Thursday, 2 June 2011

Taking Care of Business

No nonsense today, just books. Though I'm currently in the throes of an interesting historical and literary obsession which I'll pen down later for your amusement (or boredom, who knows), I haven't yet languished in it enough to be able to share it with the world - unless you're unlucky enough to be my similarly book-crazed flatmate, or ask the fateful question, 'what are you reading at the moment?' Then it's a different story...

But no, I promised not to waffle this time, so I will do my utmost to be concise. Alors... the best thing I've read so far this year is Great House by Nicole Krauss. First of all, this woman's a genius. She has lots to say, and she says it well. I bought her book in hardback for the considerable sum of £20 on the back of nothing more than the interview with her in The Guardian that I mentioned in my last missive. This was a chance encounter that has changed my life for the better: I happened to enroll at my local library last week and I'm so taken by Krauss that I've now picked up her first novel, too (it's a sad day when you realise you can't afford to buy as many books as you want to read. Thank God for libraries). I love discovering a great writer I never knew about before, even if it reveals me to be a little bit of a philistine, and this time I'm determined to actually follow through and read her backlist. I always tell myself I will, but in practice it rarely happens. It seems I've got a short literary attention span.

But back to the book - on an aesthetic level it's hard to beat. It has a beautiful, bold cover, inscribed with fine, white-line lettering that takes up most of the space without being overpowering. Picking it up is almost like holding a piece of smooth, red wood in your hands. Its title comes from the Talmud and suggests to me a piece of writing of unfathomable depth, with hints at complex, Freudian ideas of the self represented by the house; living space and furniture; how much of ourselves and our lives we store in these things...

Sounding heavy? Don't be put off: this book needs weighty ideas to hold it all together. Its narratives are fragmented, fractured and disjointed. I tried in vain to get each and every strand to fit together before realising in defeat that they're probably not supposed to. It's like Faust: Part Two - you're never going to get a cohesive narrative or thematic structure out of it, so the best you can do is grasp at strands of meaning and tease them out as far as they will go until you've made the best sense you can of the whole mess. In Great House the pieces of the jigsaw are expertly arranged, though, so that you come away feeling that you've delved deeper into the characters' lives than a lesser writer would have allowed in the space of these four stories. It's a weighty, serious and brilliant novel. Spend the silver, read the hardback.

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Another high point: earlier in the year I read The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, and I've just spent the last ten minutes scrolling through Bella's blog when I should have been writing my own. It's very good - go here if you're interested. She has the rare gift of writing beautifully yet accessibly, and I love this book mainly because, reading it on the tube - that necessary evil of London life, and oh, how evil it is - I was transported, alternately, to my two favourite places in the world: Scotland, and Germany. With a setting that flits between Bonn (OK, so I've never been to Bonn, but a trip to Berlin does feature too) and the Outer Hebrides (Okaaay, so I've never actually been there either but I've been to Skye, have family on Lewis and if I win the lottery I'm going to buy Taransay), it's a cracking story, fabulously well plotted with lovely child-characters, sadness, happiness, love, plenty of magic and metaphysics, and to top it all off, a healthy dose of espionage. And it made me yearn for heather-strewn, wind buffeted shorelines, peaty moors and three o'clock sunsets. Blissful reading.



"have you ever been to berlin in june? they say no-one gets up 'til noon, and the streets are lined with cafes..." (Alice Gold, Runaway Love)

I promised myself a while ago that I'd read the second instalment of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin novels, Goodbye to Berlin. Although I'd purchased it a long time ago and it had gathered dust on my shelf since then, it was only after the recent BBC drama about the author's life - you might have seen it - that I decided it was high time to get down to it. I'd been so slow in putting off the moment because I strongly suspected that its pages were going to be so richly rewarding that I wanted to revel in the anticipation for as long as possible. Well, if there ever was a book that didn't disappoint, it's this one. You know when you unwittingly link a certain song with a certain period of your life purely because you happened to hear that song a lot back then? Well, now, for the same reason, I find myself unable to disentangle the tinkling melodies of the abovementioned Alice Gold track with images of the decadent, frivolous affairs of Herr Issyvoo in 1930s Berlin... and perhaps, I concede, the memories of my own sunny summer in that balmy city, too. He's such a refreshing writer, because most of what he writes concerns real people, friendships (fond ones, if fleeting), tongue-in-cheek accounts of shady characters, and the odd subtle nod at mounting political turbulence. He writes episodes which entertain thoroughly, and never hides that this is their primary intention. Yet they still manage to leave behind such a credible impression of the spirit of the age and capture a moment perfectly.

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And now, a comprehensive about-face, to true stories about addiction, of which I seem to have read quite a few in the last weeks. Namely Dry by Augusten Burroughs and Some Hope by Edward St Aubyn. Let's start with the former. I wasn't convinced at first by Burroughs' overly wry tone and cynical, just-this-side-of-self-deprecating attitude. But he's very funny, and I really enjoyed another memoir of his, Running With Scissors, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he writes very conversationally so it wasn't hard to power through. In the end, I came to appreciate his detached stance regarding his own experiences with alcoholism (which include some tragic moments) and in hindsight I'm relieved that he didn't get bogged down in hyperbole because, as immediately ingratiating as that kind of misery memoir may be, it's emotionally exhausting and leaves you pretty empty anyway (think along the lines of A Million Little Pieces by James Fray, which I'm allowed to slag off because some of it isn't even true). Instead, Burroughs levels just enough of an expose upon alcoholism and its ill effects without getting his hands too dirty; he hits a good enough balance between cool criticism and impassioned tale of woe for my liking - so he gets the thumbs up.

And now swiftly to the latter. Some Hope has three parts, and chronicles Patrick Melrose's life from the age of five to the age of, I suppose, thirty-five. Focusing on a drunkard, neglectful mother and a sexually abusive father, it tries to encapsulate a highly obnoxious section of the upper classes and paints a picture of a troubled little boy, understandably at odds with his surroundings, who grows up into the dark depths of heroin addiction. I felt it failed as an expose of despicable English snobs because I was as disgusted that anyone would want to write about these people as I was to read about them. I really struggled through part one, but something (I'm not quite sure what) made me keep going. It got better, and I really enjoyed part two, although mainly for its gratuitously detailed descriptions of the sensory overload of shooting up smack, which I'll probably only ever experience vicariously through literature and therefore find weirdly fascinating. Part three was sort of a culmination in which our antihero moves on to better ways and better things; there is consolidation and a cathartic revisitation of old friendships and relationships touched upon in parts one and two, and a cloying sense of retribution against the memory of the nightmarish father figure. All a tad predictable if you ask me... yet I don't want to finish on a negative note, so I will say that the author displays an uncanny talent for intricate, surprising, beautiful and amusing metaphor, which is admirable in itself and a good enough reason to give this book a go.

Until next time.