The right kind of quirky

Submarine
by Joe Dunthorne

I have heard a lot about this book over the past couple of years, including some fascinating interviews with the author about his second book, released last year. So I was very pleased when a friend offered to lend me both book and film.

It’s the story of Oliver, a teenage boy in Swansea with an overactive imagination and slightly detached emotions who somehow managed to draw me in without being an entirely sympathetic character. The book is set in 1997 and 1998, making Oliver’s world not very far removed from my own teenage years. Like a lot of 15 year olds, he has a lot on his plate. There’s mock GCSEs, girls, staying on the right side of the school bullies, his dad’s depression and his mum’s flirtation with her hippy ex-boyfriend. It’s a lot for one year, even without Oliver’s slightly unusual coping methods.

His way of dealing school bullies? Become one himself. Not that he’s ever the leader, but he hangs around with the bullies and views himself as one of them, though others don’t see him as a bully, which is just one of the clues that he is not an altogether reliable narrator. Another clue is his early visit to a physiotherapist, which Oliver arranges so that he can tell his parents he is seeing a therapist, which he hopes will make them open up to him. When he realises he recognises the doctor from his neighbourhood he starts to discuss various neighbours and is perturbed to be told that all his invented theories about them are wrong. So he decides that the doctor must be a compulsive liar.

There are two girls in Oliver’s life – Zoe, also known as Fat, and Jordana, another of the group who hang out with the bullies. Zoe is the prime subject of their bullying but Oliver can’t help noticing her perfect skin and thinks about ways to help her become a stronger person and not a victim. Jordana caught Oliver’s eye with her love for pyromania but since her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour she is getting softer, which Oliver dislikes.

Oliver’s narration is pitch perfect. He is intelligent, with a love of words and meanings, but his skewed view of the world produces a lot of humour. He does not see the ridiculousness of some of the situations he creates for himself. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage are at times extreme, but the fact that he is trying so hard for them is undeniably sweet. And it’s reassuring to see that he is not as cold as he can sometimes appear.

I did not laugh out loud but I did find this funny and very real. I am definitely interested in Dunthorne’s second book.

As an aside, the film of Submarine, directed by the excellent Richard Ayoade, is also very good. Though some details have been changed and for some reason Ayoade has chosen to not give the action a firm setting in time, he captures the mood of the book perfectly. How unusual: a book and film adaptation of it where I rate both highly!

First published by Hamish Hamilton 2008.

What’s in a name

Possession
by AS Byatt

This was a re-read that I sadly ended up rushing through because it was for book club and I didn’t give myself enough time. It’s a wonderful book, as literary as they come yet immensely readable.

The story begins with Roland, a postgrad scholar of the eminent (and fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovering long-hidden drafts of a love letter from Ash to a mystery woman. This is a potentially huge discovery, Ash having been assumed to be a dull, happily married type.

Thus begins the unravelling of great secrets, but Roland is jealous of his discovery and does not tell his university supervisor or his girlfriend Val. Instead he turns to a complete stranger, fellow academic Maud, because he suspects that the subject of her studies, minor Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, was also the subject of Ash’s letter.

Between letters, diaries, academic texts, poems and good old-fashioned third-person narrative, there are a lot of switches in style and voice in this book, yet it never feels as though that is the case. Similarly, like the poems being studied for clues, this text is packed full of allusions and references, but it doesn’t feel overly clever or difficult.

In some ways this book is very much a product of its time. It was written in the 1980s and Byatt gently satirises the times. Roland is emasculated by Val’s stronger earning power and neither of them ever says what they mean. Maud is surrounded by feminists who seem obsessed with lesbianism and anti-men sentiments. The shadow of AIDS looms large over thoughts of sex. But this is all subtly kept in the background.

At book club we discussed how you can read this book at many different levels. There is the surface level where it’s a romance/mystery/drama and is fun and enjoyable without requiring any background knowledge. There’s the satire on academia, particularly 1980s academia. And there’s the literary novel, referencing mainly Victorian poetry but also older texts such as Shakespeare and Ovid and I’m sure plenty more that I didn’t spot. The character names are carefully chosen for the literary allusions that they have. And at all these levels it works, works very well, without ever seeming to show off.

I’m told that The Children’s Book is another excellent Byatt read, and that just happens to be on my TBR (a kind Christmas present), so I expect to be breaking that out soon.

First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.

The trouble with eternal life

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969
by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

The first two volumes in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series were fantastic, a book lover’s dream, so I have continued buying all of the series even as they have gone (in my opinion) seriously downhill.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I recommend you check out the first two books and don’t read this review, because part of the pleasure of the first book is figuring out who the characters are. The first set were all taken from Victorian fiction, and some of those characters became the League, but the hints were dropped slowly as to who was who (in most cases, some were clear from the start).

Since those brilliantly clever beginnings, the plot has jumped forward in time to 1958 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier), back to 1910 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910) and now 1969. A final book set in 2009 is in the works.

In this volume, Mina and Allen are growing weary of eternal life (already!) and Orlando is, as ever, mid-change, so there’s a lot of tension in their little group. They have been called upon to investigate the murder of a pop star, which turns out to be related to a circle of black magicians and an attempt to create an antichrist (spot the Harry Potter references…).

As ever, every character and most (if not all) of the background detail is a reference to books, TV or films set in or around 1969. Possibly I’m not as familiar with that time, or possibly the references are getting more obscure (this has been mooted by a few critics) but I didn’t get that pleasure I got from the first few volumes at recognising the fictional references and how they all fitted together. And the 1960s setting appears to have given Moore licence to go all out on the sex front, with far too much of it for my liking (I’m no prude, but I prefer to read about it rather than see it). Add in drugs and psychedelia and it was pretty hard to follow what was actually a simple plot.

No doubt I will still buy the last book in the series, and I am interested to see what 2009 references it will incorporate, but I don’t hold high hopes for it being as good as the first volume.

Published 2011 by Knockabout Comics.

How could I resist that title?

The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe
by Alexandra Fox

This tiny little Leaf Book really packs an emotional punch. I am very moved.

It’s quite a straightforward story about an old man caring for his beloved wife, who is slipping away from him, no longer sure who he is. Tom remembers their meeting, their life together, while he prepares breakfast. So simple, but the language is exquisite. Tom is trying to write a song in his head for her, probably the last love song he will ever write, but he is finding it hard.

The title comes from a touching aside in the middle of the book, a short diversion from the main plot in a way, but in another way it’s part of a thread running through the story, a thread about identity and what you do with your life. It’s sad and beautiful.

I picked this book up from a publisher’s stall at BristolCon. The title appealed to me, as did the idea of selling short stories in little individual books. But most of all I am grateful to have discovered this new author. I have just spent hours reading more of her stories online and am excited by the hints that she might be writing a novel.

Published 2005 by Leaf Books.

The perils of social mobility

Pygmalion
by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.

The wrong side of quirky

No one belongs here more than you
by Miranda July

This collection of short stories is probably best described as…odd. July is a filmmaker, writer and performance artist and I remember liking her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The stories in this book have a similar sense of humour, offbeat and candid, but they also put me on edge.

July’s characters tend to be loners, sometimes for good reason. They are the socially awkward, the fantasy dwellers, the perpetual outsiders. And some writers do a fantastic job of making characters like these sympathetic, of making the reader inhabit them and their view of the world. July somehow does the opposite. She shows the world from their perspective but makes it jagged, difficult and largely unsympathetic. The humour is that awkward, “isn’t real life odd” humour of films such as Napoleon Dynamite or The Squid and the Whale, which for me is a bit of a hit and miss style.

The stories are interesting and explore quite different situations (generally awkward ones) but my main criticism would be that the narrators all tended to sound the same. They considered themselves more observant then others, felt they were making sacrifices for others without ever trying to see a situation from someone else’s perspective, and they were lonely. The other recurring theme (than being an outsider/lonely) was sexual taboos, by which I don’t mean the homosexuality that does indeed crop up several times, but rather themes such as sexual obsession, sex and old people, masturbation; even crossing the line into incest and paedophilia. The former I am fine with reading about but the last two do unnerve me.

July definitely has an original voice and perspective, and some of her observations were beautiful, while others were frankly disturbing. I suppose you might call this the darker side of quirky. Interesting, but not entirely comfortable reading.

Published 2007 by Canongate Books.

The danger of looking away

The Last King of Scotland
by Giles Foden

While I liked the film that was made of this novel, I wasn’t sure what more I would get out of the novel. I am glad that I was encouraged to read it because there is so much more here than I expected.

Dr Nicholas Garrigan is not the most likeable narrator, but somehow he keeps you reading. Young and lacking focus, he turns up in Uganda with no clear idea of the country’s politics or why he has chosen to practice medicine there. On his first day in the country, Idi Amin seizes power, his thugs roaming the streets, making the new situation clear. The British Embassy is quick to send Nicholas out of the capital to a remote village where a hospital is run by doctors from all over the world, their wages and equipment sourced from various aid agencies.

At this point Nicholas is just trying to be a doctor, though he can be naïve, or even thoughtless, and is hopeless with women. As the political situation worsens, and his co-workers worry about Amin’s policies, Nicholas determinedly stays out of it. Except that he insists on going to hear Amin speak and is caught up by the big man’s beguiling rhetoric. So when he gets the invitation to become Amin’s personal doctor he gladly accepts, much to the consternation of everyone at the village hospital.

Nicholas is drawn in by Amin’s magnetism and seems willing to overlook the frankly bonkers content of all his conversation. He is slightly afraid of Amin, but also fascinated, and continues to turn a blind eye to the increasing evidence for beatings, torture, death and disappearances at the hands of Amin’s men.

The blurb describes the book as a thriller and to some extent it does become that toward the end, but right from the start we know that Nicholas is narrating this from a few years later, in Scotland, from his own journals, so there is no tension as to whether he survives. But he does insinuate that it got pretty bad and berate himself for his stupidity and blindness.

It’s an interesting book and I felt that I learned a lot. I don’t know where Foden got the idea but the acknowledgements indicate that he did a lot of interviews and research before writing. Which is in an odd sort of way my only quibble with the book. As with all historical fiction I wanted to know which bits were fiction and which real and I would have liked an author’s note or something along those lines.

First published in 1998 by Faber and Faber.