and she says ‘hey, how u doing?’

and I smile ‘fine’ into the phone

if she’d Skyped, I’d not have answered

cos then she would have known

that I am lying on the bedroom floor

a starfish on a rug

glass of wine, stinging eyes

desperate for a hug

that I worry I’m not coping

that I feel like throwing up 

that cannot keep up with my work

that I’m frightened when it’s night
I ask her how she’s doing

‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I’m fine

Fine, Holly McNish 

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The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

A stark but affecting existential Western about the need for – and struggle to find – meaning.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are, it turns out, pretty notorious mercenaries in nineteenth century mid-West America. They are commissioned to search out an inventor who had somehow created a mix of chemicals that makes gold clear in the bottom of lakes, providing an easy way to get rich in the time of gold-rush.

The plot charts their slow pursuit of the inventor – Warm – as they befriend, meet or kill a host of other people on the way: lawyers, prostitutes, farmers, Native Americans, other cowboys. They eventually catch up with Warm and his friend Morris, but it turns out that, although the invention might be effective, it is also pretty lethal.

The big theme of the book is about finding a meaning in life. It’s narrated by Eli, who is a thoughtful soul stuck in the mercenary business. He largely wants out, to leave the death behind, but this is what he is, what he does. His brother Charlie is less reflective and altogether meaner, and it’s hard for Eli to break away from his brother when in many ways the relationship with his brother in in fact all he has of value or meaning.

The pursuit of gold appears to give meaning to the lives of so many characters, but often it appears to be self-defeating – acquiring gold often results in being robbed or killed, and the chemical agent that can help find gold is itself toxic. Charlie and Eli are brilliantly philosophical about material gain. A number of times they make enough money to retire only to lose it somehow, yet they just live with the loss and move on. Perhaps the point is that the journey and what they do en route is what provides meaning, not the gold, the end, itself?

And what I like about the book too are the little things. Eli is wonderfully conflicted, he has different moods, he is aware that he thinks different things at the same time; his mind is tricky, and real. He is multiple. Despite being murderers you can’t help liking Eli and Charlie and somehow rooting for them, for their success. And there are some excellent scenes – a Western style shoot-out with a nervous but affronted lawyer stands out as a lovely addition.

It drags sometimes, and the lack of substantial women characters in the book – although it may well reflect Eli’s attitudes – feels like a limitation, but nevertheless The Sisters Brothers is an excellent existential Western.

Elmore Leonard – Bandits

Another top-notch caper from Leonard; too good to be true, but a brilliant, brilliant read.

It tells the story of ex-con Jack, now working as an undertaker, who meets a Nun called Lucy. Together with Jack’s co-worker and ex-policeman Leo, they confront and double-cross a leader of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ who is a ruthless and violent killer stealing a load of cash from American donors to the anti-communist government.

As always, the plot is gripping though at times hard to follow, the characters fun and complex but sometimes a little stereotyped, the dialogue consistently droll and cool and Tarantino-like.

There is a strong theme of ridiculing anti-communist right wingers in the US, but in a way that very nicely never gets too deep into the politics, just skirts around the edges highlighting that the bad guys are on the side of the American administration and Nicaragua’s authoritarianism. Good stuff as always.

Stieg Larsson – The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

This is an excellent conclusion to the Millennium trilogy, more complex and gripping even than the previous two.

The first two books in the trilogy allude to corruption and duplicity among the authorities but focus on the criminal aspects, on corruption in business and Salander and Blomkvist. This book is much wider in its scope, taking in the many layers of corruption in the police, security services, government and social services, that led to Salander’s horrendous predicament. In terms of Scandi-drama, it’s like reading The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen all rolled into one.

It picks up exactly where the last book left off, with Salander in hospital after trying to kill her father, Zachelenco, and half brother Niedermann, at their farm. It then follows the work of Blomkvist, his sister, Berger, Bulanski and others to uncover the truth in the trial. It’s compulsive reading all the way through, particularly Berger’s move to work at national paper SMP and the trial itself towards the end of the book.

The novel is also more noticeably about the relationship between men, women and power than the others. It opens sections talking about historical female leaders and warriors, has a number of powerful female protagonists like Berger, Modig and Giannia – Blomkvist’s sister. Many of the problems experienced by Salander and others like Berger’s harassment come from ingrained, viscous sexism from the authorities. That said, it’s interesting that for much of the book Salander is not much of a player and in fact it is a man, Blomkvist, who is directing so much that happens.

As always there are a bits in the book that are overblown, not least Blomkvist’s near-perfection and his clever, cool heroes and heroines, but these are small things in what is a big and brilliant book. 

Hanif Kureshi – The Tale of the Turd

The brilliance of this short story is getting us to empathise with a truly embarrassing situation while simultaneously disliking the person in it. 

Told through the voice of a guy who is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time, it tells of his excruciating experience dealing with a turd that won’t go down the toilet. It’s funny and embarrassing and you can sympathise entirely with his predicament.

But at the same time the guy is thoroughly unlikable – the girl is 18, he is 44. She is experimenting with drugs, he’s helping her do it. He, it turns out, preys on young girls like her, effectively grooming them and turning them into addicts whose lives are most likely ruined. That we can sympathise with him is a real mark of Kureshi’s ability.

“I’m crying inside too, you know, but what can I do but stick my hand down the pan, into the pissy water, that’s right, oh dark, dark, dark, and fish around until my fingers sink into the turd, get a muddy grip and yank it from the water. For a moment it seems to come alive, wriggling like a fish.”

Hanif Kureshi, The Tale of the Turd

My Son the Fanatic – Hanif Kureshi

A really powerful short story that shows the lack of mutual understanding that can grow between generations.

It is told in the third person from the point of view of the father Parvez. His son, Ali, has begun to sell his possessions and Parvez quickly realises he is turning to fundamentalist Islam. After working so hard as a taxi driver to provide everything Ali needed for a good life in Britain, Parvez is distraught.

He tries to talk to his son but everything he does makes it worse, showing that Parvez drinks and has struck up a close friendship with a prostitute who he gives lifts to and looks out for at night.

What comes through strongest in this simply written story is the complete lack of understanding between the two. Parvez is a sympathetic guy who just wants his son to take the advantages he is being offered and get on, and cannot comprehend why Ali would give up on any of that. Ali is less sympathetic, but you can see his complete frustration with his father who seems to lack self-awareness and believes in nothing bigger than the day to day of life. 

It ends with a sad scene, where Parvez defends his prostitute friend from the insults of Ali, in the end hitting his son, who replies, “who’s the fanatic now?”.

“In other versions I am a ghost or a doctor. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.”

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers 

“At night I dream about my replacement mourner, a woman. She has lost her mother years before and because she is already grieving she just continues attending funerals for a price. Like a wet nurse, the pre-requisite is a state of ‘already grief.'”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Claudia Rankine – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Full of surprise and humour and melancholy, this is a beautiful book that offers insight after insight.

Even to try to characterise what Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about risks over-simplifying a complex and subtle piece of writing – mis-representing as about this or that. There’s so much more to it than any one thing. But it’s main theme, it seems to me, is how people – who are fundamentally defined by their relation to and perceptions by others – can live in an individualised culture where sharing and emotion are bottled up and replaced by TV and pills. 

This is done through short vignettes, anecdotes and aphorisms about racism, TV, friends, traumas, drugs, movies – modern American life. They are readable and light, but the messages they convey – the ideas they express – are big.

There is no formal structure to her book as far as I can see, but what she often does is introduce a concept through an anecdote or story or two. Then perhaps clarify that concept with reference to a quote – Hegel gets a few mentions in this book. And then she’ll tell more stories or anecdotes to give perspectives on it or to amplify it.

I love the way she starts so many of the vignettes with ‘Or’, using them as ways to explain or bring alive an idea, gently circling it, exploring it from different angles, gradually moving the ideas and the book along. And I love the way it’s hard to see any parts of this in isolation – you could read them as single pages but you get so much more when you read page after page of her gentle insights. A remarkable and rare book.

“This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it? Where? Not going to make it where? On some level maybe the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another levels always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food – eight hours, twenty chews, seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is to not to have made it.”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t let me be lonely

 

The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master is a selection of six haunting stories rooted in the horror of the subconscious as much as the supernatural.

At the core of them all these stories, though each very different from the next, is the sense that fear and tension come from the unknown inside of us, and that it is this which gives rise to the kinds of terrible things which might are sometimes associated supernatural terror.

Oakes uses some of the tropes of weird fiction but reverses the twist, so that events seem supernatural but turn out to have plain every day causes. The Doll Master is about a young man screwed up by the death of his sister who turns into a murderer, and Mystery, Inc is written in the style of classic Poe but is just straight up greed that motivates the killing of the bookshop owner.

What amplifies this theme of the horror residing within is the realist style of writing for which Oakes is known. The characters and settings are very much in the descriptive real-life style that we know her for in books like We were the Mulvaneys and Carthage, and so when we learn about the boy collecting dolls or the woman who fears her husband will murder her while they are on a trip to the Galapagos Isles, the story throws the reader between malevolent spirits and people just being people.

Even Big Momma, a story about someone who is befriended by a family who own a room-sized human-eating snake, is built around the sad reality of a child whose parent is so pre-occupied with her own life that she doesn’t see the danger her child is on.

What’s great, then, about these really readable stories is how much they tell us about subconscious drives that cause odd and apparently supernatural events.

“Europeans have always liked typifying American literature as being primarily about brooding male figures alone on a vast, windy continent, wishing hopelessly and romantically to keep in check some awful brutality we secretly love.” 

Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta book of the American short story: vol 1

Revival – Stephen King

A readable story of one man’s life, a gradual piece of horror and a psychoanalytic revelation, this book shows why Stephen King is such a popular author.

It begins when Jamie Morton is a young boy in small town America and the Reverend Charlie Jacobs is the new and well-loved minister in town. He experiments with electricity and manages to heal Jamie’s brother’s muteness through some weird science channeling ‘secret electricity’. But after a fatal accident involving his family, brilliantly described by King, Jacobs turns from God, blasting out a blasphemous sermon in the pulpit before leaving town.

Flash forward twenty or so years and Jamie, a musician now, is in a bad way, hooked on heroin. He meets Jacobs randomly who, using his alternative methods, cures him of his addiction. From there Jamie’s ambivalent relationship with Jacobs begins; he tracks him, now a healer preaching with a ‘carny’ show, bring in lots of money through incredible acts of electric healing that have cured hundreds maybe thousands of people. But Jamie discovers that there are often psychological aftereffects to a healing by Jacobs, sometimes lethal, often disturbing.

It comes to a head when Jamie joins Jacobs at a final experiment to discover what lies beyond the living, which they do in an page-turning scene on top of Goat Mountain, where flashes of lightening power Jacobs and he connects with a dark world beyond ours, one that haunts Jamie for the years he las left.

It’s a fantastic allegory for the kind of tumult and horror that resides just beneath the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and is almost psychoanalytic in its revelations, though whether King would see it like that I don’t know. The contrast between the realism of much of the novel – which reads at times like something by Richard Ford or someone – and the supernatural horror of the culminating scenes has an odd effect, though it’s this which ultimately makes it so readable and so disturbing.

“And after all, if a family can grow all its food for free off a piece of land which is no more than a family’s fair share of the land surface of its country, and have some produce left over for other people, and still have time to do other work, it is in a very sound position and nobody can say that it is not pulling its weight.” 

John Seymour, Fat of the Land

“Karou had stabbed men before, and she hated it, the gruesome feeling of penetrating living flesh. She pulled back, leaving her makeshift weapon in his side. His face registered neither pain nor surprise. It was, Karou thought as he closed in, a dead face. Or rather, the living face of a dead soul.

It was utterly terrifying.”

Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

“I am an offspring of the dead. I am descended from the deceased. I am the progeny of phantoms. My ancestors are the illustrious multitudes of the defunct, grand and innumerable. My lineage is longer than time. My name is written in embalming fluid in the book of death. A noble race is mine.”

Thomas Ligotti, The Lost Art of Twilight