Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ category

Climate Change, New Hope

June 21, 2014

In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone Magazine there is a long and profoundly fascinating article by Al Gore on the climate situation entitled The Turning Point, New Hope for the Climate. It is a polemic which is full of both hope and despair, with the former, well it would be wrong to say triumphing, but at least winning out over the latter.

He starts by describing the incredible advances in renewable technology, in particular solar, and what that means, how it is manifesting in different parts of the world, going on to list some of the forces ranged against its deployment. For the centre part of the piece he inevitably outlines the damage that is being done and will be done by changing weather patterns, but towards the end he takes time to point out the failure of ‘democratic capitalism’ to address the problem, before finally coming back to a call to action, bolstered by hope. As he says in the last paragraph, quoting Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it tilts towards justice.’

This piece ties in well with another by the inimitable Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books on the book Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods by Richard B Primack. Site_throeau_cabin_locIt seems that Henry David Thoreau was not only the author of one ‘of the greatest books any American has ever produced’, he was also a formidable naturalist, spending a minimum of four hours a day walking in and around Concord, taking notes. Those painstaking observations of the timing of such natural events as the budding of flowers in spring are being used to measure the behaviour of the same plants 160 years later. The results are, generally, not good. As McKibben points out, the Sierra Club has recently ended its 120 year prohibition against engaging in illegal protest, explaining that the ongoing climate emergency required more intense engagement than they’d had so far.

What these articles seem to me to suggest, and it might be that I’m just an optimist, is that, at least in other countries, some sort of tipping point has been reached in the so-called debate about Climate Change; that the effects we have already seen are dramatic enough to at last begin to exercise the minds of politicians. That Australia, with a government which is no more than the political wing of the Murdoch Press and the fossil-fuel industry, is going the other way, is a matter of deep shame and concern.


Language as the Medium of Being

June 13, 2014

In the most recent London Review of Books there’s an article by TJ Clark on the exhibition at the Tate Modern in London of Matisse’s cut-outs entitled The Urge to Strangle, the title being a reference to the making of art, Matisse having said in later life something like ‘that in order to begin painting at all he needed to feel the urge to strangle someone, or to lance an abscess in his psyche.’

In the article Clark writes,

‘Crowds gather at the heart of [the exhibition] drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, unwell. Not even a rakish straw hat, part cowboy part Maurice Chevalier, can divest the scene of its pathos. There is a spot of time in the movie, after Matisse has finished his fierce fast cutting of the usual vegetable-flower-seaweed-jellyfish shapes … when the speed suddenly slackens and the old man holds the limp paper in his hands as if reluctant to let go. He fusses with it a little, prodding and twisting the fronds in space, maybe trying to thread the shapes together, buckling them, letting them be carried for a second as they might be by a breeze or coronet. He seems to be waiting for the cut-outs to occupy space – to make space … I thought, looking at the film sequence that I could hear the paper shapes rustle. And the word – the imagined sound – sent me back to a wonderful essay by Roland Barthes called The Rustle of Language, and especially to its last two sentences:

“I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I – it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.”’













I was struck by this because it gives me a glimpse of an understanding of what people talk about when they talk about us being immersed in language, being made up of it. I know such an understanding should seem axiomatic to someone like myself, who writes, but it never really has.

Interestingly enough I recently read something else which pertains to exactly this. There’s been a whole hullaballoo surrounding Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer of the six volume, My Struggle, which I’ve avoided dipping into for reasons that I’ve not analysed too closely – not wanting to be part of a fad as much as anything else I guess – but in the end I came across a copy of the first volume while wandering around the wonderful Foyle’s bookshop in London (on the same day as we saw the exhibition of Matisse as it happened, and, gosh, I wish I’d read the essay by TJ Clark before I saw it) and picked it up out of curiosity and found myself reading six pages right there in the store. I couldn’t help but buy it. Unfortunately it became, in the end, my struggle, and I haven’t finished even this first volume. There are, however, amongst the tens of thousands of words of, quite possibly, unnecessary and irksome detail, some remarkable pieces of writing. I’m going to post one of them below. It’s five or six pages, so be warned, but I think it’s worth it. And having read it maybe you can be excused reading the other 389 pages; or maybe it’ll make you want to. I’m not sure it’s possible to say whatever it is he’s saying in less words than this, although TJ Clark hints at it. Anyway, here it is, pages 195-202 from A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

“Twenty minutes later I was in my office. I hung my coat and scarf on the hook, put my shoes on the mat, made a cup of coffee, connected my computer and sat drinking coffee and looking at the title page until the screen saver kicked in and filled the screen with a myriad of bright dots.

The America of the Soul. That was the title.


Bring Up The Bodies

May 30, 2012

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall and continuation of a life of Thomas Cromwell.

In the first book she took us from the fall of Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey – which, in theory, should also have taken Cromwell in its wake – through his ascension to the role of Master Secretary to the King. The novel was nothing short of a bravura performance, a realisation of the man from a very intimate point, as if Mantel was sitting, not in the normal close personal voice on the shoulder of the man, but actually behind his eyes, seeing what he saw at the same time as miraculously maintaining enough distance to describe him. So close, however, that she does not have room to judge him, so close that we, being in there with her, all of us readers, the world over, crowded in there in Cromwell’s head, looking out, we see the world through his lens. It is not such a bad place to be. Cromwell is an entertaining host, learned in language and art, interested in everything from brick making to the psychology of Dukes. He has a modern view of the world, the State, as well as an extraordinary history, having risen to this great height from being the son of a blacksmith.

In the second book Mantel is in exactly the same place. Cromwell, however, is in an even more complex situation than when he was separating England from the Church of Rome so that Henry could escape his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now Henry is bored with Anne Boleyn, who he took in Katherine’s place as Queen. He has his eye on young Jane Seymour. The marriage, Henry believes, must have been false (Anne had used witchery on him) and he needs Cromwell to find him a way out of it, and Cromwell, acutely aware of how Wolsey was brought down for not achieving the King’s wishes, has to be the agent of his release.

There are a thousand other concerns also in Cromwell’s mind. He has his several houses to keep and to alter, the young men he is, in turn, monitoring, the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of the funds to oversee, the ill and possibly dying Katherine to keep an eye on, the relations between England and both the French and the Emperor, spies against him and for him, the jealousy and hatred of those born to privilege to deal with. Amid all this, and much more (the loss of his wife and two daughters that occurred at the end of volume one, the gathering to himself of immense wealth), he sets out to do the King’s will. He does it with coldness and clarity and not a little viciousness and what is extraordinary is that we do it with him, sitting there in his mind. Mantel, our guide, our gracious host in this place, inviting us to watch. See this: see how when the King falls from his horse while riding in the lists and everyone thinks he is dead, Cromwell, in those brief terrifying moments, lines up all the consequences of this sudden change of fortune – the different families and factions queueing up to take power, the gossamer thread upon which his own head, all his wealth and prestige, rests. See how when the King sucks back breath into his lungs and sits up the world is no longer the same. See how when, shortly after, Anne miscarries, becomes, no longer, the vessel of a possible heir, she really has to go and the way to do that is to dream up a charge of treason enacted through adultery. See how simple it is to set up, how expertly Cromwell strips away the esteem, the wealth, the illusions of those powerful men he would destroy along with her. Suddenly Cromwell’s mind, pace all that brilliance, is no longer such a pleasant place to sit within. And yet that is where we are. His mind is ours.

This novel is a definition of all that literature can be, that it desires to reach, but so rarely can. It offers the possibility of knowing another man as oneself and liking it just as ill when the curtains are down and all is revealed. Here is writing that, while it might describe what seems to be another time, in truth speaks of what it is to be human. It is long, ruminative, reflective. It’s slow at the start, but it needs to be while we become accustomed to those long lists of names of the individuals involved (complicated because they have both titles and names; so that Henry Fitzroy, for example, the King’s bastard son, can be at times, Richmond, Henry or Fitzroy) but it intensifies as it progresses reaching a remarkable and sustained pitch. I did not want it to end. I wanted to begin again at the beginning as soon as I was finished. I wanted to understand how it might be possible to be King Henry VIII and to murder one’s wives and yet live on, choose another wife while blaming the last for her own fate; at the same moment as I was experiencing what it means to be Cromwell, and liking that even less.

Five Easy Pieces

January 7, 2012

Several articles and posts have piqued my curiosity over the last few months and what I thought to do, as part of an end of year review, is to give a brief rundown of what excited me about them and then see if there is a connecting theme or narrative. Right at the end I’ll give the links.

The first was a review in the NYRB by the wonderfully named Freeman Dyson of a book by someone called David Deutsch. The book is called The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, and Dyson, in his essay about it and its ideas, gave a quote from the seventeenth century British ‘prophet of modern science’ Francis Bacon to illustrate a point: ‘If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.’ Bacon was talking about the use of the scientific method as a means to understand the world around us, as opposed to that which had been used for the previous few hundred centuries, which was to start from a religious perspective. It was an extremely radical viewpoint at the time but is now taken as the norm. It is, though, I believe, still a confronting and fascinating prospect, to begin in doubt and to bear it patiently.

The essay, following the book, focuses on the problems we face as human beings, that we have faced and always will. Here is Dyson on Deutsch:

‘Deutsch sums up human destiny in two statements that he displays as inscriptions carved in stone, “problems are inevitable” and “problems are soluble.” … These statements apply to all aspects of human activity, to ethics and law and religion as well as to art and science. In every area, from pure mathematics and logic to war and peace, there are no final solutions and no final impossibilities. He identifies the spark of insight which gave us a clear view of our infinite future, with the beginning of the British Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. He makes a sharp distinction between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Enlightenment, which arose at the same time in France.

Both enlightenments began with the insight that problems are soluble. Both of them engaged the most brilliant minds of that age in the solution of practical problems. They diverged because many thinkers of the Continental Enlightenment believed that problems could be finally solved by utopian revolutions, while the British believed that problems were inevitable. According to Deutsch, Francis Bacon transformed the world when he took the long view foreseeing an infinite process of problem-solving guided by unpredictable successes and failures.’

Dyson goes on to reject the notion of the British as the better agents in Deutsch’s version of history as rubbish, that the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks thought similar things. I, however, was very taken by this moment of divergence between those who thought things could be solved once and for all by getting government right, and those who recognised the constant nature of the challenge… I don’t care which country or group of individuals it was, I’m simply interested to note the schism and the costs which have been associated with taking each path.

The second piece comes from the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, with a transcript of him talking to The Edge, about Infinite Stupidity.

Pagel is interested in culture. In this piece he gives a quick run down of the history of evolution from the formation of the planet until now, noting that it wasn’t until humans made the genetic change from Neanderthals to the present homo sapiens that we developed the skill of social learning: (more…)

Best fiction, non-fiction and television for 2011

January 4, 2012

I’m going to do my best ofs in two parts, the first, this one, is about books and television, the second one, which will, in the strange world of blogs, be above this one, discusses several posts I’ve come across during the year that have fired up my mind.

Best novel: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. No competition. It’s a novel told in, if I recall correctly, twenty-three parts, each of which functions as a short story, each one told from a different perspective, jumping forwards and backwards through time, creating, piece by piece, a world that is larger than its parts. I don’t normally like this sort of thing. The change in perspective, I find, has a tendency to rob the reader of their ability to connect with any given character, but Egan does something (I’m not sure what, but I want to find out) so that, rather than getting a fragmented collection of stories, we get an overlap that pierces to the core of both the characters’, and our own, lives. An exceeding beautiful book.

A safe choice you might say, in that it won the Pulitzer, but sometimes the prize givers get it right, as they did, I believe, with Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I was reading some quite heavy non-fiction and came to this slim novel as a palate cleanser. What a delight it proved to be, the narrator winding us back down through the past, finding different meanings and interpretations with each turn of the staircase. It seems barely possible to have squeezed so much into so few words and yet have it feel clear and concise.

Several other books deserve mention. Organising and interviewing for Outspoken I have to read a lot of books during the year in a way that I have not been accustomed to, sometimes three or four novels by one person (previously I’ve allowed books to come to me, as it were, now I have lists). I particularly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Run. In this novel, Patchett stays with an event for a remarkable amount of time, she uses a single incident to introduce and develop a rich cast of characters, promiscuously shifting perspective between them, and yet, like Egan above, giving them all lives I found myself caring about. Patchett was, by the way, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever encountered, never mind having the pleasure of sharing a stage with. I also read a lot of Alex Miller and can recommend Journey to the Stone Country and Autumn Laing, his new novel. Further afield I loved Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petersen, set in the mountains on the border between Norway and Sweden, as well as Mortals, by Norman Rush. Talk about richness and density of prose and staying in a scene, milking every last drop from it. A remarkable novel indeed, set in Africa.

Non-fiction: I can’t really separate out one and say it’s the best. I’ve recently read the first two volumes of Thomas Keneally’s The Australians, a very different way of relating history. I’ve heard it said that it’s a novelist’s view and this might be the case but many historians try to weave a narrative through the events they describe. Keneally spends time with individuals, not necessarily the Great Men, and through their stories hopes to illustrate the development of the nation. I found it fascinating, but the two books together, at 967 pages, are a big read and they’re heavy, too, to hold up in bed at night. A good argument for the ebook, although the hardbacks are very handsome. I was very taken by The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands, and the last book from Tony Judt, that great historian of our time, Ill Fares the Land. Somewhere in there I managed Life by Keith Richards and friend, which also presents a stark picture of our time, or his time in the early years of the Rolling Stones. Beside my bed right now are two other non-fiction works, impatiently waiting for me to finish Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (struggling a bit here Patrick, sorry, these long diversions into punctuation-less prose make me drop off to sleep): How to Live, about the life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell and The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, in which he discusses how and why violence has declined. I’ll drink to that.

Television series also deserve a mention. The longer series give writers and directors an opportunity to develop character in a way that is novelistic, but also its own form. I watched several this year: Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, (Peter Brandt Nielsen) that dark tale from Copenhagen with the wonderful Sofie Grabol as the detective lead, although surely almost equally important was Bjarne Hendriksen as the brooding father.

Taken with the female detective lead and wanting to practice my French I also went over to look Engrenages, or Spiral, (Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert) but while loving Caroline Proust’s fiery detective I was put off by the crimes on which it focused. The French seem to love the gritty reality of violence, they relish bringing the camera in close on the dismembered bodies. Across the Atlantic there were two very different shows: Treme, Series Two, from David Simon, which I think was better than series one. One of the things I love about this drama is that it’s not interested in violence as a plot driver, the concern is music in its many and varied forms. Lastly can I recommend Community Series One and Two, (Dan Harmon). Fifty half hour sit-com shows of tremendous energy and humour starring Joel McHale and Danny Pudi. I came to these full of cynicism about American humour and found myself laughing out loud, delighting in the freshness of their approach. I particularly recommend the episodes about playing pool and the first series paintball.

Russell Hoban

December 15, 2011

News today that one of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, has died at the age of 86, in London.

Hoban wrote many novels and children’s books, but the one I like best of all is Pilgermann, which he published in 1983. I have reread it countless times and it refuses to age, partly, I suppose, because it is an allegorical novel that follows the adventure of a Jew who, having got caught up in a pogrom because he was conducting an illicit affair with Sophia, a merchant’s wife, is castrated by the mob and left to die. While lying in the dirt he has a vision of Christ who instructs him to journey to Jerusalem, and it is the story of this voyage, and what happens when he gets to Antioch, that are the subject of the novel, a marvellous, witty and deeply profound meditation on Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the time of the Crusades, which includes, amongst other characters, the wonderful Bembel Rudzuk and Pilgermann’s own Death, a ribald figure who accompanies him for part of the journey.

Hoban was most famous for his chidren’s novel, The Mouse and His Child, and the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker – the latter an extraordinary achievement written in a language Hoban made up specifically for the novel, a possible future English which has its own rhythm and cadence.

He has never stopped writing but I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with many of his more recent books. It was the ones I’ve mentioned as well as The Lion of Boaz Jaquin and Jaquin Boaz, and Kleinzeit which managed to enter the deepest parts of my psyche with their peculiar mythic style, as if they were no more than descriptions of other worlds that did, or had, or would exist, whose reputation had come down to us by word of mouth. My gratitude to Russell Hoban is immense.


November 1, 2010

I’ve just finished reading a very intriguing novel – Mortals, by Norman Rush. I’m not sure where I heard of Rush or why I was drawn to read it but somehow or other it appeared on my pile and made its call for my attention.

It’s a big book in lots of ways. Physically it’s 710 pages of small print that follows closely (the close-personal, free-indirect-speech sort of closeness for those writers amongst us) Ray, a professor of English Literature specialising in Milton who also happens to be a CIA agent living in Gabarone the capital of Botswana and who, also, deeply loves his wife. The narrative is paced in a most mysterious but engaging way, slow, almost ponderous, and yet rarely anything but riveting, trawling through Ray’s mind which constantly throws up new and fascinating perspectives on what it’s like to be alive. (Literature, he thinks at one point, is humanity talking to itself, and here is a wonderful example of the same). The second half of the book changes pace dramatically, from a story that is primarily about noticing to one trapped in action, but the quality of noticing is, in effect, just carried forward so that even in the most dramatic instants there is still a mind watching, calculating, ruminating.

I loved this book but I’m not sure who to recommend it to because I don’t know who in the world still has time for this sort of careful, poised narrative. There’s a link, here, to a review of it by the wonderful James Wood, but I don’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the book because he gives away too much of the plot (and, strangely, finds themes in the book which I entirely missed), I only point it out because Wood, also, loves the book. This is how he sums it up in the last paragraph:

‘Mortals is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. Like all such books, it is not without faults. … But big books flick away their own failings and weaknesses, make insects of them. And how much is accomplished here! For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer’s own burning; for once, knowledge is not simply exotic and informational, but something amassed as life is amassed, as a pile of experiences rather than a wad of facts. (Botswana is never a backdrop but always the fabric of Rush’s fictions, and he clearly knows and loves the country.) And for once intelligence is not mere “smartness,” but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the novel itself. For once it is novelistic intelligence, for which we should give thanks.’


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