Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Edmund de Waal)

--The blurb--
"264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined…"

--The review--
Moved to read this tome for its mentions of Proust (due to working through the big guy's opus as we speak - last volume now!), I was left upon finishing with a sense and knowledge of so much more. Edmund de Waal's work received an award for biography, but it is not quite a memoir - it is more than this. Having received recommendations of the book from my mother and sister, and gone on to enjoy it myself, proves via our different spectra of abilities and interests that it is readable, accessible, and interesting to very many. The author therefore does what many in the past have failed to do by bringing history and art history to the masses, binding these interests together perfectly with political and personal histories.

Skilled and sensitive, The Hare With Amber Eyes is driven by the sheer dedication of its author, and the depth of research that has gone into it is of clearly phenomenal levels. Images are used carefully to gently enhance enjoyment, rather than bombarding the reader, and the concision of the prose is equally commendable. The choice of the hare in the title is perhaps not necessarily apparent (after all, there are 264 netsuke to choose from, so why pick that one?), but this does not seem to matter. The book is also a travel book, in that it compels you to want to visit the places described - Odessa, Paris, Vienna and other locations are brought to life with vivacity and tenacity.

That the main themes in the book should be the nature of memory, storytelling and oral tradition (not AURAL, I'm afraid, Edmund), art, the making of things, and passing things down make it no surprise that the story's principal message should be that it's how you tell the story that matters - it's no good simply having these objects without knowing where they have come from, and certainly in the hands of a lesser author the story itself may have become devalued by being passed down to us as a readers in an inferior manner. It is perhaps here that the choice of a hare with amber eyes comes into significance - the use of amber as a way to preserve something old within something new exemplifies the purpose of the writer's story, which he states is to encase the story in something new for his children.

The inheritance referred to on the cover of the book is naturally not only the physical inheritance of the netsuke but the legacy of the family history, and it is told in such a way as to be pleasantly cyclical. Further strengths include the honesty, detail and humour with which family members are portrayed, and the accessibility with which various complex issues are approached. Familiarities such as Impressionism and Nazi Europe are made new for us, and de Waal's arguably overambitious scope is approached and fulfilled with deftness and modesty. 

De Waal's mastery of all aspects of storytelling is what makes this true tale what it is; a rich fiction, but in the most positive possible way. Determined and moving without being slushy, it is practically perfect in every way - absorbing, intellectual, down-to-earth, humorous, and written with real feeling.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bookworm News: August 2011

Exiled Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto dies
The fifty-nine-year-old Cuban writer, who was living in exile in Mexico, died at the end of July a few days after receiving a kidney transplant. Alberto, who was the author of Caracol Beach, worked for many years as a journalist in Cuba before being exiled to Mexico in 1990. He received Mexican citizenship in 2000 and his work typically explored Christian themes, such as forgiveness, punishment and regret. He also wrote poetry, TV and movie scripts and taught at film schools in Mexico, Cuba and the US. In 1998 he received the Spanish literary award Premio Alfaguara de Novela, and his screen credits include the film Guantanamera.

Award news
Plenty of award news to be had this month:
  • John Grisham won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, for his novel The Confession
  • A range of prizes from the PEN American Center were awarded to a number of authors including Susanna Daniel, Danielle Evans, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Aleksandar Hemon, and Robert Perkinson. The full list of winners can be found here.   
  • Tatjani Soli and Hilary Spurling won the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes, which are awarded annually by the University of Edinburgh and are worth £10,000 each. Previous winners include Ian McEwan, AS Byatt and Cormac McCarthy.
The ReLit ring
Raindrops on roses, longlists and shortlists...
The shortlist for the Canadian Indie Press 2011 ReLit Awards was announced this month, celebrating novels, poetry, and short fiction titles published by Canadian independent presses. The list includes works by Kathy Page, Dani Couture, and Brian Joseph Davis. Category winners receive a ReLit ring - a ring with four dials, each one struck with the entire alphabet, for spelling words.  
Pan Macmillan South Africa also announced the finalists of this year's Citizen Book Prize; the winner will receive R10,000 and either publication by Pan Macmillan or a place on a creative writing course. The full list can be found here, along with synopses of the nominated novels.
Finalists for the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize have also been named, with the winner being announced in October.
Finally, the Center for Fiction announced its shortlist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize; the winner will be announced on December 6th and the nominees are Carolyn Cooke, Sarah Braunstein, David Bezmozgis, Bonnie Nadzam, Ismet Prcic, Alexi Zentner, and Ida Hattemer-Higgins.

Fifty over-50s who have made their mark
Recently the website decided to list 50 public figures over the age of 50 who matter most. Author Tony Parsons, who produced such bestsellers as Man And Boy, made the cut, and so did other authors Linton Kwesi Johnson, David Sedaris, and Jeannette Winterson. Well done to them all - everybody certainly needs an inspiration, and these people definitely provide a good place to look to.

Sales soar for poet laureate books
Sales of Philip Levine's books have shot up since he was named as America's new poet laureate. Within days of the announcement that the Pulitzer Prize winner would be taking up the post, several of his books sold out on Amazon, with one rising to 110 in the bestseller list - a rank not often seen by a poetry book. The 83-year-old author is known for his celebration of the working class and has won many other accolades alongside his Pulitzer, including a National Book Award. 

Eleven literary friendships we can learn from
Website has recently published an article on 11 Literary Friendships We Can Learn From. Their summation of the friendships of such luminaries as Byron and Shelley, and Larkin and Amis, concisely deliver us every lesson in friendship from "choose your friends carefully" and "forgive and forget" to..."don't do opium". Have fun reflecting on the friendships between these literary matter how crazy they were!

Boosting Mississippi tourism
The film version of Kathryn Stockett's The Help has only been out in American movie theatres for a couple of weeks, but already increased interest is being seen in visits to its Mississippi setting. Tourism agencies in Greenwood and Jackson have been rolling out tours to appeal to fans of the book and the film - Jackson currently offers two self-guided driving tours, The Help in Bellhaven Neighborhood and The Help in Jackson. Direct economic contribution to the area as a result is estimated to be at $13 million.

New words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary
With 'tweet' and 'retweet' having recently cut the mustard in the UK, it's interesting to see how our American cousins are expanding their vocabularies. The latest words to be set in stone by lexical giants Merriam-Webster include bromance, cougar and, of course, tweet. Tweeting of which, I'm off to do so now. Happy September!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Natural Flights of the Human Mind (Clare Morrall)

--The blurb--
"Peter Straker lives in a converted lighthouse on the Devon coast with a fine view of the sea, two cats, and no neighbors. That's just the way he likes it. He speaks to no one except in his dreams, where he converses with some of the seventy-eight people he believes he killed nearly a quarter-century earlier -- though he can't quite remember how it happened. But Straker's carefully preserved solitude is about to be invaded by Imogen Doody, a prickly and unapproachable school caretaker with a painful history herself. Against his will -- and hers -- Straker soon finds himself helping Imogen repair the run-down cottage she's inherited. There are forces gathering, however, as the twenty-fifth anniversary of Straker's crime approaches, and they're intent upon disturbing his precarious peace."

--The review--
Having read Morrall's Booker-shortlisted (OK, so I'm a Booker whore, so sue me) Astonishing Splashes of Colour some years ago, I was both thrilled and surprised to uncover this new find (OK, so 2006 is not exactly 'new'...but meh). Thrilled because I had thoroughly enjoyed her other work and could not wait to see what was next; surprised because I found this one in Poundland! I finally scooped up my new bargain and read it on holiday this year, and thankfully was not disappointed.

Titles of novels such as this one are bound to fill the reader with interest; what 'flights of human mind' could be referred to? As well as the more concrete meaning of 'flight' which increases in significance as the novel progresses, Morrall successfully defines 'flights of human mind' throughout the story via her embodiments of people's assumptions, consciences, and ways of coping with trauma from their past. Morrall adds further layers to the fascination that she creates due to her fine eye for detail and way in which she slowly reveals information, thus making the novel worth rereading.

Parallels between the 'ordinary mortal' Imogen and the criminal Peter Straker means that the author achieves her arguably controversial creative purpose - to show us that even if we don't like to admit it, we are all human, we all live under the same sky, and therefore the reactions that we all have to ordinary events in our own lives can develop in more extreme ways in some of us than in others. The origin, though, is the same. Dramatic scenery rises up to meet these very human characters, and Straker's process of opening up more and more to others is realistically documented. The real, physical journeys that the characters make define their internal, emotional journeys, and Morrall certainly does not disappoint us, following on in quality from her debut.

The challenge of addressing daunting themes of being 'second best' and the idea of somehow proving we exist, or validating and vindicating what we do as people, is risen to indomitably by the author, and as a result, she provides a more concrete, realistic and somehow inspiring message of our souls' progress through this world than the wishy-washy ideas explored in books like The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho), where they are often overdramatised and ill-defined. Morrall writes with greater subtlety and skill and does not seek to make any of her characters into noble guiding lights - even Simon and Maggie, who come closest to fulfilling this role, have the ability to become irritated and do not find it easy to forgive.

The novel cuts between scenes frequently, and while some may find this annoying, others (including myself) may find that it adds momentum and intrigue. Even though there are occasional faults - the novel-writing antics of the narrator, for instance, are necessary as a foreshadowing device but are not really convincing enough to make us believe in them - everything else is excellent, and the reader looks forward to seeing how the whole package is bound together. The notion in the novel that people are not all that they seem (as demonstrated by the characters of Harry, Celia, Peter, Imogen and Stella, to name just a few) means that the overall effect of the story is transformative and revelatory as we discover what really lies beneath the characters' exteriors. This process also proves applicable to our own lives as we are encouraged (in a way that is not intended as overt social commentary) to discard the notion of people being perfect and our need to imitate and please them in every detail - that way madness lies, as the author sinisterly proves. Perfection and happiness, as shown by Peter's and Harry's backgrounds especially, are not at all the same thing.

Morrall's deftness with her pen not only leaves readers moved and thoughtful but also gives her scope for further novels focusing on Harry and Imogen, or on Peter's parents, to point out just the tip of the iceberg of possibility. I don't suppose for one moment that Morrall would ever produce such sequels, as I suspect that she has bigger fish to fry; however, I would certainly read them if she did.

other works by Clare Morrall
Astonishing Splashes of Colour (2003)
The Language of Others (2008)
The Man Who Disappeared (2010)

Friday, 19 August 2011

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Booker Prize Longlist 2011

OK, I'm aware that this came out now a few weeks ago, but other things got in the way (such as Do Nothing But Read Day, and holidays, and things).

The release of the Man Booker Prize Longlist meant this year, as in previous years, trawling Amazon for previews and seeing what I think. It was encouraging this year to see so many new names on the longlist alongside some familiar ones, but the downside to my approach is that many of these new names will not have previews available online. A shame. In any case, I did still manage to get a feel for a few of the novels gracing this year's list.

Julian Barnes' effort, entitled The Sense of an Ending, seems like it will not disappoint: arresting, innovative, intriguing and thought-provoking prose grabs you by the neck and makes you want to read on. The other returner to the list, Alan Hollinghurst, is, strangely, another one of those authors whose longlisted work is not available for preview. Another disappointment, as I was hoping that The Stranger's Child would help me to dispel my own prejudices towards his work. On the blurb's first appearance, it sounds beautiful, compelling and romantic, but I did sigh inwardly at the use of the phrase "sexual mores" (again, Alan? Really? You might as well throw in a bag of cocaine and a bottle of champagne and be done with it, if The Line Of Beauty was anything to go by). Still, I'd be willing to give the guy another chance.

Then, as mentioned, several longlisted authors remaining shrouded in mystery due to the inability to consult their works without actually buying them (what, you think I'm made of money? You can certainly forget finding such recently issued books at the library). Yvvette Edwards is one of these, having been nominated for her debut, A Cupboard Full Of Coats. The same is the case for AD Miller's Snowdrops. Patrick McGuinness, while not shortlisted for his debut, is shortlisted for The Last Hundred Days; no previews are available for any of his works. Of these three, based on the blurbs alone, it is Edwards' unravelling of the past that appeals most to me (although Amazon shoppers have voted with their wallets, clearing the online retailer of all stocks of The Last Hundred Days).

Grimness, tragedy and a sense of history pervade virtually all of this year's offerings; don't come to this list if you're looking for a laugh (if that's what you want, you'll likely find it in Barnes' tale of schoolboy escapades). Nevertheless, all of the remaining novels have something appealing to offer in spite of their serious overtones. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side provides no look inside, but the writer's previously Booker-shortlisted The Secret Scripture does allow you to take a peek inside his style. Eloquent and flowing, we get a hint of a slightly spooky, rambling and Victorian feel which is not unattractive, although it does carry with it the often-found characteristics of Irish fiction. Jamrach's Menagerie, the nominated novel by Carol Birch, is too similar to Barry's work, but lacks the Irishness - so if you're not into Irish literature but Barry's tome appeals otherwise, Ms Birch's novel could be the one for you.

Esi Edugyan's premise in Half-Blood Blues is appealing, but is let down by the quality of its prose. The remaining nominees are similarly plagued by swings and roundabouts - Patrick Dewitt's The Sisters Brothers has intriguing but ominous circumstances that seem potentially traumatic; Alison Pick's Far To Go has an interesting historical and cultural context but again seems like it may turn out to be tragic; and the offerings by Jane Rogers and DJ Taylor (titled The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Derby Day respectively) seems relatable but grim, carrying themes of teenage invincibility and weighed down by slightly clunky dialogue in Taylor's case (although there are some more lyrical passages).

I mentioned earlier the tricky task of trying to find laughs in this longlist. Another place where some humour is found, aside from Barnes' opus, is in the work of the final nominee, Stephen Kelman. His Pigeon English too, is gruesome-sounding but is endowed with the charming perspective of a child and appears intriguing but amusing. Easily Barnes' and Hollinghurst's nearest competitor in the crowd of literary longlist noobs.

My money therefore, is on one of the two big guns, or, if not them, then on Kelman's offering. And, at the risk of coming over all left-wing on you, it's a relief to find that this latter novelist is not from the Oxbridge novelist factory, but has worked variously as a warehouse operative, a care worker, and an administrator. I'll be interested to see, with the release of the shortlist on September 6th, whether his debut novel has made the cut.

The Booker Prize longlist was announced on July 26th.
The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on September 6th.
The winner of the prize will be proclaimed on October 18th.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Week in December (Sebastian Faulks)

--The blurb--
"Over seven days we follow the lives of seven major characters: a hedge-fund manager trying to bring off the biggest trade of his career; a professional footballer recently arrived from Poland; a young lawyer with little work and too much time to speculate; a student who has been led astray by Islamist theory; a hack book-reviewer; a schoolboy hooked on skunk and reality TV; and a Tube driver whose Circle Line train joins these and countless other lives together in a daily loop. The writing on the wall appears in letters ten feet high, but the characters refuse to see it - and party on as though tomorrow is a dream."

--The review--
Having enjoyed Sebastian Faulks' previous historical works, I had believed that there would be no reason why I would not also gain pleasure from reading his next snapshot of (albeit modern) history. It was therefore of great disappointment to me that in this novel, there appears to have been the same decline in quality as I am also starting to see in the works of other authors of a similar generation.
I'm still not sure where this decline has come from. Is it born of a desire to be 'cool'? Or 'edgy'? Or 'political'? Or is it just laziness? By using surroundings and products by name with which readers are already so familiar, you cut out the middle man: the need for description. If the reader already knows what you're talking about, you don't need to describe, and there is a nasty hackneyed side effect too. Even if you try to replace some of these 'brand names' with made-up conflations, as Faulks tries to do (e.g. 'YourPlace' for a certain social networking site), we as readers get the feeling that he is trying too hard, and yet not hard enough at the same time, and that some of the richness that we seek to find in literature is therefore lost. It's hardly the savage social satire that it is deemed to be on the book's back cover. Thankfully (in a way), it seems that Amazon reviewers agree with me: today the average review score (aggregated on the basis of 199 reviews) is a mere 2.5 out of 5, and of those 199 reviews, a whopping 124 give it 3 stars or below. In short, the whole thing is mediocre at best.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is my view that some distance is required before trying to pass comment on the times in which people live. The fullness of items of historical or cultural significance simply cannot be known yet, and in his hastiness, I feel that Faulks gives too many aspects of life in the 2000s undue importance (we will know in ten years or so, I suppose, who is right). Secondly, several characters are only drawn very sketchily, so that we do not empathise nearly enough with them, even though they are supposed to be main characters. This stretches to aspects of their day-to-day existence as well: we do not know anything like enough about Finn's obsession with reality TV show It's Madness, or of Jenni's deep interest in Second Life-style program Parallax, or of their effects on the characters, to understand and care enough about them (and subsequently the plot) ourselves. 

Other facets of the story are given far too much emphasis, such as the hedge-fund manager's scheme and the blossoming romance between two of the protagonists. These two latter personages are just so mismatched that even though we are given plenty of detail about the development of the relationship, we still don't believe in it; the trade engaged in by John Veals again, is given too much attention, to the point where readers who have little to no interest in or understanding of finance that they are unlikely to be galvanised into reading on (I just skipped these pages). The hack book-reviewer is more interesting but is not given enough page time (nor is Adam, the lawyer's brother), and the only character developed proportionately is the student led astray by Islamism, and his family. 

Is all of this because Faulks has tried to do too much? Certainly the link between all of them and Jenni's Circle Line train is nowhere near explicit enough to give the novel a coherent narrative architecture, leading to something of a patchwork effect. There are some links made between the characters, but they are vague and few, and lack the main link that is suggested in the blurb. The overriding conclusion is therefore that Faulks has failed, in spectacular style, to achieve what he had set out to do. It is a shame, to me, that writers seem to be increasingly thinking that you can't be doing the world of literature any good these days unless you're talking about 9/11, or lambasting bankers, or dropping in a veiled reference to Facebook (or preferably all three). Too many of the storylines are just left to fade out unresolved, compounding the disappointment felt by the reader in the quality of the novel.

It is to be hoped, then, that Faulks will have got back to the drawing board - and seriously - in order to redeem himself for the next release. 

Other works by Sebastian Faulks
A Trick Of The Light (1984)
The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989)
A Fool's Alphabet (1992)
Birdsong (1993)
The Fatal Englishman (1996)
Charlotte Gray (1998)
On Green Dolphin Street (2001)
Human Traces (2005)
Pistache (2006)
Engleby (2007)
Devil May Care (2008)

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Captive/The Fugitive (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"In the two novels – The Captive and The Fugitive – contained in this volume, Proust’s narrator is living in his mother’s apartment in Paris with his lover, Albertine. However, this is far from an idyllic state of affairs. His obsessive love for her means that their relationship is shadowed by jealousy and headed for tragedy."

--The review--
These two parts of the In Search Of Lost Time series are where confusion can arise as to whether the series is a six-part one or a seven-part one. Originally written as two separate novels, The Captive and The Fugitive are now so commonly packaged together that the series is more often regarded as a six-part affair than the seven-part opus intended by the author. Nevertheless, editors are not being silly to put these two parts together in one volume: the result is probably the clearest narrative arc that I have seen so far across all other volumes of Proust's epic.

This is not to say that the flaws present in other volumes cannot be seen here. Unsurprisingly, the two parts are still pervaded by overrated social gossip (about which the reader does not care, since those characters being gossipped about have not been developed nearly fully enough to make us care) and Proust's circular and obsessive version of love. It is the superficial whisperings that weaken the end of The Fugitive in particular, and Proust's jealous and jaded feelings towards Albertine that bring us down again in between moments where it does seem, briefly, as if he really does love her in a form that most people would recognise.
But we must remember, too, that ultimately there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts - unrequited love and love that is suffused with paranoia may not be the same as reciprocal love, but they are types of love nonetheless. Lust, then, perhaps inevitably, features strongly again in these two volumes, as various revelations are finally released into the open to spice up proceedings. It is perhaps this feeling of "He/She did what with who?!" that makes these two volumes more readable and exciting - and that because they concern characters that we already know well.

Equally, Proust keeps the reader on their toes - having made us feel at the end of Sodom and Gomorrah that we knew what would happen next (namely, a car crash of a marriage with Albertine), he then turns around and proves us all wrong in shocking literary style that would prove to be classic (the demise of a key character is replicated in such classics as Gone With The Wind, if you would like a clue). Occasionally he also continues to provide lightning bolts of lucidity that are ultimately what the reader continues to read for, in search of something universal with which we can all identify: "one remembers an atmosphere because girls were smiling in it," the narrator says, recalling a party. He also makes curious, thought-provoking statements, such as the notion that "memory has no power of invenion", which backs up his idea that "it is powerless to desire anything else, let alone anything better, than what it has already possessed", but fails, in my mind, to recognise the idea that memory is indeed so capable of invention that it can twist and contort to an alarming degree what has actually happened to us. He harks back to more ancient ideas in his notion that when we recover from grief, it is not really us that is 'the recovered one' but rather another 'self' waiting for us in reserve for when such traumatic things happen to us, to 'fill in' for our original self.

Such fullness combined with such scandal is probably what spurs the reader on to the final volume, in conjunction with the sudden extra narrative momentum that appears in The Captive and The Fugitive. I shall be equally interested to see the filmic version of these two volumes in order to reinforce my own personal Proustian journey in search of lost time.

Other works by Marcel Proust
Swann's Way (volume 1)
Within a Budding Grove (volume 2)
The Guermantes Way (volume 3)
Sodom and Gomorrah (volume 4)
Time Regained (volume 6/7)