Tuesday 26 May 2009

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

I feel a need to tread carefully with this one. Music reviews, especially on blogs very often only come in one gear: full-throttle, 5 star, album-of-the-millennium, life-changing, bar-raising hyperbole. I'm as guilty of that as anyone, with enthusiasm shown for Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective coming back to bite me slightly. Grizzly Bear have sneaked up on me from nowhere after a recommendation from James Dalrymple and their name has been mentioned in the same breath as the bands above, partly because their music could be said to inhabit a space between them (Not as folky as the Foxes nor as out there as the Animal's) but mainly because they have all been caught up in the religious fervour of the on-line music reviewing biz.

So with that caveat let me get going with my praise for this quite brilliant album. Grizzly Bear's last, Yellow House, was filled with lots of interesting stuff, an album that created a real atmosphere and rewarded a listening from beginning to end. This follow-up contains far more stand alone tracks, which I'm sure will prove to be far more radio-friendly and lead to much better exposure for the band, whilst some live performances on Later and Letterman won't have hurt either. Two Weeks and While You Wait For The Others, the tracks they performed on Later, are both standouts. The former is a wonderful sunny track punctuated by plonky piano chords which aren't a million miles away from It's A Hard Knock Life from the musical Annie, emphatic organ and bass and a melody which makes it an obvious first single. I defy you not to tap your feet as it begins or nod your head as the organ arpeggios carry the chorus. The latter is far more complex, its lyrics carrying a cruel edge, ('You could beg for forgiveness/As long as you like/Or just wait out the evening/You'll only leave me dry...So I'll ask you kindly to make your way'), the sound of the guitars making it sound like a track from another era but their combination with the vocals and the structure of the song mean it sounds very much of today.

The album's opener Southern Point is typical of the band, managing to start off sounding like one kind of track before carnival drums take it somewhere else, then stripping back and building up layers of sound again, showcasing some of the different styles they are capable of, not really following a verse/chorus structure, not to mention a couple of false endings. It's also an example of their confidence, which manifests itself not so much in being audacious but by sounding completely in control of their music, making music which is uniquely theirs. At times on this album they seem to have the kind of confidence The Beatles must have had at the height of their powers. The beautiful vocals are evident on All We Ask with its haunting closing refrain of 'I can't get out of what I'm into with you' and Fine For Now shows that whilst they may be compared to Fleet Foxes they are capable of making music which contains more variety and lyrics which cut to the quick, 'If it’s all or nothing, then let me go'.

That said, there are moments which don't work so well. Ready, Able and About Face are more like the atmospheric but aimless tracks from Yellow House which some will love but after the strength of what has come before (and will come after) they lack grounding. Perhaps these are the kind of tracks that will reward repeated listening. Where that eclectic musicality can work is on a track like I Live With You which seems to contain more narrative than the simple lyrics alone. Many tracks on the album seem to deal with relationships under threat, at that point at which they collapse or survive. Here the music is almost theatrically descriptive and the threat is more like that of attack, 'They'll try, they'll try, they'll try/To keep us apart...You brought us this far/We'll do what we can'. (This may also be one of the few albums to take a fish like the humble dory and spin out a track which is both experimental and oddly touching.)

There is a quality that both albums have in common which is difficult to name, something hard to grasp. I don't want to use a word like dreamy, although that's exactly what a track like Cheerleader is ('I'm cheerleading myself/I should've made it matter'). It certainly isn't light, one critic has already accused the album of being 'demanding', but it is otherwordly. Like the best bands Grizzly Bear are quickly developing something which is theirs alone and the real coup of this album may be to have found a way to get that sound across in a far more palatable form than previously but without concession. As both Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen sing on Hold Still, 'I'll take one chance/Without compromise'. This might be the only chance they need to provide 2009 with one of its best albums.

Those 'Later...' live performances can be seen here.


Friday 22 May 2009

'the vast effort to be human'

The Seventh Well
by Fred Wander

It may only have been March when Mr Self proclaimed this to be 'the best new book I have read so far this year' but that, and the trusty name of Michael Hofman as translator, is good enough for me. As well as providing excellent translations Hofmann often writes brilliantly helpful afterwords as well, which for a reader like me, who is often approaching the author as a novice, are invaluable. Fred Wander was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and eventually liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 but it wasn't until 25 years later, after the tragic death of his 10 year old daughter, that he sat down to commit his memories to paper and give extraordinary voice to the people he had lost.

Not only is Wander a new author for me but I have read very little 'Holocaust literature'. As an enthusiastic A-Level History student I spent almost a year studying the Nazi era and one of my documentary readers was filled with personal testimony from inmates, guards, and liberators. I found the immediacy of those real accounts electrifying and perhaps because of that have seldom been tempted by the wealth of memoir and fiction inspired by one of the most notorious periods of history. As John points out in his own review there is always a problem of preconception and twinned with that the question of how to respond. I'll never forget going to watch Schindler's List at the massive Empire cinema in Leicester Square and the shock of being rendered speechless along with the rest of the full audience as we filed out after it had finished. What is one supposed to say after that? We had been brutally silenced by becoming witnesses, a feeling I was reminded of when Wander describes the silent compliance of his comrades when they were ordered to board the transports to certain death.

Although this is described as a novel it still contains that immediacy of non-fictive testimony. Wanders begins with a chapter called How To Tell A Story, where he learns from Mendel the camp's master storyteller what is important when recreating for others. Wander's stories are in part so successful because they don't follow a linear timeline but instead are grouped thematically with chapters like Faces and Bread.

To eat bread, all you need is a little slab of fresh wood. You can find wood like that pretty much anywhere. Wood stands for forest, clearing, underbrush. It signifies house, shelter comfort. All that's lost. Put it on the ground, on a pallet, on your knee, and you have a clean table. It signals to you that you're home, where you live. And now the bread: divide it up into three thick slices, break the slices into cubes. Chew each cube long and thoroughly. Taste the grain in it, the rain, the storm. Let the taste of the sun dissolve on your tongue.

What this means is that as you read through the book characters that had died earlier will come back into the narrative, which can leave you with the feeling of having lost them twice. There are even times when a character will be referred to as 'a dead man' whilst he still lives, capturing the man whose spirit has already left, his body soon to follow. Up until the last few pages you are struck by the fact that of course almost everyone died, these are the important words of a survivor.

As you can see above the other aspect which makes his stories work so well is the quality of the writing. In a comparatively short book there is a great variety of style. The ritual of camp life means that there are several moments where the language takes on a religious tone. There are clear biblical references as when Tadeusz Moll, a youngster with a rebellious streak, is placed at the stake with other delinquents to stand perpetually through the night as a punishment. Only one of them is tied, the others have the freedom to attempt escape but of course none of them do. Moll stands there and finds himself thinking of Jesus, the Jew who preached love, and as his body suffers from the cold and exposure the language extends into something rapturous as he realizes the miracle of life.

There are moments of poetry and even of comedy too. From starving inmates comes the perverse comedy of food when a sketch is performed; a waiter and diner in a restaurant the onlookers left helpless by the ordering of increasingly extravagant food. Those moments which risk being too beautiful are often brought into relief by the cold snap of reality. The night that is underscored by the operatic singing of Antonio leads to the morning when he is found dead. Again that reminder that this is a testament to those that didn't make it. The storyteller gives voice to those that cannot speak.

This is where Hofmann's translation is so skilful, the idiomatic speech comes through so clearly that you gain a really vivid portrait of each character. Those small details which can make a character live in your memory are preserved making it all the more affecting when they are taken away, each death still coming as a surprise in spite of the inevitability. Like John I could happily quote passage after passage, Wander has created a fiction which genuinely illuminates the facts, his experience washed by the water of the seventh well which in Rabbi Loew's words '...will cleanse you, and you will become transparent, like a well yourself, made ready for future generations, so that they will climb from the darkness, with a pure and a clear eye, and a light heart.' The years he spent not writing the book have also lent a perspective to the writing which makes it more accessible to those who aren't Jewish. As well as asking himself what keeps a man alive he is witness to what happens when that fight is lost, reflected in the face of a Ukranian peasant.

Everything falls away from such a face. Everything studied and habitual drops from it, like a husk. And what remains? I watched the transformation, I had previously only seen this spiritualization in the dead. A strange luster suddenly lies on the face, and you can't recognize even your own friend anymore. You've never seen so much accumulated earnestness and dignity and purpose in him. How was he able to hide it from you before? Before then you realize: a man's face is thousands of years old. The few years of his own life have fallen from it, everything weak and unfulfilled. What's left behind is the face of his fathers and mothers. The expression of the vast effort to be human.


Wednesday 20 May 2009

Joining the twits.

I have joined Twitter.

I have no idea why.

I'm not quite sure how it works.


follow me here


Tuesday 19 May 2009

Being Charlie Kaufman - what must that be like?

I know that this film rides a very thin line; genius on one side, tosh the other. I really hope it's the former.


Friday 15 May 2009

'there's no way to go but the way we're going'

Nobody Move
by Denis Johnson

How to even begin to describe a writer like Denis Johnson? He doesn't make it easy. Any attempt to categorise him is going to lead to a lot of hyphens or a lot of categories. Not only is he a poet, playwright, journalist and novelist; just his fiction has ranged from connected stories detailing the drug-addled exploits of a man everyone calls Fuckhead to his 600+ page, National Book Award-winning, Vietnam opus, Tree of Smoke. You never quite know what he's going to do next, so I shouldn't really have been surprised to find that his latest novel, originally serialised in Playboy, is a noir thriller with a gambling addicted barbershop singer at its centre. The blood red cover should have given a clue of course and the US edition below makes it even more obvious that this is a book that takes great pleasure from guns, the wounds they cause and the men (and women) who like to carry them.

Jimmy Luntz is the harmoniser with big debts to a man named Juarez. When he is picked up by the big man's goon, Gambol, he knows he is only moments away from having his legs broken. So he shoots Gambol in the leg (that wound described as 'the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh.') and leaves him to die, taking his wallet and car.

Anita Desilvera is an alcoholic, framed by her now ex-husband, a county prosecutor, for embezzling $2.3million. She happens to spot Luntz by the Feather River when he is discarding the gun used to shoot Gambol, humorously describing him thus: 'He wasn't wearing a Hawaiin shirt at the moment but undoubtedly possessed several.' The two of them meet later in a motel bar and after an evening of karaoke and alcohol the fall into bed with one another and hook up for a ride towards their own forms of vengeance.

Gambol meanwhile has been pulled from the culvert in which he was bleeding to death by Mary, 'a hefty blond', who nurses him back to health with what you might call extra-curricular therapy. He dreams of finishing of Luntz and it isn't long before he is on his trail once more. He is one of those enforcers from the long line of heavies with distinguishing marks, his particular infamy being a predilection for consuming his foe's testicles. Johnson also tries to make something more of him through his relationship with Mary but he's a thoroughly repellent piece of work.

In fact you'd be hard pressed to have sympathy for anyone in this novel, except perhaps one couple caught up in Luntz's wake. The enjoyment of course comes from the style and the thrill of the chase. Luntz explains the appeal and the terror of it all.

"You brush against these people, you know? Just brush up - and it's an electric thing, you get some juice from it, you feel like you've got some balls, but - these people are hard."

In what was only ever going to be a slight novel Johnson's writing keeps things interesting, Luntz's vision when being strangled 'turned a brilliant brown, then a mellow purple, then a beautiful color he'd never seen before in which he had everything he needed and all the time in the world to decide what came next', and with all the violence he finds unique ways to illustrate those moments at life's margins. He's always been good at dialogue but his work as a playwright has been helping him to hone that skill still further (He also studied under Raymond Carver himself at the Iowa Writer's Workshop). Above that though he manages to add something enigmatic to the mix, to find poetry even in and amongst a bunch of criminals, losers and alcoholics.

"The dead come back. Death isn't the end."
"Let's be optimistic," he said, " and assume that's bullshit."
"At night you can see them standing across the river."
"That sounds like the DTs." He reached for the pocket in his too-large flannel shirt - Capra's maybe, or Sally's - and handed her the half pint of vodka. "Have a party."
She unscrewed the cap. "If you know the crossing place," she said, "you can block their way." She looked like a child in an older brother's clothes. She turned the bottle up and wrapped her lips around its neck.


Wednesday 13 May 2009

'the measure of all things'

Dearest Father
by Franz Kafka

Oneworld Classics is a publisher from the same team behind Alma Books who I mentioned recently. Their list ranges from the popular (Jane Eyre, Frankenstein) to the lesser known (Jonathan Swift's The Benefit Of Farting - anyone?) and with the addition of the Calder publications list, now has a wide range of European classics. I recently identified that if there was a gap in my reading it probably lay in this area, which is probably why when they offered to send me an 'evaluation copy' of one of their titles I was both pleased and a little daunted by the importance of making the right selection. In the end I copped out slightly by going for a short work by a writer I knew of, and one that isn't really fiction at all after all that.

Although, as translators Hannah and Richard Stokes point out in their introduction, 'No "factual" writing is without an element of fiction.' The very act of recalling and ordering his thoughts would have altered from the truth of events and despite the ordered almost legal structure to the 'case' against Hermann Kafka, there is of course strong emotion running throughout the letter (the Stokes' excuse any 'clumsiness' by explaining their wish to retain the 'awkwardness of Kafka's fevered, fermented Germanic original'). It is unclear whether the letter was ever really intended to be read by his father. After writing it, Franz made a typed copy, added some annotations for proof-reading and asked his mother to forward a copy to his father, which she couldn't bring herself to do of course. The letter was amongst other papers entrusted to Max Brod on his death and rather than burn it as instructed he published it all in 1953.

Kafka Sr. was clearly a strict and sometimes fierce parent and Franz found himself incapable of dealing with that scrutiny as the only child for many years. In one memorable episode he recalls being unceremoniously dumped on the balcony after keeping the house awake, whining for water.

Years later it still tormented me that this giant man, my father, the ultimate authority, could enter my room at any time, almost unprovoked, carry me from my bed out onto the pavlatche, and that I meant so little to him.

The tyranny of his father is constant, the rules all pervasive and yet never satisfied, it is no wonder that authority figures should loom so large in his fiction. Going back to what was said earlier about the fictionalisation of fact there is something very literary about his summation of a life lived under these rules.
Hence there were for me three worlds, one where I lived, a slave under laws that had been invented solely for me and, moreover, with which I could never fully comply (I did not know why), then another world, infinitely distant from mine, in which you dwelt, busy with ruling, issuing orders and being angry when they were not obeyed, and finally a third realm where everybody else lived happily, free from orders and obligation.
There are several ways in which he attempted to escape this control, for example his pursuit of religion, his work as a writer and his wish to be married. He approaches each of these methodically in the letter, his frustration clearly growing with each one. His writing allowed him to gain a little independence, '...even if in doing so I slightly resembled a worm, its tail pinned to the ground under somebody's foot, tearing loose from the front and wriggling away to the side.' But it is his humiliation through sexuality and his failure to marry which dominates the latter parts of the letter. He knows that 'Marriage certainly promises the clearest form of self-liberation and independence' and yet it would be no real independence at all because through marriage he would attain the same status as the man he is attempting to escape, and emulate his oppressor because he is 'the measure of all things'. For the reader today, the knowledge that his ill health would end his life before being able to achieve that goal makes this impassioned section the hardest hitting.

How true his representation of Hermann Kafka is is almost beyond the point. The simple act of writing an eighty page, well argued letter (which even contains an imagined retort and reply from the addressee) speaks volumes about the strength of the injustice Franz felt. And yet at the same time by appearing in written form it's physical presence attests to his inability to confront his father in person.

There are a few explanatory notes for the text (which are at the back of the book and if you're an impatient bugger like me lead to that constant flick forwards/flick back/lose place/stop reading notes scenario) and some interesting letter extracts and diary entries which provide some context and wider reading in what is a slim volume. But the small size shouldn't detract from the importance of what it contains especially for the reader who wants to know more about the forces that helped shape such a distinctive writer.


Monday 11 May 2009

'As ordinary as it all appears...'

Interpreter Of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of those names that I often see on prize nomination lists and best of the year compilations. In fact it was only this awareness of her that lead me to include her in my own selection on KFC's National Book Award contest. When I rather luckily won I asked Kevin to recommend some titles to me and he spotted that Lahiri was absent from my author list and that her first collection would be a great place to start. It's difficult to know how to add anything about a book which has already been so well covered and indeed comes with four pages of positive reviews pasted into the front of it, but I'll give it a go.

The opening story, 'A Temporary Matter', is cut from the same cloth as Carver. A young couple forced into candlelit dinners by a few days of power cuts are encouraged by the safety of that darkness to pull apart their relationship, engaging in a game of confession. A traumatic event has been the catalyst towards the breakdown of their relationship and that same event provides the secret which is laid devastatingly on the table, like a cruel trump-card in the stories bitter climax. The story is dotted with symbols like the jars of food preserved by Shoba which had once stood as a testament to their bounty but now, as they work their way through them, serve only to show the dwindling stock of their relationship.

Many of her stories deal with Indians now living in the US, and she is very good at showing those tastes, smells and colours that connect them back to home. In 'When Mr Pirzada Came To Dine' the title character is from Dacca (then part of Pakistan but to become Bangladesh after the civil war which is happening during the story) where his family still remain. Each evening he comes to dine and watch the news and our narrator who was ten at the time is unsettled by the totem which connects him to his family. A pocket watch, dutifully wound each evening and placed on the table, set to the time in Dacca, - 'an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first.'

In another story it is exactly that which is not Indian which forces a husband to realise how little control he has on his life and especially his wife. When Sanjeev and Twinkle move into 'This Blessed House' she begins to find Christian ornaments hidden away all over it. Much to his annoyance these mount up into quite a display which he finds embarrrassing when they host a housewarming party. There is a brilliant moment during a rare moment of quiet when his guests are with Twinkle in the loft of their house, searching for more Christian paraphenalia. As they stumble around up there he realises,

'With one flick of his hand he could snap the ladder back on its spring into the ceiling, and they would have no way of getting down unless he were to pull the chain and let them. He thought of all the things he could do, undisturbed.'

In general terms there are a couple of things that stand out in this collection. The first is that it doesn't contain any of the attention grabbing tricks that you might expect in a writer's first collection. Despite it having being described in the New York Times as a 'precocious début', what is remarkable is the maturity of the writing. Lahiri has the confidence to write with elegance and restraint where others may have been tempted to cram it full of colour and exoticism. What she does manage to cram in is detail of character and history.

In the title story the interpreter is Mr Kapasi, acting as driver for a holidaying family on a trip to the Sun Temple and behaving with more dignity than any of them. He notices immediately their immaturity: 'They were all like siblings...Mr and Mrs Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents. It seemed that they were in charge of the children only for the day'. He works as an interpreter for a doctor, a job which his own wife finds shameful so he is flattered by the interest shown by Mrs. Das only to find that she has selfish motives when she confesses that her husband is not the father of one of her sons. 'Mr Kapasi felt insulted that Mrs. Das should ask him to interpret her common, trivial little secret.' What one manages to pick up from the rest of the story is a detailed history of Mr Kapasi, his marriage, their losses, his hopes and ambitions. Lahiri than rounds things off with a surprising climax, something of a motif in this collection - but not the kind of plot-turning twist so prevalent in a lot of short fiction but something genuinely surprising and perhaps enlightening.

The standout story for me was Sexy - a brilliant dissection of adultery in a surprising setting. Miranda, who has been conducting an affair of her own, babysits the son of her friend's cousin. Their family has been in crisis after the husband met a woman on a plane and never returned home. The brilliance is to have the revelations filtered through Miranda's conversation with Rohin, the young boy, not only shining a light on his family discord but on Miranda's own situation and showing just who adultery affects, and how. When he asks her to put on a cocktail dress which she had bought to impress her lover but which now languishes on the floor of her closet he calls her sexy.

"What does it mean?"
"That word. 'Sexy.' What does it mean?"
He looked down, suddenly shy. "I can't tell you."
"Why not?"
"It's a secret." he pressed his lips together, so hard that a bit of them went white.
"Tell me the secret. I want to know."
Rohin sat on the bed, beside Miranda and began to kick the edge of the mattress with the backs of his shoes. He giggled nervously, his thin body flinching as if it were being tickled.
"Tell me," Miranda demanded. She leaned over and gripped his ankles, holding his feet still.
Rohin looked at her, his eyes like slits. He struggled to kick the mattress again, but Miranda pressed against him. He fell back on the bed, his back straight as a board. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and then whispered, "It means loving someone you don't know."
There's some brilliant description there: the mattress kicking, the nervous laughter, that board-straight back; all of which shows how young this holder of knowledge is.

The final story, 'The Third And Final Continent', is almost bursting with character history and manages to pinpoint what is so appealing about her writing in its summation. For those moving from one country to another, finding new cultures and experience there is genuine wonder to be found in the most ordinary of things and it is that which Lahiri is so adept at articulating.

I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewilered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.


Friday 8 May 2009

'you've saved so much'

Lark And Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips

On reading Trevor's positive review (which began by citing a litany of other positive reviews) and realising that it would give me the perfect excuse to read Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury, it was with a surprising level of confidence that I dived into my first taste of Jayne Anne Phillips, a writer I was completely unaware of previously, famed for her short story writing, this novel coming nine years after her last. I am happy to report that the confidence was not misplaced, this is a terrific novel and actually more than that; the best new novel I have read so far this year.

Phillips makes clear her debt to Faulkner, The Sound And The Fury providing one of three epigrams, 'Because no battle is ever won...' and like that book we are to be told a story from four different viewpoints. It begins in 1950, Corporal Robert Leavitt is an American soldier in Korea during the early stages of the conflict there. Whilst the military strategy remains chaotic the writing manages to find moments of great stillness and beauty almost immediately.

Thatch roofs, saturated by weeks of rain, burn wet and smoky once they're set on fire. Smoke veils the air like souls in drifting suspension, declining the war's insistence everyone move on.
Leavitt has left his new wife Lola at home, pregnant with their first child, and even whilst he directs his troops and a group of civilians away from advancing North Korean troops he revels in remembrance of their coupling. When he stops to help a young girl carrying a blind child in need of assistance with an elder relative he senses something coming, 'something to hurt them all, carry them away', and sure enough the convoy are soon the victims of friendly fire.

The narrative switches here to Winfield, West Virginia in 1959 and we meet two children and their aunt: Lark, a 17 year old girl, effectively carer to Termite, her 9 year old half-brother who can neither walk or talk. Looking over both of them is Nonie whose matter-of-factness about her charge of them belies the complicated history of her own life and that of her sister Lola, wife to Leavitt, and long since dead.
Like Elise says, there's Lark and there's Termite. These children have got nothing to do with Lola, except they came through her to get to me. The one has stood on her own two feet since she was barely up to my elbow, and the other is happy with a piece of dry-cleaner bag a yard long and a few inches across.
Again, as in Faulkner's novel we have sections dedicated to the perceptions of a character cut off from the normal modes of interaction and communication. Termite's senses seem to be wired differently, he feels sight almost like touch, senses the weight and movement of things around and about him. He takes great pleasure from the piece of blue plastic he holds in front of his eyes, the sound and vibrations of the railroad train passing by.
The shapes that move around him are big, colliding and joining and going apart. They're the warm feel of what he hears and smells next to him, of those who hold and move and touch and lift him...Pictures that touch him move and change, they lift and turn, stutter their edges and blur into one another. Their colours fall apart and are never still enough for him to see, but the pictures inside him hold still.
Through Termite Phillips allows herself to display writing which reaches an almost rapturous pitch without it ever feeling like a stylistic exercise. She does this brilliantly by connecting the different sections of her story separated not only by character but by time. As Leavitt lies injured and dying in a tunnel we see echoes from the experience of Termite,
He wants to keep his eyes open, focused, but he's shutting down, losing track, his consciousness manufacturing images as though to compensate for his entrapment, his injuries. The images are vivid and acute, a sensory expansion or avoidance. It doesn't fell aimless; it feels like information, direction cut adrift from space and time.
Leavitt even feels connected to the moment of his child's birth on the other side of the world and as the intensity of the writing increases Phillips has the audacity if you like to connect her characters outside the realms of normal time and experience. I'm making a rather ham-fisted attempt to explain what she makes magical, and crucially without it feeling forced or melodramatic. By drawing parallels between the stories, repeating phrases or images, she manages to connect all points of the novel in the same way a composer finds unity in a vast opus by returning themes and phrases. For the reader this means moments of great satisfaction, often at those moments which are most moving, on realising that all things are connected.

The weight of personal history behind both Lark and Nonie builds a pressure behind their narrative which finds expression in a gathering storm. A stack of boxes in the basement which Lark knows contain her mother's things, and which she has so far been unready to open, lie dormant like Pandora's Box until the violent storm and the flood waters that follow it force her to save and confront them. In fact if I have a criticism it is that the back-story is substantial enough without the flurry of plot-points that come tumbling along with the flood. It is a rather rushed conclusion but understandable perhaps given the kinetic energy which has been building throughout the novel.

As someone skilled in the shorter form there are plenty of arresting images and sentences. The atmosphere literally closes down as the storm closes in, that strange light described first by Lark,
I see that Stamble glows a little in the strange light, and I do, and Termite does. My white blouse, Termite's T-shirt. The afternoon has closed down, gone purple, coaxed and sucked dark by the storm. Pale things look bright.
and then by Nonie in just a few words.
The storm has squeezed daylight to a thin shine...
There are so many other examples I could happily quote all day, the writing is constantly illuminating the dark and conflicted story with shafts of insight, like the bright light that steals through breaking storm clouds and seems to come from somewhere far beyond. Somewhere inspired and magical.


Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Veils - Sun Gangs

At the tender age of just 17 Finn Andrews released his first album with The Veils on Rough Trade Records. The Runaway Found was a stonking début, combining 60's influenced indie-rock with some darker tinged quieter moments, all delivered in Andrews unique voice which managed to sound like it had only recently broken and yet also carried plenty of life-experience. Creative differences lead to a changed line-up for the second album Nux Vomica which came after Andrews had spent some time back in New Zealand where he grew up (although he was born in London), and sounded as though they had all been listening to a lot of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. Which is no bad thing. Their third release, Sun Gangs, continues in this vein; dramatic and anguished in places, light and melodic in others, the instrumentation lacking the breadth of the Bad Seeds but coming pretty damn close to that sound which seems to come from somewhere very earthy and genuine. There's no huge departure here which may well be considered a good thing by those who liked what they heard on the previous album, but with such a similar structure there's not much to challenge your preconceptions. That said, it's another quality release from a songwriter who even now is only 25. Bastard.

'Sit Down By The Fire' kicks things off with chord bashing piano, strong choral backing and Hammond organ support from Ed Harcourt which all sounds very positive despite Andrews' frustration that 'There ain't no way to get what I want'. On the title track the music follows the downward trajectory of the lyrics , it's beautiful descending refrain matching the sentiment, 'Where I am going you can't save me'. 'The Letter' is the weakest track for me, sounding far too much like other bands which it is inadvisable to sound like in my opinion (Editors, U2) and is unfortunately followed by 'Killed By The Boom', which sounds like one of those angry tracks you'd be likely to skip on a Nick Cave album if you're anything like me. 'It Hits Deep' carries off the menace of those musical influences well by keeping it simple musically and allowing Andrews voice to carry the emotion of admitting that 'Now there's nothing keeping my heart from breaking.' 'Three Sisters' comes out all guns blazing like a well fuelled ceilidh band at Hogmanay and he sounds perhaps a tad overwrought as he screams out 'Oh my god/ All this for nothing'. That early 60's sound is back on 'The House She Lived In' and comes across as a little twee after the fireworks just before it. 'Scarecrow' slows the pace considerably, intoning an almost religious sound with female backing vocals from Canadian singer/songwriter Basia Bulat. All of which in some way prepares you for the album's longest track, 'Larkspur', which at eight and a half epic sounding minutes has shades of Jim Morrison and the opening to Apocalypse Now but recalls most clearly the sound of Jeff Buckley, another son of a famous musician (Andrews father is Barry Andrews of XTC fame). Whether it feels involved or indulgent will be up to you. After that battering, 'Begin Again' is a simple piano-backed track which highlights the fact that sometimes there's nothing more devastating than hearing that voice and the absolute truth of lyrics like: 'We're all just following the light of long-dead stars'.


Tuesday 5 May 2009

A Bunch Of Amateurs

Alright, it can't all be high culture here you know. Sometimes you need to turn on, tune in and switch off. Unfortunately that sometimes means that you find yourself wanting to do that last part before the film even ends. A Bunch Of Amateurs has a ludicrous premise which is simple enough: an ageing film star whose career is on the skids, an amateur dramatics group whose theatre faces closure and a desperate agent who senses an opportunity. It's a good idea which should provide fertile ground for some laughs. No, really, it should.

Burt Reynolds plays Jefferson Steele, the star past his prime, a piece of casting which is almost too close to the bone. There's something about his face which is just plain disconcerting. It doesn't move properly. It's a bit like watching an animatronic model of Burt Reynolds, and the operator is still getting the hang of things. And he seems to have trouble walking (and I mean him rather than the character). All of this is fine for the early scenes in the film where he labours under the impression that he is in the UK to play Lear for the RSC in Stratford, rather than the Stratford Players in Stratford St. John, Suffolk, and also leads to one of the better lines in the film where it is mentioned that he 'may be the only actor too old to play Lear'. But as the film follows its Lear-like arc Reynolds doesn't have anything like the skills to pull off any kind of development. In fact you begin to wonder whether the disdain with which his character treats the amateurs around him is put on at all.

The other major problem is that it simply isn't funny enough. There are a few smiles and the odd chuckle but the only person coming close to inspiring laughter is Imelda Staunton in a turn so fruity she could make up two of your five-a-day. As Mary, the owner of the B&B, she simmers and smoulders with sexual frustration like a bottle of bubbly waiting to pop. But there's precious little fizz elsewhere. Samantha Bond is fine as director and barely followed through love-interest and Derek Jacobi is appositely cast as the old-school ham who would have been playing Lear if it wasn't for the eleventh hour arrival of Steel. The script is good on the whole and is actually quite clever in the parallels it draws between the story of Lear and the narrative of the characters in the film. I think the problem may be the direction, which is pedestrian at best and occasionally a little...well - amateurish.

Yet another film to join the legions of British comedies which fail to deliver even a pleasant enough hour and a half of entertainment.


Monday 4 May 2009

Just William's gender reassignment

I don't know how it happened or what I've written here since this post but it seems that I've come over all manly.

Thank god for that.


Friday 1 May 2009

'blood always tells'

The Sound And The Fury
by William Faulkner

Knowing that a book on my TBR pile was heavily influenced by Faulkner's 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury, I thought it best to get my groundwork in first. My previous experience of Faulkner is limited to just the one novel, Light in August, which is of course brilliant; a richly detailed and complex novel which vividly conjured both an era and a place for me and dealt with the issue of race in an almost fearless manner. My ignorance was total in regard to this earlier novel which meant that I found myself quickly baffled by the opening pages which are notoriously (I now understand) tough, written in a stream of consciousness style and narrated from the point of view of Benjy Compson a thirty three year old man suffering from some form of mental retardation. Some sections are italicised, the change signifying a shift in time (though not necessarily confined to the section in that style) and I'll be honest and say that for the most part I could make neither head nor tail of it. The novel's title comes from Mac- ahem, the Scottish Play

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

For the first 60 pages or so this was a tale not only told by an idiot but being read by one too.

I needed some help, just to get a handle on things, so I admit I had a quick scan of Wiki and thank god I did. No wonder I was confused. Not only was I contending with a fractured narrative, multiple narrators, stream of consciousness and time jumps but there were two characters with the same name (and not even the same sex!) and the narrator of the first section (remember our friend Benjy?) is also known by an entirely different name which he shares with his uncle!

(deep breath)

So, bolstered now by some basic knowledge I felt better equipped to continue (not that it makes it any easier for me to give any kind of general synopsis however). The four sections deal with the fall of the Compson family, focusing for the most part on an Easter weekend in 1928, although of course the family's story lies very much in the events that have brought us up to this date. After Benjy we hear from his brother Quentin, a Harvard student who commits suicide. Faulkner really lets fly with the stream of consciousness in this section, illustrating the unravelling mental state of Quentin as he struggles to deal with the 'loss' of his sister Caddy. As the pages flow by the punctuation slowly disappears, the dream-like state becomes all pervasive, the novice reader who thought he'd found his footing is briefly tempted to throw himself into the Charles River along with the narrator before revelling in the stylistic achievement. Quentin's relationship with Caddy is wonderfully complex. There are hints towards incest, which I think are false, merely an attempt by him to implicate himself in sin with her so that he might rescue her from dealing with the fallout from her real sin (falling pregnant). The unreliability of the narrator is so marked in this section and yet so unimportant because the truth of what he says lies not in whether or not it happened as he tells it, but that what he describes is the absolute truth of his thoughts and feelings.

Back in 1928, the third section is narrrated by Jason Compson, the son Mrs Compson feels is most closely related to her maiden family of Bascombe, and a thoroughly repellant bully he is too. This is perhaps the most conventional section of the book; linear in structure, domestic in outlook, helpful in narrative terms and in fleshing out the wider family story. As their fortunes have dwindled so Jason's avarice has increased, and with it his bitterness and rancour. He has his sights set firmly on Quentin (no, not his deceased brother but the daughter of his disgraced sister) and the relish with which he exerts control over her life is sickening, like watching a smirking child pull the legs off a fly.

Finally on Easter Sunday we have the third person narrator, this section focusing on Dilsey, the black maid who has remained a constant in the family's recent history, and almost immediately Faulkner shows in a single sentence what he is capable of; showing us this woman.

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child's astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

When Dilsey makes her way to church we see the faith, the support, the family that the Compson's could only dream of. The nobility still contained within the eroded body that Faulkner so clearly illustrates above is still considerably more than that which resides within the entire family of her once noble employers. A book which is so clearly dominated by its literary style requires at least a second or a third reading before yielding anything close to its true content. I suspect that it says far more about 'the South' than it seems to at the moment and that those opening 60 pages are ripe with meaning and information, but that will have to wait until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...


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