes coherent, plausible and sweet. Once his tale is told, he removes his microphone and delivers a heartfelt and moral summary, barely audible, forcing the audience to lean in towards him.

It’s the most affecting performance I’ve seen in ages. The structure reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’ trick of conjuring whole lives and works from imaginary references and scholarly debate about fictional fictions. With Daniel Kitson’s affable and shambolic delivery, smuggled under the pretext of being stand-up comedy, this technique is incredible and, by the end, it barely matters whether the letters existed or not.

Writing a novel in a month

Since New Year, I’ve fretted about not writing. My resolution to write something original each day has been a help – although it’s been derailed slightly into diary entries, blog posts and long-overdue emails.

I’d heard about the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) a while ago, through a friend. The principle is that each November, any number of would-be novelists club together for mutual support, and aim to each write a complete 50,000-word rough draft of a novel in just 30 days. The emphasis is on quantity over quality, skipping over difficult research and unsuccessful passages in a blind rush to reach the word goal. As a procrastinating self-doubter, I like this idea very much.

November is too far away for my possibly-shortlived enthusiasm to wait, so I’m going to go it alone. Without the NaNoWriMo community to back me up, I’ve mentioned the project to several people in order to have a useful sense of guilt if I’m falling behind. I’ll use this blog as a way of publishing my wordcount failures – or even successes – too.

The most helpful piece of advice so far has been to allow myself only one week’s planning time, and to choose an entirely new story idea rather than a pet project. In one fell swoop, this has freed me up enormously. I’ve several story ideas knocking around, all of which I feel too precious to mistreat in a month’s frenzied typing. I came up with a new story idea on Tuesday, and by Thursday night I’d written plot notes and created a mind map using the Freemind open source software (the first time I’ve successfully used this type of planning tool – it’s been perfect). On Saturday I scouted some potential writing spots (Costa and the Oxford central library) and created another map, this time showing plot events in a rough order.

My novel-writing month starts tonight. In theory, I need to write 1667 words per day. I’m already feeling my nerve faltering, with anxiety about an overly complex plot and a potential inability to give each character a distinctive voice. But then I remind myself that the aim is to break down the normal criticality and just produce something complete. Perhaps it’d be helpful to think of it as ‘typing’ rather than ‘writing’…

Videogames I played in 2010 – retail games

2010 was a year in which I noticed a change in my attitude to videogames: I became more interested in the principles and mechanics behind videogames rather than particular titles themselves. Increasingly, I used games as time-fillers, distractions and OCD tasks rather than as prime-time entertainment. Also, I completely tired of game narratives.

Here are some unordered thoughts about some boxed games I played last year:

Fallout New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment)
I love Fallout 3. I love it to bits. I’ve played through the mammoth story three times, to the concern of my girlfriend. Ropey textures: fine. Bugs and glitches: no problem. VATS targeting system: A-OK. So why does New Vegas, with an identical engine, feel so off?
The locations are part of the problem. Fallout 3 had some amazing central locations, including Megaton, the Jefferson Memorial and the Museum of Technology, each of which felt distinct and full of specific perils. New Vegas feels disconnected and even the Vegas Strip itself seemed bare. I’d expected each of the hotels to be rich with detail, but they felt like a slog. I also spent frustrating sessions trying in vain to climb mountains that were stubbornly inaccessible, ruining the open world vibe.
I think I’ll mainly have to chalk it up to fatigue, though. While I’d be happy to explore the familiar world of Fallout 3 again, New Vegas felt like an oddly vague callback.

Demon’s Souls (From Software)
As many reviewers have noted, this is a stubbornly cruel but wonderful game. However, after two months of irregular play, I finally hit the wall – I think I’d need to dedicate an unreasonable amount of time to progress much further. Despite (or perhaps as a result of) the difficulty, you’re never in doubt that the game is beatable, if only you STOP MAKING STUPID MOVES. The most fun I had were in the early levels, before the structure of the game is made apparent. I spent hours creeping around corners, shield raised, terrified of whatever might spring out from darkened corners. To learn all the nooks and crannies and later play those same levels with supreme confidence felt wonderful.
Also, Demon’s Souls contains a pleasing absence of story. I am fighting skeletons and demons because they are there. That is all.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft)
I’ve already reviewed this game in an earlier post. Amazingly, I rarely felt lethargic playing this title, and even the cutscenes and nonsense plot held my attention.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios)
This game was understandably adored last year. It captures the mood of the comics well and the combat is satisfying. My attitude to the main story was so-so: it was what it was. But the game came alive for me during the optional hunt for secrets scattered about the open world. This, I think, says something about my gaming type. I’m aware that most of the games I become most engrossed in are those that fuel my collector / OCD impulses.

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream)
I got to the party scene and my save game became corrupted, losing my progress. I’ll play this again, but I’m saving my reactions until I’ve finished a full playthrough. For the record: more like this, please.

Borderlands (Gearbox)
Seriously, stop it. Another lengthy, humdrum game enlivened by collector fixation. Mostly, I appreciated the absence of cutscenes or explanation, but the bulk of the game did rather boil down to collecting and upgrading weapons. But – Krom’s Canyon was probably the most enjoyable single bit of level design I played this year.

The rest of the boxed titles I played in 2010 (Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Split Second, Modern Warfare 2, Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4, Sports Champions, New Super Mario Bros Wii) were just, you know, fine.

So, conclusions… well, reading this list makes me sigh. I feel I’ve misused videogames in 2010 and turned some top-grade entertainment into simple fetch quests. The notion of fun doesn’t really enter into my experiences of most of the above titles – rather, I played most of them as a furrowed-brow distraction technique in place of doing things I really ought to be getting along with. I’m unsure whether this is partly down to the collection of often generic titles – many of them feel like polished versions of older games – or whether I’m starting to lose the love.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft)

Far from the expansion pack that many expected, this is the definitive Assassin’s Creed game so far. It’s as beautiful as the series has always been, and the character animation is superb – but this time Ubisoft have layered dozens of game types on top of the basic quests. As many reviewers have noted, it’s easy to become happily waylaid in sidequests, en route to main story locations – in fact, this is the only game I can remember where I’ve begun to rinse the remaining sidequests immediately after completing the main story.

The city-building metagame, now presented as part of the open world rather than a discrete interface, appealed to my completionist tendencies and the effect on the game world was tangible. The brotherhood metagame, where you send fellow assassins on remote quests for loot rewards, was less successful. It’s all too easy to ignore the text descriptions of quests and to see assassins as resources to be apportioned out – I’d expect this element of the game to be improved in later sequels.

One of my biggest criticisms in the first AC game was that it encouraged lazy play rather than elaborately stealthy assassinations. Importantly, many of the key assassinations in this third title are framed in ways that invite imaginative approaches: by rooftop, from hidden positions within crowds, and using smoke bombs and poison to dispose of targets. Even though my occasional frustration led me to take the easy route at times, the introduction of a ‘100% sync’ bonus for completing a quest in a particular manner should ensure that I’ll be aiming to up my game later.

The story is, as always, tosh – at least, in terms of the nuts and bolts of dialogue, exposition and so on. But Brotherhood’s strongest narrative suit is the blending of the contemporary world (Desmond and his assassin-sympathising techies) and his ancestors’ memories. Leaping around Ezio’s mansion as modern-day Desmond was a strange thrill that’s far more affecting that anything contained in the script proper. Like many open world games, Brotherhood’s most enduring moments are non-scripted. My revelation was early in the game as I discovered the ruined Colosseum, clambered to the top of the one remaining full wall, and surveyed the glorious view.

Spoilers! Don’t read this paragraph if you’re planning to play the game.
There was, though, one story element that really surprised me. Ezio’s quest is to rescue Lucrezia Borge’s lover, Pietro Rossi: he’s taken the role of Jesus in a Passion play, but Cesare Borge has ordered Micheletto to stab and kill Rossi as an ‘accident’ during the rehearsal within the ruins of the Colosseum. As Ezio, the player steals and wears a Roman soldier costume and infiltrates the rehearsal, kills Micheletto and rescues Rossi, who has also been poisoned. Taking Rossi to a nearby doctor to be cured involves the player guiding this Roman soldier, as he carries a bloody and limp Jesus rescued from the cross, slowly out of the Colosseum. While, of course, both game characters are acting these parts, the image is striking. It’s one of those moments (like the Tibetan village scene in Uncharted 2) where the player is invited to dwell on the details with only a small amount of agency in the onscreen actions. It’s one of the most interesting scenes I’ve seen in a game all year and raises all sorts of questions about subject matter that could, one day, be addressed by videogames.

Reading list 2011

2011 is, in terms of reading, off to a good start. I’m two novels in, just over one week into the year. Here’s a list of the books that I’ll try to make sure I read in 2011. I think this list of 13 ‘must-reads’ leaves plenty of room for impulse purchases, new publications and recommendations.

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
After a conversation about humanism, my dad insisted that I read this. What sealed the deal was finding and buying the beautiful new Penguin edition with a cover designed by Chris Ware – one of the most enticing books I’ve seen in a long time.

Freedom (Jonathan Franzen, 2010)
I’ve been in near-feverish anticipation of this book since The Corrections – and the reviews upon publication last year were stellar. And yet, I was still a little too stingy to shell out for the hardback, so this will have to wait until the paperback comes out in April.

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy, 1985)
I read and loved The Road, and this is shorter than committing to McCarthy’s entire Border trilogy. Everyone I know who’s read this recommends it, and everyone else seems intent on reading it.

The City and the City (China Mieville, 2009)
This has been on my shelf for six months and is one of the books I’m most looking forward to reading. I normally try not to read book blurbs too closely, so while my expectations involve detectives and parallel worlds, I still don’t know quite what to expect.

Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann, 1947)
Taissa and I have made a pact to run a two-person book club in which we’ll read weighty novels that we wouldn’t otherwise get around to reading. This was her suggestion, but I’ve had my eye on it for a decade or so. I’ll probably read this one in parallel with easier, shorter novels.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Stewart Lee, 2010)
I’ll certainly finish this one, as I’ve already started it. Sure, it’s ‘only’ a comedy memoir, but Lee’s deconstruction of his work (mainly in the form of lengthy footnotes) is considered and serious, while the transcripts of his stand-up shows are typically genius.

Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
I meant to read this last year. Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ principle (people are most effective when they’re tackling tasks involving a balance between familiarity and challenge)  is often quoted with respect to videogame design. I imagine it’s appropriate reading for my day job which involves, among other things, commissioning educational interactive resources.

Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
I know not a thing about this novel but Kingsley Amis seems like an author I should have read. The edition that my dad lent to me has a funny caricatured cover, so appears accessible.

Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938)
I read and was blown away by Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey at the end of 2010. I then followed it up with Timequake, in which, coincidentally, Kurt Vonnegut waxes lyrical about a performance of Our Town. Must find and read a copy of this soon.

Nights at the Circus (Angela Carter, 1984)
Carter’s The Magic Toyshop was great, but felt like a young novelist flexing her muscles. Nights at the Circus is the novel I’d meant to read first, and the one that people at my book club most recommended.

A Universal History of Infamy (Jorge Luis Borges, 1935)
I think this is the one work by Borges that I’ve not yet read, and I found a copy in Wigtown just before new year. I’ll probably put off reading this as long as I’m able, because this will be an indulgent treat.

Disgrace (J M Coetzee, 1999)
Recommended by Chris as the best novel he read in 2010. I know almost nothing about the book, but that recommendation is good enough for me.

Human Diastrophism (Gilbert Hernandez, collected 2007)
I read the first collection of Palomar comics, Heartbreak Soup, a few days ago. It was a fantastic experience (reviewed on Goodreads here), and this follow-up collection is the graphic novel I’m most looking forward to reading this year.

What I read in 2010

I saw a similar list on the blog Worlds in a Grain of Sand, and couldn’t resist. These are the books I read in 2010, in the order I read them.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953)
A young mother recuperates from tuberculosis in 1950s London, lying upon a Victorian chaise-longue, and dreams, or perhaps becomes, Milly in 1864. Little in terms of mechanics is explained, but the view of Victorian society from a 20th century perspective is fascinating.

I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
Far closer to the fantastic 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, than the 2007 turkey. The final act makes a huge amount more sense in the novel, linked to a double-meaning in the title. If more modern vampire films could use the more routine elements of this novel as an influence, they’d be better for it.

City of Glass (Auster/Karasik/Mazzuchelli, 1994)
Firstly, Paul Auster’s original story (part of the New York Trilogy) is one of the finest and most concise short stories I’ve read. The surprise is that this comic adaptation retains almost all of what is striking about the text. The additions – wordless explorations into recurrence of patterns and images – add an aspect that’s now fused with the original story in my memory.

Telling Tales (Melissa Katsoulis, 2009)
A great account of literary hoaxes and swindles. My favourite were the cases where the hoaxers produced their finest work under a pseudonym, whilst attempting to mock the establishment.

5 is the Perfect Number (Igort, 2003)
A classy affair. Igor Tuveri’s style is pretty spare and the characters are treated coldly, but I enjoyed this graphic novel about a workaday Mafia hitman.

Apples (Richard Milward, 2007)
Richard was in the year below me at secondary school – this novel charts teen relationships in a rundown suburb of nearby Middlesbrough. The dialogue is spot on (Irvine Welsh contributed a cover comment to Richard’s followup, Ten Storey Love Song) and it’s easy to see why this talk-heavy analysis of teen idiocy was adapted for the stage.

The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold, 2002)
My first book club title of the year, and certainly a novel I wouldn’t have read in other circumstances. Perfectly neat and all, but other than the character of the father, it didn’t lodge in my mind.

Castle Waiting (Linda Medley, 2006)
A mainly feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, this graphic novel is rambling and full of heart. Perhaps not as special as the beautiful cover promises, but a cosy experience all the same.

Lunar Park (Bret Easton Ellis, 2005)
I had an enjoyable struggle with the amount of foreknowledge that Ellis expects of his readers, and the first third of the book had me hooked. But I quickly tired of (character) Ellis’ self-obsession, and the recurring images (the Terby, the peeling walls of the house) felt hammered home. The novel may have been intended as a parody of Stephen King-style thrills, but I felt that it fell for its own joke.

Fup (Jim Dodge, 1983)
A happy way to spend an hour or so. This wafer-thin novel features stars a man who believes he is immortal, and a duck. It’s wry and warm.

20th Century Eightball (Daniel Clowes, 2002)
A collection of Clowes’ early comics, this is far less assured than the only other of his works I’ve read, Ghost World. It’s fun, but there’s little to hold together this collection of short strips.

The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers, 1903)
Good grief, this one dragged. I bought it on the strength of its being included in Penguin’s Read Red series of adventure stories (I wouldn’t have got round to reading the excellent Prisoner of Zenda without this series). At first, it lived up to it’s billing as an early espionage thriller, but soon became bogged down with minutiae about tides and boatcraft. Left a bitter taste and slowed down my year’s reading.

The Reader (Bernard Schlink, 1997)
Following up The Riddle of the Sands with this ponderous novel (another book club choice) was bad luck. To be fair, I would have resented it far less had I not seen the Kate Winslet stinker of an adaptation a few months previously. The view of post-war German attitudes to Nazism was fascinating, but the relationships were not.

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003)
Another book club pick, which I’m embarrassed about: I rarely read female authors, and had never read a book by an African novelist – so the only way I would have read this was through coercion. I’m really glad this was picked – it was perfectly accessible and the account of post-colonial Nigeria was captivating.

The Unlimited Dream Company (J G Ballard, 1979)
Another novel that I laboured over, although this time it probably wasn’t the fault of the book. This story of a would-be pilot crashlanding in Shepperton, only to become trapped by unknown forces, was a real surprise to me. I’ve not read any other Ballard, and was impressed/baffled by the levels of woozy sexual fantasy. Unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984)
Another author I’d been meaning to read for ages, and this book seemed a sensible place to start. The sci-fi tropes may now be overused, but still felt fresh, and the plot was pleasingly light and action-packed. Compare this with another novel with a similar heritage, Snow Crash – I tried listening to the audiobook of that book and its clunky, meandering prose completely put me off. I’d like to read either the sequels to Neuromancer, or Pattern Recognition, in 2011.

Ubik (Philip K Dick, 1969)
The only Dick novel I’ve read, other than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a relief to read his work without it being overshadowed by images from a film adaptation. The humour was unexpected, more like Douglas Adams than highbrow sci-fi.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
Another defiantly speculative-rather-than-science fiction novel. Never Let Me Go felt effortless, its female characters were wonderfully drawn, and the sense of impending doom was palpable. I felt a terrific amount of frustration with the characters inability or lack of desire to get to grips with their situation, even once they’re fully aware of their fate. My memory of this novel is of a vague, thick atmosphere, as hazy as distant schooldays.

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
I read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and while this is a bit less distinctive, it’s a solid post-apocalyptic tale with some snarky humour. I’m looking forward to reading the sort-of followup, The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s books are the ones I immediately think of when trying to pin down a definition of speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. The big ideas are there, but she doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
I recently bought a bunch of Penguin John Wyndham editions with the beautiful 1970s illustrated covers, so I’ll be ploughing through them in 2011. But the edition of The Chrysalids was a later one, with a singularly unhelpful cover (to describe it would spoil the plot, by deduction). Rather than ruining the story, this left me completely unprepared for the turn of events and, in fact, resulted in one of the most rewarding reading experiences I had all year. I have my thoughts on a different outcome to the plot that I would have preferred, but having that kind of strong opinion about a novel was inspiring in itself.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002)
I adored this book. I love hunting for the Great American Novel as much as anyone, and this was the best contender I’d read since Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. Middlesex ought to feel overblown, with several main themes: Greek families, American immigration and hermaphroditism – but it’s a flowing experience. A couple of episodes perhaps too neatly tie in with important events in US history, but on the strength of this novel, I’m anticipating Eugenides’ next book as much as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (Patricia Highsmith, 1987)
I’m a sucker for Patricia Highsmith, but this was the first of her non-Ripley books I’ve read. These gloomy short stories are all about beginnings – Highsmith constructs a nightmarish or upsetting scenario, lets the consequences play out for a handful of pages… and then stops abruptly, apparently uninterested in conclusions. A strange contrast to the environment in which I read these stories, my head leaning against an upturned canoe after trips down the River Wye.

Linger Awhile (Russell Hoban, 2006)
I used to be in a band called The Hired Sportsmen, named after the children’s book Captain Najork and the Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Our singer rang Hoban (who was at the time quite ill), who agreed – with some bewilderment – to us using the name. It was only after this point that we discovered that Hoban was, in fact, a prolific author of magic-realism novels. Since then I’ve read Riddley Walker and Amaryllis Night and Day – the latter of which is one of the most lovable books I’ve read in the last five years. I also love Hoban because, of all of the writer’s rooms photographed in the Guardian Review section years ago, his was the only one which was a total pigsty. Linger Awhile is the most frivolous of Hoban’s books that I’ve read (Hollywood cowgirl is raised from the dead, subsequently becomes a vampire), but the leaps in logic and non sequiturs are wonderful.

Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)
I came across this title in lists of proto-science fiction novels, and had expected the story of a lost land populated only by women to be a fun curiosity. But this Jules Verne-style exploration tale deals with big issues, and the arguments about the probably success of a female-only society are, while hugely biased, pretty convincing. Even more interesting is the story of Gilman herself: feminist, divorcee, child-abandoner – and editor of The Impress, a feminist journal to which she was the sole contributor.

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby, 2005)
Although I enjoyed High Fidelity when I was about 15, it feels that both Nick Hornby and I are unsure whether his writing style can be adapted to mature fiction. The tone wavers between whimsical and navel-gazing, neither of which tend to feel appropriate for this story of four would-be suicides. A book club pick.

Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
I’m embarrassed to say that I took ages to get through this one. I loved the Fleet Street and rural episodes, but the bulk of the book, with reporters stationed in a civil war-torn African state, left me cold. Still, I’m determined to read Brideshead Revisited this year.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
I hadn’t read an Agatha Christie book since my early teens, and this felt like a real palate-cleansing treat. Most impressive was Christie’s abruptness – it felt sometimes that she could condense what might be a chapter’s worth of exposition into a sentence. Less appealing was her tendency to sketch back stories with just one single image per character, repeated ad nauseum. I paused before the epilogue and tried to convince myself that each of the ten characters in turn had been the murderer, and all seemed equally valid. Expecting a forehead-smacking revelation, I was disappointed with the outcome.

The Magic Toyshop (Angela Carter, 1981)
I’d expected magic realism similar to Jeanette Winterson’s books, but this story of orphaned children, an authoritarian father figure and swan rape was incredibly bleak. I’m still not sure I fully understand the significance of sizeable portions of this book.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr, 1960)
Back to my default, this is another post-apocalptic story, but with a difference. Each of the three books follow the events surrounding an abbey: in the first book the monks gather relics of the destroyed civilization and attempt to canonize Leibowitz, an ordinary engineer; in the second book the abbey protects the relics and redevelops pre-existing technology; in the third book the abbey witnesses the second rise of civilization and an impending nuclear war. It’s wryly funny and skippy for such a long book but packs a punch – definitely recommended.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1927)
Wow. I’d thought this novel sounded neat: five people fall to their deaths from a bridge in Peru and a priest researches each life to understand why God chose them to die. But each of the stories is totally engrossing, each character so idiosyncratic and appealing, I just raced through this short book. Page for page, the most impressive work I’ve read this year.

Timequake (Kurt Vonnegut, 1996)
I can’t get enough of Kurt Vonnegut, and, as with Nabokov, I’ve taken to rationing myself so I don’t get through them too quickly. This novel is barely fiction – Vonnegut tells the story of a temporary contraction of the universe which sends everyone ten years back in time, doomed to make exactly the same decisions all over again. But really this conceit is an excuse for Vonnegut to hold forth on his favourite topics: humanism, family and his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. Since reading this book I’ve regularly been espousing Vonnegut’s wisdom to poor Rose.

I’ve missed out the four books I’ve yet to finish. All are non-fiction: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (absorbing account of modern classical music, but I got distracted making companion playlists); The Great Philosophers edited by Frederick Raphael; Teach Yourself Humanism by Mark Vernon; and an analysis of Jorge Luis Borges by Beatriz Sarlo.

I’ve already agonised over my choices of books in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked to, and my to-read list is still longer than the list of books I’ve ever read.

Tim Major – writer & editor

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