Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

"But history isn't the paper its printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the things that stay with you"

One of the benefits of reorganising that towering stack of books beside your bed is to rediscover that 'must-read' novel that you just haven't found the time to dive into. That's exactly why, last week,  I ended up promoting The Sellout to the very top of the stack.

I first picked up a copy of Paul Beatty's novel just when it was announced as winner of the Man Booker Prize earlier last year. I remember being surprised that this American satire actually won the award (I was a huge fan of David Szalay's All That Man Is) and reading reviews afterwards it was clearly a divisive work but a number of friends convinced me it was worth a read.

The Sellout is not an easy going novel and there are a number of elements that are potentially off putting when you first dive in. Firstly the prose is pretty stream of consciousness style which means long passages of rambling and ranting with little in the way of a break. This is fine if you're following but, and here comes the second problem, much of the story hinges on the reader having a good knowledge of US politics and history as well as a healthy awareness of LA's idiosyncrasies. I'm not expert in any of this and I'm pretty sure that much of the novel's nuance was a little lost for me. That said, I'm much better for taking the leap of faith to just let Paul Beatty's prose settle and find its own meaning in my head; "Exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainstream acceptance over self-respect and morality".

The novel follows the narrator, known only as 'Me', and his attempt following the death of his father to reinstate the area in which he grew up on to the map of LA. The small town of Dickens was initially swallowed up by urban sprawl before completely disappearing from the city map. Paul Beatty uses Me's one man crusade to satirise post-racial era America; first in a newly segregated school and later when he picks up a slave.

Me's endeavour ultimately leads him to the Supreme Court which brilliantly provides Beatty with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to US society. This is powerful, no holds barred writing which is deeply shocking in parts. Beatty's bravery and willingness to tackle such raw issues through satire is clever, possibly too clever for some which is precisely why this novel has proven to be so divisive. For me, this is a novel I won't forget reading. I'm now working on a rotation system to ensure books like this don't languish at the bottom of my reading stack again.

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty published by OneWorld, 306 pages.     

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

"Fear of the consequences of what I had done lay like a rock in my chest, blocking my breathing and making me gasp for air, even when I was standing still"

In a recent blog post I wrote about the idea of 'place-making' and the spirit of a town or country that can be created through fiction. Having just read Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson I was struck by the way the novel skilfully captured the essence of Keflavik, a idiosyncratic town in a relatively exposed part of Iceland. Wolves in the Dark is a similar novel in this respect.

Gunnar Staalesen is one of Norway's most prolific writers having sold over 2 million copies of his crime thrillers featuring private investigator Varg Veum. So popular is Staalesen's lead character that a life sized stature of Veum was recently unveiled in Bergen. Although there are any number of previous novels published in the series this was my first encounter with Staalesen's writing, thank you Orenda Books for the advance copy.

Wolves in the Dark begins with Varg Veum in a desperate state. Following the death of his girlfriend his life has spiralled into a dark alcohol soaked hole that he can't bring himself out of. That is at least until he is arrested after child pornography is found on his hard drive. So begins a fast paced and desperate chase to clear his name and uncover the truth about who has set him up. Old wounds are prised open as he pours over earlier cases to find clues. This is a PI with a complex history and with connections to people all over Bergen, Staaleson leverages his extensive back catalogue expertly.

As the narrative storms through the streets of Bergen we are taken on a whirlwind tour from the Hanseatic wooden houses of Bryggen to functional civic buildings from the 1970s with forensic detail. No detail is left out by Stallenson who casts his lead character against an iconic literary version of Bergen that will resonate with any fan of Scandi-noir.

Wolves in the Dark is a great genre piece that no crime writing fan should miss!

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalensen published by Orenda, 240 pages.     

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Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

"We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of the print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories"

I've read (and reviewed) a fair few of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years, most recently Hagseed a reimagining of The Tempest and the near future tale The Heart Goes Last but as for Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale our paths just hadn't crossed.

That was, of course, until the media hype surrounding the TV adaptation began invading my social feeds. As news spread of the imminent series from the office to the pub I was asked numerous times what the story was about; "you've obviously read the book?" I kept hearing. It would have been easy to lie but the fact is I have gaping holes in my library, so I asked myself  - isn't it time I started to fix them?

So first up I was determined to make good on my Atwood shaped omission and picked up a copy of The Handmaid's Tale just as it hit the bestsellers list not for the first time since its original release back in 1985.

Atwood has a distinct talent for creating near future worlds and communities through which to challenge humanity today with great storytelling. The Handmaid's Tale is daring and ambitious in its setting of a totalitarian New England society governed by radical extremists managing a fertility crisis.  It is these very themes that are resonating even more in the new millennia; "a rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze".  But that is not to suggest that this is in any way a thesis or academic essay, The Handmaid's Tale is a story about a group of women, and one in particular, who are brave enough to survive and overcome physical adversity and brutality.

Much has been written about Atwood's as a feminist writer but for me that it is reduce the work unnecessarily to a particular sub-genre. For me The Handmaid's Tale is a gripping piece of science fiction with a profound social message throughout. In flashbacks we learn of life before the revolution with typical Atwood poignancy; "We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were so happy".

What is so interesting is the hype surrounding the adaptation. Having now read the book and begun to watch the series what strikes me is the need to hold and covet the book as you watch the TV show. The additional plot lines created for the 10+ hours long show will delve much further into the world Atwood created but the show can never fully capture the eloquent prose Atwood committed to paper 30 years ago. The book and the TV adaptation go hand in hand. 

I read this novel mostly on the train into Marylebone.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood published by Vintage, 324 pages.     

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