Saturday, 30 January 2016

Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine

Killing and Dying is six very different short stories, beautifully composed and drawn and presented. Its apparent simplicity really does disguise the depth of emotion, understanding and meaning that exists within the panels. The shortest narrative is just 6 pages, the longest 26- all depicted in quite different styles that are held together thematically. Though it's hard to identify what themes it is that holds them together. The stories are filled with empathy and emotion, with nuance and irony and razor sharp, merciless observations. However they are all so different, telling diverse stories, stories that could never in themselves be the central plot, but instead, together, build up an intimate snapshot of modern America and all of the complicated, everyday struggles and trials of ordinary people.

There's a deluded and somewhat bewildered gardener turned would-be artist, not particularly good at either, that spends years and years pursuing an artistic vision that nobody wants to buy. Frustrated at first, resolute and proud for a while, then embarrassed and enraged, he takes out his failure on the people closest to him. It's surprisingly funny- his daydreams and internal monologue in particular. It's odd to see Americans confronted with failure and the reaction is fascinating. There's another, translated from Japanese that depicts a parent and child moving from Osaka to America. Sparse, made up only of moments, snatched thoughts and snapshots, there's more revealed in what's missing and what's not said. One story is a particularly tragic tale of mistaken identity- something that on the surface sounds like it could be a Judd Apatow film, but which actually results in the central character becoming profoundly unhappy and struggling to make genuine connections with people. Another, the one that I found to be the most affecting, shows a recently bereaved husband and his nerdy, aspiring stand-up comedian daughter. Torn between wanting to protect her and waning to support her, the story burns the reader with its empathy and its love. One story depicts a homeless young woman, a direction-less baseball fan that throws in her lot with an ageing stoner and small time dealer. They get on ok despite him being many years her senior...but her lack of options and circumstances are approaching desperate and it's a bad decision. It's a familiar story of things in common, laughs and connections...then manipulation, control and abuse. Of the 6 stories this is probably the one that I've thought about the most since... The last story is an odd little tale of a man reflecting on the things that he's lost and being unable to save himself from a cycle of obsessive and strange behaviour.

It's hard to describe this book, just like it would be hard trying to describe everything that happens in life. There's too much to say about quite ordinary things. They're such perfect little vignettes of grim reality. There aren't really any lessons to be learned, no morals to these stories. They are just brief windows offering glimpses into six of the billions of lives being played out somewhere in the world, each infused with its own struggles and triumps. It highlights what a strange and hapless species we are, thoroughly incapable of dealing with the emotional fallout of our own lives and decisions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was quite amazed at the incredible skill of Tomaine's storytelling technique. Sometimes pictures and images are used as a stylistic alternative to prose...sometimes they're used alongside. But Tomaine's images are rare examples that seem to render words clumsy and inexpressive. He can convey more in the closing of an eyelid or the arrangement of a hand on a knee than could ever be imparted in paragraphs.

In short, properly, thoroughly masterful.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is the only other Barnes book I've ever read, so I started this knowing very little about its setting or about Barnes' usual style, though I remember liking TSoaE. This new work is quite an obscure little book in all honesty; The Noise of Time is a  re-imagining of the life of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his unlikely but continuing survival in Stalin's Soviet Russia.

Beginning at the time of the Stalin Purges, we find composer Dmitri Shostakovich living like a hunted animal. Night after night he packs a suitcase and some cigarettes and waits by the elevator of his apartment block, so inevitable is his arrest. A practical man, he is prepared to go quietly and in timely fashion, placing himself at a safe distance from his home with the intention of keeping his wife and baby daughter safe from the Secret Police. Once composers, artists, writers produce something deemed unsoviet, formalist or generally difficult to comprehend, they have a nasty habit of being arrested and then either disappearing, or framed for orchestrating some ludicrous plot and executed. Following the flop of his latest Opera, Dmitri is paranoid and  on edge,  and his fear is reflected in the short, choppy style of the prose. His first person narrative is unfocused, jumping around nervously from one thought to another, to an event, to a recollection, a speculation... He's an unusual character; torn between his loyalty to his family, his loyalty to his art, and the necessity of surviving through providing low-art mass-appeal music at the Direction of the State.

Themes of paranoia, power, authenticity, art, integrity pervade the novel. What's better? To be a martyr to one's art, then to be written out of history, or to lose one's integrity, do as you're told and hope to ride it out? I really liked the suggestion that those in Power hold history's pen- there's a memorable part where Shostakovich tries to wriggle out of some scheme or another that the Party have planned for him by reminding them that they renounced him and banned his music. The Party immediately deny ever doing such a thing, then promptly un-ban his back catalogue. Shostakovich is plagued by his conscience and the idea of his artistic legacy being either forgotten, or being considered worthless. He has no control over his life or his work, even the speeches that he reads have been written for him and all of his work must meet strict Soviet criteria.

Throughout Shostakovich's life he is a half-arsed opponent of authority, resisting The Party in his head and in his heart, even if his actions seem complicit in their actions and in line with their ideology. He kids himself that he remains true to his art, but his desire to stay alive outweighs his integrity- despite his own private wishes that this wasn't the case. He is an almost constant disappointment to himself, remembering sadly the only time in his life that he was truly happy, a brief holiday with another free-love believer in his youth that went on to marry someone else. He desperately clings on to the fact that he never joined The Party...until he joins The Party. The way circumstances are, it's unlikely he could survive refusal and the rest of his life is mapped out for him.

I enjoyed this novel, it is beautifully written and I constantly found myself sucked into this real life dystopia, the nightmare world of this historical period that I know practically nothing about. Barnes' gift with language is apparent from even the prologue- it's a masterful novel (novella?) that I'm afraid was a little bit lost on me. Though I found a lot to love in the prose, the narrative and the setting I felt were a little bit of a misty blur to me on account of my historical illiteracy. I loved the helplessness of Shostakovich's rebellion, and I did like him as a character and empathised with his internal struggle- I do love fiction about artists. It's quite thought provoking really, the relationship between art and power- it appears that suppressing art and controlling creativity is pretty high up on the fascist agenda. By a small coincidence today is the last day on the consultation for the EBacc, which will see the arts very much take a back seat (potentially all but disappear) in British schools. Just a thought.

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Revenant, by Michael Punke

Having turned up for a 4.00 showing of The Revenant last Sunday and finding it to be inconveniently sold out, I thought it gave me a nice lull in which to read the book on which the (probably Oscar winning) film is based.

The Revenant is the story of the apparently indestructible Hugh Glass- sailor, pirate, survivor. A veteran frontiersman currently in the employ of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass finds himself in a band of trappers led by Captain Anderson. One of Anderson's best and most trusted men, Glass is savagely mauled by a bear on the banks of the Grand River when stalking game for the campfire. Like any good boss, Anderson attempts to haul the apparently mortally wounded Glass to their months-away destination of Yellowstone before Winter sets in. After a couple of days and knowing that it was never going to work, Anderson admits defeat, leaving two of his party behind to wait for his man to die so that they can give him a decent burial. They do not wait. Glass does not die. Instead, they take his beaded knife, his fire-making kit and his beloved rifle and scarper, fearful of the various tribes of Natives that hunt and patrol the area.

The rest of the book is Glass’ slow, agonising recovery and his single-minded pursuit of his deserters and his only meaningful possessions across most of the unchartered blank spaces on the map. Riding when he can ride, rafting when he can raft, walking when he can do neither and crawling when he can’t even do that. He experiences good fortune at the hands of some native tribes, and suffers bloodthirsty attacks from members of others- he’s an adaptable kind of guy, falling in with various groups and various brigades on his travels, always in pursuit. He hunts. He traps. He suffers. Ohmygod does he suffer. Although- he doesn’t really seem to be affected by his own suffering. He never complains, never gives up, never slows down or thinks about his suffering. Just another day of surviving on the frontier.

Despite the silence of his character and his unbelievable intensity, the reader can’t help but admire Glass as a character, if only for his resolve and his unwavering focus. So he’s not particularly emotional. We learn he has no family, no wife, no kids. He has no apparent aspirations or fears. He’s lived a life for sure, and doesn't seem particularly fazed by any downward trajectories that his fortune takes. He is Grit personified. All we can do is sort of watch in baffled awe as this guy who by all rights should be dead about 6 times over walk away from yet another near-fatal situation.

Apparently Michael Punke is primarily a non fiction writer, and once you know this, it's very evident in his prose. His writing is functional and no fuss- he is telling his story in plain English, as it happened and in a style as economic and straightforward as possible. Punke's prose is an un-beautiful, as stoic and as no-nonsense as his protagonist. Glass is struck at one point by the beauty of the Rocky Mountain and has a little moment to himself. The description isn't particularly staggering, but Glass’s reaction is noteworthy, seeing as he’s a man who appears to feel nothing.

It’s not an exciting book, but it’s quite satisfying following Glass’ progress along the river- first to his compromise goal, then to his short term goal, then to what he believes to be his final destination. It’s hard for a modern reader to imagine the danger of the wilderness; death comes via the wildlife, the weather, the natives, the exposure, the hunger, or through mistakes and through accidents. It's hard to imagine too is the beauty of unspoilt America, knowing what becomes so shortly. I'm a sucker for a frontier story- even though this is not a particularly descriptive book, the plains are laid before you implicitly, the buffalo, the creeks, the pines. Love it.

I really enjoyed reading this and I'm glad I got the change to experience the novel before the film. It reminded me a little of John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, with its detailed descriptions of how to field dress a doe or skin a buffalo so the hide comes off in one piece and in general the focus on the fur trade of American settlers. I feel like I could probably skin a buffalo adequately, should the proper necessity ever arise. It’s also reminiscent of True Grit, by Charles Portis as there’s something of Matty Ross’ stony faced and unwavering desire for vengeance.
Enjoyed it. Would recommend.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

In A Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca Mackenzie

Born in China to British missionary parents dedicated to saving the souls of the Chinese peasantry, Ming-Mei is bundled off at the age of 6 to the Lushan school. Perched on a staggeringly beautiful misty mountain of spiritual importance, Lushan is a boarding school for the children of British missionaries, somewhere that offspring can be conviniently stored whilst the parents are off continuing God's work. Despite most of its pupils being being born and raised in China, Lushan is strictly English, and Henrietta S. Robertson is to be Ming-Mei's name from now on. She is to learn to be a good Christian so that she too can grow up to bring the Gospel to the more overlooked and remote corners of the globe. The main section of the novel opens in 1941 and concentrates on Etta's story from the age of 10.

A wildly imaginative daydreamer, Etta is somewhat alienated from her dorm-mates, many of whom are quite humourless and pious; middle aged women in little girl costumes. She craves attention from Dorm mistress Aunty Murial, a young Scottish missionary who takes the girls on brisk mountain walks and paints their portraits in watercolours. Etta immediately strikes the reader as an incredibly lost and lonely girl, adrift from her idolised parents (snapped like the symbolic red string of Chinese departure custom) and noticeably different from the other girls. She is desperate to be special, revealing herself a prophetess in direct contact with God and subsequently she sets about making prophecies, declaring the others Prophetesses too (Hark, it is the Lord's intent) and unknowingly laying the foundations of tragedy, trouble and ostracism. From the very beginning she suffers from a bit of an identity crisis; she is Etta to her peers, Henrietta to the Lushan staff, Samantha the Prophetesses during the days of the Prophetess club, self declared 'Mother' to Twelve, a local toddler she befriends and Ming-Mei when outside of Lushan. Whilst Etta as a character is mischievous, funny and strong willed, her identity is paper thin and is constantly being switched and altered.

I really liked Etta as a character, her voice was incredibly strong and full of life and humour. Yes she makes some bad decisions, but she's been so unguided and left to find her own route through her most formative years. Her imagination gets her into trouble; good intentions have tragic outcomes. The other girls are curious about her vivid games and she has no trouble enticing them to join in, but they're lightning fast to point the finger when things go wrong, quick to declare her fantasies 'silly games'. She's a very vivid person, full of plans and ideas, she climbs trees, gets her knees dirty and indulges in mean thoughts about people then worries for her immortal soul. I especially liked her clashes with Big Bum Eileen, Dorm A's queen bee and unofficial opinion-influencer. So chosen because of her burgeoning womanly figure, Eileen is bossy and eager to see Etta ridiculed or punished, safe in the knowledge she has the backing of the rest of the weak-minded girls. It was not difficult to Empathise with Etta, born into a doctrine she appears to have no heart for, left to fend for herself, fighting it out with the other girls for the approval and affection of Aunty Muriel. I like that she went her own way and pleased herself, no matter how much trouble it got her into, or how unpopular it made her

I loved Mackenzie's descriptions of the wild peaks of China, the lush forests and the living mountain, the mists, waterfalls, crumbling temples and the delicate flowers. I loved the idea of the 'Thin Places' where people are spiritually closer to the other world. Lushan, for all its strange evangelical inhabitants, seems like paradise. It makes the war, gathering pace around them, seem all the more remote and impossible, until it is right at their door. When the war arrives and evicts the staff and the children from their home, Etta has to grow up rapidly. The third portion of the book shifts the narrative to a Japanese civilian interment camp and we see a child's eye view of malnutrition, black markets and berri-berri, which reminded me a little of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, only without the building of the railway. Interred with the rest of Lushan's staff and students, the only relationships Etta has ever known crumble; Aunty Muriel is now just Muriel, no longer her guardian, she is now someone who looks after the sick, her Dorm mates are now just 'other girls'. She's no longer a pupil, not really a daughter. She's totally on her own.

With its themes of religion, identity, war, isolation, displacement and being caught between two vastly different cultures, I was really impressed with In A Land of Paper Gods and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I loved Mackenzie's mystical and evocative prose and her Huck Finn-ish protagonist, a parent-less girl left to navigate the boundary between right and wrong. I found that the structure of the book really worked too; the inclusion of a few pages from Muriel's diary were really interesting additions as it showed how repressed she was, how much she cared for her girls but wan't really supposed to show it. Muriel became a much more rounded character during her time in the Japanese camps, when she stopped being a Missionary and became a survivor. It's such a compelling and haunting story, part coming-of-age, part love letter to China, part boarding school tales. The second Sino-Japanese War is an interesting and eye-opening backdrop, an era and a War that I didn't even know happened and seen from the perspective of a child, it's fascinating. 

Monday, 18 January 2016

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

My first read from Japanese giant Haruki Murakami and ohmygod it did not disappoint. I had no idea what this novel was going to be (only that it was long), but it was a complex, masterfully spun tale of reality, enduring love and confusion. I don't want to reveal too much about this book, hard as that might be for one so lengthy, as it's an absolute joy to peer into the jumbled mess of plot and separate, order and connect the strands, the intricate plots that shoot off here and there, and grapple with the mysteries of the story.

The first two books are narrated by Aomame and Tengo, an exceptionally lithe gym instructor and a mathematician come author; though they briefly shared a moment (just a moment) of connection many years ago, the two have been strangers for the last 20 years. Over the course of the trilogy a net of circumstances closes in around the two characters, forcing them together towards their shared destiny in a world that they find themselves in by accident.

The first book begins with Aomame, done up in her finest and most profesh suit, scrambling down a rickety ladder away from stationary traffic on the express-way. Abandoning her unusually comfortable taxi, she enters a world that will become 1Q84, though does not realise at the time that she has crossed an invisible threshold. Elsewhere, very close by, Tengo is commissioned by his brash and pushy editor to re-work a very promising manuscript submitted for a début writer's prize, Written by a strikingly beautiful 17 year old school girl, Air Chrysalis is a  bizarre fantasy story about a young girl visited by Little People in a world with two moons. Imaginative, but lacking polish and storytelling style, Tengo's involvement in the story marks the moment that his life's course changes track and he heads into 1Q84 too. This sets up the chain of narrative that has Tengo at one end, Aomame at the other, and in between a cultish religion, a mysterious 17 year old with an odd turn of phrase and shadowy past, otherworldly Lilliput-sized beings, assassinations, mysterious deaths, a rich Dowager, a promiscuous police officer, an exceptionally ugly private investigator and a soft-hearted but tough as nails bodyguard in between. It's an unpredictable sort of book.

Throughout the whole series there's a lurking sense of unreality, a mysterious otherness to everything that happens and every character. There's a possibility of danger at any moment, because when one is dealing with the inhabitants and customs of another world, you never really know what to expect. 1Q84 is a baffling but inescapably gripping story about the solid, tangible lines between fantasy and reality crumbling, about how the tiniest decision or event can take a person's life in an unknowable and sometimes irreversible direction. I loved the section about the Cat Town story that Tengo reads, a mysterious but real-looking place that you can get into but never leave that's ruled by cats, and about how the elderly people's hospital where he visits his dying father is his own personal Cat Town.

Towards the third book, a third narrator is added, Ushikawa, the ugly PI. Employed by the cult to detect their leader's killer, he is the force that causes our two protagonists' paths to cross. He is irritating, but he is essential, ugly but efficient. Towards the third book there is a lot of repetition, going over old ground, particularly in the third instalment, but it kind of gives the impression of a plug hole- the plot has circled and circled for a thousand pages, and as it nears its end the circles get faster and tighter, things are gone over and then covered again. Either that or the different translator gives the third part a slightly different tone. It's hard to tell.

Anyhow, long story (very long) short, I absolutely loved this, it's my ideal type of book; wonderful characters in Tengo and Aomami and Fuka-Eri, the 17 year old novelist, head scratching themes of parallel universes and out of body experiences, metaphysical madness, a magical hallucination feel, dilemmas about doing bad things to achieve good ends, revenge, beautiful prose and twisting, knotted narratives that tie up together at the end. Loved it. I'm not sure how I've never read Norwegian Wood, but it's definitely right up there on my Stuff to Do Soon list.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Lorali, by Laura Dockrill

I was somewhat dubious about a Young Adult book featuring mermaids...our underwater sisters seem so much more at home in Middle Grade fiction, picture books and fairy tales, so I was unsure whether or not they could make the jump into YA. Turns out they can and just haven't had the chance yet. Enter Lorali.

The book starts with Rory moodily nursing a bag of chips and brooding on the beach over his dad's abandonment of him and his mum. It's his 16th birthday and in the past his dad would've be there too, sharing some chips and a can of larger. Not any more. Rory's 16th is different in another respect too- he discovers a naked girl under the pier, huddled up but still alive; mute and fragile. That's a new one.

Gobsmacked, suddenly responsible and without any other immediate plan, Rory gives the girl his clothes and smuggles her back to his mum's house, convinced she's some sort of traumatised runaway. Gradually she thaws, begins talking, demonstrates boundless enthusiasm for cake and raw butter. When Rory finds her swimming in his neighbour's pond, he begins to wonder who this girl really is and where she came from. Drawing a blank, he takes her to his friend Finn and his loopy granddad in their lighthouse home, desperate to hide her and keep her safe, Rory is just looking to share his burden. What he gets in a lot of answers and an impossible conclusion. Lorali is a surfaced mermaid and Finn's granddad, Iris, is very much a land-based expert in the Mer folk. Who knew?

What starts off as a literal fish out of water story becomes a tale of desperate first love and the events that conspire to keep Lorali and Rory apart; greed, revenge, pirates. The pirates. I loved the Ablegares so much- for supporting characters they were so vividly drawn and so insanely out of place in 21st century Hastings. I loved how proud and hearty the 5 brothers were and the sections of the book in which they appear take on a weird Captain Hook via All Saints vibe that is totally unique. It's a joy to get to know Lorali as she experiences everything for the first time (sleep, wearing clothes, seeing herself with dry hair) and as she starts to establish her place in the World. It's just the right amount of inspired by Ariel, but entirely and unmistakably its own thing. In many ways Lorali experiences the same things as any non-Mermaid teenager; first love, confusion, not knowing where she belongs in the grand scheme of things. Under water she's always been told she is special, a miracle. Now she is the same as everybody else and she feels at home at last.

There are some new elements to Mer lore that I've not encountered before that I thought Dockrill wove into the narrative beautifully; the idea that Mer are not born but 'salvaged' as drowning victims deemed worthy of a second chance, that their tails are actually tapestries that tell their stories, their personalities and interests and that when they become Mer they lose their memories of life on land. The reader finds out more about the Mer people, and about Lorali and her past as the book progresses, and we eventually learn what drove the daughter of the Mer Queen out of the Sea and into Rory's life.

Lorali is an unusual book, not only because of its as-yet-unbroken magical creature territory, but in its style and approach too. Dockrill's prose is so adaptable and multi-functional, capable of any challenge or task. She demonstrates her range brilliantly- there's tenderness and brutality, violence and beauty. I loved how sensory some passages were, particularly when Lorali experiences flavours and sensations for the first time, it's so immediate and visceral. I loved the contrast between Rory's resigned and self-deprecating style, a teen with no plan and no prospects that's just winging it and Lorali, who's brand new. Full of secrets and pain and confusion, she is lost in this new world but overjoyed to have found Rory to guide her through. Her chapters are narrated with such fire and bravery and sheer nerve that it's impossible to not love her immediately.
I loved that the Sea narrated some chapters too, the pages splodged with moisture. Her ancient, lyrical voice added amazing depth and age to the story, filling in the parts that characters did not witness, providing both a location, an opinion and a beautifully enthralling narrative voice. It seems that on and in the Sea, time doesn't really exist, there are no ages. Pirates and sea monsters still roam the waves, the Mer stay at the age they were when salvaged...after all, we have explored more of the Moon than the Deep Sea, so who knows?

I think it's fairly safe to say that I adored this book for a lot of reasons. For its prose, for its characters, for its daring to open up a whole new underwater world to the YA readership. Its little digs ar patriachy and the materialistic celeb lifestyle. I like that LD was ballsy enough to deny a traditional happy ending (will say no more). It's been vampires and dystopias for so long it was genuinely a refreshing surprise to read something that's out there on its own, the first of a new kind of YA. Excellent.

If you liked this, I would also recommend Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley which uses similar fantastical themes; another unknown, hidden race, a narrator leaving one world for another and hleaving her old life behind, the love interest that can never be and the wry, relateable narrative style. Go read it because it's also very good