Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everyone needs an Albanian in their life...

And if you don't believe me, have a read of any of Ismail Kadare's novels. My favourite is Broken April which I read last summer whilst travelling in Albania's Thethi national park, one of the most remote parts of Europe and the setting for this haunting novel. Feast your eyes on this picture, which I took at the bottom of the Thethi valley.

Those of you who live within a reasonable distance of London may be interested in an event being hosted by English PEN as part of FLOW the free word festival on Tuesday next week (5th October). It is billed as The Accident: Ismail Kadare in conversation with Julian Evans. What more could any person want? All the information you could possibly need is here. It looks good. If I can tear myself away from the office (which is by no means certain), I will be there....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Passion of New Eve: Abandon hope all ye who enter here (or just abandon the book...)

I normally love Angela Carter. I reviewed Several Perceptions earlier this year, enjoyed Nights at the Circus and Wise Children is one of my all time favourite books. But with The Passion of New Eve, I have absolutely had it.

OK so imagine a dystopian New York City with an unappealing chap called Evelyn who wanders around observing mutant rats devouring dogs. He pursues an increasingly naked erotic dancer (who puts purple lipstick on her nipples) through the streets. He is horrified by depravity but tempted by it too. In fact, he is just like the biblical Eve, but he’s a guy, geddit? Give. Me. Strength. In fact, give me something cheerful to read. That would do just as well.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Everyone's a critic?

How slack I have been on reporting back from last Thursday’s excellent PEN event Everyone’s a critic. Well, the upshot was that yes, everyone is a critic, yes review culture in the UK is changing, but with a few old certainties thrown in. The discussion was led by Erica Wagner, the literary editor of the Times, Sam Leith, the ex-literary editor of the Telegraph, John Mullan, an academic, journalist and judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and of course the wonderful Lynne Hatwell AKA Dovegreyreader. There was more consensus that I was expecting, but then, as I walked home in the drizzly night I took to wondering why I had not expected consensus.

Basically reviewing culture has been changed by an increasingly pluralist body of critical voices. There are more critics from more places and they, unsurprisingly have a greater selection of comments to make. One of the “new voices” is the voice of the blogger and the panel spent quite a lot of time talking about the thorny question of what separates the blogger from a newspaper reviewer.... Sam Leith pointed out that reviewing even in newspapers had always been an amateur activity and that the real difference was one of format rather than substance. That having been said, one major difference in approach seems to be in relation to negative reviews. Lynne only posts positive reviews as she (like me!) rarely finishes a book she really dislikes. Also, and very laudably she aims to create a critical but kind space for thinking about books in. This is in contrast to point widely accepted amongst the journalists present that stinking reviews make good copy. Of course, as Lynne pointed out bloggers do it for free where as journalists get paid, however pitifully.

John Mullan really made me think about what academics add to reviewing culture. I have never been a great fan of critical theory and find that it can ruin a perfectly good book in acres of arcane and generic nonsense. He inspired me to realise that academics are useful in this area because they provide context and a meta narrative to read books inside. They can help you to understand why a book is good, sort of.

Print media reviews are more hidebound by fashion, public interest and “significance” in publishing than blogs. They are often deluged with review copies (Erica Wagner reported receiving a stonking 150 books per day). If an “important” book comes out there is an expectation that the major newspapers will review it and what is more, they may look to a particular writer to review it for historical or personal reasons. This is in contrast to the happy go lucky blogger who can review whatever they damn well like (such as something as unknown as Forlorn Sunset for example). But then the Times is read by rather more people than your average blog.... so I suppose you could say it is a case of swings and roundabouts.

Personally, I love the flexibility of the blog format, but that maybe because I have odd tastes. So, for the sake of “pluralism” and ignoring the fact that there is likely to be bias here, I am throwing this one open to the floor. Whose reviews do you read and trust the most? What or who really influences your reading?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Now for a bit of a dabble

"The Dabbler" is a great name and a great blog and one of its features which is close to my heart is the "1 penny book review" in which various contributors review the many obscure and half forgotten books which can be bought on Amazon for 1p or 1c.

I was most flattered to be asked for a review and did not hesitate in singing the praises of forgotten novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. To read the review click here. To buy one of the 1p copies on Amazon click here.

If the promise of a penny book is not enough, I have attached a picture of Comyns to tempt you. May the rediscovery begin!

Charles Dickens, Sarah Waters, Daniel Defoe and Dan Brown combined: Forlorn Sunset by Michael Sadleir: one of the best books you have never heard of

Readers may recall that Michael Sadleir’s Forlorn Sunset was the mystery read on my recent bloggy holiday. That is to say that I dragged it from London to Beirut and from Beirut to Paris, in a suitcase that was already dangerously close to its weight limit, despite not knowing one single thing about it. As you can see from the picture, it doesn’t even have a front cover to give a hint. Inside the cover, there sits a rather suggestive ink and wash drawing by John Piper. I say “suggestive” because John Piper was an eminent artist of the mid 20th century, and so I wonder whether this book was rather better known when it was first published in 1947. It certainly can hardy be less well known that it is today. I have searched far and wide and can find only the briefest of mentions in the most obscure of sources. There isn’t even a consensus on how to spell the guy’s name: some, including the excellent art historian and biographer Frances Spalding, go in for “Sadler”, but my copy of the book definitely says “Sadleir”.

Oh well. That’s enough wallowing in obscurity. Now for why it is probably one of the best books you have never heard of. This is a novel of the Victorian underworld. It is a gallop through London, but not a London that most Londoners would recognise. This is an organised-crime riddled, iniquitous den awash with the most awful examples of lives wasted and cruelly exploited.

The story knits together the fates of a group of disparate people, high and low, rich and poor, kind and wicked, who are connected by the chance rescue of a child from a mysterious house of abuse in the 1860s. That child is Lottie Heape and it is she, as much as anyone, who forms the centre of this novel. Tangled up in her life there are Vicars and pimps, journalists and soaks, industrialists and pornographers, social reformers and campaigning ladies, brave boys and more than enough nasty pieces of work.

I feel that I should explain the title of this post. Forlorn Sunset is like Charles Dickens because it is a “cast-of-thousands” “portrait-of-a-city” sort of novel. Every character has a history, and what a history that it. I was reminded also of Sarah Waters because Sadleir looks under the carpet of his chosen society – into areas neglected by history. Daniel Defoe gets a mention because there is more than a passing resemblance between his famous lady of the night Moll Flanders (as Nicola Lacey has written “my kind of heroine”) and Lottie Heape. I have mentioned Dan Brown, not because I want to put you off, but because here we have a fast paced muddle to work out with a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter.

This is a cracking story of sin and redemption. It addresses, in a story which never drags and never feels slow, the idea of social evil and individual evil. Sadleir shows in the panorama of his story how hard it is for a person to fight against the circumstances of their birth and how when a society is rotten to the core, it can pull all sorts of unlikely people within the ambit of its rot.

If you are thinking that it sounds a bit gloomy then fear not. For in this book is a clarion call for personal bravery in the face of social convention and what can I say but “hurrah” to that.

Michael Sadleir is also the author of a book entitled Fanny by Gaslight, but don’t let that put you off.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Everyone’s a critic? Calling all readers, writers, thinkers and bloggers for a real live event, feat. DOVEGREYREADER…

There has been a change of timetable for the Stoneham Travelling Circus and come Wednesday night, we will be sitting on the eurostar drinking mini bottles of red wine and trying to get into a London mood. Goodbye French countryside, hello grubby monolith, which we know so well.

The huge advantage of coming home earlier than planned is that I will now be able to attend the Everyone’s A Critic night on Thursday 23rd September. The event is organised by the laudable English PEN in association wth FLOW – the Free Word Festival. It takes place in the easy-to-get –to and not a little trendy Farringdon Road.

The discussion will focus on the future of the professional literary critic. Whose recommendations really influence reading habits? Is the book blogosphere a shot in the arm for reviewing culture or does it represent a lamentable dumbing down?

Leading the discussion will be Sam Leith, former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times, and in a rare public appearance, the book blogosphere’s very own Lynne Hatwell, AKA, Dovegreyreader.

Tickets are a snip at £6 or £3 for concessions and PEN members, and all the details anyone could need are here. It is probably best to book ahead. I hope to meet some of you there.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Seriously swash buckling: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

My father in law does not recommend books lightly or very often, so when he does, you take him a bit seriously, if you know what I mean. This was the thought with which I opened his latest recommendation, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This is a book which subsumes its reader. It does its work rapidly and it is as disorderly as it is delightful. It is easily one of the most remarkable books that I have read. Its power rests on the twin pillars of staggering descriptions and the slightly scary and wholly unsentimental nature of its message.

First for those descriptions. Hughes is seriously good at the pithy, skin touching, tongue tasting descriptions. The novel is set first in Jamaica and then upon the high seas of the Caribbean and is so perfect in its description of that landscape. I used to live in Trinidad and maybe I still miss the hot sweet air and the bewildering lushness; the idea that the land is so fertile that its vegetation might reclaim the space that the buildings stand on at any moment. Unlike the children in the story, I have never been in a hurricane or an earth quake, but I know the feeling of living where the elements are not meek or placid. The extent of the sense of place in A High Wind in Jamaica is astounding and it is worth reading for that reason alone.

But this book is not just one of those “you could almost feel as though you were there...” reads; it is much more memorable than that. It is the story of six children who survive a hurricane in Jamaica and who, on the journey to supposed safety in England, fall into the hands of a band of pirates. They are not the nastiest pirates you ever did see and nor are they great big teddy bears really. The truth is that they are rather down on their luck and are not too sure what to make of it when one of their exploits lands them with six infants to do what they will with.

The children themselves are the core of this novel and they are not virtuous little adults of the Victorian idyll but are savage survival machines. Far from adoring their parents they have startlingly little attachment to them and their love for one another, such as it is, seems far more based on a shared dilemma than on anything more profound. When one of them disappears to a fate unknown, but inevitably guessable, the others forget him with a ruthless and casual cruelty that chills to the bone. Under threat, they see only the make believe, they easily turn on one another and they resort to unexpected acts of violence. But before we get too shocked or too puffed up with righteous indignation, we must pause to wonder how differently adults would behave in the same circumstances: does adulthood civilise the savage in us that much?

The adventure of the children is largely seen through the eyes of one of the older girls. Emily Bas-Thornton is a canny enterprising character, but ultimately she is a child at sea. She detects a soft spot in the pirate Captain and tries to respond to it but really she is as confused as she is intuitive. Is her Captain screaming out from a lifetime of brigandary for some semblance of family life or is he a would-be child molester? Whatever the facts, Richard Hughes will not always sort them out for his reader. This is a book which is about ambiguity and the lack of understanding that exists between adults and children. I could not have been more enraptured.

There are excellent and interesting reviews of this book at Shelf Love and The Mumpsimus. I have featured a picture of my copy of the novel, on the beach and a couple of stills from the 1965 film of the novel starring, of all people, Martin Amis. I feel a book/movie night special coming on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meandering with Murdoch: The Book and the Brotherhood

What a lucky person I am, not only to have been given Iris Murdoch’s 23rd novel (yes, *23rd*) The Book and the Brotherhood by the lovely Bloomsbury Bell, but to have read it, mostly on a beach at Byblos in the eastern Mediterranean. Not necessarily a natural consumption spot for a book which is largely based in chilly London town houses and narrow country lanes and summer evenings in Oxford when one needs a shawl. Yes readers, this is a profoundly English book with English landscapes and peculiar mores and very English characters.

Of those characters there are certainly plenty. Murdoch is fond of large casts and this book is no exception. The “brotherhood” of friends who form the central focus of the story are a gaggle of late middle aged Oxford graduates who met at university. Their ties are not those of polite friendship but full blooded commitment, even love. The acknowledged leader of the pack is the patrician and rather controlling Gerard, whose great true love, we learn has died years earlier in a freak accident. His juniors are his dear friend Rose, the sister of his deceased love, and the measured and intelligent schoolmaster, Jenkin. Their circle also includes the drunken shadow of a man, Duncan Cambus and his wealthy, restless, aimless wife Jean. Via Gerard’s family the central group also takes in vindictive Violet, a character as pitiful as she is unpleasant, her impressionable daughter Tamar, a rather silly man called Guilliver, and, needless to say, a whole host of others.

If the book can be said to have a central character, then that character would be the man who is not a member of the “brotherhood”, but who is bound to it in ways that are strange and unbreakable and just a bit scary. David Crimond is a monomaniacal, ascetic Marxist who has an apparent death wish. I think that the idea is that he lives as purely as he thinks – and as such is cut away from normal mores when it comes to friends and lovers. He certainly causes chaos among the other protagonists. He causes them intellectual chaos by consistently extracting support from them for something – a book - which they do not agree with. He causes moral chaos by spotting the weakest of their relationships and breaking it up. He causes chaos of the most heart rending kind as the novel reaches its climax. He is able to do this not simply as a result of frightening charisma, but because he is simply far more incisive than anyone else around him.

The cast is rich and colourful, without being especially likable. Murdoch does a good job of keeping them all in good focus while life plays a pretty tragic game with them. That is the true value of this novel: it is a modern day tragedy without seeming too ostentatiously to be one. Each of the characters seems locked into a date with fate. Each of the women in particular are fated to “fall” for things, whether they be men or religion or a combination of the two. The women are so old fashioned – they seem to be crying out for domination and constantly turning down the opportunity to author their own histories. At the climax of the novel, an important character will die, but the person who actually kills them is the character who feels the least guilt. There is a strange disconnection between the characters as moral actors and what happens to them: they are somehow out of the world and there is nothing that they can do.

The truth is that behind each sorry love in this story lies a lie or a betrayal. There are emotional betrayals but there is one which is much greater. This book is about the generation of thinkers who were let down by Marxism. Those for whom communism began as a hopeful idea and ended as a demonstrable disaster to which no thinking person could subscribe. What the book deals with is the nuclear waste ground that is left behind when flimsy loves and discredited ideas have broken down. Fortunately for the would-be reader, Murdoch seems to have believed in regeneration after both.

There is an excellent review by Paul Gray online at Time. I have included a picture of the Vintage cover and the author, as well as evidence of my beach side reading....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Emily Berry’s Autobiografiction – answers on a postcard please!

I first discovered the splendid Pen Pusher Magazine when I was living in Budapest a few years ago. Like many a secondee I found myself pacing out the day on the internet and good that I did for I happened upon a literary rag that combines quirk and style and substance and fun. There are always gems between its covers, but I thought that Emily Berry’s poem Autobigraphication, which is published in the current edition, deserves a special mention, and a bit of a plug, so here it is:

We always breakfast with the biographer.
On day one I showed him my grapefruit spoon;
it has a serrated edge. My father gave him
a Mont Blanc fountain pen as a welcome gift,
but I think he was more impressed by the spoon.
‘It’s almost like a knife!’ he said. The biographer
is a coffee nut and I use this fact to bond with him.
‘Oh, Robusta,’ I say dramatically when I know
he’s listening. ‘You inferior bean!’ When we pass
in the hall I fling my arm back and say things like
‘Am I strung out or what! Time for another
caffeine fix, methinks!’ I am not allowed coffee
because of my nerves, but the biographer doesn’t
know this. Sometimes we sit up in bed comparing
moans. Mine are always loudest. The biographer’s
are hampered by his boarding school education
and the British flair for embarrassment. Sometimes
the publishers call. When he gets on the phone,
he sweats; afterwards the right side of his face is damp.
I like to monitor these subtle changes. Last night
my father found us touching legs. ‘Go to your room!’
he shouted. ‘You shabby daughter.’ ‘You worthless
excuse for a story,’ the biographer added. They played
cards to settle a debt. That day my mouth felt wetter
than usual. I asked the biographer to check. He used
his tongue. ‘This may affect the results,’ he said.