Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Quarry

Last up from my review backlog is 'The Quarry' by Ian Banks, his final novel before his untimely death in 2013. I have read several of his novels after discovering 'Wasp Factory' back in 2011 but none that had quite the same unique voice as my first encounter, however Kit, the autistic young man in The Quarry, does manage to be both quirky and thoroughly engaging.

Kit is caring for his father Guy who is dying of cancer, and the story covers a long weekend visit by a close-knit group of university friends. They are an odd group, seemingly bound together by their shared history as much as a liking for each other. They all lived together during their university years in the house owned by Guy, and appeared to have had quite a wild time of it. Their visit becomes an excuse to relive some of their past, but a particular old film project has become the focus of interest, something that most of the group's members want to find and ensure is destroyed. And then there is the lingering issue for Kit of who his mother is.

The story is narrated by Kit so we are only getting his impression of the relationships between the friends, some of whom he is closer to, while others still treat him like a child. There are plenty of unspoken tensions between the group, caused by earlier sexual entanglements, but also by differing political opinions and life choices. It is an interesting examination of how long term friendship operates, that they can like each other in spite of differences and their history is more important than any current disagreements. But it is Kit who is the focus of the story, his struggles to learn how to be with people, to get to grips with social niceties and understand how the world works. I liked the way the reader get inside his head and his thinking. He explains constantly how he sees things and the minutiae of his daily life. Here the group are visiting a local landmark after dark:

"Actually I do have a torch; a little credit-card-sized thing Mrs Willoughby gave me as a birthday present a couple of years ago, but it's for emergencies only, and I wouldn't call this an emergency. If somebody falls on the stairs and needs help, that would be an emergency; then I could use it.
Of course if I let them have the torch, that might help prevent them falling on the stairs in the first place, so maybe I should loan it to them after all. However, by the time I think all this through it's a bit late anyway, and I might even cause an incident if I suddenly dash up the stairs after them, yelling about having a torch and saying I'd forgotten, sorry, but here it is - who needs it most?
I get quite hot thinking about all this; it's just the kind of thing that trips me up and makes me panic. I start taking deep, measured breaths, the way Mrs Willoughby taught me." (p.139)

Guy's cancer sits there partly in the background of the story, but it bursts through intermittently, mostly in angry tirades. The awkwardness of the visitors is palpable, they try to be 'normal' with Guy but can't escape the fact that he is dying and they are all going to carry on living. The relationship between Kit and Guy has become fixed in a pattern of Kit dealing with the practicalities and Guy resenting him, almost blaming him for his dependency. It comes across as a very real and honest picture of someone suffering, devoid of any sentimentality, and you admire Guy's refusal to give in to acceptance, he sticks with the anger stage because it suits him:

"Guy breaks off, coughs again. He's looking sweaty, his eyes are bright.
'You might as well walk into a burning building and try and put out the fire through the medium of modern dance. But it means when you do lose your brave fucking battle - because it always has to be a brave fucking battle, doesn't it? You're never allowed to have a cowardly battle or just a resigned one; that'd be letting the fucking side down, that would ... Anyway, they can secretly think, Well, fucker didn't think positively enough, obviously. If that had been me, I'd have thought so positively I'd have been fine; I'd be fit as a fucking fiddle by now and out publicising my number one best-seller How I Beat the Big C and appearing on chat shows and talking with Spielberg's people about the fucking film version.' Guy coughs again. 'So you don't even get to die in peace; you don't even get to die without the implication that it's somehow your own fucking fault because you weren't fucking positive enough.'
It's your fault you smoked! I want to scream at him. I can feel tears trying to well up behind my eyes.
Guy looks at me, face flushed and glistening in the bedside light. I should probably take a facecloth to him. He smiles. Or maybe he sneers. It's something in between." (p.195)

Like several of his other books I have read the story is very much about human relationships and through the voice of the somewhat reticent Kit the reader becomes a fly on the wall watching this group of friends negotiate a somewhat sticky situation. 


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Three Elegies for Kosovo

I picked out this slim little volume at the charity shop on our recent trawl. 'Three Elegies for Kosovo' by Ismail Kadare is a dramatic history of Kosovo told by some travelling musicians at a decisive battle in 1389 when a Christian army was defeated by the might of the Ottoman empire, an event that has impacted down the centuries. It is not a period in history, or a part of the world, I know much about but the impression I was left with is one of both deep seated animosities but also a strong sense of the bonds between the communities of the region. The ordinary people seems to accept the fact that they live or die at the whim of their leaders, they are resigned to their fate. As the musicians travel together away from the battlefield they jealously guard their instruments and share their songs with people along the way, each place they stop having a differing view of the unfolding events. The tales aim to highlight the tragic consequences of the historical conflict and how the lessons of history do not seem to have been learned. I give you this interesting quote, which in the current political climate seems highly appropriate, but also shows how political tactic haven't changed much:

"Ever since the Venetians began using mute couriers, political rumours, particularly those emanating from the roadside inns, had fallen off considerably. But as if often the case when greed incites an individual or a state to foolish deeds, the Venetians were not satisfied with simple secrecy, but strove to go even further. And since the only courier more secretive than one whose tongue has been cut out is a dead courier, the Venetian's quest moved in an unexpected direction. Their new couriers were not deaf-mutes and not blind mutes, as one would have expected, but normal couriers with eyes, ears, and tongues - in fact, tongues that wagged far more than usual. In short, the often gloomy and taciturn couriers of the past were replaced by talkative couriers who were eager to sit down for a chat with any traveller they came across at wayside inns.
It was not all that difficult to guess that they had two types of information: true information, which they guarded carefully, and falsehoods, which they dropped in fragments of an evening by the fireside as if by a slip of the tongue or from too much drink.
That spring the false news was often enough injurious to the opposition, as was to be expected, but quite often also it came back to haunt those who had spread it. The road from the Turkish capital to Venice was long, and to carry both truths and lies at the same time was not easy. At times the truth, and at times the lies, would colour each other, adding to the surrounding fog, which was heavy in the month of March." (p.11-12)

The book is a fascinating insight into a very troubled part of the world, but I also enjoyed it for its story and the characters who shared their woes at the inevitable fate of their country.

Nutshell

Apparently, according to mum who lent me the book, Ian McEwan was put out by not being invited to write a book for the Hogarth Shakespeare series and decided to write one anyway ... so here we have 'Nutshell', in which Trudy and Claude (Gertrude and Claudius) are plotting the demise of John, witnessed only by the foetus awaiting its imminent birth. Narrated entirely by the foetus, who is pretty worldly wise for someone who hasn't been outside much, it is a wonderfully effective way of relating what amounts to a prequel to Hamlet. As Monkey tells me, Hamlet is a very much play of soliloquies and so the unborn baby gives his unformed, but not uninformed, opinions about the drama that he is party to. The conversations between the lovers are related second hand, often abridged and sometimes confused by the wine that passes across the placenta to dull his senses. He lurches between fierce love for his mother and frustration at being unable to protect his father from the unfolding events. It is nothing like any of the other Hogarth books, all of which followed the plot of their respective plays quite closely, and yet it manages very successfully to capture the essence of the play and the character of Hamlet.

Here he hints at what he has been hearing within the womb:
"I used to think that their discretion was no more than ordinary, amorous intimacy. But now I'm certain. They airily bypass their vocal cords because they're planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I've heard them say, their lives will be ruined. They believe that if they're to proceed, they should act quickly and soon. They tell each other to be calm and patient, remind each other of the cost of their plan's miscarriage, that there are several stages, that each must interlock, that is any single one fails, then all must fail 'like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights' - this impenetrable simile from Claude, who rarely says anything obscure. What they intend sickens and frightens them, and they can never speak of it directly. Instead, wrapped in whispers are ellipses, euphemisms, mumbled aporia followed by throat-clearing and a brisk change of subject." (p.9)

Trudy lives in the marital home, a crumbling wreck that is worth a small fortune, surrounded by decay and neglect. I came to feel that the state of the house is some extended metaphor for the corruption of their plans:

"I try to see her as she is, as she must be, the gravidly ripe twenty-eight-year-old youngly slumped (I insist on the adverb) across the table, blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism's reach, slender but for me, near naked, sunnily pink on the upper arms, finding space on the kitchen table for her elbows amongst the yolk-glazed plates of a month ago, the toast and sugar crumbs that houseflies daily vomit on, the reeking cartons and coated spoons, the fluids dried to scabs on junk-mail envelopes. I try to see her and love her as I must, then imagine her burdens: the villain she's taken for a lover, the saint she's leaving behind, the deed she's spoken for, the darling child she'll abandon to strangers. Still love her? If not, then you never did. But I did, I did, I do." (p.47)

It is a very intense and intimate book, very much about the uncertainty of the future and a life determined by forces beyond our control. The question remains, how can someone so small and vulnerable thwart the plans of these murderers, is there a means for him to ensure their just deserts? Read and find out.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Love is Blind

It is nine years since I read 'Any Human Heart' by William Boyd and strangely, despite how much I loved that book, I have not managed to read anything else by him. 'Love is Blind' is his most recent novel that the library kindly supplied for me. It tells the story of Brodie and his obsessive love for Lika Blum. Brodie is a piano tuner for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer and the story follows his life and career as he moves to Paris and tries to expand the business by sponsoring significant pianists on their concert tours. It is in this way that he meets Lika, and the Kilbarron brothers, John the pianist and Malachi, his 'manager'. They begin an affair that leads eventually to a life on the run from the vengeful Malachi. I liked it in the same way as 'Any Human Heart' because you allow yourself to become attached to Brodie, to care about his fortunes, in spite of the sometimes stupid decisions he takes. Unlike 'Any Human Heart' however the timescale is much shorter, encompassing a mere decade rather than a lifetime, and focussing on the doomed love affair. The story is clever and engaging because it is only looking back that you see how events are linked and the characters are only partially responsible for or in control of their own destiny. Brodie shares a song with Lika, and this piece of music plays a significant role in the unfolding events. Here is the seemingly innocuous conversation:

"He felt a hand come to rest softly on his shoulder and turned to find Lika standing there, a tear running down one cheek, wordless. 
Brodie jumped to his feet. 'Lika! My God, is everything all right?'
'That music. That tune ...' she said, wonderingly. 'What is it? I heard it. I was standing in the doorway, listening - and it made me cry. Look.' She wiped her tears away, smiling. 'How strange. It was like an instinct, a reflex. I heard you playing and the next thing I knew my eyes were full of tears.'
Brodie explained. 'It's a folk song from Scotland. My mother used to sing it to me when i was young. I've changed it a bit - but I use it when I'm tuning. At the end, you know, just to see if everything's fine. If the piano's ready.'
'But it's beautiful. Play it again, will you?'
'Of course.'Brodie sat down and played the song through, all two minutes of it.
'What's it called?'
'It's called 'My Bonny Boy'.' He said the title in English and translated it. Mon beau garçon. 'There are words to the song - just three verses.'
Lika frowned. 'It's most extraordinary. There's one bit of it - one transition. Is it a key change? It makes me want to cry, instantly. How can that happen?'
Then they heard the front door open and Kilbarron appeared, having handed his hat and coat to the manservant.
'Well, help, hello,' he said. 'All done, Master Brodie?' He looked at Lika. 'Are you well, my sweet?'
Lika, in some excitement, explained about the effect Brodie's folk song had had on her. A completely new, unheard piece of music that seemed to provoke a direct attack in her tear ducts.
'Good Lord above. What miraculous music is that?'
Brodie recounted the story once more. 'It's just an old Scottish folk song that I've adapted,' he added. Kilbarron was intrigued and asked him to play it again. So Brodie sat down at the piano and ran through the song once more, Kilbarron listening intently.
'See! There!' Lika exclaimed. 'That moment, those few bars. Don't you feel it? So much emotion.'
'I do - in a way,' Kilbarron said and asked Brodie to play it again.
'Yes,' he said when Brodie had finished. 'It's very simple but effective. An interrupted cadence on a rising scale - accented passing notes. Play it again if you will, Brodie, old man.'
Brodie did so.
'You expect the tonic, you see. Every instinct is telling you which way the music will go,' Kilbarron said, almost to himself. 'But it's unresolved - that's where the emotion springs from.' He smiled. 'An old trick. But old tricks are the best.'
He budged Brodie away from the piano and sat down at the stool and played the song himself." (p.107-8)

A much more intellectual review of the book is available on the Guardian, including an analysis of the 'Chekhov' links, of which I was entirely oblivious, so there you go. Despite his dearth of women characters, the fact that even Lika is fairly 'mysterious', a technique used to save having to make her more than a one dimensional 'beautiful opera singer', I thoroughly enjoyed the book. 
Ian McEwan's 'Nutshell' and a novella from Kosovo still waiting to be reviewed, I will get back on track soon.


Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Banned Books and all that

For Banned Books Week this year Monkey and I each decided on a book which we read and then swapped, for a double dose of banned literature. Monkey already had on her TBR pile 'We' by Yevgeny Zamyatin which we had found in Waterstones quite some time ago. It is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a world after a 200 year war, where perfect happiness has been achieved by everyone having absolute equality (or rather sameness, a distinction that sometimes eludes people). The 'wild' outside world is kept at bay by a huge glass wall, and everyone's lives are under constant observation because everything else is made of this same glass, including the houses. Our hero D-503 (there is not much individuality) comes into contact with a strange unconventional woman and finds himself drawn into a subversive underground movement bent on disrupting the Benefactor's plans. George Orwell credits the book as inspiration for Big Brother and 1984. It was written in the 1920s and, denied publication in the Soviet Union, the book first appeared in translation in the West. This caused him some problems at home and he eventually wrote to Stalin and asked to be allowed to leave the country. He  was duly given permission and he lived out the rest of his relatively short life in Paris. The introduction to the book gives the publication saga in detail and was quite fascinating. 
I have a couple of quotes that allow the reader to understand the thinking behind the society:

"I'll be completely honest with you: Even we haven't yet solves the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day - from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 - the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you'll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe - let them call me idealist and dreamer - but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we'll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 86,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours." (p.13)

and the participants willingness to participate (and an explanation of the title):

"Look here - suppose you let a drop fall on the idea of 'rights.' Even among the ancients the more grown-up knew that the source of right is power, that right is a function of power. So, take some scales and put on one side a gram, on the other a ton; on one side 'I' and on the other 'We,' OneState. It's clear, isn't it? - to assert that 'I' has certain 'rights' with respect to the State is exactly the same as asserting that a gram weighs the same as a ton. That explains the way things are divided up: To the ton go the rights, to the gram the duties. And the natural path from nullity to greatness is this: Forget that you're a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton." (p.111)

And this lovely little critique of democracy (contrasting it with their 'Day of Unanimity'):

"It goes without saying that this bears no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganised elections in ancient times, when - it's hard to say this with a straight face - they couldn't even tell before the election how it would come out. To establish a state on the basis of absolutely unpredictable randomness, blindly - could there be anything more idiotic? Still, it looks like centuries had to pass before this was understood." (p.132)

The second book could not be more of a contrast: 'The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up' by Jacob M Appel. According to the Wikipedia list of books banned by governments it was banned by Qatar in 2014 for its depiction of Islam, leaving the reader a little bemused since there is a passing mention of 9/11 and not much else. It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 but failed to find a publisher in the US until 2012, admitted by several publishers to be because of its political content. Predating but foreshadowing the national anthem protests the book tells the story of Arnold Brinkmann who refuses to stand at a baseball match for the singing of 'God Bless America'. What was a spontaneous action spirals out of control after the press run with his story and protestors begin to gather outside his house. Arnold sticks to his guns and refuses to back down. A young woman with journalistic ambitions climbs over the back wall and it turns out that a long standing employee is not what he appears. Then all hell breaks loose and after that Arnold's life is never going to be the same again. The book was written as a critique of the unpleasant jingoistic patriotic conformity that sometimes characterises American politics and life, it gets quite surreal in places, even silly ... but I won't spoil the plot for you because it was an excellent, entertaining read. I give you Arnold's thoughts while he listens to the people around him in the crowd:

"This was the amazing thing about democracy, thought Arnold - everybody felt entitled to their own pet theory: That Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated the Kennedy assassination, or that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare's plays, or that Glenn Miller had survived World War II in a Soviet gulag and formed a marching band for prisoners with Raoul Wallenberg. Judith had a colleague at school, an eighth grade teacher in his forties, who taught his classes that Amelia Earhart had been shot down and tortured by the Japanese. If history judged nations by their pet theories, no one could ever doubt that Americans were creative." (p.7)

Thursday, 4 October 2018

That Awkward Age: National Poetry Day

I have an ongoing fondness for Roger McGough because he writes poetry for children. I first developed a love for poetry when the children were small and as such used to read a lot of poetry books to them; there is one that sticks in my mind (but I can't find anywhere) that used an elevator/alligator word play that Jacob particularly liked. I picked out 'That Awkward Age' at the Central Library the other week and thought I would share one with you for National Poetry Day. There is a lovely selection of poems, mirroring Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife', that tell the tale of the men behind famous women, and another group of elegy poems that are quietly unsentimental. His dry sense of humour comes through in many of them, writing mostly about the ordinary stuff of life. So I give you this one:

Queue Music

At a bus stop on Princes Road
two people, unaware
that there is a bus strike,
form an orderly queue.

September 1977
and a lovely evening for a walk.
The people in the queue grow restless.
Begin to talk.

Time passes, but not buses.
Eventually the queue, dying of thirst,
sets off down the road
leaving the bus stop to its own devices.

In the corner of a pub
three empty bus shelters away
the queue is sitting at a table
drinking and chatting.

At closing time
(early in those far-off days)
the queue has decided
to form an orderly life together.

Promises are made
as hand in hand 
it walks out into the night.
Cue music and fade.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Man Who Rained

After enjoying 'The Girl with Glass Feet' so much I found Ali Shaw's second novel 'The Man Who Rained'. It is about Elsa, and Finn, mostly, both of whom have a strong connection to storms; Elsa because he father was a storm chaser, and Finn because he is a storm. We first meet him as he is dissolving into the air, called back to solid form by Elsa's intervention.

The story is set, similarly to Girl with Glass Feet, in a remote and isolated island community. There is both serious religion and a whole bunch of weird superstitions swimming around within the community, making them suspicious of outsiders and afraid of random animals, and creating a rather claustrophobic and occasionally threatening atmosphere. I liked it because it had the same magical realism blended into the tale; most of the residents are afraid of the things they do not understand but Elsa is curious and finds her landlord Kenneth and an elderly nun Dot who help her make sense of the history of Thunderstown. There is a bit of a theme running through the story of missing mothers and men who struggle with their sense of identity. There is also a bit of a power play going on between the influential men in the town, and it fuels the onset of the final crisis. Like with the tiny winged cows in Girl with Glass Feet I felt again that some of the magical aspects were extraneous to the actual story and were just there because the author is enjoying the process of creating the feeling of the story, and I just allowed myself to enjoy them too. I like the development of the bond between Elsa and Finn, it was believable and coherent, but I'm sorry, the ending was just plain creepy and it spoiled the story for me. As a result I did not like the book as much. Having said that his third book 'The Trees' looked excellent and is definitely on the waiting list.

Here are Finn and Elsa bonding:

"'Now,' he whispered, 'hold out your hands.'
She did so, wondering if he was going to take hold of them. Instead he produced from his good pocket a sachet of seeds, and placed one fat grain in her palms. Then they waited. A canary bustled through the treetops, springing and zipping from branch to branch, getting closer in stops and starts. It paused for a while on the twigs above Finn's head, leaning its head left and right, its eyes swivelling hard at Elsa. She smiled at it, in case that would help.
Then it flicked wide its yellow wings and whirred down to perch on her hands. She felt the pin-tip of its beak tapping against her skin as it gobbled up the seed.
'Catch it,' whispered Finn.
Nervously - it felt wrong to touch a wild creature - she slid her free hand over the canary and cupped it to trap the bird in her hold. It burbled at her furiously, and she yelped when its wings whirred and tickled her skin. Still she kept it trapped, and then she felt a change come over it.
'Finn ... something's happening!'
'Don't worry. It can't hurt you.'
The canary had stopped struggling. It crouched still, virtually weightless in her hands. It was getting hot - not just with the compact warmth from its small heart and muscles, but with the penetrative warmth of a summer afternoon. And not around her hands a dim light glowed, getting brighter as she watched it, until golden shafts shone through the cracks between her fingers.
Some fearful switch tripped inside of her and she let go of the canary with a start. but her hands were empty and the bird had vanished, as had the light she had been holding, gone in a yellow shimmer of air. The only evidence that remained was the warmth in her palms, as if she had been holding them to a campfire." (p90-91)

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