Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Umbrella-Will Self

Umbrella-Will Self

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 397
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.

This was difficult to read. That's an understatement, this was crazy difficult to read. The transition between times and people are so smooth you might be five sentences in before registering the change. I constantly went back and reread, something I rarely ever do. Every narrative is disjointed and full of both fantasy and reality so that it makes it all the harder to figure out who you're listening to. When you put this book down, it's difficult...so difficult to pick it up again. Just five minutes and you've lost where you are and have to reread.

Nevertheless I enjoyed the style so that kept me going to the end. It wasn't really the story which was a bit like Awakenings (which I read) with a lot of The Great War feel. Come to think of it, I'm not sure there was real Great War bits-they might've been fantasy. It's hard to assign a point or overall objective to the book and in many ways it seemed like an act of literary fiction undertaken to "show what I can do"-you might recall I didn't like that about NW. However, if you have the time to devote to reading it in large and long chunks, it's a book you fall into and it carries you along. Making my way through this experiment in unfixed regard and prose fragmentation felt like sloshing my way through an even more modernist version of Joyce. The characters do things but it's hard to concentrate on their feelings what with the fragmentation and song fragments in their thoughts. I mean, every blurb talks about the tragic revelations...I must have missed the emotion... This is not a book for everyone or the casual reader but I did enjoy it.

(as an aside, some people seem put off by the old vocab (archaic, it is not) and cockney spelling. All I can say is that it's easier than Trainspotting in terms of dialect and the vocabulary only occasionally gave me a misstep...but then again I have been heard to mention in casual conversation that I am from septentrional leanings)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Anatomy of the Moment-Javier Cercas

Anatomy of the Moment-Javier Cercas

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 416
gender: M
nationality: Spain
year: 2011
Non fiction, History, in translation

In February 1981, Spain was still emerging from Franco's shadow, holding a democratic vote for the new prime minister. On the day of the vote in Parliament, while the session was being filmed by TV cameras, a band of right-wing soldiers burst in with automatic weapons, ordering everyone to get down. Only three men defied the order. For thirty-five minutes, as the cameras rolled, they stayed in their seats. Critically adored novelist Javier Cercas originally set out to write a novel about this pivotal moment, but determined it had already gained an air of myth, or, through the annual broadcast of video clips, had at least acquired the fictional taint of reality television. Cercas turned to nonfiction, and his vivid descriptions of the archival footage frame a narrative that traverses the line between history and art, creating a daring new account of this watershed moment in modern Spanish history.

This book focuses on one of the most tense and interesting points in Spanish history-the day an armed coup threatened a democracy just beginning to pull the country out of its dictatorship. Spain's transition to democracy is usually heralded as a miracle and as an example of how to throw off the mantle of a dictatorship and emerge as a modern country. But at the time, it was unclear whether this was an experiment that would succeed or an abject failure. It was a pivotal time when Tejero burst into the Spanish Congress of Deputies (along with 200 Guardia Civil officers) on camera. It is history's only televised coup and, also a rarity, a bloodless collapsed coup. I never learned about it in detail in school, it was mentioned of course, everyone knows about 23-F or El Tejerazo but somehow I missed out on all the fascinating details about it.

Cercas didn't miss a single detail (it seems). He manages to approach the event exhaustively. He talks about all the major players without going into unnecessary background and uses them, Suarez, Gutierrez Mellado and Carillo, as the organizational scheme (a very literary way to do so). He analyzes the television reports as a media analysis, a cinematic analysis, and even somewhat like a movie review. He asks hard questions that have no answer but gives answers. This is a dense book, somewhat hard to read, but Cercas has an accessible writing style as he applies layer after layer. There is nothing glossed over in factual analysis and he also adds in the question of separating truth and fiction (and whether there is a truth in the first place). Originally intended as a novel, there are moments of pure beauty in this writing when the metaphor overshadows the facts. This is not a quick read nor an easy one but it is rewarding. I'm glad I did it because I've come away with such an understanding of 23-F that no traditional education would have given me.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Panopticon-Jenni Fagan

Panopticon-Jenni Fagan

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 324
gender: F
nationality: UK (Scottish)
year: 2012
Novel

 Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.

Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself. And yet despite the parade of horrors visited upon her early life, she greets the world with the witty, fierce insight of a survivor.


Ok, let me first start by telling you that I really didn't get what I expected with this book. I thought it was going to be a dystopia and the blurb (the one above is only slightly better) on the back kind of made me think it was going to be a thriller. Instead, it was a rather depressingly realistic book about youth at risk in care.

Anais is the sort whose behavior is understandable from the inside and as a character she practically begs you to give her a psychiatric diagnosis since Fagan never does (trauma triggered schizophrenia?). Since she doesn't communicate (for good reason) with staff, she's on her way to a secure unit where she knows the experiment will drive her to suicide. She is 15 and in love with vintage clothes and only yearns to be free. It's not a very good position to be in and as a reader you are right there with her. It was all a bit depressing and good but I didn't really enjoy reading this.

The ending, however, was a bit unrealistic and out of voice from the rest of the book. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The World That Was Ours-Hilda Bernstein

The World That Was Ours-Hilda Bernstein

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 247
gender: F
nationality: UK/South Africa
year: 1967
Memoir, Non fiction

'This has survived as a South African classic not just because it's beautifully written,' wrote Anthony Sampson in the Spectator, 'but because it conveys the combination of ordinariness and danger which is implicit in any totalitarian state.' The World that was Ours is about the events leading up to the 1964 Rivonia Trial when Hilda Bernstein's husband was acquitted but Mandela and the 'men of Rivonia' received life sentences. 'This passionately political memoir,' observed The Times, 'is vibrant with the dilemmas of everyday family life, quick-witted dialogue, fast-paced adventure and novelistic detail.' Yet the political background is not dwelt on: it is simply taken for granted that civilised South Africans fought apartheid and the uncivilised propped it up. The main strength of the book is as an outstanding personal memoir;

This is a classic and for good reason. I grew up in a post-apartheid world and it always seemed so long ago (even though it really wasn't) and far away from suburban America where we barely learned about the history of the USA post 1830s not to say of anywhere else. This is a great book to really just immediately engage with the Rivonia Trial and the circumstances surrounding it.

Bernstein offers a tremendous insider view of the beginning of governmental strictures that heralded the beginning of full apartheid by clearly detailing the numerous ways intimidation can silence an entire population. It is an important book as you become familiar with the accused (both white and black) before and during the Rivonia trial which really seemed when the international community fully understood the governmental misrule that was going on and functions as the true signal before the true oppression that would grip the country for decades.

If you only have the vague outlines of apartheid and what a government might do to let it form, this is a supremely important book. It goes into detail with a human face to bring the events alive. I can imagine how this book hit hard when it was first published and to be honest, its impact has not really lessened even in a post-apartheid world. Parts may have dragged a bit but there is such a reward for finishing.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Angelmaker-Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker-Nick Harkaway

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 566
gender: M
nationality: UK (Cornish)
year: 2012
Novel

Joe Spork fixes clocks. He has turned his back on his father’s legacy as one of London’s flashiest and most powerful gangsters and aims to live a quiet life. Edie Banister retired long ago from her career as a British secret agent. She spends her days with a cantankerous old pug for company. That is, until Joe repairs a particularly unusual clockwork mechanism, inadvertently triggering a 1950s doomsday machine. His once-quiet life is suddenly overrun by mad monks who worship John Ruskin, psychopathic serial killers, mad geniuses and dastardly villains. On the upside, he catches the eye of bright and brassy Polly, a woman with enough smarts to get anyone out of a sticky situation. In order to save the world and defeat the nefarious forces threatening it, Joe must help Edie complete a mission she abandoned years ago, and he must summon the courage to pick up his father’s old gun and join the fight.

I finished this and immediately wished I hadn't. I wanted back in that world. Not that it wasn't a satisfying ending-rather that it could've been twice as long and I would have been just as happy (even though it was over 550pgs!). Safe to say, I love it.

I guess, it isn't much of a surprise. There were traces of what I love in Mieville's work without any of the over your head, being really clever, logistics and realities. Instead what you get is a really accessible blend of styles that cohere into a very quickly moving brilliance. It gets really, really grim at times-Sheamus and Shen Shen are truly chilling and terrifying villians and there's those points where everything just seems impossible to resolve but then there's so many absurdist elements liberally sprinkled throughout that you end up chuckling. Then there was the fact that you didn't need to worry about getting emotionally invested in a character only to have them disappear. Harkaway resolves every character he introduces. Yes, some of them die but some pop in and out again delightfully.

Harkaway manages to pack so many lessons into an action packed plot. They were lessons I could really get behind (and there's a definite reason I call them lessons). There's overall the value of handmade and unique items and individuals. He has you asking hard questions about genius and truth-can we be trusted?-the strictures of things and whether religion has benefits to us or the things around us. There are so many ways he explores the ideas of identity. Are we our predecessors? How much can we be known by another...and how much should we be? He points out how there are so many ways to subvert and redefine situations-there's a 'lawyer' called Mercer who is an absolutely brilliant character and the main character Joe has the most incredible rebirth I've read.

This is on my to buy and keep forever list. I look forward to reading more by Harkaway because on the strength of this book, I will be.