Monday, 28 June 2010

'chocolate or vanilla?'

by Jason Shiga

Ok, so I'm not in the habit of reviewing books for children but this one is ingenious. Jason Shiga majored in mathematics at the University of California and his interest in puzzles, games and those choose-your-own-adventure books that I remember loving as a child, have helped him to create a genuinely unique innovation in graphic novels. Meanwhile begins with a simple question for its hero, Jimmy: which ice-cream flavour does he want, chocolate or vanilla? Your choice here will have a major impact on what kind of adventure he goes on. A few pages later you will have to decide whether you want to take a look in a medicine cabinet and then which of Professor X's three inventions you want to play with. Then it starts to get really complicated.

The graphic panels are linked by tubes, following these with your finger to the tabs on the edge of each page leads you to flicking back and forth through the book as you follow the path designated by the choices you make. Along the way there are codes required to help you progress and plenty of times where the wrong decision results in the destruction of the entire human race. Shiga also manages to work in theories of time travel, entropy and multiple universes in a way that is digestible for children and even rather fun.

The front cover claims that there are 3,856 story possibilities but most of those are different by only a panel or two. In reality it seems that there are at least 20 different ways the story might pan out and its the kind of book that I can imagine would amuse a child for hours as they make they way back and forth, beginning again after they find themselves at a dead end, literally. I remember the temptation to cheat with the CYOA books I read as a child, that's why Shiga has put the codes in here, he wants to make sure the book, like modern computer games, has as long a playability as possible. To give you an idea of the complexity of his task here is a photo of the man himself in front of his original black and white schematic for the book.

If you're a bit geeky or you have children aged between about ten and the early teens then this book would be a great gift. The pages are thick and glossily laminated to help its durability with all that page-turning and whilst I'm sure there'll come a time when its novelty wears off they, or you, will have travelled through time frequently enough to have made it more than worth your while. You can find it here.


Thursday, 24 June 2010

'Billy as hero.'

A Kestrel For A Knave
by Barry Hines

To celebrate their 75th birthday this year Penguin republished some of their classic titles in a series called Decades. Five books each from the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's, with new covers from four designers (Peter Blake, Zandra Rhodes, Alan Aldridge and John Squires), designed to showcase their commitment to fine design and access to great writing. I already had a copy on the shelf of Hines' classic novel of boyhood, which carried a still from Ken Loach's memorable 1970 film on its cover, and wondered how the book would fair after having been so affected by that film (how often do you wonder if the book will live up to the film?!).

Written in 1968, the book is a gritty depiction of life in the Barnsley that Hines had grown up in. I'm not being clichéd when I use the word gritty (well I might be), Hines uses it himself in the book's opening paragraph.

There were no curtains up. The window was a hard edged block the colour of the night sky. Inside the bedroom the darkness was of a gritty texture. The wardrobe and bed were blurred shapes in the darkness. Silence. 
We are in the bedroom that Billy Caspar shares with his brother Jud, in fact we are in the bed that they share together as they toss and turn before dawn and the early rise that begins Jud's working day and his journey towards the dark depths of the local pit. The antagonistic relationship between the two is set up immediately and as Billy goes through the rest of his morning (collecting his paper round, stealing a couple of bars of chocolate and some eggs, narrowly avoiding a beating from his mother when he refuses to place a bet for his brother) we get a sense of a childhood blighted by poverty and neglect. He has one refuge after that eventful morning before making his way to school, one presence that always listens.

Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'

Michael Morpurgo said that part of the inspiration for writing War Horse was watching the way that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom hadn't spoken to anyone about how they felt, would open up after a few days working on a farm and together with horses, speaking to them when they thought no one else was there and confiding in them all the secrets that they held close to them the rest of the time. For Billy, Kes is a similar kind of animal confidante; patient, non-judgemental, always available. After this opening we head back in time to discover how Billy came to have Kes after following a kestrel back to its nest and performing a risky night-time raid to take one of the young for himself to raise.

He peered in, but there was nothing to see, so he stretched belly flop along the sill and felt into the hole, wriggling further along as his arm went further in. He felt around, then withdrew his hand grasping a struggling eyas kestrel. He sat up, caged the bird in his hands,, then placed it carefully into the big pocket inside his jacket. Five times he felt into the whole and each time fetched out a young hawk. Some were slightly larger than others, some more fully feathered, with less down on their backs and heads, but each one came out gasping, beaks open, legs pedalling the air.
When he had emptied the nest he reversed the procedure, dipping into his pocket for an eyas and holding it in one hand while he compared it with another. By a process of elimination, he placed them back into the nest until he was left with only one; the one with the most feathers and only a little down on its head.

So after chocolate and eggs comes the theft of a kestrel and Billy has already used his initiative, after being rebuffed in his attempts to join the library, to liberate a copy of A Falconer's Handbook from the local bookshop (Billy may be the hero of this tale but Hines is careful to show that he is far from perfect). With this reference Billy trains Kes and realises some of his personal potential. As his brother testifies, there are very few prospects for a lad who has 'a job to read and write' and there is something joyous about the confidence instilled in him by his achievements with Kes. In one amazing section he stands up in front of the class and, encouraged by the teacher, explains the process of training a kestrel compete with the complex terminology he has learned from his book, spelling out the jargon and speaking with a confidence and assurance that we've never seen before. This ray of hope is tempered and heartbreakingly dulled when the pupils are asked to write a piece of fiction entitled 'A Tall Story' later in the lesson. Billy uses it as an opportunity to write about an idyllic domestic scene complete with 'carpits on the stairs and in the all and sentrall eeting', where his brother Jud is going to the army and not coming back, 'but your dades coming back in sted'. Billy's perfect family unit then enjoy a night at the cinema rounded off with 'fish and chips for awur super.'

As I mentioned above, however much he is surrounded by a cast of unsympathetic characters (his own mother and brother chiefly but there's also a strident cameo from Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, brought brilliantly to life by Brian Glover in the film) Billy is a flawed hero and the truly gut-wrenching events in the book are the result of his own actions. Hines makes a brilliant change of pace in the book's later pages and when Billy begins his odyssey after evading his brother's attempts to find him at school (remember that unplaced bet?) there is something breathless about the prose forcing the reader to turn the pages with increasing rapidity, however much we may want to avoid what we'll find on the other side. Hines manages to describe the technical aspects without seeming dry, the landscape without being overly grim or romantic and with Billy, creates a character so in need of the reader's empathy and sympathy that I defy anyone not to be affected by his trials. It is a book also that appeals to readers both young and old. In an afterword, Hines mentions his surprise at seeing it become a set text now in schools, but it works both as an evocation of a lost era of industry and agriculture, a prescient look at what education could be if it focused on an individual's potential and beyond that the potential of any human to rise above their circumstances.

It is no wonder that a book that finds nobility in the animal kingdom when the human characters behave so appallingly should chime so much with me at a time when I'm working on a show that follows a 'noble, noble cavalry horse' into the battlefields of the Great War . As a teacher of Billy's points out, quoting 'that poem by Lawrence.'

'If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they'd be worth looking at.'


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

'an ordinary miracle'

Staring At The Sun
by Julian Barnes

I don't know what kept me from reading Julian Barnes for so long. I think I was put off by titles like Flaubert's Parrot which made him seem like a poncey intellectual writer and even by the way he looked, slightly haughty (we have a children's book at home which displays various faces: happy, sad, angry, cheeky - there is one called snooty which isn't a million miles away), an absurd prejudice which isn't so much judging a book by its cover but by its author photograph. Arthur and George changed all that, a brilliant book that combined intelligence, a gripping plot and beautifully detailed characterisation to make the kind of novel that you just don't want to end. Staring At The Sun was published in 1986, two years after his breakthrough novel Flaubert's Parrot, and found its way into my hands after a friend recalled it being a book that made a big impression twenty odd years ago. Would it still retain that impact today? I can't answer for him because he said he'd read it after I had but here are my thoughts.

The book begins with a startling image as Sergeant-Pilot Thomas Prosser flies a 'poaching' mission over Northern France on a 'calm, black night in June 1941'. Having stayed out longer than he intended he is surprised by the rising sun, whose light suddenly reminds him of the danger he is now in and sends him on a swift descent down to 8,000 feet.

Then something happened. The speed of his descent had driven the sun back below the horizon, and as he looked towards the east he saw it rise again: the same sun coming up from the same place across the same sea. Once more, Prosser put aside his caution and just watched: the orange globe, the yellow bar, the horizon's shelf, the serene air, and the smooth, weightless lift of the sun as it rose from the waves for the second time that morning. It was an ordinary miracle he would never forget.

Nor will we. A startling image, as I said, and one that burns itself, as a glance at the sun will do, through the rest of the book. Prosser isn't our main focus however. Barnes places Jean Serjeant at the centre of the novel and we will follow her life from its idyllic beginnings in the country before the outbreak of war, forward to her old age in 2020. Her childhood sees time often spent with her 'favourite uncle' Leslie, where she frequently acts as his caddie during his slow progress around the golf course, a journey punctuated by regular interruptions: the cigarette smoked from beginning to end without letting the ash drop, the screaming sessions in the woods where they scream at the sky until they collapse exhausted, the Shoelace Game which I won't explain, and the endless questions: Which club to use, why did Lindbergh only eat one and a half of his five sandwiches, why is the mink excessively tenacious of life? At the age of 17 comes the outbreak of war, an event that combines with her age to force along her slow maturation, for Jean is certainly naive.

She hadn't had many suitors, but didn't mind. Suitor was such a silly word that the men who were suitors must be silly too. 'He pressed his suit.' She had heard that phrase somewhere, or read it, and it always struck her that this was what was wrong with suitors. Were they called suitors because they were always pressing their suits? She liked men smart but she didn't like them spivvy...the four men she knew still divided up the same way. Suddenly she picture herself kissing Tommy Prosser, and the thought of his moustache made her shudder: she had practised once on a toothbrush, and it had confirmed her vividest fears. Michael was taller than any of them, and had Prospects of Promotion., a phrase to which her mother always awarded capital letters. He was, Jean admitted, a little shabby beneath his engulfing overcoat, but after the war she could smarten him up. That was what women did in marriage, wasn't it? They rescued men from their failings and vices. Yes, she thought, smiling: I shall press his suit.

Prosser has been billeted in her house and their conversations about flying, Courage, Bravery, Fear and the incident that opened the book provide the novel with many of its major themes. Michael is a local policeman and the man who will become her husband. Much of Barnes' surprising humour comes in Jean's swift sexual education, something she approaches with dread, her only experience coming from a manual for young couples passed on by 'one of the brisker, more modern wives of the village.'There is great fun to be had with the confusing jargon that serves only to confuse Jean further.

The word turgid kept appearing, as did crisis; she didn't like the sound of those two. Enlarged and stiffened, she read; lubricated by mucus; turgid again; soft, small and drooping (ugh)...She was astonished by how often the word sex seemed to be married to some other word: sex-attraction, sex-ignorance, sex-tide, sex-life, sex-function. Lots of hyphens everywhere. Sex-hyphens, she thought.

As marriage and her obligations come nearer she finds she can't help but think of his penis 'the thing that would join their bodies together - the sex hyphen.' and she begins to find the whole thing funny, only to be informed on one of many excruciatingly embarrassing trips to the doctor - 'Funny, my girl, is the one thing it is not.' Her marriage to Michael, their honeymoon and early years of marriage are sensitively handled by Barnes providing humour and pathos in equal measure ('When she thought of Michael and sex she imagined an overfilling water tank which occasionally had to be drained; it didn't have to be done too often, it wasn't exactly a nuisance, it was just part of running the house.'), and achieving more for my money in a few pages than McEwan did with the whole of On Chesil Beach.

Back to those themes though. Jean's inquisitive streak gets the most out of Prosser, questioning him about flying and trying to understand what event might have changed him from 'brave Hurricane pilot' to 'grounded, ratty and frightened'. There is no major incident, Prosser only knows what it was the first time after it happened the second time, a slow accumulation of incident and feeling that has left him 'twice burnt' and possibly finished. He knows what it means to be 'windy' and the danger and humiliation that come with it. It isn't too much of a strain to link Jean's own fears about adult life with Prosser's and through the book Barnes examines what bravery means in the pursuit of our own ideals and passions. Having done this subtly at first it gets a bit heavy-handed in the middle, just the sheer repetition of the word brave(ry) begins to feel clumsy after a while; but for a woman like Jean living in the time she does, we know that it will take just that to make a more fulfilling life for herself.

The real shock comes with the third section of the book where we join Jean in the future and find Barnes in surprising speculative-fiction mode. An ageing population, legalised euthanasia, fundrugs, Old People Suicides, The General Purposes Computer. You know you're in the future when the capital letters start to come out. The problem with a lot of this is of course that it feels dated; the GPC for example isn't much more than a search engine, an attempt to collect together the sum of human knowledge in a searchable database. One of its functions, TAT (The Absolute Truth) even feels very close to something that featured in Doctor Who recently. Perhaps it isn't fair to accuse a 25-year-old book of feeling dated but I'm sure no-one would level the same criticism at Blade Runner (1982), or rather Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968). The introduction of suicide as a theme also seems a little odd until Barnes manages to link it together with the other elements of the book. This after all is an examination of a life lived, 'How do you tell a good life from a bad life, a wasted life?', and what can you do when the answers to that and other questions don't go the way you thought they would? It is the bolder elements of this novel that raised my eyebrows when reading but which have kept me thinking after finishing it. Perhaps most importantly it has forced me to reassess an author I had never really given a fair chance previously. Any suggestions for what I might read of his next would be gratefully received.


Friday, 18 June 2010

'Just worry about living, dying is the easy part.'

Sh*t My Dad Says
by Justin Halpern

It's Father's Day on Sunday (apparently) so here is an alternative look at the mentoring and guidance that us dads are meant to provide. Some of you may roll your eyes in disgust at the use of such phrases as 'Twitter sensation' or even the idea that a book (and forthcoming sitcom starring William Shatner - I sh*t you not) could spring from utterances of less than 140 characters but, as anyone who has followed the wisdom of Justin Halpern's father on Twitter or in the press recently will know, sometimes you don't even need that many to cut the bullshit and get to the point.

Justin Halpern was 28 when his long-distance relationship finished after he attempted to close the distance to within the same four walls and was met by flat refusal. Having terminated his own lease he was forced to move back in with his parents for a while and experience all over again the wise words and sage summations of his 73-year-old father. After friends suggested he create a Twitter page to air some of these Halpern saw his followers increase after a small start to a thousand, ten thousand, and then hundreds of thousands. Then the calls started to arrive from reporters, literary agents and TV producers. Sh*t My Dad Says was a phenomenon. The only person who was completely unaware was Halpern Senior himself .

For this book Halpern has thankfully fleshed out the tweets themselves with a memoir of sorts. Most families can mine their past for an interesting tale or two but with such an outspoken patriarch there seems to be an endless list of bizarre advice, wisdom and maxims. In his acknowledgements Halpern says that the best part of writing the book was the time spent with his family simply remembering all of the occasions where his father's outbursts had provided so much entertainment and as a result the book is filled with love. It is clear too that despite the filthy language Halpern Senior is a man who loves his family and has supported their decisions and mistakes as well as their successes (I guess that's how you end up with your 28-year-old son under your roof once again). All that said, it's a pretty light read, one destined for the loo, where you'll chuckle happily if you like any of these examples.

On Being Teased
'So he called you a homo. Big Deal. There's nothing wrong with being a homosexual...No, I'm not saying you're a homosexual, Jesus Christ. Now I'm starting to see why this kid was giving you shit.'

On My Bloody Nose
'What happened? Did somebody punch you in the face?!...The what? The air is dry? Do me a favour and tell people you got punched in the face.'

On Managing One's Bank Account
'Don't get mad at the overdraft charge...No no, see, there's your problem. You think of it as a penalty for taking out money you don't have, but instead, it might help to think of it as a reminder, that you're a dumbshit.'

On Whether To Vote For George W. Bush or Al Gore
'Gore seems kind of like a pompous prick, but every time I see Bush I feel like he's probably shit his pants in the last year and it's something he worries about.'

On The Right Time To Have Children
'It's never the right time to have kids but it's always the right time for screwing. God's not a dumbshit. He knows how it works.'

Happy Father's Day!


Thursday, 17 June 2010

Jamie Lidell - Compass

It's been a while since Prince made the kind of music that got me into Prince as a young teenager. For many years he was a one-man army blending soul, funk and R 'n' B (and plenty more besides) into something wonderful, and when he began to surround himself with an established band he continued to push boundaries and meld styles together with a creative flair most musicians and performers can only dream of. Now that the edge seems to have dulled ever so slightly I have to look elsewhere for my kicks. Now, Jamie Lidell isn't Prince or even that similar to him but there's something of that prodigious talent about the man. When I reviewed his last album, Jim, I was pleased by the focus on his voice which is nothing short of gorgeous. With Beck on board as producer on his latest, things have taken a turn for the tweaked, by which I mean that the voice is often hidden under some treatment or other and the album suffers from over-production on a couple of tracks. However, there is also an amazing energy at work here and several attempts to do something different from the usual soul/funk/R 'n' B fare.

The heavy-handed production veils the opening couple of tracks; Completely Exposed is riven by heavy guitar chords like Bjork at her most bombastic leaving it all sounding a little leaden. Your Sweet Boom sounds exactly like a Beck track with treated vocals and eclectic sounds in the background. The we get She Needs Me, as hopelessly romantic a track as you could hope to find, heavy bass and flutes combine to create a sex-soaked atmosphere Barry White would be proud of, Lidell's vocals finally given some room to soar (sounding exactly like Michael McDonald at one point - compliments don't come any more backhanded than that!). Things get even darker and dirtier on the funky I Wanna Be Your Telephone which comes complete with the kind of silly/sexy lyrics that Prince used to excel in - Breathe into my mouthpiece baby/Press your cheek against me honey /Push my buttons with your tender touch / Whisper to me 'til I can't get enough /I wanna be your telephone. It really does sound like a Prince (and The Revolution) track too with keyboard stabs a la Dr Fink, sultry female backing vocals and something of the maverick genius about it. The sun comes out on Enough's Enough if you want something for a summer barbecue. The filthy, funky keyboard sound that begins The Ring opens out into a piano led soul number that stomps along nicely, punctuated by brass. The pace picks up further with the rocking You Are Waking which is powered along by aggressive drumming and layers of guitar.

I Can Love Again breaks it down, almost like an intermission, with the after-hours It's A Kiss following on similarly. It's a chance to breathe before the epic title track comes along. Acoustic guitars underscore the unhindered, heartfelt vocal (And now I know the only compass that I need/ Is the one that leads back to you) and the instrumentation goes off for a workout in the middle (the album is filled with cameos and support from eclectic soundsmiths like Feist, Gonzales, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor) before returning back to base. Lovely stuff. We're back in darker territory for Gypsy Blood and the dramatic Coma Chameleon before things go very wafty on Big Drift. With a list of instrumentation that goes from the eclectic (Mexican Bass, Celesta, Mellotron) to the downright mystic (Percussion Explorations, The Mysterious Wheel, The Mystic Brush!) and backing vocals from all the famous collaborators I've mentioned it is a grand track where Lidell himself pushes his vocal into something harder (Chris Cornell has been mentioned). The album is finished off with You See My Light where tremulous vocals are accompanied by piano and horns, a quiet goodbye that only illustrates the eclectic nature of the album as a whole. It's that variety that will put off as many listeners as it attracts, consistency obviously wasn't high on the list this time around, but there's no doubting the creativity and talent behind this record and the impish man at the centre of it remains one of the more exciting singer-musicians out there today.


Monday, 14 June 2010

'all around me there are enemies'

Alone In Berlin 
by Hans Fallada

What was the likelihood that a 60-year-old novel of German resistance to the Nazis, recently translated for the first time into English by Michael Hofmann, would find its way onto the bestseller lists? I noticed the new paperback proudly displayed in my local Waterstones alongside the usual suspects and was surprised to see this article recently enumerating its success. With over 100,000 copies already sold by Penguin in the UK and booming sales by Melville House in the US there is no doubt that this book is a hit, especially surprising as it is that most unpopular of objects- the book in translation. What is the reason for the success? The book has been made as attractive as possible by being marketed as a thriller but it would seem that word of mouth and book groups have also played their part in powering sales. I'd had my interest raised by some positive reviews from fellow bloggers and whilst I did enjoy what is a fascinating insight into life under the Nazi regime I'd be lying if I said I hadn't found it a bit of a slog at times. Its 568 pages were written in less than a month so this is far from a polished novel. That haste produces some moments of hurtling pace but also some moments of confusion and plot-lines or characters that lead into dead ends. That said, the book certainly deserves its praise, the atmosphere of fear and persecution drips from the page and we become so complicit with the resistance of the German citizens within that reading the book at times has you casting furtive glances over your shoulder.

Based on a real case (on which the new paperback contains extra information and wartime documents) the novel centres around Otto and Anna Quangel. For many years Otto has been a quiet unassuming presence in the factory at which he is a foreman and within the shabby Berlin apartment he shares with the wife he has never been able to articulate much too. When they receive a telegram informing them of the death of their son at the front a single unguarded comment from Anna - 'you and that Fuhrer of yours!' - is enough to send Otto on a course of action that will place them both in as much danger as their son ever faced on the front line. How to offer resistance to a state that rules with such an iron fist? Otto's plan is simple: to write postcards containing slogans against the Fuhrer, the Party and the war and to disperse them around the city in the hope that the slow drip of information will galvanise resistance and bring down the regime. Anna is dismissive of this small gesture until she is reminded that whatever its size 'if they get wind of it, it'll cost us our lives...'

The man who has made a career out of being the quiet man seems well suited to the task of being an invisible saboteur and he plans his drops well before even committing his pen to paper.

...there was a moment when Otto Quangel was all alone on the stairs, or at least had his part of the stairs all to himself, when all of life seemed to have withdrawn into the offices. That was the moment to do it. In fact, everything was exactly the way he had imagined it. People in a hurry, not looking each other in the face, dirty windowpanes letting in only a murky grey light, no porter, no one anywhere to take an interest in anyone.

Anna's nervousness about the enterprise just grows and grows beginning in earnest when they settle down to write the very first words together.

At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto's  absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Fuhrer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!
In such a large novel the Quangels are naturally not our only focus. Fallada's cast-list ranges from the lowest common criminals to the highest Party officials and he manages to marshal them well for the most part. Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen are particularly memorable, both careering from one form of trouble to another. Kluge finds himself arrested at one point on suspicion of being the man responsible for the postcards and however selfish and abhorrent he has been we cannot help but feel sympathy as we watch how incapable he is to resist the interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo. It is the complexity of the characters that makes them believable, Fallada isn't interested in a story that contains bad Nazis and good German citizens. Everybody has their weaknesses and human frailties and every character is shown to fail in one way or another. Even the party man, Inspector Escherich, who heads up the investigation elicits a modicum of sympathy and certainly out interest in his dogged pursuit of the 'Hobgoblin'. His map of the city gradually fills with the pins that mark the locations where postcards have been dropped and he works to pinpoint the location where his man must live and work. It becomes an obsession, one that will lead him use even a suspect he knows has nothing to do with the crime for his own ends, providing the book with one of its more thriller-like moments.

Despite this close focus on some very specific characters there is the odd moment when Fallada lifts our heads to see a wider picture. In contrast to the Quangel's lost son we see another mother mourning the fact that her own son has allegedly become a notoriously violent Nazi thug and we suddenly have a vision of the atrocities we now know to have been committed (an image echoed later in the book when a pile of discarded corpses is made personal with a few small, specific details. The factory at which Otto is foreman acts as a neat illustration of the changing fortunes of German society. After its initial change from fine woodworking to the manufacture of bomb crates we then see a further change and get a sense of the changing fortunes of the Nazi war machine as it is enlisted in the construction of cheap coffins, vast numbers made each day, the only question being whether they're destined for the front or somewhere closer to home.

Otto's plan of resistance offers him no clue as to whether it is having any effect, even whilst it carries the danger of ending his life, and one question asked is what the point can be of resistance in the face of such danger. Fallada makes the threat of violence and death incredibly real and as his characters are forced into further privations and that iron fist begins to close we are reminded of the value of opposition, however futile it may feel, and also, in an examination of one of the book's major themes, the nature of being alone, we realise that Fallada has brought together his cast of disparate characters and united them in their common desire.

'Well, it will have helped us to feel that we have behaved decently till the end. And much more, it will have helped people everywhere, who will be saved for the righteous few among them, as it says in the Bible. Of course, Quangel, it would have been a thousand times better if we'd had someone who could have told us, such and such is what you have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that does not mean that we are alone, Quangel, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end...Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one? There is no choice - not for you, nor for me either. It's because we are as we are that we have to go this way.'


Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom is one of those artists that people get evangelical about. I have tried in the past to get enthusiastic about her, and perhaps it was just the wrong timing when she released her album Ys to wide critical acclaim. There was something just a bit pretentious about the idea of a modern/medieval harp/pop crossover artist who, if we're being honest, sounded a bit like a cat when she sang. I can put it in those flippant terms now, not because I have dismissed her for good but because, with the release of her latest 3 CD album, I have, in a sense, been converted. Newsom is a unique artist and the two hours of music that make up Have One On Me are filled with treasures and moments of magic.

Part of the reason for my Damascene conversion is the voice. In 2009 Newsom developed nodules on her vocal chords, words that strike terror into anyone who relies on their voice to make a living. Forbidden to speak, sing or even cry for two months, she had to develop a new method of singing in her recovery and as a result has found a voice far more soothing and welcoming to any first-time listeners (Kate Bush immediately springs to mind). I cannot hope to give a thorough enough review of a triple CD album here, especially one which contains such complex lyrics and musicianship, but I think the main thrust of what I want to say is that the converted don't need preaching to but those, like me, who have often wondered will find an absorbing experience that reveals subtle shifts of mood, long tracks that contain multiple themes without outstaying their welcome and a voice that no longer sounds like a witch and her cat rolled into one.

With such a lot to listen to there are strengths in every area you might hope to look. If it's catchy tunes you're after then you can find them on California, Good Intentions Paving Co. and even during the medieval formalism of '81. If it's exotic instrumentation you like then the Eastern ending to Baby Birch should do it for you. Multi-faceted structure is there in spades on the title track and simple yearning on No Provenance. And that's just the six tracks that make up the first disc. There's no filler here. Admittedly some tracks work better than others and it's unlikely that you'd have the time or patience to put all three on in the same evening but sustained listening has helped to highlight different themes and motifs that differentiate the discs and with such a consistently high quality throughout it makes it one of the best value-for-money purchases you could expect to make all year.


Monday, 7 June 2010

'Pieces of us'

Not So Perfect 
by Nik Perring

Roast Books published An A-Z Of Possible Worlds by A.C. Tillyer which was a very enjoyable read last year and the kind of book that book bloggers were invented for - one that might struggle for national coverage and yet which richly deserved it. From the same stable comes a collection of short short stories in a square formatted book that is perfectly suited to the short journeys that Roast Books seem to cater to. This, like my last post, is the kind of book that would usually lie a million miles away from my usual reading territory but I can't just sit around reading Roth all day (although wouldn't that be lovely) and the occasional brave plunge into the unknown can yield some interesting results.

So it is too with this collection, which is filled with striking images that made each of the 22 tales immediately memorable on finishing the book. Perring takes a skewed look at human relationships and the many ways in which we fail at them. With each story only consisting of a few pages, these sketches are like little shots of narrative often with a striking visual image at the centre. The image on the cover, perhaps unsuprisingly, comes from My Wife Thew Up A Lemur in which a man watches his wife gradually fill their house with a brood of animals that she vomits forth. In Shark Boy we meet a young protagonist who cannot stop for fear of suffering the same kind of death as his namesake. Movement comes first physically and then mentally as he becomes a renowned scientist but what happens at the moment that he falls in love and the world stands still? This story provides a key to what you might call a dominant theme in Perring's stories. He's a big softie at heart and many of his tales, for all their obvious creative daring, conceal a conventional beating heart at their centre. In the opening story, Kiss, the elderly man who spends more time talking to his plants than his younger wife is shown to have had a plan all along for the moment when he was gone and she left without him. The Mechanical Woman, who hides 'cogs and wheels, gears and shafts' under her skirt and thinks that no man could ever love her has only to meet the engineering enthusiast on the train, the man who has a passion for restoring things, especially those that have been neglected, to summon up the courage to show off what she has so long concealed.

With this kind of driving force behind the stories there are inevitably times when it can feel a bit adolescent (I don't mean that in a snarky way but to illustrate the particular fervour of adolescent amorousness) but on more than one occasion Perring manages to condense into a tiny story something completely fundamental. Say My Name doesn't even fill three pages but cuts right to the heart of the importance of identity in a relationship. The last story, Five Years And The Last Night On Earth, could have been just a soppy tale about having a finite amount of time with someone until Perring ups the stakes with a single sentence. That kind of economy is what makes some of these stories have so much impact, punching well above their weight. All of them, as I said earlier, are incredibly memorable and read in the kind of environment I mentioned earlier might provide you with the kernel of something that could grow with you for the rest of the day.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

'everything doesn't end with February'

Light Boxes 
by Shane Jones

I'd love to put this down as one of my independent publisher reads but when I first heard about it the original print run of 500 from Publishing Genius Press had long gone and was already fetching tidy sums on the web (cheapest available now is $199). The interest comes on the back of film rights being optioned by Spike Jonze and the acquisition of the book by Penguin. You can read a really interesting interview with the man behind Publishing Genius Press, Adam Robinson, here - where he discusses the accusation of selling out levelled at Jones in the wake of the book's later success. If it hadn't been for Penguin then I wouldn't have been able to read the book obviously and I, for one, am glad to have had the opportunity to enter Jones' vividly realised landscape. The cover below is the original and gives an idea of that very landscape.

The book's epigraph is taken from The Twelve Seasons by Joseph Wood Krutch - 'The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.' (It can feel much the same in old England too). For over 300 days it has been February and February is persecuting the townspeople. Snow covers everything, flight has been banned and children have begun to disappear. In Jones' imagination February is a season but also, it seems, something rather more corporeal. February lives on the edge of town with 'the girl who smells of honey and smoke' but February also seems to be like some kind of deity, existing perhaps beyond the two holes in the sky, his decrees found pinned up in the woods like the one for example that banned all forms of flight and sent even the birds crashing down from the sky. Thaddeus Lowe, a committed balloonist, becomes the central figure in the War Effort, a resistance movement that goes to war with February in an attempt to usher in the rest of the seasons and bring an end to the sadness and fear that has haunted their community for so long.

We follow Thaddeus, his wife Selah and daughter Bianca for the  most part although there are other characters who take narrative control. The prose comes in short burst for the most part with most sections lasting little more than a page or two and many much shorter even than that.  Jones plays around with his typography changing font size with whispered words and headings made all the clearer. All that white space on the page helps to create that winter landscape for the reader too and in one particularly effective section we get a real sense of Thaddeus's arrested emotions as the text is restricted to just a few words in the middle of the page ('I'm going to move my hand today.')

This is a million miles away from the kind of book I would usually read. Non-realist, poetic, magical, the kind of thing that would usually have me running for something horribly gritty and real - and yet there is something immersive in the experience of reading it. The short sections make it easy to read and hard to dismiss and despite the profusion of images there are several that stay with you. The simple but heroic attempts to usher in spring include the pouring of boiling water over the snowbound landscape, using huge troughs tipped over by teams of horses. February's response sees a plague of moss descend on the town, the virulent growth of which ends up choking those horses and threatening the human population.

I went back to where the horses were.
I knelt down in the cold snow freckled green. I peeled the moss away from their bodies. Their eyes had burst and their tongues were hanging out. Their necks were ropes of muscle and wet moss from the snow that now looked like green foam.
I placed my head inside a horse's neck. Deep inside that web of flesh, among the organs and bone I saw a miniature town that was identical to ours. I saw Thaddeus and Caldor and Bianca and everyone else asleep in hammocks tied to the ribcage. I saw a little balloon carrying horses in a basket. I saw kites pushing clouds into a burning sun. And where the stomach was I saw myself standing on a frozen river. Wind tunnels around my leg lifted my dress and pulled my hair towards the clouds. I could feel the cracking of ice against the bottom of my feet. Fish ate water and screamed for me to come down and have some tea have some mint.

That's just an example of the transformative nature of Jones' world and prose. A wound might weep flowers rather than blood and the clouds in the sky have legs and shoulders. Those chaps on the front of the new cover, wearing coloured bird masks, are The Solution, disgruntled former balloonists who begin the resistance against February that will become the War Effort. The figure of February is an interesting creation too. Playing with ideas of authorial control and authority, February acts much like a creator who has tired of his creation or become lost with it. Almost unaware of the suffering he is causing it is the girl who smells of honey and smoke who begins to take an active interest in the town's welfare and will play a crucial role in their attempts to overthrow February's long reign. Jones' book can therefore be appreciated in different ways. It might be the poetic prose or its rhythm that seduces, it might be the extraordinary pictures he manges to create in your mind, or it might be the conceit of the book in its examination of creation and control. It's certainly a rich text to create a film from so it may be worth keeping an eye on what Mr Jonze has planned (although I believe someone else may be slated to direct it). It's good to leave your comfort zone with reading matter occasionally, even if that means spending several hundred days in the snow. The book's 168 small, square, sparse pages would take just the one day to read through and it's amazing how far it's possible to travel in so short a time.


Tuesday, 1 June 2010

'The really important things usually lie in the distant past.'

Journey By Moonlight 
by Antal Szerb

I usually make the mistake of reading an author's established masterpiece first, leaving myself slightly disappointed when I catch up on their admirable but non-masterpiece back catalogue. Not so with Szerb though, whose romp with the occult in The Pendragon Legend provided me with such fun, and me safe in the knowledge that this book, for which he receives the plaudits, was safely ensconced on the TBR pile. This is certainly a more serious work, although it has its fair share of absurdities, and Szerb's intelligence and wit are both showcased well in a book which looks at the amazing power of nostalgia and its ability to shape the destiny of the future.

We begin with a honeymooning couple in, of course, Venice. Mihály and Erzsi are finally putting a respectable sheen of legitimacy on their relationship, which began when Erzsi was married to another man, with that most conventional of Italian holidays. The first few days are pleasant enough, filled with 'the pleasures of honeymooning and the gentler, less strenuous forms of sightseeing' but Mihály has a wandering soul and when he pops out for what he assures his wife will be just a quick drink he loses himself metaphorically amongst the back alleys, returning sheepishly at dawn with little in the way of explanation. This almost sleep-walking spirit will be important later but first there is the arrival of an unexpected emissary from the past. In Ravenna the couple bump into Janos Szepetneki who makes quite an entrance on his motorbike, clad in leathers and goggles, dumbfounding Mihály with the news that he may have traced Ervin, another past acquaintance, before finishing their tense exchange with a parting shot par excellence:

'Your wife, by the way, is a thoroughly repulsive woman.'

Mihály has some explaining to do and Szerb duly obliges. We learn of his school days where he suffered from sickness 'in mind and body'; depression, hallucinations and worst of all: the whirlpool.

Yes, I really mean whirlpool. Every so often I would have the sensation that the ground was opening beside me, and I was standing on the brink of a terrifying vortex. You mustn't take the whirlpool literally. I never actually saw it; it wasn't a vision. I just knew there was a whirlpool there...when this whirlpool sensation got hold of me I didn't dare move, I couldn't speak a word, and I really believed it was the end of everything.

One particularly bad episode is arrested when Tamás Ulpius simply lays his hand on his shoulder and the two boys become best friends. Mihály then gets to know the rest of the Ulpius family. Tamás is incredibly close to his sister Eva, the two of them caught up in an eccentric household of 'non-stop theatre, a perpetual commedia dell'arte' where their frequent dramatisations end in scenes of violent death. Mihály is soon absorbed into the company, desperate to spend as much time within the household in spite of his discomfort at being part of the theatrics. Into this group come Ervin and Janos, both there for Eva, and in a short section where all of this history is related by Mihály to his young bride Szerb sketches brilliantly the complicated relationships within the 'Ulpius menage'. All the game playing becomes far more serious after the attempted suicide of Tamás.

In the tragedies we played we were always killing and dying. That's all they were ever about. Tamás was always preoccupied with dying. But try to understand, if it's at all possible: not death, annihilation, oblivion, but the act of dying. There are people who commit murder again and again from an 'irresistible urge', to savour the heady excitement of killing. The same irresistible urge drew Tamás towards the supreme ecstasy of his own final passing away...I understood him completely. For years we never said another word about what happened. We just knew that each understood the other.

All of this reminiscence sets Mihály on an obsessive train of thought, certainly a different train for when the couple make a stop en route to Rome Mihály's impulsive leap onto the platform for a coffee leads to him jumping back onto the wrong train thus separating himself from Erzsi. Rather than linking up together at the earliest opportunity he uses it as the first step on his journey back into the past to confront those figures from his past, those figures that include himself.

The physical journey is matched by the mental one and along with a degree of mental and physical  deterioration Mihály is always aware of what his real ailment is. "Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?". That delving into the past unearths the thing that had always connected the younger Mihály and Tamas, their almost erotic attraction to death, and on his travels Szerb is able to demonstrate his keen intelligence with discussions on both religious history and the cultural significance of death-cults and suicide. It's all connected to the whirlpool as he makes clear when discussing the 'death yearning' with former university friend Rudi Waldheim, now a world famous classical philologist and religious historian.

"Do you recognise this feeling. A man is walking on a wet pavement and slips. His one leg collapses under him, and he starts to fall backwards. At the precise moment when I lose my balance, I am filled with a sudden ecstasy. Of course it lasts only a second, then I automatically jerk back my leg, recover my balance, and rejoice in the fact that I didn't fall. But that one moment! For just one moment I was suddenly released from the oppressive laws of equilibrium. I was free. I began to fly off into annihilating freedom...
Do you recognise this feeling?"
   "I know rather more about this whole business than you think"
Szerb's writing is filled with those witty one liners ('In London November isn't a month...it's a state of mind.') and longer passages of great erudition, beautiful descriptions of Italy that lend an air of the travelogue to the narrative and moments where our certainty about what is happening is taken away by tiredness, alcohol or the fragile mental state of Mihály. It is a great novel that hides many of its secrets so effectively that, much as Nicholas Lezard did when reviewing it for the Guardian, I found myself as I turned the last page wanting to turn straight back to the first and begin again.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP