Not something friends would expect me to read: "women's fiction" aka chicklit for a slightly older crowd or mums with kids. At a point last year I'd cNot something friends would expect me to read: "women's fiction" aka chicklit for a slightly older crowd or mums with kids. At a point last year I'd consciously tried to read more books by black british authors. (I still disagree with quotas for personal reading, but the degree of disparity between contemporary writers I was reading, and the people you see and meet in English cities bothered me somewhat.) Not long afterwards I stayed in a house that had a copy of this book lying about. I didn't quite get round to it, which continued to nag at me. I also have the idea, which AFAIK only one friend on here has (180-contrary to the GR resident literary crowd's ethos), that it would be nice to enjoy demotic works more, and to this end it's a good thing to read them, especially if you can get into the frame of mind to simply be entertained by them. ...more
[4.5] I've always wanted historical fiction written like this. To feel like I was reading something of another, older world, but not hard work like Ch[4.5] I've always wanted historical fiction written like this. To feel like I was reading something of another, older world, but not hard work like Chaucer or Beowulf.
So I'd probably have read The Wake anyway, regardless of the Booker Prize - it's just that I only heard of it a day or two before the longlist announcement, via, I think, a Guardian comment from book blogger John Self (who has since reviewed the novel for The Times - behind paywall, haven't read it). At that point, when I looked at the Goodreads book page, I was delighted to see an average rating of 4.28 and several reviews: clearly the book was already being found by the right people... And as I expected, with it being longlisted, people who don't like it and can't read it are now trying it and giving 1 and 2 stars - it surprises me how many people don't read a few pages before buying a book. (But is it better to have a grateful niche audience and less money, or higher sales including people who [noisily] don't appreciate a work plus a few extra fans?)
That "not hard work"... As mentioned in a few other reviews, I generally just don't bother with fiction where specialist knowledge helps if I haven't got it. Things that helped here included: knowledge of the relevant history including pre-Christian religions, familiarity with accents and dialects of Northern England and southern Scotland, ("beornin" heard in an old Durham accent made sense instantly) understanding of the general patterns of Old English without actually knowing the language. (Germanic languages would help a lot too.) And a thing which must have a proper name, switching gears where language is concerned and understanding it through feeling and sound more than thinking: this felt the same as reading paragraphs of text speak and youth slang, except that I was more interested. (I've always had a knack for silently working out slang based on context and instinct, which is very useful if you're an easily embarrassed kid who doesn't want people to know you're easily embarrassed.)
The Wake is best read in big chunks - and when fairly awake - so you stay inside its idiom and remember the vocab; it gets faster as you go along. Also, read the afterwords first, and if you're on an e-reader, print out the glossary (unless your OE / German / Dutch / Scandinavian is good enough that you won't need it).
Having been vaguely interested in Paul Kingsnorth's non-fiction already, it maybe wasn't so surprising to find a writer with views I'm very sympathetic to. (Have recently read several of the articles on his website.) He also had mystical feelings about landscape from an early age, and studied history, someone who likewise hankers for a vivid felt sense of the past whilst having come to understand that we can really only see it through ourselves and our own time. The "shadow-tongue" in which The Wake is written panders skilfully to the feeling of "what it was like", but it's not authentic, it's a twenty-first century constructed pidgin of modern and Old English - although nearly all of the words are of Anglo-Saxon origin. This combination of ancient and modern shares the ethos of neo-paganism. Pedants familiar with Old English may find it annoying, but knowing OE wouldn't necessarily preclude a reader from enjoying the writer's creative games with language.
Likewise, there are contradictory layers to the narrator, Buccmaster, and his story. This is a "post-apocalyptic historical novel" - whose phrase that was I can't remember - and Kingsnorth mentions in his afterword that few British people know how awful the aftermath of the Norman Conquest was. (He points out the effects on land ownership and the class system - but the Harrowing of the North still has its effects today in the North-South economic divide.) A cheesy, obviously didactic historical novel would set out to show this using sympathetic characters. Buccmaster pre-Hastings is a self-important Lincolnshire sokeman, or yeoman farmer, easy to imagine as a burly Daily Mail reader, forever complaining about taxes and red tape, always expecting something to be done about things without contribution from him and his perfectly able household - and also something of a Walter Mitty dreamer, all talk and little, sporadic, action. He's not exactly central casting's budding rebel outlaw type, nor does he experience a chrysalid transmutation of personality at his country's hour of need.
No sensible reader would expect a man of the eleventh century to be PC and peaceful, but he's more unusual among his contemporaries for being, essentially, pagan. His grandfather remained secretly loyal to the old gods and was a great inspiration to Buccmaster. The narrator's conversations with Weland and visions of Woden echo Robin of Sherwood's relationship with Herne the Hunter - given Kingsnorth's age I'd bet he watched the series as a kid / teenager. (There are various other echoes such as Lincoln[shire] green [men], a Little John-like giant etc.) I'm deeply sympathetic to this pagan aspect and viewed it as a positive side of Buccmaster's character. (I also rooted for the Wicker Man people... I don't like violence but it was some kind of satisfying counterbalance to all the conversion and martyrdom stories from a Catholic perspective I read as a child.) I'd guess the author has pagan leanings too. But the book is well-constructed such that a more negative interpretation of this side of the character is equally possible; as his contemporaries do, a reader could also see Buccmaster's paganism as inevitably connected with his episodes of madness. Whereas I consider his main problem is egotism and tyranny, and that as far as the old gods are concerned, he's merely guilty from time to time of that very English fault to find, taking things a bit too far. (One has to also take into account that the supernatural was an accepted part of every day life before the age of reason - although that doesn't mean that all dreams and visions were automatically accepted, as the reception of Margery Kempe and Joan of Arc indicate.)
Alongside the moments of too-modern religious doubt (of all religions), this story of the once well-established man become an outlaw on the run is a common motif in several of this year's Booker longlisted titles, a comment on creeping authoritarian aspects of contemporary life. Kingsnorth, a former road protestor and environmental journalist, evidently means something along those lines, also re. globalisation. (He may be another white middle class man as many have said there are too many of on the list, and an Oxbridge one to boot, but he seems the sort who seriously mucks in and sees how it is, perhaps not quite in so much depth as Orwell, but same ethos.) But he is circumspect enough to consider in his narrative why resistance seems futile, or even harmful, to some. And hidden under Buccmaster's veneration of the old gods and concept of pre-Norman, pre-Christian England as somehow the real deal - a popular idea at least since the Victorians - is the knowledge that before the Anglo-Saxons there were the wealsc - now inhabiting the far west - whom the Germanic invaders conquered, and that there were other people before the wealsc too. He is outraged that people like himself are made thralls; the geburs and thralls his own people held are mentioned, made obvious and human to the reader, but to Buccmaster they remain beneath him. Love of the English countryside and history is abundant in the writing, but not without knowledge of the potential for xenophobia within these sentiments. I admire the sense of balance in this novel, that it passionately understands why something is worth fighting for, but simultaneously what might be wrong about that or about the way it's done - and that any one time is just part of a long cycle of takeovers and oppressions, and the mythical past of perfect freedom always was mythical, even if certain aspects of life were or are better at one time or another. It combines the historian's long view with the political activist's immediate outlook - and seriously creative use of language as rarely found in books of that sort.
Sacreligiously, I prefer this to Wilde's original. And I greatly prefer it to any of Will Self's other fiction I've read. (Always been a big fan of hiSacreligiously, I prefer this to Wilde's original. And I greatly prefer it to any of Will Self's other fiction I've read. (Always been a big fan of his non-fiction, the stories less so.) I doubt I'll ever read a better re-write of a classic - those things are not known even for being good, but this is superlative.
Such profusion and richness of language as Self uses is a precarious act - most people can't get away with their attempts at this, making a long series of risible pratfalls as can be seen all over sites like this one, including in not a few of my old posts. Many of us are better with the sort of pruned simplicity advocated here, in a post wonderfully entitled '"Don't Use Said", He Bellowed: Creative Writing Lessons From the Primary School Classroom' - and only the occasional decorative flourish to mix it up. (Of course, there are those who think nobody should go all baroque with words, but that's not the point here.) I even think Self overdoes it sometimes, repeating what he's just said in different vocab for the sheer fun of it.
But the story of Dorian Gray, all that elite decadence and the famous blooming of all the flowers at once, regardless of season, could not be a more perfect fit for Will Self's writing style and reference-dropping. And for his personality. Very few contemporary writers could come up with so many new aphorisms of such high quality and just the right tone. Wilde said "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps." The 1980s version of Henry Wootton in Dorian is - except for being gay rather than straight - just what Will Self was popularly thought to be during his heroin years. Although HW has, interestingly, Patrick Melrose's childhood as per Edward St. Aubyn's Never Mind; he turns his dissociation into an extra sense to use whilst driving. (There is another Self-insert - his Hallward - in the form of a supporting character who's a novelist and high-functioning addict.) Plus, this version ninety years on from the original doesn't have to leave out the sex, and can venture inside the doors of the opium den. Contemporary sincerity isn't always a bad thing, and makes Dorian more moving and more philosophical, more, dare I say, relevant and relatable, than the original. (Somehow, ridiculously to some of those who know me, I had never quite thought of social work and allied occupations as a way of safely feasting with panthers - but the early scenes around Henry's mother's pet good works suddenly made it quite glaring.)
Wilde's story has given Self's work what I now realise I found lacking in it before: beauty and glamour. The other stuff is grotesque in all but language. For me, anyway, Dorian might be the ultimate decadent novel: it has the brilliant allure of beauty and nostalgia alongside utter horror and fatalism in equal measure ... on some level I wanted to be there, to be one of them, despite knowing how hideously it would end. (In reality I know I prefer a part-time watered down version, just like when I was younger I wanted to find friends like the characters from The Secret History - but not murderous and more accepting.)
Self's characters are all themselves, fitting perfectly with the rhythm of their own times, the 1980s and 90s. Yet they remain absolutely excellent analogues to the originals. (This is the same glamorous, soon to be AIDS-ravaged, gay London as Hollinghurst's later The Line of Beauty. 'Tainted Love' - a song I've always found to have a habit of popping up at spookily apt times - made its second appearance in a few days in books I was reading, the others being in Beigbeder's A French Novel and Five Miles From Outer Hope by Nicola Barker.) As with every version of the story I've read or seen, Hallward - here a video installation artist ranked alongside Bill Viola, and a former Warhol acolyte - is my favourite of the main characters. Lord Henry's wit is very impressive, and Dorian might be beautiful to look at (no-one's ever cast him right in a film), but Baz/Basil is (to me) likeable, dammit, and completely understandable in his human fallibility and semi-requited love, as well as being an unwitting magician in this darkly glittering world.
The further metafictional flourish in the last chapter was a surprise. I can't decide whether it added to the book or not, but a certain type of reader less wholly enamoured with the world of the book, and admiring the whole thing more as an intellectual exercise will quite probably appreciate it.
Looking back, I'm more likely to regret things I have done than those I haven't. (Going against general advice.) But I did rather miss a trick with this book. I went to a pre-publication reading and signing back in 2002 but, unperceptively true to the un-Wildean cult of authenticity, I decided to avoid this re-write in favour of Will Self's original works, and saved money by getting an old paperback essay collection signed instead. I'm most glad of the inadvertant shove back in the direction of Dorian, thanks to a now-vanished GR profile which displayed excellent taste. One of the best things I've read this year; nigh on perfect as far as I was concerned. ...more
[2.5] As with The Dinner by Herman Koch, I'm not sure that a satirical novel about highly disturbed characters is a good way to critique complex socia[2.5] As with The Dinner by Herman Koch, I'm not sure that a satirical novel about highly disturbed characters is a good way to critique complex social and media trends and their possible effects. Because, uh, these things simply don't make most people behave that way. And when they do contribute in some individuals, there are also all kinds of other things involved: upbringing, epigenetics and miscellaneous (socio-)environmental factors peculiar to that person's life.
Eat My Heart Out has had a lot of positive coverage in the UK press. (Zoe Pilger is the daughter of serious political journalist John.) Most articles make it sound like quite a different book from the one I read, something funnier, a Nathan Barley for the Tumblr / fourth-wave feminism generation – though it has a few moments like that (the Super-8 films re-enacting literary suicides, the Disney's Little Mermaid warehouse party). Some press reviews make comparisons with Kathy Acker; I've never read more than a few pages of hers, but this seems to lack the punchy verbal directness, favouring a more ostensibly conventional style combined with a “what the fuck happened?” morning-after nauseating chaos. It's a disturbed, disturbing, exhausting soap about recent graduate Ann-Marie, her better-off arty hipster friends, and an older feminist writer, Stephanie Haight, whom she talks into “mentoring” her, all doing scary stuff less or more adjacent to the London art & media scene.
I've been struggling to review this for weeks. This is perhaps my fourth attempt. I've read several interviews with the author. I kept looking back at the book page, hoping that someone would have said enough of the same things so I didn't have to bother. They haven't, but the average rating has been on the slide – it's currently under 3.0, and there's an impression online that the book leaves plenty of readers with an “urgh” feeling and not necessarily enough to compensate.
The breakthrough was reading Sebastian Horsley's autobiography Dandy in the Underworld. Before that, I thought my first paragraph possibly the work of a po-faced pedant. But Horsley had a very fucked-up upbringing, no evident opportunities to make things better before he grew up, and several generations of highly troubled antecedents. AND he was a real-life media person who did extreme things very similar to Ann-Marie and her friends' most outlandish and frightening behaviour, the sort of stuff even most messed-up people thankfully never experience. Early-twenties characters smear cake and later shit on walls of their accommodation; Horsley, at around the same age, once smeared shit on himself as some kind of philosophical experiment, but it sounded as though he at least did so in private and cleaned up afterwards. Ann-Marie has a long scene in which she, unprovoked, holds a former one-night-stand hostage at knifepoint; Horsley waved a loaded gun around in the presence of prostitutes visiting his flat, playing Russian roulette on himself and on one occasion narrowly missing getting shot by one of the women, who didn't believe it was loaded. There are other, less immediately scary, similarities with Horsley's story, such as characters lacking boundaries around friends' money, and the wealth and low-quality conceptual art of some of the supporting characters. (Ann-Marie herself is not well-off and has little idea of a career.)
Given that this is meant to be a book about the current generation of teenagers and early twentysomethings, Z.Pilger** seriously missed opportunities to make more of the internet. Ann-Marie says she isn't on Facebook or Twitter, and doesn't appear to use newer alternatives. There are a few instances of people taking pictures and making films to post online, but an eminently satirisable sense that characters might be living their entire lives or creating themselves with an (invisible) audience in mind is way too abstract or maybe even not there. There are pre-internet novels which do this better, e.g. Nicola Six in Martin Amis' London Fields, not to mention other recent works from Z.Pilger and Ann-Marie's own generation such as Marie Calloway, or even Sheila Heti in her mid-30s. There's frequent mention of “the generation who grew up on internet porn” but little or no development of this allusion. Recently reading an old Black Lace novel from the late 90s (Dreaming Spires – which also features a fictional Cambridge college), I noticed a scene in which a student character thought about herself in the context of what boys – particularly a university fresher – would probably have encountered previously, in the form of lads' mags, and her confidence that he “wouldn't know what hit him” when she initiated stuff that, if various accounts are to be believed, would now be widely considered tame by youngsters of the 'online porn generation'. It was presented there simply as part of a character's inner thoughts, but in a satirical novel with the remit of EMHO, I was expecting a contemporary version of such stuff, exaggerated, critiqued, made to look ridiculous, whatever, plus more on this highly controversial topic, unintentional mass-experiment of sex-ed via porn. The burlesque scene addresses this in a way, but that's designed to be public performance – it doesn't go into the way people feel performative (in all kinds of ways, not just sex) when they are not designated as a performer, even when they are alone.
The book also, I think, loses out by taking place almost exclusively within its own hyped media goldfish bowl. There are scenes in which characters obviously look stupid, but a huge part of critiquing all these tendencies should be the rest of the world's reaction to them, especially when it's eye-rolling, boredom or plain incomprehension. As a friend's review of another book put it, “don't assume that everyone else sees magazine pictures in people”* - narcissism, especially of the type satirised here unconsciously assumes that its audience is other narcissistic people, judging it in the same ways it judges, thinking the same things important, and, often, that it's right to have those priorities - when there are still a lot of people who feel and see the world quite differently. I would have liked the book better had it shown some other people reacting negatively to the behaviour of Ann-Marie and her crowd. At times it feels like part of the same problem it's trying to criticise.
However, it does (appear to) criticise certain forms/features of feminism that I've not heard anyone relatively liberal speak against before in national media. I was really glad to see this done and I'm sorry to give a low rating to the book because of the other problems with it, when I've waited so long to hear this from a source that's listened to in the press. The character Stephanie Haight has a core concept in her work of women as “falling”, and a lot of the “excerpts” reminded me, queasily, of the likes of Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel, a book I read when slightly younger than the protagonist and rather wish I hadn't. Allied to this is Z.Pilger's criticism of the way troubled celebrities are lionised, Amy Winehouse being a lodestone. I am not sure that the mainstream media (as opposed to fanzines or blogs) reports these people in a way that actually celebrates what they do. Not long ago I re-read a collection of old music press articles about Richey Manic – an equivalent for some in my own generation - and what was striking was the journalists' relative neutrality, that he wasn't made to seem especially weird, though mention was made of how some fans were drawn to him because of his cutting. It depends so much on the readers' understanding. The well-adjusted teenager or many older readers would see this as good for not being stigmatising, whilst they already knew for themselves that this wasn't a good way to be going on, and would possibly be scared on his behalf. There could be difficulty, though, for teenagers from messed-up backgrounds who have little idea of normal in this respect, and who start thinking “this is how the coolest, most interesting people communicate that they are feeling bad”. The reason I have more antipathy to a certain strand of feminism is because it does actively celebrate this sort of thing in well-known women, who are presented as martyrs to a cause, and discusses it as an inevitable response to societal pressures rather than looking at individuals and a range of causes which apply to women and men, with a knowledge of relevant psychology. It also downplays the stressful effects the troubled behaviour can have on people around them, including who aren't to blame for any root causes, and the associated problems it can lead to in normal life. Feminism often presents itself as addressing vulnerable young women on a serious basis (it means to be socially responsible in a way that more trashy or detached publications never seek to) but this kind of discussion can make some of them worse than they were before. (cf In EMHO Ann-Marie's highly aggressive behaviour to Vic even before she becomes violent, is her interpretation of Haight's and others' advice, behaviour that those same feminists would unhesitatingly label as abusive if from a man.) There was a worthwhile point to be made that good work by some female writers, artists and others had been unjustly overlooked in the past because it was produced by women who were labelled 'mad' and that this should not invalidate the quality of their work, especially by comparison with various angry, alcoholic male artists/writers who were already respected. But that point didn't have to be made the way it was in publications like Wurtzel's. Actions deriving from being extremely miserable are held up by this martyrish feminism as being a female equivalent to the sometimes destructive hedonism or self-focus of creative men. I would approve of telling young women to go out and have fun or live on their own terms, potentially pissing off those who disapproved. But strongly implying this awful unhappy undiluted destruction is cool and some sort of art in itself, and that those who don't actively adore you for it are oppressors, or badly informed, is terrible... I think for Wurtzel at least, it was self-justification. However, Z.Pilger repeats one facet of the problem, as male characters are in the end attracted to, not repelled by, Ann-Marie's behaviour. Some of the book obviously is ridiculous, but when it's not ridiculous enough, it sometimes reinforces what it's against; I think Z.Pilger writes bizarrely enough that she could have created something which didn't do that, without making a cheesy, conservative morality tale.
She has another vague target in the resurgence of girliness, cupcakes, domesticity, pink frilly aprons &c. Her response to it isn't very well-defined – as in the newspapers, cupcakes are nothing but a shorthand for awareness of it. I'm not sure what she wants; I'd just like it to be as okay for a woman to say she doesn't like that stuff as it is for a man to say he doesn't like sport. (Intelligent men are more likely to respect the latter, it's the boors who are the problem – whereas articulate women active in online feminism get out the pitchforks and torches in response to criticism of girlified design aimed at adults. The less theory-focused allow more freedom and difference in taste.)
Altogether (and hello and thank you if you're still reading) a frustrating book that contains stuff I'm glad to see in print and other things I wildly disagree with. But at least plenty to talk about. Also the most tiring, nasty thing I've read this year, left me wanting to a) have another shower and b) be really organised, to banish it. A month later, the description of the pig's head still makes me squirm, though I don't think that was the point of the book. (Perhaps, though, something about meat and lack of empathy, but in that I'd be repeating another friend...) I've got to stop somewhere... It'll be interesting to see more reviews appearing once it's published in the States.
The characters in St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose cycle are at once caricatures and possessed of extraordinary emotional depth. In Lost For Words - a satiThe characters in St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose cycle are at once caricatures and possessed of extraordinary emotional depth. In Lost For Words - a satire of a literary prize closely resembling the Booker - they lean far more towards the caricature, although some members of the large cast are granted real personality. And a dash of angst.
Essentially, this is a specimen of the English Comic Novel, with its fair share of farcical situations, silly names, allusions to news old and, er, new, and a few familiar character types. (Though being St. Aubyn, some of it is sharper and deeper than the typical example.) This sort of thing wowed me when I read What A Carve Up in the mid-90s, but two decades later, even though it still makes me laugh, I find it a bit routine and occasionally clumsy: comfort-reading material. I'm still not sure whether setting Lost for Words in a parallel universe, one in which digital media either do not exist or have had no adverse effect on publishing, sharpens the focus on character, or makes the book feel slightly dated. Probably both. (Authors with one or two literary novels under their belt can still swan about in hotels, rather than working as the night porter and revising drafts on their days off. They can email one another though.) At any rate, it's nowhere near so dark as Patrick Melrose and it's a book I'd recommend more readily.
What makes it stand out from a dozen other middle-class comedies is the precision of insight into emotional pain and screwed-up-ness, succinctly expressed, and saying things others never articulate: judge Vanessa decided to reclaim some floor space by throwing out the hopeless cases (she thought involuntarily of Poppy's bed at the clinic being liberated by her death) (how much that says about the dynamic of the entire household, and how crucial that 'involuntarily' is); novelist and female Casanova Katherine likes sex so much partly because it's a liberation from, something entirely different from, all those damn words; and the different, detailed experiences of heartbreak of two characters. And that particular way St. Aubyn has of at once mocking and having empathy with a state or idea. That shows best of all in the philosophical musings - especially with debut novelist Sam (who put his rejected experimental works in a box on top of the wardrobe and found acclaim with a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel) and French "public intellectual" Didier - what they say is silly and arguably ivory tower / self-absorbed, yet also pertinent and insightful in the situation. It's a very British way of not being able to take things entirely seriously even when you are serious, and he captures it precisely without ever explaining it.
I'm not generally a fan of novels about novelists and the literary scene (needless to say St.A has characters comment on that very idea) and was a bit hesitant about what one of my favourite authors might do with such a well-worn and insular topic. Pleased to say that - although it wasn't perfect - I quite liked it, it was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally resonant. ...more
This may be the closest thing I've read so far to the current crop of popular domestic thrillers. One of an over-large haul of books I bought in the KThis may be the closest thing I've read so far to the current crop of popular domestic thrillers. One of an over-large haul of books I bought in the Kindle sale last Christmas, I may never have got round to it if I weren't a) taking UK Black History Month as a prompt to read several relevant books I've had for a while, and b) too frazzled to realistically expect to finish a doorstop like Staying Power.
The Gospel According to Cane is narrated by Beverley, whose only child, Malakay, was snatched as a baby twenty years ago and has never been seen since. She's a part-time teacher of excluded kids, divorced, with some capital from a house sale, and lives frugally in an ex council flat, having gradually got herself together psychologically. She appears rather lonely apart from an older neighbour who’s a kind of substitute aunt, her counsellor, and her friend-with-benefits, a policeman she met via her son’s case. The class and economic contrasts of her area are very familiar as the sort of places friends and I have lived: it’s still fairly common for kids in hoodies to hang around the street, it’s far from swish, yet there are also a few Abel and Cole veg boxes on doorsteps.
One day a lad, the same age as Malakay would be now, starts loitering around Beverley’s home, after a while they talk, and he claims to be her son. Her openness to accepting him so fast reflects the desperation she’d buried, the enduring son-shaped hole in her life, and also tricky contrasts of professional and private. If in your work you need to give people the benefit of the doubt as part of helping them, to what extent do or should you apply that in other areas of your life? Not something Beverley wrestles with personally, but others clearly think she should.
At first there’s quite a lot of time spent on aspects of Beverley's life that don't involve the boy - it's more realistic than books where all other scenes of a character's life stop in response to something like this, and makes Beverley more human. Later the story starts to seem rushed and random, as if it needed another revision, and had been trying to keep the word/page count down. The writing style is sometimes poetic and philosophical and sometimes straightforward, even clunky, in the manner of popular fiction; interesting and slightly unusual - but perhaps disjointed. I have a feeling that the book is a fusion of literary fiction, commercial women’s fiction and urban fiction, but I know so little about the latter it’s hard to say. (Beverley references three of its authors as reading suggestions for a student: Chester Himes, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim.)
The title The Gospel According to Cane is linked to dream sequences which happen in fields of cane sugar and Beverley’s description of her and her mother’s skin tone as “cane”. At one point she articulates a sense of guilt about having ancestors who would have owned slaves, or lorded it over others as light-skinned black people in the West Indies, and at other times also dreams about being a slave girl. Whilst I have some personal sense of “being both”, bad and good in one, partly descended from nationalities who've been enemies, there are obviously nuances here that I don’t get because I don’t have [much familiarity with] the writer's and characters' background.
Several GR reviewers have used the word ‘disorganised’ about this novel, and I’d have to agree. Possibly the formatting of the ebook made it worse, where flashbacks in time or dream sequences were sometimes separated from the rest of the text with spacing, sometimes not. In well-written novels, sense emerges from scenes like those over time, a picture of the character’s life builds up, but it didn’t here; I wasn’t entirely sure whether her childhood had been spent in the West Indies, London or both, and it was never clear when in time certain things took place. The beginning of the book mentions that it's Beverley's journal, which arguably explains some of the incoherence and paragraphs flowing into one another, but with this kind of writing - not really experimental, perhaps I'm too attached to conventions - things need to be made clearer. There are a number of detailed references to anatomy of the brain which weren’t tied up to the rest of the story; most were separate paragraphs but some were in dream sequences, whilst there was no sign of Beverley ever having studied medicine, neuroscience, nursing etc, formally or informally. Given that she never personally brings up the issue of DNA tests, and her responses to those who do, she seems detached from the world of science and to view it as potentially alienating and unempathic.
At 63% there was a flashback scene which I expected to be followed by the sort of writing you get when a narrator is revealed to be unreliable and a psychopath, but it wasn’t. It was probably meant to indicate that Beverley had gone quite far off the rails in the past, and that she had the potential to fall that far again, but in retrospect was too far out of character to make sense with anything else about her. Nor did she appear to come from the sort of background where it may have been relatively normal, even if she does realise it’s frowned on now (view spoiler)[e.g. a rural area where unwanted animals may have been routinely disposed of with little emotion. (hide spoiler)]
A fight near the end of the novel didn’t make much sense either – probably the least clear fight sequence I’ve ever read - although I read it three times, including after finishing the book. (view spoiler)[ I was finding the big knife and I was bounding over furniture, reaching the mass, feeling for the thick material of outdoor coats and whenever I found it, letting the knife plunge, hearing cries, pulling them off with all my strength, away from him until there was only one, - this, and the silence directly afterwards, sounds like she stabbed all the kids in the scrum, but it’s evident from the aftermath that she did nothing of the sort. (hide spoiler)]. Stuff about what happened afterwards would surely be likely material for her to write down in a journal, but a lot of it isn't there. It often seems as if the diary idea had been forgotten later in the book, and the denouement skips to a final scene just like a popular novel.
For this kind of plot and style, the story also had insufficient conclusion. Most of the problems with the book and characters struck me as stuff that needed rewriting and editing, rather than anything someone should criticise characters for as if they were real. 3 stars is pretty generous considering the second half of the book, but it never annoyed me in the way of the few books I’ve rated 2 stars, and there may be an allegorical subtext I've missed.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
[4.5] Middlebrow fiction as it should be done: entertaining, readable but not without substance; a book you still look forward to picking up when you'[4.5] Middlebrow fiction as it should be done: entertaining, readable but not without substance; a book you still look forward to picking up when you're using most of your spare time for things other than reading. Levy makes this kind of writing look easy, but there must be a lot of paddling going on under the surface to make the novel glide so smoothly. No surprise that this was made into a BBC drama - it certainly has that Sunday evening TV feel: characters are entirely believeable as personalities, and there's an excellent mixture of the soapy (drama, big coincidences) and the detail of everyday life in the past, the well-trodden and the less so. Accessible literary fiction set in the present can easily become dreary, but Small Island spans enough time, and an eventful enough time, that there's always something really happening, not just people staring into space and thinking whilst driving or cooking for pages and pages.
It could be difficult to argue with someone who wanted to call this an issue novel (about racism). But maybe it depends on background: I just didn't see it that way. My grandparents came to Britain in the same decade as Gilbert and Hortense. Okay, if they walked through an area where no-one knew them or their names, they wore clothes that fitted in perfectly and they didn't speak, they would have been able to go about unremarked, unlike the Jamaican immigrants. But that wasn't the way most people lived in the forties. I still remember hearing about the racist bullying that went on in those days (worst between kids) and my incredulity that they weren't automatically assumed to be somewhat heroic due to the war. As a kid I thought not in terms of colour but simply people who were, like me, [partly] "not from here" in a non-pejorative sense, and those who were. My first school best friend was Indian, and I felt more at home with her than with the children who seemed entirely English. So although American commentators on race in particular (from a culture that has different attitudes to immigration that are more closely tied to colour) make strong divides between black and white, my gut feeling gives more affinity with Gilbert and Hortense. Before reading a lot of identity politics material, it never seemed necessary to explicitly and defensively point out the awareness I'd always had that people from different countries or ethnic groups will have differing experiences related to that - that was just, well, duh.
On page 525, there is a speech by Gilbert which points out among other things, "no better, no worse than me - just white" which is fantastic as a balanced middle ground between the racists and the contemporary extremes of the internet social justice warrior tendency. (Surprised that paragraph isn't a GR quote.)
The more aggressive racism of America is a significant feature of the book. When the story follows Jamaican RAF volunteers during the war, it's white GIs who are violent, threatening and active proponents of segregation; the Brits are merely rude on a frequent basis, and , then as now, the UK brand of racism / xenophobia is as much about immigration as about colour, with the large numbers of recently-arrived Czechs, Poles, Belgians and even Jews (despite knowing what they’d gone through), as well as the Windrush Jamaicans, being a focus for rants by racist characters. Although once West Indian men start in working class jobs in England after the war - when they manage to secure a job in the first place - some colleagues are almost as unpleasant as the American soldiers.
Arguably, Queenie’s bank clerk husband Bernard is too easy a ‘villain’, a prejudiced, conventional man who has few redeeming features other than perhaps punctuality. Remember the old geek / nerd/ dork etc distinctions? Bernard is a dork or dweeb: he has the ineptitude and narrow-minded rigidity without better than average skills, and his context and anger means he’s not Pooterishly amusing. The more complex character of Queenie demonstrates that some racism is unthinking and conformity to attitudes a person grew up with – a person who could be educated out of it, especially by first hand experience. With Bernard it’s more ingrained and connected to other aspects of his character. His narrative was bloody irritating to read and gave me all the more sympathy for Queenie: she had gone out with him because he was presentable, attentive and seemed like the right sort according to received opinion, and ended up marrying him simply so she didn’t have to return to her parents. Having been involved with a couple of similar types for short periods when I was younger, as rebound or for other expedient reasons, it made me very grateful that times had changed.
‘Small islanders’ is the Jamaican characters’ term for people from the smaller West Indian islands - yokels and hicks, basically. Travelling abroad they come to regard both Jamaica and the fabled imperial Mother Country of GB (who turns out to be so uncaring and unwelcoming) as small islands too. It must be no accident that ‘small island’ and ‘small-minded’ sound similar. Stifling old-fashioned attitudes are almost everywhere. Even Queenie, who’s bravely anti-racist by the standards of her time and community, has no shortage of assumptions that would be unacceptable now. One of the quieter tragedies of the novel is the similarity in personality and opinions between Queenie and Hortense: the barriers that exist in everyone’s heads make it impossible for the two women even to realise all the ways in which they’re alike, let alone become friends as they may have been able to several decades later.
Small Island is a school text these days, and I think that’s a good thing. There are plenty of technical and character aspects for essays, plus some history and politics to make it seem worthwhile to kids who aren’t interested in further literature study. Perhaps it’s more likely to be used in schools with a good racial mix where it’s only preaching to the converted, though some teachers will probably introduce it to areas where kids would benefit from thinking more about these topics before they go to university or work. Still, it’s easy to criticise curricula and say how standards have fallen – I would have approved more if this was a GCSE rather than an A-Level book ...more
The introduction suggests a fairly narrow, yet possibly conflicted, view of what a novel should be, but the essays are interesting for some extra insiThe introduction suggests a fairly narrow, yet possibly conflicted, view of what a novel should be, but the essays are interesting for some extra insights into the books.
James Wood's piece didn't make me like Atonement more, but did leave me with greater appreciation for its construction - especially as a response to a 1935 Cyril Connolly essay.
These are much like the academic introductions I'm used to in classics....more
A book about, by and quite possibly for bitter, cynical, British white middle-class people in their mid thirties. Critics like Idiopathy, it won the CA book about, by and quite possibly for bitter, cynical, British white middle-class people in their mid thirties. Critics like Idiopathy, it won the Costa First Novel award, I like it – but the general public don't seem to like it much: there are quite a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. (Or there were when I last looked in December – I'm keeping away from reader reviews as much as possible just now.) I read the book in two chunks a couple of months apart, so my different impressions of the beginning and the later book may be as much me as it.
In a way, it's an English comic novel, as was reportedly pointed out by Giles Foden, Byers' tutor at UEA. (Yes, it's the product of a creative writing course, but one which would sneer at that very concept of itself as I'm doing there. More viciously, in fact.) There's also something Continental about it: the bitter philosophic seriousness underlying its wry comic observations, the lack of easy answers, the way it's more character study than plot and the focus on three people that's reminiscent of the triangular structure of many French films. (They are deliberately less glamorous than anyone from the Nouvelle Vague, and stuck in the provincial location of Norwich: Katherine, an office manager who hates pretty much everything and has an unending supply of Charlie Brookeresque comments; her ex Daniel who works for an environmental consultancy, wants to like people more and be liked, and “dreams, like every sad little middle class white man, of a good old-fashioned fight that wouldn't make him look bad”, and their friend Nathan, who was once a source of escapism, parties and drugs, but vanished for a year and has just reappeared fresh from rehab.)
It's one of those works which perhaps seems all the more observant the closer you've been to its milieu. Whilst it only rarely makes named cultural allusions (something which makes the characters' relationships and heads all the more effectively claustrophobic) I felt as if the writer and characters had grown up watching, reading and listening to the same stuff as I had, and given age and assuming a high intake of national non-tabloid media, they probably did. Even recognisable details of the depressing interiors of houses were there, like chairs which won't stay level because of the stick-on felt pads on the feet, and I saw a reference which could have come straight from the previous book I finished (a necklace of ears / The Ballad of Halo Jones). Idiopathy works partly via a set of shared assumptions and tastes, which for me (and probably a few people I know) are spot on: that hippy protestors probably have their hearts in the right place but oh god aren't they eye-rollingly embarrassing sometimes; that one can underline the awfulness of a character's parents via their interior design choices such as destroying original features and their high level of self-promotion on social media. Some would probably find it too cruel and specific; I remembered the time years ago when a close friend said a Half Man Half Biscuit song was a bit harsh (I'd put the album on because I thought would amuse her as it did me). [Not long before I started Idiopathy I'd ended up looking at a blog called The Middle Class Handbook; it had an alphabetical list of categories of British middle-class people, the sort of thing you might see in a semi-parody of a magazine quiz. A weird experience was to read the first one and be fairly sure that was the one I'd belong in if any : it's a group of people who don't tend to fit very well and like it that way, and probably wouldn't expect to be in the first category in a list, alt.middle … and it also seems to describe those who'd be likely to get the underlying assumptions in this book.]
I don't usually doubt the ability of good writers to create characters of a gender not their own, but I was staggered, especially in the earlier scenes, that Katherine had been written by a man. There are thoughts in the book, especially belonging to her, which I've often had but never seen written down anywhere before (and unlike her, tried to argue against and not to say). Though it's never stated, I would guess that Katherine also read too many magazines when she was younger and is stuck with a head full of assumptions from them which she variously agrees with and is at war with, sometimes both at the same time, whilst she really wouldn't like people to know this, wanting to seem like someone who'd always been above all that rubbish. If that sentence sounds suffocatingly self-involved, that's a good illustration of the tone of quite a bit of the book... Even though I could see where the characters were coming from, or perhaps because of that, I found it a bit exhausting to read at times. There were arguments between Katherine and Daniel which I've basically had with myself in my own head (possessing both their opposing temperaments to varying degrees – unfortunately I couldn't do Katherine's putdowns, though I used to know a woman who said similar things and was rather in awe of her). I just wrote “and I wasn't sure to what degree I was supposed to be laughing” [at the arguments]: that “supposed to be” is like an idea from the book - these are people who have been marinated in a media, and latterly social media, soup and are subtly preoccupied with how others see them, but not, of course, in the boring parenty way of “what would the neighbours think”. The book's subtitle is “a novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle”; this isn't the glaringly obvious narcissism of people thinking how fabulous they look, filling their houses with portraits of themselves, or who are megalomaniac bosses thinking they should rule the world – it's about the frequently futile wish to control minor social situations, and a concern with how everything appears that can seem routine if you grew up with a head more full of media than of satisfying emotional connections with other people. Byers, to his credit, eschews long repetitive scenes connected with online social networks and other glaringly obvious ways of putting this sort of thing across, and lets characters skewer themselves via their conversation and thoughts about things which have existed far longer than Facebook.
Idiopathy's greatest weakness is perhaps the subplot about the ailing cattle, a sort of neo-BSE which is a heavy-handed metaphor for themes that get a defter touch elsewhere in the book. However, this is often used sardonically and it's a good idea to have a current-affairs distraction from the total self-involvement of the characters as they're painted. As with most comic novels, this one walks a tightrope re. the use of cliches, and where it does deal in stereotypes will be be more interesting when you've met the sort of people it means. And I, for one, like the way it at times subverts the comic-novel trajectory for something less predictable in a minor key. ...more
Likeable and a page-turner - despite the characters and plot being quite clichéd and the writing style not enough to transcend that.
There are a few cLikeable and a page-turner - despite the characters and plot being quite clichéd and the writing style not enough to transcend that.
There are a few clumsy similes using biblical imagery but otherwise the writing is quite plain, bluntly spelling out far too much and making the occasional detour into what sounds like typical creative-writing course description.
Perhaps it's because I've read quite a few books set in strict religious communities and other restrictive societies, but it was formulaic to have the protagonist be an unusually intelligent and rebellious young woman... then there's the female mentor who sees beyond the rules and is also something of a wounded healer, the hypocritical authority figures, and other archetypes too, making the book a little too one-sided to be really thoughtful and interesting.
(I found it especially one-sided as in a previous job I was acquainted with some people from the Orthodox Jewish community, and found them more complex and less cartoonish - like most real people - than the characters in Chani Kaufman. The author spent far more time among them, but I get the feeling she's driven more by anger and frustration, whereas I tend to be naturally neutral and curious about people with different customs and to notice a lot of individual variation. For all that I detest the puritanical attitudes of the Orthodox society depicted here, I am essentially an old-style liberal and believe that people should be free to live in such ways if they choose, barring instances of active physical harm to others. Which again reminds me that I never finished - or posted any of - my mammoth essay on Hitchens' God is not Great. This liberalism may sound glib and lazy but I particularly struggled not to side wholly with the author on a number of points, including when Chani protests about censorship of schoolbooks. My school occasionally did this too and my mother backed up my complaint about it, and later bought me an unexpurgated edition, which still stands out as the thing for which I'm probably most proud of her.)
Despite - perhaps partly because of - the writing, the tropes, the sledgehammer opinions, and a good helping of predictability, the story moves along at a fair clip. And it's clever too, not going into what, after a few chapters, I was hoping to hear about near the end.((view spoiler)[Chani and Baruch finding out they share similar views, and how their lives together would develop because of these (hide spoiler)]). Once I'd finished the book I was actually eager to read a sequel to hear about this, regardless of all the negatives I've mentioned above.
Still, as literature - after all I read this because it was longlisted for the Booker - it isn't as good as some other literary novels on similar communities e.g. Whit by Iain Banks, Naomi Alderman's Disobedience, or The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth. (Whit and Disobedience do feature somewhat similar heroines but are, overall, better written.) Though I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in reviewing this only ever having seen the first fifteen minutes of Fiddler on the Roof - the most famous work about Jewish marriage customs - there must be references in Chani Kaufman
It must say something in favour of this novel that I found it such a compelling read regardless of so many quibbles with it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Quite a sweet, light semi-comic novel. Seemed pretty good for the sort of thing it is - the writing was better than I expect from anything with an almQuite a sweet, light semi-comic novel. Seemed pretty good for the sort of thing it is - the writing was better than I expect from anything with an almost-chicklit cover. (I'd barely heard of Charlotte Mendelson before and wouldn't have picked this up if I wasn't reading Booker books this year). Very nice use of free indirect style. But then a hypothetical half star got knocked off by an event less than ten pages from the end - not exactly deus ex machina, but it looked like the work of someone who'd written herself into a corner.
This has been compared with A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian but I've not read that, so no idea how similar they are. Almost English is a semi-autobiographical story so it can't simply be a copy of the Lewycka, even if the protagonist does share her first name.
It's a shame Mendelson didn't make more of the flamboyant older Hungarian characters rather than concentrating on Marina's fairly typical teenage growing pains story, her mother's sense of being a middle-aged underachiever, and social class themes. These can be found in any number of books but were at least delicately observed here - the author has a good eye for the psychology of families and for balancing sensitivity and absurdity. Even when I found aspects of characters that grated they were understandable and well drawn. (e.g. The descriptions of Laura's love for her daughter were, to me, creepy for a child that age. But as Marina missed and liked her mother, they were okay really and I guess it showed me how these things can work when the personalities are compatible in a family.)
Really not bad - but don't expect it to have any big things to say just because it's on the Booker longlist....more
I cannot divine exactly how MacLeod's style differs from what I'd call “standard literary fiction”; quoting a couple of sentences wouldn'tBeguiling.
I cannot divine exactly how MacLeod's style differs from what I'd call “standard literary fiction”; quoting a couple of sentences wouldn't show you. This feeling is instinctive and subjective, but a page might make it understandable. Simply, her words did not go blah blah blah cartoonishly in my head as that sort of writing does, and I was sincerely drawn into the world of the characters.
Similarly, the subjects of Unexploded are easy to dismiss as commonplace and middlebrow. Troubles in a middle class marriage, Britain early in the Second World War. You couldn't really call this book original. The details, though, were just different enough to be interesting: a meticulously evoked urban setting which isn't London (it's Brighton); the buttoned-up beastliness of the upper classes (wife Evelyn's parents); a circle in which anti-Semitism and listening to Lord Haw-Haw are the norm; and rather than the jolly hockey sticks all-pull together outlook, we get frequent reminders of the controlling insidiousness of wartime in which people are told not just what to do, but what to think and feel - particularly unpleasant for the secretly unconventional and contrarian. And there's sly subversion in making Geoffrey, a bank manager husband with supervisory roles on the home front (superintendent of the internment camp, chair of the invasion committee), into someone younger and more serious than Mainwaring. Unexploded is about tension and paranoia over imminent invasion when it was too close for some to be able to laugh.
As with A Tale for the Time Being and Proust, there's probably an extra layer in this book for those who know Virginia Woolf well. Evelyn reads The Years and The Waves and goes to a talk by Mrs Woolf. (The ghost of a more recent novel, E.L. Carr's A Month in the Country also haunts the final third.) There's an overall seriousness of tone which, as I was prompted, reminded me of the bits of Mrs Dalloway I've read. Modernist Bloomsburyish concerns, MacLeod seems to point out, didn't fit well with the communal ethos of wartime.
Good historical fiction* often has something to say about the time it was written as well as about the time it's set. This isn't something I've found much with other newly published books I've read recently, but Unexploded has. At first reflection on the place of art and free thinking when democratic society becomes somewhat more authoritarian and when certain strands of prejudice appear subtly condoned, though later a more frequently-encountered conflict of two approaches to life.
Unexploded seems likely to please people attracted by its premise, though I daresay a few of those reading it just because it was listed for the Booker (who would not otherwise have picked it up) may find it dreary. I was delighted to have my assumptions successfully challenged both about this specific book and the type of story it is. Without being groundbreaking or stylistically fancy, it was interesting and thoughtful and wrenching.
* I couldn't get away from the term here but I don't like to call anything historical fiction when it's set so recently as in the lifetime of my parents - and if the clothes of the era would today simply look like a good vintage style outfit, rather than full-on fancy dress as an Edwardian costume would. ...more
Feb 2014 The Vorrh is an unusual and remarkable historical fantasy though perhaps it’s coming to it after reading a lot of classics that makes it not qFeb 2014 The Vorrh is an unusual and remarkable historical fantasy though perhaps it’s coming to it after reading a lot of classics that makes it not quite as mindblowing as some reviews say. The vast cast of characters with interlocking stories, some of whom don't meet in person, tallies with current trends in literary fiction. The glorious surfeit of adjectives and adverbs recalls the too-richness of decadent literature but (and I speak as someone who’s too fond of those myself) the clause rhythms occasionally become samey and Catling could perhaps have varied this a bit more with metaphors and other means of description. Still, there are gems of that ilk: Outside, the swallows were changing to bats, to measure the space of the sky with sound instead of sight. Damned interesting way to say “night was falling”.
Decadence, Surrealism (the title, the name of a vast African forest, comes from Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and Roussel is himself a character) and late-Victorian / early twentieth century imperialism in its sinister authority and boys’ own colonial adventures form the background. There is a kind of steampunk/dieselpunk here, but it’s unusual, skewed, not the stuff of cliche: animate, liquid-filled Bakelite androids for instance. There is sex and gore and body-horror. The romance of intrepid adventure and transgressive love. And the profundity of people’s struggles with damaged bodies and brains. (Including the notorious photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge who wrestles and succeeds with some aspects of self-control following brain injury but can no longer be entirely master of himself and his now–angry temperament.) Fantasy motifs are here including a legendary bow and magical healing, but tropes are rarely created and progressed in the expected ways. This is not only a weird alternative history but an alternative and novel way of doing fantasy, both beautiful and nightmarish.
Sometimes episodes in the fictitious African colony of Essenwald feel too European; they are set among colonial settlers, but more mentions of climate and of animals we know of as sub-Saharan African, besides the strange mythical beings, would create a stronger sense of geographic place. It's a play on colonials' determination to remain European, but I wonder if the presentation makes it too easy for the reader to lose sight of the location and therefore the author's point. It's also possible that not having read Roussel, I'm not appreciating the tribute aspect in the writing.
Character roles are fairly true to those of class, gender and race for the time and those who have strong views on the subject should note that The Vorrh is often – though not exclusively - a story of the colonisers more than of the colonised. (Coming from the literary fiction perspective, this is so unusual in an ambitious newly published book as to have come round to being a novelty. I can't comment on serious contemporary fantasy as I usually stick to the humourous stuff which tends to have a lot of time for the underdog.) The close-third person narrative is taken on by many characters in turn but some readers will find it notably unfortunate that the inner thoughts of a black woman only take up one and a half pages in the whole novel - whilst a black man and two upper-class white women have voices as strong in the narrative as various white men. There is certainly critique of colonialism here, though plotted in the form of stylised, surrealist repetition and occasional subversion, rather than the currently-usual realist rewriting from the perspective of the colonised. (I can see both sides on this sort of thing and would like to be able to write in such a way that's giving the right information to those who care, and also acknowledges those who are tired of hearing about it and don't think art should have to follow narrowly prescriptive rules - but that's probably impossible.)
The Vorrh is only the first in a projected trilogy; there were times, especially around pp.3-400, when I wasn’t sure I would want to do this again but towards the end there was obviously so much still to happen that I became eager to know what would happen next and how some characters and the author's approach to the subject would develop.
August 2013, was up to c. p.200 Beautiful language and description. Sometimes I parse reflexively and note that there are too many adjectives - but they work regardless. So rich and luscious and decadent. (I overuse adjectives too.) Its fin de siecle decadence is gorgeous though sometimes I forget the story is in Africa because the style is one that automatically makes me imagine a European setting. (Not least because I first started The Vorrh after reading a modern African novel...And the European style itself could arguably indicate something about the colonial era it's all set in.)
Eventually I realised why I'd got so irked by a few criticisms of the book. There's the usual thing where I simply read plenty of interesting characters as people first and genders some way down the list. (It annoys me when people who may see that as the ideal to reach, try and impose petty representation politics which actually impedes a relatively ungendered view.) And I see a negative judgement of the idea that a character had sex with another character, when they do have a life other than as a blow-up doll, to be essentially puritanical rather than right-on. (These politics of representation I see a lot of on Goodreads, usually from Americans, take things too much the other way and impose their own hegemony, arguing for a type of politically approved cliche in which certain categories of characters must behave in prescribed ways.)
And most of all in The Vorrh, about the Bowman and Este. The second scene of the book was electric and one of the most moving things I've read in a long long time. (And that thought I can see alientaing a few people already.) The scene provided an illustration of love of such depth and viscerality that it's almost useless in modern sensible existence, something I only ever found it possible to put vague form to, always unspoken, using metaphors from ancient world religions or ideas of Frida Kahlo-esque pictures I had not the skill to make. But these did not contain anything like the connection and reciprocity found here. The mutual wanting-to is almost everything that matters in that scene... they are each other's religion and neither is dictating. As I read it they were simply people who were connected that way and I imagined either being either sex, or some other again, race etc irrelevant, for it went way beyond anything of that sort.
Back down to earth as it were, this is a book which I have put off finishing a few times because I think it would seem a waste for me to read it when I'm not feeling somewhere near-ish to my best. Yet it's also (especially after reading Heart of Darkness as background) enthralling.
I find myself concerned on the book's behalf that it doesn't take the political stuff seriously enough to rank alongside classics, but perhaps that's because it's a long time since I've read much fantasy. (It doesn't toe the convnetional party line on a few of matters, and that's my theory as to why it didn't make the Booker longlist. Presuming it was submitted that is - being with a small publisher it would have been their best candidate, not having dozens of rivals as would, say, a novel published by Jonathan Cape. From what I've read of it so far, this year;s Booker list is really rather PC, perhaps forgetting that real diversity also includes something that doesn't follow all the rules to the letter. Though I too would have balked at pushing forward a book - Christopher Priest's The Adjacent, a more frequently mentioned SFF candidate - which contains a futuristic totalitarian Islamic Republic of Great Britain.) I do nitpick at a lot of books but The Vorrh is one which I'd love to see more people appreciating without nitpicking because it is (so far) incredible enough to transcend that. (Incidentally, as Raymond Roussel was no more than a name to me, I had needed a recommendation to see beyond the title. Vogon poetry and vore were the ideas it brought to mind, neither exactly appetising.)
January 2014, after reading various blogs and papers about critical race theory Whilst I've now read quite a lot more relevant material, I still find that discussions don't have room for people who disagree including when they are from its own group or from a mixed background. There is a lot of discussion of negative stereotypes which are simply unfamiliar to me in the first place, some because they are more characteristic of American media. (Which I would rather not have known of at all in case they affect how I see anyone.) Also I think I've missed out on the stereotyping of Africa in adult literature because, having always had an attraction to stories about colder places, I have read very little about it in fiction since children's classics. My ideas about African countries come largely from news, documentaries, politics courses and so on, mentioning individual country names and characteristics and is largely factually-based, possibly with an overemphasis on poverty and people wearing second-hand western clothes, rather than the sort of thing some people complain of regarding this book, which for me is very different and unfamiliar. At the same time I can't deny The Vorrh contains elements of this. I guess that what I argue for is less monolithic criticism from and of either side in these nebulous contemporary representation issues as regards single art works, whilst being decent to the people I meet in real life, and against institutionalised racism. (I just don't think fictional people should be taken as particularly relevant to the people you meet in real life - I was a kid who grew up thinking they were and fiction gave me no bloody idea of how to be or how anyone else would be once I left home. The types of people you find in books are often unlike those you meet at work and so forth, even when they are not specifically SFF.) Yet here, the opening scene could be interpreted as a metaphor critical of colonialism. It's not that simple. ...more
[3.5] It would probably be better if one of the first Goodreads reviews of any part of The Kills sequence came from someone well acquainted with thril[3.5] It would probably be better if one of the first Goodreads reviews of any part of The Kills sequence came from someone well acquainted with thrillers in print. I prefer them on film and TV and it might be more than fifteen years since I read anything similar.
Sutler was, then, a novelty, a pretty enjoyable one. I needed to adjust to the sparser prose which was different from my usual reading - and there's also a lot more here about what characters are doing than what they're thinking compared with your typical litfic - but once I'd acclimatised, the narrative was gripping and I read most of the book in two sittings. (I've read four and a quarter of this year's Booker longlist now and what all had in common, even those I was less keen on, is that they were engrossing reads.) The action-heavy narrative reminded me of other novels by screenwriters and film-makers, with their concentration on what can be seen. If both this and All the Birds, Singing are "literary thrillers", this one is more thriller than literary: there are some good descriptions here, but overall it's closer to the standard thriller. And funny sometimes too.
There were occasional clunks in the prose, I thought; better genre knowledge would have come in handy when considering them. Two or three ostensible deus-ex-machina moments too but I'm expecting most of these to be explained later in the series. And there were a few iffy tech things (e.g. no consideration of the timestamp when faking a digital photo, finding a IP address via received webmail, successfully making a hotel booking with a made-up credit card number). I probably wouldn't have read Sutler if it weren't for the Booker, but the Booker is also the reason I'm taking it more seriously than I would have if I'd somehow read it otherwise. It doesn't feel like something readers are meant to scrutinise. Broadly, though, it works.
Some distinctive characters here too, which I liked. (Incidentally, anyone assuming this book might be "too male" should - as well as putting away their fans and smelling salts - note that alongside the straight blokes working in militarised Iraq, among the cast there are several significant women and also a gay and a bi man.) But Sutler himself, aka Ford / Michael / Tom is almost as elusive in personality on the page as he is to those he meets whilst on the run. I liked this, found it a hook, waiting to get to know him, but perhaps some readers will find him too lightly drawn for a title character.
Oh yes, the "multimedia extras". (The reality was better than the term, at least. And they're all tangential so you can follow the story without the enhancements.) These aren't available seamlessly unless you're reading on an iPad - and I rather liked the way this book is a prototype format which most technology hasn't quite caught up with. It's quite normal to read a blog where blocks of text are interspersed with videos and sound files, so why ever not a book? I think visually and internally translate most things I read into images, so having some input for this, not having to do all the work for once, was incredibly satisfying. I enjoyed the extras which contained video, or sounds in addition to speech. Not so much the short monologues by a character: those were just more words.
One of the short films, Nathalie - Thunnersee I loved and watched three times. (If you also like hypnotic extreme-ambient music and arty subtitled, scenery-filled films where nothing happens, you may understand.) But the drawback of having to go online whilst reading a book - and when I can I switch the modem off to help concentration - was that I got sidetracked by games or other pages.
So one of the reasons I'm enjoying The Kills is because it's different, but it is also quite involving. It was a jolt, in a good way, to read something I wouldn't usually. And I want to find out what happens next in this story: the freebie ebook got its job done. ...more
Right, we’ve got that out of the way. (The record is mentioned once in the book, BTW.)
A novel about a seventy-four year old black Caribbean manShabba.
Right, we’ve got that out of the way. (The record is mentioned once in the book, BTW.)
A novel about a seventy-four year old black Caribbean man in East London who’s been in a down-low gay relationship for most of his adult life, and is forced to confront the possibility of divorce from his wife and finally coming out – to some people that may sound rather worthy. Actually, it’s a joy to read: Barrington (aka Barry) is brilliant company as a narrator, he’s funny, well-read and has a great turn of phrase. One of those rare fictional characters where presence and charisma have been created perfectly from mere ink and paper, to the extent that sometimes he makes jokes which from other people might sound uncool, but from him quite the opposite. He’s like an older Peter O’Toole character (but not as decrepit as in Venus) – in the difficult ways as well as the fun ones. Even during the sort of mundane scenes that are often boring in contemporary novels, the smile rarely left my face.
Carmel, Barry’s wife, also has some of the narrative, covering their earlier life together (his is in the present day). Whilst she’s not witty in the same way, these chapters are well written with a slightly poetic structure, more obviously emotive - she's had bouts of severe post-natal depression, a successful career in local government housing, and has suffered under the impression that her husband is a lifelong womaniser - there's lots of big stuff to say because of the amount of time her chapters each cover.
Like characters in Small Island and the sequel to The Lonely Londoners, Barry spotted the opportunity in derelict, cheap houses in then-unfashionable parts of London in the fifties and sixties. By the 2010s he's comfortably established as a well-off landlord, paying for his grandson to attend a top private school. He must be sitting on a fortune, but he and Carmel still live in the first house he bought (he's a Millionaire Next Door type), and they've watched the gentrification of the area happen around and with them. Whilst he hasn't been racially insulted in the street for about twenty years, he still experiences some frostiness in wealthy and central areas of London. The contrast in the acceptance of his wife and elder daughter in senior jobs in local authorities - where they could even be part of a majority in some departments - versus the blocks his other daughter's found in the world of fashion, ring completely true with the compartmentalised communities and sets of attitudes I've noticed in big English cities. (If you work and live in certain highly integrated occupational or geographical areas, it's possible to perceive racism as no longer a daily problem - but there are different worlds not very far away where it still is.)
Without actually declaring themselves, Barry and Morris, his best mate (and partner) have made friends with some locals who implicitly get his relationship situation, including an old health-food shop owner who arrived with the white hippie trustafarians of the 60s and 70s, and a former friend of his daughter, a lesbian from Montserrat who was bravely out from the late 70s onwards. Carmel, meanwhile, socialises mostly with her Pentecostal Christian friends. It's evident that homophobia - from religious people, and in popular culture, such as dancehall lyrics (Barry and Morris still like going clubbing) and violence against 'batty men' - feels a closer, more contemporary threat to Barry than it might for a white bloke of similar social standing. Although a number of characters disagree with Carmel’s opinions about homosexuality, the narrative doesn’t judge her. And if you’ve been around someone like her as, say, a colleague or neighbour, that kind of neutrality, not just dismissing her as a bigot, and seeing different sides of her, whilst keeping something reserved, is familiar.
Okay, there are moments in the book that are a bit two-dimensional or cartoonish. And can you really have a novel about the lives of gay men who sometimes cruised in the late 70s without once alluding to HIV, luck, acquaintances lost? A while ago I might have given 4 or 4.5 stars but right now I’m tired of all that stingy cheese-paring bits of stars: I’ve given so few 5s this year (and am also retrospectively bumping up one or two of the most enjoyable or impressive books).
This book and its central character are really likeable and entertaining. That’s why more people should read it. It also happens to say a lot of the right things and to fit the criteria of those who like to preach demographic quotas for leisure reading – who too often say people *should* read a book because of representation issues, rather than recommending something because it’s well written and/or fun. It’s intersectional without using the term – a word which the narrator would surely make fun of whilst also kind of seeing the point. The most right-on readers could emphasis the pain this man has caused his family, others can enjoy the character as a loveable, stylish, witty rogue - the different sides are all there. ...more
A recently-published British experimental novel: a rare beast and also the first book I've read from from Salt Publishing.
Before a few people on my fA recently-published British experimental novel: a rare beast and also the first book I've read from from Salt Publishing.
Before a few people on my friendslist get too excited though, this is meant to be accessible experimental fiction. It's not a book that would have Will Self reaching for the OED.
Nevertheless I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here because I've read next to nothing from the nouveau roman etc. This well-informed positive review may be of use if you know your stuff in this area, and Nicholas Royle describesHarold Absalon as what might happen if "Paul Auster and Nicholson Baker [got] together and decid[ed] to write a short novel largely set on a Routemaster bus"
I was very interested in the idea of a book which documented all of a character's thoughts for an extended period. Not just the poetic Joycean bits, all the therefores and becauses as well. So many things go through a person's head in between almost every tiny event, things which are edited out to create narrative as we know it. But as became apparent within a few paragraphs, pure full-sentence prose isn't a very good format to catch those thoughts. It's very slow and limited. A sequence of ideas and images which might go through the brain in a second equals half a page or more of wading through treacle. A comic, a mixed media book (with photos and diagrams as well as text and drawings) or a film would get closer to transmitting thought at anything approaching its real fluency and speed.
The other thing is that to want to spend this much time in someone's head, you need to find them interesting. Marguerite, the protagonist of Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is not, as far as I'm concerned, very interesting. Not that a dodgy detective with B.O. can't be a good character. But his thoughts were realllllly boooorrring. I ended up imagining them in an adenoidal monotonous nerd-voice. Most of them were laboured deliberations over definitions and inanimate objects, especially vehicles and structures. The concentration on those is possibly natural to the author because he has an engineering degree, and it may be related to Alain Robbe-Grillet's vision of the novel as focused on objects - but filtered through this character the whole thing was like a charmless grown-up version of certain paragraphs in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was funny at times and the patterns, if not the actual topics, did trigger cringing recognition, but after about 100 pages exasperation set in. Sometimes I thought about taking a break to read Tao Lin for a bit of excitement.
The author is a Buddhist and this book must have been inspired by the close observation of thought in meditative practice. Buddhism can be too negative about "the monkey mind" which is perhaps why the narrative is tortuous. But for all that I found it wearing, it had a clarifying effect similar to meditation. It made me more aware of my own twisty-turny tangents, of "the dendritic nature of thought" as another review beautifully describes it - and if this post has fewer digressions than many I've written, it's thanks to the novel itself.
[or possibly 4.5] According to Harold Bloom, we read to be less lonely, as we can never know enough people. Clever Girl is a book so unusually like ge[or possibly 4.5] According to Harold Bloom, we read to be less lonely, as we can never know enough people. Clever Girl is a book so unusually like getting to know a real person that it fulfils this more than most do. It’s written as a novelistic narrative, not in a purely conversational style, but its directness and the way the narrator reveals her life story – most of it is there, though with gaps – feels inside so very much like listening, like company, like receiving email or letters rather than a book. (The use of dashes rather than quotation marks for dialogue also helps this effect.) It obviously belongs to the category “literary fiction” yet without making great effort to be different, has hardly any of the particular cliches which make me cringe when faced with another obvious example of litfic.
It’s a book that I can imagine some might find boring (it’s simple, someone’s life story in pretty much chronological order) but I liked it instantly, starting like an early 60s kitchen-sink drama; Stella soon became someone I could imagine as an interesting older colleague or perhaps a friend of my aunt; technically young enough to be my considerably older sister, my mother’s child, and old enough that I could be her child. (view spoiler)[(It was still a surprise when she ended up as a late starter working in a field somewhat similar to my old work - an occupational therapist is someone who I occasionally might have ended up talking to about clients-in-common.) (hide spoiler)] The romantic tales of 70s bohemiana in her late teens and early 20s, a bright person with an unconventional trajectory and politics I sympathised with, were my favourite - but the same sense of connection as you would feel with a real person you like always kept me interested in the bits I’d have been less keen on experiencing myself. There are enough similarities in the way we think about and experience certain things to give me a strong and relatively rare sense of click, but she’s different enough for me to vividly have the sense of “someone else” with all the differences and mysteries of that which are like being in the company of a real person not a made-up one. I couldn’t describe how it’s done, the creation of this perfect sense of realism without losing romanticism and nostalgia, but it’s a rare gift. My only doubts about giving it 5 stars were because of something Stella did and said near the end, but that’s as if I were marking a person on their opinions, not a book on how it’s written: the unusual effect of friendly realness here was for me 100%. (view spoiler)[ And it was the sort of opinion too many people come to in that line of work – related to othering clients, service users or whatever your particular place calls them: we are okay and they are not, and any other people like them who we meet belong on the other side of a line. That’s still only a partial spoiler as I really, really wouldn’t have wanted to know the whole event it relates to before reading it, just because I felt like clicking on some online review. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Why this, controversially, won the 1984 Booker: "I have managed," writes the old devil [Richard Cobb, chairman of the judges, to his friend, fellow hisWhy this, controversially, won the 1984 Booker: "I have managed," writes the old devil [Richard Cobb, chairman of the judges, to his friend, fellow historian Hugh Trevor-Roper], "to keep Martin Amis and Angela Carter and something something de Terán off the shortlist and manoeuvred so that BALLARD did not get the prize to the FURY of the media, the critics and Ladbrokes. So I have done a little NEGATIVE good." http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011...
Hotel du Lac seems like a book from the 1920s-50s, not the eighties. ... I imagined the same setting as the first part of Rebecca. Edith is a romantic novelist, an old yet naïve 39, whose friends have insisted she go abroad for a while to escape some mysterious scandal. The Hotel prides itself on its discreet insulation from modern life - so character, environment and writing are all quite appropriate for and reflective of one another. The book isn't bad as I'd often been led to believe: it's simply a small story, carefully crafted. It has a muted camp quality – waspishness; the slightly tragic / I Will Survive temperament of its heroine; irony co-existing with emotional sincerity – so I can understand one way of liking Hotel du Lac.
Yet I didn't find it all that engaging. Its horizons are so narrow. Some of Edith's complaints reminded me of myself at school: her impatience with the company of women who are only interested in shopping and gossip... but she's a healthy well-off adult living in London and hasn't managed to find any friends who are more interesting. She prefers the company of men yet has none as platonic friends for interesting conversations and only feels able to confide in one ex-lover (married throughout their involvement) in a series of unsent letters. Edith could have been interesting if it was shown how and why she'd ended up as this lonely living fossil (whose works aren't selling too well in an age of 'briefcase wielding Cosmo readers who want stories about sex' – one of the few clues that the book actually is set in the 80s) or if she had any enthusiasms, but unfortunately, as she was, she was relatively dull company. This could even be a portrait of a sort of mild depression, but one more likely to induce same in some readers than to give any insight.
I've now read more from the 1984 Booker shortlist than from any other year except 2013, and have to agree not only that BALLARD WOZ ROBBED - and also LODGE. And BARNES would have been more worthy than this too. Not that that isn't extremely well-established by now.
Why I read this: A friend who was visiting a few weeks ago saw the book here and mentioned that a relative he was staying with for part of the summer lived very near the place where Hotel du Lac is set. Had, in fact, chosen a house just there because she liked the book so much. I didn't expect to love it myself but this seemed a prompt of sorts to read the thing over the summer.
Why I even had this book in the house: At the beginning of first year at (secondary) school we were given a reading list which was only occasionally referred to again by teachers, but by which I set great and geeky store. The list looked quite old, having apparently started out typed on a sheet of A5, and over years photostat was made of photostat until the lettering of our copies was fragmented grey. Budding historian already, I decided to try and work out how old the list was (teachers didn't know). Hotel du Lac turned out to be the most recent book. Somewhat disappointingly the list wasn't really as old as it appeared. A book about a hotel sounded exciting (I imagined a cast of madcap characters rather like those I'd later find in Armistead Maupin) but the blurb of this one wasn't thrilling. So I kept putting it off and putting it off until I noticed it would be short enough to read in a day. (I was so unenthusiastic that I didn't finish it in one day after all.) The narrow horizons and fusty yet somewhat confused morals of Hotel du Lac did remind me quite a bit of school after all....more