Read #148

Richard Flanagan – The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Want a book that out-Murakamis Murakami? That just chucks surreal at you and moves on without batting an eyelid…That deals with despair, hopelessness and tops it off with more despair? Stopping along the way to bewail the destruction that man is reaping on the Earth. And is beautifully written.

This is the Christmas present you probably didn’t know yet that you wanted.

Anna’s mum Francie, is dying. For all the 280 pages or so of the book, she is in ICU or hospice care, slipping away inch by inch. Anna’s surviving siblings try to decide what is the best course of action, often not with the best of motives – they change their minds, but can’t reach consensus.

Meanwhile, bits of Anna disappear – they don’t drop off or rot, or get removed by purpose or accident – the next time she looks her ring finger has gone, or her knee, or her breast…and later an eye and what had been her son. There is no pain and no “phantom limb” feeling. These pieces of her anatomy just cease to exist – she describes it as her “silent leprosy“. Not everyone appears to notice, which is equally distressing to Anna. As you can imagine.

Terrifying, compelling, bizarre – just slightly off-centre, as the best things usually are. I have yet to read anything less than superb by Flanagan.

Read #147

“The Vikings in their time, did their marauding openly, but now it is considered the greatest courtesy to usurp public opinion with the help of daily newspapers and beguile poor people into taking sides against their own children. They shape public opinion by having abusive articles written about people who devote themselves to trying to ensure commoners’ children be provided with milk to drink, better housing and a decent upbringing. In the past, these same kinds of persons made a sport of catching infants on spearheads. Now they target the children’s parents to get them to cast votes against their offspring in politics… these capitalist assassins, have no other feelings than hatred of their fellow men for its own sake.

Salka Valka by Halldor Laxness: (translated by Philip Roughton)

At 550 pages this is not short, but it is extremely readable. Written in the period 1930-2, it seems to be comprised of two books pushed together – which is not at all a fault.

Salka Valka is the shortened version of the name of the main character, who is first seen at the age of 11, being put ashore with her single mum in the small northern Icelandic fishing village Oseryi in Axlarfjordur, when it became apparent that her mum could not afford the full fare all the way to Reykjavik. The first half of the book describes their scrambling attempts to find a foothold in work and society, amongst this tight-knit inward looking people. Their lives and fortunes mainly revolve around fishing, the different seasons of the fish trade, and the salting, storing and export of them. There is a stock paternalist/landlord character who oversees life in the village by means of his controlling the ledger of what is bought from his general store, the tick he allows to customers, balanced against the payment of their wages which all seem to go directly through his books: in short the village is always in debt to him. A family is deemed well off if they have furniture in their home. All travel around Iceland, if not on foot or horseback, seems to happen by boat, except on one rarified occasion when a dignitary flies in on a boat-plane, only to leave again in short order.

Mum becomes increasingly involved with The Salvation Army, which has recently pitched up in the village and is the cause of conflict with the traditional religious life of the village. Meanwhile Salka proves herself to be quite the engaging – and probably for the time, scandalous – centre of the book. As an 11 year old girl, she refuse to wear “girls’ clothes”, insisting instead on trousers and shirts like the boys; she says she wants to be a boy; and she is full of combativeness – she does not back down from physical fights. To a modern day readership this opens up PhD theses and all kinds of theories, it is difficult to imagine how it would have been received 90 years ago, in Iceland. All this is quite remarkable to have come from the pen of a young male author, in his 20s at the time of writing.

The second part of the novel sees Salka few years older, dealing with the death of her mother, first love, and the increasing political tensions within the village – there is a lot of talk of Socialism / Communism (labelled “Bolshies”, by local press and business owners) – Salka is responsible for setting up the first Trade Union amongst the fishermen. The tensions between this newly politically awakened class and the establish landlord / debt owner are set out well. Salka’s first love, comes from the group of young men bringing this political agitation to the village, a young man derided for his soft hands and lack of work experience as well as for having travelled abroad. Interestingly the women / girls like Salka, are shown as pretty much the equal of their male counterparts, in terms of working life, within their class – Salka was working from the age of 11, side by side with the other women of the village. When it came to domestic chores there was of course no such parity.

It is a hugely enjoyable read and one that must have seemed quite forward looking, if not radical, for its time.

Laxness was a hugely prolific author, translator, trainee monk (for a short while), interpreter of Icelandic sagas and essayist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – this novel is frequently referred to as his masterpiece.

Read #146

This is a shape-shifter of a book, that deals with “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland, where she was born – the child of Catholic and Protestant parents, who suffered a petrol bombing – and raised and where she has lived on and off in adulthood, as well as a book charting her struggles with her mental and physical health, and yet it is not a “heavy” book – that is not to say it is easy, or that it skirts issues, it doesn’t but the way she writes – which is engrossing, poetic and suffused with the natural world – is so heart-warming that you can’t help but feel uplifted: its not giving anything away to say that in the end I found this a book of hope, albeit set against the looming clouds of the damage that the Brexit situation and a lack of empathetic (or even grown-up) government might cause to the peace settlement.

There is a harmony with Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun in the way that some personal peace is found through an engagement with nature – an immersion in nature, given where she ends up, not to mention a love of outdoor swimming – after a lifetime of drifting / moving around the British Isles – Derry, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Bristol.

I have my own idea what those Thin Places are – I suspect that everyone will have their own – for me it is the type of North Atlantic coast, best described by Seamus Heaney in poems like Postscript:

And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October, when the wind / And the light are working off each other / So that the ocean on one side is wild / With foam and glitter, and inland among stones / The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit

Read #145

*spoiler alert: some plot revealing goes on*

I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me.

Belter of a first sentence, isn’t it?

He was a gluttonous man and when his blood came out it looked like the blood of a pig.

The second sentence keeps the pace up.

That’s a cruel thing to think, I know. He did it in a restaurant where I was having dinner with another man, another married man. Do you see how this is going? But I wasn’t always that way.

The remainder of the opening paragraph does not let you down.

This book crackles along in pretty much this vein for 390 pages. It is a quick read, and an easy read, despite the fact that the subject matter is at times disturbing. There is sex and violence – fairly obviously from the quotes above – infidelity, drug and drinking aplenty, a weirdly ineffective hostage-revenge period, and one of the most audacious and beautiful (?) miscarriage scenes.

There is a lot of internal monologue from Joan, the central character, who takes us back through her relationship history in a fairly hit and miss kind of way. Her voice is never dull. It slips around, is elusive and tricksy, sometimes unreliable, ‘economical with the truth’ as the phrase will have it, but never, never dull. And in a sense, never dishonest – she tells her history of herself, with nothing left out. It feels like a road-trip book.

It is not the same thing as her previous fact-based Three Women, but the connections between them are easy to see.

I loved it.

Read #144

Some form of loose autobiography, this is one of the warmest books I’ve read in years: it just left me so much happier than when I started reading it – one of the few books I was genuinely saddened to finish.

Derek Jarman was a film maker, painter, set / stage designer, writer, provocateur, campaigner, openly (and unapologetically) gay man, who became one of the first public figures to declare his HIV+ status. He died from complications around HIV in 1994, aged 52. I say “unapologetically” because his refusal to try and hide either his sexuality, his practices or his illness, very much marked him out for public abuse back in the 1970s / 80s / 90s.

One of his responses to receiving his diagnosis was to buy an old cottage on Dungeness – a very peculiar spit of land off the south coast of Kent, which is technically Britain’s only desert – in the shadow of a nuclear power station. The central conceit of the book is to describe Jarman’s “rescuing” this cottage from decrepitude and establishing a garden there, in this most hostile environment: paragraphs are simply lists of plants he is trying to grow there, plants he has seen on his walks, plants he wants to grow there: he wonders at the wildlife; talks about the elements, the inescapable sea.

For most of its duration the book has three themes: the cottage / garden and his work on it; his life as a very active gay man – cruising Hampstead Heath is a recurring theme; and his work in other fields of art – the descriptions of his frustrations in the film industry are particularly frank and illuminating. He gets to a point where he prefers the act of making the art, to the finished product. He holds nothing back, there appear to have been few secrets in his life… which sometimes caused conflict.

Towards the end of the book, his illness in its broadest sense, becomes the focal point of the narrative, but it never becomes doom-laden or “woe is me”, it is factual and he curses (rages against) the incapacities and limitations it places on him, but he never appears to be letting it overwhelm him.

I haven’t seen any Jarman films for years – I recall seeing Sebastiane and Jubilee decades ago – but the one that always stood out was Blue, which one of the most extraordinary pieces of film-making / television I can recall: about 90 minutes long, a simple blue screen with dialogue read over it. It was a “response” to his illness, and it was remarkably moving.

The book is one of the most satisfying I have read for a long time. Jarman’s humanity is evident on every page, as often, is a wicked sense of humour.

Read #143

I came to this award-winning autobiography via the documentary Barbaric Genius, by Paul Duane.

Blistering, terrifying, sobering – which seems quite an affected word to use, but it is correct. Healy’s autobiography tells it straight, asks no quarter and expects no sympathy. He has lived, what has been by any standards, both a hard and extraordinary life.

London-born to Irish immigrant parents, in the 1940s. From the off he faced racism and violence – the book opens with Healy at 6 years old getting a savage beating from his father, for an apparently innocuous exchange. He was bullied at school, at play, in the army, in the street and hence was constantly bruised and bloodied, and to his own description developed a high tolerance for pain – something which served him well in a brief career as an army boxing champion. By 15 he was regularly drunk. He had a couple of spells in the army, both of which he absconded from and by his late teens was homeless, habitually drunk, “pilled”, in custody, losing days of memory, begging, and stealing, all in a world that permanently teetered on the verge of swift, unrestrained violence.

It is always like this on wet days, sitting on a bench in the soggy park waiting for someone to walk in and coax life with a bottle. I don’t need the sunshine anymore, nor the sky, nor the earth. Not even the heavens, all I need is the bottle.

A new guy arrived in the park – young and tough as nails. He didn’t give a fuck about anything. I liked him. His name was Jarvis. He had threatened to kill Mac – which was another reason I liked him. I would’ve liked him even more if he did. We hit it off from the start.

The cast of characters spool across the page – the inhabitants of The Grass Arena, the area where the drinkers congregate and where fights often break out – in brief, vivid sketches, some of them quasi-Dickensian (the Dipper, the Sham, Spitty Phil, Liverpool Lil), before disappearing into the night, the prison or the (pauper’s) grave.

The writing is ferocious from the start. The is no question that Healy was playing at this, he wasn’t a tourist in this world. By the age of 30 and in prison once again, an inmate says he will introduce him to a game that will so occupy his mind, that he will stop wanting that next drink. Healy is sceptical. The inmate teaches him how to play chess, and it seems Healy is a natural, coming out into the world of chess and for a while taking on all-comers and making a living – even challenging masters of the game.

And it is there, in the late seventies, this book ends. From the documentary, you learn that Healy’s volatile nature made his move in the world of literary salons and plaudits…difficult, but that is the documentary and not this book, which is simply essential for anyone wanting to understand another tier of metropolitan living; one that is hardly ever looked at with any care and never with understanding. The writing is first rate, in the style of the “Hemingway”, punchy-short sentence. Overall it is brutal and a classic.

Read #142

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux (trans by Tanya Leslie)

48 pages in which Ernaux describes an affair she had with a married man. It is not about the sex, or the where, what and the how of it, but it is a description of how she spent the time between his visits, simply waiting for his next call – this, it transpires was in the late 1980s / early 1990s, so, before mobiles, internet and all the rest of those enablers. He had her phone number; she did not have any way to contact him. Instead she waited and longed.

It created a different appreciation of time for her. She describes how she was utterly engrossed in this man, and the imperative of not missing his next call – after all, she feared, it may be his last. She details, the tidying of her apartment, the importance of selecting the right clothes including lingerie – it must not be things he has seen her in before – the arrangements she has to make with her own two sons (young adults at the time). She does not say she was in a relationship herself, it would appear not.

She does not appear to wish to dramatise or make things sound more than they were. The writing is clean, spare and honest. It also left a certain hollow-ness.

In terms of biography; Ernaux comes from a working class back ground and has risen to be a professor of literature, with many awards to her credit. It seems that she writes mainly in an autobiographical style, but linking this into sociological themes.

Yet another engrossing read from Fitzcarraldo.

Read #141

(trans: Geraldine Harcourt)

One of those quiet treasures, both in the fact that it has only recently received much publicity among English readers despite being written in 1980, thanks to an NYRB Classics reprint, but also in the way that the book is softly spoken: it never raises its voice.

It relates the life of a young woman, Takiko, who we see at the opening of the novel on foot and heavily pregnant, walking through the early morning heat of a stifling summer, to give birth. Her pregnancy followed a brief affair with a married man, who is no longer in the picture. She had to leave her low-level clerical job on falling pregnant and is forced to live with her parents, in the ramshackle family home: parents who disapprove of Takiko’s life and choice. Her father is an alcoholic and frequently violent to Takiko, leaving her battered and bloody.

Slowly, through the nursing and post-natal appointments and the other parents she meets through the baby’s creche, Takiko’s life-circle grows wider and she begins to explore beyond her neighbourhood, on foot. She takes on menial jobs, drinks lonely coffees at strange hours in cafes, and walks. Finally landing a job that she has coveted for a while, at a local garden centre / supplier of plants to offices, she settles into a happier life She insists on going on the overnight work-trip to the nursery they use, which is in the mountain foothills. She goes with an older, married co-worker, Kambayashi, and here she finds some kind of rough-at-the-edges Arcadia.

Tsushima uses the novel to talk about the quiet violences done to women, the put-downs, the social expectations, lack of opportunities – in essence, she studies and exposes the second-class-citizen nature of the life of many Japanese women. It also combines a realism, in the down to earth descriptions of daily life, interspersed with strange dream-like pauses in which Takiko drifts through contemplations of colour and light. Yuko Tsushima was evidently a writer of some standing with more than 30 novels, some short story collections, and several literary prizes to her name when she died in 2016 aged 68.

In the way of many quietly beautiful, but serious works of art, the themes and images seem to slowly resurface in your consciousness days and weeks after reading.

Read #140

This is a hugely enjoyable book centred in and around the natural world, and our relationship with it. It contains something like 40 essays, spread over 250 or so pages – some are brief at two or three pages; small chapters – bite size even – you can take in as many or as few in a sitting as you wish. I had a spell, somewhere near the middle of the book, where for a while I just read one a day, every day. And that worked as a rest, a way of rinsing the mind of the day’s troubles, without being at all onerous.

Macdonald writes beautiful clear prose and is obviously skilled at explaining things economically. I read the title piece when it was published a couple of years ago in a newspaper somewhere and was entranced – it probably helps that I am fascinated by swifts.

If you’re looking for something that is quick and refreshing, whilst also at times, weighty enough to be thought-provoking. This is your book.

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