Rereading Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting, Porno & their film and stage adaptations

t2-1One of the objectives behind the Year of No New Books was to encourage me to reread books that I’ve loved (or at least highly respected) in the past. I’d recently become quite an advocate for the rereading of books after discovering that a second reading, particularly if it happened soon after the initial one, deeply enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the text.

Back when I worked as a bookseller, I’d been one of the organisers of my local bookshop’s bookclub. Customers would pay a small fee and come along to the monthly gathering where we would nestle in comfy armchairs in front of the open fire at our local pub and, with a glass of wine in hand, we’d discuss the book. To ensure a lively debate, I’d always make sure I was well prepared and would thoroughly research the book in question – reading reviews and author interviews, taking extensive notes on themes, character development, historical context – you know the drill.

A significant part of my process was reading the book twice. Until I made this an intrinsic part of my preparation I had no idea how plot-focused I was as a reader.  On my first reading I’d usually be so obsessed with what was happening and trying to second-guess what was about to happen that appreciation of all the other aspects of the book would fade into the background. It wasn’t until I reread a book that I’d be freed from my preoccupation with plot and could really concentrate on all the other aspects of the author’s skill. Although I’d appreciate these underlying features on some level during the initial reading, I’d not be analysing them with the attention or depth I’d give them on my second pass at the book.

Anyway, that was a long-winded way of explaining my consideration of rereading as an act of profound engagement with a book.

t1-1My first reread of a much-loved novel for the year was Trainspotting. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but I was asked to review Trainspotting Live, a stage production showing at the Adelaide Fringe, so I thought I’d better reread the novel then re-watch the film in preparation for reviewing the performance. I’d forgotten how much I loved the language. Reading phonetic Scots is like a reading foreign language in which I’m only semi-literate. It’s such slow going! It truly feels like an act of translation. But I loved what it did to my reading. I lingered over sentences until I heard the flow of their speech in my mind. This is the way I should read all the time – giving every line close attention, treating the sentences like valued individuals. It was a revelation.

I’d also forgotten how much the novel differed from the film in structure and point of view. The novel comprises short powerful stories all told from the perspective of various characters. The main four (Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie) all have multiple stories but minor characters are also given a voice. The stores told by the female and HIV positive characters I found to be especially powerful.

The film was a jolt of nostalgia. It’s a classic and I’ll never forget the shock of seeing it on the big screen back in the mid-nineties. The music! For me, it was one of the defining pieces of cinema of my youth.

trainspotting-live-adelaide-fringe-1200x675So, I saw the stage production and submitted my review (if you want to read my piece, here it is). Then, because I was clearly all over Irvine Welsh’s early work, my editor offered me the chance to review the film sequel T2 – Trainspotting. The problem was I’d lost my copy of Porno (the book on which the sequel is based) and of course, being the Year of No New Books, I couldn’t just pop out and buy a new copy.

I tried the local library. Their copy was lost in transit somewhere between Quorn and Stirling. I put out a call on facebook. No joy. I tried the University Library, the State Library – my friend even put a hold on a copy down in Port Adelaide. It seemed every publically available copy was currently being read by a member of said public. In desperation I tried second-hand bookshops whose profits go to charity. Oxfam, Lions Club, The Hutt. No dice. Eventually, with two days left before the film opened I sent my poor husband into Dymock’s to buy a copy so I could claim that I didn’t purchase it. It would be “a gift”. Despite my ridiculous and dodgy navigation of my self-imposed rule there was no other way to look at it. I had failed. Andrew claimed that I could lodge an appeal on the grounds of employment – as part of my work I needed to read a copy and thus could justify it since all other efforts to acquire a copy had proved unsuccessful.

All I can say in my defense is that my review (click here) was more thorough for the indirect breaking of my vow.  And while neither Porno (now republished as T2 Trainspotting) nor its film adaptation are the equal of their brilliant originals, the sequels are both worth your time (once, but perhaps not a rereading).

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Deserving Death – Katherine Howell

I want to be upfront in saying that I don’t commonly read much crime fiction.  When I do, it’s usually a sign that I’m depressed. It’s just one of those inexplicable things; I only reach for crime fiction when I’m in a very dark place and want to do nothing more than curl up on the couch and avoid the world.

This book is an exception because I read it for research. I’m currently writing a short story collection based on paramedics and I heard that Australian crime writer, Katherine Howell, writes crime fiction that puts her fifteen-year career as a paramedic to very good use.

Deserving Death is the seventh of eight books that follow the career of Ella Marconi, a detective based in Sydney, Australia. What makes these books interesting to me is that apparently the storylines all feature paramedics as victims, suspects, witnesses or characters that pursue their own independent investigations. So, in the interest of my own work, I decided to read them to see how Howell weaves her paramedic experience into the writing of crime fiction.  My Mum is a crime fiction aficionado and loaned this copy to me last weekend.

img_3580-1In a nutshell, two paramedics are murdered in swift succession and Detective Ella Marconi is tasked with determining if this is coincidence or the work of a serial killer.  The second victim’s close friend and paramedic colleague, Carly Martens, is immediately suspicious of both the victim’s police officer ex-boyfriend and Carly’s own ambulance partner. She impulsively embarks on an investigation that puts her own life in danger.

I was impressed. Deserving Death is solid and engaging crime fiction. The paramedic characters were completely believable and I appreciated the substantial representation of female paramedics and the plot prominence of a lesbian couple dealing with the issue of coming out to a less than open-minded family.

My one quibble was with the interjection of the killer’s point-of-view at various points throughout the narrative. It was unnecessary, didn’t enhance the suspense and seemed to be included just to salt the plot with a few extra clues. Considering the number of female characters, it only served to immediately eliminate a significant proportion of the suspect pool since it revealed the killer as male. Before you type out an angry comment about me giving away too much, this can hardly be called a spoiler since the killer’s POV is first introduced on pg. 78.

Anyway, as I was reading it purely for the paramedic content I thought it was a valuable enough resource to justify asking Mum to chase down the other seven books. She only buys crime novels in second-hand bookshops and book exchanges so I don’t feel guilty – she’ll definitely read them first.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k – Sarah Knight

Warning – the following post contains frequent and joyful use of expletives.

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I was given this book for Christmas by a wonderful friend who is well aware of my history of giving too many fucks about too many things, especially things over which I have little control.  To be honest, self-help is probably my least favourite genre, but this book has made me think I need to reassess my prejudices.

As someone constantly up to my neck in fuck deficit, giving far more than I can possibly supply, I found The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck to be as helpful as it is hilarious. Ok, that sentence was a bit ambiguous, so in case you were wondering, the book scores high marks in both categories.

Most of us are aware that the number of fucks we give can have a detrimental impact on our quality of life.  The brilliance of this book is that it gives practical advice on how to assess your current level and areas of fuck-giving, then guides you in establishing a fuck budget and how to eliminate surplus fucks without tipping over into being an arsehole.

The key seems to be ceasing to give a fuck about what other people think. Once you have freed yourself from the shackles of being universally likeable (an impossibility) you can reassess your priorities and then find polite ways of removing things, people and obligations from your life that you are unwilling to spend your precious fucks on. Prioritise that which brings you joy and minimise all that annoys. It’s riotously liberating. This book is brimming with seriously useful advice delivered in a way that will have you snorting aloud and possibly in public if you are reading it on the bus.

As a result, I’m well on the way out of fuckruptcy, newly dedicated to only giving fucks to things that truly matter to me and armed with techniques that will hopefully prevent me from becoming an arsehole in the process. Hilariously transformative stuff.

P.S. A note to my lovely friend, Mike Hopkins – the reason I missed your poetry reading today was not due to you being in any way non-fuckworthy.  My hairdressing appointment ran incredibly late. I promise this is the stone-cold truth and I was not being an arsehole despite how incredibly vacuous this excuse sounds. I am truly sorry.

Wild Gestures – Lucy Durneen

img_3576-1Wild Gestures was my first invocation of the “book launch exemption” for this year of no new books.  Book launches are far more than the celebration of a new book’s journey into the world. As an author, launches and signings are events where you have the opportunity to talk about the book to prospective readers and as a result they are often where you sell the most copies.

Despite the sales boost, book launches are usually catered events and unless you are a VERY important writer you can guarantee that the publishing house will not be paying for the wine and canapes. In the vast majority of cases, the writer will be footing the bill. So, if I go to a book launch and drink the wine, then I buy the book and say lovely, congratulatory things to the writer when they sign it for me, knowing that they may have spent more on the event than they will recoup in sales. Drink the wine = buy the book. Book launch etiquette 101.

I am so glad I drank that sauvignon blanc because Wild Gestures is a seriously good collection of short stories.

While each of the stories is a stand-alone piece and can be read independently, I think that the stories work brilliantly as a collection. All the pieces share a certain dark vision and psychological depth. They are slow burners; stories that you will be thinking over long after you’ve put them down.  These are tales peopled with characters whose yearning for love, meaning or control is deeply embedded and translated to the reader in a visceral way.

At the launch, Lucy spoke about hearing a master of the short story, Robert Olen Butler, speak at a conference in Vienna about how crucial “manifest yearning” is to the success of any piece of short fiction.  She has taken this to heart. Yearning in myriad guises permeates each of these stories.

These narratives are intense and captivating but so is the writing style. It’s easy to see that Durneen is also a poet; her imagery, concision and depth unmask her.  Despite the dark tones, Durneen is playful when it comes to using various points of view and tenses, but the most enthralling aspect for me was her mastery of suspense. As a reader, she grips you within the first few paragraphs then keeps you hanging, drip feeding until the final lines where there is always a resolution tainted with a lingering sense of mystery. These stories are far more than simple narratives; they are psychological encounters with exceptionally well-crafted characters.

Wild Gestures is a brilliantly written collection that taught me a great deal about both the art and the craft of the short story.