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Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews is a heart-breakingly personal stories of two sisters caught in an impossible struggle: as the narrator puts it, “[s]he wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” Elfrieda von Riesen (Elf) is a world-renowned concert pianist, attractive and with a loving partner. She also wants to die. Yolandi (Yoli) is her younger sister, writer of pulp fiction, and partnerless mother to two; she has but one crucial quality her older sister doesn’t, the Darwinian survival instinct. Opening after Elf’s latest suicide attempt, in which she has drunk a bottle of bleach and slashed open her wrists, the story examines what it means for a family, and more particularly a sibling, to live with a loved one whose heart is not just set on oblivion, but whose spirit is already there. Yoli’s narrative traces the sisters’ early life in Canada, raised by Mennonite parents, through the suicide of their father, and into their chaotic adult lives – All My Puny Sorrows is more than a story of suffering and grief, but of life in all its messy shades.

If the subject matter sounds heavy, it is made all the more weighty by the knowledge that Toews was able to draw strongly on her own experiences for the book: her father committed suicide by kneeling before a train in 1998 – an experience that Toews wrote about in Swing Low: A Life – and, ten years later, her sister repeated the act. But Toews writes with humour and clarity, and elevates the novel above the base sadness of its theme. Like Toews, the von Riesens grow up in a stifling Mennonite village – a familiar autobiographical theme of Toews’s writing. In such an oppressive atmosphere, Elf’s wild spirit is constantly clipped by the conservative, patriarchal society she finds herself growing up in. Even her piano playing is seen as an improper pastime and, for Elf, becomes an act of rebellion. It is hardly surprising then, to find that she turns this talent into a career – the ultimate act of rebellion, escape gleaned through her individuality – but equally that she spends the rest of her life trying to reclaim her body through starvation, pills, and violence.

After the constricting atmosphere of her small town Mennonite upbringing, come the demands of her fans, and the dehumanising psychiatric profession, which sets up new protocols and demands that Elf must adhere to if she is to receive their compassion and care. As Elf lies helpless – voiceless, her throat scarred so badly from the bleach she has swallowed that she cannot speak – doctors quibble over how she communicates with them, and nurses expend more energy trying to enforce arbitrary rules than they do trying to find compassion and healing for their patient. It is a pretty damning picture of indifference from those that, often, stand between some of the sickest in society and death.

Toews’s prose is littered with tight sentences – overwhelming emotions kept, for the most part, in check – which express powerful, thought provoking ideas in simple forms. Much of the prose is laced with a gallows humour too and while the weight of the situation is often thrown off by the characters in throwaway comments, the overall pathos never gives way to optimism; at best, it can be said All My Puny Sorrows is a book about survival, and the pain and promise that brings. The quietness of Toews’s writing, the non-dramatic style of death and dying, is very well done, and far closer to life than any melodramatic depiction of mental illness that glamorises suicide and pain.

In large sections, the dialogue is not punctuated, the story a free flow of experience through Yoli’s eyes. As a narrator, Yoli is so focused on her personal faults, that it is very easy for the reader to miss all of her strengths; to spend your life pulled across the country, or even the world, flying to the bedside of a loved one after their latest attempt to leave you permanently is no small act. To do so without bitterness, while your own life and those of your children are disrupted, and with generous love is something quite special – a quiet form of heroism that many locked into similar situations will empathise with.

For the most part, All My Puny Sorrows exists without a plot and in a particular snatch of time for the von Riesens; it’s an examination of the end of a life, and in that sense the only real movement in the plot is the inevitable rolling towards the final conclusion. As death lurks about her sister, waiting its call to arms, life for Yoli can be quite repetitive – constant drives to and from the hospital to visit Elf hardly constitute high-octane adventure – and inevitably this affects the reader a little, the monotony of caring for and about someone who is on the brink infecting the prose, as it should, and causing the plot, which is slim anyway, to falter at various stages.

Authors are, unsurprisingly, prone to dropping in characters who quote poets, and possess all the qualities a lit-chic bohemian should. At times this wears a little thin, and here Elf’s character could have stood a little more development and a little less intellectual peacocking (and why, as a pianist, so much emphasis on poets and books – again, a slightly too familiar penchant of the literary author?). This does allow, however, for some good stuff on the inability of art to save a life, even if it manages to ornament it and sustain it in the short term; art is, against the harsh reality of the world, a palliative that holds in it everything that is life. From the title – a reference to a Coleridge poem that laments the loss of a sister – onwards, literature is heavily interwoven with the story, William Wordsworth to A. A. Milne, Italo Calvino to Raymond Chandler – and this is an unashamedly literary work. At times the references feel a little forced, but at others they work well to express the culture in which Elf and Yoli have immersed themselves; their escape from the reality of small-town Canada.

With all the literary allusions and focus on life through Yoli’s eyes, the connection that Toews builds between Elf and the reader is only just strong enough to make the story take; although all is seen through Yoli’s eyes, the reader still needs to feel that connection that tethers Yoli to Elf, and the reader to the story. Toews pulls this off, but only just.

All My Puny Sorrows is a delicate and sensitive novel on death and living; a personal, human story laced with bittersweet humour and moments of poignancy. It’s a knowing, engaged book that faces the decision to opt out of life that many people take, with an unflinching but never flabbily emotive style. More than this, it is a novel about sisterhood – a unique relationship – and everything that entails; the love, the fighting and competitiveness, and ultimately the conspiratorial notion that only siblings can conjure of themselves against their parents, against the world. To lose your only sister is to be a solo-conspirator; a place of irreparable loneliness. It’s a truth that both Yoli and Toews share.

This is a painful but still enjoyable read, which is quite an achievement - it's hardly surpising that it's doing well at the awards this year. It does falter occassionally, but that is more than forgivable.

Useful Links
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of All My Puny Sorrows on Amazon (US)

Review: The Library Book by The Reading Agency

The Library Book by The Reading Agency book cover
The Library Book (2012) is a collection of twenty-odd essays and a few of short stories, which celebrate the unique pleasures and value of libraries. Published by the Reading Agency as part of their on-going campaign to protect public libraries from cuts and nurture the love of reading, this is a book that exists solely – as the title might suggest – to praise libraries. With contributors ranging from Alan Bennett to Nicky Wire (of the Manic Street Preachers), Seth Godin to Stephen Fry, it offers a range of reminiscences and polemics from some of the country’s top library-fanciers, all contained within one slim volume. A diverting read, The Library Book helps reaffirm Britain’s – or at least some of its eminent residents’ – love affair with the library.

Although from a variety of sources, a good many of the essays pertain to the contributors’ personal experiences (normally during their formative years) of libraries; mythologising the humble library and turning it into a sanctuary, an inspiration, and a pillar of community. Alan Bennett’s piece leads the way for these dew(e)y-eyed remembrances of bookshelves past and, although many of these accounts homogenise after a while, there is something reassuring and comfortable about the shared experience of the many – an experience that most readers of this book will likely share. Beyond the cosier pieces, Zadie Smith’s essay is probably the most political and thus the most angry – a refreshing mini-tirade that represents the feelings of those who love libraries and feel the aching sadness as they are dismantled as an institution.

Not all the pieces are intent on hanging onto libraries in their current form, however; Seth Godin’s imagining of libraries as modern information hubs and networking spaces sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the woolly sentimentalisms. For him, the librarian ought to be closer to their modern incarnation as an information professional who is "a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user." The disjuncture that Godin’s article creates within the book as a whole only goes to highlight how homogenous the other pieces become: it may set the library out as a quite unfamiliar and even disagreeable place to be, but it is still a valuable change of perspective, the like of which is in short supply in The Library Book.

The short snatches of fiction, from China Mieville (an extract from Un Lun Dun), Julian Barnes (an offshoot of his novel England, England), and Kate Mosse (a short story called “The Revenant”) provide a pleasant break from the essays, giving The Library Book an easy flow. Some of these short pieces work a better than others, with some, being extracts from longer works, sitting a little uncomfortably as standalone pieces.

The Library Book will, it seems more than likely, be read predominantly by those who already support the cause of libraries and swoon at the notion of free books on tap, for everyone, forever. This isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion, instead it is a cosy act of sentimentalism and an ode to an institution that already bears little semblance to the sepia-toned memories contained between the pages of The Library Book.

Libraries are one of the few refuges away from the swirl of hyperactivity that represents modern life – spaces of tranquillity that still value Slow over Quick – repositories of knowledge and spaces of community, with genuinely egalitarian principles. To let such institutions die or be shamefully mutated into pseudo-coffee shops or PC suites before our eyes would be to oversee the failure of an irreplaceable service; The Library Book is a gentle reminder of all that is being lost at this very moment.

It's pretty much impossible for me not to like books like this - they're full of people giving voice to experiences I can completely empathise with - but there could perhaps have been a bit more variety in the pieces offered up here.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Library Book on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Library Book on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: March 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews book cover
Spring is coming and the cosy nights in front of the (electric) fire are receding. Boo. Still, it’s almost warm enough to read outside and that I really like. But what to read? Well, I have been a bit more organised in my reading so far this year and reviews are actually happening. On my review site. Imagine that.

I’m mid-way through a few different books at the moment (ok, that’s the normal state of affairs but I think I am actually going to finish most of the current concerns) so there’s a few potential reviews in the pipeline. The main one I’d like to get out this month is All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, which is on the shortlist for the Folio Prize this year. It’s all about two sisters, one of whom is committed to dying and one who is committed to stopping her achieving this end. Cheerful, I know. But quite good (in a meandering sort of way) so far so I’m hopeful that it’ll turn into a really good read.

In another bid to shamelessly follow the crowd, I’m also reading one of Waterstones’ (how do you deal with the apostrophe now they’ve dropped it!?) book club books, The Restoration of Otto Laird. I was totally swayed by the blurb on this one – it’s about an aging architect and his fight to save one of the buildings he designed from demolition. A promising premise that could well yield a lot of good stuff about memory, legacy, etc. It’s going ok so far – easy enough to read, pretty clunky dialogue, but I’m optimistic here too.

My book club are reading Alice Munro at the moment, so I might well delve into one of her short story collections, but we shall see. Other than that, I’m thinking it might be time to pick up another Jane Austen. I keep thinking it would be good to polish off her novels – but which should I go for next: Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion? Someone help me out!

Have a beautiful March everyone.

Notable Posts from February
Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland
Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

Review: The Third Man by Graham Greene

The Third Man by Graham Greene book cover
The Third Man (1950) by Graham Greene is a short novella, produced originally as a preparatory document during the writing of the screenplay for Carol Reed’s iconic film. Here the story is narrated by Colonel Calloway, a law enforcer mixed up in the story. Englishman Rollo Martins, a writer of cheap Westerns, arrives in post-war Vienna – a city still bearing the scars of war and split into four sectors: British, American, French, and Russian – to meet his friend Harry Lime, a charismatic but mischievous man. However, on arrival Martins learns that his friend has perished in a traffic accident and aspersions are cast, by Calloway, on Lime’s character. Unsettled and suspicious, Martins attends the funeral and, setting out to investigate Lime’s death, learns from a witness that three men were seen carrying Lime’s body from the accident that killed him. Two of these men have been identified, but the third has vanished. Martins’s pursuit of the man sends him on a thrilling chase through crumbling Vienna where he tangles with many people who have stories to tell of Harry Lime, not least his girl, Anna Schmidt, who Martins takes quite a shine to. Will this distract him from his task and is he prepared, anyhow, for the secrets he might uncover about his friend?

As becomes clear very quickly, The Third Man is not simply a thriller but there is an added depth to the story. Indeed, it is concerned not only with Cold War politics and the remnants of war – perhaps the most clear themes – but with a turn from modernism and idealism towards something less ordered and more conflicted. There is a recurring use of Westerns – the genre of fiction that Martins writes – to satirise the idea of heroes, hero worship, and the individualist loner fighting the system. Here, with strong women and weak heroes, old myths and ideals are easily shed. Post-war Vienna is not a place for sentimentality and yet Martins views everything through his own lens as a writer of Westerns, narrativising his story so that Vienna becomes a surrogate for the Wild West (an updated take on east versus west), police men standing in for sheriffs and Martins himself the loner seeking justice for a fallen friend. In this way, Martins’s need to understand his situation within the framework of narrative becomes satire on the pervading human need to draw on well-established archetypes and understand / interpret the world in relation to them. As the post-war world was still grappling with Big Ideologies, this was certainly prescient, and without taking sides Greene undercuts the idea of both Western and Communist ideology. Like many of the characters who blindly support Harry, it becomes clear that mindless loyalty to a Big Idea, as to a person, is futile.

It’s virtually impossible to read The Third Man without feeling the presence of Carol Reed’s film; with each turn of the page there is, in the words, a fresh reminder of beautifully captured scenes from the iconic film. Greene himself said that The Third Man was “never written to be read but only to be seen” and the reader’s imagination is hardly strained as it conjures up shadowy Viennese alleys, perhaps even hearing Anton Karas’s faint plucking of zither strings echoing somewhere in the recesses of memory. For all that the story was turned into a famous film, however, it stands in its own right as a fine noir novella. It is, undoubtedly, a skeletal story, but Greene’s literary instincts and ability to tell a spare, engaging story bring the hundred or so pages to life and make The Third Man, although not as satisfying as the film, a sharp thriller.

The Third Man represents a growing trend in fiction - at the time of its publication – towards realism following the modernism that held sway between the World Wars, and mixes this greater realism with a cinematic and stylised vision of the world that approaches the post-war move towards existentialism in many art forms. Harry Lime encapsulates this move towards a more hopeless cynicism when he says to Martins, "We aren't heroes, Rollo, you and I. The world doesn't make heroes outside your books."

The images of Vienna as a wasteland recall T. S. Eliot’s poem, and there is a similar sense of impending but ominous revelation in The Third Man as in “The Wasteland”. Here, though, Greene undercuts the Modernist idea of the writer as a regenerative force; the discoveries that Martins makes proving to be a resurrection only in the hollowest sense. Indeed, Martins is no artist of high ideals – he is no saviour – and one of the most amusing scenes in the book sees him arrive at a literary talk only to discover he has been mistaken for another writer – one of significantly higher literary reputation. In this scene, Martins’s refusal to bow to the pompous snobbery of the talk’s organiser and audience, too, signals a refusal to elevate authors to any great height, a turn away from the Modernist ideas around salvation and order through language (itself pointing back to Shelley’s notion of poets as legislators of the world).

Martins’s inner narrative fails to establish any great literary order to his story – he and Harry are not heroes, Vienna is not the Western badlands – and equally his investigations fail to empower him in a more real sense. Ultimately, there are forces greater than either he or Harry that dictate the story that is their lives: there are no individualist heroes here. Instead, the new world – of large indifferent ideologies looks at people as no more than ant-like dots, a price attached to each one:

“Victims?” he asked. “Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there,” he went on, pointing through the window at the people moving like black flies at the base of the Wheel. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving – for ever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money – without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”

It’s probable that most readers will come to the novella via the film and, in truth, the film is the more complete vision of Greene’s story. However, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to enjoy in the book: the end is perhaps a little too neat and conventionally moral – a fact improved upon in the film – but the thrill is certainly in the chase here, and as the conclusion rolls into sight the reader has already had their fill of old Vienna. The Third Man is an intelligent, taut thriller and an interesting accompaniment to the film.

At just about a hundred pages, this is a sharp, short thriller. Enjoyable and interesting to read in relation to the film.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Third Man on Amazon (US)

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Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland

Generation A by Douglas Coupland book cover
Generation A (2009) by Douglas Coupland is a dystopian novel set in the near future – around 2020 – where bees are extinct. Honey is traded for remarkably high prices, fruit has become a luxury, and heroin addicts, like bees, are an extinct breed (“poppies require bees”). Instead, a narcotic called Solon – a drug that "mimics the solitude one feels when reading a good book" and helps its users to live in the present only – has become a staple intoxicant, helping to sedate large swathes of the population through their meaningless existence. When five, seemingly unconnected people from different parts of the world are unexpectedly stung they instantly become celebrities: Zack, a farmer from Iowa; Sam(antha), a fitness addict from New Zealand; Julian, a computer geek and amateur philosopher from France; Diana a dental hygienist and tourette’s sufferer from Canada; and Harj, a call centre worker from Sri Lanka. Remarkably, all five are stung within days of one another and then picked up by Government agents who hurry them off to observation laboratories. Each spends the next month of their life living in isolation without any contact with the world. When they are eventually released, their experiences cause them to seek out their fellow stingees. They find few answers, however, and their freedom is short-lived: before long they are once again rounded up by Government scientists and removed, en masse, to a remote Canadian archipelago. Here they are instructed to tell one another stories and, as they take part in this peculiar form of group therapy, strange answers to their questions begin to emerge.

The Decameron style metafiction – also reminiscent of Palahniuk’s Haunted – that fills the second half of the novel is a none-too-subtle nod to Coupland’s main purpose in Generation A: to explore the place of the story in an increasingly disinterested world. Harj, the most seeing of the characters, voices the problem for the modern storyteller: "In the old days, it was much easier, but our modern fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information, demands a lot from modern citizens, and poses great obstacles to narrative." In essence, this is Generation A’s message: that so much of the technology by which people are now surrounded inhibits the simple human ability to appreciate the tapestry of narratives that make up the world’s collective story. In a post-modern sense, Coupland is writing about the angst of being a modern author, but in a wider sense he is writing simply about the way we now live.

Generation X remains Coupland’s best known novel and the title Generation A clearly points back to this landmark book. In his now famous commencement address at Syracuse University in 1994, Kurt Vonnegut said this to his young audience: "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago". Coupland is doubtless referencing this speech as much as his own text in the title here, but the characters that inhabit Generation A have the same sense of being part of humanity’s final step into oblivion that Generation X suggests. If Vonnegut was suggesting the opposite – that while each generation might judge itself to be the last before the apocalyptic end of civilisation, they are simply part of a long, on-going line of humanity and are placed no differently to any generation that may have preceded them – then Coupland doesn’t seem to be buying it.

As with much of Coupland’s fiction there are some really good ideas, from the small details to the overarching set-up, but most of these are squandered and somehow the plot doesn’t quite come together. There are points, too, at which the plot feels particularly contrived and characters are carried along without serious explanation for their behaviour: why, for example do six fully cognizant young people allow themselves to be carried off to a remote island and then go through the (seemingly) pointless exercise of telling one another stories? Are they all so vapid that it never occurs to them to resist such inexplicable and tedious use of their time?

There are a few issues with the characters more generally: they’re all young and relatively attractive, characterisation is fairly thin and occasionally falls into stereotype, and, more damningly, the majority aren’t that interesting. The best of the bunch is probably Harj – his insights into Western culture as an outsider are, at least, a refreshing break from the dull drone of the other characters. And it is a drone, with one character’s voice blending into the next, save for some ‘character traits’. Of these, Diana’s Tourette’s is particularly poorly realised as it seems to be used more as a foul-mouthed truth serum than anything else (although the most publicised effect, spontaneous shouting of curse words is a minority symptom of Tourette’s and doesn’t particularly act as a verbalisation of the speaker’s inner thoughts but more like an unconscious tic).

Of the good ideas referred to above, one of the most pleasing is the idea of Solon: a drug that stops people worrying about the future and allows them to live only in the moment. A particularly Kantian idea of time, but one that doesn’t actually seem to have any impact on the characters in the book or societies in which they exist. If Solon is a satirical device meant to examine the state of an entire generation medicated into near oblivious sedation then one might expect some stronger demonstration of the impact of Solon.

Generation A is in no small part a thriller: a rolling story that relies on the mystery of the situation to keep the reader interested. Unfortunately, the novel’s conclusion, rather than being revelatory, is unsatisfying: it opens up a lot of questions and feels like the easy way out of the story. More importantly the second half of the novel – in which the character’s own stories take over – is where, ironically, Coupland’s story loses momentum.

In The Information, Martin Amis writes about pretentious pseudo-author Gwyn Barry and his bestselling novel ‘Amelior’, in which six young people wind up on a deserted island and have to build a fresh society in a new age pseudo-psychological thriller. It’s satire, but Generation A comes worryingly close to making ‘Amelior’ a reality, and it is only Coupland’s good ideas that save the novel from falling into this trap. Of these good ideas, neat touches and details, few are developed and serve only to leave one’s whetted appetite frustrated. Many of the techniques – throw away ideas that build the world, of snatches of plot – might have been better suited to the short story form, where less depth is expected. Here, though, the result is a rather superficial novel, which never gets beneath many of the good ideas within it.

The novel doesn't really come together but there are lots of good ideas embedded in the story that make it an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Useful Links
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (US)

Anagrams #003: Wolf Hall Characters

With the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel, Wolf Hall is one of best known novels of recent years but how many characters from this Tudor epic do you recognise from the list of anagrams below?









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Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time book cover
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon is, ostensibly, a murder mystery. Things are not quite that formulaic, however. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone – who has Autism – narrates the story, which is set in motion by the murder of Wellington, a neighbour’s poodle. Christopher stumbles upon the murdered dog and sets about trying, like one of his heroes Sherlock Holmes, to solve the case, reasoning that the murder of a dog is no less a crime than the murder of a human. This may be his starting point, but as Christopher’s investigations take shape, it becomes clear that there are mysteries closer to home for him to uncover than the murder of Wellington. What unfolds is a truly moving story about (a lack of) connection, Christopher’s need to understand the world, and how a child’s illness can affect many around them.

Christopher is entirely dependent on others to shape his own reality, he not being able to trust his own impression of things. At one level this is an interesting insight into how confusing a place the world can be for someone in Christopher’s position, but it also begins to touch on the sense that all reality is a social construct. Indeed, Haddon uses Christopher’s condition to explore bigger themes about the human condition, not only the construction of personal realities but issues of (dis)connection, and the power of language and communication to shape the world and bridge (or widen) the gap between people.

Despite the larger themes, this is a very personal story and the conceit – that one is reading the first-person story of Christopher – provides a remarkably immersive reading experience. His condition affects every aspect of his life and small details are slipped effortlessly into the story, providing the reader with a real understanding of the machinations of the narrator’s mind. Christopher, we learn, does not like metaphors as they are essentially lies (which confuse and trouble him) and so there are no flowery descriptions here, but instead fine details as Christopher catalogues everything around him in an attempt to record and understand it all. His blunt way of approaching the world is completely disarming and one is carried along with his narrative, despite little happening in the plot for significant periods.

While the plot may appear small from the outside, it is much larger for Christopher: it is a quest not just in search of the murderer, or even of personal discovery, but also a quest for truth – an opportunity for Christopher to break many of the shackles that bind him and dispel some of the lies that he has been told to keep him from harm. In this sense, The Curious Incident is a novel about facing reality, in whatever form it takes, and choosing truth over comfort. This is particularly difficult for Christopher who likes routine and wants everything to have an understandable, rational order.

The first part of the novel takes place in a very small space, geographically; Christopher lives a very routine-driven life, and has few experiences outside of his home, school, and the road that he lives on. It is for this reason that his escapades in the second part of the novel – as his investigation carries him further afield – are so significant (and frightening for him). Haddon does an excellent job of first demonstrating Christopher’s comfort in his surroundings by having his child-narrator write about them in great detail, and then his discomfort in unfamiliar surroundings, as Christopher refuses to engage with the new stimuli to a large extent, finding them overwhelming and upsetting. Of course, this leap from comfort to discomfort is something that anyone can identify with, no matter the specifics of the leap. Thus, as the plot thickens and his life is turned upside down, things get particularly tricky for him. To do everything required to reach the truth requires courage and by the novel’s end it is clear that Christopher has learnt something important about himself – that he can do anything:

“And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own, and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington? And I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.”

Christopher’s straight-forward, emotionless style of narration can be incredibly affecting, particularly when he relays information that should be laced with emotion and, in the hands of another narrator, would be handled far less bluntly. In a strange paradox, this absence of emotion somehow makes the statements more poignant for the reader, who is left to feel in Christopher’s place, and creates a real throbbing connection between reader and text as they see beyond Christopher’s (limited) perspective, and recognise the feeling in even the smallest of acts:

“Father was standing in the corridor. He held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan. I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other. We do this because sometimes Father wants to give me a hug, but I do not like hugging people, so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.”

Autism comes in so many forms that it’s hard to say that any particular representation in fiction is a full, or accurate, account. However, in Christopher, Haddon has created a very believable character who offers an insight into the mind of an individual with autism. There are qualms, of course, about the tendency of art to depict those at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, but, particularly in a novel narrated by an autistic character, there are evident advantages to this.

There are small quirks to Christopher’s narration that are pleasing touches – the chapters, for example, being numbered not with consecutively ascending numbers but instead with prime numbers, which Christopher finds far more interesting. ("Prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.") And there are nice details outside of the narration, creating the sense of a novel thoroughly well thought out and executed. The title, for example, is a nod to Conan Doyle, whose books Christopher enjoys a lot, and is a neat pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes-type title, if, in Christopher’s own style, far more explicatory than Doyle’s.

Christopher’s narrative creates a different angle from which to view the world, and one that had not, at the time of The Curious Incident’s publication, been used too often. As such, the book has a freshness that makes it incredibly readable. More than that, however, it is a perfectly plotted and really well written read. Despite being positioned as a young adult book (albeit with plenty of swearing), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a book that can be read and enjoyed by just about anyone – a truly moving, accessible, and smart novel.

I read this for the first time quite a while ago: love it. Charming, smart and heart-felt.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: February 2015

Generation A by Douglas Coupland book cover
2015 has been rather up and down at this end so far, but one thing that can be said is that my reviewing year has started very nicely with a whole four reviews posted during January – volume almost unheard of in these part for quite some time. Bloody cheerful fare too, no? The moral bankruptcy of capitalism, suicide bombers, and the Holocaust – these are topics set to get anyone’s New Year off to a flying start, no? Stick with me, though, I promise it won’t be all doom and gloom (despite my natural proclivities) – just don’t ask me what I’m reading at the moment!

So, how to make February a little cheerier? Thankfully, it’s not hard to raise the mood with the bar set as low as it was in January (even pulling back from mass murder, and settling on no more than one death per book would be a decent start, no?). I’m going to start by reading some Douglas Coupland – he’s an author I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while and as a friend suggested I might enjoy his writing based on my debut novel sharing certain themes about the digital age with Coupland’s fiction, I thought I’d give him a go. The first novel of his that I found in my local library was Generation A – perhaps not his most critically-acclaimed work, but you can’t beat convenience, so I quickly scooped it up into the armful of library reads I’d already been tempted by. Generation A is a novel set in the near future – a future where bees are extinct! (Yes, that does require an exclamation mark.) It is a surprise then, when five unconnected individuals are all stung – cue a series of strange events, culminating in a story-telling marathon (obviously). I’m looking forward to it already.

My book club are going to be reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for the next meeting, so I’ll be re-reading that too as it’s been a while since I first read it. It’s one of those books I just kind of assume everyone’s read, for whatever reason (like Wuthering Heights or Harry Potter). Strange isn’t it – when your expectation is flipped and you’re genuinely surprised when someone says they haven’t read a book? (Recently someone reader-y tried to convince me they’d never heard of Vladimir Nabokov. Naturally, I played along with their little jape – what fun, I thought, to pretend never to have heard of one of the greatest novelists of the last century – and then immediately disassociated myself from them.) For those who haven’t read The Curious Incident yet, I really recommend it – it’s narrated by a 15-year-old boy with autism and is pretty smashingly well done. Obviously, I’ll reveal all in my review.

This is where things get a bit trickier on the up-beat front. I’ve got a stack of non-fiction that I’m working my way through – more bashing of capitalism, an exposé on Aussie rules rapists, an anthropologist’s take on internet trolls turned activists, and more – so I fear my options for cheery reads are limited. Feel free to make suggestions for peppy reads, full of sugar-coated smiles and happy endings at every turn. (Obviously, I won’t take up any of the suggestions, but sometimes it’s nice to get a glimpse of the bright side.)

Until next month, much book-y love to you all.

Notable Posts from December
Review: Revolution by Russell Brand
Review: A Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy
Review: Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota
Review: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Review: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis book cover
The Zone of Interest (2014) is Martin Amis’s second novel to tackle the Holocaust. His first, Time’s Arrow, was experimental fiction, but here the story is rooted firmly in the grim reality of Auschwitz; weaving together the lives of a small handful of characters, the novel is a very human look at the day-to-day life of an extermination camp. Three first-person narrators unfurl the story: Angelus ‘Golo’ Thompson (a womaniser and less than committed Nazi), Paul Doll (the largely inept camp Commandant, who worries more about the financial implications of mass murder than his marriage), and Szmul (a conflicted Jewish prisoner who, as a Sonderkommando, helps to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers – a true witness). The plot, if there is one, is driven by a love triangle between Golo and Paul Doll’s wife, Hannah. But this is somewhat secondary to the reflections of the three characters on their situation. Szmul is perhaps the most ponderous and thoughtful of the voices, but between them they paint a disturbing picture of the madness that pervaded the time and place. This is mass murder, normalised and for profit.

Amis, as he notes himself in the essay that follows his novel, has a preoccupation with the Holocaust – perhaps, as W. G. Sebald says, “No serious person ever thinks of anything else”. Here, his fictional concentration camp is used in a number of ways to help him achieve a real range of depth in the novel as it twists between very ordinary, mundane concerns, and the cataclysmic duty of mass-extermination. While the industrial scale of murder carried out between the novel’s pages, all overseen by only half-cognizant bureaucrats, is a truly chilling picture of what human beings are capable, it is the individual voices of the three narrators against which the atrocities are off-set that create the truly interesting dynamic. All three are complicit in the acts that take place in the camp, and each brings to the story different concerns, from Doll’s blustering bureaucratic fears about the cost of extermination and how this detracts from the war effort, to Szmul’s most resonant laments about the (human) cost of extermination. For each, the camp acts as a mirror that allows them to see more clearly: “you come to the Zone of Interest and it tells you who you are.”

Undoubtedly, Amis’s fiction has become increasingly preoccupied with the Big Issues, possibly going back to Einstein’s Monsters, his 1987 collection of short stories on nuclear armament. The Zone of Interest is his second novel to deal with the Holocaust, and he’s written about the Gulag too, in Koba the Dread. For a large part of the twenty-first century, however, Amis’s chief concern has been with the most modern Big Issue: 9/11 and radical Islam. In The Second Plane – a collection of essays and short pieces on the topic – Amis writes of his inability to find a suitable response in fiction to 9/11, and for an author who has approached the grimmest of topics, this is surprising. Since The Second Plane was published in 2008, Amis has released three novels: The Pregnant Widow (2010), Lionel Asbo (2012), and The Zone of Interest (2014). Each has felt like the retracing of old themes for Amis – sexual politics, satire on the modern condition played for humour, and now the seriousness of Big Events seen through Amis’s unique lens. It is almost as if, having stalled on the most prescient event of the twenty-first century, Amis has regressed to well-trodden, and more familiar topics. Following that logic, it would be no surprise to see his next novel dealing with the very particular anxieties of the writer and his craft ala The Information – but that is a rather flippant suggestion. If Amis is keen on dealing with the Big Issues, one can’t help but feel he would be best off setting aside all the history books and immersing himself in the present, allowing his instinct to guide his writing. Authors will write about the Holocaust for years to come – another tome to the collection can add very little on its own – but for Amis to be engaged in the present and turn his remarkable literary talent to addressing the world as it lives around him would be of immense value.

Reading The Zone of Interest, it is clear that Amis has read extensively on his topic – almost to the point of weighing the prose down with the density of fact over the freedom of fiction – but even were this not evident from the novel’s text, the book is concluded with a seven-page essay called “Acknowledgments and Afterword: ‘That Which Happened’”, which, through a dizzying number of references, impresses upon the reader the remarkable amount of research Amis has done.m While the literary shadow of Nabokov remains over Amis’s prose, it is the historians’ sentiments that creep into paragraph after paragraph of the novel, and to conclude said novel with an essay feels somehow heavy handed. The level of research is remarkable, but there is a fine line between historical exactness and overburdening a piece of fiction.

A lot of reviews have lauded the dark humour of The Zone of Interest, and the humour is often very subtle, or, arguably, non-existent. Certainly, it is a different type of humour from much of Amis’s writing, and, more generally, The Zone of Interest seems to be one of the straightest of Amis’s novels. Where there is humour, it is largely underpinned by the moral disgust one must feel at the events that took place in the concentration camps, and thus the prose has a weightiness not always felt in Amis’s writing, particularly his humour. Much of the satire is directed at the language of bureaucracy, even if here the bureaucracy is that of the National Socialists and their killing machine. Doll, in particular, is an excellent comic creation: a very familiar, self-aggrandising and rather pompous middle manager, but in the most unfamiliar situation possible. Where Doll and even Golo are humorous, Szmul brings the reader closest to the reality of the situation that all three exist in. He is the reminder that beneath any laughter, bitter or otherwise, every word in The Zone of Interest portrays, in essence, the worst place on Earth.

Although The Zone of Interest feels like something different from Amis’s normal satiric style, you still feel his presence, lurking behind every sentence, slipping words into the mouths of his three narrators whenever he cannot contain the desire to include one of his literary flourishes. However, The Zone of Interest is remarkable for an Amis book in featuring barely one truly engaging sentence. There is a familiar arrogance to the writing though. For example, the occasional German word is dropped into the dialogue, which, in honesty, becomes quite irritating. In true Amisian style, this use of German frequently revolves around sex - vulgarisms dropped in for humorous effect (“the brambles of her Busch ... the great oscillating hemispheres of her Arsch”)

The Zone of Interest is a realist, historical novel, which displays few of Amis’s familiar stylistic tropes – the linguistic flourishes are severley dampened, the humour is subtle and, above all, there is a straight-faced seriousness to the whole business. Certainly there are farcical characters / riffs, but here Amis uncurls his lip, normally so sneeringly amused, and instead furrows his brows in shared contemplation of an event in the collective history of humanity that still baffles in its scale and inhumanity. It’s refreshing to see that Amis still has new tricks in his locker, but somehow The Zone of Interest is not as engaging as much of his fiction, despite finding new depths. If the reader is left with one message, it is that words are impotent in the face of atrocities like the Holocaust – they cannot carry us to a place of understanding. When Szmul says that he “need[s] something more than words,” he is not the only one.

I read this about six months ago and it's really difficult to write a review after such a long period - at the time I really didn't get on with the book, but looking back now I'm having my doubts. Teach me to get on with reviews!

Useful Links
Reviews of The Zone of Interest on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Zone of Interest on Amazon (US)

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Review: Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota

Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota border=
Imtiaz Raina is a happily married man, young father, moderate Muslim, and British Asian. He is also a suicide bomber. Well, almost. Ours are the Streets (2011) is Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel, and the story of Imtiaz, a young man from Sheffield who, following the death of his father, tries to find an identity for himself back in Pakistan – from where his family originate, and some still live. His search for identity brings him to radical Islam, however, and when he returns to Britain he is a changed man. Becka, his British wife, quails at the change in her husband and soon Imtiaz, soon separated from his wife and daughter, is more isolated than ever. As the days tick down until he plans to blow up a local shopping centre in Sheffield, Imtiaz begins to record his final thoughts in a journal – a way of reaching out to those lost to him, and recording his own personal story.

Save for a few short lines, there is very little sign in the narrative of Imtiaz’s genuine estrangement from the British society in which he has grown up – he appears well-adjusted, with a wife and child, settled and without suffering from any particular marginalisation. In fact, more than anything it appears to be the death of his father that sparks his need to connect with his roots and his subsequent radicalisation (which is also largely glossed over). This style of narration, where all keys to the supposed plot are unwritten, quite possibly suggests both that much of the narrative Imtiaz writes for himself comes from within, and that Ours are the Streets is not truly a story of radicalisation but of a young man who, like many before him, finds himself hopelessly lost in the world and in need of direction to fight off the nonchalant apathy he feels towards the rather dull and straight-forward existence into which he has fallen. For Imtiaz, though, even the potent single-mindedness of jihad cannot truly engage him, and, like Meursault before him, he is pushed in one direction after another by those with a will greater than his own. Put simply, what Imtiaz wants is a place in the world and a story to call his own. In this way, Ours are the Streets is far from being a ‘terrorism’ novel.

Imtiaz’s ennui is particular to those torn between cultures. One suspects that many British Asians will identify with Imtiaz when he states that he "felt fine rooting for Liverpool, in a quiet way, but not England", and torn as he ends up "defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims". This lack of belonging is an undercurrent in Imtiaz’s life until the death of his father, which leads to him visiting his parents’ homeland. The sections in Pakistan and Kashmir, as Imtiaz finds a heritage and sense of belonging that he yearns for, are strong – the descriptions of the simple life of the protagonist’s remote family, the dusty roads, hard labour, and smiling poverty that he experiences, create a really fertile atmosphere for Imtiaz to ‘find himself’ and become radicalised. How realistic or how sugar-coated Sahota’s and Imtiaz’s reporting of his Asian experience are is impossible to tell, but one suspects this is the view of a man longing for identity and buying into the myths about the ‘simple life’ sold to the disenfranchised. It is easy, however, to appreciate the sense of identity that Imtiaz finds in a place where he always referred to as "so and so's grandson or such and such's nephew.” Indeed, the radicalisation that takes place on Imtiaz’s trip is perhaps less about hating the West, and more about wanting to fit in with this new found heritage – disassociating himself from the West in the eyes of his family and new friends back in Pakistan and proving to them that he is one of them and not, as they might suggest, a Westernised Muslim, who is as foreign to their homeland as visitors who more visibly stand out.

The narrative is supposed to be Imtiaz’s journal: his last testimony and a few precious words for the loved ones he leaves behind. However, this conceit falters almost instantly as the journal jumps from addressing Imtiaz’s mother and his young daughter to describing sex acts he received in dark alleys as a student. As the novel unfolds, the journal as a literary device all but falls apart, with the narrator drifting off into inappropriate and unlikely diversions, and the general idea being ignored by Sahota when it suits the plot. For large parts the narration is written as if spoken, too, and time and frame become blurred, not to mention the incongruence of having large chunks of plot inserted into the, presumably emotive, writings of a man about to depart from this world. The biggest problem, however, is that the author attempts to show the increasing paranoia of his protagonist and the shift in his psyche from outsider to violent militant, in a re-shaping, or at least questioning, of reality reminiscent of American Psycho. However, as the journal is supposedly written after Imtiaz’s radicalisation and in his final days, his mind-set, and thus his reporting of events, should spring from this perspective, rather than the more sympathetic one that Sahota affords his narrator. This give the author a real problem, one that he never really gets to grips with.

Aside from this evident problem, Imtiaz as a character is disconnected enough from his actions (and life) to be neither likeable nor unlikeable. He is, however, very human – even if his (humanising) struggles with daily life are largely glossed over. His occasional breaks into humour show the cheeky kid he is inside and at all turns he tries to do the right things by the people who he cares most about at the time (first Becca and his daughter, and later his brothers in (radical) Islam). This unthinking co-operation on his part makes his actions almost amoral, conveying neither positive nor negative traits about the narrator, again reminiscent of Meursault’s indifferent compliance in The Outsider. In keeping with this disconnected stance, Ours are the Streets trades little on affecting the reader’s emotions, save for a small emotional kick towards the novel’s conclusion. Another sign of the resigned way Imtiaz is carried along by the momentum towards goals set out by others is the increasingly frequent use of ‘ameen’ to close paragraphs, almost like the persistent refrain of ‘so it goes’ that marks each death in Slaughterhouse-Five. Here the technique feels hollow somehow, perhaps reflecting Imtiaz’s own lack of engagement with his own radicalisation, or perhaps simply indicating a half-formed idea on the author’s part.

In truth, quite a lot of the novel feels underdeveloped, although, again, whether this is a stylistic choice or not it is a little hard to tell. The result, however, is a fictional reality that feels rather thin and is frequently unconvincing. The prose, too, is sloppy in places and this slowly drains the reader’s confidence in Sahota’s abilities as the pages drift by. There is certainly something to the novel – the blending of the Angry Young Man narrative with the idea of radical Islam is a decent concept and, while he is impossible to truly understand, Imtiaz represents a group of people (young, torn between cultures) that is worth exploring in fiction. Sadly, the execution is not good enough here, and Sahota fails to develop the things that might make Ours are the Streets stand out. Instead, what is left is a fairly predictable, even clichéd, story of extremism which does very little to challenge the reader.

To be completely honest, I didn't get a lot from this: I didn't find the plot enlightening in any way and the prose was fairly standard fare, nothing to particularly engage.

Useful Links
Reviews of Ours are the Streets on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Ours are the Streets on Amazon (US)

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