Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Why Christie is a mystery to me, and other stories

I want to ramble a little about crime fiction because, though I'm no expert, I've got a bee in my bonnet about something and it needs to be outed. I'm just going to take the plunge: I don't like Agatha Christie.

Phew, it's out. First off I should make it clear that I've never read Poirot, only Miss Marple, and even then, only one of them. I should probably widen my Christie horizons but I'm not sure now whether I'll bother: after all the hype I was expecting her to be great and, frankly, I was disappointed, for one main reason: The Plot. "What?" you cry, indignant, "is she crazy?"

A friend of mine once told me that she loves Agatha Christie's mysteries so much because you can never tell how they're going to end. Good talent for a crime writer, I thought, I'll give it a go. And then I discovered that the reason you don't know what's going to happen (and I'm taking A Murder is Announced as the blueprint here) is that she plucks some bizarre twist entirely at random from thin air and plonks it in at the end - I could do that, for goodness' sake. Kudos for fashioning an intricate plot which weaves off in eighteen different directions, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat dying to discover the culprit (again, no pun intended), but flummoxing everyone at the end by bringing something totally bizarre and new to the table at the last minute? Doesn't work for me. And then everyone goes, 'Oooh, I never thought of that' - no, of course you didn't, there's no way anyone possibly could have, because it doesn't have anything to do with the entire rest of the novel.

Now, I don't want to be all hatin' up in Agatha's grill, and I'm open to suggestions for any other of her novels that are more satisfying in their conclusion. But I also wanted to laud the praises of some crime writers I do like, because there are many, and it's a pretty cool genre.

I'm a big fan of Italian crime fiction, namely Andrea Camilleri who writes the Inspector Montalbano series. They're set in Sicily, but it's heavier on the lifestyle, the weather, the mentality of the island, than on Cosa Nostra clichés. Great mysteries too, and with endings that make sense. Another one I've come across is Carlo Lucarelli, who's more serious and more political, it seems, but those Italians do write good crime. As my rather-prone-to-national-stereotyping father once said, it's the only thing they know how to organise. Oh, and for some meatier Italian sort-of-crime fiction, you cannot go wrong with Niccolo Ammaniti's The Crossroads.

At this point I feel I have to mention something that came to my attention recently: staying with friends who have more books lying around in overflowing shelves than you can shake a stick at, I was directed to the section 'literature without integrity,' where I found the first volume of The Mike Hammer Omnibus by one of the great 20th century American crime writers, Mickey Spillane. Leafing through, I'm afraid for me it was the kind of narrative that goes in one ear and out the other and just doesn't stick, so I didn't even attempt it, but I wanted to share this:

"She twisted away and there was a loud whispering of cloth and the gown came away in my hands. She went staggering across the room stark naked except for her high-heeled shoes and sheer stockings. She rammed an end table, her hands reaching for the drawer, and she got it open far enough for me to see the gun she was trying to get at.

I had mine out first."

Racy stuff, if you ask me, and it nearly tempted me to read on, but I just couldn't, as my crime fiction standards have in the last month been raised to great heights by the superb Patricia Highsmith. Ripley Underwater (I didn't even start the series at the beginning) is a masterpeice of characterisation, and one of many, I'm sure. Ripley's an evil, slimy, cunning, murderous bastard with a beautiful wife who innocently knows nothing of his misdemeanors, and yet I was on his side the whole time, egging him on, against my better judgement, going 'Come on Tom, don't get caught, for goodness' sake,' to myself. This is all testimony to the woman's genius. There are some pretty horrific scenes involving a dredged up corpse (that horrid word, dredged, says it all really), but the plot's just so exciting and the characters' minds so fascinating that you don't want to stop. (And just as an afterthought, in terms of film, I know there's been a Hollywood blockbuster version and all, which I haven't yet seen, but if you want to gen up on some classic French cinema while experiencing possibly the best casting decision ever made in the history of the movies, check out the 1960 film Plein Soleil, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, with Alain Delon).

Monday, 23 August 2010

Simon Armitage and the Green Knight

Now that I've finished uni and have been released from the clutches of modern and classical German literature, I find myself fairly often being made aware of an author I've never heard before and realising that they're quite big news in the English speaking literary world. I suspect my lack of knowledge on these matters wouldn't really be any better if I had studied English Lit, but I sometimes get the feeling I've missed out a bit, you know, on the English 'canon' or whatever.

Anyway, the other evening I was revelling in my right to watch the iPlayer (Reason why I love the UK No.1) and went a little documentary-crazy. First I watched a programme written and presented by Simon Armitage about the Legend of King Arthur and its transformation from the subject of medieval Welsh poetry to the stuff of Norman legend. I'd never heard of him before last week, (Armitage that is, not Arthur) - I know, I know, shoot me, but for another *checks watch* four weeks or so I'm still only 22, and most Germans are only just leaving home at my age and don't even know how to cook beans on toast, and even if they did, they wouldn't, because they think it's disgusting (Reason why I love the UK No.2).

So, Simon Armitage. Turns out, he's a genius, with his lilting Yorkshire brogue and talent for translating medieval Arthurian poetry like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the modern generation. This documentary was fascinating, it really appealed to my Faustian quest to know absolutely everything in the world, starting with a dose of European legend (I got hooked on medieval history and went on to watch a four-part documentary about the Normans. It's probably testimony to my greater affinity for Germany than France that I feel pangs of regret that our Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage and language was all but wiped out by the Men from the North, and now we say 'country' (French) instead of 'land' (German) and 'royal' (French) instead of 'kingly' (German). The Anglo-Saxon has the feel of fairytales about it, and makes me think of damsels (Damen?) up in high towers with conical hats and long, flowing golden hair).

I went on to read a Pocket Penguin edition of extracts from Armitage's collection of essays All Points North; The selection is called King Arthur in the East Riding and is fantastic - it's heart-warming, touches on the good bits of nostalgia and has a truly authentic sense of setting. I loved it, and I'm not even from Yorkshire. But anyone who has the tiniest iota of pride and attachment for their origins and place they grew up, however shitty it may appear to the unknowing eye, and however oddball the locals, should definitely have a sniff at this. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

EIBF and Irregular

Two things I always forget when enjoying the build-up to the Fringe are a) it's harder to enjoy if you're broke and b) however exciting you think the atmosphere will be, the reality is that the tourists will get on your gears after a mere half an hour and you'll just have to endure it, all the way through to the end of August.

Back in July, when my bank account was suffering less, I splashed out on tickets for two Book Festival events - Scarlett Thomas and Matt Haig - on the basis that I'd most likely be making an appearance at my favourite quasi-employer Canongate in August. They don't actually pay me, but it's ok because I only do pretend work, like filing, and they make up for it in the books they throw at me in abundance every time I turn up there like a bad penny.

Matt Haig read from his new book The Radleys, a sort of young-adult crossover family drama with light-hearted love interests, teenage angst, familial bonds and abstaining vampires. He says he wrote it before we were all collectively whacked in the face with the current wave of paranormal fantasy fiction, TV and film because he saw a gap in the market. It's a breath of fresh air from everything we've seen before though, and great fun - while Twilight has its time and place, I'm sure (although it's a far, far away place), Haig's central characters are a "normal" English middle-class family - the teenagers are underconfident, dumbstruck in front of their teenie crushes, spotty with skin rashes (as a result of their contact with direct sunlight), picked on at school for being weird. We've all been there, or if you're worth your salt you have, anyway. This is first and foremost a book about family and loyalty, with the added bonus of some fantasical fun and games thrown in to liven up the story.

Scarlett Thomas also dabbles in the supernatural in her latest gem Our Tragic Universe, a 'storyless story,' a novel with no real plot about a writer trying to write a novel with no plot. She doesn't really ever make it clear whether she's just joshin' with us or whether the magical elements she includes are some sort of clue to something else unexplained... it's all very mystifying. Very good, though - her characters are convincing (although admittedly a tad repetetive if you've read her other novels) and she looks closely at relationships; how they work, why they sometimes don't work, how sometimes you have to do what looks like the wrong thing in order to do the right thing.

On Friday night at Irregular, Canongate's author cabaret event, hosted by Unbound at the EIBF Spiegeltent in Charlotte Square, the audience were collectively dumbfounded, shocked and baffled by possibly the worst compere since Jerry 'The Saint' St Claire off of Phoenix Nights. Dave Peron, a man with a hairdo styled on the most evil, mass murdering dictator ever to pick up a paintbrush, recited terrible performance poetry to a backing band with a saxophonist and a walking bass line... the band were good, the man was just embarrassing. He put the authors into perspective though, who were so bloody brilliant it was almost a relief about the compere, as there'd have been too much of the good stuff for one stage otherwise. So, who read? Emily Mackie, from her novel And This Is True, about a boy who lives in a van with his father, and falls in love with him. Janice Galloway, a legend in her own right, was very polished, professional and read with a surprising, sharp dose of comic timing, which was brilliant. John Wray caused the entire female contingent of the audience to melt in their seats with his sugary smooth tones as he read from Lowboy, his novel about a paranoid schizophrenic teenage boy loose on the streets of New York. Dan Rhodes capped it all off with extracts from Anthropology, his bizarre, magical 100-word long oddities about relationships. Music was provided by Edinburgh folk band The House of La, and frontman William Douglas returned to the stage later on to continue their good work, alas alone but armed with the best joke this side of post-feminism: "the girls have all gone home because everyone's got babies now and stuff. I've got a baby too, but... I'm a man."

Two incredible things I read today

The first incredible thing is a book, The Black Book of Colours by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría

This looks like a  children's book but is really for anyone. Written in Braille and (what's the opposite of Braille?) Braille and type, anyway... describing colours, with vivid descriptions of how they sound and taste and feel. On the opposite page of each description there's a sort of braille picture - images embossed onto the shiny black paper which you can touch and identify. It's an absolutely beautiful book, an aesthetic masterpiece, and I nearly bought it, but unfortunately, I'm broke.

The second incredible thing is a poem. I feel the same way about selectiveness when it comes to poetry as I do with novels - some of them are boring, some of them are silly, some of them I quite like and others I just connect with and they stay with me. Today I read this poem in the LRB and it made me cry, and that's never happened before (and I'm not feeling particularly emotional today, and believe me when I say I'm not the kind of person who usually cries at poetry). But there it is. 

I Knew the Bride
Hugo Williams
for my sister Polly 1950 - 2004

You had to go to bed ahead of us
even then, while your two older brothers
grabbed another hour downstairs.
The seven-year gap
was like a generation between us.
You played the princess,
swanning about the house
in your tablecloth wedding dress,
till we told you your knickers were dirty
and you ran upstairs to change.
Your hair was tied up
in plaits on top of your head,
showing the parting down the back
as you marched out of the room.

It wouldn't be long
till we were asking you to dance,
practising our jiving
for the Feather's Club Ball at the Lyceum.
Nobody knew so well
how to judge the turns
with perfectly tensed arms,
your ponytail flying back and forth
to 'Party Doll' by Buddy Knox.
For my speech on your wedding day
all I had to do
was read out the words
to Nick Lowe's 'I Knew the Bride
When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll.'

You put yourself together
for occasional family lunches
at the Brompton Brasserie,
appearing coiffed and chic
and on time, so that I imagined you
going about all day looking like that
and even assumed you were getting better.
You fought a five-year war
with that foul thing
which deals in hope and fear,
two against one,
like the two brothers who tormented you.
It wouldn't be long
till you had to go to bed.

You turned your back on us
to protect us from your face.
You lay on the rack of yourself,
murdered by your skeleton.
Somewhere towards the end
you climbed its rickety ladder
to your full height
and stood before us one last time.
You had ordered a white stetson
from a mail-order catalogue.
Perched on your coffin, it sailed
ahead of you into the flames.
I saw the parting down the back of your head
as you marched out of the room.

What I talk about when I talk about books

One Fyfe family story goes that when I was little, I went with my mum to pick up my brother from school and we were invited in by his teacher after the class had finished. While the grown-ups nattered and my older bro (probably) tore around the room making aeroplane noises, three-and-a-half year old me picked up the nearest Biff and Chip and proceeded to read the story in its entirety, loudly, just to show everyone that I could do it. My mum and brother knew just to roll their eyes and let me get on with it, but Mrs Harris was at once intrigued and horrified and said with a hint of apprehension, 'I look forward to Lottie joining my class next year!'

I come from a very small village and recently we caught up with my old primary school headmaster in the local drinking establishment, where he, too, jested that I was never to be seen without a book in hand, in school or out. At first I thought he was having a jibe at the village bookworm in the same vein as the cool kids who spat out bits of paper through straws on the bus, but he assured me that being such an inky swot was actually an admirable trait.

Thing is, though, I'm not really that well-read at all. Maybe that's the curse of the book-lover talking - the plaguing knowledge of not having read enough by far and there being just too much out there and not enough time to read it all... This is why I adopted the self-imposed rule some time ago never to force my way to the end of a book if I just wasn't getting into it - there's too much good stuff to bother with the ones that don't work. You're never going to like everything. Even the classics - I tried to read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller about four times and never managed it. The 'to read' pile grows ten times as fast as the 'read' pile, and this is something I've realised I'm going to have to live with until the day I die - if we're still reading at all by then, that is, and not employing some digital sensory programme that just injects narrative directly into our brains.

But I digress: I wanted to write about what I've been reading lately. I've been out of the country (only Germany, but I like saying that, it makes me sound travelled) and had to send UPS packages to myself in Scotland, full of the books I couldn't stop myself buying over there, or smuggling home from Bloomsbury's shelves as 'payment' for my services as a top-class intern. Ingo Schulze's 'Orangen und Engel' was one of them (this is going to be boring and irrelevant for those who don't know, or care, about the German literature market, I'm afraid), a collection of snippets of Italian life seen from the German protagonist's perspective, accounts of bizarre but everyday occurrences which give it a charming Italian flavour, even if the writing felt rather dull for me.

What else? I'm rooting for an English translation of Sevilla by Nina Jäckle. Sharp, raw and haunting with sparse language and an amazing sense of setting, it's about a woman on the run who finds herself in a strange new place with absolutely nothing to tie her to her old life except her memory. She slowly assimilates herself into a new culture, city and language, bit by bit, and you see and feel this happening with every word Jäckle writes. It's fascinating.

In Berlin I also tried to tackle some contemporary classics that I'd neglected - Haruki Murakami for one - Kafka on the Shore - which is weird and gripping and sad and cool, and very satisfying fiction... it's quite long, and it took me a long time to finish it because I could usually only manage to snatch a quick ten minutes on the tram on my way into work (I actually had a social life in Berlin, so on the evenings which I would usually spend in a book, I was drinking beer and dancing). Anyway, after I'd finished the book, the next day on the way into Prenzlauer Berg when I heard the electric whirr of the trams as I changed at Alexanderplatz I had a double-take, because I'd come to associate that noise with the talking cats, ghosts, transsexual librarians, runaways and other creatures of this novel, and now I fear the twain shall never be parted - every time I take the tram in Berlin I will think of Kafka.

Then there's Atomised by Michel Houellebecq - the story of two brothers and their disfunctional lives, also a social history of Europe from the 60s to the present, focusing on the sexual liberation movement and its repercussions. Really great, but I was actually almost sick on the train at one scene involving some satanists and a foetus. An Education by Lynn Barber: you might have seen the film. The book's better (usually the case), but that's a statement because the film is bloody good too. And on a lighter note, with its pleasingly alliterative title, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, told from the perspective of an old dog on his final day, recalling his life alongside his beloved master. Sounds horrendous, wasn't though - it's written more cleverly than it sounds and interspersed with some cool motor racing scenes for light relief from the emotional stuff. Provided a great literary insight into why nobody likes Michael Schumacher, even though he's the best: because he's infallible. Nobody wants a winner who's never known what it's like to lose - you're not a hero unless you've overcome the odds. Amen to that.