Thursday, 29 September 2011

I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani


I DO NOT COME TO YOU BY CHANCE is a quirky and fun little novel from Nigeria, which I have reviewed here for Africa Book Club.

It has been most educational, teaching me why I will never order 404 in a Nigerian restaurant.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

MID WEEK METRICAL


In an attempt to raise the tone of this blog, I have decided that every Wednesday we will try and improve our minds with poetry. Let's start nice and easy, with a famous poem by acclaimed twentieth century British poet, Phillip Larkin.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE by Flannery O'Connor


This book begins with a young man named Julian, who is being forced by his mother to accompany her on the bus to her weight loss class. Public transport has only recently been racially integrated, and for some reason she feels it is therefore now unsafe. Her son finds her attitude almost unbearably annoying. Here they are on the subject of slavery:
“There are no more slaves,” he said irritably.
“They were better off when they were,” she said. He groaned to see that she was off on that topic. She rolled onto it every few days like a train on an open track. He knew every stop, every junction, every swamp along the way, and knew the exact point at which her conclusion would roll majestically into the station: “It's ridiculous. It's simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence.”
“Let's skip it,” Julian said.
“The ones I feel sorry for,” she said, “are the ones that are half white. They're tragic.”
I found this a strangely hilarious window into a certain period in the American South, and was excited to see where O'Connor was going with Julian and his mother. Alas, I was never to find out. EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE is unfortunately a collection of short stories. Here's a terrible confession for a literary blog: I can't stand short stories. I find them annoying. You get all involved,and then like twenty pages later it's over. It's like getting dumped over and over again. So I stopped after three stories. Bad blogger! Bad!

Let me raise the tone by telling you where the title of the collection, and of the first story comes from. It refers to a work by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
"Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge"
I assume this refers to poor Julian, and find that this makes the story even more darkly comic.

Monday, 26 September 2011

BRIGHT SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA by Barbara Ehrenreich

I make it a policy not to read books with a colon in the middle of the title. The colon is a sure sign of a certain kind of heavily edited, heavily marketed non-fiction that makes me want to hurl. I particularly can't bear the idea of the earnest publishing meeting where they tinkered with the title to get it 'right.'

That said, for some reason I decided to read BRIGHT SIDED: HOW THE RELENTLESS PROMOTION OF POSITIVE THINKING HAS UNDERMINED AMERICA. A terrible title, but a rather good book.

The author is diagnosed with breast cancer, and immediately begins to feel that she is drowning in a sea of pink sugar. She is confounded by the relentless positivity that surrounds cancer, leaving no room for the obvious emotions: anger and grief. The idea that a positive mindset is a central part of conquering cancer is endless repeated, and Ehreneich, who in her youth acquired a Phd in cell biology, looks into this claim, and finds the science behind it very weak. The mere fact that it's all nonsense does not deter the cancer industry one bit however, and so Ehrenreich begins an examination into the whole idea of positive thinking.

She studies its roots in nineteenth century religion, right up to its current status as a quasi-religious movement led by preachers called 'motivational speakers.' The fact that the universe is incomprehensible and probably meaningless is no obstacle to these 'motivational speakers,' whose message is that you can have anything you want if you just want it badly enough. This sounds like a hopeful message, but its dark underside is of course that if you don't have what you want (if you lose your job, for example) it is entirely your own fault.

This idea obviously works very well for corporations. Unhappy employees do not need better working conditions, raises, or health insurance: they just need a better attitude! Thus a large percentage of the 'positivity industry' is funded by businesses, who buy the books and CDs for their unfortunate employees.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book was the link Ehrenreich posits between 'positive thinking' and that pretty negative event, the global recession. I was surprised to learn that apparently, in the last decade or so, the majority of important CEOs made use of coaches, almost all of whom push the message of positive thinking: that is, imagining the best outcome, excluding negative people, manifesting success through the power of your thinking, and so forth. She includes many anecdotes of 'negative people,' that we might also call 'realists'- fired Cassandras - who tried to tell CEOs that their mortgages where dodgy, their credit default swaps dangerous, their real estate bubble about to burst. They did not fit into the triumphant visions of men making $60million a year, and so were ignored, with disastrous results.

BRIGHT SIDED is an interesting book about how psychology can effect the real world, though not perhaps exactly in the way positive thinkers imagine.

Depressing Trivia! Rhonda Byrne, who wrote the positive thinking Bible THE SECRET, apparently said that the tsunami of 2006 could only happen to people 'who are on the same frequency as the event.' I'd like to put her on the same frequency as a fat slap.

Friday, 23 September 2011

ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN by Keith Gessen


If you spent your twenties scuffling in the arts, there are many parts of this book which will make you laugh. Keith Gessen has been to this particular mountaintop, and you can tell. Here's a character at a grocery store:
Others had coupons and carefully they held them, like counterfeiting experts, up to the items they hoped to save on, to make sure they were the ones. Mark never did. He had emptied himself of any attachment to specific foods. The only items he saw were the items already on sale. In this way, he kept his calm, he tried new foods, and he saved.
Or try this:
They kept a budget. At the beginning of the week they gave themselves seventy dollars for food and transport. Impossible? Basically impossible, yes, but not if you never go for 'drinks' at a bar, never walk into a restaurant, and never buy an item of clothing not at the Salvation Army on Spring Street and Lafayette.
Oh arts people! Come to my arms. I salute you.

There are three characters in this novel: Mark, Sam, and Keith, all of whom are sad young literary men. We follow them from college through their various attempts at literature: one is a frustrated graduate student, one a failed author, and one a political commentator. Not to worry to separate out these differences; though the book alternates between each of their stories, they are all basically the same person. I gave up worrying which was which, consigning this to the failed post-modern device category, and just enjoyed what there was to enjoy – and there's a great deal of fun to be had: this is a very entertaining book.

It's a really heartfelt account of the struggles of your twenties, and I found it both honest and amusing. It traces the kind of compromises almost everyone needs to make over the course of the years after university. One begins with bright-eyed and entirely misinformed naievete, and from that there is only one direction to go, and Gessen examines this painful entry into adulthood very well.

Gessen is almost precisely my age, and was in university in the US at almost precisely the same time as me, and reproduces a kind of people, and a world, with wonderful accuracy. Here he is on his drinking in university, and the effect it had on his love life:
Could not even think what to do upon meeting a girl the next day to whom I'd said too much. And so I pretended not to see her, or walked across the dining hall, so that a few months into my freshman year the range of women whom I had not encountered in a drunken stupor narrowed and narrowed until I was reduced to just getting drunk again and hoping someone would meet me halfway. I had done well with girls in high school, considering all my studying, and I was miffed by the new dispensation. At first I basically thought: what the fuck? And then I thought: You've got to be kidding me. And then I began to sort of think, Oh no.
All the men in the book date extensively and are very interested in women, and yet the women in the book are without exception fairly faceless, being largely props for more or less humiliating and half-hearted sexual experiences. They also, rather unsettlingly, are very much status objects. At one point, one of the men – who is in his thirties – dumps a 27 year old for being too old, and hooks up with someone just out of university. I am not sure I have any response to that. There is lots of hand-wringng. Try this:
Except every women he dated took a chunk of Mark with her. And vice versa. So that if you looked, if you walked around New York and looked properly, if you walked around America and looked properly, what you saw was a group of wandering disaggregated people, torn apart and carrying with them, in their hands, like supplicants, the pieces of flesh they'd won from others in their time. And who now would take them in?
At first I wondered if this was some sort of post-modern parody. But I have concluded that it is quite sincere. These sad young literary men need to get some therapy. Or else find some sad young literary women. Of appropriate ages.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is a novel about the life of a newspaper, composed of a series of interlocking short stories about the newspaper's staff. It is a good thing I did not know this in advance, or I would never have begun it.

I make it a policy to avoid such books, as they are almost always painfully pretentious exercises in showing off how wonderfully engaged with the post-modern the author is, how he transcends linear narrative with a single bound, how multi-talented he is, revealing life's dazzling complexity, etc etc.

Except Tom Rachman is actually multi-talented. He does pretty much leap over linear narrative in a single bound. I feel like he almost even reveals life's dazzling complexity. I can't get over it. This is a wonderful, accomplished novel. I can't think when last I read a book by a living author that is so technically adept.

Rachman moves back and forth across decades, managing a huge cast of characters in a complex array of situations with unselfconscious elegance. Here's a description of some of the staff, from within one character's world view:
Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail – what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.
We learn about each of these people, and many more, over the course of the book. We follow Dave, as he gets his revenge after being fired; Ruby, who spends all her New Years Eves in hotels, posing as a businesswoman, so people won't know she is alone; Kathleen, who is almost relieved by the freedom her partner's affair gives her; and so on – you get the idea. Each story is touching, and involving, and interrelates with the other stories in an unforced way.

It's also immensely well observed. Here's one character, Abby, being described as she is on long distance flights:
In this state, she nibbles any snack in reach, grows mesmerized by strangers' footwear, turns philosophical, ends up weepy. She gazes at the banks of seats around the departure lounge: young couples nestling, old husbands reading books about old wars, lovers sharing headphones, whispered words about duty-free and delays.
And very funny:
Arthur's cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is a consolation.

So. A very fine novel. The New York Times comments:
This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles.
I agree. Google image search him to feel depressed, aspriring writers. But don't read the book. You will want to give up immediately, in the face of such perfection.

Friday, 16 September 2011

LIT by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is apparently a famous memoirist. I am meeting her however only in this, her third book, so I have missed the Texas childhood with alcoholic parents, and the highly sexed adolescence, and am just tuning in for the descent into alcoholism.

It's probably an indictment of my upbringing that I didn't find this descent especially harrowing. Indeed, I barely found it alcoholism. For god's sake, she doesn't drink in the mornings! She doesn't even get the shakes! However, this probably says more about Zimbabwean society than it does about the memoir. The important point is that she feels she is an alcoholic, and commits herself to AA and sobriety most commendably.

Her descent goes in parallel with the birth of her baby and the attendant collapse of her marriage. She desperately desires as baby, and - as seems to be the way with these things - is desperately unhappy once said baby arrives.

She writes with great honesty, and often a real comic sense, about this period:
The time I'm mostly thinking of, you were barely four, which – I would argue – is less like being a miniature person than like a dog or cat who can talk.
Her child is in fact a central character in this memoir. The lady has spent a lot of time in therapy, and thus there is a great deal about her parents' failings, and how they explain everything about her life. I tried not to find this irritating. As a parent herself, she has, it seems to me, a vastly overinflated idea of how much impact she is having on her own child. At one point, she enrolls herself in therapy, because she snaps at her child – once! - in a grocery store parking lot. At other times, she seems to promote entirely bratty behaviour as charming self-expression:
As a toddler, once faced with a tea service at my in-laws', he'd stuck his fist in the sugar bowl and upended it, sugar spraying all over as Mrs Whitbread hissed that no other child in that house had ever interfered with a tea.

While I struggled with some of Karr's ideas, such as her understanding of your parents as the centre of your personality, I still very much enjoyed this book. It was bracingly, often painfully, honest. It is not often you get to hear someone's in-depth analysis of their own failings, vanities, and embarrassing hangups; and I found her struggles with them, often unsuccessful, to be oddly inspirational.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley

This is a novel about a suffocatingly boring marriage. The pitfalls of writing a novel about many repetitive years of boring routine are obvious, and I'm afraid this book falls into every one.

PRIVATE LIFE begins with a visit by an older couple to a Japanese interment camp in the US in 1942. I mean, honestly, I almost gave up on the book right then and there. There was a definite sense that the author was bravely revealing the scandal of Japanese internment during the Second World War. Which is odd, as it has been covered in literature many times before, almost always with the same air of great revelation, and even more irritatingly, of self-congratulatory moral courage. This is bizarre, as hands up who feels that it was okay to intern the Japanese? Anyone? Anyone? Didn't think so.

After the cheesetastic visit to the Japanese camp, we move back in time to see the old woman, Margaret, as a young woman in 1885. She is in danger of becoming an old maid, and is saved in the end by marriage to an eccentric astronomer. He is always rigidly polite to her, but it becomes clear over time that he is rather deluded in his scientific views, and immensely egotistical, expecting her whole life to be about serving his latest craze. I kept reading in the hopes that at some point a narrative arc would appear, in which Margaret gains courage and stands up to her husband. No such luck I am afraid. At one point, Margaret, speaking to her knitting club, saying
“There are so many things I should have dared before this.” And her tone was so bitter that the other ladies fell silent.
Of course one wishes that this was about half way through the book, at which point she becomes a go-go dancer, and the the novel really kicks off. But no. In fact, this hopeless declaration is in fact the end of this boring and depressing novel. At one point Margaret has a brief affair, and astonishingly, even this illicit event manages to be both boring and depressing.

This isn't relevant, but I just have to mention that as I write this blog post the movie TERMINATOR SALVATION is playing in the background, and I feel impelled to ask the blogosphere: what is Christian Bale doing? He appears to believe that seriously great acting is underway. I find it weirdly embarrassing to watch, as if you came across someone posing in their bathroom mirror.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE by Michael Faber

I love a massive Victorian novel, and THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE fits the bill, involving as it does a massive cast of characters, a clear morality, neat plot arc, intrigue, mad wives, straving waifs, and a wolloping 894 pages.

It was however written in 2003, and is thus not so much a Victorian novel as an homage to the Victorian novel, and no the worse for that. In fact, it's quite fun to see how a modern author highlights what is now important to us – the first hesitant introduction of the telephone, for example – in a way that Victorian authors, bogged down in actually having to live in the Victorian age, never do.

The plot centres on a teenage prostitute called Sugar. She is discovered by a wealthy man, William Rackham, by means of a sex directory called More Sprees In London. He sets her up as his mistress, eventually taking her into his home as the governess of his child. As Sugar gets closer and closer to the child, she gets more distant from William, and SPOILER ALERT eventually runs away from his home with the child as a willing accomplice.

There is an interesting focus on the very poor of Victorian London, which serves as a reminder of how very recently England was a third world country. At one point, for example, a carriage crashes, and before the police can come the poor have virtually dismantled it for scrap; which is curious, as almost exactly the same thing happened to me after a fairly exciting car crash in Zimbabwe (Locals: the windy road to Mana – always an experience).

Faber clearly relished the opportunity to write about the blood and guts of the period in a way convention did not allow authors of the time to do. Thus, all the characters seem to spend half their time on the chamber pot, and the other half having anal sex. This peek under the skirts of the nineteenth century lady, fun at first, became a bit tiring after the first few hundred pages. I don't think I ever wanted to read the word 'glutinous' in the same sentence as the word 'sperm,' but that Rubicon has unfortunately now been crossed, as has one involving 'glutinous' and 'menstrual blood.'

Monday, 5 September 2011

NERVOUS CONDITIONS by Tsitsi Dangarembga


I've reviewed NERVOUS CONDITIONS for Africa Book Club here.

It's an engaging novel about a girl from a poor rural background who is given the opportunity to have an expensive western education, and about the difficulties and possibilities that education brings with it.

I found it to be a sophisticated little book, though I was fascinated by the strong sense throughout the story that having to add a new culture into your experience is inherently negative. In the diasporized Zimbabwe of today, this view seems sort of charmingly antiquated. Nowadays, you're never more of the Zimbabwean zeitgeist than when you live in South Africa, so to suggest that leaving home is such a big deal seems very sweetly of the innocent eighties.

Friday, 2 September 2011

TRUCKERS by Terry Pratchett


This is one of my bedtime books. I used to love Terry Pratchett when I was in high school, but I don't so much anymore, which always means I am rather sad when reading his books these days. Now, this must mean that either the books have changed, or I have. What do you think?

TRUCKERS tells the story of a group of tiny human-like creatures called nomes who are struggling to survive in a field. In desperation they get on a human truck and end up at a large department store, Arnold Bros, which turns out to be full of nomes. The store is however about to be destroyed, so all the nomes have to find a way to escape by teaching themselves to drive. They also discover that they are in fact aliens from a distant star, and that this is therefore the first step to returning to outer space. Sequel anyone?

The funniest part of the novel is the religion around the god figure of Arnold Bros. that the store nomes have developed. Thus they take If you don't see what you require, please ask as an invitation to prayer, and Everything Must Go as a instruction to prepare for one's own mortality. Prices Slashed is a sort of devil, and Bargains Galore an Archangel. However – and here's what makes me sad – it now all seems a bit heavy handed, and his larger points about religion and meaning painfully obvious.

Oh Terry Pratchett. You are still good for bedtime.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

OUR MONTHLY MARCEL


Despite my strict instruction, the days just keep rolling on. Apparently it's already September 1. So it's time once again for a little advice from our our man Marcel:

"Habit forms the style of the writer just as much as the character of the man, and the author who has more than once been content to attain, in the expression of his thoughts, to a certain kind of attractiveness, in so doing lays down unalterably the boundaries of his talent, just as, in succumbing too often to pleasure, to laziness, to the fear of being put to trouble, one traces for oneself, on a character which it will finally be impossible to retouch, the lineaments of one's vices and the limits of one's virtues."

Marcel Proust, IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME