Friday, November 07, 2014

#6 The Wall Between Us: Notes from the Holy Land by Matthew Small

My soon-to-be-husband had been working in South Africa before I met him in 1982. The apartheid laws were in full swing and he recounted how a black man had stepped off the pavement into the road to let him pass.

I had no conception of this and then … ‘The only time I’d do that,’ I said, ‘was if Millwall were playing Portsmouth and I’d gone to watch the match.'

It was a ‘aha’ moment for us. Apartheid for black people was like rampaging Millwall fans to a couple of Isle of Wighters on the mainland for a football match. That fear, that requirement to do anything for self preservation, that sinking awful feeling that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time - apartheid.

We got it. We got the whole thing - why apartheid was bad, why we needed to do something about it and exactly what it was like to experience that kind of treatment. And we got one other thing: that we had only experienced intermittent discrimination and fear in circumstances over which we had full control and complete choice. We understood our privilege and the requirement that we do something about the lack of privilege elsewhere.

And the point of this story? While Matthew Small’s book is slight, it contains several of those moment where he is able to reveal the nature of Occupation to us. Over and again he shows the practical results of Occupation - the loss of income and dignity for Palestinians, the fear and ignorance of the Israeli settlers in the Occupied zone, many of whom are themselves resettling from other parts of the world and who require the benefits and ‘bonuses’ on offer as a result of agreeing to live in the ‘danger zone’. Pioneer mentality is dangerous for both sides.

As part of his journey through the territory, both physical and mental, of the Wall, Small recounts the comments of a young Israeli woman who is travelling with a group to help Palestinians harvest their olives. Of her experience working with Palestinian farmers she says, ‘I was standing there, in the middle of the olive grove and myself who am I supposed to be afraid of? Is it the Palestinians or the settlers? I know I’m meant to be afraid, but don’t know of whom.’ This installing of fear as part of the process of making people ‘other’ is a crucial step in institutionalising violence and deprivation, on both sides.

I can’t exactly describe this as an enjoyable book, but it’s definitely worth reading …

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Review #5 - Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

There are few trilogies more uneven, more challenging and frustrating than the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake.  Three books, clearly linked by a single character, but as different in nature and tone as chalk from cheese from Chablis, this massive master-work has suffered, in part, from the demands it makes on its readers, and that may be why the third book in particular, Titus Alone, has become a neglected final (but not ultimate) part of the three. Oh, and in my view the three are: Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone. Boy In Darkness and Titus Awakes are ‘flyers’, attempts to explore and extend the narrative line in a variety of directions, the chosen one of which led Peake to Titus Alone. This is a contested view, with several people considering that there are four books in the series, not three, but my version makes sense to me so I shall stick with it.

In a very classic and much pastiched fashion, the book opens with the birth of its hero, Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast. From that point the reader is taken on a bewildering and very non-classic journey through the habits and mental confusion of many of the castle’s inhabitants, from the misanthropic and solitary Lord Sepulchrave, to Titus’s sister Fuchsia; borderline autistic (as we would now say) sensitive, brave and yet terrified of life, clinging to childhood and seeking the love of an absent father, on to hideous and yet utterly believable kitchen denizens - domestics with limited power that they wield with absolute ferocity and total brutality. 

This is by no means Gothic writing, although it has its Gothic elements, partly because Peake chooses to descend, at times, to the hilariously bathetic and at others becomes rhapsodic, but not about the classic themes of nature and love, rather about the interiosities of some of Peake’s characters, the obsessive Rottcodd who dusts statues, Countess Gertrude, Titus’s mother and her somewhat absent-minded love of cats and birds, and Keda, whose desires for a ‘normal’ life lead her to, and from the Castle where she serves as Titus’s wet nurse and in the end, lead her to despair. 

Peake is a profoundly powerful writer - he refuses to offer any simplicity in the narrative line and changes points of view and even moral standpoints whenever he chooses; sometimes his antihero Steerpike is manipulative and cruel, at others noble and heroic. He was also a talented artist and some of the strongest parts of his work are the intense portraits of his characters that accompany many editions. 

One of the great strengths of Titus Groan is this refusal to do more than delineate - Peake offers pictures of his characters that are clear, complex and coherent but not likeable or predictable. The reader is required to form an opinion on each person introduced, and then to change that opinion in light of later events - not so much unreliable narrator as unreliable narration! Above all, this sweeping, grotesque and monumental story amplifies normal characteristics so that we recognise the cooing kitchen bully, the emotionally absent father, the sulky teenage girl but see them emblematically large, like the castle itself. Our very familiarity with the details of these personalities makes what they do, and what happens to them, increasingly uncomfortable for the reader.


Darkness seeps into every part of Titus Groan, and by the end of this book were are pretty well in darkness - but it’s been an exciting journey and the reader feels they’ve experienced something completely new.  Even today, this novel, originally published in 1946, has an astonishing scope.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Book review #4 Millennium by John Varley, multiple editions

Multiple spoiler alert - just don't read on if you plan to read this book yourself. And I would recommend that you do - it's a good read.

Some science fiction stands the test of time. Some doesn’t. I remember reading Millennium in 1985, two years after it was published, and being blown away by some of the concepts. To whit: the multiple nuclear wars that left Earth devastated and humanity nothing more than a collection of genetically mutilated and environmentally compromised wrecks. The fact that those wrecks largely chose to fill their short lives with unstinting and pointless pleasure before their early deaths as a result of their many physiological defects. The dazzling concept of using time travel to ‘rescue’ people who are about to die in train crashes, shipwrecks or - significantly in this novel - plane crashes. They are pretty well shrink wrapped and fast frozen against a plan to rebuild the human race elsewhere in space and time. For forensic integrity their physical beings are replaced by ‘living dead’ - humans from the 50th century whose birth defects led to them being in a persistent vegetative state and who are then engineered to resemble the ‘dead’ person they will replace.

All this requires split second timing, of course. Not just on the part of the tiny minority of humans who take part in the snatches that bring healthy humans to the far future, but on the part of the novelist, who holds every paradox and timeline in (in this case) his hands. Multi-voice narrative helps maintain the omniscient viewpoint of this concept, whilst setting part of the novel in 1955 gives it a powerful multi-time frame. 

Sadly, the narrative hasn’t stood the test in one way - it’s hard for a modern reader not to see terrorism as the major threat to air travel. The reactions of the passengers on doomed aircraft just don’t ring true to us, because the future that Varley couldn’t imagine in 1983 is our present day - and it includes the fear that any aircraft may be hijacked or shot down in one of the world’s very many conflicts. Of course, that fear does make the 'many multiple nuclear wars' perspective more believable …

Apparently this was made into a film. The reason I mention this - as I never see films made from books I like - is that my copy is the Sphere Books edition with a silver cover that is utterly unphotographable. Really it is. I assume metallic covers must have been the dog's bollocks back in the day. So I have found a creative commons photo of the DVD cover instead. Nice tagline. Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson starred. I wonder what happened to Cheryl Ladd? 

Perhaps this is one of those books you can’t read very often. Varley is fond of the ‘big reveal’ but I’d say it doesn’t work quite as well in this novel as in some of his others. The reveal is big, none bigger in fact, and that may be what flattens the novel on subsequent readings - you just can’t not know what’s coming.

It is a brilliant sf concept though, and deftly handled too. I’m a fan of Varley’s female characters - many people find them difficult, and I’m all for that - they are often complex, demanding, frequently aggressive in pursuit of their beliefs, and sometimes outright violent. They also tend to have a lot of sex. For all those reasons I like Louise Baltimore, one of his protagonists, very much indeed. 

For that reason it made the cut when my 6,000 books got reduce to 600. For that reason it still gets re-read every couple of years but … truth to tell, I don’t always read the ending these days!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review #3: High and Inside by Russell Rowland published by Bangtail Press

This is an interesting week to be reviewing a book about alcoholism. The death of Robin Williams is in the news, but even more, in the world I move in, the idea that this happens to people is a present, maybe even an omnipresent, obsession. Creative people know that they have chosen a community on the edge, and that they may never know how close they’ve got to the edge until they fall off it, or find themselves clinging by their fingertips to whatever they’ve got left of their sanity - or their reason to live.

Robin Williams lost something: his reason, his need, his ability to fill the void for which there is never enough of anything - never enough fame, money, sex, love, drugs, booze, acclaim, awards, work, challenges …. never enough for the moment you find yourself standing, looking in the mirror, and wondering, is this all there is?

So, re-reading Russell Rowland’s High and Inside has been a timely examination of what it takes to answer that question. While his protagonist, Pete Hurley, is not a creative but an athlete, he is gifted, and his gift brings him fame, success (winning the World Series) and adulation - and one extraordinary pitch that ends his career. His name, rather than being associated with the success of the Red Sox, becomes synonymous with a punitive ruling leading to game bans for foul pitches that injure batters. Also interesting, because at least here in the UK, a Suarez is now any kind of a bite … perhaps not the fame that Luis Suarez was seeking! 

This real life parallel is not the only glimpse that Rowland offers us of the way that individuals become consumed by their need to win. As Hurley spirals down into an ever smaller life, in which he injures everybody and everything around him, both deliberately and inadvertently, he has an ever greater need to deny that the problem is his. Finally, unwilling to face his own behaviour and unable to avoid the evidence of his appalling actions, he heads for Montana where his sister and her family live, his three-legged dog (her disfigurement is just one consequence of his drinking) in tow and his life in fragments.

What follows, without including spoilers, is less a story of redemption than it is a perspective of what it takes for an alcoholic to find a rock bottom that can lead to recovery. It’s an account of the intensity with which alcohol can distort reality and the ways in which an alcoholic can invest in their drinking, regardless of the effect on those around them and eventually, on their ability to retain any control of their lives. 

Hurley, believing he’s starting a new life, finds his old one waiting for him in the prejudices he experiences, the uses he makes of people and the disdain with which treats anybody who tries to show him the mistakes he is repeatedly making. He plans to build a house, although he has no training, no skills and  - it turns out - an ability to infuriate and alienate the very people he needs to help him. 

By the end of the book Hurley has accepted sobriety and discovered that most of what he’s believed about life is questionable. It seems he may not have had the childhood he remembers, nor ever understood the motivations of those around him. His use of alcohol has blinded him, not just to his own faults, but to the actions and reactions of everybody he's been close to. He’s been obtuse, arrogant and self-involved as well as talented and driven. It’s only a beginning, like the foundations of his house, but his potential, once based on a natural talent, is now grounded in commitment to self-understanding and the acceptance that he will never be able to drink again. 

For those contemplating what could cause a man like Robin Williams to take his life, Rowland’s novel is a valuable exploration of the role of sobriety - not a goal to be achieved but a skill that must be maintained daily, even on days when maintenance doesn’t seem necessary or even desirable - it’s a relentless exercise that is most required when the individual feels least like undertaking it and it’s exhausting even to the strong-willed and well-placed. For those who strive to understand alcoholism in someone they know, this novel offers something else, a clue as to why talent, looks, success, love … are not enough for the alcoholic. It brings some insight into why these attributes can actually fuel, rather than dampen, the desire to drink and it explains why a crisis is usually necessary for an alcoholic to get sober. Finally, it highlights the sombre truth that those who get sober don’t always stay there, and while it ends with Pete Hurly launched into sobriety with high hopes of his future, it counterpoints that ending with a reminder that most of the work is still ahead of him, and that work is arduous and never-ending.

Montana is almost as much a character in this novel as Hurley - and like the journey he makes, it’s a hard but worthwhile territory to explore. In both its scenery and its people it has by turns a bruising and healing effect on Hurley, leaving him alternately battered and elated by his experiences of land and locals. 

I know nothing about baseball, and whatever knowledge I have of alcoholics is second hand. Talent I do know about, and the use and misuse of talent is something no creative person can fail to understand, both as part of themselves and as a component of their chose vocation. This novel is about what happens when talent is not enough, and in this case, talent is allied to alcoholism, as is so often the case. 

It’s a finely written testament to the nature of recovery and what precedes it, and its characters: Dave the dog, Hurley himself, his conflicted sister and the woman with whom he develops a relationship are real, rounded and worthy of compassion and understanding.