Read #129

Woof. Where to start with this? Well perhaps with a word of thanks to a good friend who told me several times that this is her favourite novel – how she read it in one sitting. It is really very good.

First published in 1989 – this newer edition has a foreword from the estimable Robert McFarlane, who is clearly a huge fan – “surely the best novel about rock-climbing ever written – though such a description drastically limits its achievement” – it is a novel that had passed me by and probably would have remained unknown to me had it not been for a combination of the friendly enthusiasm and the enjoyment I got from reading his most recent novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, which I read last year after it had rightly won awards.

I should say from the off that you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy this – it is about people, friendships, how they grow and develop and interact, in some cases grow apart and in one or two cases, how they die and how those left behind cope with that: human life basically. There are some bits and pieces of climbing speak or knowledge that those much better qualified than me might have an opinion on – not being in that camp, they are lost on me.

Told through the voice / eyes of Mike, who coming out of a messy divorce, makes the acquaintance of this bunch of irregulars who more or less give all of their spare time to their obsession; travelling about the country – Peak District, Wales, and a few spots in Yorkshire – pushing themselves to makes climbs they thought were beyond them, swapping stories of how they got lost / got stuck, or how someone else did, as they sit huddled over steaming mugs of tea or pints of ‘traditional’ bitter in the back rooms of pubs. Individuals move in and out of the orbit of the story, some drop out for months and are only heard of again third-hand. Some of them find holding down jobs and / or relationships quite a challenge, when their foremost consideration is how to get to the next climb early the following morning – something that often involves a long overnight drive or sleeping in the van in a lay-by. There is an almost unspoken but understood need for escape, or perhaps risk, deep within each of these people.

But there is no epiphany, no revelation for Mike – or any of us – towards the end of the novel he reflects that he knows no more now than he did a year ago. There is an undefinable core to the novel – something about bleakness, distance, an existential aloneness that isn’t necessarily uncomfortable but is unavoidable.

Harrison’s writing is lucid, his characters speak in a natural way. It is humane, accessible and thoroughly absorbing.

Read #128

Reading this Murakami novel was quite a Murakami-esque experience: asked by a friend, who shares a love of the writer’s novels, if I had heard of this one that he found in a second hand shop…I answered “no” and he leant it to me once he had finished with it. I read the blurb and the first 60 or 70 pages before I realised that I had read it before, but that I could not remember anything about it. Which is distinctly odd for a Murakami novel, they are generally memorably weird, inhabiting their own slightly off-kilter universe.

All of which sort of says everything and nothing about the book: given who the author is, it is better than most other novels out there, but, it is not one of his best. It is in fact quite unmemorable, while not at all being a remotely bad read. It just passes through without leaving any residue. Nothing to show it was here.

The titular Tazaki is in his mid-30s, living a modestly successful life as an engineer in Tokyo, who specialises in building railway stations. It is all he has ever wanted to do. He has just started a new relationship. He lives in an apartment that was left to him when his dad died – he was a moderately successful estate agent. The main conflict in Tazaki’s life stems from an incident 15 years ago, when he was part of a 5-strong school gang. The others suddenly cut him off when he left their home town to go to University. There has never been an explanation for this. His new girlfriend Sara, convinces him that he must track them down, and speak with them to get an understanding of what happened, what their reasons were and perhaps he can then get on with the rest of his life. This quest, amongst other more mundane episodes, takes him to Finland.

There is nothing wrong with this book. It is enjoyable and well-written. And if you were to ask me in five years if I had ever read it, I would probably say no.

Poetry Read #10

A slim volume in four parts published on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, it contains: an excerpt from the Saville report (24 March 2010); the poem; an excerpt from the statement made by then PM David Cameron, to the House of Commons, which took the form of an apology; and lastly, an afterword by Thomas Kinsella.

It is worth starting with the afterword. In this Kinsella explains that this poem – all 10 pages of it – was not written as a response to the events of Bloody Sunday (30 Jan 1972), but to the shameless whitewash that was The Report of the Widgery Tribunal (April 1972) “a cold putting aside of the truth“. Kinsella goes on to say that he would not write the same poem now, but that this was the product, one week later, of his anger, “One…chose the doggerel route, and charged…” He finishes by noting that this poem had the long term effect of the loss of friendships and the rejection of his work by English readers.

It is a righteously furious poem; it scorches through its anger and burns itself out in relatively short order, but it leaves such a burn on the retina and the mind.

Written as if some spirit guide is taking us through the aftermath, stopping to talk with each of the 13 slain – the “Butcher’s Dozen” of the title – “Here lies one in blood and bones / Who lost his life for throwing stones.”

“Into an armoured car they piled us / Where our mingled blood defiled us. / Certain, if not dead before / To suffocate upon the floor. / Careful bullets in our back…

Careful bullets.

The news is out. The troops were kind. / Impartial justice has to find.

A trooper did it, on one knee, / In tones of brute authority.

There is discussion of colonialism and the failure of Britain to face-up to and deal with its brutal history, “If England would but clear the air / And brood at home on her disgrace

Kinsella describes it as doggerel; I describe it as essential.

Read #127

I have read 5 or 6 of Myers’ novels and I really, really like them, except this one. This seemed laboured, workaday. It follows on – after a fashion – from Turning Blue, which I did like.

The trouble is it takes 150 pages to take off. If I hadn’t read so much of his other work and been so convinced of his qualities as a writer, I would probably have packed this one in before I got to that point.

Like Turning Blue it is a Yorkshire noir – as in a thriller / police procedural with viciously attacked women, and coppers of varying degrees of competence and / or interest and a dogged journalist making the real headway in the case. There are strange, introverted hill-dwellers, people from isolated farmhouses with “their own ways”, there is a lot of rain, and people in the small town – Hebden Bridge – nestled tight in a steep valley going about their lives, who speak of a particular type of local madness that comes over folk not used to the place, who stay here too long, owing to the reduced amount of sunlight.

For what it is, a page-turning thriller, it is readable and does its job. The gripe is that Myers is capable of much better, as just about every one of his other books proves.

Read #126

(translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz)

“…never again would it be so beautiful.

Dagerman was a Swedish writer, primarily active in the 1940s and early 1950s. He took his own life in 1954 aged 31. To give a sense of where his works sit, he is usually mentioned alongside Kafka, Faulkner and Camus. The quote “life is only a postponed suicide“, might explain why.

It begins: “A wife is to be buried at two o’clock, and at eleven-thirty the husband is standing in the kitchen in front of the cracked mirror above the sink. He hasn’t cried much, but he has lain long awake and the whites of his eyes are red.” The opening paragraph is long…and talks about his putting on a white shirt while his youngest sister – “the beautiful sister” – fixes his collar. The paragraph closes: “He furtively strokes her hand. The beautiful sister is the sister he adores. For he adores anything beautiful. The wife was ugly and sick. Which is why he has not been crying.

The husband is Knut, the story is mainly told by his son Bengt, who is struggling with many things: the death of his mother; a so-so relationship with his girlfriend; and simmering anger directed at the woman who it quickly becomes apparent, was his father’s lover during the last couple of years of his mother’s life.

The language is taut, sparse; the book deals with loss, introspection, heartache and fury, as well as lust, an initially undiagnosed and later misdirected lust. There is a lot of nighttime walking the streets of Stockholm, as well as some time in the woods and waters around the thousands of islands off Stockholm, where the family have a holiday cottage. There are shadows, long silences, glances exchanged – all in all a very 1940s film noir suspense. The book has an interesting structure: a ‘regular’ chapter, followed by a “letter” from Bengt to someone, sometimes himself, repeated several times.

The book requires attention, it is not a light read, but when you do this, you get your reward:

“What binds her and what binds him, too, is the beauty of the moment. Nothing is ever as beautiful as the first isolated minutes with someone who might be able to love you – with someone you yourself might be able to love. There is nothing as silent as these minutes, nothing so saturated with sweet anticipation. It is for these few minutes that we love, not for the many that follow. Never again, they realise, would anything so beautiful ever happen to them. They might be happier, more impassioned, and infinitely satiated with their own bodies and with each other’s. But never again would it be so beautiful.

Dagerman is an interesting writer, if a challenging one, sometimes. The existential wrangling is the kind of thing that is less prominent in literature these days, when compared with the middle of the last century…but for some of us, this kind of thing is timeless.

Read #125

Cold Enough for Snow is going to be one of my novels of the year, it is only just April, but I am already sure of this. On finishing it, I started it straight over again. It will probably just be one of my favourite novels, full stop.

There is something familiar yet intangible about it. It is quiet, undemonstrative, peaceful, and in being so, it allows room: there is an overwhelming feeling of stillness at the centre of this book; like calmly holding your breath. It has a strangely undefinable quality which is utterly engaging. This quiet writing is saying a huge amount.

Ostensibly, a simple tale of a woman who takes her mum on holiday for a few days, to Japan: somewhere she visited once a few years before with her partner, but where her mum has never been. You have the feeling that mother and daughter have never really been close, and that this holiday is some attempt by the daughter to bring them closer. They travel in October, because the narrator forgot that this was the start of Typhoon season – there is a lot of rain. They visit some tourist sites, go shopping, have a couple of meals out, memories are evoked. Altogether unremarkable stuff…and yet.

It is really hard to shake the idea that this is a ghost story, or some kind of delusion on the part of the daughter. The reported interactions with her mum are so slight, so glancing. The conversations sound a little off-kilter, like two slightly separate conversations are being reported back one on top of the other. It is peculiarly destabilising for the reader.

The writing is beautiful – this passage is on the architecture and ambience of a small church they are visiting, which has a glass cross inserted in the wall of the building to allow the light in:

The effect was riveting, not unlike staring out at the daylight through the opening of a cave. And perhaps, I said to my mother, this too was what it had felt like to be in the earliest churches, when nature itself was still a force in the world, visceral and holy. I said also that the architect had originally intended the cross to be unsealed, so that air and weather would have gusted through the openings, like the will of god itself.

It is 94 generous, expansive pages and in a time when we are trying to find space to breathe, to find the opportunity to slow down and consider the world, this thin slice of sublime is highly recommended.

Read #124

Tequila Leila was a prostitute until she was murdered, her body found later in a dumpster. So far so staple-noir. In Shafak hand’s this moves into different territory – life-story, memoire, discussion of Turkish society’s attitudes to women, in particular the hypocrisy around sex-workers (which is not exclusive to Turkey).

The “10 minutes and 38 seconds” of the title relates apparently, to the longest time there has been recorded activity on the brain stem of an otherwise dead person…inviting us to reconsider what we understand by dead, or when death truly occurs.

Shafak uses this to sort back through Leila’s ‘memory files’ – going back to a rural childhood, where she she was the first child of the second wife of a villager – he having been allowed to marry for a second time because his first marriage had not produced any children. However, on being born, Leila was handed to the first wife to raise as her own. She got to call her natural mother her “aunt”. It was a confused and damaging upbringing.

Leila’s other memories include a close childhood friendship, an escape to Istanbul (always a “she-city” according to Shafak) and the life of a prostitute on the (in)famous “Street of Brothels”, and her five closest / only friends – Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humerya – all of whom have stories behind them and those names, which Shafak glories in recounting.

It is a profound, melancholy, heart-string-tugging novel and Shafak is a first-rate story-teller. It is one of those “lose yourself in their world” books. There are some tough sections, the lives portrayed have not been easy, but in the end it is about the love between Leila and her friends and their refusal to let her remains lie in the out of town Cemetery of the Companionless: a place used for the burial of those who die without family or friends to claim them, the homeless, the destitute or the unfortunate foreigner who dies in Istanbul and the family do not have the means to bring them home.

Poetry Read #9

File next to Rankine’s Citizen.

This book has been keeping me company for a month or so now: blistering, sad, righteous, goofy, loving, all-in-all just plain dazzling. Hayes is a young black American male, who occasionally claims to be a Time Lord, his poetry rounds that up and puts it slap bang, unignorably on the page.

Like no / Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants / Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.” (#32: the poems have no titles beyond their first line)

#37 – Discusses life, through other artworks – “Rilke ends his sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo saying / ‘You must change your life…'” before finishing: “I live a life / That burns a hole through life, that leaves a scar for life, / That makes me weep for another life. Define life.

The range of his references and subjects is broad, stunning, sometimes apparently difficult to corral into a coherence, but he pulls it off with elan: on facing pages 44 & 45, he discusses Black America’s use of “the N-word” and then wonders at the glory of the stories we have told ourselves through time, specifically The Aeneid and The Odyssey. This second poem thinks of the majesty, the beauty of these things, before finishing:

What if it were possible to make a noise so lovely / People would pay to hear it continuously for a century / Or so. Unbelievably, Miles Davis and John Coltrane / Standing within inches of each other didn’t explode.” I mean, yes!

As for the goofy… try this: “The umpteenth thump on the rump of a badunkadunk / Stumps us. The link, the chump, the hunk of plunder. / The umpteenth horny, honky stump speech pumps / A funky rumble over air.” It is of course about POTUS #45.

I don’t know that there is anything particularly sonnet-y about any of these poems, beyond being fourteen lines each: there seems to be no rhyme pattern and little metre. Not that this matters to me.

It is a glory. I can’t wait to read more by him.

Freedom Reads #120-3

I realise no one is actually affected, but I have let this go a little and in an effort to catch up:

Motherwell by Deborah Orr:

An interesting and engaging autobiography by Orr, who died a couple of years ago aged 57 from breast cancer. She had a typical and fiercely working class upbringing in the titular Scottish town. Her dad worked in and around Ravencraig steelworks while her mum was mainly a housewife / home-maker looking after Orr and her younger brother, and doing some part-time work. Orr seems to have spent most of her life in conflict with these archetypal Thatcherite workers, but also loving them fiercely because they were her parents: loving them in spite of their views. She went to university against their wishes – it ‘isn’t for the likes of us’, she lied to cover up her visit to the open day; she ‘brought shame on the family’ by having sex outside of marriage, and although some of this early sex was violent / rape more than once, she doesn’t seem to have received sympathy; they disagreed with her moving to London, indeed with her getting any kind of work – they expected her to get married, to move with the husband and be provided for, instead she became a successful journalist. The pun in the title is apt and well-worked, she appears not to think that her mother did.

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

A thin, enjoyable book, that reads exactly like the blokey way that Perry speaks – hence it is lovable. He makes some good, if sometimes unscientific or broadly sweeping statements about being a man, toxic masculinity, being comfortable “as yourself”. He is absolutely correct on the teenage / testosterone fuelled feelings of invincibility that can “present” as anger or rage. And he doesn’t try to hide his own drive to win in his chosen area of blokish endeavour – the BMX / mountain bike races that he cherishes. Personally, I take exception to the idea that I dress in an “unflamboyant” way because I am unsure or repressed about my sexuality – I just know that I look best in black. Where the book really hits the mark though, is simply in identifying the urgent, desperate need for men to talk more, because we are being damaged by ‘being men’ in our society at the moment: and that this damage often translates into damage to ourselves and / or others.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is the literary Attenborough of our times. He takes us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go and introduces new and fantastical things from the natural world to us in a calmly authoritative way…no one would dream of arguing with him. This book – recommended to me by several others, and I am grateful – is an episodic wander around various remote spots of the British Isles – Rannoch Moor, Orford Ness etc – culminating in his realisation that you don’t have to go to “wild places” to find “wildness”. In fact it fits so neatly into this episodic structure that it seems ready made for a TV series. Although I probably shouldn’t wish him back on to Ben Hope, where he almost froze. It is his fault that I now want to spend a year documenting Rannoch.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

This is a deeply impressive and current book. Akala is mixed heritage: Jamaican, English and Scots – the English bothers him a great deal more than either the Jamaican or Scots. He grew up in London and so has first hand experience of being non-white in face of England’s institutions and their racism whether overt or more opaque. He describes himself as a geeky kid – fascinated by Maths – but one who also played football to a decent level, and clearly one who knew his music. His tone is not hectoring, but he knows his stuff and has clearly read widely around his subject – it might well be that it is the kind of reading that a curious kid / young adult would do anyway as he was growing up and learning about the world around him. He has a good argument to back up most of his opinions, astutely tracing much of the current societal malaise back into our imperial history, and our absolute refusal to be honest with ourselves about it and its lingering stench. What most struck a chord with me was his position that racism in society (along with many other -isms) does not stand alone, but must be understood as part of an ongoing class struggle, and that it follows that the answer to these prejudicial behaviours lies in winning a class struggle.

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