Wednesday 31 March 2010

Tindersticks - Falling Down A Mountain

I went to see Tindersticks at The Royal Albert Hall a few years ago where they were backed by a full orchestra and provided an evening of lush music, tender, heartfelt singing and a memory of what they could be at their best. I say memory because I found their subsequent releases didn't excite me so much and the band itself underwent a seismic shift in 2006, literally splitting in half, leaving singer Stuart Staples to continue with Neil Fraser and Timothy Boulton and joined on this release by drummer Earl Harvin and guitarist David Kitt. That's quite a change to recover from and it may be unfair of me to complain that they haven't quite managed to rediscover the epic fullness of their sound, but as one of the band's most appealing qualities it is something that I miss. This album however does see them beginning to find their feet

Staples voice has always been the deal-breaker for many, coming dangerously close to Vic Reeve's club singer, but it's the kind of voice that can carry a hefty punch when it wants to. There are moment on the latest album that will only distance newcomers and the already unconvinced but what is surprising is the way that Staples' voice is accompanied and augmented by his fellow band members, the vocals working more cohesively than ever before. In fact the title track opens the new album as one of the most exciting tracks of theirs for ages: jazzy trumpet and looping bass, a smoky atmosphere through which vocals eventually appear, a definite air of invention about the place. There's something a bit spare and empty about Keep You Beautiful but there's a surprisingly upbeat tinge to Harmony Around My Table, complete with hand claps and doo-wop backing that will have those who have accused the Tindersticks of being maudlin to scratch their heads. (That's musically speaking of course. Lyrically things are as dark as ever: 'I found a penny, I picked it up / The other day I had some luck / That was two weeks last Tuesday / Since then there's been a sliding feeling.') The bafflement continues with Peanuts where Staples duets with former Miss America Mary Margaret O'Hara in a kind of down-tempo Let's Call The Whole Thing Off. What at first seems to be a song about compromise 'I know you love peanuts / And I love you / So I love peanuts too' also seems to be about being apart and the 'exquisite pain' of love.

The Hispanic influence heard on previous albums is picked up again on the Mexican influenced She Rode Me Down complete with Mariachi brass, Spanish guitar and hand-claps. Despite its many textures, including the rumble of thunder in the background, the track fails to really go anywhere though. There are two instrumentals on the album, Hubbards Hill which continues that Spanish theme and Piano Music which closes the album with the kind of spooky piano sound you might expect to find in a dusty old music hall. However pleasant they are it's difficult not to feel just slightly that they're filler. There's more joy from a track like Black Smoke which has a harder edge, Staples' vocals coming through a distorted mic, backing vocals chorusing the title, but a far more conventional structure that produces a track that genuinely rocks. Those voices work even closer together on the organ heavy No Place So Alone, another accessible track. Perhaps the biggest rebuttal to those who would easily dismiss the band comes on the penultimate track Factory Girls. Beginning with a simple piano and that distinctive voice Staples allows it to soar to emotional heights before the rest of the band join him to swell out the track. If you still think Staples' voice is cause for amusement after that then its possible you may never like it.

Released on 4AD records, the label have released an ecelectic mix of some of my favoured artists recently - Tune-Yards, Department Of Eagles, M Ward, Beirut, TV On The Radio... I could go on.


Monday 29 March 2010

'every soul shall know to what it is prone'

by Dave Eggers

I have a suspicion that Egger's real forte lies not in fiction but in his creative non-fiction. His public-spirited and beneficent nature is clear from his formation of the 826 Valencia organisation back in 2002 (I wonder how many other authors have plowed back the money earned from a runaway success in such a useful way). His last book, What Is The What, drew attention to the plight of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the 'Lost Boys' of Sudan, fusing autobiography with the novel form- Deng's story in Egger's words is the simple way of putting it I guess. With his latest he takes Abdulrahman Zeitoun as his hero, in order to tell the inside story of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that highlighted some of the worst aspects of the United States' social and political systems and the lasting impact of an event like 9/11.

Zeitoun, as he is known by most people (they tend to struggle with his first name), runs his own company, Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC, with his wife Kathy acting as every member of the business's office. Married for eleven years, Kathy is a convert to Islam whose Louisiana drawl helps to put clients at ease although occasionally their name can cause problems when possible clients call up.

'Zeitoun, where's that name come from? where is he from?' And Kathy would say, 'Oh, he's Syrian.' Then, after a long pause or a shorter one, they would say, 'Oh, okay, nevermind.' It was rare, but not rare enough.

But in their adopted city the Zeitoun's had built a large family, a successful business and fully enmeshed themselves into a community that valued the services of a man like Abdulrahman, a man with an integrity, work ethic and love for this city that is plain to see.

High ceilings, a grand winding staircase descending into the foyer, hand-carved everything, each room themed and with a distinct character. Zeitoun had painted and repainted probably every room in the house, and the owners showed no signs of stopping. He loved to be in that house, admiring the craftsmanship, the great care put into the most eccentric details and flourishes - a mural over the mantel, one-of-a-kind ironwork on every balcony. It was this kind of willful, wildly romantic attention to beauty - crumbling and fading beauty needing constant attention - that made this city so unlike any other and such an unparalleled sort of environment for a builder.

Living in New Orleans the residents are more than used to storm warnings, treating them with a nonchalance us weather-obsessed Brits might find hard to credit. Tropical storms tend to dissipate before reaching land so that the news and its warnings become little more than background noise most of the time. But as the severity of Katrina continues to grow Kathy keeps pushing for the family to leave. Zeitoun is not a man easily moved though and feeling the need to keep an eye on their business he elects to stay as Kathy loads up the car and heads off to her brother's in Baton Rouge. At first it seems as if Zeitoun's scepticism about the storm is well placed; the rainwater builds up and then drains away, winds come and go, all is close to calm again. But he is woken one night by an uncanny noise.

The sound continued, something like running water. But there was no rain, no leaks. He thought a pipe might have broken, but that couldn't be it; the sound wasn't right. this was more like a river, the movement of great volumes of water.
He sat up and looked down through the window that faced the back-yard. He saw water, a wide sea of it. It was coming from the north. It flowed into the yard, under the house, rising quickly.

The levees compromised, it isn't long before New Orleans is underwater, pictures we have all become accustomed to. As the book's cover picture shows, Zeitoun is the proud owner of a battered canoe that he uses to move quietly about the sunken city; its stealth perfect for picking out the cries for help amongst his neighbours. Egger's description of the devastation captures the shock, the unpreparedness (if that is a word) and contrasts it with the gentle humanity of Zeitoun taking steaks from his freezer to the neighbourhood dogs whose cries he can hear at night. Like a good Samaritan he shuttles people to landing sites where they can be evacuated, carries water to those who need it, and basically does the kind of job that the emergency services, or National Guard, or FEMA, or whoever it is exactly who is supposed to be helping but isn't.

Zeitoun manages to maintain contact with Kathy, a phone line miraculously still working amongst the drowned houses, but when he goes to speak to some men at the door one day Kathy's attempts to call him on that line are met by just a repeated ringing tone. Eggers switches his viewpoint to Kathy as days turn into weeks without contact and she begins to fear the worst: that her husband has become one of the bloated corpses floating through the streets or the victim of the growing lawlessness that the media reports is taking over New Orleans.

The truth is almost more frightening. In another change of viewpoint and pace we find out what had become of Zeitoun as he was rounded up with others and taken to a temporary prison constructed at the coach station.

Looking at it, Zeitoun realized that it was not one long cage, but a series of smaller divided cages. He had seen similar structures before, on the properties of his clients who kept dogs. This cage, like those, was a single fenced enclosure divided into smaller ones. He counted sixteen. It looked like a giant kennel, and yet it looked even more familiar than that.

The similarity with Gauntanamo Bay is obvious and the inmates christen this 'Camp Greyhound'. Suspected of being 'with Al-Qaeda' due simply, it seems, to being Syrian and a Muslim, Zeitoun is held with many others in appalling conditions without charge or access to a lawyer or even a simple phone call. The lack of information, cooperation and basic dignity is terrifying and we see Zeitoun questioning his motives and actions, falling back on his faith for strength and encouragement.

Eggers' prose is plain, pleasingly so for those who weren't so keen on the tricksiness of his own memoir, but two things manage to lift the book and make it something more powerful than just a puffed out piece of journalism. Firstly, Eggers uses water as a thematic link between the present day action and the history of the Zeitoun family. His father nearly drowning at sea during WWII, his elder brother, pride of the family, a champion long-distance swimmer, he and his brother Ahmad both going against their father's wishes and pursuing a life on the seas, it is no wonder that Zeitoun feels the hand of destiny in his decision to remain in the city, or that he seems to be in his element whilst out in that canoe. All of this familial detail helps to make Zeitoun a fully-realised and sympathetic person, so that when his fortunes falter we cannot help but be indignant on his behalf. The book therefore also works as an indictment of the Bush regime and an exposé of their inverted priorities - Several government agencies and huge manpower descended upon the city and yet its residents suffered terribly, some of those deaths surely caused by the lack of organisation in response, and yet a makeshift prison is erected in a couple of days by prisoners shipped into the city, a huge feat of organisation, the materials required ordered at the very beginning of the storm.

As the book progresses Eggers manages to lift his prose to the occasion, nothing too fancy or tricksy but just enough to do justice to the family he says he fell in love with, a family who remained in the city that failed them so badly, their faith strengthened. Their single story serves as just one example of the failures of the Bush regime to America's citizens, and beyond.


Thursday 25 March 2010

'What would you like?'

The Concert Ticket

by Olga Grushin

I read Olga Grushin's first novel, The Dream Life Of Sukhanov, after reading one positive review (in the TLS I believe) and after seeing the book itself. The picture on the left does nothing to convey the tactile pleasure of the heavy cartridge-style paper used on the dust-jacket and the visual gratification of the watercolour title. The real treat was reading the book itself of course. Anatoly Sukhanov, as the editor of Russia's leading art periodical, enjoys a privileged life. He and his family live in a posh flat in Moscow, attending art exhibitions and cultural premieres, all the result of his toeing of the party aesthetic line. But Sukhanov himself was once a promising artist and his creative side breaks through in dream sequences and flashbacks, his cosy life slowly unravelling in a glorious creative explosion. The language was heady and evocative, the politics worn lightly, and the sympathy for the main character well marshalled.

So I have been eagerly awaiting her second novel, even filling in the time before it arrived with a preparatory read which provided some context. Whilst it is published as The Concert Ticket here, American readers will find it as The Line, a title which more closely echoes that precedent, Vladimir Sorokin's The Queue. The difference is interesting as each title draws two of the main themes of the novel to the foreground. The line itself, as Sorokin showed, is almost a character on its own, becoming a malevolent presence in Grushin's imagining. The concert ticket means something different to the three main characters, and indeed to everyone in the line, but I'm getting ahead of myself there, and you know how us Brits feel about queue jumping.

Grushin has taken a real event as her springboard: the return of Stravinsky in 1962, his first visit to the country he had left half a century earlier, in order to conduct a one-off concert. The line for tickets for these rare event began a year before and developed into a 'complex social system', with people working together to maintain their place in the line. It is a similar cohesiveness to that in Sorokin's novel but Grushin creates a far more antagonistic atmosphere, with people competing in a hostile environment and a serious toll to be paid by many of the line's members.

At the centre of her story are a single family, each member with their own reason for wanting the ticket, and with only one ticket allowed per person in the queue those competing interests will fracture the family apart but also in many ways bring it closer together. For Anna, before she even knows what the queue is for, there is the promise of something important at the kiosk, something...

...to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life, or perhaps even infuse her entire existence, working into its minute cracks and voids, knitting it into a tighter, brighter fuller, fabric.

For her husband Sergei, there is the possibility of passion with a woman with whom he shares the night shift. His stumbling attempts to woo consisting first of conversation and companionship as he walks her home each night.

...after a soft goodbye, she would run up the stairs to her door, her ascending steps - one, two, three, the fourth cut off by the door bang - inscribing itself on the black sheet of quiet as the notes of some elusive score he strove to decipher, and retain in his memory, so that he could keep at least a small part of it with him while he waited impatiently for the next evening, for the next walk...

Their son Alexander, who is slowly exempting himself from school and any hope for the future, finds a more dangerous kind of companionship amongst the motley crew of petty criminals and con-artists that haunt the night.

...he suddenly understood just how much he loved these nights - loved the brightening chill in the air past midnight, the freedom of going nowhere, doing nothing, existing in some secret, timeless pocket of invisibility, some private allotment of night, alongside these gruff, dangerous men; staying awake, alert, alive, while in identical, ugly buildings all through the city, nighttime windows quickened with identical, ugly lives moving like cutout puppets on dozens of lit stages in dozens of predictable plays, until one after another the windows, overripe, fell to the ground and were swallowed by darkness...

There is a fourth member of the family, Anna's mother, who for many years has been a silent presence in the house. Behind that silence there is of course a story to be told and in one of the novel's more successful stylistic conceits, the promise of the concert ticket acts like the uncorking of a bottle and in her night-time monologue, mis-heard by the family as a neighbour's radio or conversation, a past of which none of them could have guessed comes flowing out. Moments like these which inhabit the area between sleeping and waking, drunkenness and sobriety, madness and sanity, are Grushin's strength, much like the 'dream life' she created for Sukhanov. But where that first novel had a single character for us to follow, the triple focus of this book makes her job that little bit harder. There is something unsatisfying about the motivations of both Anna and Sergei, as though there isn't enough space in the book to fully deal with either. The surprise is that their son Alexander ends up becoming the most fully formed character, perhaps because his age means that he undergoes the most development whilst those around him disintegrate.

Alexander felt the room widening, quite as if its walls had dissolved into new windows through which another, astonishing world was entering in large luminous pieces. It was a world he had sensed before in the old man's presence - a world he had fully expected to give up only an hour earlier - a place where no object was meaningless, no action inconsequential, where every word, every turn, every note led to some adventure resonating deep within one's soul; but this time, he felt that he himself had bee admitted to the story.

That collapse of people's lives I mentioned is caused by the malign influence I mentioned earlier, contained within the queue. Before she even takes her place in the line Anna is told by an old man that the kiosk at the end of it will be selling whatever it is you most desire, something which is almost true even when the people know exactly what does lie at the end. It isn't really the concert ticket that people are queuing for, or that they are willing to sacrifice so much for. It is the action that counts.

The people of the line had grown silent, weary, furtive glances at the faceless officials who prowled the side-walks, yet at the same time, Anna sensed, thee had been, since the beginning of fall , since the fall of darkness, an imperceptible drawing closer, quite as if their communal, increasingly dangerous wait had rubbed their souls raw, had made their emotions transparent, had marked them all with an invisible sign of shared time, of shared expectation, so that every once in a while they could turn to one another with the kind of heedless, naked urgency and talk as they would talk only to their families, and perhaps not even to them, united by fear and hope and trust under black, pregnant skies.


Wednesday 24 March 2010

Away We Go

Now may not be the best time to use Sam Mendes and last chance saloon in the same sentence but that was kind of how I was feeling about him as a film maker before watching this Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida scripted rom-com (Eggers is another one who was on a verbal warning until Zeitoun - review coming up next week). Mendes it seems is never going to make what you might call a pacey movie but this film does at least have some charm to it and a pair of likable leads in John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. As Burt and Verona they play a young couple, pregnant with their first child, worried that they aren't quite grown-up enough for the responsibility, something born out by their ramshackle house and slightly unfocused lives. When Burt's parents drop the bombshell that they will be leaving the country for Europe a month before the baby is due Burt and Verona turn the loss of the only thing holding them in Denver into an opportunity to travel the country, visiting friends, to find the perfect spot for them to move and raise their child.

Beginning with the scene with Burt's parents the film is like a collection of vignettes or sketches, each destination and, in particular, each friend they visit is given full blooded performances by actors like Catherine O'Hara, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Allison Janney. Our young couple are not only auditioning various cities for the role of family home but also various methods of upbringing. The more absurd these episodes become (Maggie Gyllenhaal's 'continuum method' mum is a particular kind of mental) the more we realise that the couple we might have taken for flaky quirks at the beginning are by far the sanest of the bunch, and do at least have genuine love for one another.

Nothing to get too excited about, but a very pleasant way to spend an evening (far more pleasant than (500) Days Of Summer for example).


Monday 22 March 2010

The Kreutzer Sonata

Danny Huston seemed to appear out of nowhere when he starred in Ivansxtc, Bernard Rose's adaptation of Tolstoy's The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. That extraordinary smile which has been described as shark-like and the rich voice which seems to sound more and more like his father's were suited perfectly to the despicable character of Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman. Much was made of the resistance by some in Hollywood to see a film that depicted the darker side of the industry to be made first of all, and secondly to be distributed once it had been shot. There's no such thing as bad publicity of course and it helped to draw attention to the film which made a virtue of its low budget digital video camera work and used a classical score to excellent effect. Rose intends to make a trilogy of Tolstoy adaptations, of which this is the second part; again starring Danny Huston, again using that handheld digital video look and naturally making excellent use of classical music.

I had wanted to read the novella on which it is based after reading Sofia Tolstoy's account of the book's ban and her attempts to see it lifted, even though the book, with its destruction of the institution of marriage, caused her great embarrassment and pain. I finished reading it just an hour or so before watching the film so it was with some ease that I could recognise some of the lines that Rose had lifted from the book, what parts he had decided to discard and what to keep. In Tolstoy's novella the story is related by its hero, Pozdnyshev, to our narrator as they share a train journey. In adapting it into a film Rose has to rely heavily on voice over to relate the views and opinions of his own hero Edgar. Voice over is one of those things that critics get very sniffy about, and it's certainly a pain when it's lazy or unnecessary, but I'm not sure how else Rose could have got across Edgar's many views and theories about modern life without using it. Perhaps it might have been improved slightly if it had been set up early on that the voice over we were listening to was in fact a conversation between Edgar and someone else. Edgar is a man from a similar social strata to Beckman but with a far more beneficent outlook, helping to run a foundation set up by his family which provides funding for work in the sciences. We see him meet his future wife at a party when she is currently dating someone else and so their own relationship is born of infidelity and possessiveness. The arrival of children is unplanned and the impact of that is for Elisabeth Rohm's wife to give up her career as a classical pianist. So the film clearly follows the book's themes of marriage as enslavement, sex as dangerous, and children as a curse and burden. Over the films length we see the relationship from its very beginning to its bloody end with the slow decay in between.

"We were like two mortal enemies put together in the stocks, bound by a single chain, poisoning each other's lives and refusing to admit it. I was not yet aware that ninety-nine percent of all husbands and wives live in the same way, and that this is inevitable."

This would make a terrible date-movie.

The book is divided roughly into two sections. The first where Pozdnyshev holds forth with his wisdom from experience about marriage, human relations and the truth of the world as he sees it, and the second where he tells the story of his own descent into jealousy, torment and finally murderous rage. The book is weighted just slightly in favour of the former, the film naturally is all about the latter with the voice over providing snippets of Edgar's wisdom. The central event to both is the duet of wife and violinist on Beethoven's Violin sonata no.9. It is Edgar who organises the charity benefit during which the piece will be played, Edgar who chooses Aiden, the violinist, and Edgar who chooses to introduce him to his wife, determined to prove himself the perfect husband by allowing his wife to regain some of that freedom and individuality lost by becoming a wife and mother. Aiden recounts the history of the piece of music, originally dedicated to George Bridgetower, the dedication changed when Bridgetower apparently 'besmirched' the morals of women Beethoven cherished (Aiden's own theory being that Bridgetower had slept with one of Beethoven's ex's) and finally bearing the name of Rodolphe Kreutzer, who considered the piece unplayable and in fact never played it himself. So the music itself is possibly tainted with the stain of immorality but for Edgar it is a very personal experience. A man who doesn't see the point of classical music at all becomes obsessed with this one piece, the music going round and round in his head, as the constant presence of Aiden in their house practising begins to build up the pressure, feeding that green shoot of jealousy until it is all Edgar can think about.

How every detail of that evening is impressed on my mind! I remember his picking up his violin, unlocking the case, removing the cover some woman had embroidered for him, taking out the instrument, and tuning it up. I remember the air of indifference my wife assumed to hide her bashfulness (a bashfulness caused primarily by her playing) and her sitting down with this false expression on her face. Then began the sounding of middle G, the plucking of strings, the setting up if sheets of music. I remember their exchanging looks, their glancing at the assembled guests, their saying something to each other, then beginning. He played the first chord. I remember the grave, strained, fine expression that came to his face, as, listening for his tone, he pressed the strings with cautious fingers. And the piano responded. They had begun.

Rose's editing and use of the music itself is brilliant, helping to create the fever of jealousy, the irrationality of Edgar's thoughts, his animalistic urges, the subtle shift from sexual passion to violent possession to murderous rage.

"Whatever her relations were with that musician, they meant nothing to me, or to her either. The only thing that meant anything was what I have already told you - my bestiality. Everything happened because there was that dreadful gulf between us; so great was the strain of our mutual hatred that the slightest provocation was enough to bring things to a head. Our quarrels had become terrible, and they were the more terrible in that they alternated with periods of intense animal passion."

There is something however that makes the film slightly less impressive than Ivansxtc, something hard to pin down. Some of the improvised dialogue falls very flat (and in one truly bizarre moment Edgar's daughter walks in on her mother practising at the piano and says 'You're not doing it for real' - presumably because the actress isn't doing it for real (the piano parts played by a professional musician) but its inclusion in the final edit suddenly draws attention somewhere it shouldn't be), the film feels a bit long even though it is only 99 mins (perhaps due to some of the improvised meandering), the digital camera work has fewer moments where it can assert itself stylistically and there were even times when I wanted Huston to ramp it up just a notch. Rohm is fantastic as his wife, particularly in an exposed role which demands she spend much of it naked and engaged in vigorous sex with her husband. She exudes a natural beauty and openness on which Edgar can project his lurid fantasies and paranoias. However, given that you can read the book in roughly the same time it takes to watch the film, you don't need me to tell you which would be the better use of your time.


Thursday 18 March 2010

'You can't help who you fall in love with.'

And This Is True
by Emily Mackie

I read this book many months ago when publishers Sceptre opened up the opportunity to write the blurb to anyone who wanted to have a go. I'd never done that before but thought I'd have a pop and blow me if I didn't go and 'win' the competition. So that makes me a published writer now (rather tenuously) but also raises the ethical question of whether I should write up a review of the book in question. This isn't you understand because I would write an unfairly positive review, almost the opposite in fact. I hope Sceptre won't mind if I'm honest about my experience reading the book, it turns out all right in the end. My initial reaction to the opening pages of this début novel were actually incredibly negative, it was not a pleasant read and I could very easily have given up early. Which would have been a mistake.

Nevis Gow lives with his father, Marshall, in a van. Not 'one of those hippy, brightly coloured things' but a Transit with a single curtain to separate driving space from sleeping space. Marshall is a writer, the van littered with his labours, 'thousands of notebooks and journals and illegible paper-clipped scribbles', but not a word of it published. It is a traveller's life they lead, free from the standard constraints of schooling, utility bills, or bath night and Mackie creates their environment well, the enclosed space of the Transit van over the last eleven years has created an isolated world where even the most basic touchstones of life have been allowed to warp slightly.

'You have to start with a bang,' his father had said and Nevis certainly does that, telling us on page one that he kissed his father once, not as a son might his father but as one might with a lover, for Nevis is in love with his father. Starting with a bang is all well and good but the risk is always going to be that you send some readers running for cover. I'll admit that Mackie's sensual description of that kiss had me wrinkling my nose and asking myself whether I really wanted to read a book with such a central theme. Mackie has issued a challenge of sorts and as someone who doesn't think of themselves as a prude I felt compelled to continue, putting that initial disgust behind me.

Nevis and Marshall's isolation is shattered when the latter crashes their van. A farm nearby, owned by the Kerr's, becomes their new home, the van replaced by a caravan parked in the yard, continuing the now uncomfortable proximity. Propelled back into contact with others, the tensions and strains on their relationship begin to tell, the pressure fed by the weight of an undiscussed history, the family-life of the past. This would be the case with anyone they met but the extraordinary characters they encounter on the farm only heighten the drama and the Kerr's have their own problems to contend with. Mirroring the mother missing from Nevis' life, the Kerr's are grieving from the recent loss of matriarch Catherine. The livestock sold and the farm up for sale, the family are existing in a state of limbo until the arrival of the Gow's and each family could be said to be the catalyst to the other.

If the enclosed spaces are a recurring environment then they help Mackie to develop her major theme of escape. Nevis counts off the days of their stay there like a prisoner marking his cell wall without the consolation enjoyed by the prisoner of knowing when the ordeal will end. When it becomes clear that a return to life as it was will be impossible he feels himself being reprogrammed for life amongst others - 'you need to be clean' his father says and we sense that this isn't simply about hygiene. Marshall too has a need for escape, not only from his now suffocating responsibilities but also from the failure of his relationship with Nevis' mother. Amongst the Kerr's it is son Colin, known as Duckman, who also yearns for a way out, away from the repressive atmosphere and the burden of his now suicidal father.

Whilst love in its various forms is of course another major theme, an examination of narrative encompasses the novel as a whole and provides one of its largest successes. Marshall influences narrative in two ways: firstly through what he has and hasn't said about the past, playing a role in the creation of their personal narrative. And Nevis' writing style is of course influenced by the rules set out by his father's own writing. In the early stages of the novel this framework makes it feel a little like a creative writing exercise but that theme of escape comes to the fore again and the creation of the book we are reading becomes the means by which Nevis demonstrates his creative independence.

So the book actually has a lot to recommend it but that initial hurdle may be quite a leap for some. At the end of it all I was glad to have shelved my initial, knee-jerk reaction. A book as much about storytelling as it is storytelling is an intriguing prospect, reminding me of one of the early books I reviewed on this blog, Tell Me Everything by Sarah Salway. Both books play with truth and narrative and both feature memorable characters. Only this one has a blurb written by me though!

Once upon a time there was a boy whose home was a van and whose world was his father.

Be warned: this is not a fairytale.
Although it does contain love,
and most important of all, a kiss.
But you have to be ready for an unpredictable journey
through a realm where nothing is black or white.

That, of course, is why you should take the first step.

A startling new voice shows us a painful truth:

You can’t help who you fall in love with.


Monday 15 March 2010

Four Tet - There Is Love In You

Six days of the week I walk from Euston station to the theatre and back again. It takes about 15-20 minutes each way and I like musical accompaniment. For the last few weeks I haven't been able to resist the fourth album from Kieran Hebden under his Four Tet moniker. The music matches my footsteps, helping to power me through wind, rain, snow and even the occasional dry day too. Lumbered with the 'folk-tronica' tag that never really made much sense, the appeal of his music to me has always been the organic feel that his use of sampled acoustic instruments brings to proceedings. On his latest release which is his most overtly 'dance' oriented record yet, a result of his DJ sessions at Plastic People, he still manages to retain something of that organic feel, whilst providing an evocative soundtrack for my walk through the city.

Angel Echoes is a beautiful beginning with an ethereal, sampled female vocal and swirling chimes that somehow smooth over the rigid time signature. That ethereal sound is repeated several times on the album, particularly with the female vocals. Love Cry is the first bona-fide dance track, nine minutes of deep-house with the all the build-up and break-down you'd expect from a floor-filler, and Hebden's trademark harpsichord-like strings and electronic squawks and bleeps. Circling is a deceptively simple track reminiscent of Boards Of Canada, the rolling 6/8 rhythm creating what feels like layer upon layer of competing melodies circling around each other (when in fact they're all working together). Sing is another one for the dance-floor, almost seven minutes combining electronic sounds with far more ethnic-sounding drums and percussion and another ethereal vocal that sighs and reaches rather than sings. This Unfolds is another lengthy track at close to eight minutes, but with a slow, chilled-out feeling which somehow manages to contain a vast array of echoing whistles, percussive elements, and its lead melody without ever feeling over-loaded and cacophonous. Reversing, as the title implies, contained reversed samples in its short ambient pause before those DJ sets unleash the track that bears the club night's name, Plastic People. Rattling percussion shakes alongside the insistent house beats and another chimed melody. It's the kind of track that deserves a summer night, and which in a chilly February provides me with something of a Ready Brek glow. The album finishes with She Just Loves To Fight, closer to what you might have expected from previous Four Tet releases, a pleasant, sunny amble and a pleasant end to proceedings.

There are two things that make Four Tet's electronica stand out for me. Firstly there is a pleasing complexity to the sounds he collages together. Each successive listen allows you to identify something new, and by focussing on one particular theme the same track can give a different kind of enjoyment each time. There is also something soulful and heartfelt about his music (literally on Pablo's Heart which is an 11 second recording of his godson's heartbeat) which makes it far more palatable than the sterility of much electronica and far more likely to entice you back for further listens. Hebden has said that he wants his album releases to be like documents of his own musical journey and this latest is like a collaborative effort between him and the Plastic People crowd, with tracks tested and developed in response to them. But included amongst those dance oriented tracks are sounds and samples that lie like hidden treasure and come from a very personal place - 'I always put little references to my life in the music I've made'.


Thursday 11 March 2010

'There are no safe places anymore.'

The Bishop's Man

by Linden MacIntyre

The Giller Prize is Canada's premier fiction award, won this year by journalist Linden MacIntyre for his second novel. Whilst the real judging panel were coming to their decision a shadow jury including bloggers Kevin From Canada and Trevor from The Mookse And The Gripes also read the shortlist and announced their own winner in advance of the Giller panel. This year both concurred, bestowing praise on MacIntyre's fictional examination of the scandals within the Catholic Church. With such an explosive subject MacIntyre maintains focus by keeping things local for the most part, looking at the small community of Creignish on Cape Breton Island, and creating a main character in a position of judgement with more than enough personal demons to contend with.

Father Duncan MacAskill, known as 'The Exorcist' by his fellow priests, has for many years acted as a kind of clean-up man for the church. At the merest hint of scandal involving sexual abuse or alcoholism, he would be dispatched to mete out discipline and, more importantly, cover all tracks and bury the scandal. For those wayward priests who strayed towards infamy a visit from MacAskill meant a full stop and a plane ticket to another parish or out of the priesthood. It isn't a position he relishes, rather one he finds himself uniquely equipped to deal with. That said, to be placed in that position has taken its toll on his own faith and belief.

I find it suddenly funny. God plays tricks. God is a joker who equips His cripples with gifts they use to pervert His holy will. And they flourish. People like me, designated to correct the perversions, undo the damage, languish like the sleepwalking fly. We ordinary mortals share the destiny of insects.

So MacAskill is a man isolated both by and within his vocation and during the novel the strain of that isolation creates cracks and fissures through which his own past begins to show. One of the major themes of the novel is the sublimation of desire, or rather the consequences of doing that. The vow of chastity is shown to be unnatural and possibly dangerous, each of the implicated priests has their defence prepared, whether that be denial, counter-claim or justification.

How do we judge? Handsome face, sincerity in the eyes, a deep intelligence crafting sentences out of surprising perceptions and ideas and humour. All the outward signs of integrity. Yet these are also the gifts of the actor, the con artist, the survivor. I knew from my experience the cunning of damaged people

The complications of MacAskill's past are what make him interesting as a character. Rather than being the cold-blooded dispatcher that his colleagues believe him to be, he is a man all too aware of what it means to ignore your impulses, deny your feelings. After accusing the wrong man of transgression, MacAskill found himself shipped off to Honduras where he met an influential figure in a fellow priest, and a woman who haunts his dreams even now. Through MacAskill's journal entries we learn more about what exactly happened during his own exile, whilst in the present day we see him struggle to deal with life as a priest with a parish, one not far from where he and his family grew up, forcing him to confront those family secrets that have remained buried for many years. Add the alcoholism

Another theme is that of contrition, and in particular the act of contrition. The voice of MacAskill's friend and colleague from Honduras, Alfonso, returns to him.

The true act of contrition has to be a deed, an action that somehow leads to change.

What that act should be differs for the many characters in need of penance, and it seems that every character in this book has something weighing them down, but there is no shortage of incident, especially with a storm brewing about the very events over which MacAskill has helped to draw a veil. But as much as the book is chock-full of plot, it's real strength is the central character. Using the scandals of the Catholic Church as a background rather than the main event allows MacIntyre to focus his attention on one man and his battles with faith, loneliness, dependence and love.


Monday 8 March 2010

In Treatment

I've never quite 'got' Gabriel Byrne. He's always pretty compelling to watch, with that quiet rumble of a voice and the ever-present Irish accent, but there's something a bit 'samey' about the performances of his I've watched. There's no place for him to hide in his role as psychotherapist Dr. Paul Weston in my latest HBO box-set marathon, and I'm happy to say that he's perfect for it, giving at times a masterclass in what you can convey with just your face and no text. Developed from the Israeli television series BeTipul there is a rigid structure to proceedings based on Paul's consulting diary. From Monday to Thursday we see four of his sessions with patients and on Friday, Weston's chance to see his own therapist Gina (played by the quite brilliant Diane Wiest). Each episode is about 25 minutes and by following the stories of the same four patients each week we are given plenty of time to get to know them over the 43 episodes, the kind of character development just not possible in most conventional dramas. The familiar location of Paul's office (part of his home - with its own entrance) creates a reassuring environment so that on the rare occasion when we are not there we feel a little uncertain as the audience, like a fish out of water. When the rules are broken we experience an unease similar to that of the characters. Something similar happens when Paul's family life encroaches on his work. I've never quite worked out if the footsteps I could sometimes hear moving around came from the TV or my own neighbours.

Monday is the beautiful anaesthesiologist Laura. Tuesday is alpha-male fighter pilot Alex. Wednesday is teenage gymnast Sophie. Thursday is couple Jake and Amy. I won't go into too much detail about the patients and their problems, that would be the very definition of a spoiler, but suffice to say that each role is cast impeccably (the young Mia Wasikowska - currently starring as Tim Burton's 'Alice' - is particularly impressive as Sophie, giving one of those performances where the acting is 'invisible'), the actors making bold choices that aren't designed to make them sympathetic necessarily. The first week sets things up nicely, making clear the reason for each patients therapy, but of course there is much more to be discussed around the initial reason for treatment. During each session there is a quiet battle, and sometimes not all that quiet, between patient and therapist as one seeks to unearth the answers and the other cannot help but challenge the process and its worth.

At the end of that first week is Paul's first session with Gina, a revelation for a couple of reasons. This is the first opportunity we have to see behind the impassive mask of the therapist as Paul vents his frustrations about his patients and the therapeutic process. But also, and perhaps more importantly, the relationship between Paul and Gina is not as simple as you might think. This is not part of a continuous therapy for Paul, in fact he hasn't seen Gina for years. Pushed by his desperation, unable to think of anyone else he can talk to about it, he seeks out Gina with whom he has a troubled history. Watching the two of them grapple with this at the same time as trying to ignore it and be professional makes the final session of the week a constant highlight. We are also watching two actors at the top of their game. Wiest has that remarkable face which seems to smile and grimace at the same time, and there is a marvelous ambiguity to her performance so that we wonder all the time whether Paul has been unfair or not when describing her as a 'sleepy spider'. But Byrne, as I said, is the revelation for me. The largest part of his job after all is to listen and that is where an actor can show just how good he is. No text, no movement, very little facial expression, and yet he manages to convey concern, sympathy, irritation, pain, impatience, even love. For that is the thing that he says he must have for all his patients: love. And that is what makes his sessions with Gina such dynamite. A therapist so involved with his patients naturally has a lot to express during his own therapy, and the complex relationship with Gina causes a kind of intensity feedback loop.

Inevitably, over the course of over forty episodes, there are some that aren't quite as good as others and I don't understand why the programme makers felt the need to tie up the loose ends so neatly at the end of the series. I, for one, didn't need such closure. But, these small quibbles aside, In Treatment is an engrossing series, particularly for the focus it affords to each actor, and I'll be keen to see how Paul copes with season two.


Friday 5 March 2010

Even when something happens, you're waiting for it to happen'

Point Omega

by Don DeLillo

I've only read a couple of DeLillo's; the brilliant Libra and the bloated Underworld. The first is a superior look at the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and the events leading up to the assassination of JFK. In a bit of a Dealey Plaza splurge I read it in close proximity to James Ellroy's American Tabloid and repeated viewings of Oliver Stone's movie, and DeLillo wipes the floor with both of them. Underworld has faired less well in my memory. The book's opening section, describing the baseball match that contained 'the shot heard round the world' (published separately as 'Pafko At The Wall') is a tour de force but I'm ashamed to admit that almost none of the following 750 pages has stayed with me. Thankfully, DeLillo has turned his hand to slimmer novels of late and his latest, at a little over a hundred is easily digested.

Or perhaps that's not quite accurate. The novel is framed by two short sections, Anonymity and Anonymity 2. Douglas Gordon's art installation 24 Hour Psycho (in which Hitchcock's film is slowed down to screen over the period of twenty four hours, just two frames per second) provides the backdrop to the slightly bizarre thoughts of an unnamed narrator.

Everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole was watching Janet Leigh undress.
Nobody was watching him. This was the ideal world as he might have drawn it in his mind.

The two men he has watched happen to be the protagonists of the central novella. One, Richard Elster, is the same age as DeLillo himself, 73, and a former architect of the war in Iraq, an academic rather than a military man, retired now to the desert of Anza-Borrego in San Diego. The other, Jim Finley, is a filmmaker less than half his age who wants to shoot a single take interview with Elster, just him against a wall, to document his experience.

I said, " I have the wall, I know the wall, it's in a loft in Brooklyn, big messy industrial loft. I have access pretty much anytime day or night. Wall is mostly pale grey, some cracks, some stains, but these are not distractions, they're not self-conscious design elements. The wall is right, I think about it, dream about it, I open my eyes and see it, I close my eyes it's there."
"You feel a deep need to do this thing. Tell me why," he said.
"You're the answer to that question. What you say, what you'll tell us about these last years, what you know that no one knows."

Elster invites Finley to his shack in the desert and here the two men talk. What was supposed to be two days stretches to three and then more, Finley aware that he has become a 'confidant by default' and that 'he was telling me things, true or not, only because I was here, we were both here, in isolation, drinking.' Amongst their discussions are various philosophical themes, one providing the book's title. Pierre Teilhard, a French Jesuit priest, coined the term Omega Point to describe the point of maximum complexity and conciousness towards which he saw the universe developing. For Elster, who has tried to reduce war to a haiku and retired to the desert as a place where time stands still, this development is imminent and closer to a reversion than a giant leap forward.

"We're a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field."

It might be unfair to take an excerpt like that out of context and judge it, but if it turns you off then there's a fair chance that this novel may leave you wanting. Beyond the men's musings there's little by way of plot, even the arrival of Elster's twenty-something daughter does little more than add a suggestion of sexual tension and a plot-twist that sends things reeling off at the end. Personally I found the book provocative and thoughtful, the kind of book that tempts you towards an immediate second reading (I haven't yet). It's possible that those who have read more of DeLillo's work will find it to be less than a stand-out work, the prose being as bleached as that desert landscape and the pace generally close to that of the film that bookends the action. Perhaps this is more of a continuation on a theme rather than anything genuinely new but it remains compelling and enigmatic, as satisfying as a shot of the bourbon that lubricates the conversation.


Wednesday 3 March 2010

tUnE-yArDs - BiRd-BrAiNs

I was once told off by a commenter on Amazon for using the term lo-fi to describe the early work of Snow Patrol. The production of their first albums had been first-rate I was corrected. Well, these distinctions are important, apparently. I trust there will be no disagreement when I use lo-fi to describe the début release from New England musician Merrill Garbus. Using a digital recorder and shareware mixing software on her laptop to mix the results, the album has a DIY aesthetic, with voice clips of children talking, playing and even coughing to provide accompaniment,and a creative streak as wide as the Atlantic Ocean over which it has travelled. When the album was finally mastered at Abbey Road Studios the engineer is reputed to have said ‘You can't do this’.

Well thank god she did. Don't be fooled into thinking that lo-fi means low content or low yield. Let's begin with Garbus' voice. From soft lullaby to frantic yodel, nobody could accuse her of lacking range. There are cracks and moments where another producer might have ironed out the creases but the album is all the more interesting for going with them. Singing isn't about hitting the right notes perfectly all the time, it's about communicating, and Garbus' voice is loaded with feeling. Often this is done by starting soft and sweet and becoming louder and more insistent as the track develops, as shown on two of the album's early tracks. The insistent chorus of Sunlight does this to great effect as the repetition of 'I could be the sunlight in your eyes/Couldn't I?/Couldn't I?' grows and the hurt behind the song becomes clear. Lions begins sweet enough with her trademark ukelele but the power of her voice makes the childish sounding chorus fill with menace as the track develops. The contrast between sound and lyrical content is exploited to the full on News which with its harmonised voices and strumming uke sounds like the Andrews Sisters performing in Hawaii, even whilst she sings 'I've got news for you baby/I'm not going to stick around here anymore/If you treat me badly'.

Fiya, which you can listen to on the video link below, is the track that brought tUnE-yArDs to my attention (via the very wonderful John Self) and it contains one of those rare moments, when she sings 'You are always on my mind', where the slight delay on singing a note at the end makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise. Also impressive is the varied sounds created with limited instruments. Hatari begins with something like yodelled throat-singing before an Afro/Arabic sounding guitar line drives the track along. Jamaican has a sinister uke melody and those percussive coughs I mentioned earlier, as well as something that sounds like a vacuum or drill, whilst Garbus' vocals sound almost possessed. Perhaps the most impressive in terms of layers added is Little Tiger which has something industrial about its percussion, whilst Garbus sings as though it were a lullaby. Slowly, vocal samples stab through to upset the feel and rhythm and the song grows into something more complex. It's an impressive technical achievement, but one which more importantly creates a track with an amazing atmosphere; both beautiful, unsettling and deeply personal. As she sings (presumably to her own son) 'Don't depend on me kiddo/Bread made of blood comes from a blood red dough/The inoffensive are the ones you can hear/Playing on the radio/Don't ask me how I'll make ends meet, /I don't know' you can only hope that she ahives some of the success that is her due. By sticking to her guns and making the record she wanted to make she has created something that feels original and genuine, two words that may be the most important things when it comes to making music.


Monday 1 March 2010

'I am a woman'

The Diaries Of Sofia Tolstoy

translated by Cathy Porter

It isn't often that I write a 'review' of a book before I've finished it but after only just over a hundred pages of these diaries there was plenty I wanted to mention, enough to recommend the book, and it will surely be one I dip into, absorbing slowly, perhaps to return here another time with final thoughts. We all know what lies behind every great man but as new film The Last Station, starring Oscar nominee Helen Mirren, will probably show, Sofia Tolstoy was a woman not so much behind the great man as side by side and often, it might be said, toe to toe. Not only was she mother to 13 children with Count Leo Tolstoy (of whom 5 died in childbirth) but she also acted as his transcriber and assistant, copying out the almost indecipherable handwriting, a feat remarkable if only when you consider the sheer size of his works. Most people haven't managed to read War and Peace let alone copy it out multiple times.

The diaries are fascinating not only because Sofia was wife to the great 'genius' of Russian literature, nor just because she happened to live during one of the most tumultuous periods in Russian and indeed European history, but also as a testament to the position of women within that situation and those times. Before she married Sofia Behrs was an avid diarist, a habit she maintained throughout her marriage and right up until her death in 1919. Her journal was her refuge, her companion during the periods of intense loneliness during her marriage and the repository of her constantly shifting emotions. Using the word repository makes it sound as though her diary was a secret place but on her marriage, at her husband's insistence, each had handed over their diary to the other so that there would be no secrets. Sofia, as an innocent of good family and breeding of course had none, whereas Lev's diary was filled with vivid descriptions of his past liaisons and in particular his passionate love and lust for the peasant woman with whom he had already fathered a child. The impact on Sofia of these revelations was devastating and casts a long shadow over the opening entries and indeed over their marriage as a whole. At the very beginning she wishes she could 'burn his diary and the whole of his past', but as well as transcribing his work she went on to transcribe his diaries too. How cruel to have been forced to read of his debauchery and then to read it yet again in the name of his collected works. Almost 30 years later she realised that it was only her 'purity' that had saved the marriage in its infancy, only her 'childish ignorance that made it possible for us to be happy.'

Our modern conception of partnership usually includes plenty of time for a couple to enjoy each other before the onset of children but, as fit the time, Sofia was thrust into the role of mother almost immediately, something that came as a huge shock to her. This was felt particularly acutely when coupled with the loneliness she suffered. Tolstoy spent a vast amount of his time working in private or walking his estate, leaving Sofia to fulfil the role assigned to her (he later told her that she 'was the perfect wife for a writer, and that a wife should be "the nursemaid of her husband's talent"').

I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman.

When Sofia struggled to breastfeed and the issue of a wet-nurse was raised Tolstoy was aghast, forcing her to continue and endure horrible pain and discomfort. It seems that even within her own realm she wasn't given the freedom or autonomy she might expect from the Count's reach. Tolstoy manifests as an an intruder on Sofia's life in several ways. The diary is peppered with entries from the man himself, efforts at contrition coming after particularly explosive entries from Sofia, and each time one pops up you are reminded that he is reading the diary just as you are. This is amazing in part because of the high emotional tone Sofia often employs. Her diary isn't a place of calm reflection but a space on which she throws down her reeling emotions. Entries are often filed with deep despair or high-minded idealism, and sometimes both at the same time. When Tolstoy's wheedling apology is appended to an entry there is something of the abusive spouse who promises not to do it again, until the next time it happens. His sexual needs are made pretty clear as well, another way in which The Count exercises his prerogative.

Lyovochka is in an extraordinarily sweet, affectionate mood at the moment - for the usual reason, alas. If only people who read 'The Kreutzer Sonata' so reverently had an inkling of the voluptuous life he leads, and realized it was only this that made him happy and good-natured, then they would cast this deity from the pedestal where they have placed him! Yet I love him when he is kind and normal and full of human weaknesses. One shouldn't be an animal, but nor should one preach virtues one doesn't have.

A year before writing this Sofia had been copying his diaries when she came across an entry where he opined that "There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion." This reduction of her circumstance stopped Sofia in her tracks. "I only wish I had read that 29 years ago, then I would never have married him."

The Kreutzer Sonata has a fascinating part to play. It appears first as the piece of music after which it is named, played within the household by her son Sergei, and in Sofia's words a piece that 'expresses every conceivable human emotion.' The novella then looms into view, an embarrassment first of all for Sofia who worries that people will read it and assume it relates to their own marriage. The number of people who could read it was immediately limited by its being banned, leading to the rather extraordinary situation of Sofia petitioning the Tsar himself to have the ban lifted and the novella included in the latest volume of collected works which she was compiling. To gain a personal audience with the sovereign in order to further the cause of a book which had caused her to write an entry like the one below is just another example of the way in which Sofia subjugated herself to the genius of her husband.

I am still ill; I have a stomach ache and a temperature. I have observed a connecting thread between Lyovochka's old diaries and his Kreutzer Sonata. I am a buzzing fly entangled in this web, sucked of its blood by the spider.

Tolstoy passed on the responsibility of literary executor to Sofia and indeed many other matters of his estate. This lead to the difficulties of warring offspring looking to secure the best property to inherit and the titanic battle that would develop with Tolstoy's chief acolyte Chertkov who has already appeared in the section I have read, leader of the 'dark ones' with whom Sofia will have to contend with for her husband's attention. I believe the real drama has yet to come, but as I said earlier, there has already been more than enough to talk about. What an extraordinary life.


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