Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Books Read in September

Things We Didn't See Coming, How To Be Both, The Son, Waiting for Doggo, Wide Sargasso Sea, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Things We Didn't See Coming, How To Be Both, The Son,
Waiting for Doggo, Wide Sargasso Sea, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Monday, 29 September 2014

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith

How To Be Both
A brilliantly structured dual narrative that disregards how books are supposed to to work and does its own thing. How To Be Both is two distinct but connected stories, one wound around the other and spanning hundreds of years. Which comes first depends on the copy that a reader picks up at random. There are two part ones and a bit of free verse thrown in, which gives it a strange, dreamy quality, a poetic transformation that blends one story's end into the other's beginning.

My copy started with troubled, teenaged George and her struggle to cope with the recent death of her mother. There's a grief stricken chaos to the beginning of George's narrative as she recounts her recent experiences in Italy with her mother. She describes a spur of the moment trip to look at some frescoes, forgetting at times to speak of her mother in the past tense and berating herself for it. She recalls their conversations faithfully, but in patches and with lots of revisions and transgressions. George comes across as fiercely intelligent, argumentative and pedantic and hopelessly lost. Left with her younger brother and emotionally absent father, she struggles to make sense of the world that doesn't have her mum in it, unsure how somebody so loved and so real can simply cease to exist. Her narrative follows her counselling with the gently comedic Mrs Rock, her relationship with her friend H, who moves to Holland and her brief foray into stalking.

Next comes the story of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. Master artist and woefully underpaid contributor to the 'Room of the Months' in the Ferrara Palazzo in Italy. Franceso has a completely different voice, strangely chipper for someone dead over 400 years, and spends his narrative switching between his life in Renaissance Italy and being confused about the situation he finds himself in now. Namely being roused for no apparent reason into the modern day, apparently bound to a stranger in a room exhibiting one of his paintings and a whole host by one of  his contemporaries. I loved how annoyed Francesco was by the fact that Cosmo had weathered history better than himself, more of Cosmo's work remains. I also liked the little anachronistic verbal tics that Francesco had- "just saying" repeats frequently. I liked the mischief of it and the suggestion that art, lifestyles and habits might change, but people are all the same underneath.

Smith asks but never really answers a lot of questions about art and its importance. How art affects people differently, the strength of connection that can (rarely, but still) occur between a person and an image from centuries ago and how alien this connection can seem to others. It makes the reader think of the legacy of the creative, the duty of some to tell stories to pass on, and the duty of others to understand them later. The idea of the 'captured image' recurs regularly. Does capturing a moment in time mean that the moment lives forever? Does the artist? Franceso certainly seems to some extent to live through his art, and does reliving through memory keep something alive? In this book art is all mixed up with memory, representation and recollection- it's difficult to keep them separate really. I think this mutability is a bit of a recurring theme...

As is duality, the 'Both' of the title, which is as close to a key to the narrative as it's possible to get. The dead co-exist with the living, gender and sexuality are fairly flexible and the two halves of the story overlap, collide and entwine in ways that sometimes reveal, sometimes confuse, but it's always done in a style that is both poetic and mysterious.

I liked how fluid the novel made things seem. Things that we think of as being definitive. I liked how by binding her chest and living as a man, Francesco made any notion of gender quite irrelevant. I've been inconsistent with personal pronouns myself...George and her mother, when studying the Frescos in the Ferrara Plazzo struggle to tell the genders of most of the figures. They decide in the end that it probably doesn’t even matter. Francesco mistakes George for a boy at first sight, unaware that despite using a boy's name she is in fact female.  Death too seems a lot more flexible in this novel. We know Francesco del Cossa is dead- he knows it too- but he struggles to gain any certainty about it, as he never remembers a death. But here he is, for unknown reasons, attached to the boy in the art gallery, the Palace of Pictures as Franceso calls it.

It's like its two novels individually, but reading them together creates a third. It is genuinely unlike anything else I have ever read. I loved the complexity of it, the twinned stories, and I wonder if reading it the other way around would have changed how I lived the narrative. People and places are kept alive through stories, words or pictures, and I wonder how a different setting and a different narrator at the start might have changed my perspective. Thoroughly recommend to readers wanting a change or a challenge.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
My fist read from the Booker Prize Shortlist 2014 and it's off to a brilliant start. Firstly, it's really difficult to talk about this book without giving away the reveal. Though it's a relatively early one (page 70 odd) the narrator is depending on her reader "going in blind" so to speak. She comes from a research family; call it measuring a reaction to an unseen circumstance. I'd hate to spoil her data collection...

The book is narrated by Rosemary who states early on that starting in the middle of the story is as good a place as any; something that people used to tell her as an incessantly talkative child. She starts with college, switches to childhood and works back to the middle in the end. It's all about her family, or at least what's left of it. She's barely on speaking terms with her parents (Alcoholic psychologist father, depressive post-breakdown mother). Her revered brother simply walked out 10 years ago and never returned and her sister Fern, about whom nobody will speak, was whisked off never to be seen again one night when Rosie was 5 and was bundled off to her Grandparents' for a few weeks.

Rosie's story comes in chunks with little chronology, but much of the middle takes place in 1996 during her unusually long undergraduate education at a California college. The solitary student, so different from her talkative early years, is arrested in an uncharacteristic blip when a police officer mistakes her for a hysterical student. The hysterical student in question is Harlow, also arrested, who becomes one of the first long term friends of Rosemary's life- a whirlwind of bad decisions, impulses and petty crime, Harlow introduces her new friend to narcotics and they get to be on first name terms with the campus police. Add to that a paranoid apartment block manager, a purloined antique marionette and a 'nice but puts up with a lot' flatmate, and that's about all the people in Rosemary's life.

Though time is fragmented and split into chunks, the narrative heaves throughout with Rosemary's grief for her absent sister, and for the much loved Lowell who is involved with domestic terrorist activities with the Animal Liberation Front. He communicates with the family rarely and only by anonymous, cryptic postcards. Rosemary struggles her whole life to fit in, because her whole character has been shaped and reflected in her lost sister. She has literally lost a half of herself.

There's really complex, overlapping themes of identity and grief in this book, and arguments about nature versus nurture and learned behaviour that are explored in ways that are alternately really funny, and incredibly touching. She also speaks at length about the slippery nature of memory and how easy it is to misremember, to replace recollections with photos or stories and how easy it is to just forget or block things out. I think the uncertainty of some of Rosemary's recollections was really well crafted and played on some of the thoughts and wonderings that many readers must have- everybody has memories that they think they remember that could realistically be inventions, scenes from forgotten films or a preferred version of events that have just sort of taped over the real events. I loved Rosemary as a character; I thought her anger and confusion at the state of her family was so believable, she was intelligent, sarcastic and resigned to her "uncanny valley" weirdness.

In less skilful hands, this novel could get a bit daft and seem unlikely, impossible even. The contrast between the comedy capers and the themes explored could have become an obstacle to a lesser writer. As it is, Fowler manages to tackle the absurd and the profound with grace and with emotion. The book raises questions about familial loyalty, animal rights, parental deceit, guilt, self-delusion and self-doubt and even the theme of ownership all trussed up in the more universally relatable dysfunctional family package. A really engrossing, thought provoking book that is an absolute masterpiece in misdirection and playing with the readers' perceptions. Brilliant storytelling, an unforgettable narrator an unforgettable family.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Waiting For Doggo, by Mark B. Mills

The best way of describing this book, I think, is as a romantic comedy but with a male protagonist. Is that a thing? I can't remember ever reading or watching one...It's quite funny, life affirming and pleasantly predicable.

Dan is a middle of the road sort of guy. He's not going to win any awards for being interesting, but he has won some awards for coming up with good advertising slogans. His new age hippy girlfriend (along with her guardian angel- no really) has taken off to an undisclosed exotic location and left him, and his working partner Fat Trev, the design side of things has left him too. What Dan is left with, beside his "I'm leaving you, Dan" letter, is Doggo, an impulse acquisition of his former girlfriend. Possibly the world's cleverest but most aesthetically lacking dog alive.

After a sudden surge of responsibility makes Dan reconsider returning him to Battersea Dog's Home, Dan and Doggo slowly build up their trust in each other and become embedded in each other's lives. Starting their new job at a trendy new advertising company, Dan and Doggo become office favourites (for the most part) and they suddenly find unexpected opportunities (and rivalries) fall into their paths. It makes Dan question for the first time what he really wants to do with his career and with his personal life.

I did really enjoy this book-  it was a funny, gently inspirational story that was really easy to read and had a lot of brilliant messages about responsibility, loyalty and not taking things at their face value. Marley & Me fans are going to go mad for it...I liked how Dan only really got to sort his life out when his girlfriend walked out on him. He learned to turn loss into improvement, and did it in a way that was really positive and beneficial. He gets a new job, several promising romantic prospects and starts to realise what he wants from life. It uses the shallowness of the advertising industry to prove that there's more to something (people, dogs, lifestyles) than meets the eye.

Waiting for Doggo shows how unconditional the love of a good dog is. It shows that dogs will risk life and limb for their owners, and that sort of devotion is rare. I loved that Doggo taught his new owner how to be a better person, even if he did it in a roundabout way.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

The unofficial prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre (incidentally one of my all time favourites). Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress brought up in an initially wealthy though quite volatile family. The story covers her far from idealistic youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman whose identity is never confirmed by the author. In a nutshell, initially Rochester is besotted with her, then things cool off. He renames her Bertha, declares her insane and then relocates her to England. The novel tells the madwoman in the attic story from inside Thornfield from the perspectives of Rochester, Antoinette and Grace Poole.

The novel's narration switches regularly and without warning in some cases, initially between Antoinette and her husband. Rochester pretty much spends the entire novel being surly and unpleasant. He feels like he's been sold to the highest bidder to protect his family's fortune (which he has) as being a second son he stands to inherit nothing. Pretty unpleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary for any marriageable high society woman of the era. Political or financial security marriages were literally women's only career choices. I think the fact that it has happened to a man is what bothers him the most. Obsessed with racial purity and "Englishness", Rochester comes off as thoroughly objectionable throughout.

I can't say I really followed the beginning of the novel too successfully. I gather there are themes of Empire and colonialism, civil rights and prejudice, bad blood on all sides, lots of anger and hostility, but I struggled to make much sense of the actual events. A house burned down and a parrot died...maybe it was supposed to be disorientating and opaque. Antoinette seems to have made little sense of it too, and perhaps we are supposed to feel as detached from the plot as she is from any real identity. She essentially has no identity. She is displaced financially, when all her property transfers to her husband, and displaced racially, as she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans. Her husband changed her identity in the most literal sense too by renaming her. Her whole existence is pretty grim.

Honestly, the only parts of the narrative I actually enjoyed were the events that directly overlapped the events of Jane Eyre- the confinement in the attic, the biting of the brother and the inferno. The rest just failed to spark my imagination at all. I found neither of the characters particularly sympathetic, there was no identifying with either of them and their thoughts and actions simply didn't hold my interest. It's obviously the glaze of secrecy and deceit that gives Rochester his moody and mysterious appeal. Without it he's simply moody.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn't See Coming starts with the 9 year old narrator being hastily packed into his parents' car on New Year Eve 1999, fleeing the disaster that his father is sure will come. Everybody else seems to be overlooking impending doom and celebrating as usual. They alight at his Grandparents' house and he sneaks off at midnight to be with his evidently quite paranoid father in the woods.

The story skips forward some years into a changed landscape. The urban and rural communities are segregated, each with their own problems and struggles. When the narrator's mentally ill, bedridden Grandma suddenly comes to her senses one day, he takes her and Grandpa on a Sunday drive, talking their way into the countryside. He teaches them to steal, they live a lifetime in a day and he leaves alone...

The narrative continues in this fashion, breaking off for years at a time and rejoining the narrator at some undisclosed year, in some undisclosed area of what was once probably England. He utilises the skills gained through his modest criminal record; thievery, deceit, selfishness, to survive a varying wasteland of perils. Flooding, drought, some sort of corrosive rain, pollutants and bad air, plagues, disease and hunger. Each time he seems to have a different companion, a different job and a different danger to face. He lives (at different times) a nomadic life of scavenging, a criminal life of opportunistic theft and a semi-settled one in sort of new-age hippie alternative medicines community that believes in the power of nature to heal.

The last section that sees the narrator guiding terminally ill and cancer riddled patients on around the world experience tours particularly stood out to me. The author (as palliative care nurse) has done an incredible job of detailing the care of end of life patients. I think these fleeting characters were in a way much more real than the narrator. They came across simply as a mess of contradictions- they're happy to be spending their final days entertained, but they complain about the activities. They grumble about little things and ignore what's killing them. They're full of camaraderie and sadness and exhilaration living against the clock. The first and the last chapters definitely represented the best of the author's prose and depth.

Whilst I liked this novel, I never really felt like I got to know the narrator or understood what the book was trying to do or say. The fragmented, jumpy timeline is easy enough to follow, but it's the absolute lack of any geographical consistency that's a little disorientating. Every five years the world seems to change completely. New governments, new improvement schemes, new landscape, new agendas and new expectations. The world doesn't seem to gradually improve, nor decline...Each chapter opens on a completely different scene. Maybe that's the point, I don't know. Maybe the world can change as much as it cares to- people will always be the same. Maybe we a the reader are supposed to feel as adrift and as unattached as the narrator.

I felt it was quite unusual as far as Apocalypse scenario novels go. We never find out the nature of the disaster. We never experience the panic and the social collapse that follows. There's no group of survivors fighting the elements and the odds to rebuild a safe haven. There's none of that. It's just one guy, turning up all over the place and getting by.

It's an odd one, with an unusual structure and a dreamy style. It reminded me of what an entire person worth of memory must look like, written down. Bits that you remember vividly, wooly bits- whole years where you can't remember anything of note. Bits you'd rather not remember. Worth a read simply for its uniqueness.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Son, by Philipp Meyer

The Son is an epic, sprawling tale of violence, loss and survival across five generations of the McCullough family- Texas' oldest and richest household. Over the generations they tame the Western frontier, fight the Civil War, make their fortune in cattle then oilfields and fight it out against the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Thrown in for good measure are themes of revenge, loyalty, the idea of the family versus the wilderness and a whole bunch of easy money.

Jumping backwards and forwards through time and switching between the accounts of three generations of narrators, the family history of the McCulloughs emerges from the sand, oil and blood of the Texan frontier in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The stories are told by Eli McCullough, prophetically the first male child born in the Republic of Texas, aka the Colonel aka Tiehteti-tihabo, his son Peter and his great-grand-daughter Jeannie McCullough. Each has something to prove, their own empire to hold onto and their own reputation to build or maintain, and each has struggled with immense losses and sacrifice through the years.

We start off with the Colonel, the lived-to-be-90-odd patriarch of the family preserving his memoirs into a recording device. He talks of his youth on the frontier with his family and then the Indian raid that left him a white captive and the rest of his family butchered. In spite of the surly, stubborn and prejudiced old man he becomes, I really liked the character of Eli. Adapting quickly to life as Comanche captive and then earning his status as tribesman, he's resourceful and independent and I enjoyed the combination of his nihilistic bravery and his sensitive sustainable living ideas. He goes through such changes too as he grows up and re-enters society, but no institution really ever has his loyalty like the Comanches did. Not even his blood family.

His son, Peter tells his story through diaries. Cultured and filled with lingering melancholy, he writes of his feelings of displacement in the vastness of Texas, the doubts that he could ever continue his father's empire, his unacceptable romantic life. He lacks the bloodthirsty ruthlessness of his father and brothers and is haunted by the 1917 massacre of their next door neighbours the Garcias, butchered by his family and a band of vengeance bent vigilantes. Though I found Peter pathetically endearing, he was obviously well due a slap and a bit of good luck.

Jeannie provides the lone female voice in the narrative, frail and elderly as she narrates, she remembers her youth spent branding and roping cattle at the age of 10 with her revered, old-school great grandfather. She's been running the family's business and protecting its interests for decades, struggling for acceptance as the solo female player in man's game. Jeannie's probably lived through the biggest changes in her lifetime, bringing us up to the struggles of being a rich oil baron and widow in the modern age. All the sacrifice and sweat amounting to nothing at the end.

Meyer is obviously a masterful storyteller- he crates entire panoramas of desert, forest and brush, populating them with innumerable characters that live and breathe. There's a transient feel to the narrative as it evolves over five generations, but it makes no decisions about whether things are changing for the better or worse. One of the things that impressed me so much about this book was how unglamourous it seemed to be a billionaire- the loneliness, the responsibility, the longing for the simplicity of the wilderness. Throughout the whole book, the narrative is captivating in its brutality, not just in its violence (which is ample) but it its grim message of survival- nobody ever really wins. They simply live to fight another day.

I suppose really the book is also really about the end of things. The end of the Plains Indians' way of life. The end of the frontier. The end of American oil. The end of old money. The end of marriages and lives. It's about adapting to survive and the culling of the weak, and who count as weak change as the generations roll on. Read it if you like Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian or if you got a bit obsessed with Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, like I did, which is also an amazing story of the decline of the 'old ways' and the death throes of the American West.