Giller Prize 2018

November 19, 2018

Congratulations to ESI EDUGYAN who won this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Washington Black.  This was her second win, having taken the Prize in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Washington Black was also on the Booker shortlist this year.

I have to admit to having not read either of her novels before tonight.  This will change.

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Difficult Books Once Again

November 16, 2018

 

Just about exactly six years ago, the Guardian printed a piece which included a list of what it considered the most difficult books in the English canon. I wrote a response at that time, agreeing with some and adding others.  This week, the Guardian ran a similar article on the occasion of Anna Burn’s Milkman winning this year’s Booker Prize. It is a very interesting essay by Sam Leith.  He notes that:

Books can be “difficult” in all sorts of different ways. Late Henry James is difficult in a wholly different way than Finnegans Wake is difficult, and Moby-Dick is difficult in a different way to either of those (mostly because of all that sodding scrimshaw). Sometimes the difficulty is a surface difficulty, to do with vocabulary. A Clockwork Orange, for instance, is a challenge to start with – but once you get the hang of Nadsat, it’s easy as pie …

With specific regard to Milkman which has been called a “difficult” novel:

… the way Burns talks about Milkman makes clear that, whether we like it or not, she is doing something with the “difficulty” of the novel. One of the things that has most vexed its critics is the fact that none of the characters has a name. That wasn’t an arbitrary decision. “The book didn’t work with names,” she has said. “It lost power and atmosphere and turned into a lesser – or perhaps just a different – book. In the early days I tried out names a few times, but the book wouldn’t stand for it. The narrative would become heavy and lifeless and refuse to move on until I took them out again” …

Nicola Barker, a novelist who is herself from time to time accused of being difficult, says: “I see fiction as being divided into two categories. Work that confirms and celebrates and panders and work that confounds and perplexes and challenges. My work challenges – as I’m sure Anna Burns’s does – but this is because we are trying to understand and engage with ideas, emotions and a world that aren’t straightforward or coherent or manageable. Sometimes the form or style of a book needs to mirror the complexity of life. Sometimes we need to try and describe the indescribable. Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.”

The essay goes on to explore the “literary novel” as genre and the various narrative structures that “difficult” books often twist and break.  It’s a good read.

Like its doppleganger from 6 years ago, it ends with a list of 10 “difficult” books.  Only Kazuo Ishiguru’s The Unconsoled — which I read, twice — makes it onto both lists. I have also read Doctor Faustus and Ulysses, so again I have three of the ten.  Looks like I’ll be putting orders into the library system this week!


The Masters of Irish Literature

July 11, 2018

Those who may ever be inclined to think on the subject of Irish literature usually cite Yeats and Joyce, Beckett and Shaw, William Trevor and Seamus Heaney. I would ask them, though, to add three more names to the list of masters: Chris O’Dowd and Nick Murphy (who work as a team) and Spike Milligan.

A few years ago, the Everloving happened across a British TV show called Moone Boy. Set in very rural Ireland, it followed the life and adventures of a 12-year old lad, Martin Moone and his Imaginary Friend. The rest of the characters consist of bullying big sisters, an endearing set of parents with no hope, some very odd school friends, and an even odder assortment of locals.  There were only 18 episodes and they ended in 2015. Wonderful series. The Imaginary Friend was played by Chris O’Dowd. He also wrote it along with Nick Murphy.

At the same time, O’Dowd and Murphy wrote two novels based on the series: Moone Boy: The Blunder Years and Moone Boy: The Fish Detective.  It is these two books that I offer up as evidence of their mastership of Irish literature.

In the first, The Blunder Years, our 11-year old hero despairs of life in a house with gloriously-ineffective parenting, constant near-poverty, and three bullying older sisters. His friend Padraig suggests Martin get himself an Imaginary Friend.  Martin agrees and conjures up Loopy Lou, a persistently awful rapper. Martin tires of Lou pretty quickly and discovers a far more congenial Imaginary buddy in Sean, an unemployed clerk in a bad suit and a head full of (usually) bad advice for his young charge.  How they go about disposing of Imaginary Lou is the final plot.

In the second book, The Fish Detective, 12-year old Martin needs money for Christmas so he talks his way into helping at the local butcher’s shop. The owner in turn hires him to go undercover at the local fish factory (her competition) to discover how they prepare fish without any local workers being employed. Martin, always accompanied by Sean of course, wheedles his way into the factory and finds out the startling truth. They find sadness and true friendship, a troupe of homesick singing Brazilian fish-gutters, and more than enough silliness to entertain for 200 pages.

I assume, from their style, format, and the occasional fart joke, that these are written for a younger audience. But don’t let that fool you.  Any novel that can make a 70-year old man laugh out loud more than once on the #20 bus (where darker street cabaret is on offer a lot more than classy verbal jousting) is a lot more than just a kid’s book. There is marvelous entertainment for the brain here as well as for the belly.  These works are funnier than Pygmalion and pithier than Godot, adding greatly to the sum of human happiness and knowledge of (a very particular part of) the human condition.  A Nobel Prize should be the least of their rewards.

*******

At the very beginning of this piece i also mentioned that Spike Milligan needs to be considered among the great Irish masters. I have to admit that this opinion is based entirely on memory. Back in the 1960s, I read a book of his called Puckoon, set in Ireland during the Partition of 1924.  Even at this long distance, say fifty years since I read it, I still believe this book was the funniest novel I ever read. Any novel that can evoke a memory that strong just has to be a classic.  I rest my case.

 


Nesbo’s Macbeth

June 6, 2018

 

Back in January I reported on a binge-reading journey I went on with Jo Nesbo and his Harry Hole character.  As I wrote then, I had a marvelous time with that series of books.  I was keen, therefore, to get hold of his latest novel, a non-Harry Hole thriller called “Macbeth“. After waiting some weeks for the VLB hold system to cough it up, I grabbed it with eagerness and began to read.

I had not read any reviews of the book before I began and it was a shock to realize just a few pages in that this is a faithful retelling of the Scottish play.  It is set in the 1970s or 1980s in an unnamed city in an unnamed northern country.  The city is economically destitute and overrun by corrupt officials and drug dealers.  Life is grim for all but the elite.

The novel begins with the death of Kenneth, the venal Commissioner of Police who has essentially dominated the town for a long time. The police heads of Organized Crime, Narcotics, and SWAT each aim to take over control, promising to make life better and less corrupt for the citizens.  Major characters are called Banquo, Duncan, Duff, and Lennox; and the chief drug-dealer, in an illusion to the play’s witches, is called Hecate.

Macbeth, head of SWAT, along his mistress and mentor, Lady, who runs the prestigious local casino, turns out to be the most ruthless of all and succeeds in obtaining his goal, with much murder and bloodshed (mostly of other policemen) along the way.  However, as those who know the play will recognize, things do not end well.

What pleased me most in the Harry Hole series was the realism of the characters, the locales, the police procedure, the plots.  All of this is gone in “Macbeth”; a heavy gauze of blood-soaked fantasy lies over the entire piece.  Moreoever, if you know the play (I was in it three times as a young ‘un), you pretty well know what is going to happen next and to whom.  Frankly, I was rather bored by the time Macbeth’s Lady fell ill.

Nesbo is a fine writer and I suspect that many people will enjoy this book just for the style, especially if they do not know the story in advance. I was greatly disappointed.

 

 


Grabbing Our Attention

May 6, 2018

I am usually a very fast reader, but it has taken me a few weeks to get through Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Out Heads“.  The time it took had nothing to do with lack of quality; far from it: it takes time to digest the immense amount of fascinating information that Wu packs into every illuminating page of this history of advertising and other attention-grabbing industries for the last 200 years.

To begin, Wu walks us through the invention of posters in Paris, the introduction of the New York Sun, the wily ways of Clark Stanley — the original “snake oil” medical miracle salesman — and the hugely successful World World One conscription propaganda — “Uncle Sam Needs YOU.”  He then engagingly introduces us to the inventors of modern advertising — Claude Hopkins, George Creel, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.

The story of attention grabbing moves onto the modern era with the invention of radio.  Wu reminds us that in those idealistic days, it was believed that advertising should stop at the household door. “The family circle,” opined Printers Ink magazine, “is not a public place and advertising has no business intruding there unless invited.” Herbert Hoover, talking about the wonder of radio, wrote in 1922 that it “is inconceivable that that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment .. to be drowned in advertising chatter.”  But those high  principles were quickly overridden when NBC agreed to take $1 million from Pepsodent to sponsor the Amos ‘n’ Andy show.

Not only did Amos ‘m’ Andy brings us radio advertising, it was also the precursor of all future soap operas, sitcoms, and invented prime time. The show broadcast at 7:00pm each evening, and was so popular other businesses — hotels, restaurants, and movie houses — changed their schedules to match the radio show.

Wu tells a riveting story about the development of radio and how it became a personal battle between “General” David Sarnoff of NBC (who wanted to use radio content to sell radio sets) and William S. Paley of the upstart CBS who countered with “quality” content.  But as Wu shows persuasively it was the Third Reich that developed radio into a medium so powerful that “80 million people were deprived of independent thought” and made them “subject to the will of one man.”

After the war, television became the prime attention grabber:

“… the lights were usually turned off for viewing, and there was little or no conversation. One only got us to change the channel. ‘We are our suppers in silence, spilling our food, gaping in awe’ said one woman in 1950.”

Wu covers the first ratings systems (the inventor of which bemoaned their misuse), the invention of the remote control (originally designed to mute commercials), the age of advertising’s Motivational Research, the game show frenzy, and the scandals that ended them).  We may have gotten some classic entertainment, but in return, as Vance Packard’s 1957 masterpiece “The Hidden Persuaders” noted “manufacturers, fund-raisers, and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give, or vote at their command.”

With the coming of cable, Fox and others chased audiences they they believed had fallen through the cracks of mainstream network broadcasting. Diversity was the war cry, attention was both more scattered and more available, and advertisers loved it.

Part three of the book deals with “the third screen” — computers and online services.  Wu covers this in depth and tells a good story about how some of the early visionaries hated advertising but, in a myriad different ways, were sucked into showing it everywhere.  Attention became even more ubiquitous:

“by 2000, change had come … Millions of people — soon to be hundreds of millions and then billions — were now spending leisure time logging in, catching up on email, attending to other business, or chatting to strangers.”

Online check-in had become a constant ritual. And each check-in allowed advertisers to reach us, and for the tech giants to know us more intimately than even our lovers.

The book closes by remarking on the “fourth screen”, the mobile phone without which it seems most cannot live. Check-ins are now essentially constant. The mobile phone

“would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchant’s manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes too, and of course the ads.”

Wu quotes Mark Manson:

“This is life now: one constant never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

But does any of this matter?  Clearly it does. Wu ends his book with a chapter on the election of Donald Trump as US President.  Trump, he says, is “determined to be a president who rarely, if ever, disappears from the public view.” He cares “maybe most of all about being the centre of national attention and about his ratings.”

One hundred years ago, Edward Bernays wrote that without political advertising, the public “could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so they had to be guided from above.”  The election of Donald Trump may well prove that quite the opposite is true.

I know I haven’t done justice to what is a marvellously observed, erudite, funny and thorough history of a subject that has come to dominate our lives.  It is well worth the read.


Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

February 23, 2018

Sometime in my very early twenties, near the beginning of the 1970s, someone turned me on to Don Marquis and his 1910s/1920s stories about Archy the cockroach, a writer of free verse, and Mehitabel the alley cat who thought she was a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy would supposedly leave poems on Marquis’ desk that the cockroach typed by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters or punctuation because he couldn’t use the shift key.  Here is a typical poem “The Wisdom of Archy“:

as a representative
of the insect world
i have often wondered
on what man bases his claims
to superiority
everything he knows he has had
to learn whereas we insects are born
knowing everything we need to know
a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:

[… ] it is
round like an orange
or a ball
and it is all cluttered
up with automobiles
and politicians
it doesn t know where it is
going nor why
but it is in a hurry
it is in charge of a
two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey
.
I was reminded to re-read these wonderful works by an article in the Poetry Foundation by Kathleen Rooney who tells the story of Marquis far better than I ever could.
.
It would be marvelous if another generation of young readers could be captivated  by this brilliant writer.

 

 


Brief Review: Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole Novels

January 16, 2018

Jo Nesbo

In November, I reported that I had started to binge read the thriller novels — the Harry Hole series — of Jo Nesbo. Well, I have finally finished them, all eleven, and I have rarely had such a prolonged good time with a single author.

Harry Hole is a Norwegian detective inspector (and later a consultant to the Oslo Police) specialising in serial murders. He is a disreputable drunk (and later a recovering alcoholic) disliked by most of his peers.  However, as the series progresses and he solves ever more difficult cases, his abilities and reputation tend to the legendary.

All the books are centred on Oslo, which Nesbo paints with a knowing eye, but many of the books also include long sections set in Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, and various European cities. Each location, in Norway and elsewhere, drawn with intimate knowledge and careful atmospherics.

These are not whodunits in the style of, say, Agatha Christie cosies; most especially in the later works, we know who at least some of the bad guys are. Rather, the novels are a fine amalgam of procedural and tense thriller. Nesbo has a wonderful ability to mislead the reader about who is doing what to whom, and he builds tension with that ambiguous uncertainty. The novels are also graphic, sometimes grotesquely so, in their use of violence.

Nesbo is also a master at weaving into his tales the cultural realities of modern life; the music, the technology, the changing mores of social interaction.

In my previous reviews of novelists’ work (Laurence Gough, John Le Carre, and John Irving, for example), I have tried to explain the pleasure I get from watching the author grow and change throughout their careers. I’m not sure it is the same with Nesbo; his style and quality seemed to exist even from the first Hole book, The Bat. What progresses as each of the the novels appear is a definite assurance, a confidence to try ever riskier plot developments (it is remarkable, for instance, that in The Police, the 10th novel in the series, Harry Hole does not even appear until page 164).

I am certain that many readers will enjoy these books in whatever order they come to hand. However, I can say with certainty, that reading them in order provides a deeper pleasure. There are important story lines and relationships that play through several volumes, and their interest only grows if you have the background that earlier works provide.

Jo Nesbo is a prolific author; apart from the Harry Hole series he has written at least eleven other works.  I will give him a break for a while but I will definitely be reading his other work sooner rather than later.