Sunday, 28 April 2013

Week Seventeen - Jeanette

The Sisters Brothers (2011) by Patrick deWitt
Recommended by Craig

Fresh from university, what is an English Literature graduate to do?

Work in Oddbins, of course.

Ah, Oddbins. Already consigned to history. Part of a time when we used to go to different shops to buy different things, and where the people who worked in those shops knew about the stuff they were flogging. It seems unbelievably quaint already, but Oddbins really did care that its staff knew their wine: they’d put us on tasting courses, have events where we’d sample new vintages, and quietly accept the odd stock ‘irregularity’.

Craig was Assistant Manager at my branch of Oddbins, Notting Hill. He liked classic cinema and modern literature, he liked singer-songwriters and expensive whiskey. He had the world’s worst memory, but he could reel off scenes from minor Hitchcock movies, and he’d be accurate to the frame.

We hit it off very quickly.

Craig left Notting Hill for Manchester a few months later. I visited him. He had this gorgeous flat in Chorlton with high, high, ceilings and no curtains. It all felt very bijou, well apart from the person in the flat underneath playing The Verve’s Urban Hymns six times a day (no exaggeration). I made Craig a tape (tape!) of the best songs from Elliott Smith’s first three albums; I complained how Elliott had ‘gone rubbish’ with XO. We ate pancakes at a pancake house for breakfast.

We also watched films. Perhaps it was that weekend, or perhaps it was on a later occasion, Craig and I watched Fargo. I’d never seen it, and it was one of his favourites.

It was Fargo that kept coming back to me as I was reading The Sisters Brothers. Something in its manner, its language, its imagery (and, of course, the thought of Craig).

I felt a sharp pain at the long toe of my left foot. I upended and tapped at the heel of the boot, expecting a nettle to drop, when a large, hairy spider thumped to the ground on its back, eight arms pedalling in the cold air.

The Sisters Brothers concerns Eli (who narrates) and Charlie Sisters, two feared hitmen in the American frontiers of the 1850s, a time of gold rush and lawlessness. The pair work for the Commodore, and he has ordered the death of Hermann Warm. As is standard for the Commodore, he doesn’t tell his henchmen what the unfortunate Warm has done, and this is increasingly troubling to Eli.

Despite his profession, Eli is a sensitive man. He has a loyal relationship with his good-natured but useless horse, Tub, and refuses to be rid of him, even when Tub is aged and brain-damaged. Eli is also self-conscious about his weight, and forces himself onto a hated diet.

I ate a small portion of eggs and beans and was still very hungry when I was finished. I sat looking at the greasy plate, wishing, frankly, to lick it.
The boy returned and asked if I wanted anything more before paying up. ‘Fresh pie this morning,’ he said.
                ‘What kind of pie?’ I demanded. I thought, don’t let it be cherry.
                ‘Cherry,’ said the boy.

These aspects of The Sisters Brothers could easily turn Eli, and the book itself, into something cuddly and safe. But he, and it, is neither. Violence jolts through the brothers’ quest, and Eli is as much a willing part of that as Charlie is.

Charlie himself is hard to like at the start, for he seems to exploit his younger brother, blindly follow the Commodore’s instructions, and rob and kill without compunction. But he has the driest humour, and soon I became very fond of Charlie, too.

‘What’s that? You’re not smiling are you? We’re in a quarrel and you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling, but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarrelling. It’s wrong, and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’

The first half of the book is comprised mainly of vignettes such as these: scrapes on the brothers’ way to tracking down Hermann Warm. But when they find their target, the tone of the book changes. The brutality had been plentiful, casual and bloody up to this point. Now it is charged with deep philosophical questions, as Eli and Charlie realise why they’ve been told to murder Warm. The differences between the two halves of the book is akin to the contrast between the kaleidoscope gore of The Evil Dead and the depressing savagery of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Sometimes, with a narrative shift such as this, it can seem as if the author is belatedly trying to tack on a measure of depth to a story, but here it’s exactly the opposite. It feels natural, if upsetting, that the story goes where it does: again, this is something that the Coen Brothers, at their best, are extremely good at.

The other clear reference point for me was Deadwood. I watched the first season of this a couple of years back, and once I got over thinking ‘it’s Lovejoy!’ every time Ian McShane appears, I thought it was fan-fucking-tastic.

'That's what the fuck life is, one vile fucking task after another.'

Yes, DeWitt likes Deadwood very much.

However, I think The Sisters Brothers has a wider appeal than Deadwood, even. It’s readable, it’s got ballast, it revels in moments of black farce and its characters – even the minor ones – are extraordinarily vivid. I can’t think of any literary comparisons for this book; partly this is due to my ignorance of the Western genre, but also its something in the book itself.

I bet this will be a film, and probably an Oscar contender. Read it before the 'now a major motion picture' cover makes you too embarrassed to.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Week Sixteen - Jeanette

The Art Of Travel by Alain de Botton (2002)
Recommended by Mark

Hello from LEAGRAVE!

Leagrave sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’re thinking it's a small fishing port on the west coast of Scotland, or a quaint Cornish hamlet accessible only via a meandering B road.

It is neither. It is a soulless Luton suburb, and I am in the bar of a chain hotel, having paid £3.80 for an indifferent (small) glass of red wine and a flickering internet connection.

I’m not finding much artistry in this particular travel experience.

I know that a lot of people don’t like Alain de Botton. His detractors see him as some kind of intellectual parasite who condenses and over-simplifies the ideas of eminent minds for the lumpen proletariat. He doesn’t do much to deflect this reputation. Look at this recent article, 'Ten Commandments for Atheists': who’d ever have thought that being polite was a nice thing to do? Thanks, Alain!

However, I’ve never personally read any of his work; and I do know that de Botton’s recommender Mark needs no commandments (from de Botton or anyone else) to be polite, empathetic or funny. He is one of the two people I’ve known longest on this list. I find that quite upsetting; only two people from my home city that I wanted to get something as simple as a book recommendation from. (Well, there were three, but one didn’t recommend).

Mark used to work on Saturdays at the bread shop down the road (note, ‘bread shop’, that’s the Norwich way. ‘Bakeries’ are for people from Guildford). He was a little bit older, he was in a band, he went to indie gigs at the UEA. I was a young teen, with puppy fat and emotions written all over my face. I loved talking to him, and of course I had a little crush on him. It was one of those early pure crushes: he was way above me and there was no hope of fulfillment, and that was its point. Given that my next crush was to be serious, complex and painful, well, I appreciate those innocent earlier feelings even more.

He even got on TV! Look at this (Mark’s the guitarist with the Mr. Bubbles (??) t-shirt):

He left school, and left the bread shop; eventually he left Norwich too, and went on to have lovely children and a gorgeous wife. It was ace to get back in touch a few years ago, and particularly ace to know that he still made music. Now Mark is better known as the subtle and brilliant electronic pop project Mono Life.

Anyway: the past is another country. Here I am, in the Leagrave present with Mr. de Botton. Can he help me find the pearls among the suburban swine?

The Art Of Travel encourages reflection. Why go away in the first place, and how might we get the best from travel? Too often, de Botton says, we simply assume we’ll have a good time on our holidays, and we don’t. He relates his experience of Barbados.

My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination. The body found it hard to sleep, it complained of heat, flies and difficulties digesting hotel meals. The mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm.

He’s in Barbados and I am in Leagrave. It’s tempting to shout: down a couple of rums, and shut up.

But de Botton’s point is important (even if he expresses it in an irritating manner). We want travel and holiday to be entirely transcendental, to take us away from our problems and our normal selves. When we find our normal selves along for the ride – and usually our problems don’t take the hint to stay at home either – it doesn’t matter what the surroundings are.

How do we square this particular circle? De Botton ‘asks’ artists, writers and thinkers. He surveys how great men (and it is only men that de Botton consults) have looked at the foreign and the native alike, and then connects their words and art with various aspects of the travel experience: anticipation, arrival, sightseeing, return. When de Botton concentrates on those he admires, his style transforms. He no longer moans about non-existent problems. He’s enthusiastic about the ideas of those he writes of, and wants his readers to be so, too. It doesn’t come across as cynical or exploitative. And far from being obvious, de Botton uses a wide variety of carefully chosen source material: he’ll quote from correspondence, speeches and minor works as well as the well-known.

If it is de Botton’s aim to open up minds, then I have two words for you: Gustave Flaubert.

The chapter ‘On The Exotic’, where de Botton discusses the work of Flaubert – in particular, Flaubert’s ambivalence towards France and his attraction to the Middle East – left me wanting to abandon the rest of the Two Readers project and immediately read every scribble Flaubert has ever written. How, how, have I never read this man before? My God! He’s hardly Johnny Nobody. On the basis of the material in The Art Of Travel, Flaubert could easily be my favourite all-time writer.

My life, which I dream will be so beautiful, so poetic, so vast, so filled with love, will turn out to be like everyone else’s – monotonous, sensible, stupid.
                                          (Letter to schoolfriend)

I was really taken, not only with Flaubert’s style, but also with his more general thoughts on life. And this is where credit must go to de Botton for interpreting them in an attention-grabbing and direct way.

[Flaubert] proposed a new way of ascribing nationality: not according to the country one was born in or to which one’s family belonged, but according to the places to which one was attracted. It was only logical for him to extend this more flexible concept of identity to gender and species and for him to declare on occasion that, contrary to appearances, he was in truth a woman, a camel, and a bear.
I’ve Madame Bovary sitting on my shelf at home. I’m now so anxious to read it that I’m physically shaking with excitement.

The other ‘guide’ de Botton follows who especially affected me was John Ruskin. The fearlessly sharp tongue this man had! This from his speech to a group of wealthy holidaymakers in 1864:

The Alps themselves you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with ‘shrieks of delight’.

Ruskin was not just being obnoxious (although he clearly relished being so). He was keen to shake people from their apathy, to get them to really, truly, see – not to merely glance, and not to simply understand things as they related to their own egos. And this is what de Botton is trying to do, too; he ends the book by travelling ‘at home’: around Hammersmith, peering at gravy adverts and nosing into office windows.

So let’s have another look at Leagrave.


But I’ll have another glass of wine, and shut up.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Week Fifteen - Jude

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (1967)
Recommended by Eamonn Forde

Here's a book I finished on Sunday - Sunday! - but haven't written about yet because I've been up to my ears in writing for readies. But write about it I shall. And for some reason I fancy writing about it in the form of a list. So there.

1. This was recommended to me by Eamonn Forde. Now, I met Eamonn through work, sort of – he is a good pal of Andrew Harrison, my old colleague at Word, and old editor (sniff) at Q. Eamonn is The World's Eminent Music Business Journalist ((c) Neil McCormick, 2010). He has a doctorate in pop (true fact). His spiritual mentor is Blanche from Coronation Street. He has a very rude sense of humour and likes "putting" random words "in" quote marks "within" sentences to flag "up" moments of "ridiculousness". He likes Tayto crisps more than life itself.

2. Eamonn recommended me five Ira Levin books, in order of how much he liked them. I picked the second. I did because this novel the source matter for Jeanette's favourite film in the world. When I told her I was reading this, yes, she squeaked a bit.

3. It's very odd reading a story which you know so well in another form. It's unfair to the book, really. I knew what was coming from the off, and all the hints about unpleasantness flagged up early on...well, they screamed off the page like sirens. The book, therefore, seemed more pulpy than the film – but was it really? It was hard to distance myself from images I knew so well in my mind, and broach the characters without putting their words into the mouths of Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes.

4. The book is very faithful to the film in terms of dialogue. Reading it also made me appreciate how brilliant Ruth Gordon is as Minnie Castavet.  And the dialogue is bloody brilliant. It's so easy to get wrong, and sound clunky. But Levin is the master.

5. Roman Polanski's editing, I thought, made his version of the story more eerie. For instance, there's a lot more detail about Terry here, the houseguest of the Castavets, who – and this is no spoiler for those of you who haven't seen it – dies very early on. This made me wonder if books can't edit out details as much, and leave spaces in the story for us to fill in the blanks. Also, my favourite scene in the film (when Rosemary is on the phone in the phone booth to Dr Hill) didn't have my favourite detail in it in this original text: the sudden arrival of a man who stands in front of the phone booth, with his back to the camera, whose intentions aren't clear. It's a terrifying moment that wouldn't have worked in the book. It's made me "think" about the differences "between" different sorts of "text".


6. There's a bit in the book that didn't make the film about Rosemary going away for a few days to Hutch's cabin, near Brewster. I can see why this section didn't make Polanski's cut, but I really liked it. Levin goes into Rosemary's mind much more in this original story, properly exploring her internal battles about her relationship with her husband. He shows us how she craves independence, but how she feels she should trust people to look after her as that's what women 'should do'. He also shows her acknowledging, more deeply, the fact that he raped her, and how she goes against her better instincts throughout. The book feels much more like a text about feminism than the film, in some ways.

7. I loved how the political climate of the US was pushed a bit more in this book – it really feels like a story from the mid-60s, where the film doesn't as much. I also loved some of the details of Rosemary's earlier life, as a girl fresh to New York from the sticks, and how it gave her back story more depth...although this could also suggest that girls moving to the big city should beware, of course. Like me. Argh!

8.  I liked the eerieness of the inclusion of the papal visit to New York, although I thought the Catholicism sections were a bit too hammy. But Rosemary's dream of the nun early on, and the voices she actually hears...I wish I'd not seen the film at that point. The realisation of its significance later on would have been a "proper jaw-dropper".

9. The ending went on too long. Sorry, Ira. It also made me feel a bit uncomfortable that the idea that a mother's love overcomes everything. It doesn't always. So there. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

10. I really, really liked this book, despite the whole "I've seen the film already" mind-confusions, and I want to read more of Ira Levin now. Although Eamonn's advised me to "NOT read Son Of Rosemary. It will anger you." So I won't. But The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, A Kiss Before Dying...let me at you.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Week Fifteen - Jeanette

The Divine Comedy 1: Hell (c. 1314) by Dante
Recommended by Louise

‘I hope Thatcher rots in hell,’ is something I’ve heard, or read on the internet, a good few times this week.

When she was in office, people wished her expelled. When she was alive, people wished her dead. Now that she is dead, people wish her eternal torture. Hearing the concept of hell so frequently and fervently invoked helped me reflect on Dante’s epic poem (although it certainly didn’t help me to process my emotions about Thatcher). This week, at least, it seems post-Christian secular Britain is still willing to condemn a sinner to eternal damnation.

I think it’s Dante who is largely responsible for the tenacity of hell in popular culture. While I remember a bit of Satan-chatter in the New Testament, the place itself remained largely unexplored territory. It’s probably Revelation that comes closest, at least in terms of vivid imagery – and Revelation’s not about hell per se (let alone about any kind of narrative coherence). Yet Hell, in contrast to Revelation’s angry gibberish, makes a great deal of logical sense. Dante codifies and classifies hell, finds a place and an inventive method of torture for every kind of sin, and also allows its inhabitants to explain their actions and experiences. He makes hell easy to visualise, natural to fear, and tempting to want people you hate to end up there.

The story – the very deftly-paced story – of Hell is that Dante, aged thirty-five and spiritually adrift, is led by the Classical poet Virgil through the complicated (de)meritocracy of the damned. We gawp with Dante at sights such as he finds in the fifth circle (where the Wrathful dwell):

            At fisticuffs – not with fists alone, but with
            Their heads and heels, and with their bodies too,
            And tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.
                                                                          (Canto VII, 112-14)

At its simplest level, Hell is a travelogue, a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.

But simplicity can’t be levelled at Dante for long. He didn’t write about hell to amuse or horrify with shocking descriptions. He didn’t even write to warn against straying from God. The Divine Comedy is ranked among the greatest achievements of all humankind because it is such a profoundly lyrical reflection on reason – and particularly on reason’s relationship with the soul, and then with that soul’s relationship with God. It was thus inevitable that Hell led me to slice open to my own innards: my morals, my relationships, my trespasses. Yes, Dante writes from within a Christian worldview, but I found Hell have intense resonance outside of it, too. Free will and consequence, the nature of spiritual fulfillment, the transience of life: they’re not questions we spend nearly enough time on these days.

Still, that’s not to say Hell is only that, either. Another reason Dante wrote was to comment on contemporary Italian politics and, it seems, air some grievances against people he didn’t like. Who wouldn’t? You’re writing about hell, chuck a few enemies into the pit. From what I gather about the Florentine situation of the time, it was a ridiculously complicated mix of petty family squabbles and genuine class struggle, elevated to murderous severity because of the power each faction wielded. The pope and the odd French monarch sticking their respective oars in didn’t help, either. Reading Hell in a week led to no more than a superficial consideration of all this, but one story particularly struck a chord, down in the ninth circle of hell in the region of Antenora, a place reserved for traitors to their country.

Here, we meet Count Ugolino, a double-dealer between the factions, who had been imprisoned on earth with his (innocent) sons. The confined Ugolino relates to Dante how he heard his cell door being nailed up; he then realised he and his sons would starve to death.

I gnawed at both my hands for misery;
And they, who thought it was for hunger plain
And simple, rose at once and said to me:

‘O Father, it will give us much less pain
If thou wilt feed on us; thy gift at birth
Was this sad flesh, strip thou it off again.’
                                                            (Canto XXXIII, 58-63)

Ugolino watches his sons die. He ends his tale by saying ‘famine did what sorrow could not do’. The commentary says this line is a reference to Ugolino’s death, but (thanks, Night Of The Living Dead) I think Ugolino meant that he ate his sons’ corpses. Who knows? Nevertheless, the sad story of Ugolino – where wrong begat wrong begat tragedy begat tragedy – is naught but frantic horror, whatever his region of hell, purgatory, paradise, or earth.

Contributing much to my enjoyment of Hell was Dorothy L. Sayers’s scholarly, and waspishly witty, commentary. Of an earlier Dante work (the Vita Nuova), she writes

If we only had that book to go upon, we might suppose that from his tenth to his twenty-fifth year [Dante] did nothing except circulate sonnets among the intelligentsia of Florence, and moon his tearful way from one emotional crisis to another.

Actually, I can imagine Dante’s recommender, Louise, saying something very similar. For Louise’s intellect is sharper than Sheffield steel. She and I have been acquaintances for a while, but I’d say it’s only really over the last year that we’ve become proper friends. Writing this now, I realise how little I actually know about her, but that’s okay; actually, it’s exciting, because I discover something new every time we meet (and it’s always something dead interesting, too). I do know that she has true personal grace, a strong backbone, and the gravitas of a Wilkie Collins heroine. It’s really not a surprise that’s she’s recommended me my most highbrow book to date.

Just as with Louise, there’s obviously a (hell of a) lot more to discover in The Divine Comedy. After all, it has inspired cultural heavyweights from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Chris de Burgh (I’m assuming ‘Don’t Pay The Ferryman’ is about crossing the infernal river Acheron, rather than being a mandate to defraud P&O). So, I can think of little way to sum Hell up; it’s better to just quietly exit, murmuring the lines that made me clutch hands to face in awe.

            There the mere weeping will not let them weep,
            For grief, which finds no outlet at the eyes,
            Turns inward to make anguish drive more deep;

            For their first tears freeze to a lump of ice
            Which like a crystal mask fills all the space
            Beneath the brows and plugs the orifice.
                                                                        (Canto XXXIII, 94-9)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Week Fourteen - Jude

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2012)
Recommended by Kathryn Cook

Christ, what a week to read this. For the first half of it, I was in my childhood home. In the second half, Margaret Thatcher died.

I've never read any of Jeanette Winterson's books before. Which is amazing really, given the way that she writes (which I love), and the things she writes about (things I'm interested in). However, I did see the TV adaptation of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit many years ago, and at the end of last year saw a BBC documentary about Winterson, closely linked to this book.

So I knew a few things already. From the documentary, I knew that Winterson still had a slow, strong Accrington accent. From that and from Oranges, I knew she was working-class, self-taught, and incredibly clever. That she had been adopted by a mad, cruel mother and a dad who didn't intervene. That she had read her way through the local library, very ravenously, like I had, and went to university in Oxford to read English, as I had.

I didn't know that the real story of her life was even weirder, even nastier, even tougher, than that.

But before all that: Kathryn Cook. I met Kathryn in the lovely summer of 2001, as a friend of my then-boyfriend Barry, and best friend of some other working-class girl called Jeanette (hello, lovely Jeanette). Kathryn and I shared a love of pop music, sitcoms, massive bottles of Tesco's own-brand Soave, and later shared two flats together – one when we'd both broken up with our boyfriends so did a house-swap, and then one for a year together in Hackney. Those were glorious days.

Kathryn also has an encyclopaedic brain on most subjects –with her husband Rupert, she only went on AN EPISODE OF POINTLESS and WON.  But she's not only an expert on obscure glam-rock/indiepop/rave singles, and how to accessorise an outfit just-so (she's gleefully brilliant at both). She's also razor-sharp on books and politics, and always has forthright, refreshing opinions.

(She is also someone who has helped me so much over the years with her wonderful chats and advice, and that matters most of course. She is one of my loveliest friends.)

Kathryn recommended me this book a few months ago, and I finally bought it last week. It's fantastic: beautifully written, angry, and stylistically really interesting. It's chronological, sort of, taking us through Winterson's younger years, until the moment she lasts sees her adoptive mother, then bouncing forward to the decade when she finds out her real mother is still alive. It's full of theories about love and family and loss and being a woman, like therapy through literature.

"Words always help" is a very condensed version of what she seems to be saying. I'm not half the writer she is, but words do that for me too.

For Winterson, so does fiction and the editing and filtering of our lives. In Oranges for instance, there was a character Elsie, who helped the fictional Jeanette. In real life, Winterson reveals here: "There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that."

As a lonely child in very different circumstances - my father had died, and I missed him - I found lots of solace in this book. Lots of other passages connected with me personally. When Winterson reads T.S. Eliot for the first time, she experiences the same head-rush and heart-rattle that I did, and describes it with a thump. The stuff about Oxford struck me too, although I was a comp kid who had her own bedroom, not someone who lived in the back of a car.

The stuff about Thatcher too. Jesus. It's been a funny week, obviously, thinking about all that. Jeanette (my Jeanette again) and I talked about this on the phone last night... about how Thatcher's death brought up about so many thoughts and feelings. About how the mythologising of Maggie's time in power, and the whitewashing of her legacy, coloured by the might of her pronouncements, and the projection of her power, ignores just how much she rode roughshod over our own communities and families, and how her ideology fundamentally changed the way many people behave.

In this book, Winterson says why she voted for Thatcher in the 1979 General Election. This happened just after she had been given her place to read English at Oxford. I'm going to quote this just before I sign off – and it's long, and I hope Winterson doesn't mind (and if anyone reading this does on terms of copyright, email me through my website, and I'll take it down pronto). It just seems so important to post this today: the vivid, brilliant words of a girl who came from nothing, and had nothing, and here says so much. The non-italics are her own.

 "Thatcher had the vigour and the arguments and she knew the price of a loaf of bread. She was a woman - and that made me feel too that I could succeed. If a grocer's daughter could be prime minister, then a girl like me could write a book that would be on the shelves of English Literature in Prose A-Z.

I voted for her. 

It is commonplace now to say that Thatchr changed two political parties: her own, and the left-wing Labour opposition. It is less often remembered that Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK broke forever the post-war consensus - and that consensus had lasted for over thirty years.

Spin back to 1945, and whether you were on the Left or the Right in Britain or Western Europe, rebuilding societies after the war could not happen using the outdated and discredited neo-liberal economics of the free market – unregulated labour, unstable prices, no provision for the sick or the old or unemployed. We were going to need housing, plenty of jobs, a welfare state, nationalisation of utilities and transport.

It was a real advance in human consciousness toward collective responsibility; an understanding that we owed something not only to our flag or to our country, to our children or our families, but to each other. Society. Civilisation. Culture.

That advance in consciousness did not come out of Victorian values or philanthropy, nor did it emerge from right-wing politics; it came out of the practical lessons of the war, and – and this matters -–the superior arguments of socialism.

Britain's economic slow-down in the 1970s, our IMF bail-out, rocketing oil prices, Nixon's decision to float the dollar, unruly union disputes, and a kind of existential doubt on the Let, allowed the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s Right to skittle away annoying arguments about a fair and equal society. [...]
In 1988, Thatcher's Chancellor of The Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, called the post-war consensus the 'post-war delusion'.

I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility,  or that the life of the mind will not be counted as good unless it produces measurable results."

And so it continues, and brilliantly. But this last section seemed the right place to end this post, given how much it says about self-education.  Winterson says elsewhere in this book that "reading is where the wild things are". And that for the younger her: "Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it."

I feel this doing this blog. Every book is another trip into the life of the mind. Of our minds. Every book is another pulling-out of a stopper. A means of action that many value, but don't do enough. And we should. After all, education is our most powerful weapon.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Week Fourteen - Jeanette

 House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
Recommended by Geoff

Watch this. It’s the first installment of Marble Hornets.

Found footage and ‘fakelore’ is nothing new in horror films: from Cannibal Holocaust to REC, badly popping, disordered and scratched visuals tell ambiguous stories of missing protagonists. What Marble Hornets did differently, however, was to spin out the story over months, years (it’s still going); releasing tiny fragments on the internet, often of footage that made no stand-alone or even contextual sense. Crucially and inventively, Marble Hornets utilised a pre-existing myth – of the ‘Slenderman’ – that was an internet-created sensation in itself.

I had thought Marble Hornets was influenced by the usual found footage canon. I now think it is primarily indebted to House Of Leaves and the film that book is about, The Navidson Record.

The author of House Of Leaves – not, in fact, Danielewski, but a mysterious (and deceased) man, Zampanò – spent years consumed by The Navidson Record. He has clearly watched the film an unhealthy number of times, studied it frame by frame, read all of the copious amounts of academic writing on it, and dedicated every available millimetre of his mental space to its meaning. On one level, House Of Leaves is the document of one man’s obsession.

The Navidson Record depicts the rural Virginia house of Will Navidson, photojournalist, and Karen Green, former model. In summer 1990, the two, along with their children, go to a wedding in Seattle. When they return, something has changed. Their house defies the laws of physics and sprouts new closets, rooms, corridors, halls – all the while looking exactly the same from the outside. The film, originally passed around as a series of shorts before being pulled together for theatrical release, is about Will Navidson exploring his new (and as it turns out, rather violent and vindictive) internal property space.                       

It sounds like a good film, up my street in a The Stone Tape-meets-Ring kind of way, but why should Zampanò write this book, full of minutely-detailed criticism on it? And why should Geoff recommend it to me? Let us deal with the latter first.

I’ve known Geoff for a good few years; he’s another Sheffield bud of mine. In the early days of our friendship he did me a great service (although the general public may not agree) – he helped me fall for Twitter. While I was all ‘this is a load of shite, what on earth do people get out of it?’, he convinced me it was worth a decent stab, gave me hints on how to use it properly, and sent me a big list of people to follow. I’ve been an addict ever since. If you ‘do’ Twitter, Geoff’s here, and he’s ace.

Like many of my favourite people, he’s big into music. Our tastes have a few overlap points – he recently loaned me the Crass back catalogue, which hit the spot, I can tell you – but often they’re amusingly disparate. A conversation a couple of weeks back:

‘I’m going to see Ghost soon,’ said Geoff.
‘Wow! I had no idea they were touring at the moment. Are there tickets left? Can I come?’
‘You like Ghost?’
‘Yeah, love them!’

I meant this Ghost:

He meant this Ghost:

What we do have in common music-wise, however, is a soft spot for lovely packaging. And House Of Leaves, too – subtitled ‘The Remastered Full-Color Edition’ – is a thing of beauty. It is a huge hardback, with delicious creamy pages, illustrations, and awash with fonts (plus every incidence of the word ‘house’ is coloured blue)… simply exquisite.

So why should a work of film criticism be so lavish? And why did this movie grip Zampanò so? After all, I used to watch Rosemary’s Baby every day, but I still found time to go to work and enjoy stable mental health. Zampanò considers.

In what remains the most controversial aspect of The Haven-Slocum Theory, the concluding paragraphs claim that people not even directly associated with the events on Ash Tree Lane have been affected. […] An even greater number of people dwelling on The Navidson Record have shown an increase in obsessiveness, insomnia, and incoherence.

By this point you may be thinking, ‘why haven’t I heard of this film?’

Don’t worry about your cultural capital. The Navidson Record doesn’t exist. Or does it?

If you’re my kind of age and you studied English Literature at university, you almost certainly covered ‘theories of the text’: semiotics, ideological state apparatuses, death of the author, poststructuralism etc etc etc. If you’ve ever heard the word ‘panoptican’, well hello there, fellow traveller. Mark Z. Danielewski, through the mind-melting fictive structure that is House Of Leaves, creates layers upon layers of possible authenticity: his own, Navidson, Zampanò, Johnny Truant (who finds and annotates Zampanò’s manuscript) and the shadowy, impassive Editors who occasionally interject, too. He often mocks the plethora of tenuous hypotheses that ‘texts’ are forced through.

Though not the first to make the comparison, Eta Ruccalla’s treatment of Will & Tom as contemporary Esau & Jacob has become the academic standard. […] Incredible as it may seem, Ruccalla’s nine-hundred page book is not one page too long.

Also postmodernist is the look of the book itself. When Zampanò is considering the architectural and physical make-up of the impossible labyrinthine house, the page looks like this:

And when Will Navidson is exploring his supernatural corridors, and the space is shrinking around him, the page looks like this:

By no means is this only authorial clever-cleverness (although there’s definitely a whiff of it). There’s a truly blood-chilling moment when Danielweski brilliantly uses this spatial awareness of text and blank page to illustrate how cut-off Navidson actually is. There is no way this could have been conveyed so effectively through words alone.

House Of Leaves explicitly uses semiotic theory to bring together the style of past structural literary satire – works like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Gogol’s ‘Diary Of A Madman’ – with a post-internet approach to how myths are created and fuelled. The book also mirrors a modern flitting mind; the narratives switching via footnotes and appendices and text body reflects the current norm of multi-tasking rather than exclusive devotion.

All this, and still it’s a terrific (and traditional) deep psychological horror story written with clarity and terror. This book, like the Navidson house, is unique. Impossibly, yet possibly, unique.[1]

[1] So says Jeanette Leech’s ‘House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000): Recommended by Geoff’ A Tale Of Two Readers, April 2013, at

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Week Thirteen - Jude

Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes (1989-1993)
Recommended by Kristian Besley

After this week's recommender Kris read my post from last week – about Jonathan Raban's book, Coasting, irregular readers, read down for more – he was worried that he'd picked a book that wasn't deep enough.

Then I opened Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron.

This featherlight, wishy-washy, silly comic Kris had picked for me was actually... I'll pause for an intake of breath here... a series of interconnected stories named after a line from Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! about a strange young man, a God-like drawing called Mr Jones who was tattoeed on feet and hidden on moles, a girl called Tina who looked like a potato conceived through an encounter with a mysterious creature who came from the sea, brutal cops, dogs without orifices or faces with maps on their backs, Hitler living in Mexico, a little girl who writes scripts, and a worldwide gender war.

Just like an issue of Bunty, in fact.

But that's Kris for you – putting himself down when he shouldn't. Kris is great. We've been friends since tertiary college, when he had purple hair and a beard and once let off a second world war air raid siren in the canteen... or at least my memory tells me that he did. (That's one of those situations you swear your brain has concocted on its own in a moment of madness). He was in a band called Ken though, a sort of mad-comedy band very much of the early 1990s, who had a cassette album called Unplugged In Llansamlet with a photocopy of a Barratt home pasted on the front of it, and had a song about Carl Cox, and many others with swear words in them which I won't repeat as he's a very grown up, and indeed upstanding, father-of-two now. The purple hair has gone too, I'm sorry to say.

Oh, Kris also played a massive part in my musical education, introducing me to the early works of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and the music of Orbital, which I talk about on another blog post here. And he was in a band called Grümp – note the umlaut – for whom I made some badges using Tippex and biro. GLORY DAYS.

But back to Daniel Clowes. I knew a bit less about him: that he was one of the artists that helped popularise alternative comics in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and that he'd done some work for the brilliant Hernandez Brothers' Love And Rockets series. I'd also read Ghost World already, and of course seen the film starring Thora Birch (what happened to her?) and Scarlett Johanssen (ah what happened to her), having been a young person in the late 1990s/early '00s of an indie persuasion.

I'd loved both, but I'd not read anything else by Mr Clowes. Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, I discovered, is definitely not Ghost World, although I really enjoyed it, despite not really understanding what the hell was going on in it.

The best way I could describe this graphic novel is that it's a lot like Twin Peaks in narrative style and tone – although its subject matter feels much murkier. For instance, there's a peculiar old movie at its heart that Clay sees in a dodgy porn cinema, and I felt the ghost of One-Eyed Jacks and Audrey Horne all over that. Still, the first instalment of this series was written at the same time as David Lynch was writing Twin Peaks, so they didn't overlap. Maybe there was just something (really weird) in the air.

Sex, violence, death and dread: boys and girls, they're all here. And God, you feel them. You really understand Clay  trying to make sense of some of these worlds desperately, while settling for others co-existing. When he's trying to find out the importance of Mr Jones, you feel his hunger for knowledge deeply; when the little girl he's watching is given her own voice, I felt genuine fear. There are lots of minor characters that recur too, and tons of surrealistic twists...for example, there's a moment when Clay takes a drink, then in the next panel, he and his friend are alien shapes...but even weirder than that. And the dogs without orifices. ARGH.

At points, this book made me think of the late '60s film Performance which I watched over the weekend too. Both are defined and directed – or indirected, rather – by psychedelic leaps. But I liked this book more, as it hinted at something weirder at the heart of us. My favourite bit of all was when the folk song Barbara Allen crops up towards the end, and Clowes uses it, in a way, to try and tie all his disparate, wayward threads together. Things don't end well, but then again, some things don't. This is a book I need to return to, and unpick, and spend hours poring over, just like those cassettes made for me nearly twenty years ago by a teenage boy with purple hair, from an old friend who will always, somehow, feel like a new one.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Week Thirteen - Jeanette

Gregor: The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins (2003-7)
Recommended by Lizzie

Gregor looked up into the inky black sky and then realised that, of course, there was no sky.

Welcome to the Underland, situated miles and miles below the earth’s crust. Eleven-year-old New Yorker Gregor falls through a grate in his apartment block’s laundry room one day and finds himself there. Among the Underland’s bats, rats, mice, spiders, ants, cockroaches, scorpions and moles – all gigantic versions of their Overland cousins – are the humans, the Underlanders. Descended from a group of English settlers in the seventeenth century, these people have physically and culturally evolved to cope with the lack of light and the other conditions underground, thus becoming mutant versions of ‘Overland’ humans.

So far, so children’s fantasy literature (albeit with a squirt of H.G. Wells for good measure). But I knew there’d be more...

After all, this was Lizzie’s recommendation: she is one of the smartest, most grounded ladies that Sheffield has ever seen. Lizzie was originally a work colleague. She and I had two major interests in common: music (and especially the role of women in music) and word games. Lizzie once got so good at Scramble her score was top ten IN THE WORLD.

So far, so acquaintance (albeit with a squirt of P.J. Harvey for good measure). But I knew there’d be more…

After I left that job, Lizzie and I stayed friends; when she moved away from Sheffield, settling in Exeter, I went down to visit her. I was fresh from writing Seasons They Change and skittish of mind, and she had terrible toothache, but nevertheless it was simply lovely. And then there was the Green Man Festival in 2011: we sat in the sun, playing Scrabble, while folk music played in the background. A perfect storm of our shared loves.

Lizzie asked if it’d be alright to recommend a children’s book. I said of course it would. She then asked if it’d be alright to recommend five children’s books. Hence Gregor: The Underland Chronicles, which comprises Gregor The Overlander, Gregor And The Prophecy Of Bane, Gregor And The Curse Of The Warmbloods, Gregor And The Marks Of Secret and Gregor And The Code Of Claw.

This quintet offers up some of the most interesting – and downright dismal – themes I’ve ever encountered in children’s literature. Where to start? How about ethnic cleansing? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Colonial theft? State-based religious fundamentalism? Or good old-fashioned child poverty?

The Underland is not a stable place, as Gregor soon discovers. The humans – the colonists – made sure of that when they bagged the best land for themselves. For centuries they have lived uneasily alongside the other species, often explicitly oppressing them, and finding justification for their superiority in a series of prophecies. The underground city of Regalia shows off all the humans have achieved but, to others, it is an offensive symbol of their arrogance. Prime among the pissed-off are the rats.

The rats tend to stick to random acts of violence against individual humans until they gain a new leader, a ferocious white rat known as the Bane (and the power behind his throne, the eloquent Twirltongue). In the first half of the Chronicles, Collins expertly shows how relations between rats and humans degenerate and a full-scale war escalates. And, as in real-life war, it’s not simply (or even mainly) about show-stopping battles. For instance, the humans cut off the rats’ access to the river where their main food source, fish, is located. They also deny the rats access to medicine when a deadly bloodborne virus sweeps through the Underland.

The rats, for their part, abuse a weaker species: the mice (the ‘nibblers’). Under the Bane’s command, the rats commit vast acts of atrocity against them, including a mass gas poisoning.

The mice were rolling on the ground, pawing at the air, at their necks, their bodies wracked with terrible spasms. ‘They can’t breathe! They’re suffocating!’

This industrial-scale massacre of the mice has obvious parallels with the Nazi death camps, something Ripred – a rat whose allegiances are often ambiguous, but who has better relations with the humans – points out.

‘I thought they would starve the nibblers, attempt to drown them perhaps. But this… this has no precedent,’ said Nike.
      ‘This has too much precedent,’ said Ripred, grimly.      

Although the militaristic matter in these books is strong – both in the quality sense, and in the explicitness sense – equally interesting for an adult reader is the treatment of disability and illness, often as a result of the conflict. Collins doesn’t shy away from brutal descriptions of injury but, unusually, she also gives room to how that person’s subsequent life is affected. Mareth, a famous fighter, loses a leg in the third book: but that is not the last we see of him.

The soldier stood in the centre of the field, leaning on a crutch. The doctors had fashioned a prosthetic device made of fishbone and leather for his missing leg, but he was still in the process of learning to use it.

There is also the impact on mental health. Gregor’s father was kept as a prisoner of war and, on his return overland, experiences tremors, hallucinations, nightmares, and depression. He retreats from society and is unable to work. The loss of his income, combined with medical bills, means Gregor’s family (only just above the breadline anyway) is thrown into real destitution. The grinding nature of this – a mother who has to constantly work at low-paid jobs because she is desperate for any work, the kids waking up never knowing if there’ll be enough food to last through the day, the wearing of outdoor clothes indoors and still feeling constantly cold… it’s told as unflinchingly as any blood-drenched Underland battle is.

But yet, despite all these sophisticated ideas, there’s no sense that Collins is writing primarily for adults. Her style is direct and clear and, often, she will gently explain a word or idea if she feels her young reader may not be familiar with it. This never feels patronising; rather, she wants to make sure that the dynamics and feelings she’s exploring are well-understood.

I know many people who don’t agree with adults reading children’s books on principle. I’m not among them, but I do think that if you’re an adult you should choose these books carefully. For instance, last year, I re-read a couple of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books. They disappointed me; I found little more than simple nostalgia. And then I straightened myself out, and said ‘of course they should disappoint me. I’m not eleven any more.’

Gregor: The Underland Chronicles is different. I can well believe that those who read it at the age of eleven - perhaps the ones whose charming fan art (like above) litters the internet - can return to it ten, twenty, fifty years later and find far more than a wallow in their childhood. It’s a powerful work, dense with ideas about the savagery of war and its real impact on people’s lives. And that, sadly, is always relevant.