Monday, 1 September 2014

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Currently reading, now with added dog.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

Awaiting review...

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

All The Days And Nights by Niven Govinden

Haunting, chastening, beautiful.
I am appropriately grateful to Madeline Toy, former publicity manager at Transworld and now freelance book publicist, firstly for her kind offer and secondly her even kinder gift of Niven Govinden's new and yet-to-be published (as of publishing) novel, All The Days And Nights, published by The Friday Project* and available from all good bookshops, and some bad ones, from the 25th September. She may be the first person since I decided to gently solicit free things to read to actually send me something, for free, so if nothing else deserves an honourable mention. 

Therefore this review entails an attempt - my favourite disclaimer and apology for eventual failure - to curtail my own facetiousness, cynicism and puerile theatricality to give due consideration to the book itself.

First impressions left me confused. The title rang bells so I checked it out. Of course, the link to Glen Duncan I could dismiss, but it was a surprise to see the same title on a collection of William Maxwell stories. Maxwell, not my favourite author but someone whom, along with John Cheever, I consider an Important American Author, was forever writing thinly veiled autobiography, the moments of his own life soaking into the pages of his novels and short stories like a spilled ink-well, but I couldn't make the connection to Govinden, considering he was born in Sussex and has probably never been an artist on canvas, or the ageing lover thereof (but of course I can't be sure). I am probably over-reaching, looking for connections no matter how coincidental, particularly as this is the first of his novels to have graced my bedside table, but it rankles, and as a less-than-sympathetic reader at times anyway, the tiny objective voice inside me groaned at the inevitable overspill of rancorous bile to follow.

[Editor's Note - having spotted superb reviewer John Self and TFP Big Mouth Scott Pack exchanging tweets about this, I realise I'd missed the quotes at the beginning of the book, particularly the one from Frida Kahlo which reads, "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you". Epic face palm.]

Ah ha! But what did follow was not all venom and hatred, not from me at least, and past the trepidatious opening passages, where nature is invoked in unnatural outrage at some transgression, I was quickly lost in admiring this beautiful book. 

A quick plot summary, and what we have is one elderly and, as is slowly revealed in the book (but put on the cover just in case you missed it) slowly dying artist, Anna, at home with Vishni her live-in housekeeper and often-times subject, ruminating on the absence of her other live-in subject, sometimes lover, legal husband but originally transient farm labourer, John Brown (no relation prior to marriage). Into the picture comes friend and agent Ben who sits in whilst Anna paints what is likely to be her final piece before she dies. Reducing it to bare bones doesn't make for a compelling argument to read. However, on these bones hangs a wistful, or rather more strongly described, a longing-filled novel about a woman, her muse, her art and the complicated palimpsest that makes up her love for the now missing John. She imagines his story, independent of her, as she goes about her work, fleeing across the country away from her illness, ostensibly to view the paintings of him scattered across the continent (and there appear to be many) - "I'm seeing all there is to see. I want to study things, paintings, the way people study me," he says to her / their financial manager. What's not clear is how much of what she tells of his story is imagined and what is reported by the people with which she interacts as a result of him having paid them a visit. 

Nonetheless, Anna's view of things seems crystal clear, her narrative - both her own and that which she tells on behalf of absent John - punctuated with insight and truthfulness, or verisimilitude, as each perpetrated deception is acknowledged without comment and  considered with compassion; Ben's personae slipping between friend and agent, casting covetous glances at the stacks of canvases in Anna's studio, is accepted as a part of his being; John leaving without notice is accepted as it was expected, barring the opening passages where there's a little bit of lamenting going on. She is not, however, particularly sympathetic. She can't control her own need to find and represent an essential truth in her paintings of John, and pushes him to sit for her, somewhat cruelly, after failing to resuscitate a friend's drowned son, and after finding a dog dead from a traffic collision. She is relentless and calculating, exploiting her muse and her housekeeper, making sure that whatever else might be reciprocated in her relationships, her need is satisfied first.

Govinden has a particular power in his writing that pushes back your defences, or at least in my case was quick to overwhelm innate cynicism. The passage in the book, about halfway through this fairly slim novel and an exchange between John and the financier in his car, where Anna relates John revealing she is dying (and hints at his own imminently anticipated demise) is worth reproducing in full**.
- The doctor says things, and his words hang in the air. Feels as if we're offered an unwanted gift. Something we'd rather not touch or acknowledge. Except it comes for her whether she wants it or not. 
 - There are second opinions. Other avenues. Doctors can be changed if their manner is too brusque, although I always thought that plainness of speech would be something she'd appreciate.
 - She's dying. Something that I can't mention or acknowledge in her presence. It's easier to take myself away. Easier for her. She shouldn't be distracted by my face and what it betrays. 
 - Even without looking at you your worry swamps the car. It must've been tough in the house. Knowing your body can betray you, the way hers is betraying her.
It might have been the wine talking - I was alone in a dark cabin, on tumultuous seas, with a good bottle of Bordeaux and a plastic cup - but it struck me as perfect, and I felt sucker-punched, particularly as just prior to this I was chewing over the complaint that the one thing this book doesn't do well is dialogue, where every exchange seems overly formal, stilted, unnatural. Yet this passage, entirely in dialogue, drove me to bend the corner of the page down so I could find it again quickly. I am haunted by this novel; saddened and chastened and not a little tearful on finishing, and it's taken me a week or two to get over myself and put these words out there to consider. 

If this book doesn't make one award shortlist or other I would be gobsmacked. If it sells as many as Ian McEwan's latest over Christmas, I would be equally astounded. It should, but sales of great novels like this, unless championed remorselessly by the faces of primetime TV, normally simmer rather than bubble and roil. It may take a few years, however, but I suspect Govinden may get his place at the top table alongside McEwan and co., and having just discovered the Harpercollins listing for it, and admitting I couldn't comment on his other novels (although I plan to rectify this) I think Deborah Levy's proffered opinion of the author is close enough to that of mine that I don't wish to risk paraphrasing, so here it is - 
Govinden is the kind of gentle modernist that contemporary British fiction needs; entertaining, intellectual, emotional, poetic, fabulous.
Enough said.

*An objective review of my reading habits, especially after a recap of selected holiday reading, shows that the publicity activity of The Friday Project has exerted a significant influence over what I read and, to a lesser extent, when it gets read. Well done publicity team.
**With the disclaimer here that this is quoted from a proof copy and may or may not be representative of the final published version, although I bloody well hope it makes any final cuts or else I may revise my opinion.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

The third revolution in
Hispanic literature?
*Shame Klaxon*

I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.

So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often considered that monster movies are most effective when the monster is merely described by its environment and the effects is has thereon. Fiction, by approaching a subject, a truth, beauty, head-on, attempting to name and describe such directly, is doomed to fail, indeed, Guardiola-Rivera suggests it ends in nightmare. Borges, to borrow the author's metaphors, advocated a circling approach, a peeling of the onion nearing a hard kernel of truth which isn't there; a candle in a dark room, the tiny circle of light revealing fragments of the whole; blind men feeling an elephant. 

What am I trying to say exactly?

The position Guardiola-Rivera takes is that Havilio, despite explicitly telling the reader (in a cover note on the original Spanish edition sadly missing from the quite simple but lovely And Other Stories edition) that the monster in the novel is capitalism and 'every man for himself', still manages to skirt it, to avoid it, and in skillful, minimalist prose describing effects not causes, leaves our monster as an elephant in the room, an oppressive yet invisible force which the blind men can't even find to get a good feel of. I agree, with both of them; our monsters lack faces, their presence indicated by an omnipresent sense of dread which pervades everything. 

The narrator, who herself is never given a name, loses her partner and on a whim moves to the country, a town called Open Door named after the open asylum situated there, the first of its kind in Argentina. She shacks up with an aged and taciturn ranch owner whilst also allowing herself to be toyed with by a local girl with nothing on her hands but time and curiosity but very little empathy, or rather, compassion. A bleakness permeates everything, and the action, what there is, is almost without cause or thought. Eloisa, the girl, does what she wants whenever she wants, with no thought to the consequence. The narrator is passive almost to the point of nihilism, eating plaster torn from the walls rather than getting up to buy food, regardless of the life growing in her belly. Indeed, she thrills at the thought of discarding her own compassion in order to go with Eloisa's flow.

Sounds dreadful, I know. But that's because it's me trying to describe the essential truth of the book, when the book itself chooses not to do so. And, if you're looking for some hope, then the epilogue has what someone might consider to be a relatively happy ending, with the narrator experiencing a strange and unfamiliar sense of contentment. 

It's not a difficult read, the translation is excellent and the language is used simply, to create a visual landscape which shifts under your feet, which you can't trust and need to consider carefully in different ways. A friend mentioned Samuel Beckett in passing the other day and the way in which he pared everything down to the essential. It stuck as I read this, and a Beckett comparison, whilst gratuitous, seems apt. But it also has a vagueness, a smokiness at the edges that hints at many levels as yet unexplored. For such a simple book, it holds some serious profundity, and I can add it to the pile of books that will forever hold me to account when I pick up a pen for myself. 


*Wait, I've thought of a great example, serendipitously reviewed within these very pages, which begins with the quote, "No-one realised that the book and the labyrinth were the same thing."

**If you conveniently disregard all of Dickens, most classical Greek texts, any female writers, Goethe, 'philosophy' and all of the great French writers. And the Romans, of course.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Under The Dust by Jordi Coca


Goodbye, little apostrophe lost.
So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more importantly, the sticker is in Times New Roman font, white on black, and Waterstones is still in the possession of its possessive apostrophe.

Oh happy days!  

I worried, on hearing of the little fellow's demise at the hand of James Gaunt, its eradication from store fronts and point-of-sale material such as this, that this once great chain had finally succumbed to the lure of the high street homogeny, that standards and principles were no longer of principal concern. What next, I wondered, censorship of the books they sell? No subversive or controversial authors allowed*? Yeah, considering the volume of Dawkins that went through the chain's tills I was on a hiding to nothing with this anxiety. If it sells, they'll sell it. And in some cases, if the sales rep could sell it to an underling pushed into their way because us important booksellers were too busy** to sit still for their patter, it went on the shelves even if it had no chance in hell of selling***. Still, I pined a little while in contemplation of my time under its roofs and the many books I'd stocked as a favour to the nicer reps.

Thus I was back to Jordi Coca, in whose marketability to the particular demographic of Cardiff, at the time of publication, I had little faith, but which I bought in for the sake of the chaps at Parthian, probably via the Welsh Books Council. And somehow, I bought a copy. This was back in 2007 and it's been unread since. 

Well it's unread no longer.

What I found was a genuinely interesting novel, a fictional memoir which wobbles closely to Coca's own revelation that he discovered writing at the age of 14. Set in Barcelona after the civil war, we discover a young boy, described through an oddly juvenile narrator seemingly drawn into his own childhood by the act of reminiscing, whose life is a precarious balance between fears - fear of his tyrannical father whose rages and violence blacken the book with an atavistic terror, fear of his past and its portents, fear of his future, fear of his friends and their own paths into adulthood, or otherwise. But through it all, despite his worries that his mother's pregnancy might end in the death of his sibling as it did before, there is a burgeoning sense of awakening. Of course, awakening to the dangers all around him doesn't make for any great release, neither to the tension of the story nor the dread of existence, but there is an incongruous family of exiles, a father, mother, son and lodger, whose existence provides shelter and the comfort of words and thoughts, who show him that disagreement needn't end in violence. There is the approaching birth of a brother or sister which inspires some forward thinking and planning, presaging hope. There is the promise of release from his tormentor with the arrest of his father for trafficking stolen goods, and there is the sweet temperament of his long suffering mother, whose faith in him never appears shaken. And all this is backdropped by a grim, grey, dusty city, under whose dust he imagines himself choking. Oppressive but not without hope, I can't think of a more engaging novel about life under fascism, especially as I am somewhat saddened to confess I know next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War*****. This is a really excellent novel and I am glad I was its vehicle to the shelves of the flagship bookshop in Wales.


*Points go to the first pedant to remind me of the Patrick Jones debacle of 2008 which, much to my chagrin, fell under my purview at the time (in so far as I invited him and his lovely publisher Jan Fortune-Wood to the store for a signing, only for the Big W put the kibosh on it at the last minute)
**Preferred not to spend an hour being bullshitted and bamboozled
***Although I know several erstwhile colleagues and a barrage of international bizarro devotees who appreciate my insistence on stocking the works of Carlton Mellick III despite initially disappointing**** sales
****Zero. In fact I bought the lot from a clearance bin over a year later after it all became dead stock after 'accidentally' being repeatedly missed during picks for publisher returns. Allegedly.
*****Something I began to address subsequently by watching the delightful film The Year and the Vineyard. I think that should be sufficient.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Keeping Mum by The Dark Angels Collective


I preferred the alternative title
As I Died Lying...
Those of you who might justifiably lay claim to knowing me quite well should be able to corroborate my claim that any book that leads off with a 'Who's Who' cast of characters is likely to get my back right up, the reason being that if any book is so unwieldy and poorly realised that you need constant reminding of which character is speaking or how they fit into the narrative at any given moment, then it surely needed more editing before publishing, or re-writing before editing, and so on. For me, a character needs to pop from the page, be embedded in the mind straight away, pulling you in, perhaps pushing you away, but always memorably. Admittedly, with so many contributors (the same amount, coincidentally, as the number of voices in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying from which the Dark Angels Collective drew inspiration) I guess it's equally likely that not to acknowledge each and their input to this MPOV novel from the get-go would put their backs up too, so I'll accept this as mitigation. 

For now.

Indeed, a novel with Multiple Points Of View is exactly what this collaborative effort delivers, each character written by a separate writing entity, drawn from the unusual yet creditable writing courses (creative writing but in a business context) of the Dark Angels team**. We have what one might deem the main character, who's dead - a challenge for any writer that - her estranged husband, her three children and one daughter-in-law; a parochial Scottish copper, a glorified B&B manager, a morgue assistant with a flower fetish, a rather random Indian restaurateur, and some others that I have forgotten. Each is written by a different person, thus eliminating the need for one writer to develop different voices, but creating the need for a strong hand on the tiller. The plot revolves around the steady disintegration of the tissue of lies that the dead character wove in life and the impact this has on those in the family and beyond with an interest in her affairs*, and I consider the central conceit to be how many lies are told in life for a myriad of reasons, how the perception one might hold of someone can be subverted, and how the machinations set in place in life have to be dismantled on death, leaving lacunae and space for that which is not familiar. I love that sort of thing. Plus, it evolves into a bit of a road-novel, a bit like that Gram Parsons film where they drive around with his corpse in the back of the truck.

Whereas Faulkner claimed he never changed a word of his novel***, having written it in six weeks after finishing work each day, I suspect this novel has been the subject of some heavy revision. I say suspect but in fact I mean I know - the authors' page on the Unbound website goes into a bit of detail on the process and it sounds like there was a lot of mind-mapping, plot-hashing and character-, er, hmm, sorry, struggling for a suitable gerund. I don't know if this is the best way to work when there are fifteen people contributing to a single goal, but for the most part it worked. There are some characters that are weaker than others (I've just remembered one of them - a facile plot device of a character who is a child-guest at the Scottish B&B who causes the dead person's phone to go missing temporarily) and some feel  tacked-on, almost like they had to be there otherwise one of the writers would feel left out and sad (I won't name names this time, but I think you'll see who they are), but overall, the parts fit together, the story progresses from one passage to the next, and whilst it's a tad predictable, it's still greatly enjoyable. It's too late to get your name in the back as a supporter, but it's never too late to buy a copy and enjoy a very interesting book.

*Whoops! Cheeky plot spoiler there! Sorry, couldn't help it.
**They're also on Twitter so they are.
***He made this claim in the introduction to Sanctuary, (Modern Library ed. 1932): cited A. Nicholas Fargnoli, Robert W. Hamblin, Michael Golay, William Faulkner; A Critical Companion Infobase 2008, pp.43–56 p.44

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Funkadelic Review
(TheMightyBuch, Cardiff, 2014)
I hesitate to review authors I truly and profoundly enjoy. I know, I’ve mentioned this before. I probably will do so again. The ubiquitous and latent fear provoking procrastination is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, as I’m happy to be blissfully ignorant of literary theory, trends in literature throughout the ages, and the exact definition of “comedy of manners” which other reviewers* have decided that this book must be, instead cosy in the realms of my experience and the book and / or author’s place therein, therefore risking exposure of this ignorance in an hubristic fashion by expounding at length and in arrogance about me me me and without putting everything into a more suitable context. Plus, I probably will have missed something dreadfully important and make myself out to look quite the fool**.

Nonetheless, here I go once more, into strange and disturbing lands with only a wry grin pasted on my face as defence against the zombie hordes of public opinion***, this time to butt heads with what I once read (but can no longer find to attribute, sorry lawyers) was Chabon’s soul novel (as opposed to his realist, comic or fantasy novel). Tiresome plot spoilers follow directly.

I guess this is the story of two families, living in California in an area in or near Oakland or Berkley (geography of American cities not being a strong suit of mine) due for regentrification. Or, it is a tale of nostalgia. No, wait, it’s about fathers and sons, but also about women. And midwives.  And vinyl records. And leisure suits. And blaxploitation movies of the 70s. And underage sex between teenage boys. And little old ladies who kick ass. And corrupt city councilmen. And racial and social tension, The Black Panthers, Bruce Lee, music, love, loss, and any number of themes and things. And a parrot, although the parrot does seem to be an odd plot and narrative device, employed to give the meeting of the two teenage boys freedom from a parental chaperone due to a rare or imagined bird allergy, and to provide a bird’s-eye-view recap of all of the main characters’ activity during a particularly tricky but well-realised and, I believe, successful chapter written in one long sentence (at least I can’t remember any hard punctuation) wherein the parrot is released from his erstwhile owners apartment by a bird-hating relative/friend (I forget which) and takes a tour of the neighbourhood, and otherwise without purpose except to serve as a further playful adornment to the incredibly rich and deeply stacked prose that Chabon uses throughout. In fact, the prose is what I remember most vividly. Similes and metaphors abound, using unusual pairings of images, and make for startlingly vivid passages and descriptions. I’ll let you discover them in your own time, but Cathleen Schine of the afore-footnoted NYRB* provides a delightful snapshot for you –
‘Chabon sees the shins of a beautiful woman glow “like the bells in a horn section.” A pregnant woman’s thighs peel “away from each other with a sigh, like lovers reluctant to part.” An old man’s advice to a young man falls like “rain against an umbrella.” A Hammond B-3 organ is “diesel-heavy, coffin-awkward, clock-fragile.” The smell of fried chicken wafts by as a “breeze off the coast of the past.” Chabon’s worlds are lyrical places, and they often include those sweet breezes from the coast of the past.’
Merci, ma Belle Mère!
Lovely. Indeed, lovely enough that I regret not owning a hard copy of this book, something I may address after our next move (to a larger property with more adequate wall-space for libraries and other trinketry, including my mother-in-law’s new found obsession with gifts of mounted butterflies). 
Still, even in a digital form, the e-ink on the page remains clear and vivid in the memory, Chabon’s words and the lives of the cast of characters (properly developed and beautifully rendered, not merely caricatures like the cast of a Molière play) opened up and displayed for all to see (not unlike a mounted butterfly). Chabon has magic in his minds-eye and I for one am thankful that he can’t keep it there. This book feels like a gift, maybe not one meant for me but one for which I am grateful nonetheless. However, he can keep his almost compulsive referencing of funk, soul and jazz vinyl records, thank you very much.

**OK, essentially the same thing, but fears are irrational so shut your stinking hole.
***Not that you’re zombies, or, necessarily, that your opinion will differ greatly to mine. Or, indeed, that there are hordes of you.