Tuesday, 26 January 2016

I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary by John Higgs

Currently reading...

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Locktender's House by Steven Sherrill

When she felt brave enough, strong
enough, she'd name the mountain too.
Having now read three novels by Steven Sherrill, I'm beginning to suspect that he hit his zenith with The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break and it's all been a gentle wavy curve downwards thereafter. I don't recall much about Visits from the Drowned Girl other than I was disappointed, and sadly, I feel the same way about this one. 

It's basically another ghost story, one wherein the protagonist is haunted by her past in a generally tactile fashion. However, maybe she dreams, maybe she's remembering, or maybe she's remembering dreaming, or vice versa, and so on. Janice Witherspoon wakes up with a migraine to receive a call telling her that her boyfriend, the other half of a relationship of convenience and inertia, has been killed during his tour in the Middle East, and so she goes on the run from her life, winding up in a lock-keeper's house in Pennsylvania, miles, she thinks, from civilisation, a place to which she feels deep down in her bones she has some kind of connection. Cue disorientating dream/memory sequences, crows, goats, tiny bone armchairs and sleepwalking. Then she finds her closest neighbour is a handsome, recluse, stone-carving, older, naked-yoga-performing professor who is immeasurably kind and supportive up to the point where he thinks she's gone crazy when a ghost tries to drown her in the bathtub and she subsequently tries to rape him. 

When put like that it sounds like an entertaining read. At the end of the day it is what it is, and from reading the blurb and judging the content from the form, it's no more than what I expected, but as I say, I was gently disappointed that it wasn't something new and exciting from this tired old genre. He takes regular pot-shots at the military, there's paragraphs about banjoes and dulcimers, of interest to someone who can't play either but pretends he can; there are some passages of marked beauty, some sentences that are worth re-reading, but at the close of play, it's all pretty formulaic and predictable, and frankly it takes chuffing ages to get to the point. Day follows crushingly repetitive day. Janice wanders too and fro telling us she'll leave and deciding to stay. And she spends far too many nights in the shed having rough sex with a dead nursemaid. Plus, everyone dies including a crow and a dog. I found myself huffing and sighing in discomfiting boredom throughout.

In conclusion, I'm not sorry I read it, but I am sorry I was disappointed, and to be honest, it might be third-novel syndrome. However I shan't be shying away from novel four, Joy, PA,  which anyone with access to my Amazon Wishlist (ignore the mass-market movies...) might like to purchase for me (just saying). Anyway, just how do you follow on from a character like M? Oh, that's right, by writing another one...

Monday, 11 January 2016

So You've Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson

The snowflake never needs to
feel responsible for the avalanche.
I've a lot of time for Jon Ronson. I've followed him on and off through the years, and have fostered an illusory sense of connection going back to a book signing many years ago which, as I'm sure you're all aware, I mentioned previously.  His questioning mind and latent anxiety mix potently and humorously, and his writing plays off between the self-revelatory and the investigative, given he himself features in it so heavily. Nonetheless, the image I have of him is of a nice guy, doing a difficult job and putting himself in the line of fire. As such, this book starts with him realising there had been created a spam-bot (sorry, an infomorph) on Twitter which was, in the terms of it's creators, "repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic." When he asked for it to be shut, it led to a conversation about Brand Jon Ronson and key questions of identity and positioning in public fora. It also led to a very entertaining YouTube video, linked to below, of the conversation he had with its creators. I'll wait while you have a watch. Might get myself a cup of tea. See you in 12 minutes and 9 seconds, okay?



Lovely. Where was I? Oh yes, the faux-naif (thanks Wikipedia) Ronson, nervous and shrill, is very annoyed by it all until he starts reading the messages under the video. There are calls for various punishments and penances including some that go to extremes, and Ronson gets a little swept up in righteous fury, exalting as the trio of numpties finally do shut the infomorph down. He marvels at the power of social media to get the job done.

But then we head off into the curious cases of famous social media shaming–Jonah Lehrer and his plagiarism, Justine Sacco and her questionable sense of humour–and his assumption that social media has the power to right wrongs is seriously questioned. He goes back to consider public lynchings and pillorying, and asks whether shame, at least on this scale, is a good thing.

He talks to a judge who uses shame to combat recidivism in his state, visits a porn shoot to consider what is for all intents an purposes a shameless industry, tries to work out why some people escape a shaming intact (or as in Max Moseley's case, in even better shape than before) and why others are ruined almost beyond hope. He talks to the members of 4chan, a powerful underground bulletin board where young, disenfranchised web users seek to combat their own entrenched powerlessness by launching campaigns against people they consider to have escaped from justice, and he talks to psychologists whose pioneering approaches to prison reform had some startlingly positive results. He asks why shame is so powerful and what happens to turn good, kind, friendly people, himself included, into braying maniacs once they log-in to their Twitter accounts. 

As always with these things, the journey is what's important. Following him through the adventure of discovery is very entertaining, in parts shocking and in others frankly hilarious. His conclusion is cautionary - that while social media creates a new battleground in the pursuit of civil rights and the combatting of injustice, it also gives a platform for sickness and arbitrary rage to broadcast itself into your life. And he worries that the illness might overwhelm the patient, that in order to avoid the shame of having a contrary opinion, we will all whitewash our online personae until beige homogeny rules–no doubt hyperbole, but it does happen. Ronson invites the reader to draw their own personal conclusions from the evidence he presents, given he himself is conflicted about the value of public shaming, and also to consider standing up for someone in the full harsh beam of public shaming. Who knows, next time it might be you.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Anyone who ruled over the dark zones
of men's lives wielded enormous power.
In the heart of the Empire stands the Tabir Sarrail, terrifying and enigmatic, a threat, a curse, a blessing, a shadow, its only purpose to analyse the dreams of the millions of people living dispersed across the length and breadth of the land–The Palace of Dreams. Faceless, labyrinthian, shrouded in mystery, its veil is nonetheless pierced momentarily by young Mark-Alem, a member of a pugnacious and powerful old Albanian family by marriage, whose countenance and comportment 'suits' the ministry, and as a result he is offered a job in Selection. Thus begins his initiation into the art of reading the dreams of an Empire.

It's hard to miss the symbolism, given the long prominently placed quote on the front from Richard Eder, book critic for Newsday proudly noting the assertion that this is an allegory of power, and the unsettlingly, threateningly dark reproduction of Arnold Böcklin's Die Toteninsel on the cover. Yes, this is a book that deals with the state's desire to police the minds of its citizens, to weed out potential unrest and deal with insidious threats, to oppress and control those it should protect and serve. It is none too subtle either. But at the heart of the allegory is a young man whose days of drifting and day-dreaming must finally come to an end, that he must put away his childish things and hunker down in a proper job, one that is selected for him by the patriarchal elders of his family in an act that smacks of hidden agendas. As he joins the faceless ranks of the desk-jockeys, unsure of his role, ill-prepared for the mental strain and endless boredom of cold offices, hard chairs, long hours, short breaks, his life changes shape, his mind shifts to accept his fate and his old life loses the colours of happy freedom to be replaced by the intoxicating fogginess of routine, fumes from coal braziers and narrow, blinkered focus bordering on the myopic, literally, as he pores over page after page of recorded dreams. In that respect, it's an allegory of the futility of the pursuit of a career which leaves one no time for anything but work and sleep. It's modern life with a disturbing and Orwellian veneer, defamiliarized as only the Europeans like Ferenc Karinthy (Metropole) know how. Even as Mark-Alem works his way up the hierarchy, his colleagues and superiors, soon to be subordinates, are stricken with fear, paranoia and impotence, all of which find comfortable perches in Mark-Alem himself, particularly as the cultural philanthropy of his uncle Kurt backfires on the family and Kurt himself is arrested and summarily executed, all for having the temerity to bring in Albanian rhapsodists to sing an Albanian version of an oral epic that mentions the family name.

What I find Kadare does particularly well, compared to some others, is in the clothing of his characters, essentially mere allegorical devices, or rather receptacles of the arbitrariness of injustice, in the cloak of humanity. Mark-Alee, who considers the pride and problems he might face in adopting a name more in keeping with his great Albanian ancestry, is a pawn, and he suspects as much. He is tortured by his inability to know what to do, is one moment burning with shame and another crying with relief as he oscillates between extremes of indecision, and even in his final lofty position as Director of the Ministry, his powerlessness leaves him tearful as he rides through the city in his carriage imagining the day when men will come to arrest, imprison and execute him too. It is a masterfully crafted novel.


Monday, 28 December 2015

Glass Soup by Jonathan Carroll

God was a polar bear named Bob?
On the face of things, it might be easy to write-off Jonathan Carroll as a facile fantasist, someone who uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors for the whole meaning of life and love, and is overly obsessed with battles of good and evil and the grey areas in between. God knows, when I first read The Land Of Laughs I was confused as to why it merited a place in the Fantasy Masterworks series of books, and was left feeling distinctly bamboozled and empty afterwards. But there is a positive insidiousness about the writing, a depth betrayed by its apparent shallowness, and despite being annoyed at myself for seemingly confusing obviousness and profundity in the book, I went out and bought a load of other books by the same author, and have been steadily working my way through them for the best part of fifteen years. I still have a couple more to go. 

What does that tell you about Carroll? That he has a gift for reminding us of the ubiquitousness of the human experience? That he tells us we should trust ourselves, work hard at love, enjoy the wonder of life and not over-think things? That he sees there is poetry in a slice of chocolate cake, a shop window, a name carved on a tree? All of the above. In addition, he writes simply of complex things, creates impossible worlds in which you just have to believe, and uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors to make the most profound and startling suggestions about the world and our perceptions of it, our relationship with it and each other, and our often blinkered and ignorant solipsism. 

Each character in Glass Soup, lovers Vincent and Isabelle, friends Flora and Leni, conjured memories Broximon, Bob the polar bear, even the octopus driving the bus, serves a deeper purpose, pushes the story to its climax and revelations, and does so with surprisingly biting humour and an astonishingly casual panache. This novel is ridiculous, daft, bonkers, and wonderful, and if I don't appear to have said much about it, that is because I am still working out what to feel; something that is guaranteed to keep a novel in my thoughts and heart for a long, long time to come.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

A Man In Love: My Struggle Volume 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Indifference is one of the seven
deadly sins, actually the greatest
of them all, because it is the
only one that sins against life.
First off, Merry Christmas everyone, and also, here's wishing you all a very happy new year. Let's all hope that 2016 is the year that we all learn just what it is we want and how to get it.

To the task and book at hand, and I am trying desperately to space out my intake of Knausgaard, despite my usual trick of buying everything he's written as soon as I've read half of one book. I am an author-glutton, it's undeniable, but defensible in this instance as, after all, Knausgaard's work is compulsive reading, and very much like life itself it has episodes of great intensity dotted with moments of total self-immersion, acute scrutiny of the minutiae of existence, and rambling discourses on the nature of everything from emasculated fathers to whether madness is desirable in the literary arts. But I have one great reservation about this project, to which I'll come shortly. 

Book two follows on from one, picking up on the new, exciting relationship with Linda Borström, poet and dramatist, who fills the Tonje-shaped hole in his life almost as soon as he has left his first wife for life in Stockholm, hence the subtitle. It is almost very satisfyingly bookended by the story of an abortive and stressful-sounding holiday taken with their three kids, but of course, bucking all literary tropes (or perhaps using all that derive naturally from the storytelling arts) it can't possibly end in such a formulaic fashion  As it turns out that he had met Linda before, at a Nordic writer's seminar in Biskops-Arnö, where she spurns his drunken advances so he cuts up his own face. But she returns by dint of coincidence–she lives in the building in which he miraculously finds an apartment (which he refuses because he was ashamed she might consider it more than a coincidence)–and thereafter he discovers she really does hold a candle for him. So they get married and have the aforementioned three children, which changes his life in so many frightening, uncomfortable and instantly recognisable ways that he almost can't cope with it all.

It's does get a little post-modern. Towards the end of this book, Karl Ove is starting to write the first book, for some reason thinking it a solution to the cycle of anger and frustration on which both he and Linda are stuck. I may have missed the bit where he explains how that works. This book also seems to end with a tacked-on segment, after the spurned opening for the nicely circular ending, which rushes through his best friend mother's funeral to an ending in an unusually forthright manner, with little discussion or digression considering it takes in a revelation from his mother about his father (nothing earth-rending, but it does appear to have come out of the blue for Knausgaard). But honestly, it has me champing at the bit to read book three, so who's laughing now, eh?

Anyway, to the reservation at which I baulked earlier. I fear this cycle is going to end no-where. That there will be no satisfaction for the reader. That Knausgaard is going to go on living, angry, ashamed, indignant, perfidious, and we don't have a climax, or a dénouement, or a cliff hanger, or anything of the sort. It may be some sort of confessional series, something Knausgaard had to write for one of the many reasons has thus far touched upon in the first two books, and serves a purpose in that respect, but as a reader expecting some sort of narrative arc, some hook other than the writing is outstanding and complex and shockingly honest and "intense and vital, ceaselessly compelling" yaddah yaddah, I fear I'll come to the end and like watching a serial that is inexplicably cancelled mid-storyline, howl frustratedly into the sky in impotent rage. Of course, as drawbacks go, it's the least worst one imaginable, but that I'm worried about it already wears a little at my generosity of spirit. 

I've committed to reading two other novels before book three, but I confidently predict I'll race through them en route to Boyhood Island. I honestly can't wait.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald

I was leaving bloody footprints on
their shiny grey vinyl floor.
I fear the bored among you, those who clicked the wrong link or were betrayed by your search engine into clicking on to what is basically a giant advert for a real-life Evil Corp. but with added sarcasm and poorly framed* literary endeavour, will not stand for any preening or keening about the high regard in which I hold MacDonald as a gifted storyteller but the low regard in which I hold him for his insistence that masculinity, no matter how progressive the thought behind the action, is basically just about physical effort–at work, at play, in perilous situations and in the king-sized bed aboard The Busted Flush, McGee's 53 foot house boat, which he won in a poker game along with the owner's girlfriend and who he ditched at the first opportunity. For Travis McGee does pretty much bed all the attractive women he meets, unless they are actually spitting acid or filleting children. For that sort of exuberance, you can go visit my reviews for A Tan And Sandy Silence, The Long Lavender Look, The Turquoise Lament, Dress Her In Indigo, Darker Than Amber, Bright Orange For The Shroud, and A Deadly Shade Of Gold, but if you do, start wth ...Amber as it's by far the best (as I didn't write it).

No, for once, I will let the book do the talking, as despite reservations and embattled enthusiasms, the one thing you can count on in a John D. MacDonald novel is that something will surprise you, something will ring true, and make you realise that all those crazy mixed-up thoughts that spin around in the drum of your brain are felt by someone else. In this case, and because I'm feeling lonesome as it's Christmas and I'm all alone**, this is what captured my attention. Apologies for the wholesale theft of text, but I'm sure it constitutes less than 10% so up yours, Fair Use!


"Travis, I've mentioned to you the second law of thermodynamics."
"Which is?"
"That all organised systems tend to slide slowly into chaos and disorder. Energy tends to run down. The universe itself heads inevitably towards darkness and stasis."
"Cheering thought."
"Piogogine altered this concept with his idea of dissipative structures." 
I'm sure you're with me on this one. I've never felt so connected by someone else's analysis of the spiral of lonelin–– shit, hang on I'm missing a bit.
"He used the analogy of a walled city and an open city. The walled city, isolated from its surroundings, will run down, decay and die. The open city will have an exchange of material and energy with its surroundings and will become larger and more complex, capable of dissipating energy even as it grows. I have been thinking that it would not warp the analogy too badly to extend it to a single individual."
"The walled person versus the open person?"
"The walled person would decline, fade, decay."
"Meyer, dammit, I have a lot more interchange of material and energy with my environment than most."
Ugh. Always back to that. Never mind, on we press.
"In a physical sense, but you are not decaying in any physical sense..."
"The decay is emotional?" 
 "And you are walled, in an emotional sense... You are getting no emotional feedback."
 "Where do I go looking for some?"
 "That's the catch. You can't. It isn't that mechanical. You merely have to be receptive and hope it comes along."
"Meanwhile, I am being ground down by the second law of thermodynamics?"
"In a sense, yes." 
"Thank you so much." 
Yeah, that sounded a lot better when I was crying into a pint of red wine...

* And poorly executed I might add
** And milking it