Occupied City

Sunday August 9, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

cover of Occupied City by David PeaceThere comes a point in David Peace’s new novel Occupied City when you realise that you will never be able to mention the book without using the words repetition and staccato. These are the favourite words used to describe Peace’s writing and he does indeed go to town with his distinctive style in his latest.

Occupied City is the second part of David Peace’s Tokyo Trilogy. Set in 1948 during the third year of the US occupation, the novel begins with a man walking into a city bank and claiming to be a doctor. Sixteen employees are given a medicine that the man insists will protect them against dysentry. They are poisoned, with twelve of them dying and the murderer escaping. Peace explores his familiar themes of cover up and false accusations, with twelve distinct chapters exploring the Teikoku Bank Massacre where a man was (possibly wrongly) convicted of the crime.

Similar to his Red Riding quartet, Peace weaves his highly individual prose with real life events, and like the earlier novels this is challenging work. Perhaps even more so, and it is hard to imagine him finding many new supporters with this book. It is his least accessible of novels, at times almost completely inpenetrable. Occupied City does brilliantly evoke the atmosphere of how post-war Tokyo lived and breathed and Peace, as ever, proves himself a highly individual voice. But at times I couldn’t help thinking that he is beginning to alienate himself from his audience. Literature really shouldn’t be this hard.


Dex and Em Forever

Thursday August 6, 2009 in books read 2009 |

She still had the same eyes, bright and shrewd, and she still laughed with her mouth tightly shut, as if holding in some secret. In many ways she was far more attractive than her twenty-two year old self. She was no longer cutting her own hair for one thing, and she had lost some of that library pallor, that shoe-gazing petulance and surliness. How would he feel, he wondered, if he were seeing that face for the first time now? If he had been allocated table twenty-four, had sat down and introduced himself. Of all the people here today, he thought, he would only want to talk to her. He picked up his drink and pushed back his chair.

cover of One Day by David NIchollsDavid Nicholls’ One Day is a book that’s currently causing a summer buzz, where satisfied readers are already asking eachother who will play Dex and Em in the inevitable film version (fellows readers being very easy to hook up with thanks to the magic of Twitter).
The stir this novel is causing is well deserved; it’s one of the best British novels I’ve read for years. Certainly there with Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby on top form, and a book I was expecting to be a lightweight read has proved to be one of extraordinary depth and quality.

Dexter and Emma meet as students on St Swithin’s day in 1988. One Day revisits them on each subsequent July 15th over the next 20 years. Dex is an arrogant and frankly obnoxious young man whose ego is given an unjustified boost when he becomes a minor tv celebrity as the host of Largin’ It, a programme that makes The Word look like Newsnight. Dex is the shallow and self-centred guy we’ve all met, hated, endured or avoided. Emma is a sensible romantic girl (although at times equally shallow) who becomes a teacher and eventually a successful author. They never quite hit it off in 1988, but slowly become best friends. Dex pursues the road of drink, drugs and women, while Em embarks on a couple of doomed relationship. We meet them every year, as time flashes by with alarming regularity. They mature, things happen and their lives are shook up. We warm to them.

David Nicholls doesn’t explore social history too much, and in many ways this is the strength of the book. Dex’s musical taste gives a flavour of the years as they pass, and his lifestyle reflects something of the 1990s but we don’t become too bogged down in the era. For anyone born after the mid 60s One Day will prove particularly resonant with its sketches of student life in the late 80s and laddism of the 90s (which was particularly vivid for me in all of its ugliness), but Nicholls excels as a writer in tackling more universal subjects. I found the sequence where Dexter struggles with fatherhood particularly convincing, and equally his awkward relationship with his family.

What’s best is how One Day gradually evolves from an apparently undemanding read into something rather wonderful. It is similar in many ways to Nicholls’ earlier Starter for Ten, although he has noticeably matured as a writer since then. I don’t want to give away too much about the ending, but this is a book dealing with similar themes to The Time Traveller’s Wife that proved to be infinitely superior and far, far more moving. Nicholls finds a way to effortlessly move between the years, most effectively towards the end when we are allowed one last and poignant peek at 1989. And the significance of July 15th becomes all too sadly clear.

I cannot recommend this novel more. And if you find Dex particularly loathsome that’s just par for the course; be warned that by the end you won’t want to forget him.


The Behaviour of Moths

Tuesday July 28, 2009 in books read 2009 |

‘Well then…’ He coughs and plants one foot inside the car as if to go. Then he glances at the towering house, the turrets, and the gargoyles that seem to hold the bricks together around the crenellations. ‘Great place’, he says. ‘Fascinating.’ He pauses. I think I see him shiver.

cover of The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy AdamsI’m creating a new genre of fiction and I’m calling it psychological decaying mansion. Two excellent recent novels that fit into this category are The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Usually set in the later half of the last century, these novels observe events in once grand and prosperous homes, now reduced to dark, shuttered rooms and ghosts, oh so many ghosts. The latest in this genre is The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, a first novel that was nominated for last year’s Costa prize.

This time the crumbling family home is occupied by a reclusive elderly lady called Ginny, a former expert in the field of lepidoptera. After forty seven years away, her sister Vivien suddenly returns. Ginny begins to dip into the memories of their childhood, growing up with their eccentric and moth-obsessed father and their alcoholic and raving mother.

Ginny proves a worthy addition to the school of the unreliable narrator, and Adams is extremely skilful at only hinting at the terrible insanity deep within her. And she also shows the potential of a novelist eager to play with their reader. There are times when it is unclear where the narrative is going, what exactly has happened in the tangled past and what Ginny is really capable of. And you will learn an awful lot about moths from this novel.

Although The Behaviour of Moths took for me a very long time to get going, the novel became extremely gripping as I became immersed in the development of this most odd of families. Unfortunately the conclusion is far from satisfactory. The reasons for Vivien’s return are never properly explained, and there isn’t nearly enough interaction between the two sisters when they reunite in old age. And whilst many threads of the book are deliberately left open ended Adams doesn’t succeed in making them fascinating enough. But still a worthy read, and still an author to watch out for.


The Little Stranger

Saturday June 20, 2009 in books read 2009 |

But the thing in her hand was not quite silent, after all. As she raised the cup to her ear she could hear, coming from it, a faint, moist susurration – as if wet silk, or something fine like that, were being slowly and haltingly drawn through the tube. The sound, she realised with a shock, was that of a laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted throat. In an instant she was transported back, twenty-eight years, to her first child’s sickbed. She whispered her daughter’s name – ‘Susan?’ – and the breathing quickened and grew more liquid. A voice began to emerge from the bubbling mess of sound: a child’s voice, she took it to be, high and pitiful, attempting, as if with tremendous effort, to form words.

The Little Stranger was my introduction to Sarah Waters, and I have come away very impressed. Her latest novel is a brilliantly written study of the shifting changes in the English post-war class system. It is beautifully paced, full of subtle observations and quite simply a pleasure to read. It is also one of the most effective, chilling and original ghost stories I have read for some time. I finished The Little Stranger a few days ago but, still thinking it through, I have been unable to start a new book.

cover of The Little Stranger by Sarah WatersHundreds Hall is a crumbling mansion and we find it in disrepair just after the war. The Ayers family, mother son and daughter, are struggling to keep alive the dusty rooms and prevent their home sinking more and more into decay. The middle aged Doctor Faraday narrates the story, which begins when he is called to attend to one of the few servants the Ayers can cling onto. Their maid, feigning sickness, claims to Faraday that the house is haunted. Whilst he dismisses this belief, Faraday is slowly drawn into the Ayers world and the family are indeed revealed to be haunted, although Waters is clever enough not to reveal the true cause of their resulting anguish and tragedy.

And being a very intelligent and clever novel makes The Little Stranger such an achievement. Waters creates an intriguing narrator in Faraday, a middle aged man who at first appears to be dull, lifeless and set in his ways who begins to slowly reveal a deep resentment for his working class origins and a fascination with the Ayers family that grows more uneasy with every page. The book has received few criticisms but one of them is its lack of likeable characters. The Ayers family are indeed odd; the eccentric and nervous brother who eventually loses his mind, the plain and frumpy sister who Faraday slowly begins to fall for. Faraday himself is almost a misfit, a tense and unimaginiative loner, but I found them all fascinating. And fascination, and obsession, is something that makes this novel tick.

The Thirteenth Tale has been cited as a comparison to this novel and I can see why; The Little Stranger is certainly as good. I also thought of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, which constantly taunt the reader with seemingly supernatural events then only to wring out the fantastic and reveal the rational reasoning behind them. The Little Stranger taunts in similar ways, with many spooky scenes that Faraday urges the reader to dismiss as thinking the work of ghosts. They are still chilling though; the sudden fire in the house, creeping irrational madness, strange childlike writing on the walls, mysteriously locked doors, footsteps forever out of sight. It’s all so well crafted you begin to secretly hope that there is a ghost at work, although Waters ultimately delivers something far more subtle and imaginitive.

The Little Stranger kept me gripped right to the end of its 500 pages. The ending, which I was expecting to reveal a twist, was far from the conclusion I was expecting. But on reflection I think that Sarah Waters delivered a masterly ending, and one that had me rereading it several times, along with the novel’s opening and several other key scenes. This is an ambiguous book, where the reader cannot firmly conclude on the role of the supernatural or if there really was one at all, but for this reason I found the almost uncomfortable outcome all the more unsettling. And it’s one I’m still deciding about. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.

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Wednesday June 3, 2009 in books read 2009 | music

When I was aged 14 I asked for David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album for one of my Christmas presents. It was already quite a few years old at the time, but a friend and I had decided to form a band and were plundering classic records for ideas (I forget what he was getting that Christmas, possibly a Who album). My mother had hidden Ziggy Stardust somewhere in the house and one December lunchtime, the place empty, I decided to try and find it. Although she hid it well it didn’t take me long to find the album, concealed amongst her jazz LPs. This was somewhere I never ventured, hating jazz and the music I was often forced to put up with as a background noise. But there, sandwiched between the Ella Fitzgerald, was Bowie.

Like Simon Armitage, I’ve tried to get a grip on jazz and try to like it over the years but have always failed. Also like him, I’ve always much preferred the music I was told I’d grow out of. But I never did grow out of the likes of The Smiths, and I probably never will. In his musical memoir Gig, Armitage also has an enduring Bowie memory, where his father shows a not untypical reaction to the androgyny of Ziggy:

As I walked through the living room with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars under my arm, he pointed at it with the mouth-end of his pipe. ‘What’s that then?’ And he’d obviously heard of the man and his music, because when I told him, he said, ‘David Bowie? He’s a homosexual.’

My mother probably had a similar attitude, although ten years after Ziggy Stardust was first released she had at least mellowed enough to buy me the album.

Gig documents Armitage’s enduring obsession with a number of bands that include The Smiths, The Fall, The Cocteau Twins, The Blue Nile and The Wedding Present. Most of them are still going strong today, and he writes about seeing many of them perform live in recent years. He also meets a few of his icons, not always with satisfying results. As a responsible adult and parent, Armitage is like me still excited by the music that inspired him as a youth. He writes very amusingly about the cantankerous Mark E. Smith of The Fall, muses on the brilliance of Liz Frazer of The Cocteau Twins and ruminates rather movingly on a Morrissey concert. Again, it is his father who turns enjoying the music of Moz into a guilty pleasure:

‘So who is it you’ve been to see?’
He knows.
‘Who’s he then?’
He knows.
‘He was in the Smiths.’
‘And what did they ever do?’
He genuinely doesn’t know the answer to this question, though he does know how much I liked them, and therefore that I’ll protest too much and in all probability collapse under cross-examination. I can’t believe I’m debating indie guitar music with my dad, but I’ve swallowed the bait and I am.

Although a successful and acclaimed poet (he’s on the GCSE syllabus) Simon Armitage laments the fact that he never made it as a musician. His dream is to be or be like David Gedge, the kitchen sink songsmith fronting the thrashy guitared Wedding Present, everyone’s second favourite band as he puts it. I can understand why as well; being an ordinary guy in many ways an ordinary band Gedge is oddly appealing. He’s also an artist who’s kept at it now for two decades with an enduring fanbase and a strange kind of enviable respect. I agree with Armitage. I’d sooner be David Gedge than Bono any day.

cover of Gig by Simon ArmitageBut like mine the Armitage electric guitar stayed mostly unstrummed, or unthrashed, eventually being packed off to a buyer on eBay. The dream sort of comes true towards the end of Gig, however, when he forms a musical duo called The Scaremongers although, strangely, I would have preferred it is Simon had remained the musical bystander. He’s best as the commentator and the dreamer.

In addition to the musical ones, Gig follows some of the poetic, describing his role as a literary performer. Armitage also writes about the lengths he goes to to find inspiration. A trip on a mail train to help shape his excellent poem The Last Post, a visit to Surtsey and work inside prisons to produce his series of films for Channel 4. He’s a likeable man with a witty and self-deprecating sense of humour. Most of all, even in a mostly prose book such as this, a strikingly imaginative voice.

As well as collections of poems, Simon Armitage has also written two novels Little Green Man and The White Stuff. Whilst I enjoyed the first the second was a little disappointing, and the essay-structured yet informal Gig is the kind of book he writes best. In many ways it is similar to his All Points North, which is reissued as a companion to this and is also worth catching.

As a footnote, my mother decided to get rid of her vinyl collection a few years ago. She’d completed the transition to CD and was about to move house, so the heavy collection of LPs had to go. I was invited to take my pick from them before they were hurded off to a car boot sale. Alas I found no Bowie there, not even my missing Cocteau Twins albums hiding between the Stan Getz. After flicking through I took away a couple of Frank Sinatra records. But the reality still is: I don’t like jazz.

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