2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds b...moreMy 2000th 'read' book catalogued on Goodreads.
2004: The Books sections of the papers are full of this. It's about David Blaine *yawn*. And it sounds both boring and gimmicky. What could be a worse combination? I wish they'd move on to something more interesting so I can forget about it and hear about stuff I might actually read. 2013: Nope, one day the author will be one of your favourite writers. Only three years later, not recognising her name, you'll find a gigantic historical-looking tome called Darkmans just below hip-level on a bookshop display and it'll be pretty much everything you wanted in a book. A few years later again and you'll be devouring her earlier works as you devoured almost any book in your teens, and Pratchett et al shortly after you graduated. Can't blame you - what you never would have guessed about Clear from the cover or the reviews is how deliberately bloody ridiculous it is. (You still find stage magic and illusionists fairly boring to watch, but that doesn't seem to stop you from enjoying films and novels about them.)
The last Barker book I read was Small Holdings (1995) and WOW has her style come on in leaps and bounds here: just before Darkmans, a writer fully confident in her powers: freewheeling, silly, erudite, trivial and expansive.
Narrator Adair Graham MacKenney is possibly the most conventional Barker character I've encountered yet. Handily, this jack-the-lad is an English & Media graduate of UCL so he provides the perfect combination of 'typical' young male attitude alongside the plausibility of his making the references the author wants to slip in. It's those around him who are spectacular Barkerian eccentrics and who draw him into their weirdness. Especially Aphra - whom he encounters whilst watching Blaine - a sort of White Rabbit/ manic pixie dream girl (who's nonetheless non-tropish enough to remind me of an old friend ... but one who is rather elusive and magical).
There's a lot of satire of public intellectuals here - interesting timing; having by now won the IMPAC award, Barker is making fun of a class she's probably being perceived as part of, more and more. That sort of contrarian, playful kicking is something I very much like and can understand.
Am I comfortable with a white writer satirising black intellectuals? It's a great piece of writing about opinionated people generally and excellent use of intelligent characters to transmit the author's research in a way that doesn't jar, but... Perhaps if my social circle had been as diverse as the one I've recently been reading about in NW (or the sort of circle I tend to imagine Barker has) it would more just be a case of hearing about people a bit like some of those I knew... But still not sure. What do highly educated black people think of these characters? Regardless of quibbles I really like Jalisa, Adair's pundit housemate's girlfriend who never shuts up - I'm not sure how much you're meant to like her but I found all her conversations very interesting. And admire the way that without being obnoxious, she really cares far more about her own opinions - which generally are right - than about what anyone else, including Solomon, thinks of them.
Not sure Clear will age well given that it's stuffed with ephemeral references - if you weren't consuming a lot of British news and entertainment media in 2003 you might be a bit lost. (Or unless you are an early-2000's vintage nut... Do they exist yet?) But on the whole this is the sort of fun silly book I never thought it would be. (less)
A social realist novel about life in a mixed-race family in London slums in the late 60s and early 70s. It doesn't have a traditional beginning-middle...moreA social realist novel about life in a mixed-race family in London slums in the late 60s and early 70s. It doesn't have a traditional beginning-middle-and-end plot , though that's not to say that nothing happens: it's a slice of life type thing made up of a series of events experienced by Michael, the youngest of four kids, whilst he's between the ages of about 4 and 10, as the council slum clearance project gradually nears his family home. Movement forwards in time isn't signposted and instead becomes apparent from mentions of seasons, fashions, the news and what Michael is getting up to. Gbadamosi was a poet before he was a novelist and that shows in the structure.
When I read the preview I was struck by the poetic language: beautiful sentences that went straight to the heart of things - I had to read this. By the time I got round to reading the whole book I may have been jaded by reading a lot of contemporary fiction in a short space of time, but these gem-like sentences seemed to become very rare after a couple of chapters. The writing was always pretty good - there were never sentences I wanted to rearrange and the style never annoyed me - but after the early chapters it didn't sparkle: it simply got the job done well.
For a while I was frustrated that the children's adventures - whether Just William type scrapes or being harrassed by racist Gene Hunts of coppers - weren't made to sound a bit more exciting. (It didn't feel like a children's book for adults in the way that The Ocean at the End of the Lane did.) Yet somehow the story grew on me; I don't know whether the narrative became more interesting as Michael grew older, or if I got into the book more. I really warmed to it and found it quite a fast and easy read once I got going. The physical copy helped too: it's so unusual now to find a novel that stays open by itself without effort or spine-crunching. Shame it has one of those increasingly common unlaminated covers, but to handle, and to be able to read hands-off, the copy was excellent.
Michael is one of that much-maligned group, child narrators of adult fiction, though at least he isn't "quirky" or "precocious". You could call him ordinary, but to be Nigerian-Irish circa 1970 was definitely not ordinary and that's the appeal of the story. I prefer the extra perspective and analysis of an adult narrator looking back - as in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, whose protagonist is about ten years older than Michael - but the boy's awareness almost imperceptibly increases as the story progresses, making the narrative, to me, more engaging in its second half. This subtle sense of growing up, without overt commentary, is one of the cleverest aspects of Vauxhall.
It isn't a book that appears to project any big ideas other than this is what it was like but it does tell that well. And as a fan of kitchen-sink drama, and someone who can relate to an upbringing that drags you between two cultural identities, I enjoyed it. It's a book that deserves some more publicity as quite a bit of the contemporary litfic audience would probably like it.(less)
One of the reasons I picked up Absolute Beginners again was because of historian Dominic Sandbrook's daft grudge against Colin Macinnes (in Never Had...moreOne of the reasons I picked up Absolute Beginners again was because of historian Dominic Sandbrook's daft grudge against Colin Macinnes (in Never Had It So Good). I last attempted it in my teens. It had been a slowish read – proved to be the same this time round – and was easy to give up on back then because the library copy was a horrible mouldy one.
Now, the vintage atmosphere and detail in the story was way more interesting so I hung around to savour that (when younger I'd filed this era as being 'before anything was cool'), noticing differences from the film musical, and processing the late 1950s slang. Plenty of 60s slang is still immediately familiar yet this stuff from only 5-10 years earlier, not immortalised in pop culture, can require a moment's thought to work out. These characters are the cool kids of my parents' generation, yet they are so different it reminded me how facile the idea of generation=social attitude can be. (One of the good points Sandbrook makes is that most people of this era, even the younger ones, weren't mods, hippies or their rock 'n' roll precursors, they were hardworking squares.)
There's something artificial about the way the main character loves the term “teenager” (as beloved of the media then as “hipster” has been for the last few years, though back then there was more fear and real disapproval, rather than the contemporary eye-rolling). He likes defining what it means to be a teenager – it's a culture at least as much as an age, squares aren't really teenagers – and it's not that different from The Who's 'My Generation', by the time of whose release the narrator and his mates might (if they weren't still pop-culture purveyors) be boring oldsters. The over-consciousness of cultural definitions works in a way because he's one of those entrepreneurial kids who's interested in talking to the media and getting noticed by the movers and shakers (in an 80s or 90s setting he'd be a DJ / party planner, here he's a photographer, proto-Blow-Up) but it's also a reminder that Absolute Beginners was written by a champagne socialist easily old enough to be the protagonist's dad. Some of the press evidently loved it (a quote on the back from Harpers & Queen says "Prose as sharp as a pair of Italian slacks and vivid as a pair of pink socks", The Sunday Times: "The cult novel of the year."). But I'd love to know what the real teenagers of the day thought of this book... Was everything in it so five years ago by the time they ever saw a copy? (By the 80s, presumably re-reviewing in the light of the film, the NME says "Macinnes caught it first - and best"; and Paul Weller, just born when it was published, "a book of inspiration.")
Some reviewers are critical of the way black, Jewish or gay people are described by the narrator. There's an element of positive stereotyping, complimentary or neutral description with frequent reference to some of the narrator's friends' background (how lively a friend's Jewish household is compared with his English one, there are white girls who fancy black men apparently because of sexual stereotypes, that sort of thing). But they have personalities too, and the narrator is way more inclusive and accepting than most of his contemporaries, even prepared to get injured defending his mates during the Notting Hill race riots. His way of speaking is what, over decades, evolved into the contemporary attitudes that mean it isn't okay to say the same things now. Such critics tend to dislike arguments for historical context, but if ever there was a good one for those people cutting a text some slack, it's with this book.
I'm kind of surprised to see so many reviews on here, and quite good ones, for Absolute Beginners; I'd had the impression its reputation was fading. Seems that inclusion in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die has boosted it a bit. For my part I'd recommend it mostly for people interested in the social & cultural history, and for those who like some background to their vintage clothes/film/music habit. (less)
[4.5] This, to me, is the breathtaking panorama of multi-everything London life that everyone else thought White Teeth was. (That's pretty much the on...more[4.5] This, to me, is the breathtaking panorama of multi-everything London life that everyone else thought White Teeth was. (That's pretty much the only sentence you need from this review... It's a really excellent book; the 0.5 off just constitutes several minor personal irritations.)
Most of the reasons I was less keen on Smith's first book – though I still did think it was good - could be bracketed as “in the shadow of Salman Rushdie”. (I've started four Rushdie books and never finished a single one. I just don't like so many things about his writing.)
But in NW she's left that shadow, and it's also far from the cliched campus novel On Beauty that actively annoyed me. This seems to be a critics' book – lots of reviews on here disliking the “experimental” approach. It's more often with films that I click with works that fit this profile: usually I find “experimental fiction” makes things more opaque and less enjoyable (the most recent example I've encountered was Steven Hall's story in the Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013 collection); whereas in film “experimental” often conveys to me the feeling of thoughts as they are in the head - rather than going to the trouble of hammering them into a traditional Hollywood-friendly narrative arc - and can even be less hard work to watch.
I like the short sentences and internality and gaps that do feel like thoughts. I like the inconsistency of the way speech is displayed (TBH I didn't even notice at first, until I read a review by someone who was annoyed by it) … it gives a sense of how we feel and perceive differently on different occasions. I like the way the section 'Host' is divided into numbered headed paragraphs: practically, it's much easier to concentrate on and it also reflects the way that memory, inside, is made up of episodes - and that narrative is just something we impose on these to join them together.
The section names, referring to the characters' class roles, seemed entirely un-mysterious after this sentence, as Natalie (formerly Keisha) a determined young black woman from a tough estate who's now training as a barrister, sits at one of her first Inn dinners: “No longer an accidental guest at the table – as she had always understood herself to be – but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition.”
Other reader reviews also led me to expect a formidably complex time structure I'd struggle with, but it actually seemed no more so than in hundreds of other novels which have characters leading parallel lives, and way simpler than many big modernist tomes beloved on Goodreads, with which I was assuming NW had parity. (I still need to stop reading reviews by random people because too often I end up bitching about them implicitly ...)
Some of the characters in NW do have trajectories exceptional for their backgrounds (especially Natalie, whose meteoric rise has similarities with Smith's), yet there is something essentially ordinary about all of them and their monoganormative dramas. I think this is what makes it so successful as something akin to a state of the nation novel about class, race and social circumstances. The more flamboyant characters are in the background – I craved to hear so much more about Annie Bedford, a druggie Soho Norma Desmond (who reminded me of a few men I've known – not that they were junkies like her I feel obliged to add), Natalie's brother Jayden, and her husband Frank, son of an Italian aristocrat and a Trinidadian train guard. This balance of character types feels real to me, wanting more of the people I find most fascinating, many of whom have more or less elusive tendencies.
This is an awesome book, but there were a few things that annoyed me. Poor research. Smith has assumed that degree length and typical houses for students at Scottish universities are identical to those in English university cities, when they aren't. That sort of thing always makes me distrust a novel a little. But on the other hand, having worked in organisations similar to a couple of the characters, I feel she got those right. The chronology is also slightly jumbled at times. I know I should disregard it as artistic licence and just not really mattering, but my pedantic historian side always wants to be able to place everything clearly on a timeline.
Question particularly for those who know London well if any are still reading ... Do people often use simply the abbreviated, numberless "NW" - for instance - as an identifier and locator? I've never noticed it outside this novel, other than in other poetic contexts.
I've tended to think of myself as someone who doesn't read many books by women, although statistics contradict this. One of my reasons is that I get alienated by the way “a lot of female authors” generalise their experiences, or experiences I particularly don't share, to all women. And see what I'm doing there... (My favourite female writers don't do this, or only have characters do it, not an omniscient narrative voice. But I'm not a fan of gender-based generalisations generally and I find them very lazy in modern third-person narratives.) In NW, these mostly take the form of allegedly immutable laws about female friendships, and also one about the fine detail of what gets women off physically (All women? Because everyone's bodies respond identically? Really the writer's preferences?...which is intriguing... And/ or the character?)
The above is basically just a lot of ranting, but it felt partly relevant, because of this quote from Smith - which I used in a review the other day - about steering away from omniscient narration in this book. I had heard her criticised before for a superior/omniscient tone; I can imagine it must be difficult to escape entirely when writing a long novel in the third person - but at least the writer is conscious of it. Also, some research I read the other day which shows that people do implicitly start to accept generalisations or descriptions of places in novels as facts. I tend to be very aware of the fallibility and subjectivity of these descriptions days, but as a teenager I took them constantly as facts which embedded themselves in me, especially about social behaviour in more “normal” worlds. So I half have a terribly unartistic and limiting thought that things ought to be clearly presented as subjective.
I've spent about half this piece picking at details which personally annoyed me but these really make up only a very small number of sentences in the book, and which rarely detract from its grand sweep. For personal reasons mostly unmentioned here it was difficult reading - though it's really not a book that is generally going to be upsetting to readers - so I'm rather glad I set myself the strictures I did. Having abandoned NW at p.25 a week or two earlier after finding it emotionally too much, I noticed that the Women's Fiction Prize, for which the book was nominated, was to be awarded that evening (5th June). I resolved to finish the novel before I looked at any book-related website or anywhere I could possibly see the result. The experience of reading it did rather put me through the mill, and I couldn't hack that sort of thing every week – but as a one off it was worth it because it really is an extremely good novel.
ETA: As I remember the book a couple of months after reading, it seems bottom-heavy - the last section is proportionally too long and concentrates too much on one character, Natalie. (Remembering that Smith scrapped her original ending and re-wrote this bit.) I still find NW more interesting than her other books, it's just not so near perfect as it first seemed. (less)
[4.5]What a poorly-skewed ratings graph this book has on Goodreads. But the reviews here (and on Amazon) explain why: it's been mis-marketed. Does tha...more[4.5]What a poorly-skewed ratings graph this book has on Goodreads. But the reviews here (and on Amazon) explain why: it's been mis-marketed. Does that cover look like quite a serious philosophical novel to you? Nope, I didn't think so. Only this cover suits it. People will judge and choose by covers, no matter what old adages say. And a lot of the blurbs sound altogether too chicklitty. The quotes from the serious press make sense but "Smart, funny and warm"? I think someone sentElle a Kathy Lette novel in the wrong cover for them to come up with that melted cheese. No-wonder there are so many reader reviews that seem to be missing the point and often the references in the book, saying it's miserable, or criticising the lack of a shiny happy self-helpy conclusion.
Dropping out of society and being all existentialist is, in art and fiction, historically a male occupation. That hadn't bothered me especially as I didn't see it as meaning women couldn't, just that fiction - not reality - considered them to have different preoccupations, plus I'm perfectly capable of identifying with different gendered characters. In an interview Joanna Kavenna said:"I remember as a teenager reading all these canonical books by Lawrence and Camus on what was always billed as 'the human condition'. It's only much later that you start to think, 'where are all the women?'" Whereas my conclusion was that hardly any female writers were interested in producing work along those lines. I hoped I would at some point they would and I'd notice it; those I'm now aware of have all been very recent creations. The film Wendy & Lucy was the first one I remember. And now this and Come to the Edge - a novel which Joanna Kavenna wrote straight after Inglorious but which wasn't published until seven years later.
Both are novels of (similar) ideas but with different tones. Inglorious is serious though there are lines at which some might laugh in dark humour, and it doesn't explain itself directly. As in the later book, which I read first, there is a critique of capitalist society and the expected trajectory of an orderly life, which simultaneously understands the love of that society's trappings. (The heroine, Rosa, visits the home of some married friends: "Three children, it was a towering achievement. And the place was a work of art...Everything was immaculate.” ... Her covering letters on job applications have all the satiric rage and righteousness of the newly manic Dennis Bagley in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.)
Rosa's journey, most of which is around the streets in duller areas of West London, closely mirrors the protagonist's experience in Knut Hamsun's Hunger and the narrative often reminded me of the Norwegian book. Another review alludes to Dostoevsky. Her swing from colour-supplement success story with a happy family background, to starving, uncompromising, occasionally hallucinatory, dropout intellectual is precipitated by events that populate mainstream fiction: the death of her mother, walking out of a media job, the end of her moribund relationship - things sometimes trivialised when they belong to certain types of people in stories, especially younger middle-class women. But these things can be harrowingly painful with the depth of centuries, even though their surface outlines are templates for cheap station novels with pink covers, or films starring Jennifer Aniston. And I think Kavenna is trying to point this out in Inglorious. She said in the same article I quoted above: "what happens if women write books that are solely about women trying to struggle with life – do they get accepted as representations of the human condition, or is it just the female condition?" No, I don't think people have a problem accepting them as part of the human condition if the work is intellectually serious - and I've seen at least as many men as women give high opinions of such works. (However, chicklit is perhaps regarded more dismissively than the smaller number of similar popular novels by and about men.)
The modern setting made aspects of Hunger even clearer to me, and more pertinent, in particular its illustration of the mismatch between the money system and the human need for self-expression and actualisation - which is insoluble for most except the relatively well-off and a few off-grid survivalists. There is also a fantastically evoked sensation of grasping around for things, for the levers which work the world, through a fog which has descended. Part of the fog is unfortunately others' lack of understanding. Most of Rosa's friends can't comprehend life off their own tramlines and sneer at her - yet she is acting like the subjects in many works of art they no doubt admire, with her unusually idea-based depression. Though their worst actions are to catalogue cruelly to her face her failings during the last days of her dying relationship, as if they hadn't realised that everything which had happened was more than enough. Those who try to be helpful are ultimately very boundaried and intent on remaining immersed in their own lives and convenience. But then what else is anyone supposed to do? Co-dependent helping would be "unhealthy" or smothering or both. Another insoluble problem of how society works.
If I hadn't read Granta 123: The Best of Young British Novelists 4, I can't imagine I'd have picked up a book that looked like this, or gone beyond dismissing its synopsis (the old one on here ... I replaced it on Goodreads with one from the author's website mentioning "Dante's centre point of life", which gives a better impression of what's inside). hopefully a few more readers who'll like this will find it now, undeterred by average ratings from those who wanted to read something completely different.(less)
[3.5] A simple bittersweet romantic story, which I liked all the better for its historical setting, although it's so obviously transposed from some mo...more[3.5] A simple bittersweet romantic story, which I liked all the better for its historical setting, although it's so obviously transposed from some more modern time. But that setting also gives it a problem: first-person historical narration is harder to pull off the further back in time you go. There are reasonable hints at a seventeenth-century voice but the need to make something readable for a modern audience (I remember this balance being mentioned on creative writing courses) means there are phrases which, if you know works of the time, jar: "you preferr'd to deal with it alone, I think."
And I learnt something: Birdcage Walk, so often mentioned on commentaries of the London Marathon, royal events &c, was so named because during the Restoration it was in summer lined with birdcages, containing exotic fowl belonging to the king - and in winter they would be taken indoors.(less)
Priggish private secretary Agnes Simkin is annoyed that her favourite park bench has been invaded by a male interloper. She's an old nearly-40 by toda...morePriggish private secretary Agnes Simkin is annoyed that her favourite park bench has been invaded by a male interloper. She's an old nearly-40 by today's standards, but this is 1949 so she'd have been born about 1910 ... Oh, the same age as one of my grandmothers. Not the most original of pieces, and occasionally exposition was too noticeable (always difficult in short stories) but I very much liked the sentiments and tone. (less)
A protagonist who perhaps mirrors imagined readers for this series: a stressed woman on her way to a meeting (about funding, so third sector or arts)...moreA protagonist who perhaps mirrors imagined readers for this series: a stressed woman on her way to a meeting (about funding, so third sector or arts) wanders into the park to collect her thoughts, having not been there, or really relaxed, for years.
I like this mundane romanticism. "I had no idea where you were today in the world. But I remembered, sitting there in the park, what it meant that our paths had crossed."
But the middle section is off-key, or rather off-tense. Recounting things that go on in the park, it doesn't work as part of the present tense first person - the narrator wouldn't know unless she was reading lots of signs. If it were in various forms of past tense and "I wonder if they still...?" it would work. The end is a little predictable but I think it works for the context of these stories.
[4.5] Shorter even than the other Park Stories as the booklet contains the original story in Arabic, and the other half an English translation.
This s...more[4.5] Shorter even than the other Park Stories as the booklet contains the original story in Arabic, and the other half an English translation.
This story about a Kuwaiti girl who temporarily escapes her strict family in London made me think about many of the same ideas as the 2013 Granta Best of Young British Novelists collection. This is the sort of thing I hoped to read in that: being made to see something slightly familiar through different eyes and different metaphors, ones that belong to another culture that's existing in parallel to me and rarely meeting. "I stepped on to the green grass. I imagined I was treading on chickpeas. I used to wrap chickpeas in cotton and soak them in water for a day until green shoots appeared..."
And there were moments which exemplified why if I'm reading about a country I've never been to, I like it to be through an author who lives there and unquestionably knows it well - the sort of thing you can only spot as inaccuracy if you know a place. But as this writer or narrator is talking about here, I know she is seeing what she knows, saying something about what she is used to, not relating an accurate observation and that is very interesting and worthwhile in itself. (less)
[4.5] I've posted reviews for these eight stories individually, but as they're 16-page pamphlets, it really only feels like having read a book after r...more[4.5] I've posted reviews for these eight stories individually, but as they're 16-page pamphlets, it really only feels like having read a book after reading them all.
As a whole collection it could seem a little safe and twee to fans of some of the writers included, but bearing in mind that it's meant for sale to visitors and tourists in London parks, (stack of the relevant booklet by the till in the cafe ... oh, it's only £2, why not?) and therefore specifically not meant to frighten the neighbours, some of these do very well to be slyly subversive with little sex and violence and no swearing. And anyway, sometimes it's nice to read something cosy.
I was hardly likely not to like these, as a big fan of some of the writers, and of stories with a strong sense of place and history (even more so if it relates to places I've been to or at least know about). My favourites were the ones I bought it for, Will Self's and Nicola Barker's; the weakest were the stories by Shena Mackay, Ali Smith and Clare Wigfall, but they were all still lovely things I took to my heart and would very happily read again.
It's a very cute box set which would make a very good present for someone who likes this sort of thing, but the cardboard case is a) slightly too big for the booklets and b) made from rather thin card so it got all squashed in the post, meaning that I couldn't quite reuse this one as a gift.(less)
[4.5] An excellent mix of kitchen-sink realism and picaresque, with entertaining characters. The dialect narrative gives a wonderful sense of being ri...more[4.5] An excellent mix of kitchen-sink realism and picaresque, with entertaining characters. The dialect narrative gives a wonderful sense of being right inside a subculture yet is lightly enough done that it's still a pretty fast read. (It's so relaxed that it doesn't seem like a trad third-person narrative, more often like listening to an old man telling stories of what his mates got up to back in the day.) There is l great detail about the London of the 1950s and the eternal magic of the city, as well as about the lives of the guys who've arrived from the West Indies to look for work. And it's got that tingling combination of adventure and adversity that is moving to a brand new place down to a t.
For years I'd noticed this book on various lists (best London novels, best Black British novels etc) and hadn't realised a) it would be so enjoyable - it made me laugh several times - and b) it was so short - under 140 pages. So if anyone else has been swithering for ages about whether to read it, as I did, my advice would be to go for it, especially if you're interested in this era of recent British history.
The introduction by Susheila Nasta of the OU is excellent on literary background. (The historical side was already familiar from general knowledge and more recently in more detail from Never Had it So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook.)
I'd now rather like to read the 1970s sequel featuring some of the same characters, Moses Ascending.(less)