Archive | October, 2013

Van has finished reading…MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

28 Oct

I wonder at what point in the writing process Margaret Atwood fell in love with her creation. Rakunks? Liobams? Mo’hairs? No, not even Crakers. It’s the Pigoons I wonder about. It’s no surprise – given the context – the anthropomorphism should register at some level with so many of these animals, but it’s with the Pigoons that a sense of warmth also emerges. You can keep your bouncy liobams and your swishy Mo’hairs, it’s the sheer wiliness, the burgeoning social mores of the big pigs that we feel the emotional connection.  Could you be forgiven for thinking that their stratagems might herald a truly dark turn in the closing chapters?

Margaret Atwood’s measured approach to the voices in this trilogy is something to behold. The uneasiness that descends toward the tortured in Oryx and Crake, the zealous kaleidoscope through which we find the God’s Gardeners in The Year of The Flood is evenly matched in MaddAddam with the interaction with the Crakers. It’s a fascinating view of what the careless word can achieve, and is of course anything but careless. I wonder how it would feel to know that I’ll likely think of Margaret Atwood now every time I hit my thumb with a hammer.  Oh, …

And then there are those tiny touches that linger in the mind. I found myself hijacked on the train when reading of ink made from crushed elderberries. How strange is the range of human emotion. I guess somewhere inside us all there is a latent yearning for the Pilars of this world…or the next.

What do you mean, you haven’t seen The Scottsboro Boys?

24 Oct

Some stories you know are going to be tough to take. You don’t need all the details beforehand, the historical touchpoints, the setting, the collective cultural consciousness (or do I mean conscience) is enough to put you on the right track. The story then sets to wring the emotional response from you drop by drop.

  You’re not going to get that with the Scottsboro Boys – well, you are, but not how you’d expect. Instead you’re going to get a show. And that’s where the genius lies. It’s like a mass reclamation of taboos – each turned on their heads and exaggerated for comic effect, which means you’re going to laugh, though maybe not straight away. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastically enjoyable spectacle, and the writing is funny, and the songs are funny, and the delivery is sublime.

But it makes you think. When the moment’s passed and the smile wanes it makes you think: what must it have been like, really? And that’s when you feel it. Because the subject is not funny. In the least.


Usually when you go to see a production you single out the actors you really liked. Likewise, there are normally those who weren’t quite on the same level on the night. I can hand on heart say this is the first time I’ve seen a show where I couldn’t pick a weaker link. The cast en masse were superb in every aspect of delivery, not just the acting or the dancing or the singing.

Yes there are songs. It’s a musical, but don’t let that fool you. The historical snapshot is contemporary with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’. This is not your overblown MGM rendering of good, clean Midwest Farmer’s Daughters. More like they gave the budget to Gil Scott-Heron.

  That’s the abiding sense, when it’s done and you feel a little like a squeezed-out rag: it’s funny and energetic and poignant and entertaining – it’s a show, after all – but this is one angry play. And these fine actors felt it. Even after the performance was done, and the standing ovation was in full flow, the ranged players found it hard to raise a smile.


Its season at The Young Vic has been extended (until 21st Dec 2013). Go see it.

Van has finished reading…A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens

23 Oct

‘Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six.

As opening lines go, this one is a forged-steel fish hook. It raises so many questions. You might assume many things from it, but are those assumptions you make going to prove apposite, or opposite? There’s a sturdy thread of duality running through this book that I even found extending to my responses to Miss Hawkins. Should I feel sorry for her? Pity her? At points I’ll confess to both, along with irritated, depressed, amused by her, rooting for her and even protective towards her.  This is partly due to the sense of isolation Bernice Rubens engenders, but is more to do with her exploration of bondage and servitude. How strange it is that we can find comfort in the ties that bind us, and even feel a sense of liberation in their hold. To some, freedom is simply a bigger cage.

Van has finished reading…The Map Of Love by Adhaf Soueif

23 Oct

I wonder if it’s feasible to concoct an extensive history of the world at a certain point in time by taking in fiction written not by the victors, but by the descendants of the survivors? It’s only relatively recently that we have come to view the word Empire as a stain on our history, and there are still plenty of people around who would disagree with that point of view.

  One of the things I really like about this book is that it has finely placed viewpoints, pitched to reveal the many sides of the politics of the time – we invariably look at the past as ‘bad times’ or ‘good’. This book reminds us that the past is built on the lives of people, and people are rarely one thing or the other.

  Another thing I like about this book is that it brings to mind a phrase I dislike for its overuse. It is, I think, beautifully written. With three main points of view across a large expanse of time, I was never in any doubt as to whose eyes I was viewing the world through. And I can well believe the panel of Booker judges proclaimed it the best read of the list that year. It’s compelling and sensitive, and yet righteously angry in places too, without the heavy hand that might have seemed a pointing finger.

Read it; you’ll not be disappointed.


16 Oct

Inspired by Alice Munro, and her well-deserved Nobel Prize.


On the bench outside the station I sat and waited. If I could have felt my limbs they would have ached, for I’d been holding my muscles rigid, huddling for warmth I could not contain. My own breath mocked me with each cloud it formed. I wondered if a key survived that would open the padlocked doors. The weathered building hunkered alongside the main road. The bare birch trees shivered in the snow-filled breeze, the small dark spots on their bark made to seem to glow by the familiarity of the white surrounding. Even the building, its peeling clapboard panels flecked with grey, seemed to want to blend, cling to its small-town anonymity. I looked along the rails that ran away to my left, and to my right, and that refused to sing.
  Beyond the tracks, across the street a woman leant into the wind, shuffled along the sidewalk. Her body was bent over but her head was not bowed. Instead she braved the weather, her lips pursed against it. A man appeared from a doorway, fastened the topmost button on his coat and nodded at her as she passed. They must have known each other’s names, the names of their children, their family histories. They wasted no words, only nodded. The man glanced across at the clapboard station, at the bundle huddling there on the bench.  He raised a hand to his eyes, not to hail or greet, but to shield, the better to view me. He did not know me. He turned away.
  Minutes ebbed and flurried. I watched the toing and froing of this black and white world. People passed by, stopped, or didn’t. I hadn’t noticed the man who had walked along between the tracks. If not for the gaggle of watchers who had assembled across the street, I wouldn’t have known he was there, kneeling on the sleeper, staring through this world and into the next. I thought at first they had assembled to discuss my presence. I felt the timbre of my body alter from huddling to crouching. They looked at me. They looked away. They looked at me. Faces appeared from behind upturned collars, pulled-down hats. Their eyes seemed to speak some local dialect I could not grasp.
  Then I saw him. The snow had already begun to cling to his uniform, drawing him into his surroundings. In a town like this, in weather like this, nobody cries. Yet he knelt there sobbing, tears crusted on his cheeks. For hours I’d been sitting. I tried to stand, my legs too stiff to hold me. I looked at those watching faces. Why did they not move? Why did they not call to him, comfort him? They all turned to me, their eyes wide, each open mouth a silent plea. I stared along the track, peering into the inevitable, my heart thumping out a rhythm.  Then I cupped a hand to my ear. And I prayed. I prayed that those rails would still their song.

Van has finished reading…The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

2 Oct

There’s something wistful about a sequel – any sequel – if you read it after the first in the series. The trouble is you can never approach it cold. It can never truly surprise you in the way the first book did; if it did surprise you it’s possible the surprise won’t be a happy one. You can’t help but bring your expectations with you. It’s like meeting a friend’s friend and really wanting to like them. After Oryx and Crake, which is one of the most enjoyably surprising books I’ve read, The Year Of The Flood had a lot to live up to.

I really like this friend of Oryx And Crake. It surprised me in the best way. It was different, but not too different. It shared my friend’s story, but from its own point of view. And it has a hymn that includes the word Australopithecus, which is bound to endear it to anybody who loves words.

We’re all here now, Oryx And Crake on one side, The Year Of The Flood on the other, our arms draped across each other’s shoulders. We’re waiting for one more friend of a friend to join us.

Van has finished reading…The Accidental by Ali Smith

2 Oct

Writers play God. Every day. It may be done quite strictly, lives mapped out and then rendered with specific intention. It may be that some level of freedom has been allowed in the shaping of a character’s life; a dialogue has taken place – the character ‘speaks’ to its creator. But even there, once the draft is in place, the writer returns and shapes events, makes history, twists the fabric of that life to suit their own end. There is nothing accidental about fiction.

  Yet these characters question – as they must – their involvement in the tale. Why me, why now? Surely it’s fate; or God’s plan; perhaps the stars… In our own turn as readers we pose the same questions, though it’s the author’s intention we probe – that solipsism’s own deity.

Ali Smith’s prose is like fine-grained sandpaper. How smooth it is, how easily it flows. Before you know it there’s the sensuous smell of fresh wood and the feel of the shavings. It keeps you rubbing until you suddenly discover yourself up to your knees in the scurf of it – and there’s a whole new layer you never knew was there.