Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A week in December

A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks

Right from the start I want to say I enjoyed this book.  I find I am inevitably curious about what others think of any given book that I am reading or thinking of reading, so I often check out what people have said about a book on amazon or good reads and  in the case of this particular title I find I am in the minority in having really enjoyed Sebastian Faulks ‘state of  the nation’ novel A Week in December. 

Set in a post 7/7bombing, post GFC London, A Week in December sets out to explore the nature of the new world in which we live.  Terrorism, both economic, and of the militant Islamic variety are principal themes of this timely and of its time novel. The book follows the lives of a group of quite disparate characters who are, nevertheless, loosely connected, from politicians and their wives, to bankers with no ethics,  to a professional soccer  player, a train driver, a budding suicide bomber, a spoilt/neglected, drug addled, rich kid, a spiteful book reviewer, and an underemployed lawyer, Faulks has attempted to capture the spirit of the age and it’s not a very pretty picture.  The above mentioned characters and more grace what is a very ambitious piece of writing.  Satire and social comment permeate this novel making it more than a little polemical in tone and really quite darkly humorous.   Faulks has much to say about a society that prefers virtual reality to reality, a society that neglects it’s youth and allows greed ascendancy over ethics.  Some characters are better developed than others, some are little more than  syphons for Faulk’s social critique, regardless it remains a rich compelling  narrative.  

The unscrupulous hedge fund manager John Veals takes the reader on a voyage into the world of obscene wealth and no morality, he is the means by which Faulks explores and  explains the vicious way hedge funds work. While illustrating the factual scaffolding of recent economic tragedies. Veals also shows how seductive and thrilling such  pursuits can be, his activities have all the thrills of an episode of Spooks, he is, nevertheless, a thoroughly  unpleasant character.  He lives a self absorbed existence that  allows him to ignore his essentially compliant, trophy wife and children.  Meanwhile his son Finn sits in his room, smoking skunk, watching reality television or constructing a life in a virtual world online, if anything Finn’s story is more disturbing than that of Hassan, another child of wealthy parents, only Hassan is seeking his realisation not in drugs and escape, but  in the  oblivion of the suicide bomber,all despite a privileged upbringing, and loving parents. 

Faulks also manages to work in something of an unlikely romance between the character of Jenni, the tube driver and Gabriel Northwood a barrister who through circumstance finds it necessary to immerse himself in   Jenni’s world.  Gabriel emerges as one of the novel’s few likable characters and something of a voice for a lost world of humanist values, in a conversation with Jenni the virtues of reading are explored:

‘…I s’pose it’s an escape from the real world.’
‘But surely it’s just the opposite,’ said Gabriel. ‘Books explain the real world.  They bring you close to it in a way you could never manage in the course of the day.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘People never explain to you exactly what they think and feel and how their thoughts and feelings work, do they?  They don’t have time.  Or the right words.  But that’s what books do.  It’s as though your daily life is a film in the cinema.  It can be fun, looking at those pictures.  But if you want to know what lies behind the flat screen you have to read a book.  That explains it all.’
‘Even if the people in the book are invented?’
‘Sure. Because they’re based on what’s real, but with the boring bits stripped out.  In good books anyway.  Of my total understanding of human beings, which is perhaps not very great… I’d say half of it is from guessing that other people must feel much the same as I would in their place.  But of the other half, ninety per cent of it has come from reading books.  Less than ten per cent from reality – from watching and talking and listening – from living.’ (p.197)

Explaining the real world is exactly what Faulks is trying to do with this novel.  Some of his points may be a bit laboured but they are worth reading.  Certainly his portrait of fundamentalist religious belief as fundamentally insane, schizophrenic in nature, may be a little heavy handed.  But it is not just religion that is portrayed as deluded, humanity is shown to be by it's very nature capable of self delusion on a epic scale, hence the prevalent escape into a fantasy virtual reality, or even just the simple refusal to see the world as it really is.  Greed, the internet and reality TV are the bread and circuses that distract us from seeing what we are, and Faulks is trying to make that a little bit plainer. In a sense A Week in December is a sort of Vanity Fair for the twenty first century, and while it may not be a truly great book, it is a good book and well worth the time spent reading it.  I enjoyed this novel greatly.

Friday, 20 May 2011

A Single Man

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A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood
I just want to write a short, quick post on this powerful, yet delicate, eloquent novel.  Another recent read, Bell, (the daughter), accidentally left her copy of this quite compelling short novel, at home over the Easter weekend. Bell had raved about the movie and how much she loved it, and quite coincidentally someone else had recently mentioned how impressed they were with the film version of Isherwood’s novel.   Over Easter I also watched the movie with Bell and I also found it to be a powerful,beautiful film, containing a compelling performance from Colin Firth and wonderful cinematography. It is very much an art house film, so no doubt not to everyone’s taste but well worth the viewing and I must admit that in a way I am glad I saw the film before reading the book, normally I would never see a movie before reading the book, but both texts seem to exist independently of each other and are quite powerful in their respective mediums.
A short novel, the story takes place in a twenty four hour period in the life of George, a middle aged, gay academic, who has recently lost his lover in a sudden accident.  Essentially a simple premise, but in effect a quite profound exploration of life and what it means to be alive. (There are significant differences between the film and the novel but these do not detract from the overall effect of either text.) Set in the 60s, with the Cuban missile crisis and cold war paranoia overshadowing life at large it is essentially an optimistic, life affirming tale, told with humour, insight and great irony.  The novel reminded me somewhat of Alan Bennet’s History Boys, both texts share a gay agenda of course, but that is not what makes them great works.  Like Bennet, Isherwood is fascinated by what life ultimately means and how important it is to grasp it while we have it, also like Bennet, Isherwood sees the humour and absurdity in life and translates into a narrative that  lingers in the mind and enriches the everyday.  Normally I would include a quote from the book, books should always speak for themselves, but given I returned Bell’s copy I do not have a copy to consult so I will leave it at this.  (I seem to be playing catch up now that I am finally back blogging and this just another short post on a recent read).

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

“All tribal myths are true, for a given value of 'true’'

The Last Continent
by Terry Pratchett
“All tribal myths are true, for a given value of 'true’'.(p.10)
This is a book that messes with the tribal myths of my own culture and while Disc world is an independent fantasy world, there  is no denying that it is very much a ‘mirror of worlds’ and in the case of 'The Last Continent the world that it is mirroring is Australia.  The result could so easily have been a truly cringe worthy parody but in the hands of a great writer with an observant eye and a natural affection for his subject matter this is another wise and entertaining satire, that explores not just the traditional dreaming of indigenous culture but the dreaming of my own relatively recent, Anglo-Saxon migrant culture.  Australian cultural icons abound in this text, from movies like Mad Max and Priscilla Queen of the Desert to the archetypal stories that seem to define Australian identity like The Man From Snowy River, waltzing matilda and the bushranger legend. 
A Rincewind novel, this story sees the bumbling wizard invent our iconic vegemite in the form of a kind of ‘beer soup’ that goes well spread on bread, while trying to save the continent from the interminable dry spell that is threatening it’s very existence.   In building a story around our climatic extremes Pratchett taps into what is at the very heart of our identity: environment.  
The best elements of this novel however do not revolve around Rincewind’s exploits but around the misadventures of the UU faculty after they become trapped on a primitive island in the company of their female housekeeper.  While Rincewind is not one of my favourite characters, Archchancellor Ridcully  and the orang-utan UU librarian are very definitely amongst my favourite Discworld characters.  This section of the novel allows Pratchett to play with the logical challenges of time travel and creation myths while allowing the wizards to spark off each other in a highly entertaining interlude.  I think perhaps I will leave this post here with a favourite line:  "Ridcully was to management what King Herod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association. "
The Last Continent also provides the name for the Australian Discworld convention, “Nullus Anxietas”, (no worries) and provides the visual narrative that appears on the convention t shirt which I have added to my collection of literary t shirts, ( click on image to follow link to where the shirt can be purchased), or here: http://ausdwcon.org/pages/merchandise
On Sir Terry’s recent visit to Australia he also appeared at the Sydney Opera House where he appeared in conversation with the Australian fantasy author Garth Nix, below is the link to where you can see the video of this chat at the round worlds version of the Disc’s “Buggerup opera house”:                          

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Construction site!

Under construction! Beware falling scaffolding and changing scenery.  I am playing around with templates and widgets, everything is a bit hit and miss at the moment.
And since this is a blog meant to record my reading, I thought I should list my limited reading so far this year, a short list:
  1. Soulless by Gail Carriger
  2. The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
  3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  4. We Are the Weather Makers by Tim Flannery (a re-read)
  5. Grace by Morris Gleitzman
  6. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
  7. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
  8. The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett
  9. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
  10. A Week in December by Sabastian Faulks
And numerous false starts on a number of books.  I used to read a huge number of books each year  but over the last 12 months or so I seem to have lost the ability to concentrate somewhat,  (stress). Touch wood that seems to be slowly improving and reading seems to be returning as an activity of choice.  Reading really is integral to my existence as much as eating, drinking or breathing, so this extended reading rut has been somewhat depressing to say the least. So this new blog marks a return to reading pleasure and blogging and while my reading for the year so far has been a bit slow hopefully it will improve, perhaps it is not unreasonable to aim for a book a week, or at least a book a month at worst, and hopefully a whole lot more than that.

Maskerade, an escape to the Disc

by Terry Pratchett.

When life really sucks the best thing to do is to escape. And there is no better escape than to leave this drab round world of ours and to journey to the Disc, where problems are recognisable but surmountable and the journey is inevitably entertaining.  Pratchett seems to be a regular antidote to reading doldrums for me, when all else fails a Discworld novel will usually provide some relief and this was the case with Maskerade.

I have over recent years read many of Sir Terry Pratchett's witty and wise novels but I also have some gaps in my reading.  I came to the Disc late in my reading life, only discovering the full merit of his work in recent years, unlike my daughter who has grown up reading Pratchett, or my partner who has been a dedicated fan since the 80s.  It was in order to overcome some of these gaps that I recently picked up Maskerade.  While a satire on opera, musicals and celebrity culture, this novel is also a convincing mystery and something of a coming of age tale.

One of the Disc novels to feature the Lancre witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, this instalment sees them travelling to Ank-Morpok on a dual mission; one to sort out an unscrupulous publisher who has taken advantage of Nanny in the publishing of her infamous cookbook, and secondly to track down and, hopefully fetch home young Agnes Nitt, who Nanny sees as a potential third member of their coven.  Things are getting a little strained since Magrat traded in the  broomstick to be a queen: "You need at least three witches for a coven. Two witches was just an argument."(p22). The venal Greebo, Nanny's evil tom cat gets his moment in the spotlight.  I have a great fondness for Greebo, living with three  cats I have a great appreciation for Pratchett's feline descriptions: "...the most vicious and cunning a pile of fur that ever had the intelligence to sit on a bird table with its mouth open and a piece of toast balanced on its nose..." (p.22), or elsewhere; "To Nanny Ogg he was merely a larger version of the little fluffy kitten he had once been.  To everyone else he was a scarred ball of inventive malignancy", a quote I also have on a coffee cup with a Paul Kidby illustration:

(That cup and others can be found here: http://www.paulkidby.com/mugs/index.html , a great discworld site from which our family has purchased a number of great gifts for Pratchett fans.)

Essentially a re-telling, and a send up of the Phantom of the Opera, Maskerade lets Pratchett flex his muscles in the sphere of the mystery/crime novel without ever losing sight of his characteristic humour in face of human absurdity.  Granny's telling query about what a person would take from a burning house tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the characters in the book.

Pratchett does write the most amazing women, well rounded, believable, admirable and inspiring women, perhaps his female characters have reached a pinnacle in the creation of Tiffany Aching or Glenda from the night kitchen at UU but Maskerade also offers an entertaining ride in the company of some truly wonderful women, the witches of Lancre are not to be underestimated.  A great book. Oh an possibly my favourite line:
"Nanny Ogg found herself embarrassed to even think about this, and this was unusual because embarrassment normally came as naturally to Nanny as altruism comes to a cat."

It has been more than a month since I read this one, so I will keep my comments short.  One of the reasons for picking up this previously unenjoyed novel was the recent Discworld convention in Sydney, Nullus Anxietas, http://ausdwcon.org/ .  I had never been to such an event before this one but I am really glad that we did go, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one that we are keen to repeat.  As a result of the convention I decided to catch up on another gap in my discworld experience and finally read The Last Continent, how could I attend Nullus Anxietas and not have read The Last Continent.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Beginning.

A new virgin page, in a new blog.  For what it is worth this is a return to blogging for me, a re-engagement with life in the digital cloud. So why a new blog?  Why not just pick up where I left off?  The best I can answer seems to be, I just needed a fresh start.  With no readers, a new blog contains no pressure or responsibilities, a narrow space of simply one.
So what is this blog about?  Well primarily it will be about books; books and reading and all things to do with the written word and the power of narrative.  Occasionally it may be about the visual or other kinds of narrative; TV and movies.  It may be about things relating to work or study, or it may be just about whatever takes my fancy at the time and that could be anything, but the book and the world of the book, in all its forms and genres will dominate this space.  And what books? Well anything really, it could be a 19th century classic or a recent literary novel, or it could be a genre novel, crime or speculative fiction of one form or another.  Children's literature from picture books to young adult or graphic fiction.  History or politics, or poetry or cookery and even perhaps some science, I do read the odd volume of popular science, but mostly I suspect it will be about whatever novel I am currently reading, and given my recent reader's bloc things may be sparse and sporadic, at least for a little while.
Oh and the name of the blog, where would I be without the eloquent juxtapositions of T.S. Eliot, well without a blog title for a start.  When looking for a title I found lines of Eliot running through my consciousness, his lovely, concise eloquence, it was either "garlic and sapphires", or "murder and create", (there really is not enough poetry in everyday life). 
A brief and vague introduction, no doubt indicative of things to come.  Suffice to say, welcome to any who stumble upon this page and feel free to stay a while and engage in conversation, the reading opinions and recommendations of others are always eagerly received.