Archive | February, 2015

Van has finished reading…The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

27 Feb

My second helping from the lovely people at the Curtis Brown Book Group brought something very different to my door. As it’s a book group read, I’ll forego my usual regime and try to give a fuller impression of what I thought of it.
Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm recounts the story of two brothers, how their circumstances bind them together, and how that bond affects their lives at a crucial moment and beyond. It’s a tightly-plotted and well-thought-out story, not so much filled with shocks or twists and turns, but with a definite edge to it. The prologue hooks you into the story well – you know straight off the bat that something bad has happened. I have to tread carefully now, so as not to blow any plot points but there is a tidy pay-off to go with it at the end. What lies between is a linear retelling of Jonathan’s life, from childhood through to that defining moment, and beyond; crucially, it’s a retelling of Jonathan’s life with, because of and despite his brother.

The majority of the story is set in the early seventies (no mobile phones, scant cctv coverage, post-60’s come-down) though I wouldn’t say the characters are drawn to suit. There was no overt exertion to ‘feel’ the atmosphere of the time. This is testament to the fact that it’s the course of events, the characters and the relationships that shape them that are far more important. For me though, this is where the book just misses the mark. I couldn’t feel for Jonathan. Rather than getting me under his skin, the writing seemed to hold me at a distance. As it’s Jonathan’s eyes we see this world through it meant that it was a world I felt I was watching, rather than walking through. Paradoxically, given Roger’s proclivities, he was the character who felt most whole to me.

Given that my leanings are more towards the literary end of things, I suspect I’m rather harsher a critic than this book deserves (and this is borne out in the fact that just about everyone else in the book group discussion loved it). I couldn’t single out a particular area, for instance, and say that it’s a failing in any way. The plotting is tight, the characters are believable and the elements of suspense and intrigue are clearly there. It’s simply that it didn’t quite work for me. But you can’t love everything. Read it for yourself; I’d be glad to have you tell me I’m wrong.

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Van has finished reading…The Circle by Dave Eggers

13 Feb

The irony is hard to ignore. Albeit I tell myself – and I think justifiably so – that I write these ‘reviews’ more as a means to have a record of what I read, what I like in those books and the ways in which they affect me, I also know that the second I press publish I will have unleashed that opinion on the world. Okay, so it’s quite conceivable that it will never be read by another person. That’s fine. I’ll not lose sleep over the fact. But what is interesting is that it’s the fact that someone else might read it that informs what I put down. As much as I might try to dismiss it, that self-consciousness is there. Someone else may read it – and by it they will notice me; judge me.
And then there’s Twitter. I’ve always had this weird sort of disconnect with the term ‘follow’. I understand it perfectly when it comes to the people I have chosen to follow, and with me it’s definitely a discriminate (adjectively-speaking) thing. But the fact that people have also chosen to follow me – somehow the term just doesn’t sit so comfortably when reflected. When I publish, a tweet will be sent to those people who have connected with me (which feels closer to the transaction for me, though even there the connotations spiral).
And I’ll wonder: will anyone follow the link to find out what it says? Are these connections mere reciprocations, or is there a deeper sense of interest? Will they see it as merely self-promoting? Will they unfollow? Perhaps no-one will retweet it…but then what does that mean?

I don’t think it’s that modern technology has enabled us to connect in ways that just weren’t possible fifty years ago, but that it’s allowed it on a scale that was heretofore unprecedented. The dilemma we face with this is that there has to be a tipping-point. How many is too many? I freely admit that I don’t necessarily find people easy, so my too many may be a good deal lower than yours. But everyone has to have their limit. There has to be a point beyond which effective management of all those relationships means that someone’s going to miss out. And that person will likely feel bad about it. The more you run to keep up the more likely you are to slip.
And of course all you do then is end up focussing on the one or two communications that didn’t quite work out, rather than continuing to tend all the ones that did.

I’m glad to see that this book has tilted my relationship with Dave Eggers into the positive (one book abandoned; two read). This one is definitely my favourite of his. Despite being a sizeable book I never felt it flag. It’s in the nature of reading novels I think that you can see to some extent where this one is going, but it navigates with wit and skill. The most surprising thing for me is to sit now and think whether there are any characters that I particularly liked or felt for. It’s probably down to Mae’s Mum and Dad. Everyone else at one point or another I felt the unswerving desire to shake vigorously. Well, I did say I don’t necessarily find people easy!
A good book; thought-provoking and really quite scary; let’s hope not too prescient!

Vanya Demalovich has finished reading…Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story

4 Feb

Do Russians really talk like that? Alas I don’t know enough Russians to bring personal experience to bear on the question, though Andrea Bennett lived there so she must know. I like to harbour a secret suspicion that all those dour expressions and long-winded almost formal sentences that populate the received wisdom are a front to disguise how funny they are. If the dialogue in Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged-Dog Story is anything to go by then the pensioners at least are very funny indeed.

Borough Press were kind enough to send me a special copy of this book, complete with flick-book animation running across the bottom of the page. It’s testament to how engaging this story is that I riffled the pages before I began, and then again only after I’d finished. It’s a truly engrossing read, sad and knowing and also genuinely funny. There’s a very heavy leaning toward caricature with some of the characters, though Andrea Bennett is well aware of where to draw the line with this; it never felt over-done. Don’t doubt that the people in this book are finely-honed and three-dimensional. Their hopes, their fears, their pasts and their current predicaments infect the voices Bennett has given them, and the dead-pan delivery is weighted perfectly. With the phonetic rendering of Depeche Mode songs, I was reminded of living in Spain and the day my neighbour got his guitar out and murdered U2’s ‘One’ at the top of his voice. For half an hour. At least this time I could laugh!

I found myself reminded of Michael Frayn in the willingness with which anything and everything that could go amiss did, yet again in so believable a manner I never felt my engagement stretched. And it made a really nice change to have a phalanx of pensioners leading the charge through this tale without the obligatory summing-up-my-life-in-flashbacks that tend to accompany them elsewhere in fiction. I for one hope fervently that, when this book gets picked up and made into a film they don’t skimp on the Moscow nightclub scene. Bohemian indeed!

It’s a delightful book, a picaresque that cuts its world wide open with dextrous wit.

Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged-Dog Story was published by The Borough press on 12th February 2015, ISBN:9780008108380
You can find Andrea on Twitter @andreawiderword and at her website, andreabee.wix.com/andreabennett

Van has finished reading…Harraga by Boualem Sansal (translation by Frank Wynne)

2 Feb

I dreamed of Atika and her sisters, woke with the tang of harira in my nose. They were all there in the pages of this book. In the words and the gestures, the hopes, the longings and desires – the fears. They bickered, in the way of loving sisters – earnestly but without real intent. They found each other, reclaimed themselves with fingers and smiles, a hand on the sleeve, a finger-waggled warning. They bickered because they cared. To be walked past, to go unnoticed, I thought, would be the harshest of rebuffs in that house.
Atika, kind and gentle in her ways, a little shy. Of the four we knew her first. She worked at the hotel and quickly became a friend. Her English leaned towards German, where she was more comfortable, so her voice carried a harshness that evaporated under the strength of her smile. And she knew where to find the best bakhlawa in town.
The four of them in that little kitchen, and Mrs Van too, accepted without question, laughing along, watching the preparations, tasting when asked. I watched from the safety of the sofa – that long seat formed along the wall, hard as a church pew without the copious cushions. But not rebuffed, not ignored, no. I knew better than to interfere, though I knew I too would have been tolerated if I did, before being herded gently back to this refuge. The little enamel pot of gunpowder tea was my domain and I did it justice.
Noura was the serene eye at the centre of that storm, watching Touria like a hawk, intercepting her each time she tried to pepper the soup a little more. She spoke no English – and little use it would have been to try and summon any French – but there was clear understanding between her and Mrs Van. For all the other sisters’ attempts to interfere, they knew enough to give Noura her way in the kitchen. Instead they fed me tea, offered morsels for Mrs Van and I to nibble, though we resolved to wait for sunset and break fast with them. It was Touria who made the obvious joke, the connection between breaking fast and breakfast, offering cornflakes instead.
Touria was the eldest and took her role as house mother almost as seriously as she took her role as Independent Modern Woman. Was there anything that could faze her? I doubt it. Even when the bonnet of her trusty Peugeot flipped open on the outside lane of the Airport road, she was shaken, but in control. Just stopped and bent back the buckled metal sheet, jammed it closed with her lean and wiry strength. She wouldn’t even let us get out and help. The local football team were trooping through the airport when we arrived – and of course she knew one of the trainers (she seemed to know everybody). The sight of this Modern Independent Woman making footballers blush with her jokes, it was worth the hair-raising car journey just for that.
Bustle gravitated from the kitchen to the dining area as the spicy harira soup was served. Though there was a goodbye to be said before we started. The youngest, whose name began with N. Such a beautiful smile in that moon face of hers, and the N suspended on a chain round her neck. After much checking of watches and debating of how late you can arrive before you’re really late, she decided she couldn’t stay to break her fast with us. Alas, she had to work so it’s the absence that’s remained in my memory with these few scants fragments. She was there, then she was gone.
This was communal eating. Tajine on a truly grand scale. After the harira, a large dish was placed in the centre of the table. I was warned – Mrs Van being eastern needed no such reminder – fight your corner, or go hungry! Though I doubt they would have allowed it. But there was no place for English reserve. What is a meal with Eastern sisters without such flair and flavour? The spice and the story and the gestures and the noise.
It was only afterwards that Mrs Van told me the great dish had been placed specifically so that the choicest pieces of chicken had been facing me.

It was a strange dream, closer to remembrance than invention, a mashing together of then and now, of here and there, but they were so intently the same people, the same dear sisters that their absence when I woke was palpable, a sudden loss that brought a lump to the throat. They were all harragas in their own way, making a place for themselves in their changing society, seizing opportunities when they came, and always – always – looking for more. It was sheer possibility, constrained as it was only by probability, that vibrated within each of them. I wonder where they are now, what paths they found to burn? Inshallah, the paths they’ve walked are the ones they chose to follow.

It’s the measure of any good story that it can transport you to another place. This book is I think among the best of stories, for it brought that other place and the people who inhabit it so vividly to me. It is funny and sad and so achingly human that you’ll be all the poorer for letting it pass you by.

I must express my thanks to Isabel Costello of isabelcostelloliterarysofa.com for making a gift of this book to us. Shukran bezzef!

Harraga was published by Bloomsbury in 2014, ISBN:9781408843987