Monday, 16 December 2013

Mindfulness - A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Warning - I'm annoyed
by Amazon and might
vent...
A book on mindfulness - now, this is a departure for me. I wasn't planning on reviewing this for a number of reasons, including but not exclusively because I've not finished the course of meditation it prescribes. I wasn't really planning on reading it either, but I did, also for reasons which I am not going to relate. Good stuff so far, eh?

For a few years my wife has been gently suggesting that I try meditative activities to temper my tendency towards displays of extremes of emotion. I have resisted thus far because the one time I did concede ground and attended a Buddhist centre to take part in a guided meditation session, when asked how it was afterwards by a kind and gentle soul, I told him it filled me with a rage so profound that I felt I should go and stand outside so as not to hurt anyone. I did also read a book by Karen Armstrong on compassion, which had a 12-step process (instant recoil) towards a more compassionate life. I was greatly tickled and, one might say, equally upsetting to my wife as a result. However, for one reason or another, I decided that this time, I would read, absorb and practice, in whichever small way I was able, all of the guidance and exercises contained herein.

On this side of the coin, I find myself uncharacteristically disinclined to find fault. Mark Williams has a simple eloquence when talking about the mind and the practice of mindfulness which I found most appealing. There is some "science", and also anecdote, and it mixes rather well, if oddly arranged in some chapters - I expected that the daily routine suggested would come neatly at the end of each chapter describing the 8-week programme, for want of a better word. Plus, the meditations did seem to work, when I actually followed what was expected. So far as my limited experience of meditation and meditation aids is concerned, this is by far and away the most accessible book that I have found. I try every day to find time to meditate, and am not unhappy to say that it's a great challenge, both in terms of time and motivation, but thus far seems to work. I am more mindful, and this has taken the edge off some of the edginess, and my rages are less frequent and always more short-lived. My wife is greatly appreciative, and so is my son, I suspect.

On the flip side, and what really does boil my bunny, is that, through no fault of my own*, the edition I downloaded for my Kindle (the basic model - no fancy pants colour and wi-fi enabled shennanigans here), had enhanced content, essential enhanced content no less, which I WAS UNABLE TO ACCESS ON MY KINDLE.

I therefore had to swallow a large amount of bile and stretch to another £11 for the iBooks version so I could listen to the guided meditations through my iPad. Not before posting a helpful and righteously febrile review on Amazon, those vile and wretched purveyors of human misery. God, how I hate Amazon.

So, in conclusion, being mindful won't stop you hating. You'll just be aware of it and not be ashamed or self-critical. Win win I think you'll agree, and if you fancy a bit of it, BUY THE APPROPRIATE VERSION OF THIS BOOK, Goddamnit.

*Usual disclaimer applies here folks - I rushed into the purchase and therefore was ill-informed so of course, it is my fault, but try telling the Hulk he only has himself to blame

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Freaks by Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes

This is not likely to be a useful or interesting review.

Sorry, that was a brutal beginning, so brutal in fact that I didn’t manage to get a customary disclaimer in first. It was total brutal.


Where was I? Oh yes, being boring and unhelpful. Well, it all stems from the fact that I read Freaks because it was free for Kindle and someone or other keeps talking about Caroline Smailes in such glowing terms that it’s hard to ignore. Also, DarrenCraske has been suitably up-bigged by Scott Pack of The Friday Project, via blogs, social media and give-aways that his formerly nose-turned-up-at works have inveigled their way into what I almost casually term my throw-away collection. It was inevitable in that respect I suppose. 

I don't know who Nik Perring is.

Short and... well, short.
However, it was read over a particularly stressful Christmas period, and in snatches lasting only a few moments (not normally an issue for this book I suspect as it is basically X number of very tiny short stories, of the oft-labelled micro-fiction variety) so very little was properly absorbed*. I remember bits being rather amusing, lots of bits being rather disturbing**, and quite a few interesting seeds of stories which had probably been collected and published in this way to preserve their latent story-worthiness, rather than cultivated only to eventually wither and die being too leggy and stringy to survive the editors’ secateurs. Hmm, sounds like I’m projecting somewhat, eh? Still, there were enough cute angles and interesting twists to these stories, each prefaced with the super-power that the main character displays, to keep the pages flapping, and Craske’s appealing if overly Nintendo-esque (i.e. smiley egg as opposed to Playstation-like genocidal alien) illustrations did not detract anything and in some cases, added value. If it’s still free to download I would recommend it as mental chewing gum, and even if not, worth shelling out on up to but not exceeding the value of £1.99 or thereabouts. In my own personal hierarchy of micro-fiction read and filed away, it probably lags some way behind Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, but if you’re a Joss Whedon fan you’ll probably love it and hate me. 

Nerd.


*In retrospect, not normally an issue either, as I tend to consume books in a covering-the-ground sort of way, relentlessly feeding them into the eyes and more often than not simply adding the title to the “READ” list and ejecting the contents onto the compost heap of the Memory Palace. One might compare me to an enthusiastic but ultimately untalented footballer, or indeed a child.

**Again in retrospect, in that fashion where I know I probably should be disturbed but thanks to a kind of cultural exhaustion that I feel most of the time, and with it an insensitivity to pretty much everything, it wasn’t at all.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins

Trelawney, it's me,
Kath(erine)y, I'm still dead.
As has become customary in reviews of note, I must once again lead with a disclaimer – this one born of my own stunted temporal sensitivity; for me, time in publishing terms stopped when I left the book trade, in 2011, and therefore when I make reference to things published recently, recently might encompass more time that one might reasonably expect. Therefore, when I say that recently there has been a mini-spate of publications wherein someone challenges Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to flaunt his misguided beliefs in the face of scientific inquiry, you might be surprised to know that this includes Hjortsberg’s diverting crime novel Nevermore, first published in 1995, as well as the whimsical Oscar Wilde mysteries by Giles Brandreth, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, one of the Flashman novels from George MacDonald Fraser, and lots of lower level self-published drivel flotsamming about the waters of the Amazon.com.

Sadly for Mr Higgins, my favourite Sir Arthur is definitely Hjortsberg’s, who is rather bemusingly and inexplicably haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Poe in turn believes himself to be the recipient of visits from the beyond from Doyle). Nonetheless, Higgins’ spiritualist Doyle is a worthy adversary for the rather superior yet curmudgeonly Trelawney Hart, semi-permanent resident of the reading room of the Hyperborea Club and firm materialist stroke cynic stroke dipsomaniac. Indeed, it is Doyle’s intervention which sets Hart on his quest to disprove the talents of mystic J. P. Beasant and leads to his discovery of some of the rummest drinking establishments that Kent has to offer. Doyle is equally curmudgeonly, possessed of the utmost self-belief and convinced that there are supernormal forces at work in the world. With sycophantic Woody in tow, Doyle cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure, fittingly so for this comic caper.  And of course, a pompous old fool with firm beliefs is just the sort of windmill our quixotic anti-hero cannot pass up un-tilted. Hart borrows some duds and strikes out for Broadstairs, Kent!

To round up with a nice, clean, trite conclusion would be to do Mr Higgins an injustice. For whilst the story is clean, pleasing, amusing and rather well written, there are many little things which add value to the experience, not the least of them being that this is another Unbound gem and as such comes in a luscious first edition format that rather shames my poor, beloved paperback collection. Others include the names of various vintage cigarettes, like Sheiks, Dragoumis and Ogden’s Guinea Golds, all of which make an appearance in the first few pages and which conjure images of smiling health professionals extolling the virtues of toasted tobacco for the throat and of their power to keep you slim.

Taken without prejudice or permission
from Mr Blog's Tepid Ride
Now, to counterbalance my runaway enthusiasm for the book, and to pre-empt accusations of fawning flattery for the purposes of further vicarious glory, the resolution to the mystery is somewhat expected, even from the outset. Is that a flaw in the story? Not necessarily, but even allowing room for the suspension of disbelief, I was unable to seriously entertain the thought that Hart would be defeated. This might be due to the aforementioned literary encounters with a fictitious Sir Arthur as, to my knowledge, he rarely, if ever, triumphs* in his quest to prove that faeries and spirits exist. This might also be due to the rather flaccid attempts by Doyle’s present incarnation to convince a reader otherwise. It might also be because I’m a massive arse when it comes to spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. Also, the ending is a bit Poirot-esque where I expect, precisely because Hart consults a Sherlock Holmes mystery for guidance, it should have been Sherlockian. And Hart’s reluctant guide, Billy, does feel a little superfluous in places, perhaps like he was in life, and seems to serve only as a drinking associate for Hart, and someone to provide Doyle with further blockades to be breached by Hart’s intellectual siege engines when Hart himself is too unwell to witness the spectacle himself. Still, why gripe when for the most part what we have is immensely enjoyable?

Lastly, an equally predictable and unrepentantly blatant plug for Unbound again. If you want to engage with what you read, then get in on the ground floor and support struggling writers, like Ed Higgins, whose work was discovered, as I understand it, on Jottify and for whom literary fame was a candle glimpsed through a dirty window from across a foggy moor until someone pressed alcohol into his hand and convinced him to chance his arm.

*Injudicious over-use of commas was inserted deliberately to gently remind Mr Higgins of their beauty and import and to damn minimalist editors to hell.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Testimony by James Smythe

Another long book where..
Have we done this before?
Trawling Twitter at dire o’clock in the afternoon desperately, quixotically, searching for meaning and /or distraction I found a tweet which told me that some author or other was giving his book away on the Kindle-ma-bob. Usually, these tweets are from nasty Americans who taunt the UK book-buying  and /or downloading public with novels that are not permitted to be sold to UK book-buyers and / or downloaders (and probably aren’t worth the reading in any case). This one seemed to be, genuinely, from a ‘real’ person (@BlueDoorBooks I think it was), with the backing of the publishing house, having been shared by them. What? I follow Harper Collins?! Why on earth… Oh yeah, to get free books.

So I downloaded it, via – shudder – Amazon Whispernet and there it was on my bottom-of-the-range Kindle, for which enhanced audio content is NOT AVAILABLE*. It begins well in the fractured, multi-narrative that has become a little bit popular in the wake of Lost, only in much shorter instalments. On matters of plot, there is what might be likened to an M. Night Shamalamadingdong “happening” and a whole bunch of people are very slowly telling the reader all about it. Some people experienced The Broadcast or The Testimony (a bit of word play as one might consider the narrative streams as the characters’ testimonies) and some didn’t. Some took it stoically and some didn’t. Some turned to religion and some didn’t. And lots and lots of people die. For many reasons. Which would spoil the surprise.

As it’s told in retrospect it quickly became clear that all of our testifiers survived to testify (although to whom? How are we reading this?), and it’s quite easy to spot who does die and who doesn’t so it’s not much of a shock when they do. And the passages crawl by excruciatingly slowly in places, so much so that it’s difficult not to jump ahead – if you do you are very likely to miss crucial details or hints so try not to – with some characters seemingly redundant and having no purpose (like the single appearance of the Iranian school teacher, the Chinese gamer, and the Indian doctor who appears heavily early on but feels superfluous except to add cultural ballast). It’s an overly long, predictable story, but one that has been very well realised, and it kept my eyes drifting back to the Kindle when I should have been meditating or would otherwise be playing online poker. That the author reads or has read lots of Stephen King (gargh!**) is clear, given the death toll, but at least there are no aliens, and no convenient and plausible explanation is given for The Broadcast. The casual throw-away line about project Orpheus – no spoilers here – as the cause of so many unexplained deaths is vaguely annoying but I suppose if that particular mystery hadn’t been resolved it would have been a zero-for-god-knows-how-many mystery resolution count. As it is, the supposedly unsatisfactory leaving of loose ends is strangely satisfying, and concludes what is otherwise an entertaining and enjoyable feat of multiple ventriloquisms.

As publisher-driven e-book freebies go, it certainly did its job, in so far as I ended up buying one of the author’s other novels, The Explorer (available from all good etc. and also on his website) for the handsome sum of three Great British Pounds and ninety-nine Great British Pence. This has now gone somewhere near to the top of my virtual to-read pile, behind Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Road and Freaks by Caroline Smailes et al. And Don Quixote. And Plato’s The Republic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being A Prawn Cracker by Will Self, and at least two of (@craigstone_) Craig Stone’s rather random novel-type things.  So not very near the top. But as a Welsh author of note (I’m assuming he’s from Wales given the accolade Wales Book of the Year – Fiction which he won for this self same book, and his inclusion in the Parthian anthology of new Welsh writing, Nu) I feel honour bound to do him the courtesy of highlighting my good intentions to read his stuff at some point. In that respect he’s in esteemed company.


*Therein lies a tale which is so boring as to render it less interesting than this footnote.
**Refer to introduction to my review of The Twelve by Justin Cronin; I also conclude he’s read lots of Stephen King because he wrote a Guardian book blog about it…

Monday, 23 September 2013

Tales From Two Pockets by Karel Čapek

Here is a quick but predictable disclaimer before we begin – this is another book which guilt has led me to select to read over other more contemporary and “exciting” works, more recently purchased or enthused over. In addition, it wasn’t even the first Čapek book I picked up due to this niggling neglectfulness*. How does this fit with the coincidence-guided intertextual flow of text selection premise, the “cause and effect” effect? you might ask.

Shut up! I might say.

Awesomeness? Czech!
Equally predictably, next comes the contextual bit, where you get to see how well researched these reviews are and I get to feel smug that I actually cribbed it all from one online encyclopaedia or other. Čapek is a Czech writer of immense talent, one of two equally gifted brothers, writing in whatever country the Czech Republic used to be between 1900 and 1938 (Bohemia? Czechoslovakia?). Luckily for him, as a resident of the Nazi-annexed Sudetenland, he died of pneumonia before the naughty Gestapo, who I understand might have considered him a serious public nuisance, found him. His brother Josef wasn’t so lucky**. We, however, are very lucky in that Catbird Press have championed his writing in English and have made available a near complete backlist for your perusal, something I suggest you consider strongly (see postscript).

Within this collection are 48 stories, 47 of which he wrote over the course of one year (1929) with one earlier one chucked in for good measure, published weekly as a newspaper serial; in two parts (pocket one and pocket two one would guess) they explore the crime fiction genre. Explore? I should probably say deconstruct, as the author deftly breaks any and all rules one might come up with to define the writing of the traditional mystery narrative. In part one, the author investigates the various devices of the genre, playing with the accepted role of the detective as moral compass, leaving riddles unsolved and exploring luck and habit as valid detection methods. Characters are often muddy, complex people, but might also be two-dimensional caricatures of themselves, and all are treated to a bleakly humanist satire-wash that later bleeds through the work of authors like Vonnegut, an advocate of the Catbird Press list himself. Some tales are overtly, giggly, humorous, whilst some are funny in a strange, sad, inevitably fatalist manner. All are differently brilliant, without a particularly weak offering amongst them. In some ways it reminded me of Novels in Three Lines by Felix Fénéon, Parisian anarchist and anonymous crime reporter for Le Matin, whose mini crime stories published without by-line were keenly anticipated much lauded, and which were collected posthumously and are often read as prose poetry poetry or micro-fiction.

In other ways, as pre-empted by the introduction***, it felt very much like an artistic study, something the author committed to paper (a bit like Raymond Queneau’s most famous work) in order to prepare himself for a novel-length work. In any case, I loved them all, annoying my wife by interjecting snippets into conversation without any preamble****.

In the second part, a Chaucerian tale-telling session at a local Bohemian pub (probably), a series of prominent doctors, lawyers, policeman, shopkeepers and other, less prominent men of society take turns relating tales of justice and injustice, of crime and punishment. Surreal in parts, filled with faulty logic and often with corners singed by pathos, they provide a further study for the author in his exploration of narrative and context, and lead us, one believes, to the works considered central to this period of his literary life – An Ordinary Life, Hordubal, and Meteor, collected into the Three Novels tome mentioned below.

I trust it was also the introduction to the collection in which I read that Čapek is considered a cubist writer, playfully shifting the perspective of the accepted mystery story. I also seem to recall that this collection is even more astounding given the fact that there was no mystery tradition in Czech writing at the time – no-one was even writing crime novels – but that inspiration could be found in the G.K. Chesterton mysteries that Čapek devoured. Frankly, I should probably not read the introductions to books until after I’ve finished them so as not to blot my copy book before I’ve even begun*****. Nonetheless, I hope I’m a sufficiently aware reader that I would have picked up the wonderfulness of this collection without someone having told me it was wonderful first. And if you choose to read only one collection of mystery stories by a dead Czech writer this year, make it this one. You will not regret it.


* I’d gone for Three Novels also from Catbird Press, but in the introduction, it pointed me to these tales as a fitting starting point for Čapek’s burgeoning philosophical discourse.

** Josef Čapek died a resident of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

*** If it wasn’t the introduction, then I’ve stolen someone’s opinion without giving them due credit. Apologies if you ever happen to come across this review and fee outraged at this blatant theft, but I’m an inherently lazy person so this footnote will have to do.

**** My favourite way to annoy the missus.

***** cf: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne of which I have only ever read the introduction, and after which it has sat, going slightly fluffy with grey fur, on my bedside table for the best part of five years…


P.S. I trust that while you were waiting for me to finish reading and then reviewing this novel, you did indeed patronise the website of Catbird Press, which deserves lots of browsing and purchasing there from. If not, do so immediately. Thanks.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

I love you, you smug, 
sesquipedalian bastard you
It’s hard to say, when asked as I was recently at a meeting of local writers (who you can follow on Twitter if you wish), who might be my favourite author. If you look at my book shelves, you might see groupings of books by modern authors such as (WARNING - gratuitous alphabetical roll-call):

Paul Auster, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Bernhard, Jim Bob, T.C. Boyle, Karel Čapek, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Tibor Fischer, Peter Høeg, Michel Houellebeq, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Andrey Kurkov, John D McDonald, Harry Mullisch, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Victor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, and Kurt Vonnegut (my usual go-to favourite when I don’t have the energy to explain).

In addition, you might just spot every book ever published by one William Woodard "Will" Self (minus Sore Sites which mysteriously vanished while moving house a few years back). Whilst a fan, and also willing to admit experiencing an embarrassing and sometimes dispiriting awe at the breadth of vocabulary and metaphor displayed in any of his work, I can’t claim to be quite as impressed or inspired by his work as the author of The Quiddity*… appears to be. Sam(antha) Mills explores the “whatness” of Will Self (as opposed to the “thisness”**) through a stratified post-modern narrative where (s)he appears as a character as does Will (him)Self. ***

Put simply, you might say Mills is experimenting with ventriloquism using Will Self as inspiration and lots of old zeitgeist-y conceits - the found manuscript, the fake diary, a Murder of Roger Ackroyd-type unreliable narrator, and so forth. After a rather excellent introduction, an extract from a fictional work by fictional character Jamie Curren, founder of the sinister and, in the novel at least, fictional WSC, we have Richard, idle twenty-something with obvious mental health issues who becomes involved in a literary detective story around a murdered girl and a mysterious cult, the WSC. We have the dead girl herself, haunting Will Self in his study in an attempt to influence his latest novel (The Book of Dave). We see a somewhat deranged Richard again in part three, in what he initially believes to be an art project where, incarcerated, he is writing a novel (and a diary) in a tower block whilst people come to watch, but which has a sinister A Clockwork Orange feel to it with the malevolent Professor Self (no relation…) and his strange theories and potions. We find Mia in part four, picking up the detective plot but in the future (2049) after Will Self has died (but not before he finally won the Booker Prize aged 82). And in part five, we find Sam Mills him/herself, telling the story of the book’s struggle into life after 9 years of research and writing.

However, to simplify is to do an injustice to what is a book crammed, packed, stuffed with invention, philosophy, questions about identity and gender, Will Self, places, characters and direct quotations from his work, and lots of sex, including a pseudo-succubus in part five. Mills puts her words into diverse mouths with great skill and, mostly, without noticeable dissonance. She gamely attempts the post-modern ironic trope of sesquipedalian loquaciousness***** that Self employs himself, and manages it all without the necessity for the reader to have read any of his novels prior to this one. Those adjectives, used in review columns and which tend to place interesting fiction on the extremes (or indeed, outside) of the mainstream, such as challenging, inventive, innovative, could all be applied without prejudice, and to go back to simplicity, considering Sam Mills’ previous as a young adult author, this is top stuff, easy to read despite what I may have said about verbosity, engrossing and entertaining, and endorsed by the man himself – unless that’s also fiction. If you're into fiction off the beaten path, you should probably read this. 


* Quiddity (plural quiddities); noun
The essence or inherent nature of a person or thing.
Synonym: whatness

** Haecceity (plural haecceities); noun
The essence of a particular thing; those qualities that define it and make it unique.
Synonym: thisness

*** Lots of parenthesis and footnotes can only mean one thing – self-referential post-modernism! The author, a female, appears as a male character writing the book in which the character appears; Will Self plays himself in a fictional**** setting; I get confused by things and stuff.

**** When I say fictional, it does have roots in reality, albeit inspired by the novel – check out The Will Self Club website for more on what Ms Mills does in her spare time.

***** I’ve finally managed to use this in a sentence in a relevant context. You can stop the Internet now. 

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Another long book where
lots of people die.
Before I get sidetracked into the usual "books are only a device to talk at length about pseudo-intellectual concerns, make dull jokes and pass reference to the suffering of mild and trivial anxieties" side-show, I think I should start this review with an appropriate bang.

I hate Stephen King.


Now I don't know him personally (although his pictures creep me out) and I'm sure he's a nice chap and all that, but his books are formulaic, predictable and appeal to the lowest common denominator-type reader. Not that this is a bad thing (I'm sure James Patterson wouldn't be a multi-multi-millionaire if this were so) but it makes him completely uninteresting to me, because I'm more concerned with pseudo-intellectualism etc. and so on. Hate might seem too strong a word, but it really has gotten to the point where even the mention of his name makes my teeth grate (in keeping with the vague dental theme begun in a recent review I shall hereby disclose that I suffer from dental attrition probably brought on by the profusion of terrible authors that make me clench my jaws shut to stop me from spewing forth bile) and allows my dentist make another down payment on his Porsche Cayenne off-road atrocity. If this bothers you, it's pretty much too late for me to do anything about it, and I'm not sorry.

The reference to King is a valid one when considering Cronin's second book in his vampire trilogy, begun with The Passage in 2010. I recall being awed by the first book, it's breadth and scope, it's wild, untamed nature and complete disregard of the well being of the characters (in so far as quite so many of them were eaten, killed, or turned into vampires). It did go on a bit, and by his own admission, he does write long books where lots of people die, but it kept me attentive and as engaged as one can be when nearly everyone that is introduced as a character gets disemboweled at some point. The parallel should already be evident. King spends a long time creating characters, introducing them and laying on the back story, only for them to disappear into the maws of monster clowns or at the hands of aliens. Cronin has a discernible present, where his principles exist, but goes to great length to sculpt credible and important pasts, many of them, which he then litters with the corpses of those characters with whose existence the reader has just become engaged. Either that or they come back as vampires later on. This is mostly annoying, but bearable, in part because the writing is pretty darned good.

In fact, this is a novel of highs and lows. The writing is good - like a good genre novel the author's voice is happily distant and characters tell the story, their voices believable and authentic - and the action pretty much non-stop, and unlike The Passage which ends leaving the reader gasping at the unfairness of lack of closure, it could stand alone in its own right. However, the lows are sufficient to besmirch its fine, glossy coat with mud and burrs and occasionally wish you'd not let it into the house to mess up the carpets. It is overly long perhaps, and the characters are so numerous that it is difficult to keep track, so much so that there is a dramatis personae included as an appendix at the back. Whilst I said that it could stand alone apart from the first instalment, those characters that do make the jump across volumes I had almost completely forgotten about, even dead FBI agent and (*SPOILER ALERT*) now vampire minion Brad Wolgast. With the weight of forgotten material pulling the story down by the hair, it was a bit of a drag to push myself right to the end. Oh, and the ending? I've read a couple of reviews which had, instead of thoughtful musings, variations on "WTF??!!" It is a little odd, and if you'd not been paying attention, could certainly catch you unaware and leave you confused and disappointed. The plot itself is entertaining, but there are points where one is swaying from the violence, giddy with the quick turns and switchbacks, and intermittently, bored by the sheer number of words on a page, and pages in the book. And, frankly, the titular Twelve didn't put up much of a fight.

To give Cronin credit, and produce my habitual feedback sandwich, I will repeat that the writing is good. The fact that he brings to mind Stephen King (gnash) is a drawback, and the perceived faults outlined above accrue to the detriment of the work, but I did enjoy reading it. I am a little impatient to see where it all goes from here, and am likely to patronise him at least once more, in support of his work if not also by damning him with faint praise.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

The end is only the beginning.
So it goes. 
When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 I was bereft; having nothing new by Kurt Vonnegut to read was something that I felt unprepared to face and I didn't know what to do about it. Possessed by my habitual fanaticism (tempered only by financial constraint and - now - issues of logistics) I had already scooped up as much of his work as I could find and had only one or two left to read. This included a first edition paperback of Between Time and Timbuktu, a made-for-TV film script published in 1972 based on several of Vonnegut's shorter pieces, and another first ed. hard back of Sun Moon Star, ostensibly a re-telling of the nativity story as inspired by the simple drawings of Ivan Chermayeff. Those I had yet to read were going to have to be strictly rationed, drip fed over the course of years so as not to drain the source dry prematurely. What would happen when all was read? 

It would now seem there are more posthumous collections of previously "unpublished" work than I could have imagined were possible. At the time you can understand why I was a little anxious and then relieved when Look At The Birdie was announced. A final, joyful dribble of sustenance! Of course, the question I should have asked myself (which I have since done seeing as how everyone is publishing previously unreleased works by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr - including his columns from the Cornell Sun...) was why? Why didn't Vonnegut publish these stories before he died? Did he run out of time? Was it in his "to do" list but too far down (after smoking himself to death) to actually get done? Or, as a relentless reviser of his own work, was this stuff simply not good enough to pass the censor? I suspect the latter. 

What we have here is a collection with all the trademark Vonnegut-ness - the narrative driving ever onwards, the darkly comic pseudo-misanthropic humanism, the twist at the end - and it is a collection that adds to the oeuvre rather than detracts from it.  However, it's not quite up to ...Monkey House or even Wampeters... Characters are clear, situations defined, stories sharp-ish for the most part, but when I think of Breakfast of Champions or, more poignantly, Mother Night and compare the emotional resonance and the lasting after effects, ...Birdie just doesn't come close. Without the book at hand I struggle to remember even the best of the crop, rather recalling the oddest or most discordant (a hypnotist and a tower ballroom full of mirrors standing out as an exemplar). I'm not upset, just disappointed.

Jesus was a star. Joseph might
have been a triangle.
As a collector with the trembling panic of an OCD hoarder, I would have bought this even if it had Harold Bloom saying "Shit, don't buy!" on the cover. I'm not ashamed to say I'm still in the market for a DVD copy of Breakfast of Champions starring Bruce Willis, something I believe Kurt wished had never seen the light of day. Where a bright editor with an eye for something completely worthwhile might pull from obscurity a forgotten manuscript which instantly changes the literary marketplace, I can see the merits of publishing posthumously that which an author did not believe to be ready or even good enough. What disturbs me is when the hack trolls go trawling through the desk drawers and dusty corners of the offices of dead writers for anything they can bind and flog to an already bloated market, often "finding" utterly irrelevant and sometimes irreverent rubbish which was destined for the recycling. I appreciate the hypocrisy in what I'm saying so please don't pick me up on it. I am ashamed to be fuelling said market. But it's often the case that the relative merit of a work is not really exposed until it's been bought and read. 

That's better.
Now, I'm not saying this collection is that bad. It certainly isn't, and is in fact quite good! As a starter for 10 it would be a fine introduction to the work of a rather excellent American author, but it is not the polished prose I've come to expect, and that is rather my fault. Previous rant notwithstanding, I'm a victim of my own expectations, so lah-de-dah etc. and so on. In future I must consider context as well as content.

I should write that down somewhere so I don't forget it.

In a previous life I employed discreet signage in my bookshop extolling the virtues of an under appreciated literary star, and even on this review, over-use of italics also notwithstanding, I am proud to pronounce that the world should read more Vonnegut, even if it's this one. Just go out and buy a copy of Mother Night after.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Impossibly by Laird Hunt

What the hell is the green door?
The Percival Everett theme continues for the present. I'm so glad you're pleased to hear it! You may have read, buried deep in the bowels of another review, that I came across this book after searching the Kindle store for more by Everett. I shan't therefore bore you with a repeat, but will gently remind you that Everett provides the introduction to what is my own first taste of an author I could really get behind (in a William Shatner / Henry Rollins / Ben Folds musical production* sort-of sense). 

So what do we know about Laird Hunt (or @LairdHunt as the Twitterati would have it)? Answer - not much (that is not cribbed directly from his Wiki entry or his own website). It seems he used to work for the UN in a press-related capacity, occasionally contributes to McSweeney's (where did I read that? I can find no proof that this is true so if you prefer you may disregard) and has been a translator of things into languages other than that in which they were written. An essay he wrote appeared in The New York Times (opinion pages). He is also published by a rather marvellous little publisher called Coffee House Press whose list is quite interesting. Do you feel better informed?

Don't pull that face. I can see you.

The story starts with a stapler. This is clear. However, the story doesn't start with a stapler. Equivocal, eh? What I mean is that the narrative picks up at the point where the narrator, an ambiguous, confused, slowly disintegrating chap, also a spy, meets a girl in a stationery shop where she is struggling to remember the name of the item that turns out to be a stapler, but this point is already some way into the back story of the narrator, a story which is layered like a palimpsest, or rather more haphazardly like the chalky, lumpy brown tooth enamel caused by chronological dental hypoplasia**, but far less solid. Something has happened, and our spy is disavowed by his agency. He is reactivated though after "rehabilitation" only for that to also end badly. Someone is dead who probably shouldn't be, but is also alive when they couldn't be, and his girl and new (or old) love interest seems to have run away only to return with no apparent memory of him. Or not. Plus, his best friend is possibly trying to kill him as he may or may not be an enemy agent or colleague with instructions for his termination. It sounds confusing and it can be. Hunt has been accused of writing experimental fiction. His prose is definitely unusual and he makes excellent use of a completely unreliable narrator to playfully disrupt the familiar linear narrative to great effect. Time is a fluid and also ambiguous construct, and the reader is swept around the smorgasbord of the action never really knowing what taste the next passage will leave in the mouth. Mostly it's brilliant, funny, playful stuff. Sometimes, it's not entirely understandable and occasionally just plain silly. However, there is a ratcheting of tension as paranoia builds, a sense of dread and desperation as the narrator flees for his life, or tries to work out from the clues just what it is that he's missing. He never stops struggling to put the pieces together, but in the end, there is the tired resignation that he's getting older, and the life expectancy of a spy is not traditionally all that lengthy. I say in the end but actually it appears somewhere in the middle, before it all kicks off again and he becomes young. Or old. 

Now traditionally at this stage of a review you'd get some sort of conclusion, a summing up if you will of the thoughts and impressions of the reviewer. I will give it a try, for tradition's sake, but it'll be challenging. Overall, I enjoyed the book with its randomness, fractured narratives, disjointed and imperfect, blanketed with some delightful language and downright funniness. I was more confused by the Green Door appended to the end, a lost or edited-out chapter restored to the text. I say more confused but I mean differently confused, less enjoyably so. I can't begin to deconstruct what this or anything within the novel means or wishes to say, but I did identify an underlying theme - repeated blows to the head can cause memory loss. It might be a challenging read for some, but Laird Hunt could just be someone who merits your attention. The chaps at PEN/Faulkner and Anisfield-Wolf certainly think so.



* I can't promise that this is the only William Shatner song that will appear in these pages. I CAN promise it's the only one that appears in this post.

** No. I'm not a dentist. However, my son does have hypoplasia on three molars. 

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

A man who likes horses
and fishing...
Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the reading process active rather than passive. Or something. I'll find the quote and post a link to it when I get five minutes. Everett does that too (only with less monsters). Here we see a man who can fix anything, even the human body, hounded out of town and standing on the bridge - what next? A wrangler must transport a horse back home at twilight but it's afraid of the dark and all he's got is a torch - what to do? A man escapes a mental hospital but sits on a porch across the street to watch the police and ambulances roll up - why? An old man moves a car that is blocking his dumpsters only to be pursued by the police and shot by his friend the pharmacist. Does he die? Damned if I know, but that's the essential tug and twist of short stories, when masterfully crafted. 

A man I have more time for than sense, Kurt Vonnegut, writes the same way - everything drives the narrative forward, and there's always a twist. In the introduction to Look At The Birdie, Sidney Offit relates a time Vonnegut reviewed the life of a departed friend: "No children. No books. Few friends. She seemed to know what she was doing." That is achingly brilliant, brief Hemingway-esque life in four sentences micro fiction. Everett uses a few more words but lives and their stories are as emphatically created, nearly always with a protagonist of whom I have severe writer's envy - someone with firm convictions, strong morals and strength enough to maintain them both. Plus, in most cases, something about horses and fly-fishing.

If you're a fan of Everett, then you don't need convincing, except it might be worth noting that this is more Cutting Lisa than Glyph but then when writing is as good as this, it doesn't really matter if you're a baby with an IQ near 200 or buying up real estate to stop the developers. If you're not, you should be.