Art Kavanagh

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Talk about books

This site has just passed its third fourth birthday: a few days ago I renewed the domain name registration for a fourth fifth year. I started the site in December 2018 as somewhere to put the kind of writing that I had previously been posting on Medium.

Talk about books, which I’m no longer calling a “newsletter” is now two years old: I sent out its 52nd fortnighly email on 17-Nov-2022. For the past eleven months it has been hosted on, having started out on Substack. Though I’ve moved Talk about books from Subtack, I’m still a fan of the platform, and regularly read several newsletters there, some by email but many in RSS. Here’s a list of a few of my particular favourites.

My posts about aphantasia

Apart from fiction and criticism, I’ve written an accidental series on the subject of aphantasia, since recognizing in March or April 2018 that I have that condition. (I’m using “condition” in the a wide sense, as equivalent to “state”, and not to imply that aphantasia is a medical condition or impairment.) Up to January 2019, I published those posts on Medium, More recent posts are on this site. Here is the list of posts so far — I'll update it if and when I add more.

Fiction by me

I’ve made a list of my own stories. These were all previously posted on Medium but with one remaining exception can now be read on this site. The list includes several short stories, a novella and a novel, all of which are free to read. As a bonus, here is the shortest story I've written so far, “Closure”. It comes in at about 750 words. I originally posted it on Medium but deleted it last year and now I've reposted it here.

Former Mix collections

There were two Mix collections that I was quite sorry to leave behind when I deactivated my Mix account, so I decided to recreate them here, in so far as I could. I’ll update them as the mood takes me and/or I find more short stories online, or posts about writing by writers.

Writers on writing
A list of pieces available to read on the web in which writers discuss aspects of the craft, process or experience of writing.

Short stories on the web
A list of short stories that you can read online. I previously maintained the list as Pinterest board as well as as a Mix collection. It should work just as well as a regular web page.

Recent posts

Tracking my reading
Yet again, I’m giving up the idea of keeping track of the books I read.

Substack Notes: a substitute for Twitter?
Substack has reintroduced the feature that allows you to follow a Substacker’s Notes without also signing up for their emails. Only now it’s easier to find and use, and it has a name: Following.

Book reviews, plot summaries and other ways of writing about books
The book review is (still) dying; that doesn’t mean that we can’t write analytically and in depth about books, or that we have to resort to bare plot summaries.

Hugo Grotius and the minimalist theory of natural law
Traditionally, natural law theories have been grounded in the will or command of God. In the work of Hugo Grotius, we find a an argument for basing natural law instead on human reason. But did Grotius know what he was doing — and does it matter?

Some books I didn’t leave behind a second time
In 2020, I rescued from my sister’s attic some of the books I’d left behind there years before. Recently, I went back for a second, final bite of the cherry.

Bringing back the CD
My CD collection has been languishing unplayed in a French attic since 2011. I wanted to bring the discs home. But not their “jewel” cases, which only add bulk and weight.

Talk about books, print edition — again
A year ago, I was thinking about a print edition of my Substack (as it then was), but I did something else instead. It’s an idea whose time has come back.

Publishers and short stories
Short stories aren’t novels. So maybe it’s not a good idea that collections and anthologies so often take the same size and shape as a novel.

Older posts  |  Miscellaneous posts previously on Medium

Criticism and book discussion

This section is for links to my writing about other writing — in particular fiction, poetry and (conceivably, eventually) drama. At the moment, I’m for the most part alternating between two projects. The first is to turn my doctoral thesis (“Andrew Marvell’s ambivalence about justice”) into something more widely accessible; the second to examine how some authors have been able to maintain interest in the same or connected characters over a series of crime fiction novels.

Rereading Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Kate Atkinson’s first novel has a narrator who falls into three different types, each pulling in different directions. This results in a “teeming”, overstuffed tale whose profusion of detail tends to compensate for or distract from a glaring gap in the narrator’s memory. It’s a novel that requires to be reread.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Till recently, I had never reread The Handmaid’s Tale, having first read it more than 30 years ago. I don’t think I was fair to it then: it was clearly time to give it another chance.

Who really killed The General’s Daughter?
A discussion of the resolution of the plot of Nelson DeMille’s 1992 novel The General’s Daughter.

Finite though unbounded: the abolition of infinity in the poetry of William Empson
A long essay (originally 5,000 words, but it seems to have stretched a bit over the years) about a theme in the early poetry of William Empson, which I wrote in 1996 and now think is worth resurrecting in a very slightly revised form.

Gillian Flynn's plotting in Dark Places: The deceptive attraction of overkill
My discussion of the plot of Gillian Flynn's second novel, Dark Places (2009).

Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike books
This post deals with tropes and subgenres in the first three Cormoran Strike books. For Lethal White, see next item.

Robert Galbraith, Lethal White
Nearly 18 months ago, I wrote a post (originally on Medium) in which I argued that each of the first three Cormoran Strike novels explores a different trope or sub-genre of crime fiction. Now, at long last, I’ve added my thoughts on the fourth novel in Robert Galbraith’s series.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Restrained and understated it may be. but when you look closely Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel is a horror story.

‘What is conceivable can happen too’: Philip Kerr, A Philosophical Investigation (1992)
Philip Kerr’s early novel, A Philosophical Investigation, is nearly as much a mystery to me now as it was almost 30 years ago. That’s fine: it’s meant to be a mystery.

“A preferable technique to bribery”: The nature of coercion in Smiley’s People
Another look at why I had such an adverse reaction to the final novel in le Carré’s Karla trilogy on first reading.

More about Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth: not rushing into print
An addendum to my Talk about books post about Ian McEwan's spy fiction. The ending of Ian McEwan’s 2012 novel Sweet Tooth filled me with a heady mix of excitement and dismay.

“Still to be plagued in hell”: Christopher Ricks and William Empson on Doctor Faustus
Empson’s question — how could an intelligent thinker like Faustus make an obviously stupid bargain? — prompted an enlightening answer from Christopher Ricks.

Marvell and Mortalism: A supplementary note to my essay on “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”
In my newsletter, Talk about books, I’ve discussed Andrew Marvell’s lyric poem, “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body”. This is a highly speculative note about the possible link between that poem and the Mortalist heresy.

Mistaken long: Andrew Marvell and pronouns again
I’ve been missing something very obvious about Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden” for an embarrassingly long time.

The paradoxical ambition of Andrew Marvell’s Third Advice to a Painter
This is an argument (a by-product of my thesis) about one of Marvell’s satires.

“Prelate of the grove”: A note on ambition and preferment in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”
The treatment of ambition and preferment in Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” indicates the need to develop an acutely discriminating conscience.

“What course and opinion he thinks the safest”: Religion and divine justice in the work of Andrew Marvell
Another by-product of my thesis, which was about justice as a theme in Marvell’s works. That topic was suggested to me by a book about his treatment of divine justice but I found that Marvell’s writings about divine justice engaged with theodicy only incidentally.

Brian Moore, Catholics
Brian Moore’s 1972 novel is concerned with the clash between personal faith and institutional loyalty, or between conscience and the duty to obey. It ends on what I found to be an unconvincing paradox but I enjoyed the journey to get there.

Socially acceptable: Louise Nealon, Snowflake (2021)
In her first novel Louise Nealon writes about depression and other mental illness, isolation and loneliness, sudden and brutal death by farm machinery, attempted suicide, guilt, grief and out-of-control drinking, in an almost whimsical way.

Liz Nugent, Skin Deep
I previously wrote a mini-review of Liz Nugent’s Lying in Wait which you can find on the book reviews page. Here‘s a slightly more substantial discussion of her more recent novel.

“Oh my god, shut up”: Sally Rooney, short story writer
Before she was an acclaimed novelist, Sally Rooney was already a very impressive short story writer. Here, I discuss three of her stories which can be read on the web.

Book reviews

Most of the book reviews from Goodreads that I think are worth keeping have now been moved to this site.

I use mainly as an alternative to Twitter but from time to time I post longer pieces there. Here is a list of some of my longer posts which I don’t necessarily want to see buried in the timeline.