Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner

Well could be fancy and say its a post modernist novel with a form that counters the tyranny of the outdated narrative and naturalist tradition. Its plot: son at father's failed execution; father enrolled in the State's lotto prisoner execution programme, son writes a screenplay is merely a rack for lots of streams of conciousness/montage pieces.

I love books that break with conventions but when they engage me and not being just fun for the writer. I loved 253 or The Saddlebag for example. This is supposed to be his most novel like book but it reads like he lacks the discipline to write for the reader. Or at least not the sober drug free must be a profound read if stoned

Friday, February 22, 2008

Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis

Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture was originally a best selling Greek novel and has now been published over 20 languages so don’t get switched off by the title and subject matter. Forget about it being about maths and in fact think of Moby Dick to place this book. It’s about obsession and pride in chasing the impossible dream. You understand the thrill and terror of chasing impossible dreams.

Right now let’s get the maths out of the way. Golbach’s Conjecture first stated in the 18th century suggests that:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be written as the sum of two primes.

But mathematicians lack proof that in all circumstance it would hold. For example think about Physics where if dealing with the very big or the very small ordinary scientific understanding ceases to work. So could this be the case in Mathematics? Yes over my head as well! But the author is a childhood mathematical genius who submitted original research at 15 before even starting his degree and also an acclaimed film maker and writer. So he both understands the mathematical issues and can write so that we understand and care.

We first meet Uncle Petros in the 1970’s through the eyes of the beloved favourite nephew as a teenager. Petros is dismissed as the family failure that supports him through the family business while he does nothing but read books and plays chess. He leaves his home only once a month to do the books of a charity founded by his father. The beloved favourite nephew is met by a wall of adult silence when he tried to find out what the anger of the family is about. A chance phone call and a subsequent letter lead him to discover that far from a failure Uncle Petros had been a professor of mathematics in the 20’s and 30’s at a prestigious German University. This makes him as obsessive as his Uncle as he struggles to discover the Truth of the family scandal.

He tries to become a mathematician to help him challenge and understand what had obsessed his Uncle. This causes huge family problems- this is a Greek family remember where honouring your family and Father is a top rule in life. He finally manages to get the story of his Uncles obsessive hunt out in the open but at a high personal cost to his own ambitions. It is clear that Uncle Petros is a genius who will never be known as his hopes are dashed in the 30’s by the publication of Kurt Godel’s Theorem. Yes more maths but not much so don’t leave. This solves the problem of completeness by showing that any theory of numbers will contain unprovable propositions. Alan During (him of how do we know a computer has human intelligence- asked before computers were developed- now that’s what being clever is about) then demonstrates that theorists have no idea which proposition is merely hard to prove and which are impossible to prove.

Hence, Uncle Petros has no way of knowing if spending all his life in trying solve the Golbach’s Conjecture is a possible but hard task or impossible task. He gives up, his dreams and hopes ended. The beloved nephew is finding the truth is released from his obsession and so escapes the fate of his Uncle but then realises that a psychological lie has taken place which he needs to lance but this has tragic consequences.

Uncle Petros and Golbach’s Conjecture is highly recommended Greek tragedy in less then 200 pages about theoretical maths and why love and life is about how you answer the Bette Davis Theorem:

Oh, don't let's ask for the moon. We've already got the stars.

My Soul to Keep by Melanie Wells

Melanie Wells is a Texan and a psychotherapist in marriage and family therapy and comes from a musical family which contributes to her rhythm of writing. She is also clearly a traditional Christian as this shapes the book imagery, plot and narrative. As a consequence don’t expect natural street talk as the bad guys don’t curse although this is not handled in a clumsy way.

The novel seen as psychological thriller/mystery is the 3rd in a series: the first was When Day of Evil Comes when the 30 + redhead female hero, Dylan Foster a psychology professor in a Christian University, is framed for a murder and the second is The Soul Hunter which deals with a Psychotic stalker. The events and characters of first two are echoed and hinted at throughout this novel but it does stand alone. A constant theme in the three books is the fight between good and evil which is reflected in the every day fact that she is plagued by a demon called Peter Terry and helped by a guardian angel. She also prays and talks to God, has psychic insights from dreams etc. And to be fair it’s hinted at and suggested rather then clichéd white robes and wings or red eyes and horns.

To be honest not my type of Christianity but think TV shows where angels drift in to people’s lives and help them resolve emotional and ethical concerns rather then Buffy the vampire slayer. You don’t have to see this traditional Christian view as real and true as I am sure many bible-belt Americans would but as part of a narrative world to which you the reader enters. No difference really in entering the peculiar 1950’s Agatha Christie’s English social world of country houses, weekend parties, dressing for dinner, afternoon teas etc.

The story starts with a picnic in a park (the smart park rather then the local run down one) with Dylan out with two friends and their young children. Nicholas’s mother had been raped by the stalker from The Soul Hunter but had kept the child (anti abortion and forgiveness message). Christine the little girl is deeply sensitive to the supernatural and her parents are rich but caring- father and brothers out delivering aid and the bible to the staving masses (a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven). Then Nicholas is snatched from the park and the hunt begins to save his life. USA statistics show that more then 76% of abducted children are killed within three hours of the abduction so tension amounts as time seeps away

Christine the little girl was also snatched but then rejected as the wrong one as we find that she is psychically linked to the fate of Nicholas. Dylan struggles to make sense of the events as they unfold whilst dealing with her stalled career and hapless love life. And the past comes back facing her to deal with issues left hanging in the previous stories.

Don’t expect big plot twists as this is a narrative and character driven story. Both of which are done well in a made for TV movie sort of way. It’s not cutting edge existential metafiction…and thank god for that I hear many of you say. Would I recommend it? Well it’s not a book I would have chosen to read as it was an Advanced Readers Copy sent to me for a review. I am not a fan of Mystery/Crime writing or supernatural going on so was I the wrong person to be contacted!! But actually I enjoyed it and may even read the first two as I warmed to the Dylan Foster character and can see the potential for a good TV series along the lines of Ghost Whisper.

Monday, February 18, 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks

A brilliant novel about Mr. March, the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. March is a dreamer and idealist thrust into the brutal action of the Civil War. As the year unfolds, he writes loving letters to his family while shielding them -- but not us -- from the worst of his war experiences. To himself and us, ruminates on his early life and shares his moral concerns.

The book would be a great story even without the Little Women connection, but it does manage to flesh out the character of Marmee who, as Brooks' mother noted, was too good to be true in the original. The other characters are there, too, the little women, Laurie, the neighbour boy and his tutor Mr. Brooks, Aunt March and others, peripheral to the story, but bringing a pleasing sense of recognition, something like greeting old, childhood friends.

March is based on Bronson Alcott and, in his reminisces we meet the New England intelligentsia/abolitionist community, the Thoreaus and the Emersons, encounter passengers on the UnderGround Railroad and get taken in by John Brown's schemes.

Did you know that Henry Thoreau invented an improved pencil? And I had certainly never heard of "contraband," slaves who came under Union control and fought for the Union or worked the plantations for pay under Northern lessees. I love novels like this, where you can trust the history because what isn't true is set out by the author.

And somehow it pleases me to find that Brooks is married to Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes, and one of my favourite writers.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thoughts on reading The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

You are resting in the bath, lavender bath salts wafting away, candles flickering and as you doze your mind wanders to the big question of the day…how do you judge if a book is literature or not? Is Judy Astley’s Pleasant Vices or The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger on the same level? You enjoy one and not the other and that’s that some of you may say. But why do you enjoy the one rather then the other? Why is one on all the “best of” lists and in print for over 50 years whilst the other is forgotten once sold and read? Reading The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, which was published in 2000 and featured in Britain's Good Book Guide "Fiction Book of the Month”, got me thinking of ways to answer this.

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is a Persian writer living and educated in the West and a follower of the Baha’i faith. This is important as a founder of Baha’i plays a momentous but hidden role in the story set in the mid 19th century. We follow nine characters over a 24 hour period as a caravan bound for Mecca and Medina is raided by bandits. The events prior and post the raid are told from the perspectives of each character so the meaning of events and behaviour alters as we visit and revisit. A connecting thread to all the stories is a saddlebag and its contents passing around each of the characters so driving some to death and ruin and others to salivation and joy.

So how do I start to judge or interpret this highly individual first novel? Once upon a time you read a book and its literary standing was its relationship to the great books that impacted on or shaped western thinking. Liberal Humanism argued these were your Vigil, Homer. T.S.Elliot, Shakespeare etc. In an affect a good book was what a group of elite academics said was good based on the authors intent and writing in relationship to western values and concerns.

In reaction was New Criticism with one of its roots in Russian formalism that ignored the authority of author or the cultural context but saw the words, syntax grammar, imagery, metaphor, rhythm, meter, etc of more importance in understanding a book then its subject matter. So yet another bunch of experts telling you what literature was.

So Liberal Humanism would judge The Saddlebag on what it said about what the big moral or political issues. Whereas approaches such as New Criticism would judge it on how it used language and literary techniques. So what you may say? But think cooking here: the first looks at how good say an Italian dish is as part of the rules and principles of good western cooking whilst the second examines how good the chopping, use of herbs, balance of colour was in preparing the meal irrespective of what the final dish is.

But what is missing is that a meal has a final act of judgement- I eat it! This is linked to a third way of looking at the problem in that books are a form of performance that needs an audience to make it complete. This gave rise to Reader-response criticism which seeks to understand literature by emphasising the reader's role in creating meaning and experience. So it would judge The Saddle for what it means to me the reader and what I bring to its interpretation. So I as reader become equal with the writer as both are necessary for the transaction to have social meaning.

Many other ways of “reading” a book exists so for example what does The Saddle say or not say about class, gender, sexuality? Or from the perspective of Eco-criticism how does it view and treat the environment and nature? Yet a book and reading are also material cultural events -think about all the factors behind reading a Dickens book printed on paper in the 19th century and reading the latest e-novel published on the internet and read via a portable electronic screen. And don’t get me started on Freud or Jung!

To put my cards on the table, I am always dubious of anything that says you understand from one perspective only. I prefer asking what this reading adds to the meaning of the novel so you build fresh and ever changing experiences. Judging becomes a journey of open ended discussions with peers defending the perspective(s) they prefer generating insights and ever deeper overlapping meanings. In affect a book is literature the more it is capable of sustaining this interaction.

To start the discussion on The Saddlebag by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani let me ask three questions drawn from the perspectives discussed. These are as follows.

  • How do its ideas connect or resonate with the intellectual concerns of both the West and the East?

  • What does its use of language and literary devices suggest over and above the cultural ideas it plays with?

  • What do I bring to the book and what does it bring to me to make the experience whole and complete?

How do its ideas connect or resonate with the intellectual concerns of both the West and the East?

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani takes the core incident of the plot from a Bahá'í historical narrative titled "The Dawn-breakers" which mentions briefly that a saddlebag belonging to the Báb - the prophet-herald of the Bahá'í Faith - was stolen during His pilgrimage to Mecca. She then used the language, metaphors, symbols and traditions of the major world religions to create her archetypal characters. They the Bedouin thief (a pagan), the Arab chieftain (an atheist), the Zoroastrian bride, the Indian moneychanger (who switches from Hindu to Moslem to whatever else the occasion demands), the Felasha(Jewish Ethiopian) slave woman, the pilgrim who has amalgamated Confucian, Buddhist and Moslem beliefs, the Persian Shi`ah Moslem priest, the English spy (a lukewarm Anglican Christian), and the corpse of a rich Persian merchant. Their fates reflect the impact of Bahá'í and it inner meanings: the pagan dies at last free, the chieftain abandons power, the Shi`ah Moslem priest torn between stamping out heresy and falling the driving force of Bahá'í love.

Another strand of the story is less explicit in that we are in the time period that western modernity starts to challenge and undermine the traditional elites in the Middle East. Copying the West and modernising became a central intellectual strain which was to lead to the modern Turkish State. But with the English spy and some of the other stories we see the political interference in the Middle East that lead to the carve up countries for western interests and so supporting the puritanical anti modernising practice of Islam that continues to be fuelled by the West’s attitudes and practices. It suggests indirectly that if each of the main religious traditions went back to their roots of ethical practices and love in action then the 21st century nightmare would end.

What does its use of language and literary devices suggest over and above the cultural ideas it plays with?

It has a lyrical prose style, and is a fable that skilfully weaves together nine tales by ensuring that the surroundings and characters are given a physical and sensual depiction. The Thief's story is perhaps best of the collection, in terms of the lyrical quality of the prose as well as the evocation of character but each story has a back story so we build up a richer understanding of each characters circumstance.

We have a glimpse of the next character in a story and echoes of previous characters so for example we hear a lot of the actions of the fanatic priest but then discover why he is so hard on himself. Each story is told from the inner dialogue and view point of the main character but the voice of the author is felt as she comments on the fates of individuals.

As in any fable the characters serve to illustrate the moral point of the storey so don’t expect naturalist dialogue or larger then life characters. But they are more then coat hangers for ideas/arguments so it reads well.

What do I bring to the book and what does it bring to me to make the experience whole and complete?

I have read and studied many of the key religious and political ideas of the different faiths and remain very interested in the West’s role in the political and historical roots of the region’s instability. I am also a keen story-teller so respond well to the ideas and structures of the story. I could see it working as an emotional and powerful play.

It’s clear from this review format what it has brought me. If you like the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho you have feel of the approach taken and if you can’t stand his books, fear not as this is much better. The author suggests that she wanted to write a book to show

how it was possible to weave the different threads so that the paths of a group of people from different races, cultures and backgrounds could cross and re-cross by perfect accident while making perfect sense. It seemed that if one could achieve this in a narrative form there was no reason why it could not be recognized as a valid metaphor at other levels: political, religious, economic.

I think she succeeds brilliantly and clearly demonstrates that it is literature in the way that I have argued. So get out of the bath, smother the candles, dry yourself, put on a warm cotton wrap and type a response. Become part of the democratic process of defining of what is literature. Even better lets hear what she says and build a more ethical and loving world. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Slabrat by Ted Heller

Slabrat by Ted Heller is wicked satire of office politics is based on his experience of work at magazines such as Vanity Fair. The title is a slang term for high rise office workers, Think 9-5 with Dolly Parton or the Devil wears Pravda if you want to place its genre. The novel plots all the insane office status power politics and then some you have ever experienced

It follows the life of Zach an associate editor who is stalled at the stage in his career of either rising or falling. His best friend is falling and his work colleague has just lifted off. The problem is that he is lazy and wont do the brown nosing needed to get ahead apart from sleeping with what ever boss (female) he can. He is also a complete fake- not a Harvard rich kid but someone from the sticks. In the superficial world of IT this is a death warrant should it come out.

A new associate editor arrives who soon starts working the system and raises so causing panic. They start fight back with all the underhand tricks you can imagine. At the same time his love life is torn between lust, love and ambition and three different women.

Its fall of comic moments and a character list of truly appalling people that you feel must be based on real characters and you hope they read the book. Don’t expect the ending you may think but it’s the one Zach would have wanted.

Strongly recommended as a wonderful dark and oh so true depiction of office politics at its worse and describes what you would like to do…come on admit it you would.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Crash by J.G.Ballard

In reading most works by J.G. Ballard you need to be prepared for dystopian modernity, with bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments. Crash 1973 is central to that view of his writing. It is a phonographic depiction of sexually fetished car crashes and the resulting body deformities. You know you are in for a bumpy ride(yes I know) when one of the scenes is about sex with a willing invalid car driver (remember the little green boxes on wheels) who because of wounds and missing or damaged limbs has more holes capable of penetrative sex.

The story starts with a couple that have an open sexual relationship so sleeping with different partners carrying out any type of penetrative sex imaginable and more you haven’t. And get their kicks in telling each other etc. On the way to work “Ballard” kills someone in a head on car crash gets drawn into a sub world of men and women who get their sexual kicks from sex in crashed or crashing cars and attending car crashes. He had noticed Vaughan photographing him at the accident and the hospital. Through him “Ballard” gets drawn into ever more violent sexual activity, including becoming aroused and having sex with him using his scars as a scaffold to…

A central story line is the plot by Vaughan to die having sex while crashing into a car containing the hottest top female film star of the day. “Ballard’s” wife in between a lesbian affair gets the hots for him and gets xxxxed in the backseat as “Ballard” drives at dangerous speeds watching them in the rear mirror.

How much of this is about Ballard’s own sexual kicks is unclear as in 1970 Ballard organized an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory, appropriately called "Crashed Cars". The crashed vehicles and their sexual potential were displayed without commentary, inspiring vitriolic responses and vandalism. The main character of Crash is called James Ballard living in Shepperton as did the author. And he suffered a serious automobile accident shortly after completing the novel.

The book must not be confused with the 2004 film Crash which is an Academy Award-winning drama film directed by Paul Haggis. This film seeks to depict and examine not only racial tension, but also the distance between strangers in general. The film of the book is 1996 film directed by David Cronenberg. It was praised and attacked in equal measure and won a special prize for daring, audacity, and originality at the Cannes film festival.

So why ,if you are still with me, would you bother to read what appears to be such a distasteful book? The clue is in the structure and descriptions of the book repetitive phraseology of medical sexual teams and the descriptions of the car and body parts. It means that you the reader experience the alienation and emptiness that is the heart of the story. The story is not erotic in any sense as it point to the emptiness of lives that depend on more and more extreme highs and drugs to keep the sexual tension going. Death then becomes the ultimate sexual act. Nowhere does love and community figure in a world of motorways, airports, roundabouts and technological emptiness. What ever the feelings and motives of the writer, the story serves as a warning of a society that obsesses objects and appearances over personal relationships and social community-who cares for the children in this vision of our lives?

I didn’t find it a easy read and was reluctant to spend time reading it but would recommend it for the importance of us seeking to avoid a reality that could become our world if we cease to love.

The success of love is in the loving; it is not in the result of loving. Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.

Mother Teresa

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The New York Trilogy: by Paul Auster

This is a series of subtle interlocking novellas set in New York published over 85 and 86: City of Glass, "Ghosts" and "Locked Room with the first set in the period, the 2nd in the 40’s and the last one in the 70’s. They use mystery conventions of the gumshoe detective (think Humphrey Bogart) but in a subversive way as an existentialist reflection on writing, and story creation and communication but at the pace of a thriller; it more Kafka then Chandler with haunting imagery and surreal coincidences. But it also has deep emotional and psychological depths.

To give you a flavour of the book, in the City of Glass the main Character is Daniel Quinn a writer who has abandoned writing except for mystery writing owing to the death of his wife and child. He is successful enough to only need to write one novel a year which he has just done and then he drifts. He is clearly depressed and only feels alive when he is the private eye of his novels. One night he receives a midnight phone call asking for a detective called Paul Auster( yes the real author is also a later character in the story) and after several rejections he decides to act as if were his private eye character. His clients are a child-man who is a survivor of a dreadful abuse by his father (he was deprived of language as part of an experiment in discovering the natural language of man before the fall of the Tower of Babel) and his wife a nurse who had married him so that he could leave the hospital. The father now elderly is being released from Mental hospital and they fear that the son will be killed and want protection.

The story then takes many twists and turns and ends with the author as character being criticised by a final narrator who may be one of the characters from the other stories for what happens to Daniel Quinn during the course of the story.

In the Locked Room all the characters are named after colours and it’s a classical stake-out story but is it? Or is it a reflection on the lives of characters once that have been created and written about?

The final story is of two friends who have drifted apart, one wanted to be a writer and is now a critic unable to create works of his own imagination. He discovers that his friend has disappeared leaving a wife and baby and a locked room of manuscripts. These turn out to be masterpieces of novels, plays, and poems far beyond his capability of writing. In preparing those for publishing he re-enters and re-evaluates his life long friendship and what it meant but at a cost as he faces a secret that tests him and his relationships to destruction.

Paul Auster’s draws on his own colourful work life in his struggle to become a writer so the stories have a grain of gritty realism. But they are interlinked by an interest in the impact of coincidences and lives lived in minimalist even ascetic ways against a background of a loss, failure and absent fathers and reflections on writing and storytelling. If you want a painless way into postmodernist metafiction then this is the book for you. Highly recommended

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Facing the Wind by Julie Salamon

This is the story of a murder, a club for mothers of handicapped children, and a love story.

From the back cover:

Bob Rowe and his wife Mary worked hard to build their American dream. A suburban home, barbecues in the summer, and a fast track corporate job made their life look ideal to outsiders. Yet they faced one of the most difficult challenges for a couple: their son Christopher was born severely handicapped and disabled. As a family, they managed to navigate through the tough times by being hands-on parents. Their efforts were emboldened by a group of extraordinary women - all of whom also had disabled children - who acted as a support system for one another.

Then, one day, Bob killed first the three children and then Mary.

I found this book gave me real insight into a state of mind that could lead someone to kill his family "out of love." It also made "temporary insanity" something more than a legal plea.

I find it strange that not one reviewer was struck by what surely must have been the effects on Rowe of his driven nature and his harridan, carping mother. From a young age, Rowe was determined to be successful in his career, to achieve middle-class status, and have a storybook home and family. With perseverance and focus, he achieved his goals. He must have been a breakdown waiting to happen even before the trauma of dealing with one sick child and one severely handicapped child began to pile on more pressure. Adding public role model and a job crisis not of his own making to the stew, it could only have been a matter of time, And, unfortunately, it was.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Money by Martin Amis

This is a novel written in the early 80’s and is one long monologue about money and what chasing money, having money( and not having money) does to John Self the central character. He is a successful Ad director but at heart a fast talking East end boozing womaniser addicted to fast food and porno. And if you still like him, he beats up women, tends to be a racist, and hates gays… and horror of horror smokes. But he does have a turbulent broth of family relationships to deal with!

This could be an echo of real life as Martin Amis had a troubled relationship with his father Kingsley Amis. Who incidentally was critical of the device of having the author as a character in the story which allows Martin to take some sly digs at the pretensions of writers and writing.

John Self meets a producer in New York and spins him a story based on his own life (drunkard father, two timing mother, time waster son) and is then embroiled in the nightmare of putting the money, script and casting together. He lurches between New York and London loving money and suffering from excesses of drink, food and sex and looses girlfriend, friends and family along the way in a glorious buffoon way.

As he tries to deal with actor’s egos, money men demands and scripts he is also hounded by a stalker . Or is he? We can only understand what john understands and as he is drinking several bottles of whiskies on week long benders he is a little hazy some times on the details. During the story we get to find out what the truth of his rise to the Money as well as family secrets and who cheats who.

As the novel is set up to be a long suicide note you can sense the depths of his pain. So is this a gloomy, slash your wrist Leonard Cohen fun feast? No it’s a very funny and savage satire on money, money and money and oh the film industry. Normally, I dislike first person novels but I strongly recommended this one.