A Moment of Frippery (Valentine's Edition)

on Friday, February 13, 2015
I am often accused, quite rightly, of favouring books that tend towards the bleak and macabre. It's how I roll. However, contrary to popular opinion, I do actually have a heart. And it pumps warm blood. Far be it from me to buy into the crass commercialisation of emotion but I thought I might take this opportunity to tip my hat in the direction of tomorrow's festivities and attempt to post something of moderate interest to the lovelorn and desperate. Never fear, whingers. You need not suffer alone. I'm sure you already know the classic tales of love but there's a whole world of amazing novels you have probably yet to discover. Pick up one of these and live (and love) vicariously:

Binu And The Great Wall - Su Tong

Censoring An Iranian Love Story - Shahariar Mandanipour

The Postman - Antonio Skarmeta

Melisande! What Are Dreams? - Hillel Halkin

Contempt - Alberto Moravia (For the Valentine Grinches)

Harping On: The Mockingbird Sings Again

on Wednesday, February 4, 2015
How many authors can boast a perfect publishing record? I've spent the morning running through my list of favourites and, try as I might to name one who hasn't sullied their good name with a stinker, I'm coming up pretty empty. Indeed, the only person who hasn't royal screwed up is Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is a bona fide classic, one of the great American novels. Add to that "Harper Lee the woman" and you have a dead set literary legend. I've long admired her reclusive ways, her stubborn refusal to be drawn into the literary world and, most of all, her hilariously understated oneup(wo)manship of Truman Capote.

For the better part of fifty years Lee has remained an enigma. She hit the news a couple of years back over a nasty legal spat with her former agent who, it seems, pretty much stole the rights and royalties to Mockingbird. But other than that she might as well have been dead. Now she's hit the headlines again. Actually, that would be an understatement. The entire internet has gone into meltdown. Harper Lee is publishing a second novel this year, a sequel (of sorts) to Mockingbird called Go Set A Watchman.

According to pretty much every news source under the sun, Watchman was written before Mockingbird. It is the book Lee presented to her editor as a young, hopeful writer desperate to break into the publishing world. The editor liked it but was particularly enamoured of the flashback scenes - those that dealt with Scout as a child. Lee was told to go back and explore that aspect in greater detail. She came back with the novel we all know and love, nay revere.

So why risk the perfect record? Why now? I have always been in two minds about a 'second' Harper Lee novel. Like any debut of such incredible brilliance, I've yearned to read more. But then, what if it is rubbish? What if she only had one great book in her? I can think of countless great debuts that were followed up by boring, clumsy or just plain bad books.

The press would have us believe that the book is being published because it was only recently rediscovered. Apparently it was attached to an old typescript of Mockingbird. Yet it seems to coincide with a couple of troubling developments in Lee's life. Firstly, there was the legal spat. She ultimately won - the case settled out of court - but it is entirely possible that she is still on struggle street. Secondly, there is some talk that Lee has been steadily slipping towards senility. She is pushing 90 and, given her general shyness, it is hard to gauge the state of her faculties. And then, perhaps most troubling, is the fact that the announcement of this new book comes in the wake of a personal tragedy that has a decidedly professional bearing. As Jezebel reports:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee's estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

That said, I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm sure there is a reason Lee's editor rejected it in the first place. It may, at best, be Lee's apprentice novel - the one she wrote while learning to write. Whatever the case, I'll be reading it. I fell in love with the Finches and the townspeople of Maycomb and want to know what became of them. Sure, it may be a crushing disappointment. But then she'll just join my other heroes - Kafka, Steinbeck, Capek, Coetzee - in the halls of fallibility.

Microviews Vol. 52: Love In A Time of Stoners

on Monday, February 2, 2015
Black River by S.M. Hulse
Debut novels don't come much better or more self assured than S.M. Hulse's Black River. In a literary landscape littered with Cormac McCarthy wannabes, Hulse rises above the Western cliches to deliver a crushingly powerful morality tale of memory, pain, revenge and redemption. Having just lost his wife to cancer, Wes Carver is coming home to face his worst nightmare. Bobby Williams, the man who once held him hostage during a prison riot, the man who subjected him to unimaginable torture and robbed him of his greatest love - his ability to play the fiddle - is up for parole. Word has it that Bobby is a changed man. He has found God. Only Wes can stand in the way of his release. Then there's Dennis, Carver's stepson, who once held a gun to his stepfather's head in a fit of rage. As Wes settles back into life in Black River, unsure if it's just a visit or if he's going to stay for the long run, their relationship crackles on the flint edge of a matchbox. They bear the scars of shared trauma, of loss, of uncertainty. And they both brim with paternal love for the wayward kid that works as a saddler on Dennis's farm. Hulse controls the story with the skill of a seasoned master. Carver's suffering - and Williams's brutality - during the riot play out in measured glimpses that pepper the novel like buckshot. And though the parole hearing is the central context for Carver's return, it too plays a pretty minor role. Indeed, there are quite a few 'big events' in the novel, but Hulse doesn't use them for cheap melodrama but, rather, to mine the inner working of her characters' souls. We as readers feel the depth of Carver's pain at what he has lost and, more importantly, what he fears he may never regain. Inevitably, there is redemption but it is the twisted, ambiguous kind. Some might find it frustrating but I thought it the perfect end to a near perfect novel.
5/5 Burning Haystacks

God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Leger
By most accounts, Haiti is a pretty crappy place to live. Wracked by poverty and corruption, underdeveloped, oppressive; even nature likes to shit on its head. It is an amazing testament to the human spirit, then, that the people have such a beautiful sense of hope and maintain a lively and rich culture. Sadly, of course, very little of it ever seeps out to the wider world. Dimitry Elias Leger's much lauded novel, God Loves Haiti, is one of the few exceptions. Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat all sing its praises. There's a pretty decent groundswell of support from the literary heavyweights, the kind of folk who can make or break a book. No surprise then, that the book is a brief distillation of all that is both good and bad about the country. Set in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake (you may recall Wyclef Jean walking through the rubble proclaiming his intention to run for president), God Loves Haiti centres around the president, his new wife (Natasha) and her lover (Alain). When the earthquake hit, Natasha was boarding a plane to flee her shithole country for Italy, having locked Alain in a cupboard at the presidential palace. It is almost a comic set piece and, to some extent it is rather funny, but it also lays the foundation for some serious national soul searching on Leger's part. How can a person (or a country) rebuild their life when they have been reduced to absolutely nothing? Can you truly know a person until you see their lives stripped bare? Can you escape your true love? Where to for this afflicted but proud country? Unfortunately the book doesn't quite have the depth to answer any of these - Leger seems to have got caught up in the difficult conflict of philosophy versus narrative, with semi-cheesy romantic narrative winning out. As an important contribution from an oft silenced voice, God Loves Haiti is well worth the read. As the compelling, great piece of literature that Diaz et al are claiming, I just wasn't convinced.
3.5 On The Richter Scale

Here by Richard McGuire
It took far too long for me to get over my snobbery and learn to appreciate the literary value of graphic fiction. Yes, haters, it's okay to like comics. Now, reading McGuire's astonishing book Here (it can't quite be called a novel - heck, I really don't know what to call it), I have come to realise something else, something, I dare say, more profound: Some stories can only be told in pictures. Here is the story of a room. Yep. Every two-page spread is of the same spot, mostly a room in a house, though McGuire does trace it back to before the house was built and long into the future when it becomes some weird sci-fi space. Characters from different eras float in and out, appear and reappear, often on the same page. The room changes with the latest design trends. McGuire even manages to work in important historical moments with subtlety and grace. Needless to say I'm doing the book a great disservice in trying to describe it. Words alone cannot do it justice; they just don't capture the fluidity of time or space that is essential to the narrative flow. So I'll just leave it at this: Here is a singular phenomenon and, quite possibly, a game changer in the way stories can be told.
5/5 Creaking Floorboards

Stoner by John Williams
I've had Stoner sitting on my shelf for years collecting dust. It's long been the book I've been meaning to read, the one that slips quietly to the bottom of the pile every time the next best thing comes along. Even the recent frenzy of attention (for those living on Book Mars, Stoner was suddenly rediscovered by every writer under the sun a couple of years ago and held out as the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time) didn't get me to pick it up. Not quite sure, then, what caused me to pack it on my recent trip to Mexico. Possibly the hope of novel attrition - I knew I'd have to get to it once the other books ran out. Or maybe I'd just need something gentle when the inevitable food poisoning struck. So, halfway through my trip, after lifting my face from the puke-splattered toilet bowl, I finally blew off the cobwebs, opened to the first page and... Well, what can I say that hasn't already been said? Stoner is quite possibly the greatest under-appreciated masterpiece of all time. I am a fool for having ignored it. Yes, it's almost whisper quiet and it does a comprehensive hatchet job on your heart but it is one of the most beautiful stories about an ordinary man that I've ever read. William Stoner is a classic meat and 'taters American. Life carries him along - from farm boy to promising college student to tenured academic to tormented husband to besotted father to middle aged nobody etc etc - and then he dies. Pretty humdrum, I know. But Williams portrays Stoner's struggle through everyday life with such beauty, such compassion and such generosity of spirit that you will close the book thinking you've met the most wonderful human being of all time. Truly worthy of every single salivating, hyperbolic rave.
5/5 Fading Inscriptions