This novel is buzzing!

The Hive by Gill Hornby

hiveIt must have been quite daunting for Gill Hornby to publish her first novel – for she is the sister of the more famous Nick, and wife of best-selling author Robert Harris.  Now The Hive is out in paperback, she must be getting fed up of these facts being mentioned, as its a best-seller of her very own.

In The Hive, Hornby takes on female cliques of a particular kind – Mums of primary school aged children and the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) which fundraises for their schools. It’s a satire, but it’s also oh-so-close-to-the-truth!

I’ve done my stints on the PTA: at my daughter’s old school I was variously Secretary, Treasurer, Quizmaster, Fireworks supremo, Form Rep – you name it, I did it and I loved it, and I can honestly say that as a committee, we always got on brilliantly and worked as a team, managing to raise lots of money and have fun, (well, mostly!). The hardest part of doing anything was getting helpers on the night for things – even for just half an hour – putting out tables, chairs, clearing up, directing parking etc. (and selling tickets for anything to the teachers!) Now she’s at senior school, and fundraising is limited to a couple of annual events, so I’m having a rest from being on that kind of committee. Been there, done that…

It’s the start of a new year at St Ambrose, a C of E primary school. New year, new headmaster too; Mr Orchard has plans. Meanwhile, in the playground Bea is making an announcement…

‘I have been asked…’ she paused, ‘by the new head …’ the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, ‘to pick a team.’ She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was the tallest of them all by far.
Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the pre-fab classroom, looked on and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What was Bea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the tree and clustered around. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with little choice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this one out, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would wait here. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

Except that Bea doesn’t ask Rachel. She walks off without her, and Rachel realises that not only has she not seen Bea during the summer holidays, that she hasn’t seen her since Rachel’s husband Chris walked off leaving her for a younger model.

When Bea’s fundraising committee meets, they find a willing volunteer in Heather to be the secretary and she takes copious minutes. Bea makes herself chairperson and doesn’t even let the Headmaster get a word in edgeways about what he’d like them to fundraise for. Separate from the Parents Association (PASTA) They are to call themselves COSTA – the Committee of St Ambrose, and will host a lunch ladder, gourmet gamble raffle and a car-boot sale. It’s not long before Bea’s feathers are ruffled though for in a subsequent meeting newbie Deborah, who likes to be called Bubba, offers to host a ball in her garden…

Rachel finds herself partly happy, partly annoyed about her exclusion. Although Rachel walks to school with Heather and their daughters, Heather worships Bea and isn’t her best source of information, but she can rely on Georgie to update her. You can imagine the oneupmanship that’s going to ensue: Bea doesn’t want the ball to be a success, Heather’s tendency to micro-manage gets ever more irritating, events become invitation only, the headmaster is single, and in thus in need of a good woman … and so it goes on.

The novel is mostly seen from Rachel’s point of view and I could sympathise with her having to get to grips with being newly single again. My favourite character, however, was Georgie. She’s given up work to be a full-time mum and is happiest with a baby at her hip. She lives in domestic squalor on a farm and is totally in love with her husband and he with her. Their kitchen is perennially untidy and muddy, but she can whip up a healthy meal in minutes with home-grown produce. Georgie is very straight-talking, and always diving out for a fag break as an excuse to avoid boredom.

It’s not all fun and games though. As with any group of families thrust together by circumstances, there will be friendships made and broken, issues to deal with like bullying between their kids, and occasionally tragedy and illness. Although the story is a broad comedy for the most part, Hornby does bring suitable gravitas to the serious bits, before diving back in to make fun of some of the others’ reactions to them.

The dialogue can be hilarious. She captures that tendency of a clique of women who all carry on their own conversations at the same time, while not really listening to anything anyone else is saying well. All the stereotypes of mum are present and correct and their fawning over Bea is almost sickening – vying to take their turns to collect Bea’s children when Bea announces that she now has a ‘job’.  Rachel is a bit weak, but I can understand her stasis having been through it myself.

The bee analogy works well for this group. The queen bee and her faithful workers, who will eventually decide that the queen is past it and cultivate a new leader. Hornby works the bee theory in rather too obviously though a) by making Rachel’s mother a beekeeper, and b) you’ll also either like or loathe the character names – Bea, Heather, Clover, Melissa and of course Mr Orchard… I was of the like persuasion in this case.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s novels – which tend to look at life mostly from a male perspective.  His sister has given us the female one – it’s overdone, but the premise is great and I enjoyed reading it for the most part. Newly out in paperback, this is an undemanding summer read. (6.5/10)

I’d just like to finish by saying that all schools need volunteers to help in many ways from running events and fundraising to helping out on school trips. I found it a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to get as involved as I did – any help is always appreciated – and real life at the school gates is, in my experience, much nicer than this.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Hiveby Gill Hornby. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.

A little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki

SakiCompleteShortStories

Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

Whatever happened to …?

…Paul Micou

micou

Whilst I was sorting out my chunksters the other day I came across six novels by an author I’d much enjoyed reading back in the 1990s. His name is Paul Micou, and I wondered what had become of him. An American; since graduating, he’s lived in London and then France.

A little research later, it turns out that he wrote another couple of novels in 2000 and 2008 – and apart from a couple of Kindle singles, has published nothing since. Only his last novel is still in print.

As I know many of you like searching out books, I thought I’d write about the first few to introduce this author to you.  Here are his eight novels…

Micou books

I was immediately drawn to his first novel published in 1989. The premise of The Music Programme sounded like something straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Set in a fictitious African country, the employees of a US-funded UN programme have been living it up but panic sets in when an inspector arrives.  I remember it as hilarious.

The Cover Artist (1990) is about an artist who makes more money passing off the expressionist paintings done by his black labrador Elizabeth as his, than his own works. My memory of this one is hazy, but I did love the dog.

The Death of David Debrizzi (1991) is his best-known novel, and possibly his best. The titular David was a child prodigy on the piano. He had two teachers, one English, one French.  The novel is told by Pierre Marie La Valoise (the French one), who is staying in a Swiss Sanatorium. When La Valoise hears that Sir Geoffrey Flynch has published a biography of David taking full credit for the boy’s, he has to retaliate. Some great comic set-pieces in this one.

I’ve only told you about the first three, because although I know I enjoyed three more my memory of reading them is even more hazy.  Micou has a great comic style though; these novels are gentle satires with a lot of humour and some spice. A bit William Boyd meets Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) via Richard Russo, and perhaps with a dash of Waugh and Tom Sharpe.

I’ve ordered a copy of his last novel, and found I had the seventh lurking unread on my shelves, so eventually my Micou collection will be complete – but I rather hope he decides to write some more…

Have any of you read Paul Micou’s books?
What other authors have fallen off the radar that you’d recommend

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Confessions of a Map Dealer by Paul Micou

My first encounter with Richard Brautigan …

It was last summer when Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings was participating in the Beats of Summer fortnight of reading from the Beat Generation, that I resolved to read a book by Richard Brautigan. As I am not a fan of On the Road or The Naked Lunch (bored by the former, weirded out by the latter), I thought I should branch out and try another Beats author before consigning them all to my bottom shelf. Viv Stanshall Richard_BrautiganOn Karen’s recommendation I chose Richard Brautigan (left), particularly because of his physical resemblance to Viv Stanshall (right). Then which book to read? A little research led me to Sombrero Fallout – (1976), not because it is one of his slightly less well-known books, but because the new Canongate edition has an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, and on the back is a quote from Auberon Waugh ‘Mr Brautigan writes five thousand time better than [Jack] Kerouac ever did‘. Viv, Auberon and Jarvis – good omens don’t you think? So, enough faffing around – to the book…

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

sombrero falloutThis is a short novel with dual linked narratives. The first, the title one, concerns a short story that a celebrated author is having problems with.

It concerns a sombrero that falls out of the sky in front of the Mayor of a small town, his brother and an unemployed man – who will be the first to pick said headgear up? However, the author isn’t satisfied with his story so far, so he rips it up and throws it in the bin where it takes on an absurd life of its own.

The second strand concerns the author and his ex-girlfriend. He is mourning the end of his relationship with Yukiko, a beautiful Japanese woman with long dark hair. She had split from him after two years, because she needed more from life than giving of herself to this author. The narrative flits between the author, who is obsessing about everything, but mainly her, and Yukiko who is asleep beside her cat, dreaming.

I mentioned the author obsessing about things. At one point he realises he is hungry, but can’t have a hamburger because he had one the day before – but he really wants a hamburger, unless …

After he had exhausted all thoughts of eating hamburgers, his mind entertained the possibility of a tuna fish sandwich but that was not a good idea. He always tried very hard not to think about tuna fish sandwiches. For the last three years he  had been trying to keep thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches out of his mind. Whenever he thought about tuna fish sandwiches, he felt bad and now here he was thinking about a tuna fish sandwich again after he had tried so hard not to think about them. …
Often he would find himself unconsciously picking up a can of tuna in the supermarket before he realised what he had done. He would suddenly find himself halfway through reading the contents on the can before he knew what he was doing. Then he would look startled as if he had been caught reading a pornographic novel in church and quickly put the can back in the shelf and walk away from it, trying to forget that he had ever touched it. …
The reason for this was a fear of mercury. …
When they discovered a few years ago that there was more mercury in tuna fish than normal, he stopped eating it, because he was afraid that it would accumulate in his brain and affect his thinking which would lead to an effect on his writing.
He thought his writing would get strange and nobody would buy his books because they had been corrupted by mercury and he would go crazy if he ate tuna fish, so he stopped eating it.

The extracts above from a two and a half page chapter entitled ‘TUNA‘ show the typical iterative nature of Brautigan’s narrative in this novel.  Each thought gets repeated, expanded upon, repeated, expanded upon and so on. This reminded me of the idée fixe of the ‘wing-backed chair‘ in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which I read last year.

This process happens in the sombrero story too, which becomes a tale of mass hysteria, very much in the vein of James Thurber’s The Day the Dam Broke, (see here) but far weirder and with guns!

The mention of Thurber reminds me that I haven’t told you that the author in this book is a humorist – but one totally without a sense of humour!  He is also attractive to women and good (enough) in bed. One wonders if Brautigan is having a laugh at himself in his portrayal of the author?

The role of providing a strain of sanity between the madness of the sombrero and the self-pitying of the author is Yukiko. She is calm, enigmatic, and strong. I liked her very much.

Boy, I chose an interesting book for my first read of 2014.  I didn’t find it particularly funny; although it has its moments, the whole sombrero strand got too out of hand for me – I far preferred the story of the author and Yukiko.

I certainly see something in Brautigan’s writing though that I like, and I bought two further novels by him on spec from Canongate’s pre-Christmas sale!.   Thank you Karen for encouraging me to read him, (Calvino soon, I promise).   (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sombrero Fallout (Canons) by Richard Brautigan, Canonage 2012 edition, luxury paperback, 224 pages.

A novel about men and their ‘work’ – it must be Magnus Mills!

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

explorers millsMills fifth novel is another very dark and subversive comedy about his speciality – men and their work.  This time though, it’s not about manual labourers, white van-men, bus drivers or any of their ilk; instead, he’s taking on expeditions to destinations unknown of the beginning of the last century. Mills’s satire this time initially targets the race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole – his subjects are not usually so obvious.

Two teams are involved in a race (except that it’s not a race – Oh yes it is!) to reach the ‘Agreed Furthest Point’.  One led by gentleman explorer Johns and made up of volunteers with a veritable herd of mules. They are finally ready to set off from the bunkhouse.  Scott Johns makes a speech:

 ‘Now it’s far too cold to stand her making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start. I want to say, however, that I believe you have all been well chosen. I could not wish to begin an expedition such as this with a finer set of fellows. In Chase, for instance, we have one of the best navigators of our age. As you know, his excellent guidance brought the Centurion to this forsaken shore without a single fault, and I am relying fully on his judgement over the coming weeks as we head for the interior. Likewise, I regard Scagg as a most able deputy, and if anything should happen to me he will, of course, take command. As for the rest of you, well you are competent individuals without exception. You all know where we’re going and why we are going there. It may take a good while, but I am confident that we’ll achieve our goal as long as each of us pulls in the same direction. Now Scagg, the blockhouse has been left in a fit state, I presume?’
‘Yes, Mr Johns. Everything’s in order.’
‘All right then. Lock the door will you, and we’ll go.’

The other is led by Tostig with a professional crew of five. They have just ten mules and are incredibly well organised.

‘You know, it’s marvellous the organisation that’s gone into this voyage of ours. Quite exhaustive! Every aspect was planned beforehand, right down to the finest detail. For example, how do you think the weight of a water canister compares with a tin of biscuits?’
‘No idea,’ said Snaebjorn.
‘Have a guess.’
‘I’ve just told you I don’t know.’
‘Identical,’ Thegn announced. ‘They both weigh exactly the same.’
‘Really.’
‘Within an ounce. Apparently there were such huge logistical demands to be met that for purposes of simplification all items were classified in fixed units of weight. You could substitute a folded tent, say, with a coiled rope and it would make no difference to the overall load. The exact method used is described in the Ship’s Manual, if you’re interested.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
‘Appendix B.’

Tostig’s team had arrived first, and have chosen to take a route along a dry riverbed making good progress. Johns’ team though, choose a different route entirely going over rocky scree. This terrain is monotonous and energy sapping in the extreme, yet Johns and his men manage to keep up with the others. They bicker all the way, yet that reserve of British stiff upper lip stands them in good stead.

And so it goes on. Day after boring day. They all inch towards their goal. You wonder when something is going to happen, and when it does, it comes completely out of left-field, and things turn even darker, more surreal and twisted than before. To tell you more would completely spoil the plot.

Mills’s deadpan humour is not to everyone’s taste, but if you haven’t tried one of his novels, at under two hundred pages, this is a quick read.  I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2005). Bloomsbury paperback, 192 pages.

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5′. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

There was I, ready to cull some books …

… when I got totally distracted after only consigning one book to the charity shop pile by this little gem…

Pistache by Sebastian Faulks.

pistacheOriginating from the BBC Radio 4 literary quiz, The Right Stuff, each week contestants would do a little party piece at the end of the show as one writer attempting the style of another author, book or genre etc. – they were usually terribly comic, and always very clever.

Sebastian Faulks was one of the team captains, and he retooled his party pieces into this expanded collection of his pastiches, or pistaches. Once I’d started leafing through for some of my favourites, all thought of book culling went out of the window.

So we have Ernest Hemingway writing a Christmas round robin, Jane Austen in the 1830s – sorry 18-30 holiday, Richmal Crompton’s Just William grows up into an estate agent, and so on.  One clever one that grabbed me particularly was:

Dylan Thomas writes a cereal advert …

The force that through the green gut drives the food
Is each morning taken mortal fibre, tockticking,
Clockworking, regular in motion
Of day and wind and
Under milk good soaking of rough husk
Of hill-high rough-age in tough
Tock-ticking, regular,
From the farm in the blossoming hill through the mill
From bole to bowel to hwyl
Where gesture and psalm ring-
It is your thirtieth day to heaven
Consecutive,
In all dark, all black,
All brown, all Bran.

We also have George Orwell confronting the real 1984 – ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the miners were striking. …’   and hilariously – Sherlock Holmes has a conversation with Motson  (John ‘Motty’ Motson, was a wonderfully verbose football commentator).

I chuckled my way through these, wishing there were more (there will be a second volume next year), and now I have to go and cook dinner – no more time for book-culling today!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

The book that inspired 1984 and Brave New World

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown

we_yevgeni_zamyatinSo, I finally read the book that inspired Orwell’s 1984 (my brief write-up here).  Many other dystopian novels have similarities, including Huxley’s Brave New World (my review here) although Huxley said he was inspired by HG Wells, as was Zamyatin himself.

We wasn’t published in Russian in Russia until 1988, well over sixty years after it was written. Its first publication was in English in 1924 – it had been banned in Russia and had to be smuggled out to the West. Zamyatin was a marine engineer by training, and according to Wikipedia, he oversaw ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian Navy during WWI. Based in Newcastle in the UK, he saw large scale collective labour working in the Tyne shipyards.  He drew on these experiences, plus those of the Russian Revolutions in his writing.  In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to leave the country, and surprisingly was allowed to go, joining his wife in Paris where he worked with film director Jean Renoir, dying in poverty in 1937, aged 53.

The translation I read by American, Clarence Brown, was published in 1993 – the first English translation from Zamyatin’s original manuscript, rather than from an edited MS.  The other translation freely available in the UK is a 2007 one by Natasha Randall.  I’ve briefly compared the opening chapters (thanks to Amazon’s look inside feature), and think I prefer Brown’s – it’s slightly less modern, more of its time, post WWI, making my vision of the story itself more Fritz Lang than Ridley Scott.  But enough of this, let’s look at the book…

I, D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, I am only one of the mathematicians of OneState. My pen, accustomed to figures, is powerless to create the music of assonance and rhyme. I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think – or, to be more exact, what we think (that’s right: we; and let this WE be the exact title of these records). But this, surely, will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of OneState, and if that is so, then won’t this be, of its own accord, whatever I may wish, an epic? It will; I believe and I know that it will.

In OneState, everyone has a number rather than a name – men are odd, prefixed by consonants, women even, prefixed by vowels. D-503 is 120 days away from what will be the biggest achievement of life – sending the first INTEGRAL ship into space.  His life is ruled by numbers. He believes fervently in the mathematics of happiness as determined by The Benefactor, and policed by the Guardians.

I’ll be completely honest with you: Even we haven’t yet solved the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day – from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 – the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you’ll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe – let them call me idealist and dreamer – but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 846,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours.

D-503 lives in his glass cube of a house, only lowering the blinds with permission when his assigned beloved O-90 brings her pink ticket round during Personal Hour,  and D-503 is genuinely fond of O, who is short and rounded, and looks forward to her visits.  Life goes on, unquestioningly, until …

One day during the March, D-503 and O are joined by a sharp faced woman I-330 who tells D to come and see her in Auditorium 112. D is perturbed but when an order arrives, he has to obey, and this is the beginning of the turning upside-down of his entire world.

Yes, I-330 is part of the revolution, and to his annoyance, D finds himself reassigned to her – and she teases him, plants the seeds of ferment in his brain, and he is hooked.  She shows him how it used to be, before the big green glass wall went up, via the ‘Ancient House’ – the only relic and museum, and there are no pink tickets needed there.

… it’s also clear that what I felt yesterday, that stupid “dissolving in the universe,” if you take it to its limits, is death. Because that’s exactly what death is – the fullest possible dissolving of myself into the universe. Hence, if we let L stand for love and D for death, then L=f(D), ie, love and death …
Yes, that’s it, that’s it. That’s why I’m afraid of I-330, why I fight against her, why I don’t want … But why do those two exist side by side in me: I don’t want and I want? That’s just what’s so horrible: What I want again is that blissful death of yesterday. What’s so horrible is that even now, when the logical function has been integrated, when it’s obvious that it contains, as a hidden component, death itself, I still want her, my lips, my arms, my chest, every millimeter of me wants her ….

D raves like a madman, recklessly driven by I-330: he lusts, he rants, he gets paranoid, does whatever she wants, yet still the logician in him misses order – he’s not good at entropy, and he misses O – he thought he was ‘happy before …  I won’t tell you how it develops, there are two possible endings – but which one?

I was really glad to have read this novel.  It is – was truly ground-breaking. Plotwise, those of us who’ve read the classic dystopias that came after We, the aforementioned 1984 and Brave New World in particular will not find anything new.  It’s a shame in a way, that it tends to get read after those, for they are both more instantly readable in comparison; D-503’s demented ravings during the second half of We are quite hard to follow at times, but they also make him human and a memorable character.

D-503 is a learned man, his diaries are full of references to ancient philosophers and the like, and late in the book when he is summoned before The Benefactor, the biblical take of their debate is quite fascinating.  Zamyatin’s vision is remarkably prescient – not only a satire of Stalin’s Russia, but with the glass wall and an informer on every corner it could be Berlin.

Most interesting for me were the discussions on the nature of happiness. Can it really be reduced to an equation?  Can you truly be happy in a world lacking imagination?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Clarence Brown (Penguin Classics 1993)
We: Introduction by Will Self by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Natasha Randall (Vintage 2003)

Minimalism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be …

Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

care of wooden floorsThis debut novel, published last year, was one of those books I was instantly desperate to read, but somehow couldn’t fit in at the time. The title promised quirkiness and humour, two qualities I adore in a novel. I’m glad I finally read it, for I enjoyed it a lot…

Oskar is a successful minimalist composer who lives in an unnamed Eastern European capital city. He’s married to Laura, but she lives in the US, and their long-distance relationship is on the rocks. Needing to go to LA to dismantle his marriage, Oskar needs a house-sitter to look after his flat and his two cats Shossy and Stravvy, so he asks an old friend from university to do the honours.

His friend, who remains unnamed, narrates the events of his stay in Oskar’s flat. From the moment he arrives and is faced with an apartment of pristine minimalism complete with leather sofas, a grand piano and the beautiful blond wooden floors of the title, and not forgetting the two cats, you just know it is going to go so wrong.

Oskar, of course, has left copious instructions – but not just a list on the kitchen table like you might expect. When the piano lid is opened, ‘This action caused a slip of paper to waft out and describe a swooping arabesque descent to the floor. I scooped it up and read it. Oskar had written on it in a prickly, pointy, fussy hand: Please do NOT play with the piano.‘  This note is the first of many that Oskar’s friend finds, as if his every move has been anticipated.

We read on with a real sense of schadenfreude as things inevitably happen, and Oskar’s friend tries to take care of the wooden floor.  There are some hilarious scenes, which escalate in their level of farce and absurdity as the novel progresses, although surprisingly little else actually occurs.  I found the disasters were well telegraphed and I guessed most of them anyway, but half of the comedy was in the antici…pation.

What I wasn’t expecting was the ongoing commentary throughout the novel about material things, architecture, design, stuff, and its effects on our lives.

Furniture is like that. Used and enjoyed as intended, it absorbs that experience and exudes it back into the atmosphere, but if simply bought for effect and left to languish in a corner, it vibrates with melancholy. Furnishings in museums (‘DO NOT SIT IN THIS SEAT’) are as unspeakably tragic as the unvisited inmates of old folk’s homes. The untuned violins and hardback books used to bring ‘character’ to postwar suburban pubs crouch uncomfortably in their roles like caged pumas at the zoo. The stately kitchen that is never or rarely used to bring forth lavish feasts for appreciative audiences turns inward and cold. Like the kitchen here, I thought.

I think I enjoyed this side of the novel even more than the comedy.  Looking up Wiles’s blog, I see he writes about architecture and design and was deputy editor at Icon magazine; all expertise that was brought to the novel.

Fans of Dan Rhodes will probably like this book, (my review of one of his here).  I enjoyed it very much, and hope for more.  (8.5/10)

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I was sent a copy of the paperback by the publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, 4th Estate paperback (2012).

Serendipity makes this a timely read from And Other Stories…

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I started reading this book around ten days ago, and was shocked and amused in equal measure – but I paused around a third of the way through to give in to the hype and read JK Rowling’s latest (see previous post here) – and  by the time I picked the book up again, a major sex scandal had broken, involving the now tattered reputation of a dead man who had been thought an unlikely hero, and rippling across the world of entertainment as more sexual harassment was revealed.

Sexual harassment is at the heart of this innovative satire, so it’s been a timely read.   However, it’s the means to an end, not the primary target in this novel.  Let me explain…

It’s back in the 1990s, and Joe is a salesman who has lost his mojo. He knows he can be the best, but only if he has the right product to sell in the right place. ‘He had hit rock bottom,’ and is reduced to living in a trailer alone with his masturbatory fantasies, when he’s not philosophising to himself about the art of selling.

…What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them its a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.
… if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a whole lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Joe comes up with the idea for forward-thinking companies (that are full of hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled heterosexual salesmen) to outsource their sexual harassment policies. He will recruit special employees, each ‘a woman in a thousand’ who will be paid a lot extra for anonymously providing services when required, via a specially equipped bathroom cubicle which will present her naked bottom half to the selected male.  They are the ‘lightning rods’.

It’s outrageous!  It’s totally hair-brained!  You won’t be surprised though to hear that Joe finds a company brave dumb enough to try it out. It takes off, but things are never going to be simple, they’re only going to get more and more complicated.  How will Joe cope? Will it work? What sort of woman would want to be take part?

Corporate practices, management programmes, and outsourcing are what this novel is really about.  Nearing the end of the novel, you’ll almost believe it could really happen. You certainly sense the proprietorial pride in Joe, that despite his cod-philosophising whilst watching the birds, he has found an essential truth, (in the immortal words of M.Jagger & K.Richard, which seemed to fit):

“You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometimes you just might find 
You just might find, You get what you need” 

What makes this novel rather special is the language, as has been identified by the other reviews I’ve read too (see below).  Although it’s full of sex of a sort, it’s never prurient, the descriptions are deliberately non-sexy, dead-pan, typically in business speak. Having been through some management schemes in my former life working for a multi-national company, I could recognise some of the types involved in delivering the programmes, and it made me laugh, and be thankful that I don’t work there any more (apart from missing the salary that is).

What I found most interesting though, was the fact that the novel, which despite having a focus on oversexed straight men, was not a male fantasy, but a female satire, written by a woman.  The most powerful characters in the novel were the lightning rods who had their finger on the pulse of Joe’s scheme, and manipulated it and him for their own benefit. There are no easy answers to the questions that the story raises, and the author doesn’t attempt to provide them, she just helps us imagine what if …

This novel was very clever and extremely funny. I loved it. (10/10)

See also reviews by John Self, Alex in Leeds, and Follow the Thread.

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I was sent this book to review by the publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. Pub in the UK Oct 2012 by And Other Stories, posh paperback, 297 pages.