Wednesday 23 December 2009

2009 - A quick review of my year

I wasn't sure whether to bother with this having published my books of the decade last week but this blog has always included more than the written word so I hope you'll indulge me a little further. I was pleased to be able to continue reviewing generally, what with the arrival of baby No.2 into our lives, and only hope the quality of what I have to say hasn't dipped too dramatically. I'll try to keep the reviews coming as quick as I can next year but if there's a bit of a pause in between posts you'll know why.


You already know that I picked Lark and Termite as my novel of the year (other notables include Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, Stefan Zweig's Beware Of Pity and Fred Wander's The Seventh Well) so I'll draw your attention to some short and non-fiction if I may.

Plenty of other bloggers as well as the mainstream press have been queueing up to praise David Vann's collection of stories, Legend Of A Suicide. It is a book which almost defies categorisation and indeed has been presented differently here from the US (where each section is numbered as you might chapters in a novel rather than headed with story titles as it is in the UK). A fictional exploration of his father's own suicide, the stories are like broken fragments that reflect something unique about the experience. The facts change in each story but remain linked by their common themes and inspiration. The book is dominated by its central tale which makes the book worth buying on its own; a thrilling and horrific short that has a twist in the middle that will take your breath away.

Another collection of shorts is worthy of a mention firstly because of its beautiful production. Twenty-six separately bound booklets brought together in a box, An A-Z Of Possible Worlds by A C Tillyer is the kind of book you wish someone would give you for Christmas. Inspired by her own repetitive commuter journeys Tillyer has created a series of journeys into the mind, each to a separate world where you might find anything from archaeologists to strippers as expressions of power, repression or rebellion. I was surprised by how powerful the collection became as I worked my way through from A-Z and that is a testament to the writing. It is also worth noting that the book is published by new independent Roast Books

I really should read more non-fiction but one of the consolations of my low reading rate is that my hit-rate is pretty much 100%. Philip Hoare is one of those writers like Geoff Dyer who you should keep an eye on; always be ready to read whatever they write, no matter how far away from your normal remit or pattern that might be. Hoare's latest, Leviathan or the Whale is a genre defying biography of Earth's largest creature and Hoare's lifelong obsession. Informative, enlightening and personal, you'll have huge respect and admiration for the animal at the end if you haven't already. It is also a valuable companion to Melville's Moby-Dick which is its own reference material I know but Hoare's background on the man himself as well as the time he was writing in add more flesh onto that considerable beast.

I've also begun to get a handle on finding those neglected classics to accompany the glut of new titles published each month. The trick of course is to discover the right publishers and let them do the hard work for you. Pushkin Press, Oneworld Classics and New York Review Books Classics have been great guides so far and I look forward to latching onto some more in the year ahead (please feel free to tell me of more in the comments section below).


I wish I'd been able to listen to more music this year. I don't know why, but finding the time to enjoy music has become harder and harder, actually I do know why - pesky kids. It may be just as well however because trying to pick a favourite album has had me somewhat stumped. If you were to force me to name just one then I'd have to mention the album that I have come back to more than any other, the stunningly titled 'Album' by Girls. The story behind singer Christopher Owens is almost to extraordinary to ignore (read my original review for details) but the music on the album is joyous, infectious and unpolished.

What I'd rather do though is pick a few tracks from some of my favourite albums as a kind of Just William's 2009 EP (upload problems are the reason for the videos). Enjoy.

Two Weeks by Grizzly Bear from Veckatimest

White Blank Page by Mumford & Sons from Sigh No More

Laura by Girls from Album

Keep The Streets Empty by Fever Ray from Fever Ray


It was released right at the start of the year and remains the film that made the biggest impact on me at the very end. Darren Aranovsky's film was a comeback for him as much as its star in my eyes and the unflinching honesty of this portrayal of a former wrestler's comeback makes it uncomfortable but essential viewing. We are so used to watching polished film stars being beautifully lit and shot from angles that compliment, dare I say it - enhance their features that the harsh daylight and shadow of this film, the way that every imperfection on that pummelled face and body is highlighted make it all the more extraordinary. It isn't only Mickey Rourke who allows himself to become the object of our scrutiny, Marisa Tomei is just as brave in her own performance and both are to be commended for the way they open themselves up for our perusal.

I won't bother about Theatre and Art as I've done virtually none of either. Suffice to say that theatre wise you should all come and see me in War Horse. As for Art, all I can suggest is that you give the latest installation in Tate Modern's turbine hall by Miroslaw Balka a miss. You make your way up and into the vast shipping-like container via a ramp, the light gradually disappearing inside, the sound deadened by felt-lined walls. In theory you would be tentatively feeling your way forward, afraid of colliding with others, scared of bumping into the dead end of the space, unsure of where that is. Balka hasn't taken into consideration the mobile phone however. There are two types of people: those that would turn off their mobile phone when going into a gallery/theatre etc in order to enjoy the experience and those that wouldn't even consider doing that and certainly have no worries about using them. Despite a sign saying that phones and cameras are not to be used I'd be surprised if you could find a time of day when that black space isn't being illuminated by someone taken a picture/video, texting, or simply finding there way about via their mobile phone screen. It's a shame but I'm not convinced that I'd have got an awful lot more from the installation if rules had been observed or I'd been on my own.

So, 2010, that futuristic date is suddenly upon us, and what do I hope to achieve? Well, to keep it up for one thing, but to try to find and review books from smaller publishers and more works in translation too. If you publish books like that then please get in touch, if you're a reader of this blog and would like to recommend books/publishers then you get in touch too. Happy Christmas everyone and all the best for the New Year...


Thursday 17 December 2009

Books of the decade

Everyone else seems to be doing it, from newspapers to bloggers, so why shouldn't I? Well, because I have a terrible memory for one thing! What was my favourite book of 2001? I don't know, that was years ago now, I've got married and had two kids since then, I'm lucky I can remember everyone's birthdays and our anniversary. This of course is what the Internet is made for, so with the help of that search box and various references I have assembled my picks of the last decade. I decided to restrict myself to picking a single book for each year, and had to have been published that year, which immediately became problematic as 2000 saw the publication of several standout novels for me and I found it very hard to pick one amongst them. This problem repeated itself a couple of times and I also experienced the opposite effect when I struggled to pick anything as truly brilliant in 2003 (please feel free to point out your own) A special mention therefore goes to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay(2000) by Michael Chabon which is one of the reasons why I began this blog in the first place. A favourite book, I gave it to my wife to read and asked her one evening how it was going, where she'd got to. 'He's just walking across the Arctic with his dog.' My inability to recall something even as obvious as that told me that I may have been reading plenty of books at the time, and enjoying them, but I certainly wasn't retaining enough of what I read. By committing myself to writing a review afterwards, and therefore having to make the odd note along the way, I felt I could train myself to be a better reader. I hope it's working. I don't claim to be in any kind of position to pronounce what books were the 'best', but what follows might be more accurately described as a list of the ones that stood out for me then and still do now: The books that say something about my journey through fiction and my maturation as a reader.

2000 - House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

The only book I can think of that has actually terrified me whilst reading it, Danielewski's extraordinary début is notable for several reasons. First as an object: the beautiful patterned boards and excellent quality of the US edition make it a joy to hold and read and the various versions of the first edition as listed on the copyright page mean that colour makes its way into the text of a book which is as inventive typographically as it is stylistically. We begin by reading the account of Johnny Truant who moves into the apartment of the recently deceased Zampano and discovers a manuscript written by him about a film called The Navisdson Record. Will Navidson, a photojournalist, had discovered, whilst making a simple survey of his house, that the inside measurements seem to be just slightly larger than the outside. This leads to a journey as epic and terrifying as you can imagine happening within four walls and the book is made up of description of the film footage, interviews, interjections, footnotes, letters, the text changing font and construction so that the reader is left disorientated and hopefully scared shitless. I've read a couple of books since which have attempted to do something similar but neither of them came close to this, a true original.

2001 - Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware

I recently re-read this graphic novel to see if it was still as good as I though it was in memory. It was, and then some. You can read that review here but the reason why this book is on the list is because it showed me what graphic fiction could be capable of. Taking his inspiration from his own life and his own non-existent relationship with his father Ware's book is a beautiful, decorative, inventive and moving account of the struggles of one family to relate to each other through the generations. The artwork is visually satisfying with many hidden wonders along the way and it is one of the few books that has a dust jacket which can hold your attention for a good period of time before you get on with the book itself. A gem.

2002 - If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

I read this book in something close to a single sitting, becoming completely hypnotised by the rhythm of McGregor's writing and utterly mesmerized by its distinctive style style. Several hours later, as I tearily closed the final pages, I knew this was a book that I wanted other people to read so that we could enthuse about it together. I was a little disappointed when some that I had gifted a copy weren't quite as a sold on it as me, put off by the 'tricksiness' of the writing, but it hasn't dimmed my own enthusiasm. It is true that McGregor's debut has a distinctive style, characters are never referred to by name, only as 'the man with burned hands', or 'the boy with the pierced eyebrow' but after a while it seems no stranger than them being called Bob or Kevin and there often feels as though there is something totemic about their distinctions. The action of a single day assumes huge significance for these characters who all have a past, whose present moment is our focus for the duration of the book and whose future I still wonder about.

2003 - Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes

So the bogey year I mentioned and I know that there were plenty of fine books published this year (Richard Power's The Time Of Our Singing and John Gray's Straw Dogs for example) but with books like Curious Incident... and Vernon God Little making the headlines were there any that really compared to some of the others on this list. One book that really made an impact on me and sent me trawling after her entire back catalogue was this collection of stories from A M Homes. Up until reading this collection I had never really got on with shorter fiction, I didn't really get it, but something about Homes' humour, darkness and inventiveness chimed nicely and it has since opened up a little door in my mind that begins to appreciate the possibilities of the short story. From the twisted logic of the woman who waits among the sand dunes to collect the discarded condoms from the local lifeguards' sexual conquests in order to impregnate herself to the touching portrait of Nancy Reagan coping with her husband's deteriorating mental state this is a collection as odd as the composite creature on its front cover. That examination of her previous books showed more dark delights the most controversial of which was The End Of Alice, in which a young woman who plans to seduce a 12 year old boy conducts a correspondence with a jailed paedophile and murderer. If you want a challenging read then this might be the book for you.

2004 - I’ll Go To Bed At Noon by Gerard Woodward

This is easily the best of Woodward's trilogy of books featuring the Jones family in the part of north London I lived in for over a decade. There is something very personal and direct about reading a book which features locations that you know like the back of your own hand and to meet characters so skilfully created by their author that they seem as real as the people you see yourself in the street makes the achievement of this book even more astonishing. This book stands on its own but is obviously enhanced by the two that stand either side of it, the time spent with the Joneses through their tumultuous family history was both funny, sad, painful and heart-warming in a way that only a brilliantly observed and detailed novel could be. Never have I wanted to spend so much time with such a dysfunctional family.

2005 - A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

As I have mentioned here before I wept like a child when I reached the final pages of this stunning novel. My review of it is here but in short this is a book that could have (should have?) won the Booker that year, a book which follows a young Irishman as he makes his way to the battlefields of Europe, to make something of himself whilst back at home the nation he is supposedly fighting for is tearing itself apart. Barry's prose is never less than easy to enjoy, often achieving a lyricism and beauty that is in contrast to the devastation and horror of what is being described. Having now read some more of his novels, which use the same strands of characters, I feel that I know even more about the few families he has chosen to focus on and as a a result, a much clearer view of the wider picture. His mastery of plotting and structure mean that an emotional punch to the gut is always delivered with the force that is hard to counter. If you don't weep at the end of this too then, well, I'm sorry.

2006 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A friend of mine bought this recently as their third pick in a 3 for 2 on the advice of someone else. Knowing that I was a reader they asked me whether it was any good. Without thinking about what I was saying I assured him that it was quite simply one of the best books ever written, and once I had given voice to that sentence I realised that that was exactly what I thought (my original review is here). My original review is here and its title is one of the reasons why this book is so powerful. Living in a modern world we seldom have to deal with any of the machinations that make our lives so comfortable. Take away society, civilisation and progress, throw mankind back into a situation where it's survival of the fittest and you engage with what it really means to be human. Our current grapple with the topic of climate change only makes the book more relevant today but its universal themes mean that the nature of the apocalypse isn't important. I read this book in a single sitting, it's very hard not to, so compelling and primal is it, and I am convinced that it will still be being read by our descendants hundreds of years into the future. If we make it that far.

2007 - Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

The Great American Novel is a phrase, an idea, an emblem, that is so overused as to be virtually worthless. So many different types of book have been given the appellation, often all encompassing tomes that supposedly encapsulate the 'American' experience neatly and totally. It seems to me that the great American novel should really be a messy and catastrophic affair in order to truthfully reflect that experience and Denis Johnson's magnum opus deals with the Vietnam War in a way that seems entirely appropriate for a conflict so damaging to those American ideals, a conflict which they have arguably never recovered from. My father, a fellow Jonhnson fan, which in this country particularly, makes us part of a very small club, created an extraordinary 'map' to aid his reading of this vast novel, to help him keep track of characters and themes (as mentioned in the blogosphere). That's how bonkers this book is. It isn't easy, it isn't neat, but it is extraordinary. My original review is here.

2008 - Our Story Begins - Tobias Wolff

This was a bit of a toughy as I had picked Darkmans by Nicola Barker before I realised that it had actually been published the year before. Picking from the other books eligible was no mean feat. My reason for picking Wolff's collected stories is because having been tempted by the short form by AM Homes I then read stories by some of its masters: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver and more. Wolff is another of those and this book shows how it can really be done. Twenty one previously published stories are joined by ten new pieces, all of which show his amazing way with dialogue, the straight course he steers through his work by incorporating morality and his surprising inventiveness. What's particularly impressive is the variety. He doesn't have a fixed technique or style, he doesn't focus on a particular type of person or environment and he never, ever makes you feel like he's playing a trick or being quirky. Original review here.

2009 - Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Picking a book of the decade from this year is tough simply because of the inability to use hindsight, it seems too soon to take one of my recent reads and slap a rosette on its cover. Perhaps it is because of this that the book that still sticks in my mind is one that I read much earlier in the year, or perhaps it is in spite of the passage of that time that I can't get it out of my head. With a nod to Faulkner Phillips' multi-stranded novel follows a US soldier in Korea in 1950, holed up in a tunnel after coming under friendly fire (this real incident has been well researched and, even better, well presented - the research worn lightly). Then in 1959 back in the US we meet the eponymous half-siblings, Termite a mute, his sections allowing Phillips to flex her stylistic muscles. She goes beyond that though, audaciously connecting the various threads of her story so that they transcend time or location coming together in writing that reaches something close to rapture. Original review here.

I can't just leave it there because one of my favourite books ever isn't on the list. This is because Cormac McCarthy had the nerve to write a genuine masterpiece in the same year that his namesake Tom McCarthy wrote the quite brilliant Remainder. A book so concerned with the notion of authenticity is tailor made for a professional faker like me but it is a book which should appeal to a broad readership for all sorts of reasons. Clever without being a smart-arsey, arty without being wanky, it is the kind of book that makes your head feel like someone's got in there and done some spring-cleaning. The prose manages to be clinical and sensual at the same time, each of the five senses becomes hugely important as the hero attempts to piece together what he can remember of his life before 'the accident'. It has the pace of a thriller, the intelligence of something altogether more philosophical and an artistic sentiment that made me feel as if the book in my hand was the coolest thing in the world. When was the last time a book felt cool? Despite it not being on the list above, if I had to pick a book which not only made an impact on me but in some way defined the past decade, this would be the one. Let one McCarthy take that honour and the other something a little grander.

And now, over to you...


Monday 14 December 2009

'Oh, play it however you like'

The Humbling
by Philip Roth

You can understand I'm sure how excited I was when I discovered that perhaps my favourite novelist had written a book about an actor. Imagine also my creeping sense of dread as the bad reviews piled up, followed by a nomination for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award; could the opening paragraph of the book refer as much to the author himself as his central character Simon Axler?

He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He'd never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing happened: he couldn't act. Going on-stage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row, and by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.
Well it's easy, and perhaps another example of what David Denby calls 'snark', to use that paragraph against its author but it ignores one crucial thing: that's a great opening paragraph. In fact the first section of this short novel (140 generously spaced and margined pages) is fantastic. Many people have the wrong idea about stage fright, they think it refers to a state where actors freeze on stage, unable to recall their lines, or perhaps are scared of going on stage for fear of failure. One renowned actor I worked with described his own experience as like being able to hear the thoughts of the audience as he spoke and they all thought he was a terrible fake. Try getting through a play with that running through your mind. What Roth pinpoints brilliantly is that many of the great actors have no idea what makes them so great, they can't identify what it is they do which makes them different they just know there's something. Imagine then the horror when for no discernible reason that something disappears.

Of course, if you've had it, you always have something unlike anyone else's. I'll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me - that people will always remember. But the aura he'd had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, ...none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment on stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn't thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything, and everything spontaneous and vital was killed - he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it.

The two extracts I've used so far are simply the first two paragraphs. I told you that first section was great. Roth is also aware of that other quality that distinguishes the great actors from the good: 'intensity of listening'. This is interesting for a couple of reasons beyond the fact that it is an astute observation. As far as I have been able to gather one of the surprising things about Roth, the man of letters, is that in person he is actually a charming host/conversationalist/humorist - I suspect that in the flesh he is someone who can exhibit that same intensity of listening which can make men so attractive to women. For Axler the ability to listen is something he learns once again through his meeting with a fellow patient at the institution in which he commits himself when the fallout from his career crisis leads to marriage breakdown and suicidal thoughts. He and Sybil Van Buren strike up a bond of support, she needing someone to confirm that she isn't insane for feeling as she does about her child-abusing husband. We'll come back to that section and relationship later.

So the first act is complete, containing all the references to suicide you could want and even, in classic dramatic style, placing a loaded gun amongst the many props. This is why the leap made in the second act is so baffling and, at times, absurd. Axler is sought out by Pegeen, the 40 year old daughter of long term friends who has been living as a lesbian since her early twenties but who wants now to sample a man, to sample our man (despite his advanced years and bad back which make just the one sexual position possible). Is this the stuff of an old man's fantasy? Well, no, it doesn't read like that. Pegeen isn't depicted as your obvious lesbian fantasy, she is damaged in many ways and there is something that makes sense about her picking Axler as the safest option for her experiment in sexual orientation. The reader of course can see that this relationship, as it soon becomes, is doomed to failure even before Axler makes the fatal mistake of introducing a third (female) party into their bedroom.

When a man gets two women together, it is not unusual for one of the women, rightly or wrongly feeling neglected, to wind up crying in a corner of the room. From how this was going so far, it looked as though the one who'd wind up crying in the corner would be him.

The major problem with this part of the book is its absurdity. As the Bad Sex Award nomination will tell you it's very hard to read about a green strap-on dildo without laughing out loud and for many readers the idea of an elderly man being sought out by a lesbian a whole generation younger than him, who then invites another woman into the bed, will be a little too fantastical to take seriously. But let's get past the increasingly sombre author photographs, the focus on mortality in his latest string of small novels and remember that Roth has always had a sense of humour. He is surely well aware of what he is writing, he wants us to laugh, wants Axler to seem ridiculous in his pursuit of one last fling and even sadder in his desire to develop the relationship into something even further. Roth also gets in before the critics can say it makes no sense, the ease with which Axler picks up a woman in a bar to become part of their sexual adventure.

Though what did make sense? His being unable to go out and act on a stage? His having been a psychiatric inpatient. His conducting a love affair with a lesbian whom he'd first met seen nursing at her mother's breast?

The fatal misjudgement that risks jeopardising the book's place amongst this late artistic examination of mortality is that by making Axler ridiculous rather than sad he maybe isn't the best choice of suicidal hero. If this is a book about suicide then the sub-plot of Van Buren, which Roth returns to before the end, is the one that might have made a better focus. In just a snatch of conversation and a letter he manages to make her a far more compelling character than should be possible with so little. There is something empty about the dramatic gestures of Axler, an actor who knows his own weakness for applying the skills of his trade to his own, supposedly real emotional life.

If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it? How would he do the phone call? In a voice that was trembling or a voice that was firm? With wit or with savagery, renunciation or rage? He could no more figure out how to play the elderly lover abandoned by the mistress twenty-five years his junior than he'd been able to figure out how to play Macbeth.
When he finally makes the call, giving himself acting notes along the way he realises the futility in a statement that I think backs up what I was saying earlier about Roth's approach to this novel.

Oh, play it however like, Axler told himself. Probably you're playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it.

For a couple of other views on this book may I recommend the similarly theatrical Kevin From Canada and The Mookse and The Gripes, who has the intelligence to see the worth of this novel as part of a body of work.


Friday 11 December 2009

'all that glisters...'

by Ian Fleming

My first ever Bond will probably be my last, unless Kirsty Young starts issuing them along with Shakespeare and The Bible and I get bored of both of those. As I walk past the specialist bookshops of Cecil Court and Charing Cross Road I constantly see those distinctive first edition covers and I believe they remain some of the most actively traded first editions in the market, constantly changing hands for silly money on eBay (and other auction based websites). Was there any substance to their appeal I wondered; well, no, it would seem on this evidence, unless dull, dated, misogynist, racist (and other -ists) thrillers are your cup of tea.

I won't bother with much of a plot synopsis, you know how it goes: Goldfinger plans raid on Fort Knox, Oddjob lobs bowler hat at statuary, absurdly named lesbian gang leader falls for 'a real man' - actually, is she a lesbian in the film? Well she is in the book, until that is James Bond shows her the error of her ways. Bond is in a bit of a funk at the beginning of the novel, examining his conscience after ending the life of a Mexican who was sent to kill him. The solution to that problem is to make the most of a cancelled flight home from Miami and get roaring drunk at an upmarket hotel. This happens after meeting Mr Du Pont at the airport and accepting his offer of a suite for the night and $10,000 in cash if he can help figure out why he keeps losing at Canasta with a certain Auric Goldfinger. The thing that surprised me about reading a Bond book is how slowly the plot unfolds. 100 pages in and all Bond had done was to solve the Canasta problem, beat Goldfinger at golf and enjoy a close personal attachment with his personal assistant. Even summarising it like that I'm making it sound more exciting than it reads. The prose is a bit leaden and the dialogue far from the snappy, quip laden guff of the films.

What threatens to make it interesting is how a man with a licence to kill deals with that responsibility, how it makes him feel to have had the power to decide whether someone lived or died, does it close the gap between him and the men he pursues? The moment of introspection at the beginning is picked up again when he discovers that his nights of passion with Goldfinger's assistant, Jill Masterson, have led to her being killed.

Bond closed his eyes tight, fighting with the a wave of mental nausea. More death! More blood on his hands. This time, as the result of a careless gesture, a piece of bravado that had led to twenty-four hours of ecstasy with a beautiful girl who had taken his fancy and , in the end, rather more than his fancy...This death he would not be able to excuse as being part of his job. This death he would have to live with.

Which all sounds well and good until I suspect you get to the next novel and it's business as usual. Jill's sister Tilly, whom Bond interrupts in her quest to assasinate Goldfinger doesn't fare so well. His advances spurned by this young girl who gazes lovingly at Pussy Galore leads Bond to surmise that she is

...one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up...they and their male counterparts were a direct result of giving votes to women and 'sex equality'. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. the result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits - barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied.

When she meets the same fate as her sister there's no moment of introspection from Bond, 'Poor little bitch' is all he can muster. Oddjob is the other standout character, here made physically terrifying with his hands covered in a 'yellowish carapace' of hardened skin making them formidable weapons, his cleft palate making every utterance a guttural shout. I guess you need to dehumanize your foe and you can keep your political correctness and enlightened view of the global community to yourself as Bond thinks the Korean's place is 'rather lower than the apes in the mammalian hierachy', (he doesn't discriminate when it comes to racial abuse though: Mr Solo's 'Italian swarthiness' leads Bond to guess that 'he probably had to shave every three to four hours').

You could forgive the language, views and sexual/social politics that date the book if it was simply a rollicking good read, but it isn't. Whatever you might think about the latest incarnation of Bond on the big screen he does at least seem to have some depth, some humanity, some fallibility; qualities which are vaguely hinted at here but never pursued to any satisfaction.


Wednesday 9 December 2009


Nick Moran's film started life as a play, which he co-wrote with James Hicks. It was Con O'Neill who took the lead role of record producer Joe Meek in the West End and who revives it in the film version. The film is well made, well acted on the whole and certainly has a courageous central performance from O'Neill and only falters in one major way: Joe Meek was a complete c**t. This is why O'Neill's performance is courageous, he's not afraid of making him unsympathetic, his moments of clarity and affection few and far between, not to mention fully committing to his Gloucester accent (O'Neill used to work as an accent coach), a first surely for the silver screen. Meek was the man behind hits like 'Johnny, Remember Me', 'Just Like Eddie' and 'Telstar', recorded in a ramshackle studio housed above a handbag shop on Holloway Road, which is faithfully recreated for the film and where most of the action takes place (spot the script adapted from a stage play). This combination of manic genius producer and upstairs/downstairs comedy makes it a bit like watching an episode of Are You Being Served starring Phil Spector. Well, not really, but it's as bonkers an image as what you get, with opera singers recording in the loo and marbles being tossed down the toilet to record sound effects there's a manic energy to the proceedings.

O'Neill is excellent as I said and there's no doubt that his life lends an interesting narrative (one of many who passed on The Beatles it seems) to the film but there's no escaping the fact that despite the spiralling depression and mental instability you don't ever really care about him, so unpleasant has he been to those around him. His song writing partner Geoff Goddard is portrayed brilliantly by Tom Burke in a well judged and subtle performance. His protege Heinz is served equally well by JJ Feild and there is good support from brit flick regulars James Corden and Ralph Little. What to make of Kevin Spacey as Meek's backer Major Banks though. It isn't that the performance is particularly good or bad, it's just that it's Kevin Spacey in the middle of this very British film, looking about as conspicuous as he would if he walked into, well, a handbag shop on Holloway Road. Maybe he was part of the financing deal but there's no excuse for some very weird cameo performances from Marcus Brigstocke, Jimmy Carr, Justin Hawkins (from The Darkness - as Lord Sutch - I kid you not) and even author Jake Arnott. Carl Barat (of The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things) takes the honours though in a cringeworthy turn as Gene Vincent, his American accent does not bode well for his upcoming stage debut alongside Sadie Frost in Sam Shepherd's Fool For Love. All of these celebrity turns don't do anything to help the film, especially when the real gold is coming from O'Neill and Feild, two actors who many won't have heard of, quietly getting on with things whilst the circus whirls around them.

Meek's sexuality allows the film to take a look at attitudes to homosexuality in the period leading up to the sexual revolution but this isn't a film trying to make a point much beyond the four walls of Meek's studio. It's a shame in that case that there isn't more of the music, or more of an insight into what he did as a producer to so hone that sound (especially given that he was tone deaf). I should be recommending this film, it's certainly streets ahead of most of the drivel that we seem to produce here with alarming frequency, but it's just not that enjoyable.


Monday 7 December 2009

'the past is of no importance'

Oracle Night
by Paul Auster

Whilst everyone else has been tucking into Auster's latest, Invisible, I felt I needed a little primer first. It has been a long time since I read (and loved) The Book Of Illusions and even longer since I first tackled The New York Trilogy and Leviathan. Auster is a writer who returns to similar themes, using similar tricks and techniques, so that when you are in the loop and into it each successive book develops on the one before it to give the reader another satisfying dose of playful fiction. Out of the loop however Austerland can be a pretty unforgiving place but receiving this book as a gift came at just the right time, almost as if it was meant to be, and if you've ever read a word of Auster then you'll understand the significance of that.

Many of Auster's familiar tropes are here: writers writing, chance, meta-fiction, stationary, yes - stationary; in fact stationary might just be the most important element of this novel. Writer Sidney Orr is slowly recovering from a near-fatal illness when he pops into the Paper Palace stationary shop and buys a blue notebook from Portugal on a whim. Why this particular notebook should draw him to itself or indeed why he has never before noticed this particular shop on his many walks around the neighbourhood is all part of the mystery but
he finds himself encouraged by this purchase alone to begin writing again, taking as his inspiration the tale of Flitcraft, a small character from Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. It is something he had discussed previously with friend, and fellow writer John Trause (anag. Auster). In Orr's version successful editor Nick Bowen is almost crushed by a falling gargoyle and undergoes a similar realisation to Flitcraft: that life is governed by chance, he has been given a second chance at his own and with that and the recently discovered manuscript by 1930's writer Sylvia Maxwell (called Oracle Night) he walks away from his life and gets on a plane to Kansas City. The book we are reading is made up as much of Sidney's writing as his own tale and that's before we even go in to the plot of Maxwell's Oracle Night in which Bowen 'begins o see a connection between himself and the story in the novel, as if in some oblique, highly metaphorical way, the book were speaking intimately to him about his own present circumstances.' This is important because of course whilst all this is going on Orr is struggling to recognise the crisis unfolding in his own life, in his own marriage, and the echoes from each text rebound and rebound until Orr has to question whether he has made things happen in his own life by writing about them in his fiction.

Blimey, that was a bit of a paragraph, wasn't it? That's Auster for you. I'd forgotten how he does that with his plots and what a stimulating writer he is. It's no wonder that he is so beloved by other writers whilst at the same time seen by some to be far too self-reverential. Personally I think there's a lot to be said for the novel that combines the excitement of the thriller, with the analysis of a far more philosophical book, with a dash of eroticism thrown in occasionally. the transformative power of the act of writing is so vividly imagined here when Orr visits the apartment of his friend Trause, the apartment he has been using as his template for Nick Bowen's in his fevered writing.

I had visited Trause's apartment countless times in the past, but now that I had spent several hours thinking about it in my own apartment in Brooklyn, peopling it with the invented characters of my story, it seemed to belong as much to the world of fiction as to the word of solid objects and flesh-and-blood human beings.

Having been at home writing about this imagined apartment he now finds himself in the actual apartment imagining himself writing about it back at home, a kind of 'double consciousness.'

I was there, fully engaged in what was happening, and at the same time I wasn't there - for there wasn't an authentic there anymore. It was an illusory place that existed in my head, and that's where I was as well. In both places at the same time. In the apartment and in the story. In the story in the apartment that I was still writing in my head.

Given the nature of both the novel's plot and that of the book within the book (and the book within that) the energy is always moving forwards. In his work, in his marriage, Orr is always looking forwards, failing to learn from or look properly at what has lead up to the present moment, which contributes to that sense of the thriller or detective novel and keeps your brain ticking over nicely as Auster/Orr/Bowen/Flagg feel there way around the developing plot. However, by allowing Orr to improvise his writing as we read he ends up taking us down a narrative dead-end - all very ironic and post-modern (and he does make use of it) but it does make you feel at times that Auster could literally do this in his sleep. This is a small niggle though, especially at what is only playfulness. Despite the big themes and ideas that his work explores Auster is just as happy to stick a pin in any pretensions to meaning. As Trause explains to Orr when talking about that seductive blue notebook (you stationary-lovers out there know what I mean).

'It's funny, but when I looked over the pile this morning, I went straight for the blue myself. I felt drawn to that one, as if I couldn't resist it. What do you think that means?'
'It doesn't mean anything, Sid. Except that you're a little off in the head. And I'm just as off as you are. We write books don't we? What else can you expect from people like us?'


Thursday 3 December 2009

The Antlers - Hospice

Radiohead may have grabbed all the headlines when they gave fans the chance to pay what they liked for In Rainbows, effectively giving their music away for free to some people, but others have been quietly doing exactly that for years. One such act was The Antlers, who back when I discovered them after reading the Kwaya Na Kisser music blog consisted of just Peter Silberman. He released the ep, In the Attic of the Universe, as a free download for a while, it was marvellous, full of ambient atmospherics, was followed by another ep, Cold War, and then I sort of lost track. Big mistake. The Antlers now consist of Silberman, Darby Cicci and Michael Lerner and their first album proper is a difficult listen which rewards your effort if you stick with it. The sound has been fleshed out but the attention to detail remain and Silberman's gift for creating an atmosphere remains undiminished. Elliot Smith, Grandaddy, and Arcade Fire are acts that spring to mind when trying to make comparisons so if any of those entice or you have a thing for Sylvia Plath then read on.

Ok, so a concept album set in a hospice dealing with the death of a loved one from bone cancer is going to be the kind of CD that plenty of people are just not going to want to listen to, no matter how good it is, or how uplifting the experience might be. That's fine. Nothing I write here could force anyone to do anything but the difficult subject matter and the fact that no matter how sensitive you are with them, lyrics which include words to do with medical procedures or instruments are always going to sound a bit clunky, shouldn't deter you away from an accomplished album.

Silberman has been reticent in interviews to go into too much detail about the story behind this album. It certainly comes from somewhere personal and based on the lyrics and song titles we are listening to an album inspired by the loss of someone to bone cancer in the Sloan Kettering cancer ward in New York. Very feintly at the beginning of Prologue you can hear a sound similar to a respirator before a reversed cymbal ushers in the echoey chords and choral voices that begin the album. Kettering starts with a quiet piano before Silberman's voice, the microphone so close you can hear every breath and mouth noise, tells of his first encounter with the patient they call a 'hurricane thunder cloud', and whom he will stick beside despite being rejected initially (because of the tone of his voice). The quiet piano stabs and vocals swell into something much grander, backed up by electronic reverb and strings, before breaking down again at the end. My reference to Sylvia Plath earlier comes due to the track that bears her name, the one track on the album that I'm still struggling to fully appreciate. Perhaps it's hearing Silberman's usually quiet and graceful voice wailing or the slightly grandiose feel to the song. Either way it does at least communicate well the anger of this person he is attempting to soothe and talk to.

That devotion is made plain in Atrophy where he sings that he's '...bound to your bedside, your eulogy singer./I'd happily take all those bullets inside you and put them inside of myself.' The gentle piano is accompanied by the ambient sounds that Antlers produce so well, and which in fact bury the melody in the middle of the track before an acoustic guitar brings Silberman back in - almost two tracks in one. A similar trick to Radiohead's No Surprises is pulled on Bear where a glockenspiel-like melody plays under a song whose lyrics use images of abortion and the unforgettable line 'And all the while I'll know we're fucked/And not getting unfucked soon.' If I described the music of this track as jaunty you'll get an idea of the contradictions on this album.

The euphoric guitar swell of Thirteen lifts up into ethereal vocals before the track that had me thinking of Arcade Fire the most begins. Two has those dense, narrative lyrics that made Funeral such a satisfying album used in this case to detail the troubled relationship of this couple. 'I didn't mind the things you threw, the phones I deflected./I didn't mind you blaming me for your mistakes,/I just held you in the doorframe through all of the earthquakes.' At the end of it all there is just the two of them. A farewell of sorts is made in Shiva where Silberman sings of her ring left in his fist. The dense lyrics return again on Wake which is punctuated by what sounds like an amplified in-breath, the song a kind of taking stock, of moving beyond the point of death, letting people back into his life. It is here that Silberman addresses himself I think, as a vast organ fills out the final lines, the last one repeated again and again, 'Some patients can't be saved, but that burden's not on you./Don't ever let anyone tell you you deserve that.'

With the Epilogue Silberman returns to some of the imagery of haunting that has appeared earlier but this time it is a question of redemption, of finding some kind of solace and, that most American of terms, closure. 'But you return to me at night,/Just when I think I may have fallen asleep./Your face is up against mine,/And I'm too terrified to speak./You're screaming,/And cursing,/And angry,/And hurting me,/And then smiling,/And crying,/Apologizing.' The music and voice appear in their most unadorned or enhanced state, his voice floating in that area that Jeff Buckley used so well. As I said earlier you may not want, or be able to listen to an album that makes so painfully clear the toll of caring for a loved one through chronic and fatal illness but there is something incredibly powerful about what Antlers have taken on in their début album. It will always be there waiting for those who will understand it when they want it.


Tuesday 1 December 2009

the articulation of silence

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth
by Chris Ware

I am always going on about this book, recommending it to all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons and with my recent forays into graphic fiction I thought it was time to revisit the one I hold in such high esteem. I'm glad to say that it is still as beautiful, enchanting, moving and exciting today as it ever was, a benchmark I think for what graphic fiction can achieve and a weapon to unleash on anyone who questions its standing alongside the classic novels of old. If after reading this you are at all tempted let me say first that you must spend the few extra pounds that will get you the hardback edition (only £11.99 on Amazon or The Book Depository). The dust jacket of this book is a work of art in itself, folding out into a large poster with intricate design and text, enough to keep you busy for a while before getting into the book proper. If you have come across Ware before it may be through his series the Acme Novelty Library which are similarly bursting with invention, containing cartoons, adverts, cut-outs etc. The spine and boards are beautiful too, every part of the book exuding quality, craft and attention to detail. What is it that lies inside though?

Chris Ware was brought up by his mother and grandfather, his father having left when he was a baby. It was in a Chicago newspaper that these strips first began to appear, Ware using Corrigan as a kind of alter-ego to work through the embarrassment and discomfort of meeting an estranged parent before attempting to do the real thing himself, perhaps. Whilst working on turning it into a book, which details the faltering relationships between fathers and sons, he received a call from a man claiming to be his own. In a section on the final page and boards of this novel Ware gives a vague summary of what happened next in order 'to admit the artless, dumbfoundedly meaningless coincidence of "real" life and my weak fiction - not to mention my inability at knitting them together.' Ware is heavy on the self-deprecation and his lack of confidence continued into bafflement when the accolades started pouring in after this book was published.

The meeting of Corrigan and his father after all those years apart is just one strand of the story. Ware also casts back further into the Corrigan line and explores the life of his grandfather and great-grandfather. The latter is working on the construction of 'The White City' for Chicago's World Fair in 1893. Though separated by generations there is still a lack of connection and familial care between all of the Corrigans, the mothers in each case having a large impact but in very different ways. The men are left to struggle to communicate well and to struggle also to relate to women. This may make it all sound a bit dour and self-pitying (Ware would be the first to accuse himself of that) and whilst its true that the book has attitude of someone with their head permanently tilted down to the floor it manages to lift itself above navel-gazing through some truly beautiful artwork and structure. He also manages to rouse your sympathy too, not by making any of his characters particularly sympathetic or even showing them coping well in the face of adversity. Somehow by doing almost the opposite he shows how difficult it can be to make the simplest gesture without being clumsy about it, how difficult it can be to say the simplest thing. One of the great achivements of the book is to articulate the silence between the characters, the uncomfortable moments between conversation, the 'ahems', the coughs, the awkward physical gestures. Perhaps only in this graphic form could you render those moments so perfectly.

Ware also plays around with the panels; not only with their size but also their orientation and direction. Some pages include arrows to help you along, some panels seem to merge pictures together, some are busy, others sparse and every now and then you come across a page that takes you completely by surprise (not many books like this contain a cut-out zoetrope). There differing styles of illustration and text as well to compliment the different time periods but the seamless transition from one to the other is one of the joys of following the flow of the book. The colouring has such a satisfying solidity to it too, and that combined with the first-rate prodction values make the book a joy to hold, read, leaf-through and show-off. Ware reckons it should take about 4 or 5 hours to read in total, which happens to be about the same amount of time that he ever spent with his father.


Friday 27 November 2009

'in the country of the blind...'

Day Of The Triffids
by John Wyndham

You know you've communicated the fact that you like reading when someone buys you a great wodge of Penguin modern classics for your birthday. They were a varied selection ranging from Bond to Bagheera but my first pick was made for a couple of reasons. I was six when the BBC adapted Wyndham's novel into a TV series so I'm sure it wasn't something I was allowed to watch and yet I have a very clear memory of John Duttine running about, those bright exotic flower heads and their whip like sting (leaving its signature red dots on the face of its victims), and an all pervading sense of genuine terror. Drunk on the success of other TV revivals (Dr Who, etc) the BBC announced that The Day of The Triffids would be getting a remake too, although it seems to have missed its initial scheduled release of, well, about now actually. Before it hits the screens I wanted to sample the source material and see whether it still stood up as a classic of its genre.

What I didn't expect was that it might be able to stand on its own two feet (much like the titular cannibals) regardless of genre. Sure, there are some bits that date it, and the dialogue is pretty wooden on the whole but reading it you stumble into example after example of films or books that it has influenced. When Bill Masen wakes in an empty hospital, removing the bandages from his face to find he might just be the only man left who can see in a world where the human race seems to have been blinded by a meteor shower, he walks out into a deserted London, just like Cillian Murphy did in the stunning opening of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. The sheer strangeness of such a populous city being emptied is well realised and when Masen enters Westminster later in the book, 'The deadness, the finish of it all, was italicized there.' For anyone who has lived in London there is something very effective about the naming of specific places and the detailing of the devestation that occurs simply from a lack of human upkeep. The only drawback with this localisation is the occasionallly earnest statement such as, 'That's why we're going to Clerkenwell. There's a place there that makes the best triffid-guns and masks in the world', which cannot help but raise a slight smile.

As he struggles to survive in the chaotic fallout of what may well have been an accidental attack from man-made satellite weaponry rather than an act of god, Masen realises the importance of sight, not only to his survival but to the dominance of the human species.

Man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain...it is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilization, all that he has achieved or might achieve hangs on his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he is lost. I saw for a moment the true tenuousness of his hold on his power, the miracles that he had wrought with such a fragile instrument...

Once this is taken away of course there is scope for a shift in the food chain, a moment the triffids are well positioned to exploit. Flesh-eating plants are a tough sell on the face of it but Wyndham's totally logical plotting makes perfect sense and has a certain frisson for the modern reader with GM crops in mind. A plant developed and bred for its vegetable oil has one major drawback it seems; easy enough for humans to control and manage until their own major advantage is taken away. Even more successful is the tension created by what isn't known about them: the curious stick-like protuberances that they beat against their stamens begin to seem something like language or communication and how is it that they manage to work together and know where and when to strike with most impact?

The post-apocalyptic world created by Wyndham is no less terrifying than that found in Cormac McCarthy's extraordinary The Road. Both men tap into the barbarism that comes with a breakdown of civilization and what helps Day Of The Triffids to retain its relevance today are those passages which make you question ho much we've really learnt in spite of our efforts to get connected to the real world around us.

When getting on for half a lifetime has been spent in one conception of order, reorientation is no five-minute business. Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing, but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how my food reached me, where the fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy. Our life had become a complexity of specialists all attending to their own jobs with more or less efficiency, and expecting others to do the same.

The post-apocalyptic world is always sparsely populated and Wyndham knows that the other crippling factor for such a 'gregarious' species is loneliness. For Masen in particular, loneliness is as large a foe as the threat of violence from other survivor communities or the triffids themselves, and he learns to his surprise how important companionship and love really are to him.

Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative - an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary...I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed as one atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly - that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...


Wednesday 25 November 2009

Star Trek

I am no Trekkie but the tone of surprise with which people told me that this re-invigoration of the franchise from man of the moment JJ Abrams was really rather good had me intrigued enough to take a look. My plan to watch it at the IMAX in Birmingham when I was working up there for a couple of days was scotched when my employers had the temerity to take me out for dinner that evening. Babies and work have meant that I've had to wait for the DVD release, no substitute I know for the big-screen experience but it's still an enjoyable ride in your own living room. The previous film incarnations had done enough to bury any integrity in the series years ago but somehow they've managed to begin at the beginning, include enough references for the fans and enough character and bangs for the neutral to give the USS Enterprise a chance of a few more years of bold going.

The casting is excellent for a start (although they could be accused of simply applying the simple 'younger, prettier' rule), Chris Pine as Kirk starting out off the rails and building steadily into the captain he will become , settling into that famous chair (with an uncannily familar posture) only at the very end of the film. It is Zachary Quinto's Spock who seems to be the natural leader and the duelling that goes on between these two very different men is the backbone of the film. Each has their own conflict with themselves and their ancestry and it is that which they battle against as much as Eric Bana's snarling Nero. Oh and the new look Uhura has both of them and probably most of the male audience turning their heads too. I particularly enjoyed Karl Urban's grouchy 'Bones' and was steeling myself against what could have been a cringe-worthy turn as Scotty from Simon Pegg only to find myself chuckling away.

As the first film there was always bound to be a fair bit of exposition and the time-travelling plot wasn't nearly as ingenious or puzzling as I believe the storylines can be but it was nice to see a film that made space feel like a genuinely dangerous place, the vacuum that it is, rather than just threatening the tilting camera on the wobbling sets of old. The battle scenes and space travel are genuinely thrilling, which is just as well in a film which felt a tad long to me. The big bangs and SFX won't be enough on their own though to keep this re-animated corpse going. If the franchise can maintain the human-(and alien)-interest storylines and keep the brain-teaser factor high then they might just get away with it. Don't worry about that for the moment though, just watch it and have some fun, everyone in the cast seems to be.


Monday 23 November 2009

'No, no ascension, no ether, no big to-do.'

by Jean Echenoz

After completing Echenoz' short novel Ravel I said I would leave it a bit before reading anything else by him, following the advice of Kevin From Canada who suffers from impatience as much as I do. What has followed in musical terms is more of a tacit than a true break but I had a plan to link the reading of his previous novel Piano, which seemed to be about a concert pianist suffering from anxiety, and Philip Roth's latest The Humbling which has an actor suffering stage-fright as its central character. Finding new authors and delving into their back catalogue can also be a risky business in terms of finding the same satisfaction as that initial experience, and knowing that Ravel was quite different from his previous work meant that I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Piano.

My plan didn't really work out for starters, the recent postal strike has kept me separated from Roth for the moment and having read Piano I'm not sure the two books will share much at all. The concert pianist Maz Delemarc may be suffering from a kind of performance anxiety but that isn't really what the novel is about. When we first meet him however his life is dominated by that fright, alcoholism and the spectre of a never consummated relationship. His companion is Bernie, a man whose basic function is to try and keep Max away from the booze and push him on stage if necessary when the time comes to perform. In the same way that Echenoz announced at the end of the first chapter that Ravel has only 10 years left to live he lets us know as early as the second paragraph here that Max will suffer a violent death in just 22 days. But he is blissfully unaware of this as the days count down and we follow his weaving progress through the streets of Paris, one moment of excitement coming when he thinks he has spotted his lost love Rose on the subway after which a chase ensues.

After the event which has been flagged up from the beginning Max finds himself in a kind of hotel, which feels more like a hospital, but a surreal one which seems to count Dean Martin and Peggy Lee amongst its staff. In this version of limbo Max must wait whilst it is decided whether he will go to 'the urban zone' or 'the park'. I think we all know which one of those is more desirable and I bet you can guess which one Max ends up in although he has great optimism in 'the balance sheet of his life'.

For it seemed to him that he had always behaved rather well. Taking a survey of his existence, he came to the conclusion that he hadn't seriously lapsed in any domain whatsoever. naturally, he had suffered from doubt, alcoholism, and acedia; naturally, ha had occasionally succumbed to laziness, allowed himself a few minor tantrums, or indulged in bouts of pride, but what else could he have done?

One of the conditions for his life after the centre is a total rejection of his previous existence. No more music, no more piano. it isn't until he comes across a locked piano at the Centre that he realises how little he has thought of music, a feeling utterly changed by the appearance of the object itself.

Max had to be content with circling for a moment, not more than two or three times, around the closed piano. Without much conviction, he also tried to lift the instrument's lid, if only to examine its sounding board and wrest plank, caress the strings and run his fingernail over them like a harp, but in vain: locked shut like the rest. During these two or three turns around the piano, the little idea grew in the back of Max's mind.
Despite the very different style of Ravel both books share a similar authorial charm in the way that the writer breaks in every now and then to speed things along to their essence, or sometimes the opposite, to take a moment to digress. These interruptions are often funny and charming, adding to the quirkier feel of this book. There is a distinct oddness certainly once Max reaches the Centre, but looking back I realised that the whole book is infused with that slightly off-kilter feeling. This makes for an enjoyable read, although I'll admit to being more satisfied by the far more accomplished Ravel. I hope that his recently published Running, based on the real life of Czech athlete Emil Zátopek, follows more in that vein.


Friday 20 November 2009


Why do I find myself having to watch 'children's' films in order to see innovative design, witty scripts and feel moved in some way? We can discuss that together below (although the yawning silence that greeted my request for feedback on Synecdoche, New York was not encouraging - unless you were all playing some kind of sick joke on me and providing me with the only appropriate response to a film like that), let's get on with Coraline. Any fans of Henry Selick's previous stop-frame animation features, James And The Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas will definitely want to see this as it continues that vein of work, looking slicker and more adventurous than ever without losing any of the charm that comes from using genuine puppets rather than CGI.

Based on Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, the film begins as Coraline moves with her parents to an apartment in a slightly dilapidated house in the country. Basically ignored by her parents she goes exploring finding first a deep well, then a neighbouring boy, Wybie, and then within the house a small door that she later discovers leads to a parallel world, similar to her own but better in every way. Here she meets her 'other' mother and father, again similar but improved and chillingly sporting buttons in place of their eyes. As they try to convince her to stay there rather than return and Wybie tells Coraline more and more about the disappearance of his grandmother's sister she realises the danger she is in and will have to fight hard, with a little help from a feral cat, to get back the family she wants.

Make no mistake, this film is dark. The first half an hour or so is harmless enough but once the plot darkens there are some pretty 'scary images', as the official parental guidance puts it. Which is great of course, I'm all for scaring the pants off kids, but I'd keep the younger ones on some safer fare for the moment. The performances work well , the visuals are striking, the design really beautiful in places, it's easy to see why the critics were so enthusiastic about it. Just get past the slow opening and you'll be rewarded by some stunning work, and a quick glance at the making-of documentary will give you an idea of the deliberation and attention to detail that helps make it that way.


Monday 16 November 2009

'tell me about the kings'

You Are Not A Stranger Here
by Adam Haslett

A short article in the Guardian drew my attention to Adam Haslett, his first novel Union Pacific apparently wowing many at the Frankfurt Book Fair (and snapped up by Atlantic Books in the UK). A quick search located this stunning review of his short story collection by none other than Just William's Luck favourite John Burnside. It really is a stunning review and all the prompting I needed to read a collection which had apparently been lauded, earning nominations for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, but passed me by completely. The stories are incredibly varied but a unifying theme might be people who are disconnected from life in some way, finding a moment of connection that alters their, and our, perception. It would be fair I think to say that the prevalence of mental unstability and violence means that the overall tone is dark but the opening story, Notes To My Biographer begins with a paragraph containing humour and a character that leaps off the page.

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of fleash. Bereaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.

Franklin Caldwell Singer gets the collection off to a cracking start, the epitome of unreliable narration, puffed up with his own importance, his delusions slowly stripped away during a visit to his estranged son. What he would think of as invention and eccentricity has clearly had a devastating effect on his family, now scattered to the winds, and Haslett judges perfectly the pace at which to turn humour into pathos, retaining throughout one of those utterly irresistable narrative voices. It shares many of its strengths with a famous story by Cheever called Reunion (a title Haslett uses himself later in the book) which you can hear being read by Richard Ford in a New Yorker podcast here.

In a complete change of gear Haslett matches the gifts of another master of the short form, Chekhov, with The Good Doctor. A young rural doctor is thinking of leaving his practice, after the National Health Service Corps scheme which placed him there with the promise of repaying his medical school loans has its funding cut, leaving him shouldering the debt. When he makes a routine visit to a patient who has suffered depression for many years and subsisted on a constant prescription of sedatives his faith in the talking cure will be put to the test. He is a man crippled by his compassion, well-meaning to that level attained by Simon of Cyrene, and as he learnt from Mrs Buckholdt the shocking story behind her present state I literally found myself exclaiming out loud. The skill comes in the clarity, unencumbered by emotion or melodrama, which adds to rather than taking away from the impact. The woman who is cast as patient, victim and burden is in fact strong, intelligent and independent. She sees the doctor for exactly who he is , knowing that the help he can offer isn't the help she needs.

In The Beginnings of Grief (which you can read online here) we meet a boy struggling to deal with his mother's suicide. By provoking the class bully he is able to find some kind of comfort in pain and violence. At the same time as these encounters, which also mark some kind of sexual awakening, we see him constructing in woodwork class a wooden chest which resembles a child's coffin, its symbolism clear as he heads towards the story's cathartic ending. It's barely over 4000 words long but has the kind of power that makes it feel more substantial.

I have simply mentioned the first three stories there, I could have picked any in this collection which contains no filler. In fact I'd be happy to tell you about them all but I'll give a final mention to the final story, The Volunteer, because it epitomises so much of what struck me in this book. An awkward teenager makes volunteer visits to an elderly woman, visits which have given her hope. As the story evolves and we follow the boy's stumbling progress towards losing his virginity we also witness the unravelling of Elizabeth's fragile mental state and are hit in the solar plexus by a revelation from her past. How a story manages to be gentle and brutal at the same time I have no idea but it is a trick he accomplishes several times. In his review Burnside wished we could apply 'the clear lens of hindsight' to sort the real thing from all the PR hype. As that Guardian piece illustrates Haslett is far from free of hype seven years after these stories were published but the act of reading them goes some way to blowing that aside and leaving it for you to decide whether he's the real deal.

For those who suspect he might be and who suffer from impatience you can read the opening of his forthcoming novel Union Atlantic here.


Friday 13 November 2009

District 9

A little like the alien spacecraft that adorns the poster this film seems to have arrived out of nowhere. Who would have thought that South Africa would be the breeding ground for a top-notch alien-politico-docu-buddy-flick (catchy, eh)? As one of the narrating voices says at the beginning, people would have expected first contact to happen in a city like New York rather than Johannesburg but it is here that an alien ship came to a halt almost 30 years ago bringing not laser beams and alien invasion but close to a million alien refugees in need of help. Referred to perjoratively as 'prawns' they now live in the titular shanty-town, looked upon by many of Johannesburg's human residents as a burden they would rather see jet off back home or shipped off elsewhere.

The private company in charge of policing them are MNU (Multi National United) who are looking to exploit the potential of the alien weaponry which so far is useless, the alien's DNA being integral to its functioning. The film begins as MNU are preparing to serve the aliens with eviction notices before moving them forcibly to District 10, a purpose-built camp 240 miles away from the city. We follow Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley in what is his first major acting role (it won't be his last - not just because I think he's marvellous but because I see he will be playing Capt. 'Howling Mad' Murdoch in the feature film of The A Team), as he heads the operation but intercut with that documentary and news footage we hear from various people involved, talking about it all as a past event, and we know from what they say that something goes very wrong.

When he is sprayed by some kind of fluid during a search Wikus begins a transformation. Anyone familiar with The Fly will understand what I mean and also have a good idea of the kind of special effects, not to mention the feeling of unease. What works so well here is that Wikus goes from a tank-top-wearing company man who regards prawns as a bureaucratic nuisance, to someone reliant on them for their help and protection. Given what his assimilation of alien DNA could mean to MNU he becomes a fugitive and the pace is frenetic, perhaps running away with itself towards the end where it becomes just like any other action thriller. It's most interesting moments come with the clever intercutting of different film stocks and perspectives, the distinctly weird way that man and alien have to work together, and the obvious significance of themes like segregation, dehumanisation and violence in a post-apartheid South Africa. All of this ignores the humour and the few tender moments that also dot the film; this is a man after all who wants nothing more than to be back with his wife again and that is the motivation behind all of the film's action.

In the age of identikit thrillers and action movies the set-up of this one is sufficiently interesting, and its execution in the first hour-and-a-bit original enough to warrant attention. It certainly heralds a promising future for its lead actor and director Neill Blomkamp


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