Books-to-read shelf

Looking just about as packed as it ever has (am a pretty slow reader and don’t tend to read more than one book at once), although it’s pleasingly representative of the stuff I usually read. Readers’ recommendations as to what I should pick off the shelf next are welcome!

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Actually, at least one of these is well underway – I’m halfway through Ted Gioia’s ‘The History of Jazz‘ (2nd Ed), which was my bedside read of choice while in Perth, which accounts for why progress on this has been slower than usual. Selling the flat means that it has now managed to find its way here to the islands, and I have recently picked it up again. I’ve reached the part immediately after the rise of bop to replace big band swing, with the new modern jazz movement at the start of the 1950s looking to build on bop while building something new coincidental with the resource-instituted break-up of the big bands.

As I found before, this is a remarkably easy book to put down and pick up again, with just a casual reminder of the prevailing subject matter. Each chapter takes a look at a particular movement within jazz, looking successively at the key bands, line-ups and essential listening by each (the Third Edition should definitely include some CDs…). It’s exhaustively researched and includes plenty of colour but the writing is balanced and not judgmental in spite the strong association between jazz and substance abuse and, despite being an enthusiast, Gioia’s metre is never off-putting to the casual reader.

What continues to strike me is that, in the UK, we’re just celebrating 40 years of punk – well, 1976 was the real 40th anniversary, but this year saw the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the hook on which Marc Riley and Rob Hughes have built their hugely entertaining A to Z of Punk series, now available as a podcast. Casting back 40 years from punk and the biggest draw in popular music in 1936/37 was Benny Goodman. I’ll not hear a word against Benny Goodman – anyone building a career in popular music based on playing the clarinet and who wears glasses is alright with me, for one thing; and, for another, his band was racially integrated in an era marked by segregation: his quartet featured Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton alongside Goodman and Krupa; and his big band featured many charts, and most of the popular ones, arranged by Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman was not playing music for middle class cardigan wearers in their 50s; at the height of his fame, and still in his late twenties himself, he was playing for thrill-seeking teenagers.

Sonically speaking, Goodman’s is a world away from punk from which, 40 years on in turn, The Damned’s ‘New Rose‘ still sounds both fresh and vital to me (a tribute to the production of Nick Lowe, which knocked the band out at the time). Rat Scabies, fag in mouth, clattering out that rhythm on his drumkit; Brian James’s buzzsaw guitar; the whole coming together with an explosive energy – still blows me away in a heartbeat of recognition. I’m perhaps not as well placed to others to judge the worth of ‘New Rose’ (among others) in a contemporary setting (age being somewhat against me) but, sonically, I can’t hear that same great leap forwards now as there was between Goodman and the Damned. And that’s because it clearly isn’t there.

The rupture that the arrival of rock’n’roll represented is key, of course (though – arguments aside as to the real originators of rock’n’roll – there was a stylistic link between the swing era and Bill Haley and the Comets, coming eighteen years after Goodman, and thus more or less the mid-point between swing and punk). Equally important is the electrification of the guitar and its amplification; but Gioia continually points to changes in popular taste and in changing economic circumstances defining what musicians do and that’s also true. Gioia is referring more to the shifts within various parts of the jazz scene – but it’s true today too in terms of fragmentation within modern popular music into genres (where once jazz gave birth to trad, swing, bop and modern; electronic dance music gave birth to drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and grime). Equally, the ending of prohibition gave rise to the energy and the opportunity for big bands like Goodman’s to function, however briefly; today, it’s reality TV and the ubiquity of Simon Cowell which gives rise to the narrowly stylised vocal warblings and pyrotechnics on which modern wannabes build their own stardoms.

Apart from the mistaken call on many bands of the punk era to reunite – on which issue John Lydon has (still) the most appropriate comment – the longevity of many music careers today would have surprised Goodman and the Sex Pistols alike (Goodman had one triumphant tour and a major concert at Carnegie Hall (while clearly continuing for a longer while albeit much less influentially); the Pistols had a number of gigs and one album). It surprises me, too – bands were never supposed to last more than a couple of years or albums, by which time we had all moved on to something new and they should have retired; and the notion of one man (Springsteen, to pick another from my to-read shelf) in his late 60s still appealing to many people in their 20s – take a look at attendance at his gigs, and I don’t just mean Glastonbury (or the 48 year-old Dave Grohl, to pick a more contemporary example) – would have shocked (and clearly disappointed) the 14 year-old me.

To return to Gioia’s assertion of music directions being the product of changes in circumstances and in taste, the substantial lack of a new sonic direction for music in first the twenty years, and then the forty years, after 1977 – while accepting that exponential leaps in music can’t continue to keep happening – seems to indicate that punk in its energies and music form was doing something right. Bands shouldn’t last for ever and there should be a deal of turnover, but a shared, collective vision on what popular music should be about, based on a DIY mentality and an energetic assertion of the emotional power of popular music, certainly ought.

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Book review: Midwinter Break

I read Cal, Bernard MacLaverty‘s second novel, when it emerged back in 1983 drawn by the title of the work and the early literary development of an understanding of what Pete McCarthy later came to describe as the philosophy of never passing a bar which has your name on it (itself a rare, but not completely abstract, event for me; the inn in the wonderfully-named Perthshire village of Calvine having passed up the opportunity, calling itself the Struan Arms instead – something missed there, I feel).

Back then, I immediately went on and picked up Lamb, MacLaverty’s similarly sparsely-titled debut work from 1980, and enjoyed the staccato, if somewhat bleak, prose. But there’s not been a lot to go on since – Midwinter Break, released in August this year, is MacLaverty’s first novel for 16 years and only his fourth in a career spanning 35 years (there have also been short stories). Both Lamb and Cal were short novels, and Midwinter Break‘s trees-cut-down-per-volume-sold ratio is also going to be pretty low.

MacLaverty’s tale follows Stella and Gerry, a retired couple from Belfast now exiled in Glasgow, taking a long weekend in Amsterdam. From the outset, the setting is clear: a couple who, while still rubbing along together pretty well, nevertheless find habits and foibles in the other grating and a source of grit in the gearbox of the relationship. For Stella, it is Gerry’s excessive whiskey drinking and his continual bantering and search for humour; for Gerry, it is Stella’s contrasting sense of propriety, organisation and orderliness, perhaps, stemming from her religious faith which plays a major part in the development of the novel and about which Gerry is also notably, and openly, sceptical. They bicker; but they also laugh and share closeness and intimacy. They talk but, substantially, only about superficial things. In short, they are absolutely normal.

As MacLaverty develops his theme, it becomes clear that this midwinter break could see a break in their relationship. Or, just perhaps, it could also see a break in the routine to which they have become accustomed and which might, alternatively, see each of them re-commit to the relationship. This is not just a novel about how people grow old together and stay together – Stella and Gerry have a shared past which gives them a strong bond and foundation – but how even long, and strong, relationships require to be refreshed if they are to remain that way.

Told alternately by following each character on their travels through Amsterdam and then extensively through dialogue in their scenes together, and with other characters being largely incidental, MacLaverty forces a relentless focus on the two protagonists. This is not implemented in a claustrophobic way but in one which heightens the reader’s awareness of the state of their relationship and maximises our sympathy for each. MacLaverty draws gentle, extremely sensitive and well-rounded portraits of both Gerry and Stella, presenting each of them in an even, non-judgmental way. To accomplish that, he needs to be able to write women characters and it is to his credit as an author that Stella in particular has real voice and resonance. The dialogue is convincingly accurate, as it needs to be given its importance to the structure of the novel, with the exception of a couple of places in which Stella’s annoyance at Gerry’s banter was less apparent than it ought to have been given her subsequent reactions.

This is a slow-paced novel and some readers will find its gentle tone and lack of action – essentially an ordinary, older couple pottering around a foreign city looking for inspiration – too gentle and too one-paced. Gerry and Stella do not seek to confront a consciously failing relationship by argumentatively thrashing things out in an anonymous hotel room; their being in Amsterdam is not to undertake a ‘fix or bust’ resolution although it is clear that at least one of them is grasping for a better outcome. This is real life, in which the minutiae of characters successfully making their way through their day are allowed to take centre stage.

In holding up successful long-term relationships as ones in which people consciously take the steps to (re-)learn to communicate properly, and with honesty, MacLaverty has done a favour to all of us still looking for that key. There might be nothing particularly new in that – but, it seems, such a lesson is in need of being continually re-learned.

Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

Book review – The Reader on the 6.27

I have, on occasion, kept rooms in pubs ‘entertained’ by reading from a book grabbed from bookcases provided by thoughtful publicans, so this taut, short novel about a man who reads aloud to fellow passengers on his morning commute short sections of literature retrieved randomly from the throat of the book pulping machine in his workplace, had instant appeal.

A little old now (published in French in 2014, and in this English translation in 2015), Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s first novel (although the author is already an international prize-winner for his short stories and this is, in reality, a novella) is likely to be the choice of many book clubs and thus needs little by way introduction. Ultimately a romance, and which calls to mind aspects of the whimsy and the gentle good humour both of Amelie, Gregory’s Girl and Sliding Doors, The Reader on the 6.27 is likely on the surface to appeal or to repel readers on that basis.

It does, nevertheless, remain absolutely its own work and there are occasional dark elements to the theme and to the plotting which absolutely defy a categorisation of ‘romance’. Guylain and Julie, the two lead characters who are both searching for something and who fall into each other’s lives by fate, are both strongly drawn while the minor characters in the cast might be bit-part players in the story but all enjoy the luxury of Diderlaurent’s attention to detail which brings them to a fully-drawn 3D life. This includes The Thing, the massive beast which pulps the books where Guylain works and whose relationship with it is a strong feature of the development of the work. Even the goldfish – who shares a name with the author of what became La Marseillaise – also provides an interesting comment on the continuity of la Republique. The scenes – short chapters all and many of them short stories in their own right – offer colour, drama and poignancy and are also superbly sketched and located (including where Julie’s aunt gets her weekly fix of chouquettes). Diderlaurent has a very light touch and the ending is both well-judged and finely tuned to the novel’s theme of the predominance of fate and in how ordinary people lead their lives.

In the circumstances, it would be churlish to wonder how a lover of literature finds himself working in a book pulping plant, which is only making him more unhappy than he already is; and how an intelligent woman finds herself in a career as an attendant in a shopping centre lavatory but who is clearly able to overcome the unhappiness of such an existence. We know little of the backstory of either – and neither, essentially, do we need to given the theme. We may each of us find ourselves in inexplicably lonely situations or in workplaces in which choice is sometimes little evident or the product of paths created from previous decisions, and that lends reality to Diderlaurent’s wry, clever observations on modern life/work and modern (workplace) relationships. And I think it would also be churlish to criticise a slightly haphazard sense of timing with regard to the readings of the extracts.

And, in closing, a word for a generally first-rate translation by Ros Schwartz (and also Ruth Diver) which has a rhythm and a flow which allow the story’s love of words to breathe. A highly-experienced and rated translater, Schwartz has done the author a great service which is illustrative of the resources which the publisher has committed to it. A book which is, ultimately, about the love of words and whose story is so well crafted demands a great translation, as well as a print run on appropriately high-quality paper, and this one has both.

Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I picked this up in an airport bookshop fairly recently, and for the first time. It seems that it has been given a new lease of life as a result, most likely, of the re-release of the 1975 Oscar-winning film by Milos Forman. My Penguin Classics copy was printed in 2005, and contains a new introduction written in 2002 – in the book’s 40th anniversary year – but with the new edition sparked by Kesey’s death from liver cancer (in 2001).

The novel remains an excoriating drawing of the life and treatment of the residents of a hospital mental health ward, for which Kesey’s research is legendary: a night shift worker at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he volunteered for government-sponsored research (actually: CIA) into the effects of psychoactive drugs. His research bears strong fruit in the book in terms of the processes, the approaches to treatment and the effects of institutionalisation on the residents of the ward, and it makes some dramatic points about the brutalising impact of the remorseless, ratchet-like regime of ‘Big Nurse’, the female figure in charge of the ward. As the story cranks up towards its tragic, inescapable conclusion, the end does not leave the reader without hope and it is a continuing reminder of how thin the line is which divides clarity (and sanity) from confusion (and clinical madness); and not only when clinical madness may be being faked.

The allegorical aspects of the work, with the galvanising effects of McMurphy (the Jack Nicholson character in the film) on the atomised, isolated residents of the ward, speaks clearly of the importance of working together, as a collective, and of the vulnerability of people who only learn both that, and the power of the collective, unevenly and over time. At the same time, the costs of leadership, of bringing people together to challenge the authority to which they are subject, are made clear. The story is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a man of native American descent, and whose previous encounters with authority give him insight into the powers of ‘the Combine’ which he understands as the power behind the organisation of wider society replicated within the power structures of the ward.

And yet some aspects of the book have survived very, very poorly. There are (very minor) references to under-age sex within McMurphy’s backstory. More overtly, there is an astonishing amount of casual racism in the novel: Bromden himself is the stereotypical dignified Indian, apparently a mute with a deeply-buried story to tell; the African-American aides in the novel – frequently un-named and in many ways Nurse Ratched’s dogsbodies – are lazy, speak in a stylised way, like basketball and are fond of a joint. And the language in which they are addressed is frequently that of Mark Twain, although my concern here is less the choice of language in a modern-day setting than the manner of their depiction and their witless insertion as black men into low-lying roles within the prevailing power structure as servants of it.

But my biggest criticism is of the levels of sexism within the novel in which the only female characters are, with just the one exception, either mothers or sex objects; while Nurse Ratched herself is frequently depicted either in an amorphous, asexual way or, alternatively, as the target for the most appalling fantasies, including in her humiliation at the novel’s conclusion. This is not to feel pity for Ratched, which would be difficult given the brutal nature of her role in charge of the ward and in the psychological aspects of the central part she plays in its tragic conclusion, but I am seeking to highlight the shockingly sexist manner of her portrayal, as well as of that of the other female characters, throughout the novel. It would be stretching the point beyond snapping to argue that Ratched is as much a victim of the Combine as the residents – there is absolutely no evidence for this – but we do need to be aware of the misogyny which underpins the ways she is depicted and the way she is viewed by the residents. Given the theme of male panic over emasculation which is also a feature of the novel – an odd theme even now in a society which remains patriarchal – Kesey was certainly aware of some aspects of how he approached his theme.

In both its racism and sexism, the book is thus of its time, although this by itself should not excuse it. We have, thankfully, come a long way in race and gender politics since the early 1960s (as well as having still a long way to go, as Andy Murray demonstrated only this week). However, in terms of criticism, this makes the novel less of a ‘roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the Rulers who enforce them’ (in Time‘s review quoted proudly on the back cover of my copy). The role that sexism and racism play within middlebrow society’s Rules (and power structures) means that no such roar can take place within the confines of a novel unless that novel consciously seeks to overthrow them – and so much less so when it incorporates them as an integral part of its telling, as this one does. (A telling which is, extremely disappointingly, echoed within the 2002 Introduction, by the way.)

To the modern reader, then, this is a novel with sizable structural weaknesses – which, incidentally, an aware editor could address, and reasonably simply. This is a great shame since, at its best, it has a powerful story to tell and does so, in other respects than these, with great skill and realism. But, these are weaknesses that are too great to overcome when they play such a central role in how that story is told. Whatever tripping that Kesey and his Merry Prankster mates were doing on the road, this might well have inhibited an awareness of the problems of patriarchalism which, thereafter, took at least another decade to emerge.

Book review: Nutshell

It is quickly apparent that Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, is a re-working of the tale of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about usurpation and revenge, extending from plot to characters to themes – but with the critical twist that the Prince of Denmark is replaced here by an unborn child, critically observing events from inside the womb. Here, the narrator, un-named and of non-determined gender, is indeed ‘bound in a nutshell’ and yet ‘king of infinite space’. As such, the child – with thought processes, critical faculties and tastes which are fully developed, informed trough the consumption and habits of Trudy, the mother – is able to observe and comment on the surrounding universe. Yet, in contrast to Hamlet, whose flaw of inaction underpins his personal tragedy, the baby is able to seek to be active and influential in the world, including via well-timed kicks and sometimes quite shocking extensions of the narrative.

McEwan’s conceit is quite remarkable – imagine the (eventual) frustrations of a baby with fully developed thought processes but unaware in the womb that s/he is unable to speak – and in our unborn narrator we have another in the author’s long line of memorable characters. The prose, as we might expect, flows freely and apparently effortlessly; the handling of plot and theme is confident and assured; and there is wit and humour in the telling as well as in the conceit. The narration itself is informed, eloquent and ultimately reliable – indeed, how could it be anything other?

Excess alcohol consumption – in Hamlet’s view, the cause of the ruination of the nation – is worked in by the continual appearance and consumption of bottles of wine (although, amusingly, the plot hinges on a juice bar’s smoothie); the portentousness of the moments in which people’s futures are shaped and directed by the sometimes hasty decisions they make is, again – this being a regular theme in McEwan’s books – stunningly realised; and the resolution is thoughtfully and aptly described.

Of course, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark – not, in this context, in the womb of the mother but in the dilapidated state of the decaying, crumbling house in the midst of the heat of a London summer in which she lives and which is visually well-captured by McEwan. The metaphor is clear – and yet the platform it provides for well-chosen observations about the state of the world around us, akin to Hamlet’s own soliloquies, is something that McEwan doesn’t effectively take up. It is not that there are currently no targets to pick – and McEwan has done so in the past: notably, global warming in Solar; and the state of international relations in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in Saturday. Here, however, the discourse on the targets he picks – chiefly, the human condition leading to it being ‘dusk in the Age of Reason’; the struggle to escape poverty; identity politics – is lazy, occasionally somewhat illiberal and actually rather peevish. It’s not the result of having an unborn child as narrator – this is a middle-class sophisticate, advanced and articulate in thought. Perhaps it is the essential brevity of the exposition – this is a short novel and these are indeed mere soliloquies – that make it seem so. Perhaps he thinks he’s done it all before. But McEwan is of course capable of better than that; and, in these times, we do need the poets (as well as the novelists) down here to write something (at all) to help prompt us into action.

Nevertheless, the central challenge – that we all ‘do something’, whatever we can, to change the fate of the world around us – is, if it is one that may even be taken up by an unborn child, one that can also be picked up by others seemingly otherwise better placed. The conveyance, perhaps implicit, of that ultimate message is McEwan’s biggest contribution in Nutshell – and it does, of course, remain a fundamentally important one.

Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy‘s Hot Milk is the third of my dips into last year’s Booker Prize shortlist and, as a hot favourite prior to the announcement of Paul Sellers‘s win, I had high hopes. This is a powerful, literary novel (though its references are not worn as badges of honour), and it is easy to see why it made the shortlist. In particular, it’s good to see strong, confident writing from a woman recognised at such a level.

Weighing in at just 218 pages, this is a short novel (actually, it is probably a collection of earlier short stories written into one tale) about individual people’s ‘struggle to live in all the dimensions between forgetting and remembering’ (p. 201), with the shadows cast by events being long and, sometimes, ill-understood. Levy’s unifying theme, nevertheless, is the power of maternal love and the strength of the mother-daughter bond in which Sophie, a 25-year old post-graduate currently working as a barista in a London coffee house, travels to Spain with her mother, Rose, to a clinic in search of a cure for an unexplained (or inexplicable) illness in her mother. It immediately becomes clear – the screen of Sophie’s laptop, containing ‘all my life’, is shattered on a concrete floor in the opening paragraph of the novel – that it may equally be Sophie who is in need of a cure and that, from the framing quote at the outset, ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’, that her cure, at least, may lie in her own psychological make-up. The link is made perfect by the origin of the quote – a 2012 article on feminist writing by Helene Cixous entitled (in translation) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa‘ – making an allegorical appearance in the opening chapter as Sophie is stung while out swimming by jellyfish (= medusa in Spanish, and a noted symbol of female rage although rage itself is not a major theme of Hot Milk). The physical appearance of the clinic, and the graffiti which appears on it, provides further source material for Levy’s themes of maternal and wider female sexuality and psychoanalysis.

Set in 2015 austerity-ridden Spain, and encompassing a visit to Greece by Sophie to visit her absent Greek father, Hot Milk is of its time, containing more than a cursory glance at austerity politics (Rose’s medicines are first withdrawn at the Spanish clinic, and then re-instated at a general hospital): not so much Levy’s view that the patient needs to ‘keep taking the medicine’ as a comment on political reactions to and developments in the crisis in both Greece and Spain. This is not a novel about the post-2008 crisis, but the author’s ability to incorporate such references adds colour as well as bringing the novel a little more to life. There is, throughout the work, a sense of collapse, of people clinging on to what is left of shattered lives in the face of continuing impending (economic) disaster.

Levy’s prose is economic in its construction – she is not, it seems, one for flowery phrases – but, nevertheless, this is a richly written tale which is likely to repay a second read to revisit the themes more fully in the light of awareness as to its end. The heat of the Spanish sun, and the tempers that it provokes not least in those not used to heat, and the search for a variety of forms of sustaining coolness, bring a welcome contextuality in which Levy’s themes run their course. The many people who pass through Sophie’s life on her Spanish and Greek sojourns are rather sketched, although this acts to heighten the characterisation of Sophie herself and her own struggles. Words and phrases are repeated in different contexts, creating motifs that deliver both dissonance and echoes as we grapple (indeed, sometimes in a most peculiar way) for shards of meaning as well as dimension. Levy can over-reach herself with metaphors that, on occasion, bash the reader over the head rather than drawing him or her on but this is a minor criticism of style rather than of substance. Similarly, the regular repetition of the medusa theme – extending to snakes, and decapitations – in Levy’s exploration of female sexuality does become a little wearing.

Ultimately, however, the biggest criticism is that the book rather fizzles out during, and after, Sophie’s visit to her father and his new family in Athens and the more or less single paragraph closing denouement comes, it might seem, as a relief more to the author than to Rose and Sophie. Conversely, how in the light of that denouement these two take their relationship forward might form an interesting future novel(la), although I suspect at this juncture that Levy might well not be pitching herself as its author.

Book Review: His Bloody Project

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s successful second novel, short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and sub-titled ‘Documents relating to the case of Roderick McRae’, sees, like The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, the author taking another creative approach to the structure of the modern novel. Here, Burnet appears essentially as an editor, curating a collection of documents about three murders taking place in the north-west Scotland village of Culduie. The murderer – Roderick (Roddy) McRae – is not in doubt, but the question of whether he was responsible mentally for his actions and, indeed, the motives for them are the major themes of the novel as Burnet – who ostensibly came across the documents while researching some family history in Applecross – explores the approach taken by the courts to criminal insanity in Scotland in the late nineteenth century.

Along the way, Burnet’s subject matter covers the vicissitudes of day-to-day life in a small crofting community in post-Clearances Scotland, class-based attitudes to crofting and crofters, and the state of gender relations in the sexist, patriarchal societies of the time in which women and girls – inside such communities in addition to the way in which women were frequently observed by outsiders – lived shockingly targeted, highly vulnerable and sexualised lives. Additionally, the role of outsiders in a small community is also well-explored with the McRaes’ stock – it is likely, although this is never discussed in the novel, that they are of traveller/Roma origin – featuring heavily in the development of Roddy McRae’s character.

The novel has been well-researched and the period detail – despite the author’s understandable confession that he is a novelist and not a social historian – rings heavily true. The role of, and attitudes towards, the Gáidhlig language is well explored. The blurring of fact and fiction – there were no such murders by a McRae in north-west Scotland at this time, although Culduie certainly exists, and pretty much on the plan sketched out in the book (indeed, the owners of a B&B in the village have gone to some lengths to explain the connections) and several of the characters appearing in the novel are real-life ones – is, aided by the documentary structure of the novel, done to such good effect that it is likely to leave some readers confused and looking for hard evidence to support the conclusions that they draw. That, by the way, is not a bad thing.

This is a good novel, but it’s not a great one. The reporters and journalists in the ‘trial’ section of the novel are stereotyped in the interest of a few cheap (though funny…) jokes. More seriously, John McRae – Roddy’s father – is weakly drawn: suitably withdrawn and subject to laconic pronouncements when called upon, his religious life, as an elder in the kirk, is almost completely ignored: seemingly, a major omission given the theme. Providence – divine intervention – features strongly as the crofters look for ways to explain and rationalise their lack of control over the lives and, here, the role of the Church in the service of the interests of the landed gentry might have been better explored. Neither is this in other respects – given the subject matter – the radical novel it might have been since Burnet again pulls his punches on the key point of the story, here leaving the reader to draw conclusions (indeed, to write his or her own novel) around the several various, and extremely important, loose ends left hanging. Tying some of those up, without compromising the period detail, might well have made for a more impactful novel on the life and struggle of crofters after the end of the Clearances but for whom land ownership remained an unresolved question (indeed for whom it would continue to be unresolved until some forty years later than the period covered here, after the desperate, but determinedly focused, actions of the Vatersay Raiders saw the first approaches to land reform for crofters). It is, perhaps, asking a lot of a young author on his second book to write such a novel, but it’s one that does need to be written (and for which, I might add, there would be a considerable audience for a Scottish publishing house like Saraband).

And just what is it that Burnet has against teachers? As in The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, representatives of the teaching profession appear weak, easily bullied and unable to exercise much authority.

Nevertheless, Burnet is capable of spinning a good yarn and his natural flair for the development of very solid, very credible characters – in just a few sentences in the sections dealing with the community’s resolution of the loss of Lachlan McKenzie’s ram, as well as at the Gathering in Applecross, the reader is left in no doubt as to what kind of man McKenzie was. Additionally, Burnet slyly manages to pack in a few choice words at the close around the dangers of social media and – although this pre-dates the publication – the way in which false stories were manufactured and spread in the nineteenth century which has a strongly topical flavour following the US presidential election. I’ll certainly buy the next one although again, as with The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I’ll next be looking for a much stronger voice from the author himself, with a resolution of the issues presented rather than the reader being left to interpret (or even invent) resolutions against the backcloth that the author has so skilfully developed.

*This is not a post about Nigel Farage although, given political developments this week, I am reserving it for possible future use in this respect.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau

Like probably a lot of readers, I picked this up fairly recently in the wake of Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s second novel – His Bloody Project – being shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize (and which has just now worked its way to the top of my reading pile). And absolutely fair play to his publisher – Saraband, a tiny but brilliantly creative Scottish publishing house (check out the video to support part of the backstory of this first novel) – for using the Booker to add a bit more juice to an earlier novel.

Bedeau purports to be the author’s translation of a French cult classic by one Raymond Brunet (see what he did there?): one that has been effective enough to confuse more than a few poor souls. It is, of course, a novel, with the ‘translation’ constituting an elaborate structual device whose purpose is conjectural but which seems to have been to support what is arguably the book’s main purpose. John Fowles of course deployed similar structural devices in several of his works.

The novel itself need not detain us too long: it is, in truth, a rather slight story with the disappearance of Ms. Bedeau being simply a MacGuffin on which to hang a study of two men – one being a detective; the other a social misfit who may know something about the disappearance but who has a complex psychological history – located in smalltown France (the very real town of Saint-Louis, close to Strasbourg). Having himself spent some time living in France, Burnet’s observations are well-informed and the novel’s keen sense of atmosphere and place, particularly around the role of food and drink in French society, is likely to owe significantly to his experience. The tale is assured and well-told, with chapters consumed by your reviewer at a rapid pace and unfolding in a well-described timeframe, partly in the current and partly in flashback for both the main protagonists; and there is an appreciable level of sly humour surrounding the author’s observations. And yet ultimately the author pulls his punches on the main plot; sub-plots are left undeveloped and, in one case, completely hanging; and the key to the denouement of the main plot appears trivial and would, thus, be unsatisfactory in a more major work.

It is interesting to learn (from the author’s profile page on the Saraband website) that Burnet is returning to his detective – Inspector Georges Gorski – in his next novel, since this gives us the key to Bedeau‘s main purpose: it is a homage to Georges Simenon, the French writer whose Inspector Maigret books are modern classics and who (alongside other European crime novels) is a declared major influence on Burnet as an author. It is in this novel-as-homage that we might view some of its weaknesses (weak and poorly developed female caricatures; bad sex scenes; a level of misogyny in describing the women characters and one instance of casual racism towards the book’s end): this is not Burnet’s voice, necessarily, but that of the purported author he is translating and whose roman fits into a genre of cheap, and rather dated, French detective novels which are themselves Simenon pastiches. Consequently, we should probably cut Burnet a little slack on such weaknesses: in this reading, this novel of his is only partly his own and the weaknesses may stem, more or less built-in, from the purpose of the novel-as-homage rather than from the mind and the pen of Burnet as himself. It will thus be interesting to see how Gorski features next, what device Burnet will use to support his re-appearance and how much of Burnet’s own voice, as opposed to him acting as a channel for forgotten (and minor) French authors, is contained in that work.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward immensely to hearing a little more of Burnet’s own voice sans the influence of French crime novelists in His Bloody Project.

CD review: Love and Hate

I’m coming a little late to this one, Michael Kiwanuka’s second CD, released in July 2016, being a present (thanks, Tracy!) to which I’ve only now got around. Nevertheless, this was quite a timely listen since Kiwanuka has been sitting in on a Sunday afternoon during February on 6Music for Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (some episodes still available for listening).

A look at the playlists for the shows reveals a lot about the influences on Kiwanuka at this point, alongside the playlists he has also put together on iTunes (apparently…) in support of his 2017 Brits award nominations (for male artist and for album of the year); and on his own Spotify account (subscription required). (Though listening on the radio is always better, right?) Alongside the well-known influential figures from soul and jazz (sadly, most of them dead), there are some surprises too, revealing Kiwanuka, evidently a shy and even introspective man (there’s little of himself on his website or on his Twitter feed – and fair enough for all that, although artists are by definition public figures and, perhaps, need to give a little of themselves if their work is to be understood), to be something of a rocker, too (something which becomes also clear on the CD, which heavily features blues guitars and the influence of Ernie Isley (‘Summer Breeze’)).

On to the CD, and the most immediately obvious reference points vocally are Richie Havens and Ted Hawkins, but, primarily, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’ in both the themes of the songs (spiritualism, racism and agonised pain at the state of the world) but also in the over-riding ethos of orchestral soul drawn from the shimmering, soaring strings that underpin the key moments in the majority of the songs, in the chorus of voices providing backing for them and in the sudden key, and mood, shifts in the melodies within them. Extraordinarily tough footsteps to follow, perhaps (although, alongside the utterly sheer brilliance of some of its songs, it has to be said that ‘What’s Going On?’ also contains moments of unlistenable psychedelic filler: it’s an album of great songs, but it’s not a great album). Nevertheless, Kiwanuka manages successfully to tread on similar ground while not plummeting as many of the depths – a fact betraying, despite his apparent introspective nature, a level of confidence about his abilities and in the strength of his songs.

After a period of time-out to re-appraise himself and his music, this makes a bold statement. The otherwise somewhat overblown review of ‘Love and Hate’ in The Guardian points to the inner belief involved in putting a ten minute track (‘Cold Little Heart’) as the first song on the album, with Kiwanuka’s own vocal (though of course his voice is heard also in his guitar…) heard for the first time only after nearly five minutes. This is perceptive in some respects, although it’s also possible to see this as an attempt to put off the moment of saying something as long as possible. The moment he does is not only joyous but joyously cathartic: against the stirring strings, the repeated intonations of his backing singers and in his bluesy guitar in that first five minutes, it’s also clearly possible to see this as a man re-awakening, revitalising, drawing strength from the voices that surround him, overcoming his doubts and, finally sucking in air, gathering himself to say what it is he has to say.

Which brings us to his vocal (and his lyrics): cracked and pained, doubtful and unforgiving of himself, and cuttingly honest, but nevertheless capable of positive and even upbeat moments, Kiwanuka’s is finely tuned to his own, deeply personal observations and experiences. If the predominant feel of ‘Love and Hate’ is downbeat, geared towards a Sunday afternoon and a soul searching for answers even in the first, let alone from the second, half of 2016, Kiwanuka is clear that, while we need to look for sources of strength within ourselves, we can’t do this by ourselves: that we have to walk with each other, not just in someone else’s shoes but alongside them.

Key songs: the title track; and ‘Cold Little Heart’ – that gorgeous, raw opener. In fact, if you don’t like that, simply move along – there’s nothing else to see here. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a thing of great beauty and emotional power. And this is a great album.