Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Amazing Murakami Giveaway

It's my birthday next month but in a neat reversal of tradition I'm going to give you all the chance of an amazing present. Haruki Murakami is an author who tends to inspire fierce loyalty in his fans. Once you've been bitten by the bug there is a wide array of work that bears his unmistakeable stamp. I'm not quite as taken by him as my wife but I've read a few books, although there's only one review here on the blog, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I'm sure I enjoyed more than my review makes it sound. There's no doubt that he's a writer to be taken seriously, so much so that Ladbrokes had him as the favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

Vintage are re-issuing his books with new designs by Noma Bar (for a closer look at each of the designs you can follow this link for poster versions or this article) and I have not one to give away but a complete set, YES, all fifteen books above to one lucky winner.

Can we all just take a moment to appreciate what an amazing prize that is...


...bit longer...



So, what do you have to do to win this gorgeous set of books? What fiendish question will I set to sort the fans from the freeloaders?

Don't worry about any of that, this is all about giving so let's make it as simple as possible. Leave a comment below or send me an email by clicking the 'email me' button and you'll go into the hat. A draw will be made in a couple of weeks time, probably by my cat, and one of you is going to be very, very happy.

Good Luck.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Nao of Brown - Glyn Dillon


Self Made Hero is an independent publisher of graphic work that has been quietly getting on with things for 5 years now. Making a name for themselves first with graphic versions of classic novels and manga Shakespeare they have widened their net to include crime, sci-fi, biography and more. I'm really interested in the project they began last year however: Original Fiction. I've already reviewed David B's Black Paths and the unsettling Sandcastle from Pierre Oscar-Levy and Frederik Peters (another piece from Peters, Pachyderme, is published this month too) and now comes another to trump them both; a stonkingly good book that deserves its 'original' tag.

Nao Brown is the heroine of novel. That's her on the left. That unusual name comes from her being a 'hafu', half-Japanese, half-English but also seems important when we learn a bit more about her; living in the now, the present moment, is going to become an important notion as we read her story. Nao suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) although her variant is purely obsessional, not the hand-washing and door checking that we might be familiar with but morbid fantasies about sudden violence towards those she interacts with which require a locked cutlery drawer at home and several meditation techniques to try and control those urges.

This is where Dillon makes great use of the graphic format. As our eyes follow the panels, Nao's sudden obsessional thoughts take us by surprise as much as her. They may flood the picture with a red wash or simply appear as a calm extension of her surroundings as in the panel below where a simple airplane flight is fraught with danger with her having been sat right next to the emergency exit.

Nao works in a specialist, boutique toy-shop with her close friend Steve and it is while she is working there one day that she meets Gregory, a washing-machine repair man who will become her latest obsession. This is in part because of his resemblance to a character in her favourite comic series, Ichi by Gil Ichiyama. Both Ichiyama and his comic series are another invention of Dillon's and function as a comic within a comic, allowing him to showcase an entirely different graphic style to the watercolour that dominates the main story (There is even a specially created Ichi website). The contrast in styles is marked and shows Dillon's love for Japanese comic art. You can read more about his two artistic approaches and indeed see how he builds up his artwork in another fantastic 'Director's commentary' on the Forbidden Planet site.

Anyway, Nao's story is firstly one of the ways in which she deals daily with her disease; the constant marks she gives herself out of ten to rank her mental state (with 10 out of 10 being the worst end of the spectrum) and the repeated mantra, 'Mum thinks I’m good' there to remind her that she is not the person who actually breaks the taxi-driver's neck or pushes someone in front of a train. It is also one of her search for love, failing to see where it has always been and struggling to recognise the obstacles that stand in the path she tries to follow. Nao is a character that the reader cannot help but have huge sympathy for mainly because Dillon draws her with such a brilliant knack for character through expression that I found myself completely charmed by her raised eyebrow, her winning smile, her innocent eyes and her desperate need to find some control. In fact Dillon's skill at capturing expression and gesture is worthy of significant praise, as is his beautiful watercolour work. A brilliant quote on the back of the book comes from Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl and Gorillaz) who says 'The artwork makes me jealous, the storytelling makes me even more jealous and the watercolour painting just pisses me off!' Admiration from one's peers is always welcome, their envy must mean you're really doing something right.

It's also worth pointing out that Self Made Hero have done an amazing job in the production of this book. Beneath the dust-jacket one finds not only a wonderful design embossed onto the white boards beneath but a large map that covers the inside of the dust-jacket when folded out. The paper inside is a wonderful high-quality matt that perfectly suits the watercolour artwork and the pages have even been stained red at their edges to continue the red, black and white colour scheme. All in all, a publication to be applauded, but more importantly than that: read and enjoyed.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore

'he remembers'

Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands.
So begins Alison Moore's Booker shortlisted novel, a triumph for small independent press Salt who I mentioned some time ago when they were running a campaign to help keep the press alive and who will hopefully see a welcome boost to their fortunes after the light that has been shone (groan) on their endeavours by this success. Futh is a middle-aged man, recently separated from his wife, on his way towards a walking holiday in the Rhineland which he hopes will be restorative. On the very first page however he is submerged in memories, in particular those of his last ferry trip at the age of twelve with his father, about a year after both of them had been left by Futh's mother. So this trip has obvious echoes of the last one and this is just the first of many echoes which bounce around the limited space of this short novel making for a read that many have completely fallen for but which I found just a little too heavily symbolic and neat to fully enjoy.

There are two strands to the story; the first following Futh on his trip around Germany as well as the memories of his childhood and marriage, the second concerns Esther who, along with husband Bernard, runs the bed and breakfast which marks the first and last stop on Futh's circular journey. This hotel is called Hellhaus, or Lighthouse. Esther's story is more easily summarised. Her marriage to Bernard is unhappy and violent, her casual sexual encounters with hotel guests the way in which she can provoke a reaction from her recalcitrant husband who may only have wooed and married her as part of his sibling rivalry. The sections of the novel devoted to the two of them have a repetitive, dream-like feel which is good for slowly building tension and unease but certainly makes them feel like the weaker sections of the book, especially when that repetition feels just like repetition. The elements of Esther's story that echo with Futh's can sometimes feel a little forced but I had better explain a bit more about him before I go into that.

As I said above, Futh is immediately assailed by memories when he begins his trip. He may be on the run from his own crumbled marriage but this trip is as much about the fallout from his parents breakup as his own. This comes in the form of two main memories, the first the trip he made with his father to Germany, the second a family holiday in Cornwall that proved to be the decisive moment in his parent's split. The trip with his father was tinged with sadness, Futh desperate for his father to talk about the woman who had deserted them both, only for her memory to be tarnished by doing so, whilst Futh's father goes on nightly conquests to extinguish her completely. Father and son shared a hotel room and Futh remembers the nights when he was supposed to be asleep and his father brought back woman after woman, taking each into the bathroom, a narrow gap in the door allowing Futh to watch them both in the mirror, a memory so present that Futh finds himself now an adult in another hotel bathroom after a bad night's sleep 'not wanting to touch the sink area, 'not wanting to look in the mirror.' This is one example of the way in which Moore writes brilliantly about the way in which memory can affect and infect the present moment.

Carried on this trip (and indeed on the one he made when just 12) is a silver perfume bottle in the shape of a lighthouse 'About ten centimetres tall and three or four in diameter...It has a four-sided tower and a lantern room with tiny storm panes and a domed top. In relief on one side it says 'DRALLE.'' This belonged to Futh's mother and in another example of Moore's connected moments it forms a crucial link to that holiday in Cornwall. Futh remembers a picnic 'on a cliff in blazing sunshine, looking at a lighthouse and listening to his father going on about the old beacon...' This is the moment that Futh's mother makes clear her disenchantment with her marriage and how boring she finds her husband. As Futh's father silently packs their things away Futh, who had been holding his mother's perfume notices something.

...then he looked down at his hand and saw the glass vial broken in his palm, the fleshy pad beneath his thumb cut open. The volatile contents of the lighthouse soaked into his wound, stinging, and ran between his fingers, soaking his boots, and the scent of it rose from him like millions of tiny balloons escaping towards the sky.
For a long time afterwards, he would lift the palm of his hand to his nose, searching for that scent of violets.

Scent and perfume is a major theme, Futh works as a manufacturer of artificial scents and Esther has a fascination with perfume that leads her to rifle through her guest's belongings to occasionally steal some. The scent of violets is mentioned repeatedly, as is that of the camphor that Bernard rubs on himself daily. These on their own would begin to grate after a while but Moore is determined to link and echo things even more and so has Esther own the very same perfume that Futh's mother had. The difference for Esther is that she had asked her new husband to make a gift of it to her, having seen it advertised as 'the most costly perfume sold in America', only to be disappointed by him buying the less expensive wooden case 'cylindrical rather than squared beneath the domed top, and less detailed than the silver one.' There is a very fine line between the point at which symbols, metaphors, themes and motifs add to the impact of a novel and the point at which they start to weigh it down. It may well be a matter of personal taste but personally I found it all too heavy before I was even half way through. Salt are a huge publisher of poetry, a medium I still have yet to get a handle on, and in many ways I found the prose of this novel too heavily laden with the kind of techniques I might expect to find in poetry or even a short story. One moment of suspended danger for example sees Esther walk through the kitchen 'where the chef is pounding cheap cuts of beef, tenderising steaks for dinner, pulping apples, and smashing black walnuts with a rolling pin, beating them beneath a tea towel to keep the shells from flying, to prevent the juice from staining the work surface.' This rather over-worked sentence (could she really see this one man do all of those things whilst passing through the kitchen?) stands in for the violence that is occurring in another room of the hotel, the kind of shot that would feel a little crass if you saw it in a student film (we may get to see if I'm wrong as I believe film rights for The Lighthouse are being contested as we speak).

There are other moments however where echoes and connections really worked for me. The fact that Futh's wife shared the same name with his mother, Angela, feels not so much like literary coincidence but the perfect way to say something about Futh's character, as well as allowing his wife to often issue the killer line in their marriage, 'I'm not your mother.' Futh is a troubling character though with his doormat tendencies. It is a stretch at times to credit his inability to recognise what is happening to his marriage but perhaps that is simply because he was never able to fully achieve what his father had toasted upon his engagement 'l'enterrement de vie de garçon'. 'The burial of a boys life.'

On reflection then this is a novel that intrigued at the outset and has plenty going for it but which slowly  wore me down with its claustrophobic imagery and connections. It's worth reminding ourselves I think that this is Moore's debut novel. It's great to see it on the list, great for a publisher like Salt to get some deserved attention, and it'll be great to see what Moore produces in the future, but this isn't the winner for me. We'll find out if I'm right or not next Tuesday.

(Watch it win now)


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Building Stories - Chris Ware

'in pictures revealed'

The space above the first line of my reviews is for the cover image of whatever book it happens to be. A review of a graphic novel will often be accompanied by a few other pictures of the work itself to give you an idea of the artwork and design. Both of those features seem somewhat inadequate when writing a post on Chris Ware's latest, an opus that he has been working on for years. Building Stories is a collation of strips previously published in the Nest Magazine, The New Yorker, Kramer's Ergot, and the Sunday New York Times Magazine. These diverse strips may have been finally brought together but this is a graphic novel with no clear beginning or end. Published as 14 separate books, booklets, newspapers and something that resembles a game board this is a cornucopia for Ware enthusiasts. It is a vast and beautifully produced collection of work, boxed with great attention to detail. This is just what you might expect if you have read Ware before or if McSweeney's has ever popped through your letterbox. In fact this book reminded me very much of a combination of McSweeney's issue 13 (a collection of comic strips curated by Ware) and 17 ("Made To Look Like It Came In Your Mailbox") and it's important from the off not to let the presentation of this work blind us to whether it is actually any good or not. This kind of thing has been done before and we should ask whether the box of goodies adds anything to the reading experience, becomes an inherent part of it, or whether it possibly detracts from its impact.

I'm being a bit unfair there. Not to Ware, but to you because I'm making it sound like I might start criticising this amazing work when in fact I love it. I loved it when it arrived via courier and I removed it from the world's largest jiffy bag. I actually hugged it to my chest once I had it in my hands. I then spent several weeks working my way through it at a leisurely pace, rationing myself to make sure that I didn't rush through it and find myself bereft too soon. I won't say it was a joy to read, anyone who has read any Ware before will now that joy isn't an emotion that appears to easily, but it was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to read it before anyone else's opinion appeared, savouring each section and allowing the work to come together in my own mind in the way I had happened to assemble it through the choices I made in which booklet to read next. This is the most remarkable thing about it. It has no set beginning or end and it is up to the reader to decide which order they read things in. If it is true that we impose a narrative on our own lives then the really revolutionary thing about this graphic work is that we the reader impose the structure of the narrative onto the lives of its three main characters. How we read about them and the order in which we do so cannot help but alter the way in which we experience their stories and so each reader is going to experience the book in a different way, something that would be true of any book of course but even more so with this one that doesn't determine the way in which the reader might read it. But the fact that there is no set order doesn't mean that there isn't an order. Reading against the strict chronology can throw up some interesting conflicts. It would for example be interesting enough to read about a woman who desperately wants a child and who finally achieves it but it's even more interesting to read about a woman struggling with the realities of motherhood and then to see how much she desired it in the past.

Building Stories focuses on a three-storey building in Chicago. It has three main tenants beginning with the old lady who owns it on the ground floor, a couple breaking apart on the first floor and woman who longs to be a mother on the top floor. Ware doesn't stop there, he also gives us two comics dedicated to 'Branford, the Best Bee in the World', a worker bee who tries to be a good husband even whilst he fantasises desperately about having it off with the queen. He also allows the building itself to become a character, not in the usual literary sense that reviewers are fond of noting to show how well written a location or locale might be but in a very real sense; the building is given a voice, it narrates the odd panel, intrigued by its inhabitants having seen so many come and go.

I don't really want to say to much about the trajectories of the main characters but for those unfamiliar with Ware's work it might be worth mentioning some of his preoccupations. The spinster on the ground floor spends much of her time thinking about the past of course, providing a link with the building's own beginnings and a different era in Chicago. She isn't the only though. The woman on the first floor who has such an abusive relationship with her boyfriend naturally thinks back to when they were happier and she felt more attractive. Even the woman on the top floor, who eventually comes to dominate the piece as the main protagonist, who seems to be so forward thinking with her wishes for the future cannot help but look back on her past relationships and family life even at the very moment that she begins to achieve some of what she has always longed for. She will eventually move out to the suburbs with her partner and daughter but this only brings a new set of anxieties and troubles

This is not a book to be reading if you're at a low ebb. Let us be very clear about that. Ware's world view makes for pretty depressing reading. A friend of mine picked up a small booklet when I first unwrapped the bundle at work and started to read it. It is a narrow letterbox of a booklet that details in small panel after small panel nothing less than the spiritual vexation of motherhood. It is a tough thing read even though it contains very little to actually 'read', leaving you exhausted and heavy by the end and like you need a lie down. My friend handed it back almost shaking her head, very unsure of what it was she had just experienced (she is a mother herself) but certain I think that she wouldn't be rushing back for more. It isn't just the format of this book that requires time of the reader but the content of it too. It isn't the kind of book that you're going to want to rush through, it takes time to absorb the detail of each page, the aesthetic of each section, the assimilation of the whole and even after you've finished the work in its  it's going to take some time to process. Once you've done that though I think you're actually going to want to read it again. How does he do that?!

I said at the beginning that we should be careful not to just say 'Ooh, pretty' and proclaim this as a work of genius before looking a little deeper at the content. If you will accept from me that there is plenty of content to be getting stuck into then we can now go back and praise this book for how damn good-looking it is too. Yes, it has been beautifully produced; yes, you are going to want to handle all of it an awful lot; yes, you are going to spend every minute required to read the painfully small text on some pages and follow some of the equally small panels on their waltz around the page. The construction of some pages, the eye for detail and symmetry, the architecture of the comic itself is breathtaking at times. There are several large double-page spreads which will take a good reading session to take in and at the end of it I found myself actually sighing with contentment, even at the same time as I might be wincing with regret and pain at what I had just read. The sheer number of hours that must have gone into making this book are perfectly reflected in the hours of enjoyment that you will receive in reading it. That is a rare occurrence in the graphic medium, where all too often the long stretch of an artist's endeavours can be flicked through in a matter of minutes so that even if we really enjoy them it is hard to really savour them.

I also questioned in my review of The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone where we might find the graphic work that utilised modern technology in its production. Ware's work isn't using any boundary breaking technology in its execution but it does engage with the modern world and its use of technology. Mobile phones, text messages, laptops, e-readers and tablets all make an appearance but so too does the loneliness and isolation that accompanies them. He shows the absurdity of couple sat opposite each other, each focused on their own screen, their faces illuminated by the glow that emanates from them. He shows the impossibility of reading tone in text communication and the huge frustration that often lies disguised behind it. There is a heartbreaking section in which our heroine stands naked before her partner, the awkwardness of her nakedness and the fact that this is something of a pre-arranged assignation based on the daily timetable of a pair of parents with a short gap in their responsibilities made even more acute by the fact that her partner (himself lying naked on the bed with his penis lying flaccidly on his thigh) is so wrapped up in the cool glow of his iPad that he hasn't noticed her standing there at all.

If you've read Ware before then this is probably on your Christmas list already but if it isn't or if you're reading this with an interest in his work or in graphic novels in general then do yourself a favour and get it on there. You can buy it from today for less than twenty pounds. That is bonkers, frankly. It's a beautifully made thing that would be worth the money even if the content wasn't as good as it is, but the fact that Ware shows once again that he's an innovator of the form, able to direct the eye around the page quite unlike anyone else, and that he puts so much of the decision making power into the reader's hands is probably the biggest gift of all. Treat yourself, or someone else. It even comes ready-boxed.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

'all my etc'

To have been so intimate with Kitty Flinch had been a pressure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
'Yes,' she said. 'Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely.'

I really meant to read this some time ago. When I saw details of a novel with an intro from Tom McCarthy my ears pricked up. Then came a glowing review from Mr Self in the Guardian. I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until its Booker long-listing that I finally took the plunge and how frustrating not to have read and enjoyed it sooner. What would have been even cooler than reading it nice and early, before the other plaudits arrived, would have been to be amongst the names printed within the cover as supporters who brought the novel to publication. Publisher And Other Stories uses a subscription model you see, helping to show that there is a market and support for a title before it goes into print, and each of those subscribers will see their name printed at the back of the titles they have helped bring into being. That must pretty good, even more so now that the book has been short-listed too.

Anyway, before I begin to sound like a pitch for subscribers (click here for details!) let's look at the book itself. I'm thrilled to see it on the Booker list, not just as a triumph for small independent publishers but also to show that dark and challenging fiction has a place in the running for a prize that lost some of its lustre last year with the sniping about readability. In fact with a shortlist like this year's one wonders if there will still be so much clamour for the new Literature Prize. Swimming Home is the perfect rebuttal because its set up could so easily herald the kind of middle-class fare that encourages so much sniping at literature prizes and 'literary' fiction in general. Two families holiday at a villa in the hills above Nice. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are there with their 14 year-old daughter Nina. Joe is a poet, Isabel a war reporter. Their friends Mitchell and Laura run a failing shop in Euston that sells primitive weapons and African jewellery. It all sounds cosy enough but we are unseated immediately as the Jacobs come out to the pool ('more like a pond') and think they see something floating in the deep end, Joe wondering if it's a bear. This is Kitty Finch who is actually swimming naked underwater, an interloper in their midst who claims to be there due to a mix up with dates and who insinuates herself into the family's holiday. I was reminded of Ali Smith's The Accidental in which Amber was the uninvited guest on another middle-class holiday. The two books don't have much in common beyond that, but that sense of unease and the way in which a stranger can have a devastating impact on a family unit was all too familiar.

Kitty is an extraordinary creation and I found it fascinating the way a female novelist approached this provocateur in comparison to how I fear a male novelist would handle things. Yes, standing next to her 'was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating' and yes, she spends large parts of the book it would seem with very little clothes on (this same technique is often on display in British theatre where productions of new plays force some poor kid out of drama school to parade around with it all out on show because that's the only way to demonstrate youthful sexual allure, or temptation, or something or other) but whilst we might expect her allure to come from being some perfect, pert ingenue she is only ever 'almost pretty, with her narrow waist and long hair glowing in the dark, but ragged too, not far off someone begging outside a train station holding up a homeless and hungry sign.'

She had a north London accent. Her front teeth were crooked. When she wasn't stammering and blushing she looked like she'd been sculpted from wax in a dark workshop in Venice. If she was a botanist she obviously did not spend much time outside. Whoever had made her was clever. She could swim and cry and blush and say things like 'hogged it.'

These and other descriptions of her are so effective in their detail and the way in which they demonstrate how difficult the Jacobs and the other residents find dealing with her. She always seems dangerous in some way and yet we can never quite work out why. This is perhaps due to the opening page (part of which I quoted at the top of this post), a scene on a mountain road with Kitty and Joe in a car together, a scene that returns later in the book, sightly altered, taking on the feel of a dream. The reader always senses that proceedings could well career off the road and down the side of the mountain.

Joe and Isabel's marriage is in trouble and Kitty could well be the catalyst to blow things apart. Is this why Isabel insists that she stay rather than leave at the beginning of the novel? She couldn't possibly know that Kitty is in fact there because she is a huge fan of Joe's poetry and that she has brought a poem of her own, whose title is what lends this novel its own, for him to read. This writing link is so strong that Joe is convinced he can hear lines of his own poetry in what Kitty says to him. Kitty and Joe are also linked by their respective depressions, Joe having written famously about his treatment and Kitty having just come off her own medication, Seroxat. Joe puts off reading her poem for as long as he can but finally relents (we will read only snatches of it, with its repeated use of 'etc') and his reaction comes close to describing the effect of reading the novel.

To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.

There is so much hidden under the surface of the writing, just as Kitty herself was disguised under the surface of the pool when they arrived, things are alluded to, imagery and symbols are potent and interesting and each of the characters is expertly suggested by pitch-perfect detail. For the young daughter Nina this is a revolutionary moment. Fully aware of the fragile nature of her parent's marriage she is also undergoing her own transformation from child to adult and it is Kitty who assumes the role of mentor whilst the parents are distracted when Nina has her first period. In a wonderfully written scene Kitty grabs her hand and runs with her outside to the pool.

Nina could see her own shadow in the pool and in the sky at the same time. She was tall and long, there was no end to her and no beginning, her body stretched out and vast. She wanted to swim and when Kitty insisted it didn't matter about the blood, she dared herself to take off the bikini and be naked, watching her twin shadow untie the straps more bravely than the real-sized Nina actually felt. She finally jumped into the pool and hid herself in the blanket of leaves that floated in the water, not sure what to do with her new body because it was morphing into something alien and perplexing to her.

The pool is one of the most obvious symbols in the novel but what of its title and that wish as stated by Kitty to get home safely? This is where the novel feels really subversive, taking the middle-class holiday and jeopardising the ability to even escape from it unscathed. Joe, as we have learned early on, has an anglicised name, having fled occupied Poland at the age of five thus committing himself not only to 'leave no trace or trail of his existence' but also of course never to return home.

That was what his father had told him. You cannot come home. This was not something possible to know but he had to know it all the same.

A man who can never really return home, a wife hardened by reporting from fields of conflict, a daughter on the cusp of womanhood and a stranger with mixed motives. This is about as far from the comforting holiday read we might have expected before opening the cover and that is what makes the book so thrilling to read. Dark, dangerous and unknowable, this novel, like the pool at its centre with its covering of fallen leaves has hidden depths and dangers that might just make it the dark horse on this year's Booker list. I certainly hope so because it is easily my favourite of the shortlisted titles I've read.


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