Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Ali Smith’s ‘Artful’ and some paperwhites

Posted 10 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Photos

Just finished reading Ali Smith’s lovely, confusing, inspiring ‘Artful’, which I’m clearly going to have to re-read if I want to boast to people that I really ‘got it’; it’s a dense, fast-moving combination of intriguing fiction and literary criticism, and I read it as the former, not worrying too much about wringing every ounce of meaning from the many poems and quotations which pepper the text. I did pick out a few lovely things though;

“When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep. It is selfish and altruistic at the same time, and no amount of specialization in one direction quite atrophies the other”.
EM Forster

There’s lots of Katherine Mansfield in the book, and lots of trees. I never enjoyed reading DH Lawrence, but I like Mansfield’s description of his ‘Aaron’s Rod’ as a tree, “firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig”.

And there was more nature in the following, which made me think of the ‘We are the clay that grew tall’ line in Melissa Harrison’s terrific book ‘Clay’, which I talked about the other day.

“Decay is the beginning of all birth … it transforms shape and essence, the forces and virtues of nature. Just as the decay of all foods in the stomach transforms them and makes them into a pulp, so it happens outside the stomach … Decay is the midwife of very great things!”
Paracelsus

and here’s Ali Smith herself, talking about something I’ve already mentioned:

“We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe that we’ve read a book after reading it just once. Books and music share more in terms of resonance than just a present tense correlation of heard note to read word. Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”

That one’s pertinent.

-

I took this photograph of a bunch of paperwhites secured with twine.

Review; Clay by Melissa Harrison

Posted 04 Jan 2013 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

Just finished reading Melissa Harrison’s lovely first novel, ‘Clay’, and wanted to pen a few thoughts while it’s still fresh in my mind. ‘Clay’ is a terrifically beautiful book, a quiet, sensitive portrayal of the lives of a small cast of slightly lonely, slightly constrained protagonists, and their development over the course of a half year in a South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

Familiar because Harrison has a good grasp of the plain-sight city – “nail bars, chicken parlours, newsagents, mobile phone unlocking, cheap calls to Africa”, and exotic because she populates the city with a bewildering cast of living things which our eyes are either untrained to see or disposed to miss; dog foxes, bats, sticky goosegrass and evergreen choisya, butterflies, greenflies and stag beetles, swifts, starlings, and plane trees shedding flakes of polluted bark. Harrison’s prose is poetic but hyper-observant, always sensing new movement in the nearby undergrowth, or a pair of eyes watching high in a tree.

All five of the novel’s main characters see more of this hidden city than I (regrettably) do, and are to a smaller or greater extent drawn towards the area’s liminal places – the parts of London in which pockets of extraordinary life are concealed, yet continue to thrive – and in particular to a small park near Tooting Common, which becomes the space in which they meet and interact. At the centre is TC, whose story of neglect is painfully sad but whose resourcefulness and passion for nature is a rebuke to his coddled, careless peers. Around him Harrison conjures a story quite free of sensationalism or sentimentality, but which is quietly gripping and somewhat inspiring.

The clay of the title refers to a phrase recalled from childhood – ‘we are the clay that grew tall’, which resonates through the novel; TC is a child ‘on intimate terms with the earth’. Jozef, an exile from Poland, mourns the physical properties of the farm he grew up on. Sophia, growing old on a council estate her family have left, does her best to disrupt the order which the council wish to impose upon the wedge-shaped park she has watched over for decades, her pockets bulging with papery bulbs.

‘Clay’ is a very satisfying read; a serious book which evokes important topics like innocence, companionship and trust, but which is driven forward by the author’s obvious, intimate connection with nature.

Very pleased that it’s the first thing I read in 2013; it’s a short, brilliant novel that makes me want to rush out into the woods.

Review; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Posted 18 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

As usual I’m working my way through the Booker Prize shortlist, and while I’ve not read the whole lot yet, I’ve been very much stopped in my tracks by ‘Swimming Home’, the new novel by Deborah Levy, which – while a short read – has resonated at the edge of my thoughts constantly since I finished it a few days ago.

The book is as clean and clear as the ringing of a bell, but quietly and meticulously poetic, full of beautiful language and deeply visual storytelling. Set around a holiday villa in the south of France, where the warm sun seems to stir a mild fever, it conjures up a series of unforgettable images – from the sight of a naked girl swimming resembling a bear, to a boy emerging from a wall, and a centipede examined clambering out of a bucket. A very middle class English family – the Jacobs – holiday abroad with friends and get tangled up with Kitty Finch, a provocative and very cinematic agent of change, who pulls and tears at the delicate conventions of the family. And Levy is a truly superb writer, distracting the reader so with her style that the plot twists, when they come, left me startled, uneasy.

Levy’s characters are on the precipice of self-discovery but numbed, needing the disruptive power of Kitty Finch to shake them up. Of Isabel Jacob, a foreign correspondent unable to reconcile her life as a journalist and a mother, Levy writes, “If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to”. Her husband, Joe, seems at first blithe and unfeeling, but his crime of conscience is deliberate forgetting. Kitty, who shares aspects of his past he tries to ignore, stirs him to action. But as each character attempts to guide proceedings, their lack of control is made apparent, and things spiral out of hand. Levy’s handling of this approaching chaos is masterly. It’s truly a very lovely book.

I raced through this in two or three hours, and knew immediately on finishing that it would merit a re-read. Oddly, I’m impatient to finish the rest of the shortlist so that I might get back to it.

A real winner. Hopefully – in terms of the Booker Prize – literally.

On Roald Dahl Day

Posted 17 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Observations, Share

It was Roald Dahl Day last Thursday; like everyone my age (and probably a great many people younger and older), Dahl left an indelible mark on me during my childhood; particularly with The BFG, The Witches and Matilda, all three of which I can remember being published (the first only hazily). But of course there’s much to love in the earlier books too, for example in Danny The Champion Of The World, which is lovely on the relationship between a boy and his father, particularly the pride the child takes in his father’s powerful knowledge of the world.

In a passage which has since been successfully (and lovingly) lampooned by the fantastic Adam Buxton, (here), Dahl captures that wonder.

I really loved those morning walks to school with my father. We talked practically the whole time. Mostly it was he who talked and I who listened, and just about everything he said was fascinating. He was a true countryman. The fields, the streams, the woods and all the creatures who lived in these places were a part of his life. Although he was a mechanic by trade and a very fine one, I believe he could have become a great naturalist if only he had had a good schooling.

Long ago he had taught me the names of all the trees and the wild flowers and the different grasses that grow in the fields. All the birds, too, I could name, not only by sighting them but by listening to their calls and their songs.

In springtime we would hunt for birds’ nests along the way, and when we found one he would lift me up on to his shoulders so I could peer into it and see the eggs. But I was never allowed to touch them.

I overheard a nice exchange on the train today, which offered up a nice insight into modern day parenting. A young, mop-headed boy sat with his father on the 5.21 from Chichester to Brighton. He looked up and asked his dad a question.

“Dad, what’s the speed of light?”

I smiled to  myself, suspecting (rightly) that his father wouldn’t know the answer offhand (I don’t either, sadly). It felt like a slightly sad moment to me – the son still too young to realise that adults don’t have all the answers.

But the father did something very clever. Instead of immediately replying, he engaged his son in conversation, asking him what made him want to know that, and generally talked confidently around the subject while he quickly tapped into his mobile phone. When – only moments later – Google provided him with the answer, he was able to very naturally say,

“Well, anyway – the speed of light is around 700 miles an hour”.

The illusion was allowed to stand – Dad as the oracle and the font of knowledge. Very sweet, and rather lovely. I hope that illusion can be maintained a bit longer.

But then the boy looked up and said,

“OK. But how fast is that?

A contraception joke for publishers

Posted 24 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books

I’m enjoying reading André Schiffrin’s excellent ‘Words & Money’, which provides a very lucid, if somewhat European, take on the current publishing industry. It’s actually quite funny, too, although in a way which will make any editor shift a little uncomfortably in his or her seat.

“The pressure is to produce fewer books, concentrating on those with the highest sales potential, eliminating vast areas that used to be the hallmark of many of these houses. In the past I have joked that publishers progressed from infanticide, neglecting the new books that show no sales promise, to abortion, cancelling existing contracts of books no longer thought to be financially worthwhile. The goal now is contraception, preventing such titles from ever entering the process at all”.

*grim laugh*

Review; ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted 01 May 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

On holiday in Lisbon last week I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent ‘The Marriage Plot’, a breezy, thoughtful rumination on changing times and destinies; the marriage novel of the 18th and 19th centuries told afresh in the 1980s, with pre-nups, divorces, and post-modernism thrown in. It was a very good read. Despite his being widely admired, I’d not read either of Eugenides previous books, and came to this relatively fresh, without the burden of having read much contemporary US fiction in recent years, either (I’ll come back when they start writing shorter novels again).

A good writer can rarely go wrong with a campus novel, and that’s exactly how ‘The Marriage Plot’ starts out; we observe three young undergraduates who seem to immerse themselves in pretty much the typical university experience, with the exception that their thirst for knowledge (and limitless appetite for semiotics) felt a little romanticised (or perhaps Eugenides really was that boring at university). The Barthes quotes aside, it’s a familiar story; the vacillating relationship between 3 people; the naive, romantic lead (Madeleine Hanna), the brilliant hunk (Leonard Bankhead) and the introverted, love-struck friend (Mitchell Grammaticus).

The novel really takes off, however, when the three graduate and begin to negotiate those notoriously horrible post-university years. It’s a trite and oft-repeated observation that people go to university to ‘find themselves’, but the reverse, is true – university is what one does while putting the revelations off. It’s when you’re out, directionless and removed, that the real self-discovery takes place, and so it is for our uncertain, tentative leads. Leonard is forced to face his severe depression; Mitchell his spiritual yearning. And Madeleine slowly learns to define herself as her own person – as a Victorianist (this is a novel studded with literary references) and as a woman. It’s well observed stuff, and Leonard’s manic depression feels extraordinarily well described.

It’s not without its flaws; Madeleine’s literary heroines were so remarkable not because of the ingenious ways in which they resolved their own marriage plots, but because they drew marvellously detailed, revelatory portraits of their young leads. We never quite get to know Madeleine, and Mitchell’s travels are largely fruitless. Perhaps this is deliberate; Eugenides seems to contend that the modern marriage – and perhaps the modern life – can never mean as much when all is no longer at stake; and so there is drifting, irony and indecisiveness where in Austen there is purpose, razor sharp satire and principle. Mistakes are still painful, but perhaps less decisive.

None of that prevents ‘The Marriage Plot’ from being a great coming of age novel, and very readable indeed. Eugenides employs a largely conventional style, with the exception of a few judicious liberties with the timeline, and he knows how to drive the reader forward. I was, personally, just a little disappointed with the ending, despite it making sense in a literary context. Nevertheless, it was a great read, and had one glorious side effect for which I thank it – it made me want to go back to a few literary classics I’d not really considered re-reading (including some stuff I hated at the time). I won’t be reaching for Roland Barthes any time soon, but love of literature bleeds from the pages of this excellent book, and I feel a bit infected.

Christine Brooke-Rose, part one

Posted 30 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books

I don’t think I was an especially critical English literature student when, many years ago, I was an undergraduate at Sussex University. I certainly didn’t spend much time studying theory or semiotics – as the central characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot ceaselessly seem to do – or spend time agonising over the death of the author (despite being endlessly encouraged to do so). I didn’t challenge the consensus which favoured one superb author over another, or spend too long working on my (probably facile) theory that Salinger, Fitzgerald and DH Lawrence were over-rated. But I did always find the fact of the accepted canon a bit odd, and it’s perhaps for that reason that I’ve spent a great deal of time since university picking up books by authors of whom I had never heard. I like and have always liked the concept of discovering authors who, for one reason or another, popular lit-crit has ignored.

I’m no expert, of course, but given how much time I spend in second hand bookshops, and given that I probably buy and read more novels by women with old-fashioned names that I do by anyone else, I was a bit surprised that when an obituary appeared recently in The Guardian for an English, 20th century female novelist who achieved a little aclaim for her short, experimental novels (but little lasting fame), the name didn’t ring any bells. The author was Christine Brooke-Rose, who died late in March at the age of 88. The Guardian described her as ‘marvellously playful and difficult’; Stuart Jeffries goes on…

Britain has all but airbrushed one of its most radical exponents of experimental fiction… Many critics hailed her fiction, for all that it was sometimes scarcely comprehensible or pleasurable to those ignorant of the underpinning theory. Ellen G Friedman put Brooke-Rose among those 20th-century experimental female writers – Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein – whose novels “explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative”. Brooke-Rose wrote 16 novels, five collections of criticism and several collections of short stories and poems. Frank Kermode considered that her originality and skills deserved “a greater measure of admiration and respect than we have so far chosen to accord them”.

Well – difficult novels are often a total chore, but her stuff sounds really interesting. I’m just about to start reading her breakthrough novel, ‘Out’ which is ‘narrated by a white character facing racial discrimination in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with pale skin now indicating radiation poisoning and dark skin health’. Will report back.

Review; Stephen King, 11.22.63.

Posted 08 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Having been sufficiently intrigued by way of a couple of very complimentary Guardian reviews, I’ve just finished my first Stephen King since I read his ‘Gerald’s Game’ in 1992 (I read his ‘Needful Things’ the year before – that was the last one I really enjoyed).

Catching up on his activity in the press, it seems that over the course of the last few years, King has broadened his palate slightly with long, somewhat portentous concept-novels which serve to satirise and philosophise rather more than they need to thrill. 2009’s ‘Under The Dome’ was a vast tract primarily concerned with ecological trauma and authoritarian government, and had its origins in a novel which King started and abandoned in the 1970s. His latest, ‘11.22.63’, interestingly, comes from the same place. In 1971, eight years after the assassination of JFK, King visualised a time-travel novel which saw a ordinary American travel back and battle with an obdurate, stubborn past to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from carrying out his dreadful actions. He wrote Carrie, instead (good move).

Now he has finally written this book, a vast exercise in time-travel sci-fi, late 1950s nostalgia and historical fiction, and it’s hard to believe that, had he written it 41 years ago, it would have been as self-indulgent and plodding as his 2011 effort. By the same token it’s possible, on the evidence of the first couple of hundred pages here, that a fresher King might have produced something rather great, because for all that much of ‘11.22.63’ is saggy, schmaltzy, slow and oddly unrevealing, King’s ingenious talent for plotting often shines through.

The problem’s with this novel are largely King’s. His recent interest in state-of-the-nation writing means that early in the process of structuring this novel, he clearly made the decision to give over at least 50% of the plot of his grand concept to irrelevant riffing – sentimental nostalgia, a horribly dull love story which nearly breaks the middle of the book, and, somewhat misleadingly, a very decent, Maine-based sub-plot which, placed near the beginning of the book reads like a completely superior practice run for the main section.

The start of the book, you see, really is terrific. Pacy, taut, urgent and playful, the arrival of Jake Epping, through a ‘rabbit-hole’ in time, in a sun-kissed 1958 and his subsequent investigations into the obstinacy of reality reads brilliantly. Where the novel falls apart, sadly, is at the point where Epping heads to Dallas to stop Oswald and then decides, er, not to. Not for a few years anyway. Instead he (or rather King) luxuriates in some sentimentalised nostalgia in the fictional town of ‘Jodie’ and gets laid a bit by a hot librarian. He works on a school play. He works on a crime novel.

I shit you not. For a couple of hundred pages in the middle of this huge book, nothing happens – but maddeningly King, now so deep into his plotless sub-plot, seems to forget that nostalgia must evoke, whether directly or through insinuation, the feeling of a bygone age. But once his protagonist heads South, King stops describing things, people and places and instead meanders through the inner thoughts of his rather dull narrator. The long passages describing high school life in 50s America could be transposed onto a classroom in the 1990s or 2000s with the minimum of effort. There are precious few allusions to race or civil rights – King spends more time bemoaning how inconvenient it was having to rent a motel in the 50s to get a shag. (Incidentally, King was 11 in 1958 – I like to think this section of the book is autobiographical and he was already taking librarians to motel rooms on school nights).

As you’d expect, the book picks up pace towards the story’s dénouement, and King is skilled enough to write in such a way as to drive the reader inexorably forward. With good thrillers I often race through paragraphs, only half-reading, so desperate am I to find out the ending. Such activity is quite possible with ‘11.22.63’, because there’s nothing in the paragraphs towards the end. When King eventually gets us to the sniper’s nest, it’s described so casually it might be any room in any building in any decade of the twentieth century. It seems extraordinary that a location so central to the American Story does not elicit more poetry.

The problem isn’t that King can’t write. There are plenty of great moments in this book, but it’s overlong, desperately uneven and curiously lacking in original thought, given that it’s a concept that has been cooking in King’s brain for over 40 years. One can only assume it got overcooked, dried out like a mistimed turkey – which is, of course, exactly what it is.

Shame, because I really wanted to like this. Grab it from the library and read the first couple of hundred pages, if the concept interests you, and stop when Jake heads down to Dallas.

Bit of advice, there.

Wuthering Heights, review (and a bit on M. Amis)

Posted 25 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Just read an an interesting article by Martin Amis, where he posits that:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.

He makes some valid points – it’s hard, even for ardent admirers of a particular author, to argue that every work is of equal standing, and there’s something slightly false, I suppose, about insisting that we judge Shakespeare only on the standard of his very greatest plays. But I’m not sure that Amis’s point isn’t somewhat of an oversimplification – granted one cannot love every work equally, but being able to rank them according to their quality does not been cutting the less loved adrift simply because others are more perfect. I think that Amis’s ‘The Rachel Papers’ is a terrific book – the fact that ‘Money’ is much better does not prevent me loving both.

(That said, I decidedy don’t love ‘Night Train’, ‘Yellow Dog’ or ‘The Information’, – few do – so perhaps Amis’ conceit is self-serving. It would certainly provide a happy explanation as to why so few people profess to like only 50% of his backlist – rather than admitting to an observable decline in quality only partially remedied by ‘The Pregnant Widow’. I’m being mean – Amis is wonderful).

Good writing is not a race, anyway, and there are no winners or losers, unless you care who wins the Booker prize. Nevertheless, for me Amis does get a couple of things right – not all Don DeLillo’s stuff is as good as ‘White Noise’ or ‘Libra’ (‘Underworld’ certainly isn’t – bravura opening apart what a chore that book was, for all the hype) and ‘Middlemarch’, despite being Eliot’s only great book, is indeed the central Anglophone novel – certainly the one I judge all others against. We part, however, Martin and I, over Jane Austen; not in the sense that we don’t both love her, but in that he attributes flaws to ‘Persuasion’ – which is madness, and that’s the end of it.

Talking of classics, It’s such a long time since I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ that my memories of it are somewhat hazy, and I suspect not entirely to be trusted – I was an ardent admirer as a young teenager of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, which gives some indication of my tastes. I remember liking Bronte’s book very much at the time, although I didn’t react as strongly as many of my peers – and like most I felt conflicted about Heathcliff without actually finding it very difficult to hate him.

Andrea Arnold’s new film adaptation of WH, starring Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave, aims to put that right by centring on Heathcliff’s perspective, reframing his behaviour in light of nature vs. nurture, and rendering his actions explicable in that context. It’s beautifully shot in 16mm (and framed in 4:3) and the first half was absolutely bewitching.

For all that Arnold (who previously directed the remarkable Red Road and lovely Fish Tank) is thought of as an art-house director, she has made a very unpretentious Wuthering Heights (far less self conscious than Jane Campion’s Keats flick, Bright Star) which makes full use of the dank, dark Yorkshire moors. It only fails, sadly, when she hands over to adult leads, asking James Howson and Kaya Scodelario to cary the final third having done precious little to establish a sympathetic relationship with the audience (meaning that the empathy which Glave earned as a troubled, far-from-home Heathcliff is largely squandered). It’s a shame that a film so visually arresting and beautifully mapped should fall apart on the back of a very odd decision (to replace two actors in their late teens with two in their early 20s), and instructive to note that even a plot as violently emotional as Wuthering Heights turns mawkish when you don’t have a feel for the characters.

Again, this is strictly a criticism of the last third – the scenes featuring the younger actors were hugely involving, but in Howson and Scodelario’s scenes I was reminded of the interminable yelling-into-the-wind scenes which blighted another recent big screen period drama – Anh Hung Tran’s emo take on Murakami’s Norweigan Wood. A shame – but not one which, ultimately, subtracts too much from the film; by the time the actors hand over you’ve already seen a brilliant production and, seeing as Arnold made the decision to only film 50% of the novel, I see no reason why I can’t draw a veil over a slightly underwhelming ending. If Amis is only taking 50% of Austen, I can take 50% of this.

Arnold is a very special director, and at the very least, she’s made me want to re-read Wuthering Heights, and re-assess Heathcliff, that old and compelling enigma.

The Impossible Dead

Posted 22 Nov 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Today I finished reading Ian Rankin’s latest, The Impossible Dead, and rattled through it at a pace I rarely manage with other books – a trend I’ve observed in all of his work since I first came across it a few years back.

The thing with Rankin’s great creation, Rebus, was that he was such an extraordinarily strong character that it became easy to assume that Rankin’s triumph was purely in conjuring him up, rather than writing beautiful prose. And conventionally, he’s not a beautiful writer, in terms of poetics, but his new character, Malcolm Fox, is the opposite of Rebus; quiet, sober, a follower of rules – and yet his exploits in the Edinburgh Complaints division have proved equally superb; evidence that it is dense plotting, razor-sharp exposition and, after all, beautiful writing, that seperates Rankin from his peers.

Because his writing is beautiful – not high-falutin or florid, but beautiful to the extent that it is perfectly judged. Rankin knows exactly when to cover back story, how to handle competing storylines, how much of his central characters to show and how much to conceal. On the face of it, Malcolm Fox is not a fascinating man; but he becomes fascinating in his completeness, by virtue of the plausibility of his actions.

If The Impossible Dead has a weakness – and it does – it’s that in the end Rankin can not resist the urge to tie up the story neatly. But that aside, he manages to make a story which weaves together local police drama, high SNP politics, bureaucracy and seperatist terror seem completely plausible. The stories he tells are grand in scope, but minute in execution – and that makes him a terribly good writer. I don’t think The Impossible Dead is Rankin’s best – Exit Music is his finest, I think – but he’s one of the finest plotters in English fiction and a master at executing a story. Great stuff.

The Sisters Brothers, review

Posted 25 Sep 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books

Just finished the excellent ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt – which is one of a couple of Booker nominated novels which has stirred a fraction of controversy up by virtue of not being totally unreadable. It is, it’s true, a terrifically easy read; a dry, deadpan, blackly humourous Western which achieves by deftness of prose and a pair of really wonderful characters (three if you include, Tub, the unfortunate horse) a rollicking momentum despite only cantering up towards it’s plot in the last third.

The book is a road story; Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of sibling assassins, make their way to California in the gold-rush 1850s, set to kill a man on behalf of their boss, “the Commodore”. On their way they encounter a cast of surreal, broken and half-mad characters, and Eli – who is our narrator – muses on his more violent and unpredictable brother, his own feelings of remorse, and on his counter-balancing moments of savagery, where everything goes ‘black and narrow’.

They reach San Francisco, a circus of madness (deliciously described by DeWitt). It is a ‘great, greedy heart’, the natural endpoint to the country’s mad dash for gold and riches. It is here he reaches his decision. This killing, he announces, is to be his last.

My attitude about this decision was that it would be the last bit of bloodshed for my foreseeable future, if not the rest of my life; I told Charlie this and he told me that if the thought brought me comfort I should embrace it. ‘But,’ he said, ‘you’re forgetting about the Commodore.’

‘Oh, yes. Well, after him then.’

Charlie paused. ‘And there will likely be some killing related to the Commodore’s death. Accusations leveled, debts owed, that sort of thing. Could be quite bloody, in fact.’

I thought, Then this will be the final era of killing in my lifetime.

The writing is beautiful in places, but this is a spare, wry, and bloody story. The quick-fire exchanges between Charlie and Eli demonstrate expert verbal dexterity, and Eli’s tenderness towards his wounded horse (and his complicated brother) is deeply touching – but essentially this book is a delicious meander through set-piece and character, a set of parables robbed of moral clarity. I finished the book feeling genuinely sorry to have left the brothers behind.

At only a couple of hundred pages, it’s a Booker novel you’ll race through in a weekend – a precious thing indeed.

Enter the flipback

Posted 18 Apr 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books

I’m a little troubled that mankind, for all it’s ingenuity, has only just thought this up. The flipback is a new book design based on the Dwarsligger, a tiny pocket-sized book format which is becoming very popular in the Netherlands and which promises a more compact, efficient reading experience. Rather than turning from right to left, the flipback is turned from bottom to top; watch the vid for an example.

And, well – clearly it isn’t actually better than a normal-sized book, and those of us working in the publishing industry are spending rather more of our attention worrying about ebooks than we are new ways of delivering with paper – but the video makes reading via flipback look like a pretty convenient experience. I spent a bit of time on the underground last week and didn’t much enjoy standing on the platform with my iPad held up in front of me. The kindle may be better – and a conventional paperback better still – but the flipback looks pretty great for me, when thinking of mobile reading.

Here’s the link to the Dwarsligger site. And here are the first batch of flipbacks launching in the UK – via Hodder.

The oldest Norman church in Sussex

Posted 09 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Daft, Observations, Share

Me, Ant and Dan went up to the South Downs at the weekend for a bit of film-making, a pub lunch and a scoot around Devil’s Dyke on Ant’s new moped. We mooched up there mid morning, with Brighton still in its winter doldrums – chilly and grey. By the time we got to Bramber castle, we were in the midst of what felt increasingly like Sussex’s first legitimate spring day; a kind of mellow haze resting over the landscape, breached and gradually dominated by a dazzling blue sky and, between gusts of chill wind, stabs of warmth. We sat on the ruined walls of the castle then strolled around St Nicholas’ chapel, a neat, Norman church dating back to 1073, and hovered by the porch chatting.

Then, up on the dyke, we struggled with Ant’s new moped, and I fell heroically from it into a patch of cold mud on my first and only spin. It was oddly invigorating, but perhaps only because no harm was done. I wiped my hands down on a grassy verge and studied my palms on the drive home, the caked mud exposing the complexity of principal lines, ridges and wrinkles. The view from Devil’s Dyke, lest you forget, is utterly dazzling, from the Clayton windmills to the cricket pitch at Poynings, from the fringes of Ashdown Forest to the hill fort at Chanctonbury Ring. But I like the view back home just as much, in different ways – Brighton glowing orange, nestling between the A27 and the sea.

Incidentally – I attended Pecha Kucha in Brighton on Saturday night, and heard for the first time of Pegasaurus books, which is a new publishing start up specialising in books by and for Sussex residents. They’ve only published a couple of books thus far, but they’ve published an Eco Guide to Sussex and an anthology of local poetry. I’ve not seen the actual books yet, but they might be worth a look. More info here.

Here are a couple of photos from the Dyke – blue sky and white.


On Ian McEwan’s Solar

Posted 06 Jan 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

Whereas I watched and really enjoyed Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Whatever Works, the other day – surprised at myself for enjoying it as much as I did, after sniffy reviews – I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, Solar, at the start of this week with mounting irritation and impatience. Both artists are undoubtedly past their critical peak, and can be relied upon to provide only nostalgic echoes of their early, brilliant work – but I find Allen (the most loudly criticized of the two) and his predictable later films much more lovable than McEwan and his recent novels. Both retain their primary skill – Allen holds on to the ability to riff his way through familiar scenes, and McEwan retains his to paint impressive set-pieces – but only McEwan continues to strive for importance, persisting in state of the nation novels of ever-decreasing relevance.

Whatever Works finds Allen back, figuratively, in the Manhattan of his 70s and 80s pictures. McEwan’s latest recalls his slightest (but not his worst) work, Amsterdam, and works perfectly well when it is an arch comic novel in the mold of Malcolm Bradbury or Kingsley Amis. But his book hinges around the half-way mark and, as McEwan attempts to ramp up the farce, falls apart just as its author is busying himself tying loose ends. The end is as badly written and contrived as any book you’ll find.

What I continue to like about Woody Allen’s films, slight and rushed though they certainly are, is the neatness of scope with which Allen contends himself. Taken as short stories, rather than novels, they are terrific little pieces. A late period Woody Allen (with the exception of the terrible Match Point), if it was presented as an indie by an up and coming director, would be received with delight. Conversely, it’s my sense that a late period McEwan would barely make it out of the sluice pile, were it submitted by a less prestigious author.

Central to Solar‘s failure is McEwan’s decision to frame the narrative through a character who is both fundamentally unlikeable and also lacking any of the redeeming features which made Martin Amis’s John Self – for example – so compelling. Michael Beard, a self-absorbed, philandering scientist who stumbles into a figurehead role in the climate change movement, grows in grotesqueness throughout, until by the end it’s just depressing reading of his plight. McEwan – who we can ordinarily count on not to be sentimental – even allows Beard a shot at belated redemption on his final page, prompting a cry of dismay from this reader.

There aren’t even really any beautiful passages; unforgivable for a writer of McEwan’s power. And for all his manifold talents, displayed so luminously in the early stages of his career, he’s never been funny. At times Solar, a profoundly unfunny comic novel, seems to be begging laughs from its audience. They never come.

Solar does, actually, have it’s virtues. It’s colourful in its first half, and McEwan does a commendable job at integrating climate science into the narrative without losing pace or changing tack. But Beard is never troubled by his moral responsibilities – as adulterer, as plagiarist, as coward. As I approached the end – I salute McEwan’s technical skill – I felt the same frantic urgency to reach the denouement I do with all his books; but also an eagerness to get it finished, put it down, go to the next book. I remember the feeling of finishing McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, many years ago, in a pub, and feeling like I’d been punched, grief-stricken that the novel was over.

For me and McEwan, I fear, those days have passed.

Jeff Lewis, Mosquito Mass Murderer

Posted 05 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

Just seen the totally amazing Jeffrey Lewis play live at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe; more to come later, but couldn’t resist sharing a recording I made of his unexpected (but very charming) foray into rap; this is ‘Mosquito Mass Murderer’.

Jeff Lewis - Mosquito Mass Murderer (right click to download, or click to listen).

On the offchance that you’re reading this in New York, can I just recommend The Housing Works Bookstore as the most amazing place. Fantastic collection of books, lovely beer, great events (I watched the election results come in there on Wednesday too) and most importantly, it’s all for a great cause; an entirely voluntary business where all proceeds go to homeless men, women, and children living with HIV and AIDS in New York City and beyond.

Packing for Mars

Posted 25 Aug 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Links

This article, in Seed Magazine, is really amazing; an examination of “irrational antagonism”, the many tensions which interfere in the personal relationships between astronauts when isolated, out in space, together for anything more than about six weeks. It’s a terrifically well written piece, and gets at some unavoidable truths about humanity, isolation, and rootlessness.

“The bottom line is that space is a frustrating, unforgiving environment and you are trapped in it. If you’re trapped long enough, frustration metastasizes to anger. Anger wants an outlet and a victim. An astronaut has three from which to choose: a crewmate, mission control, and himself.”

The article is an extract from Mary Roach’s terrific looking book, Packing For Mars, a study of space exploration which is really an exploration of “what it means to be human”. Her writing is beautiful and her conclusions – if this extract is anything to go by – could well be profound. Even for those not looking for recondite insights, there is much to enjoy in her description of the Russian cosmonauts she spends time with.

Laveikin looks little changed from his official portrait, where he conveys an impression of guileless good cheer. He kisses our hands as though we’re royalty. It’s neither affectation nor flirtation, just something that Russian men of his era were taught to do. He wears beige linen pants, an exuberant splash of cologne, and the cream-colored summer footwear I’ve been seeing all week on the feet of the men across from me in the Metro.

Laveikin waves hello to a narrow-girdled, suntanned man in jeans, with sunglasses hooked in the vee of his shirt collar. It’s Romanenko. He is cordial, but not a hand kisser. Cigarette smoke has roughed up his vocal cords. The two embrace. I count the seconds. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three. Whatever happened between them, it’s forgotten or forgiven.

Someone needs to buy the movie rights to this book – as the likes of Solaris and Moon have demonstrated, there is much that can be said about humanity through the fiction of space. In Packing For Mars, Mary Loach seems to be composing a journalistic response no less elegant or thought-provoking. I’m pre-ordering a copy.

The generosity of Tony Blair

Posted 17 Aug 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Islam and the Middle East, Politics

Right. There are a good many things wrong with Tony Blair, and a good many reasons why for me, and a lot of my fellow travellers in the Labour Party, he is viewed with suspicion and even revulsion in some quarters. He is an enormously talented politician, and he did some truly great things as Prime Minister (the minimum wage, Northern Ireland, intervention in Kosovo and Sierre Leone) and much which I disapproved of too (creeping privatisation, the failure to address inequality, allowing rendition, ID cards and 48 Days).

Since he left office he has appeared to many interested onlookers to be exploiting his position as ex-PM for personal gain (cf, his involvement with JPMorgan, his preoccupation with the lecture circuit, and particularly his relationship with the UI Energy Corporation, which has oil interests in Northern Iraq). He has been a diligent Peace Envoy to the Middle East, but his track record in the area provokes concerns that his authority is weak. I was distinctly unimpressed with his advocacy of confronting Iran militarily, and his abject failure to convey any regret over the Iraq debacle at the Chilcot Enquiry. When, a few days ago, I read how much money Blair was rumoured to be making through his memoirs, I felt unsurprised that he should prioritise such endeavours – his attitude towards power and wealth has always seemed unhealthy.

However, Blair proved me wrong and his donating the full proceeds of his book (which will amount to well over £5m) is a fine gesture and one for which he should be applauded. I now find myself, in the face of a torrent of cynicism from the mainstream press, forced to defend him, and clarify my position towards him. Most papers today ask the rhetorical question “generous gesture or guilty conscience?” and imply his decision reflects a need to make up for past crimes. Firstly, I don’t think for a moment that Blair considers his past actions to be needing of absolution, but nor do I think his sentiment towards injured servicemen and women is false – I have no doubts that the death of so many have given him sleepless nights, as they would any Prime Minister. I suspect that there may be some political dimension to the gesture, but I don’t judge him too harshly for that given the outcomes are so positive. So why the relentless criticism?

I think it’s because it has become impossible to take a nuanced position on the Iraq war. The national mood demands a full recantation, a full rebuttal of the principle of intervention, and a rewriting of history which paints Blair’s motives as indisputedly malign. The reality is of course far more complicated – but it becomes necessary occasionally to acknowledge the complexity of an argument, rather than repeat it endlessly in the simplest terms. Like a lot of people, I instinctively do not like Tony Blair. But I need to make it clear that I do not dislike him for many of the (mostly absurd) reasons others seem to (because he is “a warmonger”, because he is a Catholic, because he is married to Cherie Booth, because he is not severe on Israel). I disapprove of the war on Iraq, but not because I think it was wrong to topple Saddam (I think that was the right thing to do) but because it was done in a way which massively destabilised the Middle East. It was the right decision made at the wrong time, by the wrong people, without due care for the consequences. But painting Blair as having ‘blood on his hands’ has become an unusable, objectionable cliché.

The decision to go to war with Iraq was misguided. The sucking up to power and influence in which Blair has indulged is indecent. And his legacy is, to say the very least, uncertain.

But we should acclaim him for this decision, not deride him for it.

Deborah Mattinson on Labour

Posted 24 Jul 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General, Politics

With all the fuss about Mandelson’s tawdry sodding diaries in the press at the moment, a confession: I couldn’t care less about the personal feuds, delusions and dramas that have fuelled the last sixteen years of British politics. Reading the self-indulgent, self-serving memoirs of cretins like Mandelson, Alistair Campbell or – shortly – Tony Blair appeals not one jot. However, I am interested in good books about politics, and this one – by Deborah Mattinson – looks quite engaging, even if does contain the words ‘A New Politics’ in the subtitle.

Mattinson was involved in polling and focus group research for Labour for over 25 years, and as such has some interesting insights into the strategies and intellectual ideas which were incubating inside the party over the last quarter of a century.

The Guardian has some interesting excerpts here, which shed some light on the Labour government we saw under Blair and Brown.

My favourite bit, mind, is the author’s observations on Labour party members:

Basically, they are all a bit weird. I mean, what they had in common wasn’t their political opinions – they covered the whole spectrum, from centre-left to far left – they weren’t united by any ideology or political belief.

No, it was that they were all slightly strange people … strange personally, I mean. They were people who really did want to spend their evenings sitting in church halls or community centres agonising over quite arcane points of detail.

And they weren’t just doing it that night, but every night – the committee for this, the committee for that, the council, whatever. They were sort of lonely and socially odd.

Ha ha, ace.

the tragedy of unpreparedness

Posted 16 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Islam and the Middle East, Politics

“Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere”, EM Forster wrote in Howard’s End, warning against “the tragedy of preparedness”. But some things must be prepared for, and it is a tragedy if they are not – they become Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. Here’s a bitter example.

From Armando Iannucci, a sorry anecdote heard in Whitehall about post-war planning.

“Donald Rumsfeld weeded out from those going to help the reconstruction of Iraq anyone who could speak Arabic, on the grounds they would be pro-Arab. As a result, it took the Americans 18 months to realise that when marines held up the flat of their hand to oncoming cars to signal them to stop, they were actually using the Iraqi hand-signal for “come forward”. That’s why so many families in cars were shot”.

Almost too appalling to contemplate – perhaps not a war crime, but a crime of negligence.

(via Chicken Yoghurt)

this cruelty called sport

Posted 13 Feb 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Daft, Photos