Category Archives: Books

The Reader

I’m currently reading The Reader (Der Vorleser) by Bernhard Schlink. Not got very far yet, but I’m finding it remarkably lucid, readable and thought-provoking, a much easier read than most other translations from German (a language which seems to lend itself to leaden-footed prose when rendered in English). The chapter I just read also hit a lot of currently relevant buttons for me. First there was a reference to Stendahl’s Scarlet & Black (the copy which I donated to Bookcrossing resurfaced on a bus in Pontifract this morning) “I identified more with Julien Sorel’s relationship with Madame de Renal than the one with Mathilde de la Mole”. Secondly the narrator, Michael, finds himself increasingly taken with reading aloud to Hanna, something which has been on my mind a lot recently as I mentioned last week. Thirdly, as part of his journey into reading aloud Michael tells Hanna about “Hemingway’s story about the old man and his battle with the fish and the sea”, a central theme to Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake which I was listening to on an audiobook only last night. And finally, although I haven’t got that far in yet, the whole book deals with the issue of culpability for the Nazi Holocaust, something which is timely because of the recent 60th anniversary of VE day, but which has also been on my mind for other reasons lately (and which other media keep pushing around in my head – World War Two is another major theme in Timequake, and I recently went to see the excellent film Downfall [der Untergang]).

Reading has, I’m glad to say, taken a bigger and bigger part of my life recently, although the more I read, the more I want to read (and I find myself increasingly wanting to return to books that I, or rather a different “I”, read many years ago, in particular Josef Skvorecky‘s books The Cowards and The Engineer of Human Souls [both also “World War Two books” to a greater or lesser degree]).

So, before I forget, some other books I have read recently:

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: wonderful, beautiful. I’m a sucker for a soppy love story, and what a love story this is. But what I like about it most of all is that, having read quite a few stories in my life about time travel, all of them focusing on the technological and philosophical ramifications, it is so refreshing to read a book about the emotional effects of time travel, both for the traveller and for those who get to see him come and go, and can never quite predict when he’ll do either. This book had me crying; a good thing, in my opinion.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre: Also utterly wonderful, and completely deserving of its Booker Prize win.

Oh bugger, time to get the girls from school. More books soon, hopefully, Riddley Walker, Cooking with Fernet Branca, and anything else I can unearth in the archaeological mess surrounding my bed.

Heart of Darkness

I’ve finally started reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is a book which has been creeping into my consciousness for some time. I’m not quite sure how it all started, but the phrase “Heart of Darkness” has become such a part of the English language that I suspect there was always a germ hidden somewhere in my mind’s dark matter. It’s only since about two years ago that I realised it was the name of a novel.

Since then, references have cropped up with increasing frequency, as these things tend to once a speck of knowledge takes hold. I first had the notion that the original Heart of Darkness was in Indo-China. I think it may have been Guy’s references to the Heart of Darkness bar in Pnom Penh, coupled with seeing Apocalypse Now for the first time (better late than never). I finally worked out that the Congo was even darker than the Mekong, a discovery which coincided with my growing interest in this part of Africa (partly sparked by references in a short story which I wrote, partly by the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare which I am dying to see). Subsequently, I discovered a third, South American heart of darkness, watching Werner Herzog’s films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And then, reading The Heart of Darkness, to see Conrad describing the Thames as, in its day, another mysterious, treacherous, threatening river, the ancient Romans ever unsure as to what those pesky Brits are going to pull on them… TOO MUCH!

Anyway, all of this thinking about rivers and wildernesses… it keeps feeding a need to explore, deep inside me, a Conrad/Hemingway/Chatwin/Herzog urge. I want to be somewhere other.

The book itself… I’m not finding easy, it’s one of those books where my eyes keep deflecting off the page, I have to maintain maximum concentration to mine the richness of the prose. But every time I manage to do so, I am rewarded by beautiful gems (ivory?). I often think that I’d like to make notes of memorable quotes in the books I read, build up a nice little database like Niina’s, but apart from the fact that I never have anything to hand to take notes with, I don’t think I have an eye for soundbites (and usually when I read other peoples’ favourite quotes, I find myself longing for a bit more context). Anyway, this is a thought that struck me as I was reading last night, and there on a single page I spotted two prime suspects:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.

and

No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence – that which makes its truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream – alone …

Exquisite Corpse

I recently finished reading Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin. An absolutely brilliant faux-autobiography of an English Surrealist artist “Caspar” and his all-consuming obsession with his apparently very ordinary muse Caroline. I was halfway through reading it when I visited the Museum Ludwig in Köln; I was so tempted to leave the book in one of the galleries holding their extensive Surrealist collection, it would make a lovely objet trouvé for some unsuspecting soul, but I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon the story unfinished. Never mind, now I’ve worked my way through it I’ll have to drop it off in another museum’s gallery of the surreal (perhaps with a Bookcrossing sticker inside, so that I can track its progress). Except that… I really want to read it again, now that I know the twist in the tale.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages from the novel, from a time when Caspar has lost Caroline and his purpose in life, and has become a war artist:

My commissioning by the W.A.C. coincided with the beginning of the Blitz in 1940 and this coincidence provided me with my artistic mission. I became a painter of ruins and firestorms and I thought of myself as the heir to Piranesi and Mad John Martin. I left my Surrealist box of tricks unopened for the remainder of the War. The Blitz provided its own Surrealist effects – a white horse galloping around inside a burning meat market and displaying all its teeth in a panicked, mirthless grin, a girl in a blue dress emerging with her skipping rope from clouds of black smoke and skipping calmly by, and the facades of buildings curving and distending like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Everywhere I walked I saw staircases which led nowhere, baths suspended apparently in mid-air, brick waterfalls flowing out of doorways and objects jumbled incongruously together in conformity with Lautreamont’s aesthetic prescription; ‘Beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table’. Long tongues of flame would leap out of every window of some great office block, like demons being expelled from a disenchanted castle. I was not really very aware of the Germans or their bombers: I felt rather that it was the fire that was our real enemy while water was our ally. At times I toyed with the notion that Britain had entered the War on the wrong side and that we should have allied with the glamorous fire against the dull and squelching water.

And then, a couple of pages later:

I heard the most extraordinary things. Huns disguised as nuns were at work surveying our coastal defences. The Germans had already attempted a sea-borne invasion and failed. Their bodies were still being washed up on the beaches. The Royal Family had been evacuated to Canada and a troupe of actors were now impersonating them in Buckingham Palace. A kind of werewolf preyed on the bomb sites, looking for fresh bodies to eat. Most people said that he looked like a fireman and some said that there was a whole crew of werewolf firemen operating in the East End. What the werewolves did not eat themselves they sold at the back doors of posh restaurants on the Strand and Piccadilly. Then again, the foreman of one salvage crew told me how he had been chatting up a foreign girl in uniform – a green uniform he did not recognise, perhaps of something like the Free Latvian Forces — when the air-raid siren went off. They were in the vicinity of Chancery Lane, but instead of going down into the tube station, as everyone else was doing, the girl took him by the arm and made him follow her. They passed through the nondescript-looking door of some official-looking building and descended a deep and dimly lit spiral staircase. At the bottom, the salvage foreman found himself in a shelter the like of which he had never dreamed of. All the other people sheltering there were female officers in the green uniforms of their foreign army. There were beds with clean white sheets, champagne in ice buckets and great piles of tinned foods. The foreman spent a night of ecstasy in that shelter. However, though he did his best to memorise the exact location of its exit, he told me that he was never able to come back at that place again.

I was fascinated by the proliferation of rumour and the elaboration of wartime folklore…

Reading. You know, Books.

Something happened to me recently. I started reading again.

Not that I’ve ever stopped, of course. It’s just that, following a real explosion about a year ago where I started devouring literature of all kinds, my stamina for reading seems to have tailed off over the course of the year, until it reached the point where I had four or five books on the go at once but very little real prospect of ever finishing any of them. (Actually, I’m sure some of the blame for this rests with the fact that I was acting – reading the same script day in day out, trying to learn lines and spot other subtleties, with very little brainspace left for other types of literature).

Anyway about two weeks ago, all of this changed. I’m not sure exactly what brought it on: partly the realisation that I have so many good books piling up that I really want to read, partly the need to push my life in some direction or other. To kick off with, I spent a Sunday afternoon and evening ploughing through Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club. Actually, I can see what series of events made me plunge into this: firstly, I picked the book up at a Bookcrossing meeting a few months ago, and felt some kind of duty to its previous owner to read and comment on it. Secondly, I’d heard that the TV adaptation of the book was starting shortly (actually the Wednesday after I read it) and I wanted to read the book before seeing the adaptation, otherwise I knew I wasn’t likely ever to read it. And thirdly, I’d recently read a short story by Jonathan Coe (from the Time Out Book of New York Short Stories, which was very kindly sent to me by Nicholas Royle, the book’s editor). Anyway, I loved the book (and the TV adaptation wasn’t bad either), read it on one sitting (starting mid-afternoon and finishing at about 2am) and am craving to read the follow-up.

From that, I went on to another Bookcrossing book, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. An even better read, the first science fiction I’ve read in a long time (although Atwood would prefer that I call it “Speculative Fiction”, I’m not exactly sure why), it reminded me of some of the things I used to so love about the genre, how it can make me feel genuinely passionate and afraid for the future.

After Oryx and Crake, I moved on to Jonatham Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. I’m finding that somewhat slower going, the prose is not very engaging (so far) and I just got a delivery from Amazon yesterday so I have temporarily put it down while I get on with Slavenka Drakulic’s (very short) They Would Never Hurt a Fly (about the Hague trials of Yugoslavian war criminals) instead. And also try to pick out some plays from Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror which we might be able to put on this Summer.

Meanwhile, I’m working my way more slowly through Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights – A Companion (so far, more scholarly than I had expected) and Alex de Jonge’s The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin (started off very promising, but seems to get duller by the chapter), plus dipping into a few short story collections: the aforementioned The Time Out book of New York Short Stories, A Book of Two Halves which is a collection of football stories (something I never expected to find myself reading), but is also edited by Nick Royle and has some great contributors, so is actually turning out to be a great read. Finally, I am still dipping into and slowly savouring M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen, which is a bit of a masterpiece and, although I’ve read most of the stories previously, I could read and read again and never tire of.

So, that’s me. What are you reading?

Now, I must go… Casa Moro just arrived in the post!

Slavenka Drakulic

I just listened to A Good Read on Radio 4. They mentioned (and praised highly) a book They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulic. I absolutely must get hold of it. The Amazon synopsis:

Slavenka Drakulic attended the Serbian war crimes trial in the Hague. This important book is about how ordinary people commit terrible crimes in wartime. With extraordinary story-telling skill Drakulic draws us in to this difficult subject. We cannot turn away from her subject matter because her writing is so engaging, lively and compelling. From the monstrous Slobodan Milosevich and his evil Lady Macbeth of a wife to humble Serb soldiers who claim they were ‘just obeying orders’, Drakulic brilliantly enters the minds of the killers. There are also great stories of bravery and survival, both from those who helped Bosnians escape from the Serbs and from those who risked their lives to help them.

Ten years ago I read Drakulic’s earlier book of essays How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. It sticks in my head still, from its vivid orange cover to its moving, extremely informative, highly readable account of the minutiae of everyday life in various Eastern European countries under communist regimes (particularly the lives of women). A very good read. My colleagues Doina (from Romania) and Cathy (from Poland) both borrowed it from me and also sang its praises.

More George Saunders

Been hunting the web for more stuff on George Saunders. He’s recently written a piece, A press release from PRKA, for the Slate website:

Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction, orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe.

At precisely 9 in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At 10, Phase II began, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to suck another man’s penis. Also, none of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. No civilians were literally turned inside out via our powerful explosives. In addition, at 11, in Phase III, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings.

read more…

Sea Oak

I just discovered that Sea Oak by George Saunders is available online! Go read it now. Then buy the book, and everything else he has ever written. This is the funniest, saddest, most realistically surreal thing I have read in recent years, imagine Will Self, Alexei Sayle and Magnus Mills multiplied together and then doubled a few more times, this is fucking excellent shit. Erm, freaking excellent shoot, I mean.

A sample:

At Sea Oak there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min’s my sister. Jade’s our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain. Today’s show features a ten-year-old who killed a five-year-old for refusing to join his gang. The ten-year-old strangled the five-year-old with a jump rope, filled his mouth with baseball cards, then locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until his parents agreed to take him to FunTimeZone, where he confessed, then dove screaming into a mesh cage full of plastic balls. The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it’s a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.

“You’re lucky, man!” my sister says. “You did high school. You got your frigging diploma. We don’t. That’s why we have to do this GED shit. If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted.”

“Really,” says Jade. “Now shut it, chick! We got to study. Show’s almost on.”

Read more…

Cloudy Vision

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

A few months back, I read Cloud Atlas and was duly blown away. I said at the time that it would win the Booker. I’d even had an urge to put money on it, though I had no idea of how to go about doing so.

Then a couple of weeks ago they released the longlist for this year’s prize. Guess what, Cloud Atlas was on there. And The Guardian ran an article on including Booker odds. Cloud Atlas was sounding good, 3/1 favourite at William Hill “the shortest odds ever quoted on a Booker novel at the longlist stage” and yet 8/1 at Ladbrokes. I fancied sticking 25 quid on it at Ladbrokes. I could see myself making a couple of hundred quid.

I didn’t know quite what to make of the fact that I was not alone, William Hill’s spokesman said:

“We have been inundated with people wanting to back this book ever since it was published.

Does this mean that Cloud Atlas is a shoe-in, or that its fans are all people like me, who never usually bet but suddenly felt they were onto something this time. Is this a good sign or a bad sign.

Whatever, I left it too late, as I knew I would. Ladbrokes now have their odds on the book down to 3/1, the same as William Hill’s, it seems to be clear favourite. I stuck the £25 on at Ladbroke’s anyway, because I’d promised myself for so long that I’d do it, but I do feel rather like I’ve just missed out on a hundred quid.

Of course it’ll never win anyway, favourites never do (do they?) and this whole discussion will be adademic, but right now I feel like a right plonker for not acting right on time.