Somehow it’s the start of another month, which means another round-up.
Below you’ll find the best books I’ve read this month and links to some of the best articles, along with one of my favourite tools for focus, and more.
Feel free to chip in with any comments on the format or the content - it’s always welcome.
Until next time,
What to read: books
Karl Ove Knausgaard - The Morning Star
Knausgaard's My Struggle was a genuine literary phenomenon, and so there was considerable excitement about his return to fiction. The Morning Star was the result, a novel about a monstrous new star that rises above Stockholm, and the mysterious happenings that accompany it (it rains crabs; a man awakes from the dead during his autopsy; a man drinks too many Jagermeisters and sees into another dimension).
I had huge fun tweeting out-of-context moments from the book: "Karl Ove has accidentally caught 118 fish, then got drunk with his neighbour, and is now drunkenly gutting 118 fish", "Karl Ove has met God in a Burger King", and honestly I enjoyed the whole experience a lot.
As a novel it's absolutely bewildering, often stupid, and occasionally deeply moving (as in a particularly thoughtful meditation on Kierkegaard). I can't recommend it whole-heartedly, but it's certainly one of the more entertaining literary novels you'll read this year.
Jonathan Franzen - Crossroads
It's easy to hate on Jonathan Franzen, not least because his essays are terrible and he seems to deliberately court pretention, but it's also easy to forget that he’s a very, very good writer. Crossroads, a 1970s-set novel about an American pastor and the family that surround him, has been hailed by a lot of critics as a return to form, and they're not wrong - arguably it's even better than The Corrections, the novel that made Franzen a superstar.
I am absolutely the target audience for Crossroads, dealing as it does with the challenges of growing up in a church environment, the long-lasting psychological impacts of doing so, and the surprising benefits of both faith and community, but I think you'd be hard pressed not to enjoy this. It is propulsive, insightful and at times very funny - I have actually laughed aloud listening to it on a number of occasions - and it feels like a worthy successor to the Victorian novels that Franzen consciously wants to evoke (the trilogy is even called A Key to all Mythologies, after Mr Casaubon's great unfinished work in Middlemarch).
It's easily among the best books I've read this year, and you definitely owe it to yourself to give it a go - even if Franzen has put you off before.
Will Maclean - The Apparition Phase
Will Maclean's The Apparition Phase is the first book in a long time to actually scare me. It's a love letter to creepy 1970s television shows and hauntology with some amazing sequences that left me totally rattled. It's the story of Tim Smith, who with his twin sister Abi decides to fake a photograph of a ghost in their attic, a decision that has far-reaching consequences (which are sadly too full of spoilers to recount here).
The Apparition Phase is brilliantly written, with a lot of its power coming from Tim's voice and Maclean's shrewd eye for the eerie detail, but it's also a compelling mystery. It doesn't feel like a vehicle for a few great scenes, it doesn't feel like a high-concept piece strung out for longer than it needs - it's deliberately paced, ratcheting up the tension and melancholy throughout. I loved it, and if you were ever freaked out by The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water , you will too.
Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace
I'm early on in this, but it deserves a mention here. Don't be put off by Tolstoy's fearsome length or reputation: his books are exceedingly readable, and almost always enjoyable (barring the lengthy scything sequence in Anna Karenina). If you loved Middlemarch and you've never tried the Russians, maybe this winter is the time to give Tolstoy a go.
What to read: articles
You Do Not Need to Sell This Life Today - wonderful reflection on community from the perennially great Anne Helen Peterson
Turfucken - Dennis Lee's attempt to make an authentically American version of ‘turducken’ using turkey Spam, chicken nuggets and duck-flavoured cat food is the funniest thing I've read all month
Austin Kleon on watching half a movie
The first half of this article from The Atlantic on How Amazon is changing the novel is a fascinating dive into how our systems and metrics create the world
A wonderful article in praise of writing notes in your books (use a pencil if you must)
Also of note
This month I took myself off to watch Spencer, Pablo Larraín's mad vision of Princess Diana disintegrating over a terrible Christmas weekend with the royal family, and described the experience as being "like somebody binge-watched the Crown then watched The Shining on loop for three straight days, and then wrote down their fever dreams". It's a visceral, haunting experience, undoubtedly rather overblown but nevertheless incredibly impressive: a kind of psychological horror story where you'd never expect to find one. See it in the cinema if you still can, where the vastness of the landscapes and the majesty of Jonny Greenwood's score will be at their best.
Surprisingly disappointing, though, was Prano Bailey-Bond's much-hyped film Censor, following a censor who breaks upon witnessing a kind of ghost in one of the reels provided to her. Whilst it's incredibly vivid, and Niamh Algar's central performance is admirable, none of the film's narrative turns seemed to land with the emotional force I expected. It's been a great few years for elevated horror, and maybe I've been spoiled by incredible stories like Relic and Saint Maud, but I expected a lot more than this. One to avoid.
If we've met in person recently, I may have extolled the virtues of Brain.fm, one of the very few subscription services I can't do without. Whether there is any truth to the science behind their product, I'm unsure, but they make music that is calibrated to sit in the background and not distract you and it works better than any other soundtrack I've ever come across (whether for reading, writing or sleeping).
I've been using it for several months now and it is the perfect tool for focus. Use this link to get a free month.
Quotation of the Month
Like Susan Sontag, I too considered a life of academia. Call it a lucky escape:
"With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless … just keep on making good grades—(I probably would have stayed in English—I just don’t have the math ability for Philosophy)—stayed for a master’s and a teaching assistantship, wrote a couple of papers on obscure subjects that nobody cares about, and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today—long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; The Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harte in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) … Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?"