Monday, December 28, 2009

New year, new novel

I'm making a big transition in the next few days -- moving overseas for an extended stay and starting a new book. In a sense, it's a restart of this blog. I'll be back to where I was in 2007 in terms of the writing process.

I'll be living in Vietnam for about 5 1/2 months, and most of my energy for weeks has been focused on preparing for that. And I expect a lot of energy focused on getting set up there for awhile. Plus, I have several once-in-a-lifetime distractions during the stay, including some extended side trips.

But once I am settled and to the extent that I'm not socializing or traveling, I won't have a lot of responsibilities. So I plan to make it a writer's retreat. I've been stewing on this idea for my second novel since last September, sneaking in what research that I can, doing a lot of note-taking and character sketching and so on. I'm not as ready as I wanted to be, but I'm going with the flow. Sometime as soon as possible after the morning of Monday, January 4, after I finish a breakfast of cafe sua da and banh mi op la, I'm going to sit down in a quiet corner of our apartment with my notebook and start drafting the book. One way or another, with the information and skills I have. We'll see what happens. I think I'll be lucky to have it 3/4 drafted before I have to come home.

Stay tuned to see how it goes.

Books read in 2009

As discussed at length at the end of 2008 and 2007, I have a peculiar and rationally inconsistent habit of keeping a list of all the books I read, but only counting them if I finish them. It is therefore a really misleading snapshot of how I spend my reading time -- no short stories unless it was part of a collection I finished, no anthologies I dip into, no literary journals and none of the dozens of books I start and don't complete. Some of those, it wouldn't be fair to count because I just read a few pages, and some of them it's really hard not to finish because I've already invested in 400 pages of time into it but there are another 400 to go.

For example, I foundered this year on Anna Kerenina about half way through, so it's not on my list. I read and loved War and Peace and was glad I did I finished it, but wished I counted for five books on my list. I forced myself to finish A Northern Clemency so I could add it to the list and regretted that much effort. For those reasons, I don't feel bad about counting much shorter books, such as all the S.E. Hinton books I revisited during a nostalgia phase last summer.

I don't have time this year to type out the whole list here -- more later on the reasons for my time crunch -- but I wanted to make a post here, partly to brag and partly to have a consistent record from year to year. My grand total this year is . . . 89.

That's probably the highest total ever, but my lifelong goal is to achieve 2 per week, 104 on the list for the year. I was always one step behind that for most of the year and sprinting not to lose any more ground. But about the middle of October I saw it wasn't going to happen --that I could maybe hit 95 if I kept sprinting -- and I started to coast. I don't anticipate doing any better in 2010 because of a new schedule coming up.

But how about the literary value of the list? There are fewer titles this year that were read to help me with my first novel, since it was really done. There are a few titles related to my second book (more on that later) which I plan to start soon. There is a Napoleonic Wars phase, really starting with The Charterhouse of Parma last year and continuing with War and Peace and a bio of Napoleon this year. There are several biographies, which my wife and read to each other at night. There are the textbooks for the classes I teach. I did count a couple audio books my wife and I listened to. I was reading more poetry at the start of the year and seemed to get focused on other things later in the year.

There a few graphic novels. I was partly inspired by the events in Iran to read Persepolis and partly inspired by The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay to learn more about comics. Kavelier and Clay was my great discovery this year. I read it twice and have it packed for another trip coming up, and I read a few other Chabon books. I especially loved Wonder Boys. Another new favorite is Middlesex, which I also read twice, and enjoyed The Virgin Suicides.

I read a bunch of dogs that I can't believe were so highly recommended. But I already complained about those enough. So I'll finish up with this short list of other fiction that I particularly enjoyed in the last year, in no particular order, some new books, some new to me.

-Oive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
-Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Letham
-Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun
-The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
-Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger
-Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
-American Woman by Susan Choi
-Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
-Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
-The Book Borrower by Alice Mattison

Well, one more word, for the sake of poetry this time. Blood, Tin, Straw by Sharon Olds. She kicks ass as always.