Sunday, 24 June 2012

Blackbird (Jennifer Lauck)

--The blurb--
"To young Jenny, the house on Mary Street was home -- the place where she was loved, a blue-sky world of Barbies, Bewitched, and the Beatles. Even her mother's pain from her mysterious illness could be patted away with powder and a kiss on the cheek. But when everything that Jenny had come to rely on begins to crumble, an odyssey of loss, loneliness, and a child's will to survive takes flight...."

--The review--
The genre of misery lit has pervaded Western book stores for at least the past ten or fifteen years, with some bookshops even having whole sections dedicated to the genre. The term coined by The Bookseller magazine refers chiefly to autobiographies which focus on the narrator's triumph over trauma and abuse, and while the first writer to truly break this market was possibly Dave Pelzer in the mid-1990s, the popularity of the genre still persists unabated, as perhaps evidenced by the release of Jennifer Lauck's final volume of her memoir, Found, in 2011 - a story which kicked off with the first instalment, Blackbird, in the year 2000.

It's easy to see why this type of literature has caught on. Inspiration and voyeurism combine to make an emotionally intense product, written in an accessible style that all can read easily, at least in terms of its literary level if not its gruelling content. Equally, it's escapism; we feel that this could never happen to us, and feel relieved that it has not. Blackbird also fits into this framework of description - once we start reading, we are easily swept up into the story of Jennifer's childhood and our horror at her role as carer. Although at times the sequence of events can seem unrealistic given that bad things seem to pile on top of bad things unrelentingly, this is sadly the case for some people's lives, and as readers of this type of autobiography, it is perhaps more our role to listen than to judge.

In contrast to the events that take place, the characters seem on the whole to be very realistic indeed: Jennifer and her brother annoy each other as smaller children and then only later find affection for each other and things that they have in common, as is usual for siblings, and the development of this relationship made for a touching read. To the same degree, Jennifer's father comes across just as a nice guy trying (albeit failing in some respects) to do right by his kids. Perhaps understandably, the exceptions to this portrayal of characters and relationships come in the form of Jennifer's mother, who is accorded love and light in seemingly infinite amounts, and Jennifer's stepmother, who is portrayed as nothing less than a purveyor of evil.

This inconsistency is arguably carried through into the way in which Lauck controls events: at some moments, such as when she finds herself in a situation where she is vulnerable to abuse, we have the feeling that unlike in some 'misery lit' memoirs, she retains her privacy and keeps some of the more gruesome details to herself. However, there are also moments where Blackbird feels rushed, and some important details are left out, leading to confusion in the plot (we do not know why she is sent away so suddenly, or why she is so suddenly separated from her family).

What we therefore have is a noble attempt at a contribution to this genre, but something which needed further tidying up prior to publication (which is perhaps somewhat surprising given Lauck's prestigious journalistic background). The pioneer of high-quality literature in this category still, to me, remains Frank McCourt, rather than Dave Pelzer, Jennifer Lauck, or any other exponents of this type of writing that I have so far encountered. It would be my advice to seek out McCourt's writing instead. 

Other works by Jennifer Lauck
Still Waters (2002)
Show Me The Way (2004)
Found (2011)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Fifth Mountain (Paulo Coelho)

--The blurb--
"The Fifth Mountain is set in the 9th century BC. Elijah is a young man struggling to maintain his sanity amidst a chaotic world of tyranny and war. Forced to flee his home, then choose between his newfound love and security and his overwhelming sense of duty, this is a moving and inspiring story about how we can transcend even the most terrible ordeals by keeping faith and love alive."

--The review--
As part of many literature courses at university - including such prestigious universities as Exeter, Cambridge and Manchester - the Bible is part of the required reading list. This should not prove surprising: as well as several works of classic literature, such as the poetry of John Keats and the work of John Steinbeck - being littered with Biblical references, the English language also owes much to phrases from the Good Book (how many times have you said that you "escaped by the skin of your teeth" or muttered under your breath about "the powers that be"?). It's also not uncommon for children to grow up knowing Bible stories, even if their families are not religious: how many have played Mary in a nativity play, grown up to see The Passion of the Christ on DVD, or gone to see Joseph And His Technicolor Dreamcoat at the theatre?
In The Fifth Mountain, Paulo Coelho continues this work of bringing the Bible to life for the masses, allowing them to at least appreciate the stories contained in this holy book, even if they themselves do not ascribe to the idea of a god playing chess with our lives. It's true that when reading the Bible, the characters can at times seem faceless - especially when featured as part of an endless line of "begats". The sheer number of other 'characters' featuring in the Bible, as well as the strength of the 'main players', means that other familiar names, such as Elijah, are often forgotten, or known little about. And it is Elijah who is the focus of attention in The Fifth Mountain, where Coelho successfully builds up a character and setting that allows us to share in this prophet's joys and sorrows.

While it is evident that a certain amount of fictionalisation would have been involved (as a minimum, in terms of Coelho's fabrication of emotions and dialogue), the writer has tried hard to base the story's quintessential framework on information we are given by the Bible, which tells us that Elijah was cast out of Israel, having stated in front of King Ahab's wife Jezebel that he did not believe in the Baal gods that she did, as well as predicting that a drought would afflict Israel. Leaving his job as a carpenter, he fled to Judah to escape death where he was first fed by ravens, followed by a widow in the town of Sarepta (today known as Sarafand in modern-day Lebanon). Even though the widow barely has enough to feed herself and her son, she takes Elijah in and shows him hospitality. Gradually Elijah builds up a role for himself within the community as a healer of the sick before returning to Israel to announce the end of the drought. Coelho successfully fleshes out this story by adding genuine relationships, atmospheric settings, and nuggets of life advice that even we non-prophet types can take something from - such as the notion that "only when we have overcome [the trials] do we understand why they were there."

Sporting a far more tautly-told plot and message than Coelho's more famous The Alchemist, the author manages to convincingly generate real empathy for Elijah, the widow and her son, while simultaneously keeping a tight rein on the control of tension and the release of vital information. As well as entertaining, inspiring and teaching, he equally provides a sobering reminder of Lebanon's conflict-ridden past and present, and engenders real interest in the Bible's historicity, which fortunately can be indulged through such excellent resources as the Oxford Biblical Studies Online website, and which is why, I suspect, the Bible proves such an integral part of so many high-quality literature courses in British and American universities (Vanderbilt also includes it, for example). Perhaps there is even a case for The Fifth Mountain to be included too.

Other works by Paulo Coelho
Manuscript Found in Accra (2012)
Aleph (2010)
The Winner Stands Alone (2008)
The Witch of Portobello (2006)
Like The Flowing River (2006)
The Zahir (2005)
The Genie and the Roses (2004)
Eleven Minutes (2003)
Fathers, Sons and Grandsons (2001)
The Devil and Miss Prym (2000)
Veronika Decides To Die (1998)
The Manual of the Warrior of Light (1997)
By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (1994)
The Valkyries (1992)
Brida (1990)
The Alchemist (1988)
The Pilgrimage (1988) 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Bookish Bits and Bobs: A Journey Into A Digital World

With Fathers' Day on the approach in several countries, including in Britain and France, the mad scramble is starting for gifts and cards. Having already recommended on Twitter the other week that Richard Hammond's autobiography "On The Edge" would make an excellent choice of present for many a father, I got thinking about other book recommendations. I have already passed on a copy of Paul French's recent release, "Midnight In Peking", to my own father, as it's a superb historical thriller that takes us on an exciting analytical tour of China in a tragic "whodunnit" case that would appeal to many men (and indeed women) for the mystery that surrounds it, going back 100 years to resuscitate the evidence and finally bring justice. For dads who are into Photoshop and new media, there is also a host of literature on this subject, from authors such as Christiane Paul (author of Digital Art) and Susan Tuttle (who penned Digital Expressions in 2010).

But sometimes the best gift is just time with your dad. I know that either of my parents would probably give their right arms to spend time with their own fathers again. And even if your dad isn't into editing photos and creating websites himself, he may well be interested in a more modern age of art nonetheless - and what better way to indulge than visiting a digital art exhibition together this weekend? While America is arguably better equipped for this than us, with our Yankee brothers boasting digital art museums in Los Angeles and Austin to name just a few, there are plenty of options within the UK. The Waterman International Festival of Digital Art, in celebration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, is running until October in Brentford (postcode TW8 0DS), in conjunction with seminars organised by Goldsmiths, University of London. Each installation will only come alive when people interact with it, and the exhibition's aim is to bring together artists from around the world, as well as exploring and questioning audience engagement with digital art. The current exhibition seminar (until July 8) is entitled Granular Graph, and takes an interdisciplinary approach combining art, science, music, and more. 

If it's raining (which, let's face it, it probably is), there are also plenty of online exhibitions, such as Print Fiction, which runs until June 24th, and the UK Crafts Council exhibitions, which can be accessed here. Online galleries are just another logical step in digital art's surprisingly long history; as well as exhibitions that finished in 2012 in locations as diverse as Hanoi, London and Sheffield, there's also evidence of a San Diego show that took place in 2007, and even a San Francisco show that took place in 2001.

If all of this does inspire you - or your dad - to create some digital art of your own, Designboom/INFINITI's International Digital Art Competition should prove a perfect outlet for your talents and interests. Inspired by the theme 'Curved Visions', as a follow-up to their first theme of 'Inspired Performance', the results will be exhibited at various INFINITI Centres across Europe. The winner of the first round was perhaps unsurprisingly from Japan, where digital art has already achieved a cult following. Shinji Nukumi was announced as the winner and awarded the first prize of €10,000 in Marseilles.

Even if it seems daunting, do not panic! It is stressed that participation is open to applicants worldwide, whether you are a professional or student. As long as you are enthusiastic about design, that is the main thing - and to me, that sounds like a great Fathers' Day project to develop your daddy-daughter or father-son relationship throughout the rest of 2012 and beyond.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

On The Edge (Richard Hammond)

--The blurb--
"Richard Hammond is one of our most in-demand and best-loved television presenters. On September 20, 2006, he suffered a serious brain injury following a high-speed car crash, and the nation held its breath. On the Edge is his [...] account of life before and after the accident and an honest description of his year of recovery [...] It is also, perhaps, his explanation of why, as a married man and father of two young daughters, he was prepared to risk all by strapping himself to the front of a jet engine with the power of eleven Formula One cars. A daredevil and a petrolhead long before his association with Top Gear, Richard tells the story of his life as an adrenalin junkie, from the small boy showing off with ridiculous stunts on his bicycle to the adolescent with a near-obsessive attraction to speed and the smell of petrol. After a series of jobs in local radio, he graduated to television and eventually to Top Gear, one of the world's most popular shows, upgrading his car with each step up the ladder. [...] It was whilst filming for Top Gear, driving a jet-powered dragster at speeds over 300mph, that a tyre burst and the car left the track and rolled over, burying him in the earth. He was airlifted to hospital and hovered near death for several days. His wife Mindy tells the story of the anxious hours and days of watching and waiting until he finally emerged from his coma."

--The review--
Ghostwriting is something that some find to be quite a distasteful aspect of the publishing industry: why should so many genuinely talented writers struggle to get into the business while people who cannot string a sentence together get books written for them (which then go on to sell in their thousands or even millions)? The view of some others is that it is good for the economy and ultimately sells books in a time of fierce competition against all kinds of digital gadgetry. At any rate, it is unfair that some genuinely clever celebrities, such as Stephen Fry or Dawn French, who did write their own autobiographies, should suffer from this particular affliction of the celebrity autobiography genre.

Richard Hammond's status as a trained journalist means we can also be fairly sure that he wrote it with only the minimum of assistance from editors. However, two other things that make his autobiography different to others are that firstly he has co-written it with his wife Mindy, and that secondly the 'hook' is a major, life-changing accident (both of which help the book to stand out on the shelf a darn sight more than a collection detailing said 'sleb's latest trip to Tesco). The whole book does not centre on Hammond's famous jet-powered car crash of 2006 (which is good, as otherwise it may become wearying or self-pitying), but rather on his life-long love of speed and quick thrills, from being a small boy and wannabe daredevil teen to chasing his dream career. These differing episodes keep up the pace of the book and maintain momentum and interest in the lead-up to and aftermath of the crash, rather than being a long drawn-out account.

Equally interesting are the regularly alternating thought streams from both Mindy and Richard. The two distinctive voices again serve to add variety and different perspectives on the same situation - and the fact of the two being a husband and wife team also means that On The Edge can appeal to both men and women. Concisely woven and always engaging, we are given insight into Richard's life and situation in a way that is traumatic in some parts (but only because the events themselves are traumatic - not because they have been hammed up by the authors in any way) and restrained in others, giving us the impression that we now know more while also leaving us satisfied that in this age of letting it all hang out there are some details still that they have kept for themselves. Such discretion is rarer and rarer.

Perhaps because of its dramatic content, On The Edge is intense (in a positive way) yet highly readable and at times very funny with it. It would make an excellent Fathers' Day gift as well as a superb choice for others all year round. Definitely better than the ghostwritten output of the latest reality TV show moppet, On The Edge is a gritty, moving and humorous account of a turning point in a life that is of huge fascination to many members of the British public.

Other works by Richard Hammond
Car Science (2011)
Or Is That Just Me? (2010)
As You Do (2009)
A Short History of Caravans in the UK (2009)
Richard Hammond's Car Confidential (2006)
What Not To Drive (2005)