Thursday 27 October 2011

'where's Robbie?'

The Wrong Place
by Brecht Evens

As you can see from the cover above Brecht Evens graphic novel is a colourful affair. Painted in watercolour throughout the Belgian artist uses his palette brilliantly to delineate character, to create vast scenescapes, to capture movement and in a few pages near the centre to create possibly the only convincing sex-scene I've found so far in graphic fiction (you can see just how graphic below). In a book which is light on plot there is still loads to enjoy in its depiction of social interaction, akward personal relationships and the frenzy of an impulsive night out. The energy that is created by people desparate to have a good time is what drives this book along and that energy is just as likely to end up exploding in a moment of tragedy as of triumph, and how lovely and dangerous that is.

Two entirely mismatched friends are at the heart of this book. First of all we meet Gary, a drab persona rendered in grey who is hosting a party in his flat which many people (mainly female) seen to be attending because they expect his friend Robbie to make an appearance. Gary is the kind of guy who'd prefer it if you smoked in the kitchen and turned on the oven extractor fan. The kind of person who joins a conversation and effectively kills it, as we see him do several times in the opening pages. Through the awkward chats at his party we begin to form an idea of his friend Robbie, a man so infamous that he has several imitators, one of whom is even rumoured to have had plastic surgery to look more like him. Whilst Gary is the grey man, Robbie is an electric-blue satyr, a party animal par excellence who has managed to turn around the fading fortunes of a nightclub called Disco Harem through his attendance. But whilst he has managed to make that place the coolest in town by coming again and again, his no-show at Gary's party sends the assembled guests off into the night and Gary is once again alone in his drab apartment.

We then meet Naomi, recently dumped by her boyfriend but encouraged by a friend to go out on the town, even adorning a pair of kitten ears and even a new persona under the name of Lulu. Identified easily by her bright red colour, Evens creates some brilliant panels where a supposedly static wide shot of the nightclub actually contains several highlighted Naomis which track her progress through the room.

Naomi's night at Disco Harem lifts off when a case of mistaken identity brings Robbie himself hurtling into view. Naomi is literally swept off her feet and treated to exactly the kind of evening that her friend thought she needed, providing us with page after page of excitement as Naomi is swept from one location to the next, Robbie is pawed at by one person after another and the two of them finally fall into a room and upon each other to satisfy their carnal desires.

Then it's time for Gary to have his night out and at Disco Harem once again he hooks up with his incongruous friend Robbie. How these two ever became friends is a mystery but I'm sure you can think of a couple of people in your own life who really had nothing in common with each other and yet somehow hit it off and became inseparable. Such is the case with Gary and Robbie who have a catch up, pop up to another room to have a sword-fight (as you do) and then create the evening's climax in a moment of extreme crowd-surfing that will define the two men

On a first reading to be absolutely honest this book didn't make a massive impression. Perhaps it was the lack of any real 'plot' but I was able to flick through it quickly and be left with not much of an aftertaste when I got to the final page. Subsequent viewings however have shown up not only that brilliant use of colour I mentioned but also the way in which Evens is able to hide lots of complexity in seemingly simple brush strokes. On many pages and in many panels a character is really only depicted using a few dashes of colour and a couple of details and yet even with those restricting tools we can see sensuality, vulnerability, fear and ecstasy. It even takes a few viewings after that to realise that you are looking at work that is influenced by painters like George Grosz and deserves to be taken incredibly seriously for its artistic merit alone. As I've said before I cannot draw to save my life so I would never denigrate the talents of any artist but this isn't mere doodling, this includes some really fantastic watercolour work, particularly in the crowd and wider-angle shots and Evens deserves plenty of praise for those panels alone.

If the perfect night out is all about being in the right place at the right time then perhaps this book is more about the slightly jarring sensation that comes when things don't align quite so fortuitously, those nights when you might need a little help to piece together the exact sequence of events and find yourself shaking your head ever so slightly at the ways in which it seemed to be enjoyed by someone who wasn't quite you.


Tuesday 25 October 2011

'words are suitcases with false bottoms'

Death Of The Adversary
by Hans Keilson

When reviewing Keilson's other novel, Comedy In A Minor Key, I was quick to quote a review he received from Francine Prose in The New York Times. I'm going to do it again because it's funny as well as accurate.

For busy, harried or distractable readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Are we clear? Keilson's fiction may only extend to these two novels but they are both brilliant and if you thought I was impressed by the first one then this novel is the kind of book that makes you want to use words like seminal, definitive and, yes, masterpiece. In fact coming on the back of two other novels set in the Germany and Europe of the 1930's it highlighted all the more the difference between a novel that tells a good story and a novel that is a work of art. With the passage of time one can only hope that whilst there is plenty to enjoy in the former it is the latter that deserve to and simply must survive, for their loss or under-appreciation would impoverish us all.

The most obvious quality that marks this book out as a classic is its rejection of narrative specificity. There is a plot I suppose but as one fellow blogger once commented 'plots are for gardeners' and whilst it is clear that this is Germany in the 1930's and the adversary of the title is Adolf Hitler, neither of them is ever named and the novel therefore retains its power to apply to any time or place where one group  victimises another because of difference. Our narrator explains at the outset that what we are about to read is a manuscript given to him by a Dutch lawyer, obtained along with other important documents from a German client who gave them away for safe-keeping. This lawyer has asked our narrator to have a look over them and so we too read the account of this man's symbiotic relationship with the leader who oppresses, degrades and eventually controls his life. The leader is only ever named as 'B.' but is also commonly referred to as 'my adversary', the 'author' remains anonymous and the identity of his people never explicitly named. The manuscript provides an extraordinarily insightful psychological account that suggests the relationship between Hitler and the Jews, and therefore that between any dictator and his chosen enemy, is tantamount to that of lovers for 'No lover can talk more possessively of the object of his love than he did of me, even though he was cursing me.'

We find him at first almost paralysed by this proximity, fixated to the point of obsession on his adversary's death.

It was the thought of my enemy's death which penetrated me and made me shudder as one does on an icy night. The death of my enemy - I think of it with all the joy a thought can have for those to whom a thought is something vital and alive. The death of my enemy - I think and experience it with all the gravity and sublimity which is due to the thought of an enemy who is worthy of one. At every moment of the day, part of my mind is dedicated to this thought...The death of my enemy - blessed be the thought of my enemy's death. People say that one should approach one's death with longing...But I have seen many who had slowly and painfully accustomed themselves to their own death, and were then destroyed by the death of a friend.

That last line is typical of the kind statement made from experience (Keilson was a German-born Jew who went into hiding, lost both parents in Auschwitz and then went on to become a psychoanalyst famous for his work dealing with trauma brought about through war and with orphaned children in particular), lines that immediately ring true and hit you squarely in the solar plexus with their insight. Maybe Keilson's own work with children informs the sections that deal with the author's childhood, a period where he felt the beginnings of his definitive relationship forming as he was ostracised at school, subjected to rougher treatment on the sports field, made to feel different to his classmates.

So I became more intimately acquainted with him through the insults and injuries of those who called themselves his friends, behind whom he stood, invisible, unknown... He taught me about loneliness, its pain and despair, and only later about its strength. But he himself remained motionless in the distance in which he had placed himself from the beginning, I would have had to aim at a shadow had I aimed at him.

As any child might collect pictures of their heroes and sweethearts the author finds himself scouring magazines for pictures of his adversary for him to study, 'Unblinkingly I stared into this mirror, until I believed that I could recognise there my own image.' As an actor I find that I have to find a way into any character I play. This can be particularly challenging when playing someone who might be easily dismissed as evil. You can't play 'evil' (well you can, it's just not very interesting) you need to find something to explain the humanity behind acts of cruelty and in his own way the author does the same thing with his adversary in his efforts to understand him. A friend makes the point that 'one could deduce from your efforts to think yourself into his mind and to search out and understand his motives that you are not insensible of a certain feeling of sympathy.' Some writers when suggesting that a Jew might sympathise with Hitler would find themselves in very dangerous territory but it is typical of Keilson's sensitivity and subtlety that it never feels sensational or forced. He goes even further into that dangerous territory when he questions the unity of the oppressed people. Apart from the obvious betrayal of those who collaborated I think we often accept that the Jewish people stood united in the face of their destruction but the author's personal approach even forms a barrier between him and others like him so that he resists the community of persecution.

'There is a community that is profounder than that of true believers and greater than that of party members...That of adversaries. The community of those who, in life and death, are indissolubly bound together in their struggle...'

But looking at his people as a group the author is told a fable-like tale that illustrates their plight and his central thesis. Germany's Kaiser was gifted a herd of elk by his cousin, the Czar of Russia. Despite placing them in an area that replicated the habitat they were used to he received, after some time, reports of their gradual deaths. Distressed, he sends for help from his cousin who sends an expert who confirms that everything that could be done for them is being done. Why then have they died out? "They are missing one thing," said the forester. "Wolves." Could it be that without their natural predator the elk had lost their will to survive, might even have died of grief for them? It is no wonder that such a dangerous idea sends our author off into a spiral of doubt and isolation.

Despite the lack of narrative specificity I mentioned earlier there are some very clear moments of drama and acutely personal reaction. In his pursuit of a girl our author finds himself in a flat which is soon filled with her brother and some of his friends. They, it transpires, are all sided with his enemy and one of them, a new young recruit, recounts his evening spent desecrating a cemetery. The horror of the situation is what comes to the fore rather than the horror of the act of violence (which is almost comical in its ineptitude, recalling the bitter tang of the comedy in Keilson's other novel Comedy In A Minor Key) and this extended chapter is a masterpiece of internal monologue as the author struggles with his own identity within this potentially dangerous group.

Keilson also offers a brilliant deconstruction of Hitler's oratorial style and technique in a scene that not only places our author in the same room as his adversary, wrestling with the desire to kill him there and then, but also shows just how symbiotic their relationship is. B. begins with the pronouncement of a few home truths that everyone must agree with and though no one had disagreed 'he behaved as though this nobody were present and had hidden himself somewhere in the hall.' Then come the daring truths, 'which one had to think over for a while, since they did not really make sense at first sight. But no doubt they contained a grain of truth'

Again he gave the appearance of carrying on an argument with the aforementioned nobody. He raised him to the rank of his adversary and began a duel with him before the eyes of everyone in the hall. What a performance!...He attacked, he accused, he ridiculed, tore down, hit out wildly left and right, refuted arguments nobody had put forward, and upset himself terribly. The other one had no one any more to speak for him. He, who had never existed, had been killed by the voice, and since he was silent, everyone assumed that he was dead.
Helplessly I sat in the lounge. I was the nobody in the hall, I was listening to my own extermination.

I've fallen into the trap of quoting huge chunks of this book with little more than a exhortation from me for you to just go out and buy the damn thing but it's that kind of book. If you were here with me I'd simply place the rather gorgeous hardback in your hand and send you off but in the year in which Keilson passed away at the age of 101 I can only ask you to make that short journey to bookshop, library or keyboard and order yourself a copy. It is a genuine classic because it speaks now of a specific tyranny but will continue to sound out in the future about the complexities and humanity of even the most evil kinds of interaction; something that may be difficult for us to read, but also crucial.


Thursday 20 October 2011

'if a picture paints a thousand words...'

by Brian Selznick

Selznick's debut book made a huge impact (as the blurb on my Advance Reader's copy is keen to make clear) winning The Caldecott Medal, making it as a finalist in America's National Book Award and earning that all important No. 1 New York Times Bestseller position. I loved it too and we will all soon be able to see the film version as directed by Martin Scorsese (although judging by that trailer I'd give the film a miss and just get a copy of the rather lovely book) but after all that success you always wonder what an author, and illustrator, will do next. Selznick's new book tells two stories; one with words, one with pictures, the two eventually combining as the plots merge. Selznick may have dazzled with his artwork but does he have the prose to match it when the two are placed side by side?

The story begins with pictures, a pair of wolves run towards us, Selznick's 'camera-eye' zooming in up close to their eyes. After those few pages of pictures we are then in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in the summer of 1977 and the written story of Ben Wilson. He awakes after a recurring dream where he is being chased by wolves. Ben was born deaf in one ear, has never known who his father was, and now lives with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother. On a stormy night he finds a blue book amongst her possessions, a history of museums entitled Wonderstruck, with a dedication and a bookmark that suddenly provides what he thinks might be clues to his father's identity. This discovery will set him off on a journey of discovery but not before the power of the storm around him alters the way he will experience the world outside.

The pictures then transport us to Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927 and the story of Rose, a deaf girl who lives separated from her film-star mother virtually imprisoned by her strict father. Being deaf we experience the world just as she does through Selznick's black-and-white drawings as she makes her escape to New York City and the American Museum of Natural History.

I have included a couple of examples of Selznick's artwork just to give an idea of his lovely cross-hatched pencil drawings. His technique of zooming in close on facial features and details gives the book a very cinematic feel, something that ties in rather nicely with the era of silent film they evoke. It has to be said that those pictures that do take us in close are much better than the wider shots where the lack of facial detail actually makes Rose look completely different to the girl we know in close-up.

So how well do text and picture marry? Well, Selznick's prose is adequate but never leaves the reader wonderstruck, and although he has worked hard to link the different sections, so that as a door opens in one it can literally open in the other too, there is a curious rhythm to the reading experience as pages fly by in Rose's story and then plod along when we get back to Ben. When their stories merge and pictures and words begin to follow the same narrative the effect is actually to take away from the artwork which becomes merely illustrative of things we are reading about rather than the narrative itself, and this too at a point where the narrative is all about the revealing of past story.

So this book is a bit of a disappointment after Hugo Cabret, an easy-read and even an interesting one, especially after having read Selznick's acknowledgements at the back where he details what he discovered about deaf culture, the advent of talking movies and The American Museum of Natural History amongst other things, but nowhere nearly as impressive as the monochrome magic of his debut. To answer the question raised by the heading of this post; if a picture paints a thousand words then why write words at all?


Tuesday 18 October 2011

'a vessel of memory'

All That I Am
by Anna Funder

Following on from her acclaimed non-fiction debut, Stasiland, Funder's first novel has its roots firmly in fact, fictionalising the lives of real people, a group who provided resistance to the rise of Hitler's Nazi party in Germany, including Ernst Toller, Dora Fabian and Funder's own friend Ruth Blatt. Blatt spent the latter part of her life in Sydney, Australia where Funder lived and it is from here that she narrates her tale nearing the end of her life. There is something wonderfully genuine about the descriptions of Blatt in old age, a mixture of belligerence, that causes her for example to make the most of her full name, Dr Ruth Becker ('Ten years ago I decided I didn't like being treated like an old woman, so I resumed full and fierce use of the honorific'), and fragility ('I lift the fork carefully from plate to mouth, a distance which has increased with age and is now full of treacherous possibility'). She is set on the course of remembrance by the arrival of a copy of Ernst Toller's 'shamefully self-aggrandising' autobiography, I Was A German, with sheets of amendments thrust between its pages, these giving life to the one person he had excised from this official account, his lover Dora Fabian.

In his presence, and hers, I am returned to my core self. All my wry defences, my hard-won caustic shell, are as nothing. I was once so open to the world it hurts.

And so Ruth becomes 'a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting', there is something almost hallucinatory about the way in which her failing body and mind drag up these memories from the past in an attempt to piece together one more time what happened to her circle of friends in 1930's Europe.

'...occasionally, as on the edge of sleep, an obscure memory pops up, like a slide in a carousel. My friends and the other people slip off it and into the room, they breathe and fidget and open their mouths.'

Ruth isn't our only narrator however. Her sections alternate with those titled 'Toller' where we are holed up with the playwright in the Mayflower Hotel, New York in 1939, the time and place of his suicide. Before taking his life he is, with the help of a woman named Clara, making the revisions to 'the deceit of words' that Ruth will read several decades later.There are hints at the black depression from which he is suffering when he remembers his wife for example.

When I think of Christiane I feel the blackness coming; my nostrils fill with a stink which is not human but is not sulphur. It is burnt flesh, as in the trenches. I look to the bathroom and this time I catch the last dirty feathers scraping back under the door, dropping filth in their wake.
His worry that those black wings will 'foul this city' keep him confined to his room until he has finished his work. After that he knows that he will have to stop them.

With these alternating perspectives we learn of the group of friends who inhabited the left wing of German politics as Hitler's National Socialists slowly assumed total power. Blatt and her husband, journalist Hans Wesemann, Toller, Fabian and others provide eloquent opposition with the written word until the thuggishness of the Nazi's proves that action speaks louder than words. The Reichstag fire forces them towards exile in London from where they attempt to continue their acts of resistance, using all their available contacts to draw information out from behind the facade of propaganda, even staging their own trial in London to run alongside the show-trial in Germany that found the communist Van der Lubbe guilty and executed him. The threat of violence is ever present, the Gestapo managing to extend their fearful grasp to London itself, and with fears of betrayal also rearing their head the pressures brought to bear on this group of friends and lovers, who had always hoped to live their lives with an open heart and to extend that freedom to each other, reach a feverish pitch.

So with all of this fascinating factual material (there is intrigue, espionage, betrayal, murder, all the ingredients of a political thriller) why has Funder decided to fictionalise her account rather than follow the success of her non-fiction with another factual account. I'm not sure to be honest. Maybe I was looking out for it but there are the odd moments when the research is rather baldly presented and often when it isn't necessary. We can all surely understand hyper-inflation without Ruth explaining that she 'knew hyperinflation was caused by the government simply printing more currency to pay off its war debt, but it was still a shock to see the money worthless in front of me, dipping and tugging at the air.' This isn't always the case however and there are several moments where a well-chosen nugget has the power of documentary evidence to really hit home. We might feel that we already get the violence and cruelty of Hitler's police but sometimes you need a specific example.

When they found eight communists hiding in a cellar in Mitte they simply boarded it up. People walking to work heard their calls from the vent at pavement level but no one dared help. It took two weeks for all the cries to stop.

By focusing on this group of friends, comrades and lovers Funder shows how fear and the instinct towards survival combine to battle against principles and loyalty. The question we often ask about that period of history is how the German people could have allowed and even supported the Nazi project over that decade of systematic killing. Books like Alone In Berlin and Half Blood Blues have provided some interesting angles from which to view Germany from the inside and whilst I might quibble as to whether All That I Am finally succeeds as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction, it does make clear the volatility of regime that could change its mind in an instant. With that kind of an enemy, as it proved, it is almost safer to keep them as an enemy rather than to try and bring them in closer.

It is a mystery to me that people can believe they are being made safer when events clearly show that it is no safer to be a friend than an enemy, and that you might be switched from one column to the other on a whim.


Thursday 13 October 2011

'He deserves it.'

The Death Ray
by Daniel Clowes

The Clowes titles are coming thick and fast from Jonathan Cape recently. After the mental brilliance of Wilson I was satisfied if not blown away by Mister Wonderful. The latter's letter-box format perfectly suited its strip-form genesis but this latest publication (originally published in Clowes' Eightball comic book series - #23) is a gigantic, souped-up hardcover. Does this, and the striking cover, mean that Clowes has written some kind of super-hero comic? Don't you believe it. It may well be some kind of super-hero story but it's a very Clowesian one and anyone who's read any of his work will have an inkling of what that means.

We first meet Andy in 2004 and in the opening two pages he seems like another anti-hero to add to Clowes' stock. Married twice, divorced twice, devoted friend to an eighteen year-old dog called Dianne, Andy's altercation with a litter-dropping pedestrian is much like the first panels of Wilson; personal responsibility is raised immediately as a theme and Andy admits that his attempts to do what's right have become harder than ever of late - 'How the hell does one man stand a chance against four billion assholes?'

We then zoom back to Andy's adolescence in the 1970's for what all super-hero stories require in a spread entitled 'The Origin Of Andy.' Both parents having died he now lives with his 'Pappy' and apart from best-friend Louie is a bit of a nobody in most people's eyes, getting most attention from school bully Stoob. His girlfriend is miles away, he fantasises about his grandfather's carer, Dinah and at 17 he's yet to even sample his first cigarette. And that proves to be the catalyst to his transformation. There are plenty of people who've thrown up after their first cigarette but I'm sure none went on to develop super strength. Pappy hands over a package from his father (a famous scientist) that explains about the experimental growth hormone that he was injected with, activated by nicotine, and also mentions the existence of the death ray.

Together Andy and Louie struggle to work out what to do with this new found power, activated whenever Andy smokes, but their concerns remain pretty small. Saving the world is further down the list than revenge on bullies and getting a girl but through their various bungled attempts we begin to see Andy wrestling with the responsibility that comes with holding the death ray, a gun that only Andy can operate that makes its target disappear in an instant. Louie is a kind of side-kick, there to keep him 'honest' but when only one of a duo has any powers there is bound to be conflict somewhere down the line.

Reading this review you may already have found yourself thinking about some of the classic comics of the past with their orphaned heroes, raised by elderly parents or relatives and even more so of the alternative vision of vigilanteism in Kick-Ass. Does this book aim to pay homage or mock, subvert or simply hijack the super-hero mythology in order to combine it with Clowes recurring themes of inadequacy, bitterness and failure in the face of stupid and cruel world? Whatever the answer to that question I'm afraid there is something deflating about it as a read, particularly when held up against the biting humour of Wilson. It's been diminishing returns with these releases I'm afraid so I can only hope that Clowes' next piece of new material is a return to form. The franchise could do with a re-boot.


Wednesday 12 October 2011


To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 Random House commissioned an animated video from illustrator Ian Higginbotham with audio excerpts from the book read by. . . erm, me!

Catch-22 50th Anniversary Animation from Ian Higginbotham on Vimeo.


Tuesday 11 October 2011

'Ain't no man can outrun his fate'

Half Blood Blues
by Esi Edugyan

He was a Mischling, a half-breed, but so dark no soul ever likely to guess his mama a white Rhinelander. Hell, his skin glistened like pure oil. But he was German-born, sure. And if his face wasn't of the Fatherland, just about everything else bout him rooted him there right good....
Hieronymous Falk, known as Hiero, is an Afro-German, a result of the French occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War, where soldiers from African colonies were sent instead of Frenchmen - dubbed The Black Shame - and any children fathered by them assumed to be the result of rape or prostitution. Once the soldiers went home their offspring were a reminder of that shame, just one of the cultural stains that Nazism would attempt to whitewash from history, but given a fabulous focus in this, my favourite Booker title so far. The novel is narrated by Sid Griffiths, an Afro-American 'so light skinned folks often took me for white' who happened to be in 1930's Berlin along with Hiero and bandmate Chip Jones. As the thuggery of Hitler's brownshirts begins to make life uncomfortable Sid and the rest of the Hot Time Swingers made their escape to France only for war to be declared and for them to have to go into hiding whilst exit visas and passports were acquired. Before they could all make their escape Hiero was arrested by the Gestapo, interned in a camp from which he was eventually released only to pass away shortly after.

In the Berlin of 1992 Sid and Chip are reunited to attend the screening of a documentary about Hiero and we begin to get a sense of the buried history and bitter secrets of these two men. Chip may only stand at five foot four but with a booming voice that 'overwhelmed the air, shoved it aside like oil in a cup of water' and his status as a now world-renowned drummer he has a bullying influence over Sid, a bassist for whom it never quite happened. The sense of unease that has been with Sid since he got to Berlin achieves something of a climax at the screening itself when he hears the voice of Chip himself name him as the man responsible for the arrest of Hiero over their competition of a woman. If that isn't enough Chip also has a letter. Hiero it seems may not have have died at all and Chip wants them both to travel to Poland to visit him; a journey that will force Sid to confront all those demons from his past and the terrible secret he has carried since then and also allow him to tell us the story of what really happened in wartime Paris.

Sid provides a enjoyable, idiomatic narrative voice, filled with jazz slang, where a man is a 'gate', a woman is a 'Jane' and the word ain't makes more appearances than in an EastEnders omnibus. Crucially this voice isn't overplayed, it never feels forced, which means that it rang true to this reader anyway. It works in much the same way as the dialogue in another music heavy narrative, David Simon's TV series Treme, where love of music and the language of the black culture it emerges from are given due prominence. I cannot stress how brilliant the dialogue in this book is. The banter between the men is hilarious, witty and brilliantly observed in terms of the way creatives know how to get a rise out of their contemporaries. The characters are well drawn too. There's a giant of a man and a Jew so blond and blue-eyed he looks like the perfect Aryan. There's the cheeky and outspoken Chip, ever confident of his viewpoint no matter how misguided it might be. Hiero remains an almost silent presence throughout, not saying much unless it's with his horn, with which he can render almost anyone silent and awestruck. Sid struggles with the limits of his own talent and his recognition of what Hiero represents and in fact it isn't until quite late in the novel that accepts what the real difference is between them.

...cut him in half, he still worth three of me. It ain't fair. It ain't fair that I struggle and struggle to sound just second-rate, and that damn kid just wake up, spit through his horn, and it sing like nightingales...Geniuses ain't made, brother, they just is. And I just was not.

The theme of talent and genius is developed throughout the book and the performance of jazz music and what makes it genuine or not is made painfully clear in Hitler's Germany where a state-sanctioned jazz band is rightly regarded by our heroes as going entirely against the grain of what jazz music is all about. For the Hot Time Swingers, exiled in Paris, and with a lead trumpeter effectively rendered stateless by the colour of his skin, jazz is a form of resistance, a protest, and nowhere is this more evident than in their attempts to subvert the Nazi Party anthem into 3 minutes and 33 seconds of jazz greatness, the Half Blood Blues of the title. This idea comes from their meeting with the great Louis Armstrong himself, a meeting which again allows us to consider the attributes that make a man great.

A man ain't never seen greatness till he set eyes on the likes of Armstrong. That the truth. Those hooded lids, that blinding smile: the jack was immense, majestic. But something else too: he looked brutally human, like he known suffering on its own terms. His mouth was shocking. He done wrecked his chops from the pressure of hitting all them high notes over the years. His bottom lip hung slightly open, like a drawer of red velvets. He lift a handkerchief to his mouth, wipe off a line of spittle. I seen something in him then: a sort of devastated patience, a awful tiredness. I known that look. My mama had it all her life.

I don't want to say any more about the plot, there's plenty of it and the book is wonderfully structured in the way it alternates between the two time periods, revealing its secrets along the way. We know that Sid is journeying towards a reckoning of some kind but it doesn't make the reveal of it any less painful. Like Armstrong, these men are also brutally human, each have suffered in some way and there is something very touching about the way in which time and suffering interact. Treme worked for me because its love for music was infectious and the music itself became a way of expressing not just joy and love but anger and hatred too. Half Blood Blues shows how music can be a protest against oppression and a cry for equality, even whilst those who make it struggle to accept each other. I don't want to put the mockers on it now but if this book were to triumph on the 18th October I'd be very happy to know that more people would read this entertaining, informative and ultimately moving novel.


Thursday 6 October 2011

'musical movement'

The Conductor
by Laetitia Devernay

Well here's a curious thing. This hardback book is an extraordinary format for a start. Almost 13 inches high (33cm) and 6 wide (15cm), this is a tall book. Not quite as long and thin as the case a conductor might carry his baton in but not too far off and very apposite that would be. It is certainly the right format for a book that takes trees and turns them into something else entirely. Laetita Devernay is an award winning artist and author of several books for children. This volume would suit all ages and particularly those with a love for classical music or art and design. Told without words, this is the story of a conductor who walks into a forest, climbs a tree and creates a symphony of movement and pattern from the trees around him.

Devernay deftly lifts the leaves from her trees and transforms them into flying birds. Slowly at first, just one, then a few more, the movement building just like a piece of classical music.

And just as with an orchestra there are different tones to be struck with the differing patterns and designs of the neighbouring trees and as they all slowly achieve flight and combine in the air they leave behind their earthly stability and luxuriate in the open space of the sky.

For the reader this actually means the page becomes dominated by the patterns of these 'birds' in much the same way as the decorative patterns of William Morris. There is an easy visual pleasure to be enjoyed from flicking through the pages of this book that comes not just from the aesthetic beauty of Devernay's illustrations but also from the movement she has been able to 'orchestrate.' Your eye moves about the page just as I'm sure she intended it to and though the book may be short and its lasting impact limited it is a fascinating combination of book, art, narrative and movement.


Tuesday 4 October 2011

'Fuck 'em'

Made In Britain
by Gavin James Bower

I know I'm just an arty-lefty-ponce but I'm sure I wasn't the only person to wrinkle their nose when Kenneth Clarke talked about a 'feral underclass' in the wake of the riots and looting that appeared across the country this summer. I won't get into any kind of analysis of those events (we get on so well here talking about books, let's leave politics out of it) but Gavin James Bower has written, with the kind of prescience that novelists probably dream of, a novel that gives us direct access to the lives of three teenagers who are exactly the kind of person that Mr Clarke would like to put in a box and forget about.

I live on Every Street, in a town that's so common it might as well be called Every Town.

The town remains unnamed throughout this novel and that of course is the point. It could one of many towns in the north of England, the kind of place where old industrial buildings aren't turned into fancy flats but are left to fall into ruin. In this town we meet three teenagers, all on that frightening cusp of early adulthood; the period of exam cramming, raging hormones and dangerous experimenting with the world of the adult. Russell Crackle lives with his mother who suffers from depression, his father no longer living with them. As well as a curious surname Russell is saddled with another disadvantage amongst his bullying and brutish peers: intelligence. There is one glimmer of hope in the form of his cousin who lives in Leeds and where Russell might be able to realise his potential if only he can slip the bonds at home. His sections are addressed to a friend of his who commited suicide although we sense that Russell has always struggled to make real friendships with those around him and his sense of alienation is palpable when he considers their drug-taking, drinking and sexual exploits, 'When did enough stop being enough?'

Hayley is also living with a single parent, but it is her mother who is absent having died of cancer, her father combining work and care. Like many of her friends she dreams of being famous without any clear idea of what she'd like to be famous for. In her struggles to keep up with the bragging of other girls in the school she begins an ill-advised relationship with a teacher, something which threatens to distract her from those upcoming exams. She also has the hots for Charlie who could be said to be the novel's linchpin. Charlie still has both his parents at home but his father is drunken and abusive to both wife and son and his mother is understandably a shell of her former self. Charlie is the classic example of a kid far cleverer than he realises but who doesn't have the right outlet for that intelligence He also articulates the hopelessness felt by many children growing up in a society where the usual standards of work and reward seem to be leap-frogged by others.

...nobody from round 'ere ever amounts to owt, unless they become a Premiership footballer or win the lottery. I'm only OK at football and don't play the lottery - so basically I'm fucked. 

It is from a Pakistani drug dealer that he gets respect and encouragement and Charlie becomes the acceptable (white) face of that operation amongst the non-Pakistani community. Will he manage to use that opportunity to build up the stash of cash he wants to give his mother to allow her escape or will he be another life absorbed into the violence of drug gang culture?

That theme of escape is very important. All three of the teenagers in this triangle have notions of escape from their circumstances, no one wants to remain trapped in this Every Town, and our teenage years are in themselves all about escape from childhood into adulthood (and sometimes even back again when things become too much). But there is another subtler way in which these children are trapped which whilst not a modern phenomenon certainly seems at odds with our concept of parental care today. Each of them is in some ways trapped by their parents and the demands they make for care from their own children when it should surely be the other way round. Russell is most obviously prevented from making his escape by the suicidal threats of his mother, Charlie by his duty to earn enough money to finance his mother's escape from domestic abuse and even Hayley is paralysed slightly by the remorse that comes from her mother's death and the impact that has on her widowed father. It is possible it seems in our attempts to make all roads open to our children to leave them with little choice to make at all.

Whilst reading this book I wondered what sort of classification it fell into, it seems to straddle some kind of line between YA and adult fiction. There are some fantastic observations about the lives of school children, the strict code of school coach seating arrangements being just one (hint: if you're anywhere near the front then you are very low in the food chain) but it's possible that some adult readers might find a want of complexity in the teenage narrators. I personally struggled to remain much more than an observer having experience a childhood so far removed from that described but that lead me to wonder whether this book might usefully straddle that invisible line between age groups, providing a useful insight into the worries and occupations of today's youth whilst also speaking directly to at least some of the very varied people who found themselves caught up in a wave of disaffection that could only find expression in broken windows and stolen merchandise. It is those that feel frustrated enough to take direct action like that who might most benefit from reading this novel, proving once again that art has the ability to speak to and influence young people in a way that politics never has.


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