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Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road

Posted : 16 years, 2 months ago on 25 July 2007 03:40 (A review of Tobacco Road)

Written in 1932 and set during the Great Depression of that time, Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road blesses us with a look into the hearts and minds of white sharecroppers in Georgia. And at a time when there's little to be happy about due to widespread poverty and starvation the author manages, in this slice of life, an accomplished marriage of dark humour with the bleakness expected from humanity worn down.

The Lesters, headed by patriarch, Jeeter, are one of the families living out on the farmlands around the town of Fuller. What once was rich tobacco land has, over the generations, been sold off to makes ends meet to the point that the Lesters are living at the discretion of an absentee landlord who has sold up and moved to Augusta. All Jeeter wants is to hire a mule, get himself some seed and some guano so that he can grow a bit of cotton and provide for himself and his family. But, with all the sharecroppers in the same predicament, it's no surprise that stores in Fuller won't give him any credit. Thus the destitute are further struck down. Even God, it seems, has abandoned them.

The novel follows Jeeter as he hopes and procrastinates over making enough money to live on, stubbornly refusing to leave the land he was born on for the mills where he would no doubt be guaranteed work. When he does try, nobody wants to know. When a plan seems a good one, the optimism surrounding it comes crashing down. And when he thinks he knows the ways of the world, his rural naivete allows advantages to be taken of him. Things proceed, pretty much the same from day to day as you'd expected when there's nothing much to do, until, like all those passing through Tobacco Road, the novel reaches its tragic end.

The greatest thing about Tobacco Road is its cast of memorable characters. Caldwell's skill in regularly making Jeeter a man we feel is hard done by and then have us abandoning all sympathies for him ensures that we never really know what to make of him, although, come the conclusion, we can look back over his actions and see him for who he is. Around him, the others play out parts both harrowing and darkly comic: his wife, Ada; his last remaining kids, Dude and hare-lipped Ellie May; his mother who "had lived so long in the house...she had been considered nothing more than a door-jamb or a length of wearther-boarding"; Lov Bensey from two miles over, married to the Lesters' twelve year old daughter, Pearl; and Sister Bessie, a widowed preacher-woman who follows directions from God on her actions.

Caldwell's narration, always to the point, feels evocative of the geography - at least, idealistically - and complements the wonderfully captured nuances of the local dialect, with the bleak realities of everyday life shot through with humour that, when thought about, becomes all too plausible and not funny after all:

"The Lesters stood around in the yard and on the front porch waiting to see what Lov was going to do next. There had been very little in the house again that day to eat; some salty soup Ada had made by boiling several fatback rinds in a pan of water, and corn bread, was all there was when they had sat down to eat. There had not been enough to go around even then, and the old grandmother had been shoved out of the kitchen when she tried to come inside."

At under two hundred pages, Tobacco Road is a quick enough read, thin on plot, shifting its focus to its characters and their interactions, but remaining satisfying as events unfold. Even though the characters aren't truly likeable, you still want to know what they are going to do next and that sort of readability ensures a skilled hand from the author, something Caldwell surely has. It isn't going to be challenging Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath for Best Depression Novel Ever, but Tobacco Road is a road worth walking, certainly worth the price of a mule, some seed, and guano at least.

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Jill Dawson: Watch Me Disappear

Posted : 16 years, 2 months ago on 22 July 2007 09:19 (A review of Watch Me Disappear)

Jill Dawson's 'Watch Me Disappear' takes as its backdrop the Cambridgeshire Fens around the time of the Soham murders, dropping references in all but name. That the narrator, Tina Humber, should be there is purely coincidental, as she's attending her brother's wedding. The current brouhaha does have an effect however, as it brings to mind the memory of an old school friend, Mandy Baker, who went missing thirty years before, never to be found.

The novel follows Tina's account of events back then and while she does think regularly of Mandy, it's not about the missing girl so much as it is about the development of her own sexuality, whether it be from browsing some porno mags, reading smut in the 'News Of The World', or encounters with her first boyfriend. Events that occur between the ages of nine and fourteen, within the range mentioned by Nabokov in the quote, from 'Lolita', regarding nymphets that prefaces the novel. As the story - well, backstory - develops Tina comes to unearth memories (or perhaps they are just delusions caused by mild epilepsy) about the past that forces her to confront the past, something that may just be closer to home than ever thought possible.

Throughout the novel Dawson looks at the subjects of girls and sexuality, covering many bases. Boys. Sex. The paedophile threat. While at the same time there's the flagrant way in which children, innocent of their appeal, are becoming highly sexualised at younger and younger ages such as one girl mentioned with the word 'sexy' plastered across the seat of her jeans. That and the feeling of needing to live up to the image of women presented, exclusively it seems, in boys' magazines.

The prose in 'Watch Me Disappear' is tight, the content engaging. And none more so than when Tina describes an image, detail by detail, adding character to an absent friend:

"Mandy is splashing, then dragging herself out by her arms, shuffling on her bottom along the sun-heated concrete lining the pool and reaching for the Tupperware bowl of warm strawberries, strawberries that taste of plastic; dipping them in the bowl of stiff cream. Her flat fringe, wet against her forehead. Her foot, fine bones at the arch, the colour of a perfectly baked cake, golden, rising, her toes like ten bright birthday candles, dipping small circles, little yellow light flames, in the water. Her stubborn bottom lip, what my mum called her pet lip, peachier, fatter than mine.

Clever Mandy Baker, with her clever tongue, licking the cream from her very last summer."

The evocation of the seventies feels successful. Whether it be mentions of Spangles, 'The Benny Hill Show', or John Noakes on 'Blue Peter', all nostalgic references are achieved without straining, the way I felt David Mitchell did for the eighties in 'Black Swan Green'. And the recollection of a childhood, from an adult perspective put me in mind of Hisham Matar's 'In The Country Of Men', although I found that extremely poor and clumsy read.

Another well done device that adds to the novel is Tina's career choice. She's a marine biologist specialising in seahorses. And while we don't see much of her at work there are a number of passages looking at the lives, habits, and very nature of these creatures, passages which blend in with the reminiscences and reinforce the ideas on show.

Despite the lack of here-and-now action within the novel, there's much still to be enjoyed. The characters are rendered well, all three dimensions intact, and the setting comes to life too. Having been introduced to 'Lolita' parallels prior to reading the novel, I was trying to be attentive throughout but know that plenty will have passed me by. If not most.

When it comes down to it, the lack of actual plot isn't a great loss, for the narrative is carried well by an efficient narrator who never once loses the thread of their story, which is one of sexual awakenings set around the need to confront the past. When I read Milan Kundera's 'Ignorance' I thought it was amazing to think how our individual memories colour our version of events and 'Watch Me Disappear' is no different in that respect. It's a great read. But that's just how I remember it.

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Gulag Orkestar

Posted : 16 years, 7 months ago on 24 February 2007 02:34 (A review of NO ALBUM)

Every once in a while an album comes along that deserves five stars. The latest one, to my mind, is Gulag Orkestar by Beirut. Despite coming from from Albuquerque, New Mexico, this albums sound is rooted in Europe. Not just any Europe, however, but influenced mostly by the gypsy sounds of the Balkans and beyond. The sound, when compared to the authentic stuff by the likes of Kocani Orkestar (as heard on last.fm - where else?) demonstrates that there's many differences. The pace and the artistry are certainly poles apart. But that doesn't stop this album from being a masterpiece.

To listen to it, you'd be forgiven for thinking there was a full orchestra in the studio but this album is the work of a twenty year old (name of Zach Condon) and was composed bit by bit on his laptop with only few musical contributions, notably by Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw. Trumpet, accordion, drums, piano, mandolin, ukelele and more. Yet no guitars. And when the music sounds this lush, who really needs them?

The album begins with title track, Gulag Orkestar, which, after a raspy trumpet mourning opens into piano led procession of further trumpet signatures backed by steady percussion. And, over the top of this, Condon lightly wails with lyrics flitting in and out of comprehension. Prenzlaurberg and Brandenburg march on in much the same way, with added violins; brass leading the former, vocals the latter.

Postcards From Italy features some of the most coherent lyrics, it's funky opening leading the album into something nearing pop music. The accordion led Mount Wroclai (Idle Days) heads off into a lovely trumpet riff, maintainin the pop sensibilities, and the following Rhineland (Heartland), with its anthemic vocals backed by a chorus of trumpets concludes the upbeat trilogy.

Scenic World begins with a little electonica led ditty layered with instrumentation and almost incoherent vocals, the word 'breathtaking' closing the show. Bratislava feels a darker take on the gypsy sound and has a clash of instruments all playing to their strengths, including clarinet, but playing off each other. Ukelele led The Bunker sounds like an elegy for a lost city, a patchwork of vocals backed by cello leading into a wall of gypsy sound before coming down to a sparkling organ and trumpet denouement.

The Canals Of Our City almost seems aware that the album is coming to a close. It's slow, the sounds therein strained and sustained. And final track, After The Curtain, eschews much of what has gone before with a mostly electronic track featuring, amongst the lyrics, "what can you do when the curtain falls", before leading into a coda of wails backed by applause.

While the album is low on lyrical prowess (at least as far as I can make out) it doesn't stop the snippets heard from being doleful, sometimes evocative, and steeped in the spirit of the music. But it's the sound that matters more here and this version of folk music (especially given that Condon has no roots in the Balkans) just works so well. Part of the fun is repeated listening when you noticed little snatches of music just rippling below the surface; a cello here, violin there, trumpets playing over each other. Simply wonderful - an album evocative of an indefinite time and place.

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The Brown Bunny

Posted : 16 years, 7 months ago on 24 February 2007 01:47 (A review of The Brown Bunny [2004])

There are probably two types of person who will watch Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film, The Brown Bunny: fans of arthouse cinema and perverts. The cover loudly proclaims that the film contains ‘Explicit Sexual Content’, which works as an obligatory warning but is designed more as temptation. And, given that the film is written, directed, edited, produced, and shot by Vincent Gallo and stars who else but Vincent Gallo, it has also received negative reviews by those who see it as an ego stroking project. But, like his previous movie, Buffalo ’66, Gallo has produced a hugely unsettling film that burns at its own pace.

Bud Clay (Gallo) is a professional motorcyclist and the film opens with him losing a race on the final lap. After the race he packs up his bike in his van and drives west to California where his next race will take place. Along the way he meets several women, named after flowers, with whom he spends brief moments. But, before anything happens with these women, he runs away and returns to the road.

At one point he visits the house of his old girlfriend, Daisy, from many years before, and while her parents can’t – or don’t want to – remember him, he notes that her pet bunny (the literal brown bunny of the title) is still alive. Later, when he visits a pet shop, he finds out from the shopkeeper that rabbits only live for five or six years. The sense is that the relationship with Daisy ended many more than six years before, leaving the viewer to wonder who has been replenishing the brown bunny.

When he arrives in California, Bud leaves a note at Daisy’s house asking him to meet him at a hotel when it appears she is not at home. Daisy, played by Chloë Sevigny, turns up at his hotel and thus begins the film’s graphic denouement which, while not widely heard of, is certainly infamous. A heady mix of drugs and graphic sex, the truth behind Bud and Daisy’s past is revealed and we learn what the hell has been troubling Bud as we followed him all the way across America.

The Brown Bunny, it is documented, was laughed at and booed in equal measure when it was showcased at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Film critic Roger Ebert noted that it was the worst film in the history of the festival which prompted a public war of words between himself and Gallo. The reasons were that the film was indulgent, pretentious, and contained ill-advised scenes; Gallo washing his van in real time, for example. But, believing in the film, Gallo went back to the studio and began editing it down from 126 minutes to 90, the resultant outcome finally changing Ebert’s mind. And while the film still contains many tedious scenes, they can be appreciated and be interpreted on different levels.

One of the biggest criticisms of The Brown Bunny is the amount of driving footage. For a road movie this seems a harsh complaint but, yes, much of the film does involve Gallo just driving and filming the sprawling expanses before him through a windshield blurred by bug splats and bird mess. But the footage is representative of Bud Clay’s mindset; long stretches of empty road, expanses of rough desert, bleak salt flats, and vibrant cities with neon signage rendered useless in daytime. He’s headed somewhere although he’s not quite sure where himself.

The women Clay meets along the way are, like his former girlfriend, named after flowers. There’s Violet, a young store clerk with imperfect teeth who dreams of heading to California and, when he begs her to come with him, she accepts only to be dumped at her home when he gives her five minutes to collect her stuff. Lily, who says nothing, is emotionally broken and, when Clay stops to buy a Coke, he finds himself sitting next to her and, by sharing a long kiss, they consider themselves temporarily complete. But Bud breaks it off again and drives away. And there’s Rose, a prostitute who offers him “a date”. Clay pays her to lunch with him and then drops her off. It is clear that of all the flowers he could pick, the humble Daisy is the one for him. The women bear necklaces too, their names proudly proclaimed here. It’s no mistake, then, that Daisy’s necklace should be a crucifix – this has a special significance given a certain revelation toward the end of the film.

We meet Daisy in a Californian hotel and it is here that the film’s longest scene takes place as Bud confronts Daisy about their past. A single event, many years before, resulted in Bud forming a wrong opinion about her and walking away from her and it is this that he is coming to terms with. As their meeting devolves to a sexual encounter, it is given metaphorical status by Daisy’s questions and Bud’s responses: she asks to turn out the lights, to which he refuses; she asks to go under the covers, again he refuses. These refusals are Bud’s attempts to face up to the time he walked away from Daisy and, by keeping her in the open he shows that he wants to confront his demon past.

A second instance of a brown bunny appears during their dialogue when Daisy refers to a time when Bud bought her a chocolate bunny upon which she made herself sick. He loved her so much that he kissed her anyway. This event, even just in passing, is representative of Bud’s feelings toward Daisy and explains why he abandons all the other women that he meets: he loves Daisy too much. But when it comes to the titular brown bunny, it is Bud Clay. When he is on the motorcycle track, he is going round and round, and this applies to his life with (or rather, without) Daisy. His mind is going emotionally in circles, always coming close to being resolved but never finding resolution, an event foreshadowed in the opening scene where, after leading the race for so long, he is pipped at the post. The film ends with him beginning his cycle again (his Daisy chain, if you will); Bud’s emotions come to a climax before resuming their troubling crescendo, just like Daisy’s rabbit coming to the end of its life and being mysteriously replenished.

The Brown Bunny is a slow and tedious journey along one of the cycles of Bud Clay’s life and does most of its speaking through its imagery. The characters rarely talk, making their words important; and the long unbroken passages of driving footage are accompanied by beautiful Americana providing an excellent soundtrack to Clay’s bleak mind.

Credit is due to Gallo for not talking down to his audience – although the perverts who take little interest in the meaning may need such condescension – and little explanation is needed. There are cause and effect scenes: you see the cause, you see the effect, but you don’t see the middle-ground, which forces you to make the leap between scenes that more popular fare may save you the brain strain of. This is great, although it means Gallo has more opportunity to regale you with footage of empty America. He even finds time to show us how to fill up his van with fuel. Riveting stuff!

After over an hour of travelling across America with intermittent stop offs, The Brown Bunny needed something to take it beyond the experiment in mood that it is. This, of course, takes shape in a twist which I shall not reveal, and, as stated before, some explicit sexual action. The “action” involves Sevigny fellating Gallo, which is probably why Kirsten Dunst and Winona Ryder had refused the role before Gallo’s former girlfriend Sevigny, herself no stranger to controversial roles, took it – and him, so to speak – on. Some cynics would say that Gallo just wanted a blowjob on screen, given that he wrote the movie. The scene is certainly not easy to watch as Clay, via Daisy, berates himself while trying to confront his motives for walking away from her all those years before. Whether the decision not to simulate the act was necessary is open to discussion but without it the scene would certainly be weaker.

The acting in the film is great and understated, Gallo’s character reduced to moments of desperation which you can really feel as his voice changes from being sort-of sure of himself to out and out begging and whining. Sevigny puts in an excellent albeit brief performance as Daisy. Other fringe actors are convincing enough, some are downright mysterious and play their roles and make them delightfully opaque so that you are left to ponder their stories. Does Daisy’s mother, for example, really not know who Bud is, or is she blocking him from her memory?

The camerawork is mostly on handheld cameras, gifting the images a certain grain that offers an almost sense of timelessness. There are many close-ups of Bud and these allude to Bud’s inability to see his complete self. And the film is shot through with disturbing silences and industrial soundscapes worthy of Lynch’s Eraserhead.

All in all, Gallo’s The Brown Bunny will not to be the taste of many. It has few events, has scenes that drag on longer than necessary, contains little dialogue, and shows far too much of the American countryside. But its strength is that the film isn’t about all these things; instead it’s about one man’s need for redemption, his search for a release that can never come and haunts his life. And everything, no matter how tedious it appears on the surface level, has a greater calling in the telling so that you can’t view the film literally without thinking of it in a metaphorical sense - unless you are one of the perverts who just wants to see what a blowjob is like and couldn’t care less about its meaning.

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Lilya 4-Ever

Posted : 16 years, 7 months ago on 24 February 2007 01:43 (A review of Lilya 4-Ever )

Lukas Moodysson's third feature, Lilya 4-Ever (2002), moves the setting of his previous two (Fucking Åmål and Together) away from Sweden and into an unwelcoming estate somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Here, where people struggle to make ends meet, young Lilya is excited to learn that she'll be leaving such a miserable life behind and emigrating to the United States with her mother, who has met a Russian man resident there through a dating agency. But the dream of America is temporarily put on hold as her mother, with the new partner at her side, sits her down and informs her that they will be going on ahead and will send for her.

Thus begins a series of betrayals for Lilya who, after a lengthy period, soon realises that her mother no longer cares for her. As if her own mother wasn't enough, Aunt Anna, her new guardian, moves her into a new dingy apartment - where an elderly war hero has recently died - while exercising an ulterior motive. And finally, when the father of Natasha, Lilya's friend, finds a sum of money that his daughter made through prostituting herself, Lilya is quick to receive the blame, an accusation that leads to the small society she moves within fully ostracising her. Once the stories have spread through the school grapevine a gang of older boys break into her apartment and rape her. Throughout the ever worsening events, her only friend is the similarly outcast Volodya, a boy two years her junior who is physically abused by his alcoholic father. With no money coming in and a need to make ends meet, Lilya herself turns to prostitution.

Then, just as the story is getting incredibly bleak a ray of hope arrives in the form of Andrei. Andrei is a bit of a rich kid who works in Sweden and, after a couple of dates, he asks her to come and live with him. His boss, he acklnowledges, can get her a job. Volodya warns her against the move but Lilya's young and naïve and, given the day to day surroundings, she accepts. And when Andrei secures her a passport for the journey his grandmother comes down with an illness to which he needs to respond to by visiting her. She shouldn't worry, however - she can go on ahead as his boss will pick her up. From there, Lilya's life just gets worse.

While the film is relentless in the harsh realities it deals Lilya, there are optimistic glimmers within. Not many, and they are not overly explciit. Lilya and Volodya talk about their impressions of Heaven, an image of the Virgin Mary hangs on Lilya's wall (to which she goes when she needs strength), and, in a dream, Volodya visits Lilya in Sweden and offers her the world for Christmas.

The acting throughout is superb. The emotion on Lilya's face when her mother leaves for America, in particular, is heart wrenching. The performance of the actors is incredibly natural and there are obvious improvisations within that help make it even more realistic. Even amongst the minor players you can't help but buy in to their portrayals, whether it be the Lilya's friends and family, her pimp, or the numerous johns.

Lilya 4-Ever is not the sort of film designed to entertain but carries a political message intended to open discussion on the subject of trafficking children for prostitution. Thankfully it's not preachy with its message and instead gets it across with a story blessed with strong characters and the ability to innocently pull at heart strings. And while you sympathise with the plight of Lilya, it's sobering to realise just how tough it can be for all the girls out there for whom this sort of life is not fiction.

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The Vanishing

Posted : 16 years, 10 months ago on 18 November 2006 12:58 (A review of The Vanishing)

Not many books can claim to have been filmed on more than one occasion although as Hollywood becomes more of a recycling plant than a hotbed of imagination that will soon go out the window. Published in 1984 as Het Gouden Ei (The Golden Eye), Tim Krabbé's short psychological thriller was filmed in 1988 as the brilliant Spoorloos, which suffered that greatest indignity of cinema in 1991: the American remake.

Rex and Saskia are in love. Very much so. And one day, while driving through Europe, they stop at a petrol station in France. Saskia, offering to drive the next leg of their journey to Nuits-St-George heads into the shop to get Rex a beer. She doesn't come back. Just vanishes.

Eight years later and Rex is in love with Lieneke, is pondering making her his bride, but he can't let go of Saskia. If she was to come to him now he would go with Lieneke. But it's the not knowing that continues to haunt him. Then, one day, a man arrives and offers Rex the chance to find out what happened to his former love.

Having seen both movie adaptations I was already aware how this novella was going to conclude (although the US remake had a different ending; or, more specific, had an extra ten/fifteen minutes tacked on; the same director though) but, given my love for the idea, that wasn't going to stop me. The idea itself (girl gets kidnapped, lover mourns) isn't all that original; it's the clinical calculation of the kidnapper, a man called Raymond Lemorne, that makes it worthwhile. His journey to test himself as an angel of death (in opposition to his capacity as hero years before in a river rescue) is what makes the book. The decisions he makes, the planning, the revelations, the planting of alibis, etc. all combine to make him the real star of the book.

The language, however, is crap. It's good and punchy in that thriller way, but the translation isn't all that good: it's full of incorrect words (Rex calls Saskia his wife despite their lack of marriage) and is littered with exclamation marks. In the narrative! According to Wikipedia the book was translated in 1993 (Random House) and again in 2003 (Bloomsbury). If the translation of the Bloomsbury is anything to go by, the 1993 edition is either really shoddy or definitive.

The characters suffer from that bane of most thrillers: lack of development. In The Vanishing plot is king. For a 115 page novella more could have been made of Rex's grief, the mysterious Lemorne, and the triangle between Rex, Lieneke, and the missing Saski to merit this being an interesting novel.

Overall, though, I'm letting my love of the story cloud my judgement. It's a great story with a horrific denouement. I would recommend the original Dutch move, Spoorloos, though, over the actual book.

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The God Boy

Posted : 16 years, 10 months ago on 18 November 2006 12:57 (A review of The God Boy (Penguin Modern Classics))

Were it not for my rather unnatural obsession as regards collecting all of the Penguin Classics, I may never have heard of The God Boy by New Zealand journalist, Ian Cross. Written in the late fifties, this debut novel falls somewhere between Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (which I am yet to read) and Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I believe it is hailed as a classic in his home land - in much the same way Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song is in Scotland – and forms (or at least once formed) part of the school curriculum – but don’t quote me on that.

The story is told by thirteen year old Jimmy Sullivan who is recounting the events in his life two years previous when his world changed forever. His world back then was the coastal town of Raggleton where he lived with his parents and went to Catholic school. His elder sister, Molly, lived in Wellington. Jimmy’s day to day activities include going to school, hanging around with his friends, and talking with an elderly Raggleton resident (called Bloody Jack) down by the harbour. When not embroiled in such pursuits he turns his attention to the question of God.

Jimmy has a problem with God. While the sisters at school feed him all the usual nonsense, his interpretation is that God is a literal being. And, when he is told that God frowns upon bad behaviour by punishing those that sin, Jimmy believes that he is being reprimanded from up on high when the family life around him begins to disintegrate. His father’s a drunk, his mother has a secret abortion, and their disdain for each other grows throughout the novel. Jimmy, always thinking he is to blame, attributes their arguments to the new bike he begged for and received and even offers to give it back if that will stop the trouble.

Aside from such innocence, Jimmy has some methods for dealing with the strife in his household. He calls them his ‘protection tricks’ and whenever his parents devolve into quarrel he finds solace in singing songs and plunging his hands into scalding hot water. His confusion around Catholic ritual is typically shown here in that, while he doesn’t care for all that religious stuff, his songs sometimes include the Hail Mary.

All through The God Boy, Jimmy’s anger grows until one day he lashes out at God and finds a new mean streak (swearing at an old lady, throwing stones at a friend, smashing a window) which, when the novel’s end comes around, Jimmy believes is what he is being punished for until he realises that he is not to blame – he’s made all the effort and God hasn’t even lifted a finger.

Like Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the narration by a child makes for interesting reading as you are forced to interpret what you are being told. Jimmy, of course, doesn’t know what an abortion is but by reading the clues as he describes the scene (early in the novel) you get the gist of what is happening. His monologue is punctuated with local phrases that emphasise the setting and the inclusion of a few American phrases hint that Raggleton – at its remotest – is not safe from outside influence.

Overall, The God Boy is an enjoyable portrait of a family falling apart through a young boy’s eyes and for all his protests about how he doesn’t care there is emotion within that allow you to see past his objections. I don’t think it’s as engaging as Doyle’s Booker winner but its nevertheless a good enough quick read.

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Beasts Of No Nation

Posted : 16 years, 10 months ago on 18 November 2006 12:54 (A review of Beasts of No Nation)

Trying out a debutante author can be a huge step into the unknown but, with praise from Rushdie, Ghosh, and a number of British broadsheets adorning the cover, it’s a step I decided to take with Beasts Of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala, an unsentimental study of war through the eyes of a child soldier. And it doesn’t disappoint, providing a detailed series of events that add background to the stories of civil war in Africa that we often see in the news, although its arching tale of chilling conflicts and unspeakable acts is somewhat let down by a somewhat fortunate conclusion - for the character, that is, and not the reader.

Agu, our narrator, tells us not where he is from or how old he is but begins by giving an account of how he became a soldier when his village was raided and he ran from the scene into the clutches of a band of rebels. Then, before he knows it he is following the command of two men (early twenties, at most) called Commandant and Luftenant as they lead their band of boy soldiers across the nation for the cause.

The cause itself is never mentioned; Agu doesn’t actually know what he is fighting for. He is only able to differentiate between the time before war came (which becomes more and more a faded memory) and now. But, to aid the cause, Agu’s troop find themselves killing at random, raping women, burning villages to the ground, and stealing. Beasts Of No Nation is a catalogue of man’s inhumanity to man in the time of war and its lists expands to include prostitution, cannibalism, and child sexual abuse. While never explicit in his description, it’s the suggestion of these acts, as described by Agu, that resonate.

As a soldier, Agu doesn’t know what he is meant to be doing. In fact, the only soldiers who seem to have a clue are Commandant and Luftenant:

"Commandant is yelling, TENSHUN and I am seeing that now all of us is standing here and all of us is forming tenshun very quickly. Then, Commandant is saying to us that we should be behaving ourself and looking sharp and resting well well that we will be knowing what is happening in some time. Everybody is listening, but nobody is really understanding what he is saying about moving to the front and fighting the enemy in this place or that place because I am never seeing this place or that place for my whole life. Anyway, it is not mattering too much because I am just following order and not having to do anything else. After he is shouting on us like this, he is telling us to dismiss and make camp."

Rather than be soldiers, the kids are more interested in looking like soldiers. They carry guns or machetes and wear uniforms to show status. Uniforms, itself, becomes a loose term since any clothing they can find – soldier, policeman, etc. – is taken from the dead and wore with pride.

As you can tell from the quote above, Agu’s narration is given authenticity by mixing tenses, incorrect use of plural and singular terms,. The effect, at times, can be poetic and his voice assumes a wonderful rhythm. There were a couple of times where I had to read the sentence again to work out what had just been said. My only criticism of using this style is that Agu has a limited vocabulary and I noticed him using the same similes (like bullets; like ants) on multiple occasions. Fair enough, given that it’s the character’s voice, but it felt like the narrative could achieve more with some extra vocabulary.

If I was to have any major criticism of Beasts Of No Nation it is that Agu is surplus to requirements within his own narrative. The conclusion of the novel (or, at least, the penultimate conclusion) is perpetrated by another character which renders Agu as observer and not master of his own destiny which one would hope for in a character study.

Of the aforementioned reviews on the cover of the book, the one that rings true most is Rushdie’s, when he says “this guy is going to be very, very good”. It’s a good little novel, it shows some truth about conflicts we rarely think of when war is mentioned, and gives a voice to the images of child soldiers splashed occasionally on the news; but it’s not quite perfect.

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The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Posted : 16 years, 10 months ago on 18 November 2006 12:52 (A review of The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Penguin Red Classics))

Beginning, as it does, with the death of Ivan Ilyich, you wouldn't think there was much left to say but Leo Tolstoy's novella, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, then winds the narrative back to an earlier part of the character's life and lets it unravel from there.

Ivan Ilyich is a high court judge with a wife and family who takes a fall one day whilst hanging curtains, and from there a curious illness befalls him that no amount of doctors can properly diagnose. All they are in mutual agreement of is that his condition is terminal, although they prefer not to tell him this and insist that their treatments will one day have him walking again. The diagnosis forces Ilyich to consider his own mortality and to understand why he should die:

"In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it."

The novella, after the announcement of Ilyich's death, returns to his earlier years and follows him from his youth to deathbed as he appraises all that he has done and who he has become - a man for whom his family plays second fiddle to his career, a man who believes himself always to be right.

After a time, the novella spends more time looking at Ilyich's malady and its effect on his life. He goes from being an active man to one reduced to lying on a sofa, soothed only by the imbibing of opium and the purity of his servant, Gerasim, who seems to be the only one that truly cares for him. And from their he wonders what he has done in his life to deserve such suffering, why he should die. His understanding of mortality is severely misunderstood:

"All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter's logic - Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal - had always seemed to him to be true only when it applied to Caesar."

Tolstoy's prose (at least in translation) is quick paced; the philosophical statements are made, but not dwelled on more than need be. The narrative, however, did feel too light for me in that it was more a catalogue of events which never truly allowed me into the scene, to get to know the characters better. That said, it felt like the characters were secondary to the ultimate point of the novella: a meditation on death. On the nature of death.

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich bears much in common with Philip Roth's latest novel, Everyman, in that it's a study of ailments leading to death for the main character. I much preferred Roth's treatment (perhaps because it lingered more the characters) but can appreciate Tolstoy's obvious inspiration, and wish I'd now read them in reverse order. But overall, a worthwhile read, which leaves you like Ivan Ilyich: asking questions you can't answer

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Tamburlaine Must Die

Posted : 16 years, 10 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:40 (A review of Tamburlaine Must Die)

I read Welsh's first release, The Cutting Room, when the paperback was released and I read it during a day off work. Looking back, I wish I'd went to work but my memories of the book were that it was dull. The only interesting part, for me, was Glasgow and being able to comment on places I knew. I don't even remember the ending or how it came about; it just happened and thought along the lines of "Whatever, almost done now!"

So, given that it was a first work, I decided to try her second, the historical novella called Tamburlaine Must Die. Here's the blurb from the inside cover:

1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it's a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge.

Playwright, poet and spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of his most violent play...

Tamburlaine Must De is the swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy both God and State - and discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

From that you would think it was a fun bit of historical fiction rife with twists and turns, dark moments, and something to say on the topics of religion, the state, crime, and the black arts. Instead it's a fast paced dirge bereft of anything resembling excitement or content. But, just to shock you, it has a bit of gratuitous homosexual sex to kick off the proceedings.

Whatever Welsh's intentions were with this novella, they were most certainly not achieved. She sets the story in London, a city for which authors down the years have shown us all the nooks and crannies, but the pages are lifeless. London, who should be a character in herself, comes across as a sleepy hamlet. The novella hints at issues such as religion and politics but they are mostly background mentions, tangential to the story of Marlowe that this book deals with. And, finally, the characters, including the narrator, are lack-lustre, each one failing to leap out of the page which is hardly the stuff of a self-proclaimed swashbuckler. At the very least it could have looked deeper into the Marlowe history rather than seem like a below par version of German film, Run Lola Run, reduced to one act.

The problem with Welsh's writing in Tamburlaine Must Die is that she seems to rely too heavily on nouns to create pictures. So, rather than waste paper by building up an atmosphere in a dusty bookshop, for example, she just lists books and other curiosities: ballads, woodcuts, poems, romances, prayer books, etc. Despite all the people in the bookshop, there is no life in any of them.

All in all, it's just a dull book with little to say on anything, even when it comes to speculation on the Marlowe myth.

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