I can see why people study this

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren is dying. Or is she dead already? Nothing is ever quite clear in this brilliant but challenging American classic. It probably helps if you are familiar with the vernacular of 1920s Mississippi. I really am not.

The story is told by various characters in or observing the Bundren family as their matriarch dies and is transported to her hometown to be buried. Stream of consciousness is used rather than past-tense “this is what happened”. The voices are very different and, except for the occasional lapse into straight storytelling, the characterisation is excellent.

Characters are not formally introduced, with it sometimes taking several chapters to figure out how two people are related, which has the effect of making you feel that you have come into the story partway through. This is fantastic in terms of realism but can make the story hard to follow. There are also some scenes that are described by more than one character, making it appear that time is not quite linear.

Helpfully, the character who narrates the most – Darl – is a dreamer and his descriptions are more poetic than the others’. In his voice Faulkner writes some beautiful vignettes of simple scenes of life, from flowing water to the night sky. The other characters regard Darl with suspicion but it is not until near the end of the book that it becomes clear why.

This is a very poor family, farmers who feel strongly their differences from the likes of town folk. They work hard for the little they have and pride overrules most everything else. This is central to what would otherwise be a very difficult book to understand.

This certainly isn’t a light read. It makes you think about life and death and the relative values that you place on things. It can be tough to follow and the language can be a barrier. But it’s worth the effort for those moments of poetry and the brutal honesty of people when in their darkest hour.

First published 1930 in the USA.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.

Family matters

This week I have been preoccupied with family. My sister is visiting from the US for the first time in over three years so we are spending lots of time catching up, wondering whether to visit some sights or just carry on chatting. Talking is winning, partly thanks to the abysmal weather.

I have always been a person to rate my friends over my family but that’s not to say I don’t love my family. We’re not that similar as people but we obviously have shared history and I know from experience that my family will always be there for me, no matter what. I like to think my friends would as well but I haven’t tested them nearly as thoroughly!

There’s a great comfort in turning up at my childhood home and letting that huge catalogue of memories wash over me. It’s changed but is still the same. I know every picture on the walls and the history behind them, even as the furnishings gradually get replaced. I know each contour of the garden and where things are kept in the kitchen. At my Dad’s encouragement I help myself to food and drink at all times of day and night like I’m a teenager again. I scan through the bookshelves lovingly, picking out books from my childhood or degree course that ended up here.

It must be quite different for my sister who left home younger than I did and has been back far less frequently. She doesn’t know the story of the “best cutlery” in the box under the sofa and far fewer of her belongings are scattered around here, muddled up with everything else. I must talk to her about this tomorrow.

My sister and I are close in age and, perhaps for the first time, at essentially the same place in our lives, so we have a lot to talk about. It’s fun to chat as adults (although there’s still plenty of whinging about parents) and we relate better now than we ever have before. That said, seeing so little of one another puts us in that awkward position where we’re not familiar enough with each other’s daily life, friends, boss, etc to discuss them freely the way you can with friends you see all the time. And having such a short time together means you avoid any potentially touchy subjects. I know that my sister and I are capable of fighting – we shared a room for most of our childhood!

Still, it’s been great to have this time and I will be sad on Sunday when she’s gone. Will definitely have to add “Save up money and annual leave to visit Ruth next year” to the to do list.

In the words of the late great Mr Peel

The Olivetti Chronicles: Three Decades of Life and Music
by John Peel

John Peel isn’t remembered primarily for his writing but it’s something he did a lot of. He wrote almost-weekly columns for 30 years, for various publications from Disc to the Observer to BIKE. He wrote in much the same manner as he spoke on the radio – warm, funny and not shy of a little vitriole.

The writing in this collection was selected by his family and his son William writes a touching introduction explaining the project, the title (Peel wrote almost exclusively on an old Olivetti typewriter) and his own reaction to his father’s writing (“well observed and entertaining”). The topics are pretty varied. Obviously music is well covered (classical as well as rock) but there’s also football, television, trips abroad, family life, friendship, comedy, hangovers and some ramblings that don’t seem to have any real subject at all. Not that that matters.

There is a difference in tone between Peel’s writing from the early 1970s – which is often surreal and generally has him referring to himself in the third person – and the writing from the last ten years of his life – which tends to be more sentimental. But it is all undeniably Peel, with a love of music and his family and friends shining above everything else.

The gig reviews are a treat. They are not something I usually enjoy reading unless I am familiar with the band in question but Peel’s reviews are a wonder. He invokes the atmosphere of the crowd, the quality of the venue and the performances with astonishing vividness. Whether enthusing, pouring scorn or withholding judgement, the depth of his music knowledge is clear and you feel sure you would agree, had you been at the same gig. In fact, to test this (and also because I was a fan of his Radio 1 show some years ago) I compiled a Spotify playlist of records that he recommends in these columns. Hopefully it will work if you click here (though there’s a chance it won’t outside the UK – apologies for that). It’s a pretty mixed bag, as anyone familiar with John Peel would expect. As he says himself, “The programmes I do for Radio 1 have always been (roughly) based on the principle that what you’re buying, listening to and enjoying is all very well but there exists also something else, less favoured, but equally worthy of your attention.”

The funniest columns are, in my view, those in which he lays into something – be it a famous person, TV show or reader’s letter – with gusto. Peel was not a man to pussyfoot over opinions. He compares Eurovision to a long-drawn-out car crash, describes John Denver and the Carpenters as “cake-mixers” and Billy Joel as “Elton John without the costume, the sense of the preposterous or the tunes”. But this is balanced by the almost-as-harsh words he has for himself: fat, boring and bald being his favoured adjectives.

Peel’s astonishing honesty and openness made him an excellent writer, if his grammar and typing skills did not. It was a real joy to hear his voice again and I will definitely be dipping back into this book from time to time.

Published 2008 by Bantam Press

Loser comedy

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
by Toby Young

This infamous “memoir” is funny and entertaining but not brilliantly written. Young repeats himself endlessly and uses too many quotes from philosophers and sociologists in an attempt to make himself sound intelligent. I’m sure he is, but that isn’t the way to convey it. He also rails on quite a bit about his slightly famous titled father, which gets tedious.

What this book does provide, and this is probably the basis for its success, is a satisfyingly glib insight into the more glamorous side of the media. He drops many a household name, giving away all sorts of details you can only assume no-one agreed to in advance. As a journalist who readily admits that he wasn’t suitable for the job he was given at Vanity Fair, Young’s viewpoint and experiences are accessible and even likeable, despite the title.

Apparently, if you want to know which friends he actually lost by writing this, you have to read the sequel, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, but I am not at all tempted. Young has a lot of fans, and maybe their ardour and hype had raised my expectations unnaturally high but, though I have no problem with the “loser” premise, I just didn’t think was very good.

Published 2002 by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-3491-1485-9

High culture v low culture

This is a topic that fascinates me. It has been debated over and over whether “low culture” (by which I mean such things as gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, celebrity biographies, trashy romance novels, generic Hollywood romcoms, generic Hollywood action films, reality TV, soaps, graffiti, all-girl pop bands, etc etc) is somehow a threat to “real” art and artists, or perhaps to society as a whole. Is it demeaning to people in general to pitch the majority of culture to the lowest common denominator? Or does popular culture exist because people…want it?

I have no problem with debate but I do get annoyed with the demand that you must take one of two extreme opposite sides and if you don’t you are indecisive, woolly and not worth listening to. I am perfectly capable of forming an opinion. Sometimes that opinion sits squarely, or close to, one side of a debate. But not always. Sometimes my opinion is genuinely inbetween two extremes or a combination of both sides. Sometimes I struggle to see why there has to be division in the first place. But that’s just me (I’m not naive, just peaceloving).

In this case I am a lover of some forms of both high and low culture. I mean, there’s examples of both that I consider to be vile, but we’ll steer clear of that for now. I have read both Ulysses and Harry Potter and did not love either. I am a big fan of the theatre and films but I am also a telly addict and have spent many happy hours watching Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Black Books and a host of other shows. Not reality TV though. None of that.

It makes me think of shoulder pads

Company
by Max Barry

I am a fan of Max Barry so it’s no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It did take me longer to get into than his previous novels Syrup and Jennifer Government because the setting was so very…corporate. But then that’s what it’s all about: corporations.

This is a comedy, a satire really, about big business. Barry takes lots of extreme examples of corporate practices (including some that must surely be entirely his own imagination, right?) and crams them in to one extremely funny book.

Good satire uses characters and situations that are recognisable to the reader. You know that people like this exist, though in most cases you hope to not come across too many examples of them in real life. It’s the combination of extremes, plus some skillful writing, that makes it funny.

This can lead to ill-formed caricatures that fail to emotionally engage the reader, which isn’t the end of the world for me but can be offputting for some people. The characters in Company are definitely three-dimensional but I must admit to lacking any great interest in their fates. The book has an epilogue featuring some of the key characters that to me felt superfluous – the previous chapter had a better, more final ending. But no doubt other readers will appreciate the confirmation of who ended up where.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot at all yet. This is because there is a plot development early on that is pivotal to the story but I really hesitate to reveal it to potential readers. So if you haven’t read the book yet and think that maybe you might (and I highly recommend it) then you should stop reading this review here. No, really. But come back when you’ve read it and let me know what you thought.

So, for those of you who have already read the book or really don’t mind spoilers, I will continue.

It was suggested to me that this novel isn’t true satire because Barry uses a plot device to explain the sheer number of and extremity of the management techniques that this company – Zephyr Holdings Inc. – uses. It turns out that Zephyr is a fake conpany being used – against the knowledge of its employees – as a testbed for management techniques. The novel starts with the first of day of work for new employee Stephen Jones. His suspicions are quickly aroused when he discovers that no one can tell him what Zephyr actually does. He is an idealistic recent graduate and is appalled when he stumbles on the truth. At first he lets himself be persuaded that it’s not so bad, that the findings of research here go into extremely popular management textbooks and therefore any progress they make is good for the whole world. However, his conversations with those in charge soon dispell this myth.

I really enjoyed the brief scenes between Jones and his sister as he tries to explain his new job or Zephyr itself and it’s so clear that the situation is bizarre. They are a great contrast with daily life at the office where hundreds of employees accept the weirdness of Zephyr. It’s an excellent device that allows Barry to really push the depiction of a big international company to extremes without it being unbelievable. This isn’t about humdrum pointlessness like Office Space, this is about companies treating their employees badly and knowing that they are doing so, in the name of productivity or cost-effectiveness or whatever the latest buzzword is.

There are some interesting subplots, such as the salesman obsessed with finding out who stole his doughnut (and I mean obsessed) or the woman who falls in love with her customers. There’s also some good variations on office romance, with a few different angles covered.

So is it satire if you have an excuse for the far-fetched plot? I think so. And if not, this is still a very well observed, archly funny novel about a situation that we’re all quite happy to see picked apart.

Published 2007 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-1-4000-7937-7

Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0

If I had one wish I'd ask for infinite wishes

A barman at our local asked the other day what I would wish for if I had one wish. I think my answer – “I would wish to never be ill” – threw him a little but it was the first thing my brain came up with. It’s a pretty selfish wish, when I could have plumped for world peace, or an end to all suffering, or for the proposed solutions to global warming to all immediately be put in place and to work…lots of things really.

The thing is, I’m ill a lot of the time. It sucks. I have a handful of chronic diseases that together conspire to have me overtired, in pain or otherwise non-functional for far too much of the time. I mean – just think what I could achieve if I didn’t have to rest for half the day and sleep for 10 hours a night; if I had bounding energy and enthusiasm. I could be an unstoppable force for good!

Which is not only selfish but megalomaniacal. Because who’s to say that I’ve got it right? That my ideas will make the world any better? We all think that if we ruled the world we could sort all the shit out but it’s not that simple, obviously. We all think differently. My perfect world is another man’s nightmare. Which is the basis for many brilliant books.

Do all politicians start out thinking that they’re going to make the world a better place? It must be so disappointing when it turns out to be all compromise and stalemates. Which of course was the take-home lesson of West Wing.

Anyway, assuming that you’re not allowed to ask for more wishes, which would clearly be cheating, what would you wish for?

Light on the heavy

Petite Anglaise
by Catherine Sanderson

Having been a fan of the blog for years it’s not a huge surprise that I loved this book. It was the first blog I ever read and opened up a whole new world to me. Now the book has filled in many of the blanks that were necessarily kept out of the blog at the time.

I will add that, had I not read the blog, I very much doubt I would have been attracted to this book. I am not a fan of chick lit with all those pink covers and hapless heroines. That was a phase I went through as a teenager and even then I knew that the books were rubbish. This book is being marketed as chick lit and it does have some things in common with that genre – loveable heroine, an emphasis on the romances in her life, an easy-to-read style, approachable sense of humour. However, Petite Anglaise also deals with some serious, painful, life-altering events (and I don’t mean getting married) and a quick scan through the comments on Amazon proves that lovers of chick-lit are not the right market. Not to mention that it’s very well written.

For those who don’t know the background, Catherine Sanderson started the blog Petite Anglaise in 2004, documenting life as an Englishwoman living in Paris with her French partner and their baby daughter. As her relationship began to fall apart the writing became both more serious and more enticing, laced as it was with intense emotion. She eventually left her partner for a man she met through her blog and the story became one of the effort to be a good parent to her toddler while in the passionate throes of a new relationship. In 2006, Catherine was dumped and fired in a short space of time. Her employer cited her blog as the reason for firing her. Having taken great care to keep her real name, line of work and indeed any detail about that side of her life out of the blog, Catherine took her former employer to court claiming unfair dismissal and won.

Obviously much more has happened to Catherine since that day, but this is where the book ends and it is a suitable full stop. She is now a full-time writer and in 2009 announced that she was no longer going to blog, except for updates about her books. Her writing was always so good that you felt this was where she should end up and I look forward to reading more of her output.

Published 2009 by Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-1410-3119-4