Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Booker shortlist

Of the six writers shortlisted today for the Booker - Hilary Mantel, A S Byatt, J M Coetzee, Adam Foulds, Simon Mawer and Sarah Waters - my money's with the Bookies' favourite, Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I'd like to see win. Historical fiction doesn't always get appreciated even when it's this good (Janice Galloway's Clara was badly overlooked when it came out by the Booker team), so I'd like to see it get the prize it deserves.

Independent on Sunday 23rd August

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook (Profile Books, £9.99) *****
The way that Brook teases out trade routes, struggles for power and the delicate dance that is international relations from a hat, or a china bowl, in this accessible but authoritative study, is truly mesmerising. He relies on five paintings by Vermeer (and Girl with a Pearl Ear-ring isn’t one of them) for his history of the Dutch reach for global power and shows, better than anyone I’ve read so far, the truly subversive power of detail, especially when it’s foregrounded, instead of filling in the background.
For example, both Officer and Laughing Girl and Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window foreground a hat and a china bowl respectively. Both are in shade, but they’re in front of the women in both pictures. Brook alights on the hat that the officer is wearing to tell us that this piece of headwear is the latest in Dutch male fashion, made from beaver fur not wool. Beaver pelt came from Canada, made available to Europe from the many incursions into Mohawk and Huron territory by the French, British and the Dutch. And the reason that they were all in Canada was the same reason Christopher Columbus discovered America – they were actually trying to get to China.
China was the big goal, the fabled land of riches, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was believed that sailing west would get you there. Brook shows the transition from the bloody conflicts of the sixteenth century to the negotiations of the seventeenth, the age, he calls it, “of improvisation”, a “century of second contacts”. In Vermeer’s paintings we can see the evidence of this reach to other lands and what was brought back, what became part of our own lifestyles. And details that we probably didn’t think told us very much, suddenly tell us everything.

The Crowning Glory of Call Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells (Harper, £7.99) **
There’s a bit of a vogue for these six/seven word titles in upmarket commercial women’s fiction right now, a fashion which Wells may have begun: her novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was the one that really made her name internationally. They offer a kind of clue to the fare on offer: targeted at intelligent women who nevertheless want something relaxing to read without feeling they’re being patronised, Wells’s novels have the right mix of love and pain, told in a sparky yet sympathetic voice. Young Calla Lily Ponder is the adoring daughter of M’Dear, the idealised mother figure who teaches her everything she knows, which here turns out to be hairdressing. This is no ordinary hairdressing, though: Calla knows how important it is for women to feel good about themselves and when her beloved mother dies, the women in her life marshall themselves around her to make her feel better, especially after her boyfriend lets her down. Set largely in 60s Louisiana, the civil rights movement makes an appearance, just to give the upbeat message a sense of realism, but overall there are just too many exclamation marks and too much New Age angel-therapy to win me over.

The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty by Humphrey Carpenter (John Murray, £12.99) ****
This biography of the seven John Murrays who have headed up the famous publishing house since its inception in 1782 was, alas, unable to be completed by Carpenter, who died at the beginning of 2005, aged only fifty-eight. An editor, Candida Brazil, and another biographer, James Hamilton, helped bring the material together but kept a couple of dramatic scenes Carpenter had written to an appendix at the end. I’m not sure this was necessary: the second James Murray is the one everyone wants to know about, as he was the one responsible for ‘signing’ Byron, taking on ‘Childe Harolde’, and his relationship with the poet is a fascinating one, full of power-play and grandstanding, leading finally, of course, to the famous burning of Byron’s memoirs after his death. But subsequent Murrays don’t have quite the same glitter about them, even though the publishing of Darwin’s work was certainly a daring move by the next Murray, and the selling of the publishing house to Hachette in 2002, a truly historic event for the company. Some of this material can be a little dry, and Carpenter’s imaginings of various encounters brings things to life. It’s a revealing history though, not just of a family but also of an industry.

The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry (Quercus, £7.99) ***
Lowry’s debut novel has one of creepiest narrators since Humbert Humbert, and perhaps, not surprisingly, he also falls for a young girl, although one slightly older than Lolita. Thomas Lynch is an acquisitive art historian who has already been sacked from his New England college for sexual misdemeanours, when he arrives at Mawle House in Oxford, on the hunt for a missing Bellini masterpiece that he believes might be concealed in its grounds. Young Anna is the owner of the house, and she and her mother are well aware why Lynch has come to see them: whether they will let him get what he wants is another matter. Lowry weaves in a late nineteenth-century diary as well as Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess to produce an effectively chilly tale about desire, greed and amorality. Yet, perhaps because of those elements, it somehow fails to feel remotely contemporary, or remotely real: from the very beginning, with all its painterly and literary references, this novel feels like exactly what it is, without that postmodern, self-conscious nod to its own artifice. I wasn’t convinced for a minute that this was anything more than a made-up story. But I did enjoy it.

Love and War in the Pyrenees: A Story of Courage, Fear and Hope 1939-1944 by Rosemary Bailey (Phoenix, £8.99) ***
When Rosemary Bailey and her husband fell in love with Corbiac abbey in the Pyrenees, they bought it and decided to settle there. They also found a set of love letters written by a French couple who’d lived there fifty years before, and this cache set Bailey off on an investigation of the area’s recent history. What she uncovered was the effect of that precursor to the second world war, the Spanish Civil war, as the Pyrenees saw hundreds of Republicans flee Franco’s troops over the mountains and into France, only a few years later to be driven back over the mountains chased by those acting under Petain’s orders once the Vichy government was set up in the wake of France’s defeat by Hitler. It’s a region packed full, then, of treachery, heroism, death and new life: all the extremes, and in the middle of it, a newly married couple, Pierre and Amelie, trying to make their new life work. Bailey squirrels out of reluctant locals the kind of history France doesn’t like, about the lack of help offered to Spanish refugees and the quiet acceptance of German rule, to show a lack of national unity that she compares unfavourably to Britain’s attitude during the war.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guardian Not-The-Booker Longlist

This pretty long Longlist alternative to the Booker has some good names on it - Eleanor Catton and Eleanor Thom are just two who deserve a bit of recognition for their novels, 'The Rehearsal' and 'The Tin-Kin'. The journey to shortlisting, though, is up to how many votes each author gets, and I've finally decided to vote for Peter Murphy's 'John the Revelator.' Log in to the Guardian website to cast your vote.

Independent on Sunday 1 August 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth (Vintage, £7.99) *****
Marcus is a young man who loves his hard-working father, he just can’t live in the same house as him; he’s a straight-A student who can’t get on with his room-mates at college so he keeps asking to be moved; he’s the object of beautiful Olivia’s attention but doesn’t know how to respond to a young woman who’s more sexually experienced than he is.
Roth’s ability to run the gamut of adolescent confusion and give it an urgency and an importance, instead of picking fun at disproportionate teenage responses to minor crises, might at first appear the consequence of setting his story during the Korean war. Marcus is constantly worrying that if he fails his studies, he’ll be called up and killed on the battle-field, just as his father is permanently full of fear at anything that might harm his son, or lead him astray. But, ironically enough, it’s not the overhanging threat of war that gives this story imperative.
Marcus’s refusal to join college fraternities casts him as an outsider, when already, as one of the few Jews on campus, he’s outside the social norm anyway. This refusal to be part of the team erupts during an interrogation by the college dean, who wants to know why he prefers to be alone. The American ideal of team-playing, more important than getting straight As, something Marcus finds incomprehensible, has been critiqued by Arthur Miller and others, but Roth’s portrayal of that ideal as an inevitable need arising from a nation made up of immigrants, is sympathetic as well as damning. While he resists romanticising the fate of the lone individual, he cannot let those in authority off the hook. Marcus is condemned to join in. This angry story of an angry young man, beautifully and simply told, is not easy to forget.

The Thrift Book by India Knight (Penguin, £7.99) ****
India Kinght’s real asset lies in her convincing display of soul-baring: when she says she is “naturally spectacularly crap with money”, with her “fair share of bailiffs over the years” and was served with bankruptcy papers, I believe her utterly and absolutely, when, for all I know, as a well-off, bestselling writer with a long-running column in a London newspaper, she’s actually as crafty as Fred Goodwin when it comes to her own money. But everything here has that authentic feel to it, which is necessary when you’re trolling through money-saving tips that are so self-evident and full of common sense you want to slap yourself for not thinking of them first: save left-overs from meals; only buy what you need; repair good clothes, don’t keep buying cheap ones you throw away after a couple of washes; holiday at home for a change; buy second-hand, not new, and so on. I could have done without the pictures: Knight’s writing style is breezy enough and she doesn’t need them to pep up her prose, which managed both to make me laugh out loud and feel guilty for being so crap with money myself at the same time, not an easy feat.

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger (Sceptre, £10.99) ***
It took ten years for Pullinger to research and write this book about real-life Sally Naldrett, maidservant to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, one of many aristocrats who travelled to warmer climes for health reasons in the nineteenth century. Duff Gordon suffered from TB, published a volume of letters about her seven-year stay in Luxor, and was close to her maidservant until she had the temerity to have an affair with Omar Abu Halaweh and get pregnant. Sally was cast off by her employer although Omar was excused his ‘indiscretion’. It’s a fascinating story in itself and one can’t help wondering if the length of time Pullinger took over it meant that she struggled with it somehow. Details are authentic and her portrayal of Duff Gordon convincing but Sally is a harder one to understand and I’m not sure Pullinger really gets to the bottom of her heroine’s psychological make-up. She gives Naldrett a life-long fascination with Egypt and a natural attraction to Omar but I felt that something more was missing, that there was reticence in the prose. That said, there is much to admire in this unusual love story, from the sights and sounds and smells of Alexandria to the horribly real description of ‘cupping’.

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily by Matthew Fort (Ebury Press, £8.99) ****
Having been completely captured by Sicily myself when I travelled there two years ago, I can understand Fort’s enthusiasm to get back to the island after a first visit thirty years previously, and his frustration at the attempt constantly being thwarted by that irritating thing, real life. Because, as he points out in this wonderful travel tale interspersed with mouth-watering recipes, there’s something not quite real about Sicily. Perhaps it’s the decaying African grandeur of Palermo, the gaudy tourism of Taormina, or the Greek relics at Syracuse, but it does feel like an island in a book (it’s meant to feature in The Odyssey) that couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Fort relishes the food markets, the slower, old-world pace of life, the authentic recipes that produce miraculous meals from a few herbs and some pasta; even the Mafia history can’t get him down. He does worry about the threat to the individualism of the food produced and sold, from the proliferation of supermarkets and the flight of younger Sicilians to mainland Italy for better jobs, but then the sun comes out, wine is poured, there’s all that food to eat instead and, along with the rest of us, he’s as easily seduced as Odysseus by the Sirens.

Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd (Reaktion Books, £10.95) ****
Reaktion have published a distinguished series of these shorter critical appraisals of famous literary figures, or “leading cultural figures of the modern period” as their publicity has it: Kafka, Joyce, Dali, Baudelaire have all featured in the list of 21 biographies. De Beauvoir is, surprisingly enough, their first woman to merit the distinction and while the size of the book (180 pages) and its intention, does not allow for new archival research, Tidd does an excellent job of linking the life to the work. De Beauvoir’s philosophy is explained in the light of her experiences, both with men and women, her attempts to understand and explain the relationship between the self and the other seen in the light of her interactions with lovers like Jean-Paul Sartre, her student Olga Kosakievicz, the writer Nelson Algren. Because her philosophy was grounded in this need to live in the world, while also living apart from it, her personal life, perhaps more so than for any other philosopher, is crucial to understanding her thinking. This is an accessible study that doesn’t reduce or simplify de Beauvoir’s work in any way, while simultaneously attempts to understand her way of living. Hopefully now, more women will figure in the series.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Independent on Sunday 5 July 2009

The Storyteller Or The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (Picador, £7.99) ****
Alameddine, his name apparently a derivative of ‘Aladdin’, rejoices in the ability to spin a story that lasts for a thousand and one nights, while simultaneously describing the effects of Israeli attacks on his homeland, Lebanon, over the last thirty years. With enviable ease, he weaves in the magic of the Arabian nights, the loss of his childhood home so many years ago, and his visit to his slowly dying father, to create something that feels both postmodern and traditional at the same time.
Ultimately, though, Alameddine’s novel is about the nature of legacy, about the grandfather who delights him when he is small with tales of his own growing-up. The illegitimate son of a married English doctor and his Lebanese maid, Ismail describes how he was abandoned to his own devices, shunned by the doctor’s wife and bullied by her daughters. Where he found salvation was in the talents of the local hakawati, or storyteller, admiring his ability to dazzle listeners with his tales.
These tales, dominated by the slave-girl Fatima and her attempts to help her mistress conceive a son after many years of producing daughters, are passed on to the narrator of the novel, who has returned to Beirut after years abroad to tend to his dying father. The apartment building where he grew up is a wreck, but his family hasn’t changed: like big families the world over, there are perpetual disagreements, makings-up, hugs and tears.
This book has a feisty female heroine in Fatima, which is important in a novel where the tales are being passed from man to man. The greatest, and original, storyteller, though, was, of course, Scheherazade: it was a woman who was, not the object of the stories, but the teller of them; it was a woman who was the first hakawati. War and killing and oppression make us forget that at our peril.

The Hamburger by Josh Ozersky (Caravan Books, £9.99) ***
Studying the story of the humble hamburger is, according to food writer Ozersky, is “one way of studying the country that invented it, and then reinvented it again and again.” As with all icons, its origins are disputed: was the first hamburger created by the Menches brothers in Hamburg, New York, the first official recording of a ground beef sandwich, sold at a country fair in 1885? Or was it when it was first placed in a bun of equal size, as it was at Weber’s restaurant in Tulsa in 1933? Whatever its beginnings, the burger has become as synonymous with America as cowboys and cadillacs, a part of its capitalist culture represented by those famed golden arches, now exported all over the world. But it was a blue-collar meal that was hot and nutritious, made of beef, and easy to eat while working (or driving), and the irony of this poor-man’s feast becoming the means by which other men have made millions is not lost on Ozersky. Its place as part of the history of Fordism is interesting, too: an unsettling past meant Americans of the 1950s yearned for standardisation, and little was more standardised than millions of round burgers in the same comforting round baps.

City of Thieves by David Benioff (Sceptre, £7.99) ***
Benioff is a Hollywood screenwriter and the narrative efficiency such a job requires is much in evidence here in this tale of the siege of Leningrad, which zips along at a fair pace, remarkable when the setting is a city gripped tight by its Nazi oppressors. The citizens may not be able to leave, and some of them may have been reduced to cannibalism by the deprivations inflicted on them, but they still manage to scurry about, getting up to all sorts. Benioff is smart enough to remind us from time to time that his leading characters, the teenage nerd Lev, and the charismatic, slightly mad deserter Kolya, are slowly starving to death: every so often they have to stop to catch their breath, and hugging Kolya’s girlfriend Sonya feels to Lev like clutching a bag of bones. Both Lev and Kolya must find a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the daughter of the city’s police chief, of they will be executed. The absurdity of this task, in the middle of the worst siege of a city in modern history, actually sits well, offsetting the misery and hopelessness of the actual situation, and Kolya is a mesmerising enough character, witty and irreverent, to carry the tale.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (Penguin, £9.99) **
I’m surprised that Gladwell considers race as a matter for success (the effects of slave history), nationality (whether you’re American Irish or American-Italian, for instance, will affect your chances of success) and class (being poor, funnily enough, lessens your chances too), but not gender: apparently, being female rather male doesn’t make a difference. I would like to think this is true, but, alas, it’s not, so it’s a fairly large omission as far as I’m concerned. Gladwell is focused on exposing the American dream, that by one’s own exertions anyone can make it to the top, regardless of circumstance and so on, and showing that those who do make it are “the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies”, all of which mean that he will trawl through lots of statistics (what month the best hockey players were born; the amount of hours The Beatles had to play in Hamburg), to prove his thesis. Marxist theory and feminist theory got there ahead of him a long, long time ago, so there’s not much new here, although it is possibly presented in a more palatable form for many.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Tim Parks (Penguin, £12.99) ****
This is an excellent translation by Parks, accessible and gripping without diluting Macchiavelli’s message one iota. His sense of Macciavelli’s masterpiece as an essentially psychological work, one that looks at the effects of power of the mind, infuses his translation which never forgets its origins as a letter, as a means of conveying a message to a new ruler. Parks shows, too, in his introduction how amenable this text has been to both right and left-wingers over the centuries: the right saw it as a warning about the power of the people, the left as a vindication, while others like Bertrand Russell viewed it as a “handbook for gangsters.” Certainly, there are many passages like the one warning leaders of indecisiveness, that one suspects should be circled in red and handed to the present Prime Minister. Machiavelli was showing how to achieve power and hold on to it: his ethical treatise was centred solely on this, which is what long frightened so many who were trying to impart notions of good and bad, not powerful and powerless. I searched in vain for a section on MPs’ expenses, though: financial probity wasn’t important to leaders in the sixteenth century, either, it seems.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jenny Diski

I'm a fan of Jenny Diski's fiction as well as her reviews so I was bound to be sympathetic to her column in today's Guardian, where she describes being sacked by the editors of a student magazine because she applied some quality control to the edition she was asked to guest-edit. Although she does say things are much harder nowadays for literary ficiton writers and I'm not exactly sure then things weren't harder....

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Independent on Sunday 14-06-09

The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists by Helen Carr (Jonathan Cape, £30)

It’s significant that Helen Carr opens her account of the Imagist movement with a personal detail: the moment in 1912 in the British Museum tearoom, when Ezra Pound read his one-time fiancĂ©e, Hilda Doolittle’s completed poem, ‘Hermes of the ways’, and, on the strength of it, pronounced her, ‘H.D. Imagiste’. Whether or not this really marks the beginning of the Imagist movement, literary history hasn’t been too concerned to investigate – the romance and the drama of it have been more than adequate an explanation.
But recounting this moment is significant for Carr’s magnum opus (and at just under 900 pages, her study is just that) because it’s an emphasis on the personal, and that emphasis throughout gives her work depth as well as breadth. Many of the now-forgotten figures of Imagism, like Desmond Fitzgerald and Frank Stock Flint, are resurrected here and given more than quick, potted biographies: they are placed at the heart of an artistic theory that leant on Pater and Nietzsche, that was influenced by Maupassant and Stravinsky, and they are shown as real, living, breathing intellectuals.
Above them all, though, towers Ezra Pound: the dandyish poet who wore billiard-green trousers and blue capes, who carried a cane and sported an ear-ring; the provincial American who found his home among London literary circles; the ‘ladies’ man’, of whom H.D. was to recall, “one would dance with him for what he might say” – and Pound was a terrible dancer. Carr’s sympathy for Pound here, before the fascist ravings in Italy during the war and his subsequent incarceration in an American asylum, is clear from the outset, but she admirably refuses to take sides on many of the central quarrels and tragedies that emerge.
There are two crucial personal interactions during the birth of Imagism and they both involve Pound - his relationship with Margaret Craven, who was, unbeknownst to many, his benefactor, and who killed herself, possibly when it became clear he was involved with Dorothy Shakespear and would likely marry her (which he eventually did); and his battle with Amy Lowell, the wealthy American poet and patron who eventually wrestled the Imagism movement from Pound’s grasp, leaving him to turn to Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, in frustration and disappointment with those he had considered his friends.
Carr doesn’t blame Pound for Craven’s suicide, although without her financial support, it’s possible Pound would have had to return home and Imagism wouldn’t have been born at all, so her investment in him is certainly significant enough to compound feelings of rejection. She is also fair to Lowell, often viewed as a figure of fun because of her size and manliness, who proved herself more than capable of carrying on the Imagist movement without Pound.
But like so many movements, there was a temporariness to Imagism. Carr cites its three ‘stages’, the final one being without Pound, and does an excellent job convincing us of its importance and place in literary history, in spite of its brevity. It may well be that other players like T.E. Hulme and Richard Aldington are no longer read but their break from traditional poetic forms and embracing of French symbolism paved the way for modern poets like T.S. Eliot, and it’s doubtful the kind of contemporary poetry we have today would have happened without them.
Such large claims aside, it is, of course, the relationship between Pound and his fellow expatriate in London, H.D., that controls the narrative flow of Carr’s book. The dynamism that existed between them was a complex one – Pound the more assertive, bombastic presence who would score through H.D.’s poems, as patriarchal an act as initialising and labelling her in the British Museum tearoom had been, was also sensitive and generous, offering to type up her poems for her (in literary partnerships of the twentieth century, it’s nearly always the women typing up the words of their men). H.D., considered by many now to be an even greater poet than Pound, was not a clubbable woman but she needed her literary influences. Her appeal for Pound is clear here, as is his for her.
Some may find the personal overwhelmed here by the sheer weight of detail and the huge cast of characters, and that’s a risk Carr has taken by trying to be as expansive as possible, wanting to give her Imagists the epic structure she clearly feels their story deserves. I think she’s pulled it off, managing to be both particular as well as wide-ranging. For me, this is the non-fiction book of the year. I don’t see how it can be bettered

Read My Heart: Dorothy Osborne and William Temple A Love Story in the Age of Revolution by Jane Dunn (Harper Press, £10.99) ****
Jane Dunn has excellent biographies to her credit, and is especially good on women and power, having written on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Antonia White, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. For the first time, she has chosen to profile a male as well as a female subject, although I think this biography of a couple is slightly more weighted in the woman’s favour. Dunn is still very mindful of women and their relationship with power, as she charts the well-educated, serious and literary personality that was Dorothy Osborne, the daughter of ardent Royalists, and her attempts both to marry the man she wants and to consider a writing career. Her husband, William Temple, his family on the opposite side of the Civil War, was a good literary foil for her talents.
Their families, needless to say, were against the match that began due to a chance encounter whilst Dorothy and William were, separately, heading over to France. They nevertheless continued writing to each other over the next seven years, staying loyal through politically threatening times, as well as personally troubling ones, and only once considering ending the relationship. When Dorothy’s father died, they announced their engagement (much to the consternation of Dorothy’s strangely possessive brother), but marriage brought a mixture of fortunes: they loved the country, especially in Ireland, and William’s career as a diplomat for the Restoration court brought fame and fortune. But five of their children died as babies, and three who reached adulthood had tragic ends, the eldest, John, committing suicide at 34.
What makes their relationship remarkable is the epistolary aspect of it, the clearness and honesty of Dorothy’s voice in particular, her strength and her sensitivity. The times weren’t amenable to professional women writers but Dorothy’s literary abilities make one wonder just what she might have achieved.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman (Atlantic, £12.99) **
The riches and immortality awaiting whoever discovers the cure for cancer is taken up by Goodman in this novel which sold out across the Atlantic. Cliff is an all-American guy who also happens to be a brilliant post-doc student, working in a cancer research lab run by two ambitious scientists, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn. He’s about to be sacked from the lab because of his disappointing results, however, when, suddenly, a seemingly miraculous breakthrough in his research occurs. One-time girlfriend and lab partner, Robin, gets suspicious and sets out to investigate. Goodman’s research is spotless, and she doesn’t let it hold up the narrative which relies on us finding out whether Cliff has been faking it or not. There’s something flat though, about her writing style, which ranges over the personal lives and ambitions of the various characters, without ever really allowing us to invest in any of them enough, and this is a problem. Her own sympathies veer between the characters, probably in an attempt to make them as rounded as possible, but it means the reader is never sure quite who to root for, and as a result, quite who to care about.

Coda by Simon Gray (Faber, £7.99) ****
Gray’s last book, before he died of lung cancer in 2008, is an irresistible, utterly contradictory mixture of honesty, cowardice, generosity, intolerance and bravery. It begins with Gray’s prognosis of a year to live, after doctors find a tumour in his neck. He has no truck with those who refuse to be straight with him, but equally acknowledges he was warned to stop smoking many times and didn’t. Now he has time to assess his career as a playwright, think about how his wife will manage after he has gone, how to break the news to his grown-up children. Confessional literature has had something of a bad press lately, with its ubiquity being questioned and its focus on death considered less enlightening, more providing voyeuristic reading for some. But Gray’s accounts of his terminal illness to this last in his series of Smoking Diaries are among the best of that confessional genre and are a great postscript to his writing career. The trips to Crete, always spoilt by British holidaymakers, are the only thing keeping him going, but this mixture of light and dark is what marks him out as a writer who knows exactly what matters, and exactly what doesn’t.

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (Penguin, £7.99) ***
This tale of retired academic Desmond Bates who is gradually going deaf is full of the kind of minute detail about the condition that lets you know the author has had some experience of it: nobody could be quite so pernickety about the process of inserting a hearing aid unless they’d actually repeatedly had to do it themselves. As Lodge’s character, a linguistic professor, points out, “deafness is comic as blindness is tragic”, so there’s little apparent sympathy for his plight, either from his wife or from his colleagues. As he struggles on in a world that increasingly makes less sense, quite literally, to him, a mature student called Alex approaches him about supervising his thesis. He can certainly hear the alarm bells ringing, though: he might be able to appreciate her good looks but he also knows a potential nutcase when he meets one. The danger of the predatory female student might pale in real life alongside the predatory male professor, and have a lot more comic potential, rather like the deaf as opposed to the blind, but Lodge is good on Bates’s embarrassed sidestepping of a tricky situation. His relationship with his father, even more deaf and inept than his son, is a touching one.

Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill (Profile, £8.99) ****
This is a fascinating account of how Stonehenge has been written up over the years, from James I’s star architect, Inigo Jones, who swore blind it was a Roman structure in spite of twelfth-century stories that claimed it was a post-Roman building, the burial place of Arthur Pendragon, to the 1833 ground-breaking (no pun intended) tome, Principles of Geology, which looked at early earth formations and which “broke the time barrier” by extending prehistory beyond the 4000-year limit imposed by theologians. Hill describes how most of the structure seems to have grown up at different times, with stones added and taken away, all of which has made attempts to explain its original purpose ever more difficult, but she also shows how each age interprets Stonehenge in its own light. The link with the Druids and satanic rituals, for instance, unsurprisingly came out during the late seventeenth century, a time when women were still being burned as witches, and nowadays it seems to be perpetually embroiled in red tape (if not barbed wire as it was a couple of decades ago). This is a thoroughly researched history that’s both authoritative and entertaining, and shows that sometimes no matter how much we try to get to the bottom of a story, part of us never wants the mystery completely solved.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Self publishing

I'm weighing in here at last to the selfpublishing/vanity publishing debate with a question: if you don't pay to be published, are you still self-published? Self-publisher last year offered the first 5000 emails they received from writers the chance to be published 'for free'. The first lucky 5000 wouldn't get to choose a cover or be edited or marketed, and if they wanted their books in bookshops they'd have to pay, but they would get printed on demand without having to pay for it, and they'd get a 60% royalty fee.
There's some confusion about whether this makes you a self-published writer or not. To my mind, you're still self-published in this instance, whether you pay for it or not, because there's no quality control. A bit like reviews on literary blogs, as opposed to reviews in newspapers, there are no editors to say whether something's good enough or not to be published.
Other self-publishing sites like have also made similar offers. Are they so different though from Macmillan's new writers offer of a few years ago, when they offered to publish debut writers without paying them or guaranteeing them any marketing?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Orange Prize 2009

Yay, Marilynne Robinson has won this year's Orange prize with her superb novel, 'Home', (which I listed as one of my books of the year for the Independent on Sunday at the end of 2008). Anyone who hasn't read it should try 'Gilead', her novel from 2005, first, then enjoy this sequel.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This week's reading

If you want to have your wits scared out of you, I'd recommend John Lanchester's piece on the banks in The London Review of Books. I'll forgive him for what he says about the 'dreaded Scottish pound note' for being able to shock me with what we've got ahead of us.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Reviews from Independent on Sunday 24/05/09

Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, £8.99) *****
The harrowing story of Owen Matthews’s mother, Lyudmila Bibokov’s childhood in Stalinist Russia almost overshadows the sequel to that childhood: the intrigue and danger that accompanied her later relationship with Matthews’s father, a Welsh-born student of Russian, on a trip to Moscow.
But any romance comes an inevitable second to the tale of Lyudmila and her sister, Lenina, ‘orphaned’ after her father, a rising star in Stalin’s government, was whisked off by the authorities and forced to confess to crimes against the Party, crimes he hadn’t committed. The world of Orwell’s 1984 is horrifyingly evoked by the trumped-up charges, the authorities’ lies to his wife, Martha, about when he would be released (he was shot, but his family wouldn’t find that out for years), the men arriving in black in cars in the middle of the night, the subsequent sudden removal of Martha (taken to serve a ten-year sentence in Siberia) and the depositing of the girls in an orphanage. No recourse to appeal; no voice raised to defend them: the acceptance of tyranny is almost as terrifying as the tyranny itself.
Matthews’s search through the appalling bureaucratic nightmare all these decades later for what really happened to his grandfather is heroic but he isn’t blinded by family loyalty to the increasing starvation and murder of peasants in the build-up to the infamous ‘purges’ that his grandfather at best either ignored or at worst, actually endorsed before his arrest. A great deal of family heart-ache is faced here, a microcosm of what was happening in the country at large. But Stalin’s death was his mother’s chance – she won a place at Moscow University and met Matthews’s father, a quiet, bookish man from the valleys with a love of all things Russian. Their struggle to be together is another relic of the Soviet age, less obviously terrifying to read but no less compulsive.

The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer (Faber, £7.99) ****
Greer’s writing has an ease and a delicacy about it that belies the tormented emotional lives of his protagonists in this story of race and homosexuality in 1950s San Francisco. Pearlie has married her childhood sweetheart, Holland, even waiting for him until he has returned from the war, and has given him a much-loved son. They live quietly in a newly created suburb of the city, working hard and rarely talking to one another: a quietness, Pearlie wants to believe, that comes from contentment, not estrangement. But one day a stranger arrives at their door, as strangers often do in suburbia, to disturb their calm: Buzz, a friend of Holland’s who was with him in the war. As Greer expertly unravels the history of both these men’s wartime experiences, we see Pearlie forced to deal with truths she’s unconsciously been avoiding for years. While the particular race and homosexual strands of this story could perhaps only have been set before the Sixties, Greer’s underlying point about the complacency in which human beings indulge towards one another, their necessary belief that they know all there is to know about the person they love, could be made at any time.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke (Windmill, £7.99) ***
This is one of those novels that begins with the kind of energy and confidence that picks you up and wings you along, only to leave you struggling to get free when said energy and confidence become a bit too much. Sam Pulsifer has finished ten years in prison for setting fire to Emily Dickinson’s home – something he claims was an accident – during which two people, who’d crept up stairs to have sex on Emily Dickinson’s old bed, unfortunately met their demise. Yes, the humour is decidedly black, which increases as Sam’s nemesis, the dead couple’s son, tracks him down now that he’s free and happily married with a couple of kids, and threatens to expose him. Sam lies to his wife to cover for the truth, flees back to his parents and somehow ends up incarcerated for the same old crime – setting fire to a writer’s home – all over again. There’s an existential nightmare going on here, with Sam unable to escape his fate, no matter what he tries to do, but the way Clarke is forced to twist and contrive in order to give fate the upper hand is unconvincing and began to irritate me long before Sam landed back in prison.

Isabella de Medici by Caroline P. Murphy (Faber, £9.99) ***
Isabella de Medici was the daughter of Cosimo de Medici, a cousin of the infamous Catherine. Catherine de Medici was feared as a mistress of the black arts, a woman who rose to power by nefarious means, a plain woman in an age when only the very rich or the very beautiful made any impact on the world. Her relation, Isabella was both rich and beautiful, and much adored by her powerful father, too. But she also had a dark side, getting implicated in murder and in turn, herself being murdered, probably by her own brother. It’s the kind of tragic, convoluted, passionate story we expect of one of the de Medicis, and Murphy’s clear, detailed narrative doesn’t disappoint, although I think we’re still left with a more shadowy woman at the end than might have been the case. Isabella married a man who consorted with prostitutes and wasn’t above giving her a good slap, although this didn’t prevent her having two children by him and keeping herself busy with artistic projects. The deaths of two favourite brothers and her mother in one year must have had a huge impact on her, although, as Murphy argues, it was the death of her father, her protector, that really sealed her fate.

Salvage by Jane F. Kotapish (Faber, £7.99) **
It seems ungenerous in the extreme to put down a debut novel but I found the reliance of kooky, pithy observation after kooky, pithy observation as a novelistic structure, extremely unengaging here. Kotapish is trying too hard from the first line and it’s taken her focus away from what matters. Her unnamed narrator enjoys a tricky relationship with her mother, who suffered a miscarriage while with a man called Charles, when the narrator was very young. The mother seems never to quite have got over it; the daughter, possibly to escape it all, leaves for New York as soon as she can. While there, she witnesses a death on the underground – at least, I think she does. The moment is recalled in poetic terms, the assault on both the narrator and then on another bystander, rendered a ‘dance’, which makes it difficult to tell what actually happens. As a result of romanticising this event, Kotapish has a problem making us understand and empathise with her protagonist’s subsequent breakdown, because it simply doesn’t look as awful as it should have. This feels dishonest somehow, and while that might be because she wanted to show her character’s inability to face what has happened, it’s a misjudgement that seriously affects her story.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Book reviews

Scroll down for my most recent book reviews. I'll be posting up fifteen-twenty of my reviews per month, which appear in a variety of newspapers, including The Independent on Sunday, The Herald, The Scotsman and the Scottish Review of Books.

Recent reviews

From the Independent on Sunday:

A Journal of the Flood Year by David Ely (Portobello, £7.99) ****
First published in 1992, this novel about one man’s fight against the authorities when he spots a leak in the massive wall built along the east coast of America to keep the Atlantic at bay, has become a kind of dystopian classic. Given the increasing conviction of the environmental argument in the last fifteen years, it’s now even more timely, and if its essential premise is perhaps less original (lone voice speaking out against the official version), its plausibility is rarely in doubt.
William Fowke is on probation, banished to the inhospitable East Coast to write up standard engineering reports on the Baltimore Canyon region which is bordered by the great wall. When he notices an unusually high level of saline along part of the wall, he reports to his superior, Dr Matthews. Matthews tells him everything is fine, but the saline level keeps increasing.
Fowke’s futuristic existence is pretty much standard fare for lovers of dystopian fiction: the future is rarely imagined as a cuddlier place and Ely doesn’t divert from that depiction. Human beings never interact physically; they are born and raised in farms without ever knowing their parents. Some human beings, called ‘the excluded’, are kept outside of this society, and as Fowke causes more fuss about the leaking wall, he is eventually banished to live with them.
With a nod to the great dystopian master, George Orwell, Fowke’s only human interaction is with an agent called Julia. Ely is excellent describing the sudden shock of fingers touching, of the possibility of affection, trust and loyalty. Dystopian fiction uses the landscape to dehumanise. What it always feels is the real horror of the future is that we will forget what makes us human. Interestingly, what makes us human is never rationality, it is always imagination. Imagination and touch.

The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg (Pocket Books, £7.99) **
Landsburg’s most interesting declaration in his book is that “economics in the narrowest sense is a science free from values”, but I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Free from certain kinds of values perhaps. His opposition to environmentalism, for instance, involves a different set of values: environmentalists want to ban pesticides, he says, but the economics of such a ban would mean that when pesticides are banned, “fruits and vegetables become more expensive, people eat fewer of them, and cancer rates consequently rise.” What Landsburg does seem to be arguing is that a world run solely on economic issues would produce some bad things, some good things, but the good or the bad outcome would only be incidental. Little would actually be done for the good or the bad (the use of pesticides isn’t, in the end, to prevent cancer, it’s for profitability). This book might have offered a much more provocative argument though, philosophically and ethically, at least to me, but for Landsburg’s fondness for the kind of propositions I used to loathe in school exams (if three men carry five bags in four hours, how long will it take five men to carry ten bags, that kind of thing).

A Pint of Plain by Bill Barich (Bloomsbury, £10.99) ***
You can almost taste the Guinness pit-stops on Barich’s leisurely stroll (‘investigation’ would be far too strenuous a word) through the world of the Irish pub. Or more accurately, the global phenomenon that is the Irish pub. Barich laments the fakery that purports to be authentic in as many out-of-the-way rural Irish pubs as in foreign inner-city ones, and ponders the liking we have for such kitschy homeliness that we feel the need to replicate it in cities and villages across the world. I’m not sure he comes to many conclusions but his study is fascinating, especially facts like the Irish Pub Company owning 500 pubs in 45 countries (Italy being its best client), and the revelation that if a general British pub switches to an Irish theme, simply redecorating with some “tin signs and etched Jameson mirrors”, its profits are almost certainly guaranteed to increase three-fold. The long-standing association of alcohol with the Irish has done their economy no harm, but the damage to the general health of a nation, while perhaps not entirely represented by the extremes of Brendan Behan, is alas, more authentic than the pubs themselves, and tends to be downplayed in Barich’s account.

The Witness by Juan Jose Saer (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99) *****
Those who are new to Jose Saer’s prose are in for a treat. This beautifully carved novella by the Argentinian-born writer who died four years ago is a mini masterpiece, tracing the journey of a sixteenth-century nameless cabin boy from Spain to the New World. At its heart is the darkness of cannibalism: when the boy’s ship arrives in an island, his fellow sailors and the captain are immediately surrounded by the inhabitants and all of them, save the boy, are killed. Their bodies are taken back to the islanders’ camp, skinned and eaten, the start of a ceremony that leads to drunkenness, sexual orgies and eventually, for some of the participants, illness and death. With Swiftian echoes, the boy is allowed to leave the island ten years later, but by then he has forgotten his own language and can only communicate in the grunts and gestures of the primitive islanders with whom he has spent so much time. Jose Saer draws perhaps inevitable parallels between the so-called ‘civilised’ world and an ancient, more primitive one, to cast doubt upon the values of Renaissance Europe, values that we have inherited. It is a spell-binding, provocative and disturbing read.

Understanding Novels: A Lively Exploration of Literary Form and Technique by Thomas C. Foster (A & C Black, £?) ***
This guide is marketed at “book lovers and literature buffs” but it’s really for those who want to learn how to write novels, not read them (a claim slightly supported by Foster’s urging at the end of one chapter to “remember me in your acceptance speech” as you win an award for your wonderful novel). As a guide to how to write novels then, it’s often very useful and highly practical: he shows, in reasonable detail and with humour, how much more or less information a character is hiding or showing depending on whether that character is written in a first-person voice or a third person voice, for instance, and also does a good job of reminding would-be writers of the importance of that beguiling first sentence (“a fairly complex seduction”). As an exploration of narrative technique aimed at students of the novel form though, I think it’s less successful, as it tends to favour breadth more than depth (and is perhaps why his chapter on writers borrowing from other writers is one of the best), and it’s depth that students need. But he also provides an entertaining history of the novel to appeal to general readers, too, so if one group of potential readers is disappointed, at least two others should go home happy.