Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Boring Booker

They've done it again!   As Eileen Battersby says in today's Irish Times, 'in true Man Booker tradition, [Hilary] Mantel has won with an inferior work'.

The British love affair with historical fiction continues unabated and the judges have turned their backs on the astonishing work of Will Self's, Umbrella, and the no less impressive Lighthouse by Alison Moore.   No wonder the demand for European translations is rising!  Bring up the Bodies is the second book of the trilogy Mantel is composing, the first one, Wolf Hall, having already won the Booker.   It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell who was Henry VIII's right hand man and this time centres on the life and execution of Anne Boleyn.   No great excitement then nor any great writing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Back to the Booker

16 October is fast approaching - can you believe our makeshift summer is actually over?   On 16th we shall know the winner of this year's Booker Prize.   My money is on Will Self as I do believe his book Umbrella is a triumph and marks a milestone in today's British publishing world.   However, a more than worthy contestant has to be The Lighthouse, by a first time novelist Alison Moore.   This is a wonderfully well crafted piece of work.  Born in 1971, Moore is not totally unknown in that she has had short stories published and won first prize in the novella category of The New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes.

The narrative concerns one, Futh [he doesn't appear to have any Christian name] who embarks on a walking tour of the Rhineland in an attempt to assuage his torment and puzzlement at the break up of his marriage to Angela.  On the face of it, it seems to be a straightforward story but it is anything but.   At least two critics have referred to the 'Russian doll' element of the narrrative which is a good description of the novel as we have a story in a story in a story creating a circular effect much as the walk Futh is undertaking in Germany.    In the hands of a lesser writer, such circularity could be a disaster but here it is captivating.

As he walks he remembers a trip he took with his father whose marriage had also collapsed, his wife also called Angela, leaving him with what seemed to Futh great suddenness.   The memory of his mother's perfume consumes him and clearly influenced his choice of career as a manufacturer of scents.   His first night on his tour is spent in a guesthouse run by Ester and Bernard.   Ester also is obsessed by scents and always wanted to be a perfumier.   Now, as the landlady of the Hellhaus, she occupies herself seducing her male guests as being the only way of attracting the attention of her rather brutal husband, Bernard.   Already we feel a sense of impending doom and we want Futh out of the place while dreading his inevitable return there at the conclusion of his walking tour.  

Moore makes us very intimate with Futh and his grief at the loss of both his mother and wife.   We suffer with him and his feet that become blistered and bleeding because of wearing new and untried walking boots;  he loses his way and seems continually to miss planned meals;  he worries that the stick insects he collects are being properly looked after and he ponders endlessly over the curious relationship that he has left behind  - that of his best friend Kenny whose mother, Gloria, lavishes attention on him - whether to seduce Futh or his father is never totally clear.  We puzzle over the role of the little silver perfume bottle holder in the shape of a lighthouse that was his mother's and which he never leaves out of his possession.

Though none of this sounds like gripping stuff, this book is a page-turner and we care desperately about Futh and empathise with him, really worrying that it is all going to go dreadfully wrong.   Moore has in a superb way created an unforgettable, vulnerable, curiously innocent man.   This slim paperback [only 180 pages!] is definitely a must read.  

Published by Salt Publishing, it is available in paperback, freepost for €7.71 from bookdepository.co.uk

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Casement .... and Booker

A non-working left hand has kept me away from my laptop for nearly a month now - apologies!   No doubt everyone has been pondering the Booker Short List - well, ponder no more.   There are only two really worth your time [and hopefully the judges' time too!] and thats Will Self's Umbrella which is a totally brilliant book and the most exciting to appear on the English literary scene for a long time.   I shall review it later.   The second book that is both interesting and thought provoking is by a new author, Alison Moore, The Lighthouse and if Self's amazing tome is rejected, this might be a worthy winner.

But first I want to tell you about The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa.   This is a fictional account of Roger Casement's life [or is it factional?].   I was lucky enough to get to see and hear Llosa when he was in Dublin recently for the Literary Festival.   Following his reading, he was questioned widely about different incidents in Casement's life and his general reportage and I felt he finally got a little annoyed by the seeming refusal of his audience to accept that this was a 'novel' and not an historical document.   Sadly I am not sufficiently conversant with the detail of Casement's life to know to what extent Llosa is creative with it but the historians who have reviewed it appear happy with the detail of Casement's career though of course that is well established.   Though once an attempt is made to explore the mind of the man, his demons and struggles, his hopes and despairs, then one is truly in the realm of fiction. 

Casement was an extraordinary man, a human rights campaigner and a fierce opponent of the evils of colonization before Albert Memmi was born!   His horror at the evils perpetrated on the natives in the Congo, Amazonia and Peru resonate loudly with our generation familiar with the Court of Human Rights and the fall out from Nuremberg but he was well ahead of his times and though knighted for his work in these regions, his opinions raised eyebrows in many circles at the time.   Alison Ribeiro de Menezes who reviewed the book for the Irish Times is guilty of a category error in lamenting that Llosa makes no 'truly searching critique of Casement’s contradictory positions or of his unthinking mixing of human rights with nationalism' as Casement saw no conflict between the rights of self determination for the natives of the Congo and those of Ireland.   Nationalism was a relatively new political movement at the time, before the Great War, and human rights as a discipline did not exist.

Llosa deals in a new way with the infamous Black Diaries.   Though they are referred to mostly by innuendo in the course of the novel, they only come up strongly at the end and, in fact, he writes about them in an Epilogue to the book saying, that as a novelist, it is his impression that 'Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not interally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn't'.   This appears to be  a happy conclusion.

The book itself is simply constructed with separate chapters for his journeys to the Congo, to Amazonia and Peru interspersed with chapters chronicling his final days in Pentonville Prison when he agonises not only over the failed Rebellion and execution of the leaders and his own failed role therein but also his time in Germany when he attempted to put together a brigade of Irish prisoners of war to fight alongside the Germans.   Llosa also deals in some detail with Casement's religious angst.   Apparently, his mother had him secretly baptised a Catholic and now with death approaching, he turns to the prison Catholic chaplain, Fr Carey, searching for both an intellectual and physical peace.

Fascinating as the book is, sadly I don't feel Llosa is at his best here and were it not for an intense interest in the man, Casement, I might have lamented the style and uneven writing so uncharacteristic of the great Nobel winning author of The Feast of the Goat or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Dream of the Celt published by Faber can be easily obtained in trade paperback post free from bookdepository.co.uk 

     



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Canada

I am always nervous of massive tomes as, with few exceptions, they turn out to have needed a good editor and blue pencil.   However, with Richard Ford's new book, Canada, four hundred pages just weren't enough.   I wanted more!   This is Ford at his best and if it at times recalls The Sportswriter, it also surpasses it in the beauty of his language, the laconic style of narration and authenticity.

The story is told in three parts with its opening lines being already as widely quoted as Tale of Two Cities, viz: 'First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.   Then about the murders, which happened later.'   He then goes on 'The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister's lives on the courses they eventually followed'.  It is told by the now retired English teacher, Dell Parsons, and recounts his life with his twin sister, Berner, as fifteen year olds, living in Great Falls, Montana, a small town concerned mainly with 'cows and wheat' as his mother Neeva describes it.   Great Falls was where the family settled following his father Bev's retirement from the airforce but where Neeva feels alienated and superior and thinks that if her children fitted in 'it would only increase the chance [they'd] end up right where they were'.   Neeva teaches fifth class in a neighbouring town, is rather bohemian and intense, a poet with a penchant for French poetry.   Bev is a handsome extrovert who took up car selling and before long got involved in a nefarious scheme selling meat to the army.   Dell likes Great Falls and anticipates with pleasure starting High School in the fall, joining the chess club and learning more about bees while coping phlegmatically with the peculiarities of his own family life.  

Ford recounts his story in a low key leisurely fashion but because every sentence literally is so wonderfully well crafted it makes riveting reading and we almost fall into the robbery the parents commit with as little foresight as they do and which is inevitably doomed to failure.   The second part of the book then deals with the fall out from the robbery, Berner running away and Dell being spirited away by Mildred, a friend of his mother's, to live with Arthur Remlinger in the small town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, in Canada.   There he is given a small shack outside of town in which to live and employed in Arthur's hotel doing odd jobs.   School is a forgotten dream.   Arthur is a mysterious character and Dell thinks that 'there must be an enterprise attached to him, a significance that was hidden from view and wished to stay hidden and that made him not predictable or ordinary', a remarkably astute observation from a fifteen year old.   Within months, the murders happen - that we were warned about on page 1 and Dell is once again spirited away to Winnipeg of which we hear nothing.

The third section then is the current life of Dell, now retired, and his reunion with his sister whom life has not treated well.   Thinking back on his life teaching, Dell remarks on the fundamentals he tried to teach his students, 'to think of their existence on the planet not as just a catalog of random events endlessly unspooling, but as a life - both abstract and finite' and this in so many ways is  how he has been able to make sense of his own life.   It seems to be something close to Ford who asks us 'not to hunt too hard for hidden or opposite meanings ... but to look as much as possible straight at the things [you] can see in broad daylight.   In the process of articulating to yourself the things you see, you'll always pretty well make sense and learn to accept the world'.   And again at the very end of the book, he says 'I believe in what you see being most of what there is ... so, while significance weighs heavy, that's the most it does.   Hidden meaning is all but absent'.

Is he asking us not to look for hidden meaning in this important and deceptively deep book or is he articulating a philosophy of life?   Either way, it is a remarkably sanguine acceptance of being in the world.

Tweeting Ulysses

I wonder if any of you missed the pontifical declamation by Paulo Coelho asserting that “Today writers want to impress other writers . . . One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. If you dissect Ulysses, it gives you a tweet.”

What pomposity from someone who churns out such banal pseudo intellectual mysticism.

A great supporter of Joyce and the modernists is Will Self and I would recommend reading his article in the Guardian Saturday Review on 4 August in which he quotes JG Ballard who wrote that it is 'impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God'!

I would further recommend everyone to read Will Self's new novel, Umbrella, not an easy read but surely one of the most exciting novels to appear on the Booker list for years.   Self does excoriate himself that despite his best efforts to escape the strictures of naturalistic fiction by 'diving into the dangerous waters of the continuous present' and embracing 'the slippery evanescence of the stream of consciousness' he thinks he has failed again.   Read it and judge for yourselves.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Cove [Ron Rash]

Ron Rash  has a long list of fiction and poetry to his credit but this is the first that I've read and that because it was picked by our book group and discussed last Saturday.   I have to say that not only did everyone love it but I felt positively deprived that I hadn't read him before this.   This is a beautiful book - beautiful in its style and beautiful in its narrative.   It is very clear that Rash is a poet as at times the book reads like an epic poem.

The story is essentially about outsiders and by setting it almost at the end of the First World War, in the Appalachian mountains in an isolated community full of lore, hidebound traditions and superstition, it in some ways calls to mind Claudel's Brodeck's Report.   Rash lives in the Appalachians and his love of the area is apparent in his poetic descriptions of the flora and fauna so delightfully described by one of his main characters, Laurel.   Laurel is a young woman who, with her brother, Hank, is struggling to make a living on a farm left to them by their parents in a 'cove' which essentially is a small narrow valley heavily overshadowed by a high cliff.   Laurel, born with a port wine stain on her face, is regarded as a witch in the local community, shunned and mocked and, at times, feared.   Hank who has recently returned from the war minus a hand is endeavouring to restore the farm to a condition where it will provide a living for Laurel as he himself wishes to marry and leave the cove.  

At the beginning of the narrative, Laurel is transfixed by the music of a flute coming through the trees which initially she mistakes for a bird.   The musician, who later she rescues and brings to the house after he is attacked by wasps, apparently cannot speak, read or write but carries a note which identifies him as Walter Smith.   Restored to health, Walter stays on in the farm helping Hank with the heavier chores and falling in love with Laurel.  

Meanwhile, in the town, anti German feeling is being whipped up by a cowardly, mean spirited local recruiter, Chauncey Feith who struts around in complete uniform far from the horrors of the Front.   He takes his venom out on an elderly German language professor at a local college and takes pleasure in attempting to purge the library of all 'German' literature.   As one reviewer has pointed out, Rash is describing here the state of fear created repeatedly by men like Chauncey over the decades - not only the war mania in 1914, but the suspicion of Japanese-Americans in 1941,and more recently the fear of any Muslim.   It is the fear of outsiders.   And as the narrative gently progresses, it becomes clear that sooner or later the worlds of Chauncey Feith and Laurel are going to collide.

If the story appears to have an almost oneiric quality - the beautiful young girl, the enigmatic stranger, the hardworking one-handed brother and the irredeemable villain - the ending obviates such ideas with its stark and elegant tragic simplicity. 

I highly recommend this book and personally I shall now search out his previous writings.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

News!

Ok, its raining - but that's summertime isn't it?   And there is a sly purpose behind all this rain - you can sit and read without guilt for hours on end if you're lucky enough to be on holiday.  And the exciting news is, there's a new Banville!!

Its called Ancient Light, published by Viking and, together with Eclipse and Shroud, it completes a trilogy with Alexander Cleave, the failed actor and narrator in Eclipse and father of Cass in Shroud, back as narrator here.

Could anyone wish for more?   [Ok, reading in the sun is cool too!]

Friday, June 1, 2012

Prizes

The English literary world continues its love affair with historical novels with the announcement that the winner of the Orange Prize is Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.   The novel deals with a brief reference in Homer's Iliad to Patroclus, a princeling exiled to the court of Achilles' father, which Miller fleshes out into the love that grows between him and Achilles as they go off to war together.

More exciting is the short list for this year's Impac Award which contains some gems - as it always does.   In case you missed it, here it is:


  1. Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer (British / Australian). Scribe Publications (First Novel)
  2. The Matter with Morris by David Bergen (Canadian). Harper Collins, Canada
  3. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan  (American) Alfred A. Knopf
  4. The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna  (Born in Britain, raised in Sierra Leone) Bloomsbury Publishing
  5. Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor  (British) Bloomsbury
  6. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes  (American) Atlantic Monthly Press (First novel)
  7. Landed by Tim Pears  (British) William Heinemann
  8. Limassol by Yishai Sarid  (Israeli) translated from Hebrew by Barbara Harshav Europa Editions
  9. The Eternal Son by Cristov√£o Tezza, (Brazilian) translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin, Scribe Publications
  10. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin (American) Faber & Faber 
 What a challenge for the judges!   Some of these authors are well established and classy writers such as Jennifer Egan, Jon McGregor, Tim Pears.   Others like Karl Marlantes and Bauer are first time novelists but with Matterhorn Marlantes has produced a momentous piece of writing.   We'll know the winner on 13 June!  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Detour [Gerbrand Bakker]

This book will haunt you if you read it - and you should.   Bakker has the extraordinary gift of writing compellingly about empty spaces.   Much like his first book, The Twin [which won the International Impac Award], Bakker has written a page turner bereft of the usual signifiers - we don't even learn the correct name of the protagonist until the final pages - but which pulls us in with an intensity that few writers achieve.

The very first sentence warns us that things are different for our protagonist: early one morning she saw the badgers.   To see badgers is rare as they are nocturnal creatures.  Then the fourth chapter which is only five pages into the text starts one day her uncle had walked into the pond in what turns out to be a failed suicide attempt.   This sense of things being not right, of there being something hidden permeates the book producing that haunting quality that draws the reader in.

The protagonist is a Dutch academic running away from her life, heading for Ireland but ending up in Anglesey in a remote cottage in the shadow of Snowdon.   There, over a few months, she sets out to live a solitary life, creating a garden and spending some time on her current work on Emily Dickinson whose first name she borrows but whose work she treats with contempt.   We learn early on that she has left Holland and her husband following a scandal but there are intimations that there is some other heavy shadow hanging over her.   Slowly, she meets the local Doctor, Baker, Hairdresser and a local Farmer, all of whom define her in a certain way but with none of whom she establishes an amical relationship.   Then a young man, Bradwen, literally falls into her garden while mapping a new long-distance path for hill walkers.   He turns into the 'man who came to dinner' and prolongs his stay with Emily, helping her with heavy work, cooking and shopping.   But of course, this is Bakker and nothing is quite as it seems.  The geese that live beside her cottage are disappearing one by one.   And Emily becomes obsessed by what she identifies as the smell of the old lady, Mrs Evans, who died in the cottage.

Meanwhile back in Rotterdam, the Husband has struck up an odd relationship with a policeman who arrested him for setting fire to his wife's office after she fled. Together they have managed to track 'Emily' and they set out to find her which odyssey Bakker handles with a lovely quiet humour reminiscent of episodes in The Twin.

This is a very moving book which deserves to be read.   On the penultimate page, Bakker writes that Bradwen thinks sometimes a day's work is for nothing because it leads nowhere but he is on the wrong side of the mountain - is there a right side?  The translation is faultless in capturing both the essence and atmosphere of Bakker's writing.   Ironically, in one brief episode, 'Emily' spends a long time attempting to find the correct words to translate one of Emily Dickinson's poems, none of which are quite right.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Firmin by Sam Savage

I am in love with a rat!   Not the two legged variety - which exist, believe me! - but a genuine real hairy  chinless wonder of a rat called Firmin in a delightful story by Sam Savage.   Firmin is a literary rat born in the basement of a bookshop in Scollay Square in Boston in the sixties on a bed made by his mother, Flo, from the chewed up pages of Finnegans Wake.   As Firmin describes it,'I was birthed, bedded and suckled on the defoliated carcass of the world's most unread masterpiece'.   Being the thirteenth and runt of the litter, Firmin starts to chew the pages of books to keep himself alive and shortly discovers that as he chews, he starts to read and so begins his literary career which reaches the point where he can read 400 page novels in an hour, Spinoza in a day.

As he makes headway with Russian and French novels and simple works of philosophy, so his love affair with humans grows and gradually he eschews the company of his peers and identifies with the Other.   He falls in love with Norman, the owner of the quirky bookshop, and is appalled when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror discovering that he is short, thick, hairy and chinless, no match for his adored Norman.   He nevertheless sets out to try and communicate with the Other by teaching himself sign language leading to an episode that is not only outrageously funny but full of pathos.   Though he ventures rarely outside the bookshop, he does find the local cinema, the Rialto which is mostly avoided by other rats because of the vermin, a voracious population of fleas and lice and also the stench of old people!   There he finds the unattainable goddess of his life, Ginger Rogers.

Through various misadventures, Firmin eventually becomes the pet of a failed sci-fi writer until the projected renovation of Scollay Square, involving the demolishing of the bookshop,  brings tragedy into his life.

This is a light, totally endearing novel and a measure of Sam Savage's skill that he can made a rat so lovable.  His descriptions of Firmin coping with his precocious intellect combined with physical weakness are masterful as are his insights into the characters who make up the regular customers to Norman's bookshop.  I guarantee you that reading this will make you hesitate - if only briefly - before putting down that rat bait again!



Wednesday, May 9, 2012

From the Guardian

Christopher Frayling [Saturday Guardian   05.05.12 Review], in discussing Bram Stoker, claims that 'it has .... become fashionable to reclaim Stoker as an Irish author - just as Francis Bacon has been reclaimed as an Irish painter and Wilde as an Irish playwright'.

It is news to me that one's birthplace is a question of 'fashion'!   Or does Frayling resent the literary success of the Irish?   Maybe he also considers Joyce and Beckett French?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Update

It was a sad day last week when I read that Antonio Tabucchi died on 25 March.   Tabucchi was the author of Pereira Maintains, a beautifully written captivating novel set in Lisbon in August 1938, which tells the story of a journalist who resolutely and with great cunning opposes Salazar's dictatorship.   You can see my review published 8 November last year.   This is an author you must not miss.

In case any of you missed it, the shortlist for the Orange Prize has been announced as follows:  Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, Half Blood Blues [Esi Edugyan], Painter of Silence [Georgina Harding], The Song of Achilles [Madeline Miller], Foreign Bodies [Cynthia Ozick] and State of Wonder [Ann Patchett].   So get reading!   The award ceremony will take place on 30th May.   I can certainly recommend Half Blood Blues which I reviewed on 10 December last and, also, Forgotten Waltz which I reviewed last June.


For anyone of a 'certain age', you might like to know that Cynthia Ozick is 80 years old [or young!] so there is an alternative to atrophy out there.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Art of Living by Chad Harbach

I did a live review of this book for LMFM last week so I thought I should blog my thoughts on it too!

Once again, the Great American Novel is upon us, hot on the heels of Freedom, and with similar great expectations.   Its reception in the States has been amazing with all the critics rushing to acclaim it while on this side of the Atlantic, it has even been reviewed in advance of sales!   So, undaunted by its 500+ pages, I bought it and read it.   Followers of my blog will know that I have  lamented the increasing trend for block busters that seem - with few exceptions - to encourage lazy writing and even lazier editing.   And The Art of Living is not an exceptional block buster and would benefit from some blue pencilling.  And this surprised me as Chad Harbach has been working on this for ten years while being co-editor and co-founder with Keith Gessen of a very high brow and literary journal N+1.

 However, that being said, the appeal of this book is obvious.   This is an old fashioned story of family, friendship and love, a book of becoming and, being a 'sports' book, it has of course a critical moment, a 'Disney' moment in a crucial match that will alter lives.   Harbach writes fluently producing edgy dialogue and likeable characters with whom one can easily identify.   Though the backdrop of the book is baseball, ignorance of the game is no handicap to understanding the story.   I was reminded somewhat of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, but Harbach eschews the thought and depth of characterization of O'Neill's writing.

The story itself involves five characters:   Henry Skrimshander, a country boy with an enormous talent for catching and throwing balls, is spotted by Mike Schwartz, a baseball player for the University of Westish, a fictional liberal arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan, and given a scholarship.   At the University, he rooms with Owen, a sophisticated, stylish gay student also a member of the baseball team, and he quickly makes his mark bringing the University baseball team to unheard of victories.   The College President, Affenlight, takes an interest in sports while his daughter, Pella, comes back to Westish following the failure of her marriage to an older man and promptly falls in love with Mike.  So far so good.   Halfway through the book, the story reaches a critical moment and I wondered where it would go from there but Harbach goes on effortlessly drawing us with him.

As I say,  this is a book of becoming - all the characters seem to be searching and changing their lives and interacting in a way that reflects the game they are all centred on.   In many ways, Harbach is reminiscent of Franzen and Freedom, and the search for the American dream.   It is a fairytale.  

Orange Prize 2012

In case any of you have missed the long list for the Orange Prize, here it is!   It includes three Irish authors - Aifric Campbell who has been listed for her current novel On The Floor, which centres around a female trader in the City of London; Emma Donoghue for The Sealed Letter, a historical novel about a divorce in London in the 1860s, and Anne Enright who has been listed for The Forgotten Waltz.

Karin Alternberg, Island of Wings (Quercus, Swedish)
Aifric Campbell, On the Floor (Serpent's Tail, Irish)
Leah Hager Cohen, The Grief of Others (The Clerkenwell Press, American)
Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter (Picador, Irish)
Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail, Canadian)
Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape, Irish)
Roopa Farooki, The Flying Man (Headline, Review British)
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (Quercus, American)
Georgina Harding, Painter of Silence (Bloomsbury, British)
Jane Harris, Gillespie & I (Bloomsbury, British)
Francesca Kay, The Translation of the Bones (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, British)
A.L. Kennedy, The Blue Book (Jonathan Cape, British)
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (Harvill Secker, American)
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury, American)
Cynthia Ozick, Foreign Bodies (Atlantic Books, American)
Ann Pratchett, State of Wonder (Bloomsbury, American)
Ali Smith, There but for the (Hamish Hamilton, British)
Anna Stothard, The Pink Hotel (Alma Books, British)
Stella Tillyard, Tides of War (Chatto & Windus, British)
Amy Waldman, The Submission (William Heinemann, American)

The shortlist is out on 17 April and the winner will be revealed on 30 May.   The heavy hitters would be Anne Enright, Esi Edugyan, A.L. Kennedy, Cynthia |Ozick and Ali Smith.  I reviewed Anne Enright's book last Jjne and Edugyan's in October!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Writers really need to watch their weight

I have unashamedly pinched Robert McCrum's header from his column on books in yesterday's Observer Review [19 February] in which he laments the increasing rarity of the 'slim volume' as this was exactly our moan at the last book group meeting. As McCrum says, 'the covers of books are too far apart'!

The moan arose because everyone had so enjoyed Barnes' Sense of an Ending remarking particularly how much he could say in 150 pages and other similarly brief titles came to mind such as Monsieur Linh and His Child, Saramago's Death at Intervals, Marani's New Finnish Grammar and, of course, the incomparable Point Omega by DeLillo.   All titles that are brief in terms of pages but far more complex in emotion, thought and characterization than so many of the block busters one has to wade through nowadays where the lack of the editor's blue pencil is so obvious.   Beckett of course was the master of a few words.  

Of course, I do not deny that their are some mighty tomes worthy of their length and depth such as War and Peace or A la recherche de temps perdu or Ulysses - one could go on - but then, there is also The Strangers Child and Freedom and, more recently, The Art of Fielding whose lengths are baffling and tedious.  

Thank you Robert McCrum for drawing attention to this issue!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Waterline by Ross Raisin

Raisin's first book, God's Own Country, was a triumph and a delight, full of humour and acute observations of his compatriots and won him among other awards, the Guardian First Book Award.  I was therefore excited to see a second book by him in the lists but wary also as second books often disappoint.   Not in this case.   Waterline is a challenge, a deep study of a man dealing in an extraordinary way with loss.   But it is not depressing because Raisin, just when you think you can bear no more, makes you laugh - not just smile but an acknowledgement that to live in this world at all you must have a sense of humour.

The narrative is about Mick, a Glasgow minicab driver, a job he had turned to after the closure of the shipyards where he had been a skilled worker fiercely proud of each ship launched.   After a spell in Australia, he, his wife Cathy and their son, Craig, return to Glasgow and rebuild their lives.  Robbie the eldest son married and stayed in Australia. The novel opens with the death of Cathy from asbestosis for which Mick blames himself with the grim reminder of the asbestos dust that used to cover his work clothes laundered by Cathy.  After the funeral, when all the family have left and Mick is alone, he becomes obsessed by the fact that he cannot picture his wife's face and soon cannot bring himself even to enter the house, preferring to spend his days and nights in the garden shed with increasing amounts of alcohol until finally he ups sticks and takes a bus to London where he changes his name and takes up a job as a pot washer in a hotel in Heathrow.   After a short time he is fired and finds himself on the streets, homeless and penniless but too proud to seek help from the 'social'.   He meets up with another Glaswegian in a similar predicament, Beans, and together they lurch from night shelters to soup kitchens to park benches in an odyssey told by Raisin with such compassion and love that we can never again look a homeless person in the eye without guilt.

Raisin has a skill in writing about the overlooked in society.   He is a Yorkshireman and set his first novel in Yorkshire but this time has moved to Glasgow where he has never lived and yet he handles the colourful Weegie slang with ease.   His description of and insights into the relationships Mick has with his sons, Craig and Robbie, and with Beans are profound and moving.   Mick's feelings are  deep but like many men from his background, he is not articulate in voicing them.   Craig resents his father and blames him for his mother's death and, in an effort to improve their relationship, Mick goes for a pint with Craig and in the pub, the pair sit in silence with desultory glances at a football match on TV but nevertheless, afterwards, Mick feels closer to his son.   Here Raisin is dealing with those on the 'waterline' of society, just barely keeping their heads afloat.   In one of his recollections, Mick remembers the painters of the great ships he help build and how they used to leave their nicknames scrawled along the waterline, just barely visible.  And Mick becomes, for a time, one of those on the margins of society, just barely visible.

Without wanting to introduce a spoiler, the ending might be thought, as Anthony Cummins from the Observer did, 'schmaltzy' and  'sun-kissed' but it has a certain inevitability and in no way detracts from the impact and poignancy of the story.   In an interview, Ross Raisin, on commenting about the level of society that he writes about, said 'I'm interested in how responsible society is for someone like Mick, and  how much someone like Mick chooses to detach themselves from society like that, and how a person might become, bit by bit, day by day, a bit detached from the world, to the point where the world no longer recognises  that person as an individual.’


Read it and weep!