Thursday, 30 April 2009

Just six words

Any author who submits themselves to a grilling here has to 'do a Hemingway' and write a short story in six words. It's harder than it looks. My first effort was:

"If you can read this, HELP!"

I'll leave it to the professionals. There's now a link to this page at the top of the screen so you can pop back in the future and see who else has joined the club.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Ernest Hemingway

Like me, you revised your story.

Sebastian Beaumont
(Author of Thirteen and The Juggler)

Missing Person: Last seen driving away.

Michael Kimball
(Author of Dear Everybody)

Afterwards, we had coffee and pie.

John Burnside
(Author of Glister and much more)

Hail horrors! Hail—fuck that's hot.

Glen Duncan
(Author of The Last Werewolf and A Day and a Night and a Day)

Surely no writer has said yes?

Jill Dawson
(Author of Lucky Bunny, The Great Lover and Watch Me Disappear)

For sale: shotgun, one previous owner.

Tom McCarthy
(author of C, Men In Space and Remainder)

Wesley Robins
(Illustrator of Ascent)


Tuesday, 28 April 2009

'appetite comes with the eating'

American Adulterer
by Jed Mercurio

As befits his name Jed Mercurio is something of a mercurial writer. From his medical background he carved first a TV series, Cardiac Arrest, which attempted to provide a slightly more adult medical drama for the viewing masses, a novel, Bodies, which took things even further and was subsequently turned into a TV series itself, then out of nowhere we had Ascent, his triumphant alternative vision of the space race which made me feel like a boy again and very nearly made it onto my books-of-the-year list last year. American Adulterer sticks to the same period of history but brings us back to this side of the Iron Curtain and is a very different kind of book altogether: a forensic look at the presidency of JFK as filtered through his philandering.

That title means that it joins a long list of books and films which seem to claim to tap into something which is uniquely part of the American psyche.(James Ellroy used American Tabloid for his own JFK novel and then of course we have American Pastoral, American Beauty, American Psycho, American Gangster...please add your own favourites). It feels somehow appropriately mythical for this examination of America's most mythical president but Mercurio brings his medical sensibilities and language to the fore to puncture the myth of Camelot and the vitality and youth of a President who was beset by ill health throughout his time in the White House. From the opening sentence Mercurio places a distance between us and 'the subject' as he is referred to throughout. The language comes from a report or observation, listing for example 'a full picture of his constellation of miseries'.

Addison's disease, thyroid deficiency, gastric reflux, gastritis, peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, prostatitis, urethritis, chronic urinary tract infections, skin infections, fevers of unknown origin, lumbar vertebral collapse, osteoporosis of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis of the neck, osteoarthritis of the shoulder, high cholesterol, allergic rhinitis, allergic sinusitis and asthma.

That's almost as much fun to type as it must have been to endure. The subjects routine is a catalogue of injections, pills and treatments but at the very centre of this is his other condition for '...he would include his sexual proclivities within the spectrum of his physical stigmata. He can no more dispel his compulsively active libido than he can wish hormones from his adrenal glands'. The man who famously claimed he got headaches if he went without sex for three days is a slave to his addiction and against the backdrop of one of the most eventful periods in American history Mercurio places the trysts right at the centre.

The television series the West Wing became famous (and later parodied) for its signature shot of President and aides walking the corridors of power at pace with files and policy being thrown around like spirit bottles at a cocktail bar. Included in the mix for JFK are assignations with women he can barely keep trace of. The secret service personnel dub two regulars 'Fiddle and Faddle' (to be joined later by 'Fuddle') and even the President himself ends up using those appellations himself. The first names of famous movie stars are casually dropped and his relationship with Marilyn Monroe is particularly colourful. Even the Queen doesn't escape his gaze (but 'so aristocratically buttoned up he couldn't imagine going to bed with her'). What the book lacks is any actual sex. It might seem extraordinary to choose sex as a subject and not actually write any, but Mercurio is creating a portrait of pathological sexual release. With his physical ailments the subject is really only capable of receiving rather than giving and the enjoyment comes not from the act itself, which is more of a means of alleviating his symptoms, but in the chase beforehand, each new conquest like 'unwrapping a present'. His commitment to this course is chilling, particularly in two instances; the first his decision to continue partying on his yacht even whilst his wife suffers a still-birth, the second his reaction to the death of Monroe.

The suicide does not imbue the subject with guilt, nor should it. That particular weakness proves utterly destructive to the philanderer. He decides to regard this tragedy as a test of his womanizing prowess...the subject appreciates from experience that periodically one is penetrated at the most interior shell of one's compassion, and the womanizer who has thus far complacently deflected the suffering of a scorned lover or jealous wife comes to realize the ultimate demand of his chosen path. He must play the sociopath, unless he has the good or ill fortune, depending upon your viewpoint, of being one already.

Mercurio can't resist including everything eventful from the period. Some of this is successful; JFK's guilt over the Bay of Pigs fiasco is well drawn and the handling of the Cuban missile crisis is edge of the seat stuff, but the inclusion of so much speech material seems unnecessary when the words are so familiar to us and there isn't anything new said about their formulation. There are some pretty clear references to contemporary history with phrases like 'enemy combatants' and the spectre of being '45 minutes from destruction'. The real surprise is that a book which maintains such a professional distance throughout (and that from a subject who behaves so callously and shallowly) is able to conclude with such an emotional climax. The fallout from the premature birth of his son Patrick is beautifully handled and the one thing we have always known about the subject's story is how it will end.

Mercurio may have hamstrung himself slightly with the conceit of this book, preventing it from really taking off in the same way Ascent did but he still manages some great set pieces and also pinpoints the moment when the private lives of politicians were identified by the media as potential fodder for the rest of us.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

Michael Kimball Interview

Michael Kimball kindly agreed to answer some questions about his novel Dear Everybody on this, the final stop of his blog tour. My review can be found here, but far more interesting is to talk to the man himself and find out more about those publishing exclusives I promised you.....

Dear Everybody obviously has an interesting format. How did the book take shape? Did you plan to write it as a series of documents?

Dear Everybody started with one short letter, a man apologizing to a woman for standing her up on a date; the man is wondering if they had gone out that night, if maybe his whole life would have been different, better. At first, I didn’t know then who was speaking or that it was a suicide letter, but I did have a strong voice and a skewed way of thinking. That one letter led to a rush of about 100 letters—Jonathon, the main character, apologizing to nearly everybody he has ever known—and the novel opened up from there. The other documents—the psychological evaluations, the newspaper articles, the yearbook quotes, the obituary, the eulogy, the last will and testament—all of that came after the letters.

I am guessing that writing an epistolary novel involved creating lots of letters which didn't make it into the finished book. Are there any that were edited out that you wish had survived?

The very first letter that I wrote didn’t make it into the final novel and I cut out maybe 100 or so more. I collected a bunch of them and they will soon in a chapbook called “Some Recently Discovered Letters from Jonathon Bender, Weatherman (b. 1967-d.1999)”—out with Publishing Genius Press.

That first letter is just this:

Dear Jessica Cooper,

I’m sorry that I stood you up for the date that we were supposed to have on Valentine’s Day in 1989. Do you think that we could have been happy together?

Robert is confused by the encyclopedia entries that he finds amongst Jonathon's belongings and I'll confess that I was a little too. Can you say anything about the relevance of those pieces?

The idea was that those pieces would function in a few ways—first off by advancing the narrative in a new way; also by calling attention to certain thematics; but mostly they are supposed to call the narrators into question a little bit, both Jonathon and his brother, Robert, adding a certain unreliable quality that both draws the reader in and adds to the emotional complexity.

That unreliability is really key isn't it. The whole idea of having Robert, who never liked his brother, be the one who presents him to us is quite an interesting set-up. How did you come to make that decision?

The unreliability is absolutely key. And Robert writing the introduction was one of the happy accidents in writing Dear Everybody. That introduction was actually the third introduction that I wrote for the book. The first one was written by a fictional Michael Kimball. The second one was written by Jonathon’s sister, who was ultimately written out of the book by Robert. I knew Robert was right for the introduction, and as the one who collects the documents of the book, when I realized how he could call the truth of the narrative into question, but in a way that, paradoxically, seems to make what happened all the more clear.

One of the great strengths of the book is the way you allow the reader to decide for themselves what may have happened. This is most obvious with Robert and his denial of abuse which leads him to censoring one of the letters. Why did you choose to keep things ambiguous?

I wrote what happened to Robert and then later decided to black out those lines. My feeling was that it added to the emotional narrative of the novel, that spelling it out, so to speak, would have caused some of that emotional energy to dissipate.

You write with great empathy about mental illness, especially the lack of support for its sufferers. Does this come from research or any kind of personal experience perhaps?

It’s both. I’ve edited psychology textbooks for 15 years or so, and have learned a lot about mental illness through that. But the empathy comes more from seeing certain people I know struggle with mental illness, how difficult it can be for the person suffering and how difficult it can be for the people around him or her.

Some of the most effective parts of the book are the shortest pieces, it's amazing how much you can say with just a few words. Hemingway famously spoke multitudes with just six (For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.). Would you care to add your own six-word story?

The very first poem that I ever published (I was a poet before I was a fiction writer) and was really proud of was a title with no words. It was this “Now Do You Remember?” (and then the rest of the page was blank).

These six-word stories are more difficult that they look but here goes:

“Missing Person: Last seen driving away.”

In my attempts to write a six-word story, I also wrote a five-word story for Jonathon Bender:

“Born in snowstorm, still cold.”

Almost as a natural progression from writing someone's life in a series of short documents you're working on something else called postcard life stories, what's all that about?

Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard) started when my friend Adam Robinson, who was the curator for a performance art festival, asked me if I wanted to participate. I asked him what he thought a writer could do as performance and we made some jokes about that. But then I remembered these promotional postcards that I had for Dear Everybody and I suggested that I could write people’s life stories for them. That's how the project started.

I thought it would be fun and funny and that I would ask a few questions and write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first postcard I wrote was for Bart O’Reilly a painter, who quit art school in Dublin to work as an ice cream man in Ocean City, MD—which is how he met the woman who became his wife. When I finished writing the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed dozens of people and wrote each person’s life story on the back of the postcard. I did this for four hours straight without getting up out of the chair that I was sitting in. I was completely exhausted by the end. My mind was racing with the details of people’s lives and the hope that I had done their various stories justice in the space of a postcard. I was astounded by what people told me, the secrets and the difficulties, the pain and wonder and hope that they revealed.

People sometimes ask me how I get people to tell me the things I write about them, but there’s no real trick to it: I just ask questions. The one thing that I have learned so far: Everybody is amazing.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I recently finished a new novel – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – which takes place during those three days. And there have been a couple of inquiries after the postcard life story project, so I’m writing an introduction for that.

Could you recommend a neglected book which readers of this blog simply must read?

The list that could be made of neglected books that must be read, but I’ll just pick one: Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine – a crazy, great, short novel published in the 70’s that was just re-issued by Dalkey Archive in the U.S.


Thursday, 23 April 2009

Fever Ray - Fever Ray

After reading James at Demob Happy, Robert's follow up comments both there and here and finally Alexis Petridis in the Guardian (those print chaps take a while to catch up don't they?) I found myself prompted back into the electronic arena, an area I inhabit less and less these days. Fever Rayis the solo project of The Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson. I had a vague awareness of The Knife, which itself is amazing given how actively they avoid publicity, but hadn't really listened to their critically acclaimed 2006 album Silent Shout. A quick catch-up now reveals an album of dark electronica, distorted vocals and even some upfront dance tracks. Not enough for me to commit to a full review as you can see, and the kind of album that would be likely to languish in the back of the collection somewhere if I'm honest. But Fever Ray is something else.

The key to that is the why. A bit like modern art, which can look like a load of 'I could've done that' twaddle until the artist explains what it all means, electronic music either appeals aurally to you or doesn't, there is seldom any lyrical content to latch onto and if there is, it's often nonsense. Fever Ray's lyrics might have remained equally opaque if I hadn't read Petridis' review where I learnt that Andersson had recently had a baby. Suddenly the music has a heart, ironic given the title of the opening track, and the album is lifted out of the purely electronic mould.

If I Had A Heart begins with a throbbing sound which continues throughout. A distorted vocal intones 'This will never end/Cause I want more/More, give me more, give me more'. It is frankly a terrifying beginning and as the pulse in the music continues under 'If I had a heart I could love you/If I had a voice I would sing' it feels like the heartbeat she claims not to have. When I Grow Up has a very Björk feel lyrically and like the Icelandic pixie you have no doubt when she sings 'I put my soul in what I do'. Musically I was reminded of Boards of Canada on Dry and Dusty, Röyksopp on Seven but over the whole album there is a definite hint of Vangelis, with the long synthesised chords that were as much a part of the landscape as Ridley Scott's visuals in Blade Runner. (I thought it was terribly clever of me to spot this until I realised that James had mentioned it in his own review!) With Triangle Walks and the tracks that follow it we enter the terrain familiar to any new parent although sounding, hopefully, unfamiliar. Post-natal insomnia and its attendant insanity aren't obvious subjects for electronica but the dark atmosphere created by those extended chords and twisted vocals evoke quiet desperation on Triangle Walks ('Can I come over, I need to rest/Lay down for a while/Disconnect/The night was so long/The day even longer/Lay down for a while/Recollect'), a terrifying claustrophobia on Concrete Walls 'I live between concrete walls/When I took her up she was so warm......Eyes are open the mouth cries/Haven't slept since summer'), and loneliness on Keep The Streets Empty For Me.

But it isn't all dark. The album closes with the grandly cinematic Coconut which, as its title sugests carries an almost tropical flavour, the triumphant chorus line chanted repeatedly, 'Lay down with a big cigar', conjuring a far more positive outlook. Despite the dark and slightly oppresive feel of the album there is a human story cutting through the electronic medium, warming things up a touch, making it more interesting certainly than her work with younger brother Olaf in The Knife, and at times as surprising as opening your own computer and finding a beating heart inside.


Tuesday, 21 April 2009

'All things change - nothing perishes.'

The Blue Fox
by Sjón

A book championed by Scott Pack, dovegreyreader and A.S. Byatt amongst others and carrying a helpful push from Iceland's first-daughter Björk on the cover, The Blue Foxweighs in at a featherweight 112 pages (and many of those contain little more than a paragraph) and yet like the best fables or fairy tales seems far more substantial. Sjón is the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson; author, poet and sometime lyricist for Björk, who won the 'Icelandic Booker' for this poetic and atmospheric novel.

Set in Iceland at the end of the nineteenth century the story begins with a hunter, Baldur Skuggason, a pastor on the trail of the titular vixen. For the first 30 pages there is often only a paragraph to each page, surrounded by white space which of course may conjure the snowy landscape through which the pastor moves after his prey. The sparse text slows down your reading pace, building the quiet tension of the hunt, and on the few pages populated by just a single sentence Sjón is able to fill his words with great significance, poetry or power. There is even humour when Skuggason spends the night in a snowdrift, the single line to describe it:

The night was cold and of the longer variety.

The next day another single line gives us poetry

The sun warms the man's white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.

There is a fascinating rhythym to these early stalking pages completed by a fitting climax when he finally manages to kill his prey and is swept up in an avalanche to be deposited under a glacier.

The other man in this story is Fridrik Fridriksson, a herbalist who returned to Iceland to settle his parent's affairs only to find himself still there 15 years later with a young girl who suffers from Down's Syndrome as his charge. We join him as he prepares to bury her, learning little by little more of her story. It is a bit like piecing together a puzzle, or solving a riddle, activities which he undertakes himself when he unties a package the young girl 'Abba' had carried her whole life, finding black wooden tablets, Latin words found on some pieces which resolve themselves into lines from Ovid.

As Fridriksson intricately pieces it together Sjón performs a similar trick, linking his two main characters, but the real magic of the novel comes from that unearthly, unreal feeling from the Icelandic landscape. The language also helps to build the fable-like atmosphere which makes anything possible, so that when the corpse of the blue fox springs to life from Skuggason's chest and begins to talk to him you don't really question it. It is a singular read for me, unlike anything I would normaly pick up, which leaves me unsure really what to say about it. Much like the music of Björk it defies easy categorisation, is bold, memorable and wholly its own.

Sjón is ably assisted by what feels like a clear translation from Victoria Cribb, but without any Icelandic myself it is always difficult to know. In fact on discovering that The Blue Fox in Icelandic is Skugga-Baldur and thus there is clear pun in the naming of the pastor that hunts it, connecting both the hunter and prey in a way that foreshadows what happens later in the book, I realised that there may be many more subtleties lost on the uninformed reader.


Saturday, 18 April 2009

'sacred stories'

Dreams From My Father
by Barack Obama

I believe it may have been the knowledge that the previous incumbent at the White House (you know the chap, eyes too close together, can't speak) had named The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a favourite book from his childhood, even though it was actually published when he was almost 23, that led me to feel so elated when reading just the preface and introduction to this book. Not only can Barack Obama write a book but he can write (Let's avoid the controversy of ghost-writing and Bill Ayers aside for the moment). I didn't fancy the straight politics of The Audacity of Hopeand so plumped for the book which many had placed in their books of the year lists for 2008.

My reason for wanting to read it was less a prurient interest in his life, more a wish to see why I had the impression that this was a strong, centred man of conviction and integrity. Was he just a fantastic orator or was there something personal driving all of this. There is a fair amount of debate about what is included in the book and what is missing, so much so that I believe someone has written some kind of corrective or riposte to paint a fuller picture, but I have to say that I was amazed at the frankness with which he deals with some of his failings or potential political embarrassments. No 'I smoked but didn't inhale' or 'I inhaled but didn't enjoy it' for him, oh no. He smoked, inhaled, enjoyed, got bored, moved on. It must be fun watching your political foes trying to fashion dynamite from a damp squib like that.

As the title suggests this is a book which has at its centre a relationship between a father and son, or rather a lack of one, for apart from one occasion Obama Sr. is an absence rather than a presence. But this is not a tale of a man left drifting with no father figure to provide guidance, 'Even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to, or disappoint.' Obama's mother is shown to be a huge driving force in his life (he mentions in the preface that having lost his mother after the publication he wished in many was that he had written a book about the person who was there for him), this graphically illustrated by their lifestyle when living in Indonesia. Five days a week he was woken at 4am for three hours of home tutored English lessons before school itself. When he complained she made it clear that 'This is no picnic for me either, buster.'

Even from a 'broken family' background Obama is instilled with a strong moral grounding, and his racial education comes on the melting pot island that is Hawaii. It is with confusion that he confronts his blackness having been instilled with the confidence that he can be whatever he chooses. It is his friend Ray who explains that 'We were always playing on the white man's court...by the white man's rules', a lose/lose situation where the white man had all the power, even the power to influence what you held to be 'black'. Even when he attempts to find solace in the writings of Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois, he is defeated: 'In every page of every book... I found the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect.'

During his higher education we get to see a first glimpse of that speech making persona. As part of a demonstration at the plight of South Africa he is to play the part of a speech maker who will be silenced and taken away by figures in sunglasses. Enjoying this moment of singular attention he realises as he is bundled away that he 'really wanted to stay up there, to hear my voice bouncing off the crowd and returning back to me in applause. I had so much left to say.'

His real development comes when he goes to work in Chicago as an 'organiser', a term with a fitting looseness (if that isn't oxymoronic) given the wide scope of issues which require organising. It is also here that he meets Jeremiah Wright and Obama's description of one of his sermons (which provided him with that title, The Audacity of Hope) is written with clear admiration for a man who would later threaten to derail his journey to the White House. Again, the honesty to write about a lack of faith, to make clear that he is not a religious man in a country which holds religious observance to be so critical, is staggering. is most important development personally is what he learns about what is required to be a leader. His exposure to the lives of real people with real problems brings with it the dawning realisation that

'...beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.'

He begins to share more about his own personal story but like any child with a void or absence in their lives Obama has built up a construction of himself which may rest on shaky foundations. This in part drives his journey into the final third of the book, a trip to Kenya and into the past of his own family. Here, predictably, things become more chaotic. A family which seems to extend further and further on examination means that he is soon covered in relatives, competing claims for his attention or help and even conflict between different 'wings' of the family. But despite how far away his life is from this original ancestry, both literally and culturally, he picks up on a phrase, 'home-squared' - your ancestral home which is held above even the vast mansion you may actually live in - which shows why gains so much from this trip. In a moment of ancient storytelling we hear from his grandmother, who tells the whole story, filling in the gaps and giving Obama the knowledge which will complete his own story.

All my life I had carried a single image of my father, one that I had sometimes rebelled against but had never questioned, one that I later tried to take as my own. The brilliant scholar, the generous friend, the upstanding leader - my father had been all those things. All those things and more, because except for that one brief trip to Hawaii, he had never been present to foil the image, because I hadn't seen what perhaps most men see at some point in their lives: their father's body shrinking, their father's best hopes dashed, their father's face lined with grief and regret.

See what I mean? You can't imagine George W coming up with anything like that can you? (mind you with his father the comparison is perhaps unfair). The book is far from perfect. It feels a little long, with the section in Chicago dealing with some pretty dry politics which I found hard to really engage with. Perhaps my fatigue stopped me from enjoying the final section as much as I should have and stopped me from seeing the book as a whole in quite the triumphant light others have, but I find my positive belief in the man undimmed, intensified even. He really might be as impressive as he seems. What that actually translates into we will see and will be the measure of his presidency.


Wednesday, 15 April 2009

a moving tale

As I may have mentioned many times already, I moved home recently. It inspired me to write a little something for the Picador blog which you can find here.


Sunday, 12 April 2009

'the only thing holding me together'

Dear Everybody
by Michael Kimball

Alma Books distinguished themselves for me by publishing Tom McCarthy's quite brilliant Remainderback in 2006 after its small initial print run under Metronome Press, Paris. As they point out on their website 'alma' is Spanish for soul and they regard the book as an 'aesthetic artefact'. With this focus on quality their books always have that gratifying feel in your hand; a genuine hard back, quality paper and a satisfying spine. That idea of the book being an artefact makes them the perfect publisher for Kimball's epistolary novel, Dear Everybody, which comes in the form of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles and 'Other Fragments, Which Taken Together Tell the Story of the Short Life of Jonathan Bender, Weatherman'. Before it even begins we have the newspaper report of Jonathan's suicide and a note from his brother Robert who begins by saying that he never liked his brother growing up but hints that acting as a kind of literary executor has opened his eyes to the childhood they shared.

After Jonathan's opening letter in which he explains that 'Everything that I can remember is falling out of my head, going down my arm, and out my fingers', the documents are presented in chronological order from 1966-1999, mostly two to a page but every now and then a single letter is surrounded by the white space of the page around it, concentrating the eye on the fragments of meaning that might be contained is these sometimes mundane utterances. The early pieces especially have the simplistic outlook of the child, a boy who pulls the feathers from his pillow because he thought he might find a bird, and who now writes to the Easter Bunny to explain his confusion at not finding eggs in his garden like all the other kids. As the letters grow in number Kimball is able to build a subtle portrayal of a childhood lacking companionship, family stability and coherence. Jonathan has an almost autistic understanding of the world and whilst some of these early confusions are a little too cute, there are moments of genuine humour.

Dear Mom and Dad,
I wore that crown from Burger King for most of the summer of 1975 because I really thought that I was the Burger King. It couldn't have been anybody else. Nobody else was wearing a crown.

Dear Profesor Lindstrom,
The reason I took your astronomy class...was because I wanted to be able to stand outside at night with a girl and tell her about the sky. I wanted to be able to describe the dread and the wonder that puts me in awe of my existence. And I wanted her to associate that feeling of awe with me. You might try it. It worked with Lisa Wilcox.

Through their repetition into his teenage years and adulthood, and the shift in tone we see the impact of abuse on his personality and the beginnings of mental illness. His relationship with his father is particularly fraught. We know from the diary entries of his mother (which lend the novel and immediacy closer to a normal narrative) the problems within their marriage and family life and through the present day conversations between his father and brother we hear from the horses mouth about his inability to cope with a child he never wanted and couldn't connect with. It is Jonathan who finds the best way of describing their relationship.

I still remember those few times that we played catch together. I used to think that throwing the baseball back and forth somehow connected us. But now I realize that neither of us held onto the baseball for very long. It was mostly something in the air between us.

Jonathan's simple view of things allows the reader to fill in the gaps and articulate what he cannot. It is often what isn't said that carries the impact and nowhere is this more obvious than in what we infer about the childhood of his brother Robert. His outright denial of abuse (including a passage dramatically censored from one of Jonathan's letters) is slowly chipped away and the conversations with his father dissolve into silence. It is left for us to decide what the truth may be.

With all of these separate voices and documents there is a great sense of loneliness throughout the novel. The characters almost demand that we connect with them and with such a stylised format and the fine line between sentimentality and empathy being constantly ridden, how successfully this works may well end up being a matter of personal taste. But the format actually seems to me to be the perfect way to tell the story of a man who has fallen through the net and remembering that he has taken his own life gives a forensic importance to the documents. As you go through the evidence you may find yourself caring more with each page not only about his sad, short life but the continuing narrative of those other voices around him.

Michael Kimball is currently on a blog tour to promote the release of this novel in paperback. As part of that you will be able to read an interview with him right here on April 26th in which I can guarantee you not just one but
two publishing exclusives. Oh yes. That's got you interested hasn't it...

Mon 13th Me & My Big Mouth
Weds15th Dogmatika
Fri 17th The View From Here
Sat 18th 3AM
Sun 19th Lizzy’s Literary Life
Mon 20th Digital Fiction Show
Tue 21st Planting Words
Thu 23rd Elizabeth Baines
Sat 25th Writing Neuroses
Sun 26th Just William's Luck


Friday, 10 April 2009

Doves - Kingdom of Rust

Ok, let's get the obligatory mention out of the way. Like Elbow, Doves are one of those bands that have toiled away producing fine albums of indie music with a nice dark hue, albeit with perhaps more chart success than the recent Mercury winners. They've never exactly oozed charm and dynamism however and it has been four years since their last release so I did wonder whether there was going to be room left for them in the music scene or if they might just be able to pull off an Elbow-style moment of triumph themselves, vindicating their fans' loyalty. I have no idea whether Kingdom Of Rust will prove to be the album that brings them recognition but it is certainly another strong collection of songs that draws on all their strengths, pushing a few new buttons along the way.

Their past as dance outfit Sub Sub has meant that they always know how to structure a song or build up a tune to maximum effect (listen to Pounding for example). The album opens with Jetstream which draws on those skills and puts the dance influences closer to the forefront, with industrial sounding lyrics to match. It's a strong opening which is followed by the far more familiar sounding title track. Jimi Goodwin's plaintive vocals conjure images of 'cooling towers' and snow covering 'The road back to Preston'. Eee, it may be grim up north but he makes it sound soulful, the melody picked out clearly by a piano with backing strings and skiffle like drums. The attempt to try something new begins The Outsiders with some horrible sounding keyboard arpeggios from a 70's sci-fi programme, which are followed by power guitars, but you can't deny the energy that runs through it.

Winter Hill plays safe with pretty standard lyrics of parting and return sung in the kind of vocal combination that has worked so well for the Gallagher brothers. Similarly 10:03 begins simply enough, a tale of homecoming sounding like the kind of Northern Blues that Richard Hawley has made his own before it suddenly builds into a crazy Who-like crescendo. Spellbound begins sounding exactly like a track from their first album but then develops into something really interesting, thick with layers of music and dark vocals 'She keeps me near so spellbound/Her love pulls me near to stranger ground /I lost my mind there/This dark magic mirror/Spellbound.'

The funky slapped bass and 80's sound of Compulsion won't be to everyone's taste, it certainly had me wrinkling my nose as if I'd walked into a bar on a themed evening of big hairdo's and lurid cocktails (the feeling was swiftly stamped away by the harsher sound of House of Mirrors). Lifelines closes the album on a far more positive note, complete with choir backing. Even the sun is in the sky. Who said it's grim up north!

I think I may have said something similar in my review of Elbow but Jimi Goodwin's voice might be the deal-breaker. Some people love it, some think it's a bit dull. It certainly doesn't vary much and that along with the slightly samey feel of some of the songs is what stops me from employing any triumphant hyperbole when describing this album. But it's certainly worth a listen and a good deal better than a lot of what's out there. The more I listen, the more I like it, and there's nothing quite like a grower.


Thursday, 9 April 2009

'out in the unknowable sea'

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
by Sebastian Barry

Towards the end of Barry's 'flawed' but prize-winning novel The Secret Scripture there is a brief encounter for Roseanne McNulty with her brother-in-law Eneas. Until they meet both have been nothing but stories to each other, both of them estranged and exiled, and there is a tender comfort that they offer each other in this passage which is startling for its brevity. Eneas delivers a speech about a bombing raid on Belfast, an event which has left him 'veritably singed' in appearance, and he mentions a bible passage which forms the epigraph of the novel which carries his name.

'And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire'
Revelation, ch. 20: v. 15
From the very first sentence Barry casts Eneas as but a small part of a country's history, a history he has been covering form differing perspectives through all of his writing.
In the middle of the lonesome town, at the back of John Street, in the third house from the end, there is a little room. For this small bracket in the long paragraph of the street's history, it belongs to Eneas McNulty. All about him the century has just begun, a century which he will endure, but none of which will belong to him.
Eneas is the first born son of Tom McNulty,a simple boy who finds his world turned on its head when his siblings arrive, all of them cleverer than him. His childhood seems brief, with small flashes of joy before he signs up to join the merchant navy with other men from Sligo in order to help the war effort. This first venture will have huge consequences for his life as he discovers on his return.
He can't find a niche in the world of Sligo to slot himself back into - not just a niche for living in, but a niche of time itself. The sea has put a different clock into him.
This sense of unease is compounded when he is blanked by his boyhood friend Jonno Lynch. The change in the political climate whilst he has been away means his work for the British navy has placed him firmly on the other side to his former companion. This divide opens even further when, after a year with no work, he joins the other 'fools and flotsam' in the Royal Irish Constabulary. As the violence and killings increase between the rebels and the 'tans' Eneas is offered a single opportunity to redeem himself in Lynch's and the rebel's eyes. When he cannot do what they ask of him it is only a matter of time before he has to flee, leaving behind his new found love, beginning a life in exile, 'cast out from his world'.

There are plenty of writers who plough the same furrow intellectually with their various plots and characters, who end up writing essentially the same thing again and again however different the set-up may be. Barry does the opposite with his novels. The period covered is roughly the same and the same cast list of characters inhabits each book, but each time he is able to focus on a specific facet left exposed by this turbulent period of history, and each time it feels as though he is voicing for the first time the forgotten history of a real man or woman, a person who could stand for any number of the Irish people but who always stands out as an individual because of his skill in creating character.

The odyssey that Eneas endures seems almost like an adventure until those moments when he takes stock and you realise that a man in exile can never have those comforts of rest, home and family that the rest of us take for granted. The landings at Normandy are depicted in all the raw numbness made so clear by Capa or Spielberg and when he is effectively taken hostage by a French farmer after the war and forced to work his land he realises his state.
Firstly he stood amid the dead by the edge of the sea and secondly now he works the rows of vines not so much as a living man but a vanished man. Of course he understands this is his natural condition.
He makes attempts at return, confronting the true meaning of nostalgia, 'he remembers Mr Jackson the master explaining in his batlike voice years ago that nostalgia means something hard and tricky in the Greek, not a pleasing feeling at all, but the sickness of returning home.', and each time the visits are brief as it isn't long before the sentence of death passed on him all those years ago rears its head again and makes plain that there are long memories and no forgiveness.

In Eneas' telling of his meeting with Roseanne there are of course differences which sent me back to the later book to check. The reliability of memory is questioned as it should be, not just in people who are clearly damaged by their experiences (As Eneas notes, 'Looks like he has a choice of memories for the same times here and there. Not so good.'), but surely by all of us. However, as unreliable as it may be it is often clear that in the 20th century in Ireland memory is one thing that people hold dear, as important above all.

This book fails to quite reach the character defining heights of The Secret Scripture, or the emotional power of A Long Long Way and yet the standard of writing is so high throughout, the empathy with which he writes so warm and full of love that you cannot help but be affected by the overwhelming sadness that these books are soaked in. By finding these voices and articulating so much through them Barry is slowly creating a body of work which will stand alongside, or rather very much as a part of the real oral history of Ireland.


Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Quantum of Solace

So the title isn't the greatest and the theme tune may well feature two of the most mis-matched voices in movie history but I seem to remember some rather sniffy reviews when Daniel Craig's second outing as Bond hit the big screen and I find myself a little confused. It's a Bond film. It contains all the elements you would expect (action, beautiful women and action) and really isn't that bad.

Director Marc Forster throws us straight into the action with a high-octane car chase which is filmed in such a way as to have almost no coherence which is a slight pain in the neck, literally. It feels like it's all too close, and very disorientating, which may well be the idea but it doesn't make for a satisfying viewing experience. What this film has unlike the others in the franchise is continuity. The story-line actually follows on from the previous film with Bond seeking vengeance after the death of Vesper Lynd, the woman he loved. Hopefully you were paying attention in Casino Royale and will recognise the familiar faces, although the script is always on hand to help you out if you're struggling. Unfortunately Forster seems to think that the way to make a plot interesting is to have everybody say their lines very quickly whilst darting their hands about Minority Report style on impressive looking hardware. That doesn't make a relatively simple plot more complicated, it just makes it harder to hear. The theme of revenge covers not just Bond but Olga Kurylenko's Camille who sports a prominent scar on her back, hinting at her back-story (sorry) which involves the death of her own loved ones. Together she and Bond line up against Mathieu Amalric's Dominic Greene a relatively tame baddie whose bite is far worse than his bark (although towards the end he is almost yapping as he trades blows with Bond).

There are some impressive set-pieces, with the bone-shaking real feel of car-chases, boat-chases, motor-bike chases, you get the idea, being pushed to the limit. One of the staples of the Bond film, the baddie boardroom meeting is nicely subverted, taking place this time in the open-air, at the opera in Bregenz, Austria. It's just a shame from the way it's shot that you struggle to see that this extraordinary venue is indeed in the open air on the waters of Lake Constance. The fight sequences are now choreographed with tooth-loosening realism, in keeping with the feeling that even for Bond now there are such things as consequences. As M says to him after the death of another Bond-girl 'How many is that now?'. With Craig's steely eyed portrayal the only worry for the women in his life is that there may be many more.


Monday, 6 April 2009

An hour and twenty five minutes of heaven

Five Minutes Of Heaven starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, broadcast last night on BBC2 was a great piece of television. The main reason I know this is because I cannot stand James Nesbitt and yet I watched him twitching away for an hour and a half and didn't even think of reaching for the remote. Nesbitt played Joe Griffen who as a young boy witnessed his elder brother being murdered and has carried the guilt of his death ever since. His killer, Alistair Little, played by Neeson with cold professionalism has been haunted in his own way by the shooting, comitting himself to helping others deal with conflict after serving his twelve years in jail. Both of these characters are real men, in fact my wife heard Little speak at the Barbican many years ago, and what writer Guy Hibbert imagined, after exhaustive interviews with both men, was what might happen if they were to meet and try to reconcile the past.

The Truth and Reconciliation Comission in South Africa televised the results of confrontations just like this and it was the media force behind this meeting last night that allowed Hibbert to play on notions of authenticity, forgiveness and the difference between drama and documentary. In order to understand the men they are now, the first third of the film showed us the shooting as it happened, a brilliant piece of recreation, Mark Davison as the young Little looking uncannily like Neeson. The middle third dealt with the build up to the television meeting of the two men. Griffen, blamed by his mother for doing nothing to prevent his brother's death, is a man beset by nerves, answering voices in his head and bent on revenge. The artificial presence of the cameras, lights and make-up girl all building to make the moment of confrontation even more excruciating. Griffen is even forced to re-film the momentous walk towards his tormentor when the cameraman stumbles, ratcheting the tension up a notch further.

The focus afforded by taking a single event to examine the legacy of the troubles is what helped to make it such a successful piece of television. The acting was pretty damn good and the direction, from Oliver Hirschbiegel (of Downfall fame) taut and restrained. If you didn't see it and I haven't ruined it all with my ramblings then you can catch it on the BBC's wondrous iPlayer.


Friday, 3 April 2009

terror incognita

The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet
by Reif Larsen

Occasionally a book comes along which feels quite unlike anything you've seen before. A few years ago I was absolutely enraptured by Chris Ware's graphic novel masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, the dust jacket of which unfolded into a multipanelled art work which was enough to keep you occupied for a good while before starting the book itself. Reif Larsen has created a wonderful narrator in Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (the sparrow comes from the bird which crashed into the window at the time of his birth, the reconstructed skeleton now one of his prize possessions), a twelve-year old with a passion for map-making and a unique view of the world, a view we get to enjoy pictorially with the numerous illustrations and maps which fill the generous margins, all created by the author himself.

'Something about measuring the distance between here and there cast off the mystery of what lay between, and as a child with limited empirical evidence, the unknown of what might just lie between here and there could be terrifying. I, like most children, had never been there. I had barely been here.'

The opening pages of this book are a joy as this talented boy tells us exactly how he sees the world, almost like the opposite to Holden Caulfield, a calm, rational and educated little man of science ('the method of enquiry that put all of my longing and curiosity to use crafting my little maps instead of mailing bombs to prominent capitalists') living out in Montana on a ranch with his curious family. His father is a tough, no-nonsense rancher, his mother (referred to as 'Dr Clair' throughout) an entomologist completely lost in her work. Larsen casually reveals early on that the family has retreated to their own separate areas of solace after the tragic death of T.S.'s brother Layton. We will learn more about this shooting as the book progresses but what it provides initially is the lack of parental control which allows T.S to go on a journey.

The reason for this journey are those beautiful illustrations. His teacher and mentor Dr Yorn had sent of examples of his work to none other than The Smithsonian, neglecting to mention that their creator was merely twelve. When T.S. receives a call to inform him that he has been awarded the prestigious Baird Fellowship he has to decide whether to come clean or make the trip towards enlightenment and like minds in 'the attic of our nation'. Stuffing a bag full of his equipment (a 26 point itemised list including sparrow skeleton, sextant and 16 packs of cinnamon gum) he absconds and catches the rail-road, hoping to hobo it all the way to the capital.

So we have a (rail)road novel in which the journey is both physical and mental for on his way out of the house T.S. grabs one of his mother's notebooks, only to find when he opens it that it contains not her exhaustive notes on the elusive Tiger Monk beetle but her own fictionalised account of the life of T.S's great-great grandmother, Emma Osterville. His journey becomes a genealogical one as he learns more about this family where it seems that time and again 'a woman of empiricism [had] fallen for a man completely outside her field, a man whose profession was guided not by theories or field data or art but by a sledgehammer.' This book within a book works well for the most part, dragging slightly at one point which Larsen brilliantly anticipates and uses as an opportunity for T.S. to outline the five types of boredom (Anticipatory, Ritual, Monotony, Let-down and Aggressive - in case you wondered).

Larsen knows how to inject fresh energy into his narrative once he finally reaches his destination, not only with the confusions of a country boy dropped in the middle of a city but a raising of the stakes. It will come as no surprise that the real journey he undertakes is to realise that whatever it was he thought he was running away from, it is far preferable to what he has run towards. The book works well because the method of telling is so original and charming, with each page offering the promise of something new and interesting to look at, without it ever feeling gimmicky. Even if innovative illustrations aren't your cup of tea you couldn't ask for a finer travelling companion than Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet.


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