Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Lights Out In Wonderland by D.B.C. Pierre

I've just started reading this and already I suspect it'll have the Engleby effect on me.
Currently reading...


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I am also not Harry Belafonte.
I found Percival Everett through a typical, but at the time exciting, bookselling ploy of massively discounting select titles, in this instance to 99p, to add units and value to transactions at the till point. Thus Erasure was the first Everett novel I read. His smouldering anger and furious hilarity stuck me instantly, and although I can claim no kinship or even shared social or cultural experience, I decided I had found someone with whom I felt somewhat aligned. In typical gluttonous fashion I quickly picked up a shit-load of his other work, including two I've reviewed here: A History Of The African American People... and Damned If I DoI loved the Will Self-esque humour of 4-year-old Ralph in Glyph, the anger of Ralph Ellison added to the parodying of the publishing industry in Erasure, and the absurdity of Ted Street, headless and suicidal, in American Desert. It was something I realised I longed for in contemporary American fiction; a writer with clarity, using humour to unpick our interwoven assumptions, received and innate, about race, class, and accepted wisdom, but without resorting to slapstick. 

I Am Sidney Poitier is a return to form. I say return, and form, because I have a faulty understanding of the parabola of his work, coming in at the middle as I have, missing out on his earlier parody of the western, God's Country from 1994, and having read his first novel, Cutting Lisa in the middle of my own discovery. Nevertheless, what we find is a character named, implausibly, Not Sidney Poitier, by his 'crazy' mother for reasons unknown, a mother whose seemingly speculative investment in Ted Turner's media stocks turned them both into multi-millionaires, albeit secretly. Not only does Not Sidney share Mr Poitier's surname, he also shares his features, so much so as to lead to speculation concerning his parentage, all of which are vaguely dismissed by Mrs Poitier, who takes the secret to her early grave. Not Sidney is taken under the wing of Ted Turner himself, and so the story unfolds. He is arrested on an impromptu road trip through Georgia, for driving whilst being black, escapes chained to a 'cracker' who would rather drink moonshine with a blind hill-billy girl than start a new future in Atlanta, winds up solving a murder mystery in Smuteye, Alabama (so named because of the prevalence of a corn-blighting fungus which is harvested and eaten by the inhabitants - in Ted Turner's fictional opinion, not half bad, more like three quarters bad), and attends a black college only to be too black for the coffee-and-cream co-eds and their parents (that is of course until they learn he's filthy stinking rich). Throughout, each time Not Sidney closes his eyes he dreams of lives past, where he or maybe not he faces slavers, haters, and pernicious freedom. Not Sidney is defined by that which he is not - not white, not poor, not Sidney Poitier, not part of the mainstreaming culture (or lack thereof) - but remains sure of himself and succeeds in retaining the reader's sympathy despite (or maybe because of) occasional inclinations to indulge his animosity towards hypocrites. 

Bookslut references Kurt Vonnegut in her as always excellent review from a few years back, and I tend to agree with her, which only adds to my sense of spiritual homecoming when I read Everett. It is a brilliantly comic satire, particularly of the author himself who appears as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Nonsense, aptly spouting the same when asked for advice or help. Perhaps I lack the appropriate discourse to discuss the politics of race, but the sentiments of arbitrary prejudice and exclusion chime nonetheless. I love it when I read a novel that is so clearly bigger than me, that pushes my horizons that bit further out, and as a comedy of miscommunication, a clean, approachable story such as I've come to expect from the author, I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

True Grit by Charles Portis

'Men will live like billy goats
if they are let alone.'
In my current mood of nostalgia for things and books past, I thought I'd return to a Charles Portis novel I read quite a few years back, one recently* 'rebooted' by the Coen brothers for cinematic audiences. The story, related by an octogenarian Mattie Ross, heroine of sorts of her own story, is of a 14-year-old Mattie hunting and attempting to bring to justice the murderer of her father, Frank Ross, with the help of dyspeptic, drunken and (middle-) ageing civil war criminal turned Federal Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn. In a humourlessly delivered monologue, which is nonetheless very funny in and of itself, Mattie tells of her trials at the hands of horse dealers, lawmen, Rooster and the bandits and brigands to whom she wishes to bring the iron hand of justice. She also captures all the wry pragmatism of Rooster himself, and the slick bluster of Texan law man LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) who is in pursuit of her personal nemesis after he killed a senator because of an argument about a dog.

A simple premise, delivered simply, but highly effectively. What I found troublesome, probably shared by anyone who has watched the most recent of the two famous movie versions, is that I can only see Jeff Bridges when I think of Rooster Cogburn. And when I see Jeff Bridges, my mind wanders to The Dude. Gone is the gnarly gun-toting Rooster of the John Wayne film. Instead, it's The Dude in dress-up, which makes me not believe in him. To be fair, it was the same for Iron Man. Of course, this is in no way down to Charles Portis, whose character is equal parts billy goat (as Mattie observes) and killer. Furthermore, and also irksome, after reading Donna Tartt's introduction to this novel, something I might never have done if I had ever read her novels and therefore possessed no curiosity as to how she might sound in print, with her bons mots nicely italicised and her reminiscences about her own family reading traditions***, I began the novel with the sourness of rising bile in my throat, something which appears to have leeched out some of the pure pleasure of reading Portis purely for pleasure's sake. Still, with a surfeit of pleasure to be had in this novel, this is a small grumble in the face of overwhelming enjoyment. For the book is brilliant, well-deserving it's place on most critics' lists of 'great American novels'. Now, as I'm tired and clearly grumpy, I'll simply finish with this: if Chalres Portis isn't a name you recognise, this would set you well on your way to finding a new favourite author. 


*Regular readers** will recognise the fluidity of my temporal referencing.

**This self- referential and -deprecating nonsense is starting to get old, don't you (I) think?

***And what sort of hypocrite would I be if I didn't mention that I subsequently gave my copy to my dad to read?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

More demons please.
A number of years back, I believe (but cannot prove) that I read this book out of the Milford Haven library. I then found it in a second hand store in hardback whilst at university and read it again. Now, after an instance of maudlin self-pity, combined with wine (much wine) I ended up purchasing it again from a second-hand book store on line, along with Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, an act which I forgot until one day on return from work I realised I couldn't open my front door because something was jammed underneath it, a something which turned out to be these very books. What a lovely surprise, although I immediately checked my browser history and bank account to check I'd not purchased a fold-up bicycle or second-hand city car on my credit card, both items which I've been pondering in the last few weeks. It turns out I hadn't.

So, to prevent further rambling, the point is that this might have the distinction of being the first book that I believe have read for pleasure more than twice. That deserves a hurrah for Mr Moore.

The fact that I couldn't remember much about it, other than there's a bloody great demon named Catch who likes to eat people, tied inextricably to a chap named Travis who doesn't age and also doesn't like it when Catch eats people, would therefore indicate either early onset dementia (not ruled out) or that the story is significantly less entertaining that the idea. 

Messieurs Gaiman and Moore will
be pleased to note they were very
capable doorstops
To be fair to Mr Moore, when I realised what was preventing access to my home, I felt a warm rush of excitement. I was genuinely pleased to see it, and that means somewhere in the grey matter a long filed memory had coughed quietly, startling the record-keeper into a surprised fart, making his colleagues turn round in disgust and tut noisily to each other. That can only be good. And when I finished it yesterday, in time to start watching Gillette Soccer Saturday with Jeff Stelling, I was feeling happy. I would have rather seen more of the supporting cast eaten, including but not exclusively Robert (drunken hubby of Jenny, grand-daughter to Amanda, a figure from Travis's past) whose past in photography is suspiciously similar to that credited to Mr Moore on his Wikipedia page and provides the answer to a thorny plot issue, and Rachel, coven leader of the Pagan Vegetarians For Peace and deserving of a worse fate than driving off into the sunset with eventual hero Augustus Brine and his pet Djinn, both of whom could also do with a bit of being eaten, if I'm honest. In fact, the book is deserving of more Catch and less everyone else. I guess I'm just drawn to the caustically sarcastic spawn of Satan.

Nonetheless, all of my positive feelings remain post-novel, and I have gained no new negative bias against the work of Mr Moore, so on balance, I would have to say that this is a very entertaining work of comic fantasy, maybe worth a seat at the table with Messieurs Gaiman and Pratchett, or at least Robert Rankin, of whom nothing later, at all. EVER. 


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The 210th Day by Sōseki Natsume

"It may perhaps make sparks
in the centre of Tokyo..."
Many (many) years ago I came across I Am A Cat by Sōseki Netsuke (a bookseller's nightmare considering the occidental trend to westernise Japanese names and thus oft-times finding itself in both N and S on the shelves) in a manner I can no longer remember, and was instantly smitten by its insouciance and wit. I went about flogging it to every vacillating browser I could assault in a typical fit of smittenness. In fact, you can find a link to it just below this review, down there. Click on it. It's a great book and is cheaper if you choose to purchase it on Kindle. Take a look. Just down there. You'll love it, I promise. Go on. Ahh go on. Go on, go on go on etc.

So anyway, I also went about hoovering up all the English translations of his work I could find, as is my particular peccadillo, and to stare lovingly at them as I promised, but failed, to actually read any of them. Worryingly, when recently prompted to revisit the shelves by more Eastern wonderfulness, I realised that only two very slim volumes remained; My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature (see below. Ah go on.) and this very short novella, The 210th Day. Where were the rest? Oh, ah. Um. Yes. I gave them all away. Whoops.

So, not in the mood for literary theory, I picked this one up, and got stuck in. Thirty-five minutes later, I was back at my shelves, looking for something else to read.


No that this was terrible. Far from it. It's just that, even with the enlightening introduction, it runs to barely 90 pages*. "A relatively minor work," warns Marvin Marcus in his introduction, and an étude of sorts.

What it is, basically, is a conversation, based on a similar experience the author had with his friend, in 1899, between two characters; one with a strong opinion on inequality in society, and the other fairly well to do and with a much more laissez-faire attitude about these things (but not about having to eat udon...). The two have agreed to climb Mount Aso, an active volcano, to take a look at the white hot rocks it is reputed to eject regularly, but unfortunately, have chosen the 210th day of the lunar calendar to do so, which is, ostensibly, typically associated with storms and typhoons. They fail to make it to the top, one of them losing his hat and the other falling into a lava channel, but back at the inn, fed and watered, our former tofu-seller, the social conscience of the dialogue, convinces his friend to try again, and there the story ends.

It's fun, if brief, and has some lovely moments of humour, particularly when the maid at the inn misunderstands their food order for half-boiled (i.e. soft-boiled) eggs, and brings four, two of which are boiled hard and two of which are raw. It also has a fairly standard dichotomy of views on the rich industrial barons and the workers on the shop floor, but explored in an entertaining fashion. As a literary experiment, I can't tell you if it was successful, but as a train station diversion, a waiting room book, it has enormous merit. 

*And I paid £10.99 for it. 

  

Friday, 31 July 2015

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Oedipal fun for all the family!
Haruki Murakami and I should really get along well. Me and his novels, I mean, not Mr Murakami himself, as he runs too much and is too fussy about his coffee–that would likely bug me. We have much in common; we're both mysterious, otherworldly, filled with wonder and mythology; we're both light on the eyes but heavy on the brain; and we both like wearing white*. But I have a history of missing the point with Japanese literature, something I am trying a little to rectify. Much like Japan's famed Noh theatre, I know I like what's going on, but I don't know why, and it is a source of irritation. Am I obtuse? Is it all too subtle and refined for me? 

Someone told me that in a Western theatre tradition, acting comes from inside–it's driven by emotions–whereas the Japanese tradition is cerebral, actors becoming the essence of characters and the literal ghosts of ancestral beings. I think I might just lack the cultural references to fully grasp what I see and read. I hope it's as simple as that. What I do trust though is that I love the alienness that this little misstep of comprehension creates. 

Circuitously, I came by this novel because of a post somewhere about a new translation and edition of Sōseki Natsume's short novel The Miner and about how the titular Kafka Tamura discusses it with the librarian of the private library which serves as the hub of the action and through which nearly all actors pass at one point or another. Funnily enough, sitting on my shelves, along with I Am A Cat and The 210th Day was this novel, in hardback, untouched since I liberated it from the damaged stock bin at my bookshop in 2005 (along with 1Q84 and the more recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, both unread as yet)Enough of a intertextual coincidence to nudge me into trying again to understand what the hell is going on in a Murakami novel.

This one, luckily, starts out fairly straightforwardly, with a boy talking to a crow about running away from home. Then come some transcripts of interviews about a strange incident during World War II about mass and unexplainable unconsciousness. Then an old man who we eventually realise is one of the children affected by the mysterious occurrence talks with cats. Then the boy, Kafka Tamura, runs away from home and the old man murders something that he thinks is the physical embodiment of the man on the label of Johnnie Walker-brand whisky but turns out to be Kafka's father. Then it rains mackerel.

Okay, so I lied, it's not at all straightforward, but for once, I was being swept along, understanding not an impediment to a deep and satisfying enjoyment. It was like being in a forest in summer, moving from patches of luscious green shade into hot summer sun, insects skittering and fizzing around, birdsong bright in your ears, and not caring that you don't know how and why it all came to be. You have only a ghost of an idea, that's all.

But it's not all simply a transient, sensory feast; there's cement beneath the snow. When Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki at the Komura library, or even before that, in a bus during his flight from Tokyo, we stumble on to a terrible Oedipal prophecy; the old man is given a quest he can't understand (being not bright at all); there are characters offering profound insights and deep understanding, like a Greek chorus explaining the action throughout for the dullards like me, and peppering the story with discussions on irony, philosophy, classical music, writers and artists, showing off Murakami's own diverse and eclectic interests and learning; and there are concepts striding purposely about, both literally and metaphorically, directing the course of characters' lives and even scoring a hooker for one. It's a densely layered cake of a novel, filled with mythological jam and creamy erudition, drizzled with love and loss, passion and pain. It's a wonderful book, haunting, and both cerebral and visceral, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western literature. 

Maybe I've been too stupid in the past, too young and impatient to properly appreciate the work of Murakami. But then maybe he's being deliberately enigmatic? I say, what's a little bit of mystery between friends?


*Or at least we did, until Vintage gave him a new wardrobe.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Survival is insufficient
I've been lax, slack, lacking in both areas of duty and equality, when it comes to reviewing to this, the fourth novel by Canadian author and person who is both younger and more successful than me, Mandel comma Emily St. John (presumably pronounced 'Sin Jin' just like le frère perdu of stalwart 1980s airborne action adventure hero Stringfellow Hawke*). Frankly, I blame jazz. 

You might consider it odd that I choose to blame an entire musical genre (have you learned nothing?), but specifically, I'm talking Miles Davis, Charlie Parker** and Charles Mingus, to whose music I have been listening almost non-stop for four days after a visit to Brecon Jazz festival. I consider them pretty much the embodiment of the genre and to those who loudly shout 'WHAT ABOUT BENNY GOODMAN AND BIX BEIDERBECKE?!' I say you make a good point, you racists.

I'm digressing. What I mean is that for the last week I have been working ten hours a day to make that trip to Brecon Jazz possible, and that herding 37 young 'cats' throughout (and to the festival itself) has left me receptive to the calls of alcohol and sleep, nominally in that order. It also left me missing the Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings CD that in my former place of work was rarely if ever off the six-CD changer and which provided the soundtrack to much bookselling. So of course, not having a spare tenner with which to part, I found much cheaper versions of this and Miles Davies, and Charles Mingus, and had a splurge. Of money. On jazz records. And subsequently, jazz has pretty much been pushing all sensible thought and notions out of my head. 

All of this has meant me doing a disservice to what is, genuinely, a thought-provoking and authentic post-apocalyptic tale. Eschewing popular themes–zombies and the like– Mandel instead focuses on what might be important to those left behind after a perfectly plausible extinction-level event in the form of a virus that kills 99% of the people on Earth. In that, she produces the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of orchestral players and Shakespearean actors who circle a Great Lake playing to the dishevelled populations of the ramshackle chain of towns along their route. Their motto, pleasingly lifted from the mouth of ex-Borg hive member Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, is 'Survival is Insufficient'. Indeed, this is the motif of a novel in which art is considered in the Churchillian context–perhaps apocryphally, Churchill is reported to have pondered the purpose of war at all if art funding was cut in favour of further military spending. All of the things we thought we needed, desperately wanted, were conditioned to purchase and consume, are suddenly rendered obsolete. Music so thoughtlessly digitised is no longer accessible as there is nothing to power the digital music players, so people flock to hear 'real' musicians; people turn out to see A Midsummers' Night's Dream because they yearn for the storytelling and drama of Shakespeare once more. All that is gone is missed no doubt, and is encapsulated in the whimsical but profound nostalgia of the Museum of Civilisation, but it is no longer important.

And running through the whole novel, perhaps the least plausible but, honestly, most integral part, is the human story of actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage presages the collapse of civilisation. His family, friends, fellow actors and even the man who tries to save him on stage, are the principals in what is a strangely gentle story of disaster and aftermath, culminating in a glimpse of redemption. I say gentle, but there is danger and death a-plenty, however in this vision of the future, the lawlessness is receding, groups are beginning to settle down and form communities which trade and enjoy gingerly coalescing relationships with one another. But one last great danger lies ahead, rooted in the messages of a limited-edition graphic novel, written by Arthur Leander's first ex-wife, Station Eleven.

In trying to pull together a synopsis, I realise quite what an achievement this novel represents, and the speed at which I raced through it belies it's genuine depth. I just wanted to read on, read more, find out what happens. And as I say, hope is there, despite the destruction, seen as a glimmer of light over the hill on a dark night. 


*Portrayed by squinty actor Jan-Michael Vincent, whose refusal to wear his prescription glasses on set forced him to peer myopically at pretty much everything including Ernest Borgnine***.
**Not the PI out of the rather good John Connolly novels, the other Charlie Parker.
***Now, just because I love Ernest Borgnine AND Airwolf, here's the theme tune.