Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Literary Lego

Well, it's one way of getting kids into the classics... Where's Virginia Woolf?

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Siege

Helen Dunmore is a prolific writer, though I have never been drawn to her books. This may have something to do with the covers, which I find singularly banal, or with the fact that the regularity with which she produces new books subconsciously suggests to me that they can't be of a very high quality. Nevertheless, The Siege has been sitting in my To Be Read pile for some time - I can't remember when or why I bought it - and I decided to give it a go.

I know little about the 1941 siege of Leningrad, save that during one of the worst winters known even in northern Russia, German troops surrounded the city and through a series of Blitz-style bombing raids and an almost total blockade which prevented any food or medicine getting through, starved millions of citizens to death. In a letter reproduced at the beginning of this novel, it is made clear that Hitler had no intention of taking over the city - he instead "decided to have Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth." Against this backdrop, then, Dunmore has set a love story.

Or at least, that is the skeleton of narrative over which the flesh of the novel takes shape. But this, for me, is not a love story. The two central characters, Anna and Andrei, meet, fall in love instantly, and then must survive this hellish winter, yes. But The Siege is not a narrative-based novel. It is a descriptive account of a factual event. Fictional characters simply enable the event to be brought to chilling life, and this is the great strength of this book. Dunmore's attention to detail is crucial in showing us how crumbs of bread and broth made of shoe leather become lifelines, and how food, or the lack of it, becomes obsession. This is not a novel one can curl up with and live inside; this is an educational ride through a dark historical chapter.

The style is stilted, giving it the impression of being in translation, and as such, does in fact feel authentically Russian. The characters are neither particularly likeable nor unlikeable; they are vehicles through which a story that must be told, is told.

I wouldn't say I had enjoyed The Siege, but I feel a better informed human being for having read it. And my desire to visit St Petersburg, as it is now (again) called, is all the greater. It is most certainly not a holiday read, or even a summer read, but I think it's an important book, and does deserve the attention it still garners.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Help

I had started reading Villette while I was travelling, but I'm afraid that after 120 pages, I had to give up. Maybe the story of a lonely Victorian governess in dark, rain-sodden France just wasn't working for me as I reclined on a sun-lounger in 42 degree heat in Andalucia, or maybe it was that the style was so over-wrought and almost sycophantic; whatever the reason, I just couldn't get into it, and have left it sitting woefully in a villa in Spain.

When I returned, then, I was bookless. Currently not-reading. The first thing I did was go through my ever-increasing bought-but-not-yet-read (the 'yet' is crucial) pile, but nothing grabbed me. My head was all over the place and anywhere but here, and I would read 3 pages of something and put it down in frustration, unable to connect with the written word. Grrrr.... Then I picked up The Help. And it turns out it was exactly what I needed.

Now, this is not a great work of literature, a life-changing novel; it is not the new To Kill a Mockingbird. Had it been written and published in 1964, it most certainly would have been both of those things. But context is an important aspect in the making of a classic, and while I loved this book (and I am far from alone there), I think it is important to wade through the praises heaped on it, and to consider it as simply an exciting story filled with wonderful characters, well-written and easy to digest. It is a reminder of the way things were - although I am aware that similar communities do still exist around the globe - and looks at the Civil Rights Movement from a new perspective; from, in fact, an entirely female perspective. This gives the story a unique spin because, as Minny and Aibileen discuss at one point in the novel, women can exact a far more ruthless revenge than men can; their ability to work slowly, chipping away at the foundations of a life they intend to destroy is a far more effective and frightening method than a one-off violent act. The women in The Help are both each other's support and each other's worst possible enemies - the way the League ladies treat Marilyn Monroe-alike Miss Celia is as appalling and as prejudiced as the way they treat their maids. But she is from the wrong side of the tracks, and in Jackson, Mississippi, only Miss Hilly Holbrook's side matters.

Hilly is an almost cartoonish villainess. She is a southern belle Cruella deVille - the description of her final visit to Miss Skeeter, hair akimbo and clothes hanging out, reminds me of nothing less than Cruella's defeat at the end of 101 Dalmations. And yet Hilly's defeat is a long way from total - we know, as readers, that she will pick herself up and continue to treat the black members of her community in the same way she always has. We know this because we know people like her still exist. And we know, more worryingly, that though there may be only a few as awful as Hilly Holbrook, there are many, many Elizabeth Leefolts: the friend who is too weak to do anything, too scared to speak up, too preoccupied to form an opinion of her own. These people - the ones who sit by - are the majority, and are just as damaging.

Kathryn Stockett uses key events in the struggle for Civil Rights as pegs on which to hang her story, and this is a useful and effective technique. We can place the fictional characters in the real, historical world. We can dress them accurately, we can feel the wide outside swirling around them, even as Jackson seems caught in a web of time, unable to free itself and move forward. Miss Skeeter's desire to be free of this claustrophobic society is brought to a simple, easy head when she hears Dylan for the first time on the radio and realises that elsewhere in the United States, the times are indeed a-changing.

The three narrators have endearing voices, and we warm to each of them immediately they open their mouths. Stockett's use of dialectical phrase is just right - Aibileen's words ring true and honest, not foreign enough that we struggle to understand her, but with an accent that places her exactly.

This novel is an ideal easy-read, without being vacuous and forgettable. It does nothing new or daring within itself - indeed, it is almost a novel-by-numbers; questions are set up one after the other that ensure we stay with the book till the end: what happened to Constantine? Did Minny really do to that pie what we fear she did? What is the matter with Miss Celia? What did Stuart's ex-fiancee do? We care, we really do want to know the answers to these questions - and that is Stockett's skill. Her talent lies in her creaton of wholly believable characters, in whom, within mere pages, we are entirely invested.

There is a short epilogue-of-sorts, in which Stockett delivers a mini-autobiography. The fact that she has written from some personal experience, in this case, adds to the book. It authenticates the stories of Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. I know that there must be snippets of real events in here - some incidents must be founded in reality. I can't help but wonder if the pie story is one of them. And I can't help but hope it is, hope that some white lady, somewhere, really did get her just desserts...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Writers on fire!

It's not cool to smoke, kids. Except that sometimes it absolutely, irrevocably is. Check out these authors and their wicked addictions:

July - a month in reading

As the end of term approached, all grey matter began to seep out of my ears... reading became less important to me than travelling. But I don't have a travel blog (though I do have a travel notebook) so I kinda fell off the edge of the blogging universe for a bit. However, I return now, a nutty colour (not pistachio - maybe walnut shell?) from a Thelma-and-Louise* style tour of southern Spain, head filled with Moorish architecture and tummy stuffed with paella. And what of reading during this time?

How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
This has been well-blogged about, so I shan't dwell. It was my first by this author, whom I know has had a lot of praise heaped on her. She has a very clear, crisp style, and an authoritative tone, and whilst I enjoyed this book, it felt a little experimental to me. A bit Rick Wakeman: a bit 'I do this because I can'. The shift in gear as one is jolted from one narrator to another can be hard to adjust to, as it is not simply a change in voice, but in tense and person. Interestingly, the story I thought would be most intriguing turned out, for me, to be the least gripping (that of Annette and the Bestia), whilst my favourite character was not even one of the four narrators - Danny, Suzie's dead twin brother, stole my heart.

It is an existential novel, one that requires attention and thought, and the questions it raises are simultaneously tiny and huge - why does Giorgio paint bottles? Is there more to the thread that links these people's lives than the tenuous one apparent - and what does this mean for the threads that link all our lives? (This could become a little 6 Steps from Kevin Bacon...)

How to Paint a Dead Man is essentially a book full of, and about, subtext; what is below the surface and between the lines. It is about the nuance of relationships, and the traffic between life and death. It is about the subtleties of shade, the position of art in life and life in art. It is not a curl-up and live-in kind of book, but it teased my brain, and woke me up. I look forward to trying some of Hall's other novels.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
Yes, I fell for the hype and the beautiful packaging. And I really fancied something that wouldn't tax me too much, although I hadn't bargained on it weighing quite so much and nearly spraining my wrist. So, weighty in volume if not content. I do not tend to read horror or sci-fi, let me state that up front. Both genres, for me, work better in film-form. I've read the modern classics - Interview With The Vampire, Neuromancer, and cinematically, I'm not averse to a bit of neck-biting or zombie action. But reading The Passage was a bit left of my usual centre.

I would say that you need substantial stretches of time to spend in chunks with this book. It doesn't work if you just dip in and out. You have to take a deep breath and commit. I did, and it came up with the goods. It's well-written, and once the future-post-apocalyptic world comes in, I found myself really warming to the characters and actually caring about them - I came dangerously close to shedding a solitary tear when one particular character dies. The world of the book is well-constructed and believable, the action fast-paced and clearly, in places, written for the Big Screen, to which I have no doubt it will be coming soon. My only bugbear is...I'm not convinced that it's original enough to be getting all the praise it's had. It has elements for me of those terrifyingly bleak Children's Film Foundation films I was raised on in the seventies, things like Brother in the Land and The Weathermonger, in which a few surviving youngsters cross nuclear-attack ravaged Britain to find sanctuary on the Isle of Wight or somewhere. The Vampires - or Virals as they're called here (and that's another thing - hasn't that been done in 28 Days Later?) - are interesting: part Giger creation, part Aphex Twin video, they are potentially something new, but I don't know if that's enough to make this whole novel something new.

At the end of the day, you know whether you want to read this or not. Either it's your cup of Earl Grey, or it isn't. It is more literary than most in the genre, for sure, but that doesn't convince me that there's going to be thousands of discerning Persephone readers suddenly turning up in the horror section of Waterstones. An enjoyable, bloody romp, to sound like a Sun newspaper reviewer.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Dowd died in 2007 of Breast Cancer, leaving a legacy of brilliant YA novels keeping her name alive. This one deals with the troubles in Northern Ireland in the eighties, and is an intelligent and beautifully crafted story. For young people outside of Ireland, I would suggest a brief grounding in the history of the IRA and particularly Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers to be of help in understanding the plot - Dowd assumes knowledge, and does not patronise with background. It seems particularly poignant at the moment, with pockets of rioting flaring up again, and could be an important reminder for all of us of how complicated and violent life can be under extreme circumstances. There is a lesson here in the price one pays for nailing oneself to a cause, a lesson that a whole new generation might need to consider. Probably not one to go onto straight from Horrid Henry...

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
I was sitting in Costa Coffee in Manchester Waterstones' when I literally had, totally out of the blue, an overwhelming desire to read this book. I honestly do not know what inspired this desire, but there it was, like the urge for an ice-cold Coca-Cola, and so I acted on it. And I was not disappointed. What an extraordinary style of writing! It almost feels like an unfinished manuscript, and yet that is exactly right for the nature of the story. In the same way that Charlotte Bronte gave us landscape as character in Jane Eyre, so Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea, and the rip, the tearing, we feel as Bertha is taken from this Caribbean dreamland to Rochester's tower is tangible. Rhys teases us: the nature of madness is questioned, played with, and our only response, surely, can be that insanity is relative; relative to one's surroundings, to one's family, to one's acquaintances, to one's treatment. There is an edge of hysteria to the whole short novel, and yet an eerie calmness to the denouement.

For me, had I not known Jane Eyre well, it would have been a more difficult book, but loving Jane Eyre as I do (in the old-time debate, yes, I prefer it to Wuthering Heights), the deeper dimension offered here was rich and delicious. It's quite unlike anything I've read before, and it has stayed with me in ways I didn't think it would. I may never read Jane Eyre in the same light again.

Just Kids by Patti Smith
Horses is my favourite album of all time. That, combined with the beautiful photograph on the cover of this partial (it is solely about Smith's relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe) autobiography, meant I simply couldn't wait for it to come out in paperback.

Smith's love for Mapplethorpe is evident all the way through the book - every word she uses drips with adoration, sometimes worship, sometimes a cooler respect, but always with unadulterated love. It was, for me, however, educational in terms of Smith's own artistic intent. I was surprised, given that I've always sensed an undercurrent of violence to Horses, to find that Smith was/is so much of a hippy. I was fascinated also by the way she considers herself a poet who happens to have rock musicians playing alongside her; not that I didn't know she's a poet - I have books of her poetry - but that she seems to have genuinely accidentally become a rockstar. Her entire approach to her own career is intriguing, and does in fact, from about halfway through the book, become the dominant interest.

Despite my sometime lack of tolerance for all things hippy-dippy (astrology, witchcraft, meditation etc - I was brought up with it and rebelled at an early age), I find Smith an engaging as well as profoundly talented artist and person, as well as edgier than I suspect she thinks she is. Just Kids is an extremely interesting and insightful book, and a wonderful record of the oh-so-dirty glamour that surrounded the Chelsea Hotel and New York in the seventies. Pass me my CBGBs tee-shirt...

* Driving the roads of the high eastern Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevada very nearly resulted in a re-enactment of that film's ending. I even had my headscarf at the ready...