Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Let me say straight off that I can understand why Philip Hensher got so uptight about the extension of the Booker Prize to include American authors when I read this latest offering from Ian McEwan if we are to take it as representing the acme of British literature.  Hensher finds it 'hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate' the new look Booker.   Never mind that he claims that it is understood that 'the Booker is a recommendation about the British or Commonwealth novel'.  John Banville and Roddy Doyle inter alia will be delighted to read that!    [Read more]

Sweet Tooth is not the kind of spy thriller that has you on the edge of your seat, indeed it is at times tedious and neither particularly 'acute' nor 'witty' - as claimed on the dust jacket - relying totally on an Atonement-like conceit in the final 22 pages [and you will have read 348 pp to get there!].    On the way, one gathers a lot of McEwan opinions on literature not least his railing against postmodernism when his protagonist avers  “I wasn’t impressed by those writers . . . who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions. . . . I believed that writers were paid to pretend.” McEwan then goes on to gainsay this and write himself extensively into the narrative.   One of the two main characters, a writer, Tom Haley, is clearly a poorly cloaked version of McEwan himself and his previous stories are rehashes of McEwan's books.

The narrative, set in the late sixties and early seventies, concerns a beautiful young woman, Serena Frome, a bishop's daughter, who goes up to Cambridge to read Mathematics.   She eschews the counterculture of the time finding cannabis boring and dislikes rock music but is, nevertheless, rather taken with the sexual liberty of the period which she samples liberally before falling into an affair with her considerably older history tutor.   Surprise, surprise, this being the sixties and Cambridge, this tutor recruits her to MI5 following her graduation with a poor third.

Serena's one passion is reading and she is an eclectic reader, anything from Valley of the Dolls to Jane Austen until she becomes totally captivated by Solzhenitsyn, a champion of liberty.   Rather curious, as the mission she takes on in MI5 is to recruit an author that is felt could champion the MI5 led capitalist philosophy of the west.  Tom Haley is the target, a lecturer in English in the University of Sussex who would be offered funds through a front, an existing Foundation, sufficient to allow him to write rather than lecture for a year or two.   These were the pre-electronic social media days when books really mattered and when the CIA and MI5 believed that encouraging the 'right sort' to write would have an effect.   Serena meets Tom and promptly falls in love.   All rather straightforward and a long way from the typical Cold War thriller and John Le Carre.  Probably the most crucial thing that concerns Serena is how she can continue in a serious relationship with Tom while still  concealing that he was targeted by MI5.  In the meantime, she gets by consuming quantities of Chablis and oysters.  As I have said, the book hangs on a conceit and I am not enough of a spoil sport to let that out.

There are good pieces that McEwan does well such as the period details particularly how women were treated in the workplace.   Though our heroine, Serena, only has a third, most of the women she works with in MI5 are first class honours graduates who, nevertheless, are treated almost as filing clerks and the glass ceiling at the time was very very low.   He also captures the atmosphere of the revolutionary counter culture of the time in the universities [well, he was a student at the same time!] using as a vehicle, Serena's sister, who is a hippie. 

I think the correct comment is 'could do better'!

A good book to read in hospital or on a plane to Australia!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

New take on books

If any of you happen to be in Madrid now or in the near future, there is a unique exhibition of a work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist, being held in Ivorypress Space, Calle del Comandante Zorita, 46-48, 19-28 September.

Eliasson specialises in sculptures and large-scale installation art employing light and water chiefly - he gave us the Sun in the Tate Modern in 2012.   This particular exhibition is entitled 'A view becomes a window', a celebration of the book.  His book is of glass and light with coloured glass sheets in leather binding, nine unique editions.   Eliasson describes it as 'a homage to the book as a space in which we find ourselves.   The space and the reader are reflected in the deep glassy surfaces in which ultimately you - the reader - are read by the book'.

In interview, Eliasson said he created it in support of the physical book under threat in the digital age.   His creation is extraordinarily beautiful, a graceful homage to a precious commodity.

Read more on’s-book-ivorypress-view-becomes-win

Thursday, September 19, 2013

New Look Booker!

Wow!  The Booker Prize Trustees have announced that, as from next year, the prize will  be open to all English language writers!   That means that we might see books from the likes of Chad Harbach, Patrick DeWitt and Jonathan Franzen included.   The Chairman of the Trustees said 'we are abandoning the constraints of geography  and national boundaries'.   At the moment, the prize is confined to citizens of the Commonwealth and Ireland.   The rule that the books nominated must be published in the UK remains and judges will still be able to call books in that have not been submitted by their publishers.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Unexploded by Alison Macleod

Unexploded was longlisted for the Booker but hasn't made it to the shortlist.  Despite this, however, I think it is worth a read.   While having, at first glance, the appearance of a straightforward wartime story, it has hidden depths and questions with not a small nod towards the 'if it happened here ...' school of theory.   Primarily, it is a story about fear - fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of change - and its impact on seemingly settled sedate lives.

The story opens in Brighton in May 1940, just after Dunkirk, when all of England expected Hitler to invade England, probably landing in Brighton itself.  The Beaumont family are the archetypal middle class family - Geoffrey, a steady predictable banker, his wife Evelyn for whom routine, the pages of Good Housekeeping and the caring for her husband and eight year old son, Philip, are everything.   However, in the first chapter her life threatens to fall apart and this seemingly solid life and marriage appear to be anything but and all down to two little pills.  Geoffrey reveals to her that, in the event of invasion, he will have to leave indefinitely on bank business and to help and protect her, he has buried money in the garden for her;  later at night she digs up the buried tin and discovers it also contains two cyanide pills which shock her.   Maybe I judge unfairly but I did feel that, given the country is at war and everyone's husband disappearing and the fear of maybe unknown horrors to come, that Evelyn's reaction is rather extreme and maybe a weakness in the plot.   In any event, from that point, Evelyn's relationship with her husband changes dramatically.

Geoffrey has a second job as Superintendent of a camp for enemy interns located in the town's race course and Evelyn defies him by visiting it to read to those in the camp's infirmary, her author of choice being Virginia Woolf.   There she meets up with Otto Gottlieb, a painter and refugee, who has spent time in the notorious Sachsenhausen before finally escaping from Germany on a passport stamped 'degenerate', which designation is taken seriously by the British.   It is not a spoiler to say that their meeting has a significance to the story and our question is really how and when.   And inevitably, those two little green pills are going to surface again and again.

What Macleod does capture brilliantly is the atmosphere of a town trembling in anticipation of invasion and, indeed, the underlying antisemitism of so many at that time.   Mosley did have widespread support and Geoffrey points out to Evelyn that 'many of the best people in Sussex were giving their sons to Mosley', the 'best people' being those 'looking out for the national good'.   Further, that the Jewish banking dynasties were 'the scourge of international finance'.   Geoffrey and Evelyn attend the last Royal Pavilion Midsummer Ball at the end of June 1940 at which a member of their party condemns the Jews as a 'public nuisance' claiming 'they'll be living the high life off the black market over here when the rest of us are eating our ration books'.   Ironically, Geoffrey goes on to conduct an illicit affair with a Jewish prostitute.  

Macleod's writing is fluid and easy if a little given to metaphors.   She draws on Virginia Woolf's writing through the narrative in a clever way and has some interesting asides on art through Otto whose background in studies of nudes in his paintings has led to his being classified as a 'degenerate' by the nazis.   Bombing and the wartime scarcities become harsh realities in the course of the story and Macleod uses them to create an effective background to the overriding feeling of fear as life disintegrates around her characters.

Worth a read.   Published by Hamish Hamilton, hardback, £16.99 [€13.36 from Book Depository]

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is a door-stop of a novel at 832 pages but one, as I have already mentioned, that I feel might be the dark horse on the list if Crace doesn't run away with the Booker Prize.

It is superby well reviewed today in the Guardian Review by Kirsty Gunn.   The narrative is set in the 19th century on the wesst coast of southern New Zealand during the time of its goldrush and Gunn considers it the consummate literary page-turner.   But intriguingly she goes on to point out that the book 'is not about story at all.   It's about what happens to us when we read novels - what we think we want from them - and from novels of this size, in particular.   Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing?   Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction ... There lies the real triumph of Catton's remarkable book'.  

Maybe I shall eschew what is probably a bad habit and now read an historical fictional book!

Booker Follow-Up

Very well done outline of the six short listed titles for the Booker Prize on page 5 of today's Guardian Review by Sarah Churchwell.   She points out that the shortlist 'reflects the common wealth of many nations, many imaginations' but 'the nationalities or residences of the authors or the settings of their novels' are not 'sufficient to account for the intensity of feeling and intelligence of ideas represented by the books on this list'.   Clearly, there is some good reading here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Booker Short List

Not too many surprises with this morning's announcement - though there will be tears for Colum McCann [but I did warn you!].   The six on the short list are:  Jim Crace, Harvest, NoViolet Bulawayo, We need New Names, Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries, Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowlands, Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being, and our own Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary.

The betting is not surprisingly on Jim Crace who has announced that this is his last novel.   NoViolet Bulawayo has been getting a lot of publicity for her book on Zimbabwe, but knowing the Booker passion for historical novels, they might well plump for Eleanor Catton and her book set in New Zealand in the mid nineteenth century during the gold rush.   I suspect Toibin is rather an outsider.

Personally, I think Jim Crace gives us the best read on the list!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Carnival by Rawi Hage

You just can't leave this book unread!   Rawi Hage has surpassed himself this time.   This is his third novel, the first being the memorable De Niro's Game which deservedly won the Impac literary award.   His second novel, Cockroach, somehow left me cold so I was a little nervous buying this one.   But it stunned me!   On the jacket front, the Toronto Life is quoted saying 'imagine Camus rewriting Taxi Driver' which is so apt in reflecting the shinning quality of his writing and imagery but Hage has a sense of humour that Camus would die for!

The narrator in the book is a taxi driver who was born into a circus, the son of a trapeze artist and an arab stuntman with flying carpets both of whom died leaving their son in the care of a 'bearded lady', a 'freak' in the circus.   When he is still an adolescent, the circus dies and he ends up in a nameless city in America which I assumed to be New Orleans, not least because of the title of the book, Carnival.   And the whole concept of circus and carnival provides the backdrop to his story as he sees life as a circus with a world peopled by clowns and masked people - some heavy metaphors here.   But though his tale may be allegorical, it is full of compassion and love for the outcasts and oddities of the world.

Our taxi driver is called Fly - 'flies' being the taxi drivers who tour the city picking up fares as opposed to the 'spiders' who sit and wait at ranks for calls from the dispatcher.   And so with Fly we meet an astonishing array of individuals from criminals to priests, all of whom have a story and earn his respect or anger regardless of their status.   His upbringing in the circus gives him an acceptance of the ugliness and seaminess of city life while at the same time seeing great beauty in small things.

For Fly is a philosopher with a passion for books.   His apartment  is filled with towers of books and one enters it through a tunnel of books which he arranges 'by character, the colour of their skies and the circumference of their authors' heads ... in accordance with my own empirical measurements to use the British norms of philosophy'.   So Rousseau is located near the window because 'there is nothing like the cure of fresh air for cases of bladder infection, paranoia and Cartesian thinking'.

And Fly, while being a supreme example of a pure Christian soul, has no time for organised religion linking all religious beliefs to the same delusional source - the original fear and disappointment of men.
He rails against the 'brooding types' who go to caves and mountains waiting for God's revelation through 'the smoke of a pack of cigarettes' while, at the same time, he recounts a conversation with God who reveals to him that 'those desert lots of Semitic Arabs, Syriacs, Aramaics, Nestorians, Nabateans and Jews got it all wrong ... that bunch of archaic literates'.  

One can't help having a suspicion that Hage had a lot on his mind and used Carnival as a vehicle to offload some passion.   In fact, it is hard to pass a page without coming across a sentence one wants to retain and quote later.   But if he does, it doesn't grate on one and the friends Fly has and who stay with him throughout the book are wonderfully described and embodied and have a reality rare in fiction.   There are also pieces of great beauty such as when a clown in festival chants: 'I shall chase the clouds and stop the rain and save your lives from this endless charade of puppets and strings!'

Carnival is published by Hamish Hamilton, paperback, £12.99