Sunday, February 01, 2015

#11 The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

A reader recently compared my writing in Gatekeeper to Kingsolver’s. My agent was thrilled (what agent wouldn’t be?) while I am less convinced. I think it’s subject matter (Prodigal Summer) that prompted that linkage, rather than anything else. What strikes me most about Kingsolver’s work is the warmth - many characters start out less than appealing and win us over through their humanity; foibles and frailties becoming intrinsically attractive as we invest in them through the hints and glimpses she gives, that add up to rounded individuals with multi-faceted lives.  

So what she attempts in The Lacuna is almost a reversal of her highly successful and acclaimed writing style. She shows us Harrison Shepherd much more though the lacunae - the gaps - than in his own words and his own facets. In fact one of those is honoured only in the breach; whilst Shepherd is homosexual, we see nothing of his sex life and only a little of his (largely disappointed) romantic impulses.

Instead the novel casts light by its shadows - as one of Diego Rivera’s crew he watches the muralist create, as Frida Kahlo’s cook he watches her machinate, as Trotsky’s secretary he watches him die, as America’s interpreter of Mexico he watches McCarthyism destroy the international nation in favour of an Anti-Red witch-hunt.

What makes this book special? There’s a meta-level that is profoundly relevant. Whilst Shepherd is largely absent from the pages (the Mexican section is narrated by him, much else is reported by others) it’s very clear that this young man who is curious but non-judgemental, ill-educated but well informed, largely invisible but indispensable, represents not only himself but the choices we all get to make. He is one version of America’s history - the version that did not implode on the fear of Communism. For each of us, now, similar choices are possible - the threat of terrorism can send us scurrying or we can face the reality of a globalised world without demonising the parts we find frightening. Kingsolver is prescient about the role of press and propaganda - published in 2009, the rumour and misreporting, scares and terror tactics of so-called Islamic State look very much like some of the claims and counter-claims made for, by and about Communism from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Below the meta-level Shepherd is a charming, shy and self-effacing character, but not a weak one. He is reserved rather than cowardly, he thinks for himself and learns from others, his loyalties are earned, his requirements few, his sufferings many. Through him we see much of history differently - Frido Kahlo, in particular is a masterpiece in miniature (pun intended), springing alive from the page in a manner as vivid as any of her paintings and as fully rounded as a bowling ball spinning along a dining table, sending the place settings and wine glasses flying. A devastating, unpredictable and somewhat ferocious human (and artist), she’s rendered so brilliantly by Kingsolver that I doubt a single reader won’t go to investigate her work again. I certainly did.

It’s a big book, treating of big themes. Having taken my (paperback) copy away with me, I can report it’s .48 of a kilo in weight and a three day read for somebody who’s usually a book-a-day reader (and one of my three days was a flight day with three hours of check-in and three flight hours!) and I’m happy with the investment I made; it’s a book, like all of Kingsolver’s, that will resonate for long after the reading. Highly recommended for those who are currently enjoying historical fiction, similar in scope and complexity to Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and vividly creating a landscape of a period that is almost contemporary but looks oddly distant. 

A final note; my copy has the cover shown - it's as profoundly factless as many of the news reports (some of them genuine artefacts) that are contained in the book. I'm not sure if this is deliberately provocative marketing or the all too common failure of a marketing department to engage with a book's contents but there is no cliff diving in this novel that I can recall ...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

#10 Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman

As I was working on this review, I took a break to share a YouTube video of Lars Andersen demolishing Hollywood archery myths. I love that kind of thing - the nerd in me is enchanted by primary research, by monastic dedication to debunking falsehood and destroying comfort zones. I love ‘guy' things like pull ups and archery and killing, cleaning and cooking prey (although I can only do one of those things (I’ll let you guess which). And I also love ballet and embroidery and extreme hairstyling (although only one of those things is possible for me too).

Literature contains those same extremes. I know I’m not the only person who felt sad to reach the last page of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Great Safety - but I might be the only one who thought the book could have been longer! By contradiction, I also love extraordinary brevity and ellipticism, which is why, when I learned that Zoetrope contemporary and fellow writer Avital Gad Cykman had a flash fiction collection out, I ordered a copy.

Life In, Life Out is a brief and punchy collection, described as ‘spirited’ on the cover. I’d say that understates the case, ‘possessed’ could be as accurate. Gad-Cykman’s protagonists mutate, escape, destroy and undermine. Her settings dissolve, collapse, burn and transmute. Emotions tumble, implode and shape-shift like desert mirages. Nothing can be trusted. Events make demands, but once those demands are met their nature changes. One of my favourite sentences from the collection involves the behaviour of some kind of weevil (or maybe demon) horde that infests the foodstuffs in a larder. “They appeared here and there, as if calling for our fists to come down on them, which we did with the righteousness of a stoned surfer catching his nightmare policeman smoking dope.”

Tricked, inveigled or exasperated into reaction, Gad-Cykman’s characters then discover that the scenery blurs, the dialogue changes and some kind of abandonment results. The recurring theme, for me, is the inevitable aloneness of those who try to make things happen, which is balanced by the chosen isolation of those who chose not to. It doesn’t seem to matter which course is taken, in this world of tightly-compressed stories, everybody loses something.

It’s not depressing though - the small, condensed worlds that are left barren by events still throb with colour and incident. Stark weather illuminates their emptied stages and remaining observers are struck by the rich mystery of what remains.

Whilst flash fiction of this nature eludes me as a writer, I adore it as a reader. Tiny mosaic words, punched together in bright, pitiless narratives, pile up in this book like a collection of beaded amulets that serve to protect from nothing because in the very act of reading a sense of hopeless resignation to a harsh world infiltrates the reader, flash by flash. Gad-Cykman celebrates the power of betrayal - by others, of dreams, by and of life itself and lays out the brilliance of what is gained - the clarity of seeing what is left when illusions are gone.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review #9 The Dark Valley by Valerio Varesi

I’m somewhat a fan of literature set in Italy (as opposed to Italian writers writing about their own country) as in, for example Michael Dibden and Charles Lambert. In fact, my own newly released novel, Gatekeeper, is set partly in Rome, so any book set in the country is likely to interest me.

I’m also a fan of Italian writing, Italo Calvino in particular. So finding a copy of Varesi’s The Dark Valley in my recent haul of books, I set to.  My reading was much enhanced by a box of hand-made chocolates - between Christmas and New Year, indulgences are in order!

The first thing to say is that while this is a police procedural, the protagonist Commissario Soneri is on holiday and determined to remain out of the fray of the missing person case that is in full swing when he arrives in Montelupo - the hilly Northern region in which he was born. He just wants to relax, hunt for mushrooms and nostalge, to coin a verb. His girlfriend has been smart enough to opt out of this particular break so, isolated, melancholy and pragmatic, he walks the wooded hills, seeking mushrooms and finding instead an intense focus on the missing man Paride Rodolfi,  citified son of the local magnate. In short order the local magnate, Palmiro Rodolfi, is found hanged, and the family business goes belly up. Still Soneri observes rather than engaging and this is his route throughout the novel … distant, discerning and somewhat saddened by everything he discovers. Those discoveries will include, of course, a death. In fact deaths begin to happen quite rapidly and a full scale and literal man-hunt is the high point of the narrative.

Of course Varesi has to keep his protagonist in the thick of things, so a series of incidents occurs,  based around a dog that has adopted him rather than remaining with its titular owners, the Rodolfis, one of whom is missing, one dead. Ownership, loyalty and possession are key to this claustrophobic story which reaches back into the fascist era and reveals that heroes have unheroic pasts, whilst most of the villagers seem to have had unrealistic expectations of the Rudolfis and their money making skills.

It’s brooding rather than pacy and deep rather than wide; the stage is all verticals from tall walls to challenging slopes and most of the action takes place whilst Soneri is tramping up or down through dank woodlands and icy ravines. For those who like the melancholic, it’s an interesting read, but fans of light detective fiction will not find the repartee or cosy backstories that characterise Reginald Hill or the gritty speed that is a hallmark of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.  It’s an acquired taste, rather like the ‘death trumpets’ that Soneri finds on one of his walks, which are rejected by all the villagers as not being worth eating. While I enjoyed this novel, I would probably have benefited from reading the first book in the series, but as a stand-alone it works well enough and for those who like their detective fiction deep and somewhat morose, it’s quietly satisfying.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

#8 As You Wish by Cary Elwes

When I was a child I would wake up on Christmas morning, unwrap my Christmas stocking like an anteater attacking an anthill and when that was done, locate the Toblerone bar (just one, and not a family size one either) and whichever Biggles book had been delivered that year. It was an indulgence that shaped my life. Thank God for parents who didn’t buy books based on gender - I got my first Sci-Fi age seven or eight too, and between war aces and robots I had absolutely no idea I wasn’t supposed to read, and write, whatever the f*** I wanted.

This year it was a box of hand-made chocolates and As You Wish by Cary Elwes and I waited until Christmas night to indulge in both - my tastes have definitely refined, although I can’t say they’ve elevated, because I see nothing wrong with Biggles (the racism and sexism are simply reflections of the period and didn’t influence me) or Toblerone for breakfast once a year.

Like just about everybody I’ve ever spoken to, I first saw The Princess Bride on video. It’s an odd story - we lived near another yuppie couple; she ran a branch of MacDonald’s, he ran a branch of Blockbuster, I was running a small charity, Tony was managing a team of mystery shoppers… Looking back we were probably all quite vile. We had a small child, they had a tiny baby. We all worked ridiculous hours to pay for minuscule houses in South London. He introduced us to The Princess Bride. Nothing odd about that, you may say. He though, turned out to be a fabulist. He ended up robbing the charity shop he was running (a long story) and skipping out on wife and child (a longer story) and ending up in prison (a story I don’t fully know). Still, he introduced us to The Princess Bride. 

It became one of those films we watched when one of us was ill, when none of us could agree on what to watch and on those days when it was necessary NOT to watch The Wizard of Oz or the Only Fools And Horses Christmas Special ever again. Yes, we can do all the dialogue. 

Cary Elwes' book can be read at a single sitting. I did it, even with constant digressions to the Internet to fact-check (Samuel Beckett, Christopher Guest and Norman Lear just three investigations I had to conduct). It is reminiscent of David Niven’s charming books The Moon’s A Ballon and Bring On The Empty Horses. Elwes makes no secret of having a collaborator (which pleases me, as most celebrities won’t share the credit for their best sellers) and as a result the book is an honest and well-crafted account of the filming of a cult classic. Elwes himself comes across as charming, gifted and wholly in love with his industry; he’s a typical film nerd, but in this case a film nerd who actually starred in the film. 

Call-out boxes with side views on the history of the film from others involved make this a rounded account of film production (for a polemic on film production, read William Goldman’s own work - it’s scathing) and for those who adore Westley, Inigo, Fezzik and the cast of villains there will be some nugget that delights. 

There is no reason to 'get used to disappointment' - as a Christmas indulgence it's wonderful, as a loving homage to a much loved film, it's perfectly judged and for those who love The Princess Bride it's a must have.