Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Art of Looking

I found this via Twitter, and think it looks like the sort of book that feeds your brain. Muesli for the mind.


Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Monster Calls

OK, I'm a little late on this one; it won the Carnegie last year.  But better late than never, particularly with a book as darkly beautiful and profound as this one.

Written by Patrick Ness (quickly becoming the name in YA literature, particularly for boys), but based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose relationship with his grandmother is fraught, whose father has a new family on the other side of the Atlantic: a boy who is being bullied at school, and who has horrific nightmares that destroy the only supposed peaceful time he should have.  So far, so cheery.  Into this mess comes a Monster, a force of nature who arrives one night armed with three stories.

"Stories are wild creatures," the Monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

They are fairy-style tales ('long ago...a wicked witch...')  but they do not end the way our hero, Conor, expects them to.  In fact, they infuriate him.  They expose injustice.  They tell us that not all stories have happy endings - the Monster is forewarning us about the very book we are reading.  They tell us that people are complicated, that right and wrong, good and evil, are never straightforward concepts.

Then the Monster wants something in return.  He wants a story from Conor.  But not just any story: he wants the story of Conor's recurring nightmare.  For buried inside this nightmare is a painful Truth, and before he can begin to come to terms with his mother's inevitable death, Conor must face this Truth.  He must speak it aloud.

There is an element of Fight Club to this book, most noteably in the scene where the Monster beats up the school bully, and intelligent young readers will quickly pick up on what is really happening here.

But what truly brings this book to life are the extraordinary illustrations by Jim Kay, and I urge you to buy the version that contains them - I can't imagine why they have even bothered to publish it without them, but mine is not to reason why.

How's this for a visual representation of the fear of losing your mother?

The pictures, which often take up double pages, curl tendrils into the text and literally weave themselves around the words.  They are terrifying, comforting, astonishing... beautiful.

One word of warning though - for the last quarter of the book, you will need tissues!

The Childhood of Jesus

I'd never read a Coetzee - no, not even Disgrace - though I am very aware of the esteem in which he is held.  When I came across The Childhood of Jesus, I had heard nothing about it, but was drawn by both the cover, a rather threatening Edwardian photo (if that isn't an oxymoron) of a young woman and two young men with a vicious looking dog - it indicated E M Forster gone bad, transposed to the East End, adapted for the screen by Guy Ritchie - and the title, which is, having now read the book, even more intriguing.  Is the story a parable?  How is one supposed to interpret the action in the light of the title?  For there is no Jesus in the story.  There is a little boy, yes, a strange and unique little boy (or is he?  We are told he is by the adults who look after him, but other than the way he reacts to school life I'm not sure that he ever does actually come across as 'special' any more than in the sense that all parents think their own child is special).  Anyway, the title adds another layer of philosophical discourse to the novel, as though there weren't already enough within the story itself.

It is a tale without time or place - by which I mean it is outside time or place - and appears to be a step in the journey through existence;  I say existence rather than life because there is the possibility that Novilla is in some way an afterlife.  A man and boy - unrelated though travelling together, and each with a name they have recently been given - arrive on a bland, emotionless island that seems trapped in its own futility.  There is no progress here, on any terms, whether industry, relationship, thought... The pair are looking for the boy's mother, and eventually find a woman willing to take on the role.

I enjoyed The Childhood of Jesus, very much.  I must have been in the right frame of mind for it, because it is not the type of book I would normally read.  But it is written in a very precise style, sparing, consciously leaving gaps for questions, which fits perfectly with the subject matter itself.  The scene where they find La Residencia is overwelmingly reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, and is almost a dreamlike sequence in the heart of a prosaic world.

Does the book have a circular narrative?  It ends with our main characters heading off to find and begin a new life.  But isn't that the way it starts, as well?

Really, my only criticism is technical.  There is a certain confused use of the pronoun 'he', whereby I was not always sure which 'he' in the room was being referred to.  This may have been another conscious device on Coetzee's part, or it may have been bad editing, but having had exactly this issue with Wolf Hall, I'm tempted to say it is an onrunning problem with Booker Prize winners who write in present tense...

This isn't one for those looking for a nice, simple story - this is a book for those who want an enjoyable challenge, who want their minds to be pushed a little further than the average novel can take them.  However, it is quite short, it is surprisingly easy to follow, and, although it leaves you with a great many questions (and would therefore be good for book groups, but would need a structured discussion format), is actually a very satisfying read.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Many years ago, I read Alexandra Fuller's first book, Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight.  Her beautiful way with words stayed with me - I remember her descriptions of Africa's smells ("hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft.  It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass...") and how she contrasted that with her first visit to England: "...the damp wool sock of London-Heathrow."  I knew that here was a writer I wanted to follow, a writer whose playful use of language brought to life places and experiences I would probably never know for myself.  For example, I've wandered round southern Spanish cities in forty five degree heat, but Africa is something else entirely:

"It is so hot that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire.  The dogs are splayed out on the floor, wherever they can find bare cement, panting and creating wet pools with their dripping tongues.  Our throats are papered with the heat; we sip at cups of cold, milky tea just enough to make spit in our mouths.  The sky and air are so thick with wildfire smoke that we can’t see the hills, they are distant, gauzy shapes, the same colour as the haze, only denser.  The colour is hot, yellow-grey, breathless, breathsucking colour.  Swollen clouds scrape purple, fat bellies on the tops of the surrounding hills.”

So, I was quite excited to finally get round to her second family biography, the magically named Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.  It does not disappoint.  Her mother - the central figure - is a wonderfully three dimensional woman (nevertheless of a type), whose strength in the face of adversity that soon tips over into horror is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

This tidy little book is funny, terrifying and intelligently told; above all, it is true.  Fuller weaves just the right amount of history into her personal tale that someone as hopelessly ignorant as myself about the arrival of the Afrikaner farmers in S.A. and the origins of the Mau Mau uprising is able to comprehend the situations her parents found themselves in, trying to raise a young family on their own little piece of a continent they love.

If it wasn't a place built on so much violence, and so deeply soaked in the blood of tribal hatred, I would be packing a carpet bag and taking my own Le Creuset pots to Africa right now.  But I couldn't face what Nicola and Tim Fuller did, not for all the beauty of the Zambezi Valley or the stillness of "leopard-watched" nights.  What Alexandra Fuller does, though, is make me feel I might have been there in some dream or past life, so vivid does that red soil become on reading her books.  And for someone who never gets to travel as much as she wishes she could, that is the very best thing a book can do.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Judging Dr Zhivago by its Cover

I'm currently reading Pasternak's wonderwork, and thoroughly loving it.  As with so many modern classics, it's had its fair share of cover designs.  Here are a few - which do you like best and why?

First up, the one you find reduced in places that shouldn't really sell books, like HMV.  It's an ok cover, does what it needs to, and I quite like the fact that it focuses on the war aspect rather than the love story.  I also like the colours - it brings out the historical side, the 'Reds vs Whites'.  The cynical me, however, thinks maybe this is the boys' cover?

Next up, the version I have.  Simple, modern, computer created, part of the Vintage series, into which it fits nicely.  I have to admit I like the simplicity of this design.

I find this next one rather bland.  I can't say I'd even notice it on a table of 3 for 2s.  It tells me very little about the type of book this is, except that it's probably hard going yet worthy.

This fourth is my personal favourite.  It's been carefully and thoughtfully created, and speaks to me of the Russian Constructivist movement.  As well as being eyecatching, it tells me this book is political, important.  The face - presumably Lara - is taken straight from propagandist architecture of the Stalin period; this is Russian all over, and I love it.

I like the sixties-ness of the next one, although it hints at content of a Middle-Eastern flavour rather than Russian.  The colours are also interesting - browns are the one pallet I would not have associated with Dr Zhivago.

And finally, this wonderfully hideous pulp seventies design.  Clearly meant to evoke the David Lean film without paying for the rights to images of Omar Sharif et al, it manages to turn a novel of profound social importance into Mills and Boon style trash.  Kitsch, or just sinful?

Ethan Frome

Every winter, the list of snow-set books that I haven't read yet diminishes; this is fairly self evident, as the more I read, the fewer there are to read.  Ethan Frome has long been on the list, but is no more, as I made it my first read of 2013.

It has immediately entered my Top Ten classics with a bullet.  What a beautiful, heartrending little story!  It is, simply, the tale of  a love affair that cannot be, set deep in a turn of the century Massachusetts winter.  It's a gorgeous snowglobe of a tale, perfectly self-contained, with an impending air of tragedy from the very beginning.  Wharton draws her main characters so thoroughly and subtley that once met, they will never leave you.  Even now, my stomach lurches as I think of poor Mattie, and of the unecessary horror that is the way Ethan's life turns out, and I have an overwelming urge to re-write the ending!

I would recommend taking the few evenings it needs to read this novella - it is truly one that will enrich your life.