Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith.

crossposted at Diary of a Goldfish

Occassionally, I get anonymous packages in the post. You may remember Albert, the cactus? He's still going strong, thanks for asking. Anyway, last week's mystery package from my oh-so-secret admirer* contained a book of short stories about sex and death, which is probably a favourite theme for books sent anonymously.

Actually, these stories were more about love and death.
We believed in the superiority of feeling, and we believed there had to be some superiority in everything we felt since we felt it so strongly in the face of such taken-for-granted shame.
I don't generally like short stories, particularly ones that clever people describe as postmodern (I actually saw Ali Smith described as Late Postmodern, which made me titter).

Short stories frustrate me because usually you're not given enough of characters to get really invested in them - and if you do, by the time you do, the story is over. Plus there are only so many things you can do with a few thousand words. Horror and ghost stories work best in this format because although the same sort of thing happens every time, the emotional response is so strong you don't really care. How many times have you read the one where Peter encounters Paul, who gives him the willies, and later Peter learns that Paul is a ghost? I've got shivers down my spine thinking about it (really I have; powers of imagination being much better than powers of description).

Postmodern short stories frustrate me even more because they break so many rules that they're often not even stories in a proper sense; they often lack a beginning, a middle and an end. They are mere vignettes and as such, well, they are just so much wallpaper.

The fact that Ali Smith dispels all these prejudices is just one way in which I find her writing a terrific relief. She writes about women the way that I know women, real women, women as human beings as opposed to heroines, or creatures preoccupied by shoes and scales and men. She writes very movingly about the love between women, not just sexual love which she handles beautifully, but every flavour of affection, of friendship, sympathy and kindness between women.

Every story in the book features something about death or loss of one sort of another, but not one manages to be even slightly morbid. Okay, one does, a bit. But mostly the darkness is woven into its rightful place as part of life's rich tapestry.
I can still see our heads together, our eyes and our mouths, intent and pretty and serious as stoats, as we thought things as innocent and perilous as, for instance, that suicide must be a good thing, at the very least a truly romantic thing, something all truly romantic people would do, since people so clearly felt so much when they did it.
Smith plays with grammar from time to time, but she takes it in hand rather than murdering it with a pitchfork and dancing on its grave. She moves fluently between tenses and grammatical persons, often within the same narrative. And there is no fluff; Smith is supposedly literary, but this was a doddle of a read. Her writing is as digestible as it is delicious, which is a rare thing indeed.

Get the impression I generally liked this book? I did. Generally.

* Concerned readers may need to know that through a pain-staking process of ellimination (I'm sure someone mentioned Ali Smith to me recently - it'll probably be them), I did eventually work out who had sent the book. Coincidentally, the same person who had sent the cactus.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Cross-posted at Diary of a Goldfish

This book has also been reviewed here by The Unreliable Witness, upon whose recommendation I read it.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the surreal tale of Toru Okada, an unemployed man hunting for a missing cat. Over the course of his search, Toru encounters all manner of supernatural and spiritual phenomenon, a host of fascinating characters and discovers very much more than the absconding feline.

This is a story about moving from a position of numbness to a position of feeling. At the outset, Toru is completely devoid of passion. He is not worried or excited this limbo in his career, he doesn’t notice his wife’s increasing absences and whenever anyone wants to see him he has no plans. His central mission over the course of the novel is not to discover some profound intellectual truth or even a factual explanation of events, but merely to get in touch with how he feels, whether this might be drawn out of him by the stories and behaviours of other people (usually mirroring the same theme) or whether he might go down a well and deprive himself of sustenance and stimulation until that monster, emotion, finally emerges.

Which can be, at times, a pretty scary adventure. There is a lot of darkness in this book, but also a lot of light and perhaps most importantly, a lot of beauty - of both the dark and light as well as the ambiguous variety.

Naturally, I was reading in translation, but the style came across as pretty incredible; mastering the art of being at once verbose and minimalist. At first it irritated me to realise that, despite ever economical sentences, the reason I was reading a 600 page book was because the author insisted on rephrasing and the repeating the same statement or sentiment three times, but after a while I decided that this was part of its genius. It becomes quite amusing and together with reassurances that there is no pretension here (the word weird is used more often than any other adjective), it is part of what allows Murakami to lead us seamlessly backwards and forwards between the real and the surreal. Which I consider a pretty impressive achievement.

I was not always convinced by his characterisations. Again, there is a question mark over what might be lost in translation, but several of the characters appeared to have the exactly same ‘voice’; there are several large passages where we are reading a letter or listening to a story told by a character other than our narrator-protagonist, and the syntax remains the same for an elderly war veteran as for a young prostitute.

And then there is the small issue of all female characters being succubi; they phone our protagonist to molest his ears, enter his dreams in order to force themselves upon him, they titillate and frustrate him before threatening his life or else pay hard currency for the privilege of sapping Toru’s spiritual energy. And despite their universally ravenous appetite for Toru’s spunk (in all conceivable senses of the word), the female characters only appear to obtain any sexual pleasure during adultery or rape.

Leading on from this, there is a big problem with sex, which occurs frequently and takes on a level of spiritual significance. Sex can be a way of getting into somebody’s head and it is a small step to seeing this in spiritual or else supernatural terms, but it surely has to be fairly spectacular sex; that kind of inverted torture where a person can be drawn out to the edge of themselves. Unfortunately, there is nothing about Toru’s many sexual adventures which makes them appear above the level of a half-hearted contact-sport. Which is all very well for dispassionate Toru, but it becomes very boring to read and one begins to suspect all this sex has been put in to prove something.

Fortunately, there is one very bright ray of sunshine in the shape of Toru’s teenaged neighbour, May Kasahara. She is yet another blood-sucking temptress (she even renders a hosepipe "warm and limp", groan), but she is also the funniest, wisest, most realistic and thoroughly loveable character in the book, and the one who kept me going through the more tedious patches. Because it can be tedious. You have 600 pages during which you are given a great deal of information, subjected to all manner of images – including some very disturbing ones – and are never really sure what matters, if indeed anything does matter and whether you are going to be offered any resolution in the end.

It is therefore necessary to embark on this book in the right conditions. Deep and increasing curiosity got me through; the desire for an entertaining read would not have.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book Meme

cross-posted at Diary of a Goldfish

I was very pleased to be tagged with this Book Meme by Midwesterntransport.

1. One book that changed your life?

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
by Richard Bach. There are many others, but I read illusions at a time when I seemed to have acquired very strong convictions about my place in the world and the very rigid limitations that I faced. Illusions changed that. Also, it was AJ who gave it to me before we got together and it is very much representative of AJ's worldview.

(WARNING: That book does involve one rather problematic portrayal of disability.)

2. One book you have read more than once?
A Christma Carol gets read most Decembers. It is the story of Christmas for me and a fantastic story in its own right.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?
On Desert Island Discs they always allow one book plus The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. So I will pretend I have those (although I might use Leviticus and Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 as kindling for my camp fire).

Uh... odd choice but Lolita. Nabokov writes so beautifully, this is a book I can pick up and read a delicious passage at random.

4. One book that made you laugh?

Good Omens
by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaimen. I haven't read it in a while but I remember that being a really very funny book. And I'm not usually very keen on Terry Pratchett.

5. One book that made you cry?

Skallagrigg was the last book which really opened the flood gates. I am outraged at this point as I have just discovered that you can't currently buy Skallagrigg on Amazon.co.uk or com. Here is my review of it from last November.

6. One book you wish had been written?

I wish I had finished my novel before now. It's working title is To Fear The Light.

7. One book you wish had never been written?

Midwestern had Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and whilst I can't say I've ever wished that a book hadn't been written, those sorts of books certainly annoy.

8. One book you are currently reading?

Honestly? Okay, it's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. I'm not getting on with it, to be honest, but I am curious about the subject matter, which is the concept of Calvinism, predestination and so on at the time of the Jacobite rebellion. Yeah, I know.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Not so much meaning to read, but meaning to finish. I received Lord of the Rings for my twenty-first birthday which is now approaching years ago. I am about three-quarters through at my last attempt but I am determined to finish it. Similarly with War and Peace which I quite enjoyed in parts up until page eight hundred and something when I could simply go no further.

10. Now tag five people.

Naturally, I tag all the other members of Blogging Bookworms - which is currently six, but I'm sure I shan't get into trouble for that.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris

This is a book that I was given to read last month by The Estuary Bookclub Club at Southend on Sea Library. I had already read it about 6 months or so ago and although I had found it funny I wasn't that enthused about reading it again, especially as I have so many books that need reading of my own. Anyway I did pick it up again and I'm so glad I did. On second reading I found it even funnier than I did the first time.

David Sedaris is a humourist who has written a number of books and has contributed to The New Yorker, GQ Magazine and Esquire. This book is a compilation of the articles that have appeared in those magazines.

Dress Your Family... draws mainly on Sedaris' life growing up in North Carolina. It chronicles his family, his friends, his neighbours and his realisation at an early age that he was gay. It is camp, waspish and full of one liners. I found myself laughing out loud a#on many occasions. I'm only pleased that I have been off from work otherwise I would have been laughing out loud on the train and we know that that is just not donein this country.

He writes candidly about his relationships with his brother and sisters and about his somewhat volatile relationship with his partner Hugh, who he seems to argue with constantly. Not in a nasty way but rather in a bitchy queen way that is hilarious.

n one of my favourite stories in the book David has been picked on by one of the local kids and he complains to his father about it;

My father demanded I retaliate, saying Iought to knock him on the guy on his ass.
"Oh Dad"
"Aww baloney. Clock him on the snot locker and he'll go down likea ton of bricks".
"Are you talking to me?" I asked. The archaic slang aside, who did my father think I was? Boys who spent their weekends making banana nut muffins did not, as a rule, excel in the art of hand-to-hand combat.

This is just one example of Sedaris' wit. This a fabulous book and David Sedaris is a very funny man indeed.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Margrave of the Marshes by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft (with Ryan Gilbey)

Some of you may already be aware of the affection I have for the late John Peel. He is a man who is held in great esteem by thousands of music lovers across the world. He championed so many acts with their careers it would be almost impossible to name them all.

This is his long awaited memoir unfortunately it was never finished as John died of a heart attack on 26th October 2004 whilst in the middle of writing it. His widow, with the help of young writer Ryan Gilby, pieced together the rest from Sheila's memories of her 36 years with John and the extensive diaries that John kept.

The first two fifths of the book are written by John. The recount his early days in a middle class family on the Wirral in the North West of England and his school days at Shrewsbury Public School, where during one year, he says with some pride, he came bottom of the whole school. Never academic he left school with 4 O-levels and instead of going to University as was expected of him took National Service early. It seems he wasn't very good at that either. He again did the unexpected and joined the ranks instead of becoming an officer as would have been in keeping with his social standing.

In Peel's part of the book their is little rock 'n' roll, drugs or sex (except he talks about wanking quite a bit. He tells us of his discovery of music sure. He explains how hearing Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley changed his life forever. But there is no name dropping or tales of hanging out with the stars. Maybe that would have come later, we will never really no. John leaves us hanging as he is about to enter a Mexican brothal (as an observer).

Sheila Ravenscroft was with John for 36 years and has a better insight than any other person into what John was really like. She recounts her story with huge affection. There are many lovely little stories about evenings with friends and how excited John would get when he discovered a new group.

It is a book full of laughter and occassionally sadness. There is a touching moment when recounting that John had previously said during an interview that he could die yet because there was a new Fall album coming out and he wanted to hear that, that indeed there would now be Fall albums that John would never hear.

I really enjoyed this book. Peel was a fine writer and Sheila tells her story well. A definite good read even if you're not a particular fan of the music John championed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Skallagrigg - William Horwood

Skallagrigg is basically a quest story and its reading has been somewhat of a quest for me. Lady Bracknell has mentioned this on Ouch and elsewhere, but perhaps the most powerful recommendation was when our own Marmite Boy had its title tattooed to himself. I ordered it from Amazon but they took three weeks and two attempts to get it to me. Then when it finally arrived, I was into relapse, experiencing various cognitive difficulties etc, so I have been reading very slowly. Plus we are talking about 728 pages here; which is a lot of pages when you can only do a few every day. Obviously some days I’ve managed more than a few or else it would have taken me a full year, but you get the picture.

Okay… Peter doesn’t know who his grandfather is. Peter’s father doesn’t know either and Peter’s grandmother never said much about it. Only the word Skallagrigg which she would spell out in her senility. So when Peter hears of and begins to play the computer game called Skallagrigg, he becomes interested in where it comes from and how it might be connected to his own history.

We then begin to learn about the life of its author Esther Marquand and her quest to find the Skallagrigg – a character who crops up in stories of hope and deliverance passed down among disabled people. Which brings us to one of the many notable aspects of this book; Esther has Cerebral Palsy, and many of the characters are disabled.

Esther, like many CPers before her, initially struggles to demonstrate her personality and intelligence to the wider world, but she happens to be in the right place at the right time as far as developing computer hardware is concerned. With the help of her father’s colleagues in the IT industry she is soon not only able to communicate through an adapted keyboard but developing into a talented programmer.

Meanwhile, she sets out trying to discover whether the characters in these Skallagrigg stories, such as Arthur, a man with CP who features in them all, were real people and what exactly the Skallagrigg is. This interest, which becomes a disruptive obsession, takes her on many adventures as well as the ultimate journey of self-discovery that she was eventually to incorporates into this amazing, life-changing computer game.

Horwood is either writing about subject areas he already knows well or else his research cannot be faulted. He writes in convincing detail on various subjects from the institutionalisation of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through computer science to wind-surfing. He knows about people with various impairments. Norman, a man with learning difficulties who is compelled to write his mother’s address even years after he has been taken from his home, really struck a chord with me. After my uncle Andrew died this spring, I inherited his 2005 diary, which had little in it, except the address at which he grew up written several times over (though bizarrely he’d sometimes write Safeway instead of Suffolk). Horwood does not shy away from the aspects of impairment which others might find ugly or uncomfortable, and in recording them in a matter-of-fact way, he neutralises any discomfort one could feel about them.

But Horwood is not preaching any kind of political message about disablity. Disability plays an important part of the story, but it is incidental to the central messages. This thing happened and was passed down among this group of people and the thing that connected them just happened to be disability. Most importantly, Horwood validates disabled people as being worth writing about; normal human beings with normally complicated personalities and experience – no more brave or pathetic as the protagonists of any story.

The vast majority of characters, disabled and non-disabled, have this complexity and are totally real. There is only one angel and one devil in all this; Kate is Horwood’s idealised woman, young tall slim silk-stockinged Australian who never frowns or utters a cross word whatever unpleasant or irrational behaviour goes on around and towards her. She also stars in the only sex scene in the book, an honour that ought to have belonged to Esther (see below). Fortunately Horwood demonstrates an ability to write about real women elsewhere, so I guess you can excuse this single, total, self-indulgence.

The devil of the book is Dilke, the sadistic nurse in charge of Arthur and his friends, but this was perhaps necessary, his symbolism being far more important than his reality. However, all the other characters, old, young, male, female, disabled and non-disabled make it through with their strength and weakness, and therefore their credibility, fully intact.

And perhaps as a result, I don’t recall a book that has made me cry as much. I am not a complete rain-cloud and this really did surprise me. When someone says you’ll need a box of tissues, I usually expect to be nauseated. But this really touched me, really moved me a great deal.

Horwood has earned his poetic licence and is prepared to use it. For example, despite some excellent portrayals of cross-generational relationships, the vast majority of characters have been either been orphaned, are or become estranged from their parents. As a narrative device, this frees them to dedicate themselves to their friends without compromising loyalties, but alas, I noticed.

Had I read this very quickly, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this and other unlikely coincidences at all or indeed the neatness with which all the strings were finally tied up. However, his poetic justice was truly poetic so that although I saw the mirrors and the slight of hand, I was still somehow seduced and weeping as those strings were secured. Which demonstrates a very rare talent indeed.

I should also warn that a lot of Horwood’s language seems antiquated – not just his outdated use of terms around disability which we have to forgive, but there are flurries of romanticism which take you by surprise and some of the magic realism is rather Old School - more like Graham Greene than Zadie Smith, and thus perhaps not entirely to modern tastes.

And inevitably over the space of seven hundred pages, there were passages which I felt to be superlative and still other events or details which I felt were unwisely glossed over. For example, we follow Esther through adolescence, with her increasing sexual awareness and the attached fears and fantasies – almost to a tedious extent. Then suddenly her sexual initiation has been and gone without comment. I was far more interested in that, with the fear and excitement, pleasure and pain it perhaps entailed that than inflatable Kate’s al fresco shenanigans.

However, despite my ability to criticise such details, these are mere imperfections. Skallagrigg is a great book. It is a post-Enlightenment Pilgrim’s Progress (Pilgrim’s Progress being the second best-selling book of all time for a very good reason). There is allegory to be found within allegory here; about the journeys we all have to take, about making our way through the Slough of Despond without succumbing to despair, about love in its many shades and flavours and perhaps most of all, about hope.

I certainly feel I gained a lot from this book, apart from the fact that it is an exceptionally well-written book and a very good read. The best book I have read in a long time.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Diary of a Nobody

The Diary of a Nobody (1892) was written by George Grossmith the illustrations were originally drawn by his brother Weedon, who was a cartoonist. George was an actor and journalist.

This is the fictional diary of a nobody. The 'Nobody' in question is Charles Pooter, a clerk living in Holloway, of prison fame. He worked in a office in the city. He is married to Carrie, and has a son, Lupin. Lupin Pooter sounds like the medical name for a heavy drinkers boko to me. Although I have looked it up in Grays and of course it isn't there but on page....... I will come back to Lupin later.

Charles is vain, self-important, gullible, at the constant mercy of insolent tradesmen and impudent junior clerks at work who are obviously much more clever than he is. Even worse, he gets sent insulting Christmas cards. Above all, he has a deplorable taste in excruciating jokes and puns. At a party, he says he hopes it won't be long before he meets Mr Short. His more tiresome acquaintances and neighbours include a Mr Gowing, who always seems to be coming, and a Mr Cumming - who is always going. Gowing not only comes, but is also a hooligan given to chucking food around at the supper table. Mr Pooter tries to remonstrate with him, only to be told that it's no good his trying to look indignant, with his hair full of parsley.

He gets to hear about how good enamel paint is, and buys a tin of red, and paints their flower pots, coal scuttle (for those young 'uns out there, it's where posh people kept their coal.) and the backs of their set of Shakespeare, as the bindings have almost worn out. Then he paints the bath (where my family kept the coal). Some days later he feels unwell, and decides the answer is to have a hot bath. After soaking himself for some time, he takes his hand out of the water and finds his hand bleeding badly. Has he ruptured an artery, and is he about to meet his maker? Nope the bloomin paint ain't dried!

Lupin (what a blooming silly name, blooming? Get it?) hates being seen with his old man who wears strange suits. Dad buys his clobber in the evening, when he can only choose his suiting by gaslight, and discovers the next day how terrible they suddenly look. Lupin seems always to be making the wrong choices with women. He is also out of work a lot.

Somebody wrote If you can remember that far back, or have caught the occasional recent repeat on TV, you might draw parallels between Charles Pooter and Eric Sykes. The latter used to star in as well as write the scripts for a late 60s and early 70s sitcom, as an amiable, slightly accident-prone fool continually worsted by his
more clever twin sister Hattie Jacques and supercilious neighbour Charles Brown (Richard Wattis). Maybe Eric modelled himself in part on the oh-so-ordinary but likeable Charles Pooter.

I have had about three copies of this gently humorous book due to non-returns. I heartily recommend it.