Monday, November 29, 2010

2,593: 1,001 Book Challenge - The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

This is, without a doubt, a nasty, twisted little book.  The central character, Frank, is an amoral sociopath whose main pastime involves torturing and killing animals, on top of which he has murdered three times before reaching his teens.  Yet, he isn’t even the most unpleasant person we meet in this book.  Frank’s father is a misanthropic control freak and his brother is a lunatic dog-killer who is confined in a psychiatric hospital.

To be fair, Frank is strange because of an “incident” that has made him a loner, kept apart from the world by his father and scared to venture into town often.  Frank’s brother, Eric, is also scarred by accident.  His insanity was triggered by an horrific incident whilst studying to become a doctor.

At the beginning of the book, none of this is made clear.  Gradually, all is revealed by Frank, acting as narrator.  We find out what Frank did to his three human victims, what he has done to the local wildlife, what happened to Eric, what the Wasp Factory actually is and, eventually, why Frank’s father keeps his study door locked.  The answer to this leads us, at the very end, to the devastating truth about Frank.

The Wasp Factory was Iain Banks’ first novel and is a stunning debut.  It is no surprise that he has gone on to be one of the UK’s leading novelists (as well as a first class SF novelist, under the nom de plume of Iain M. Banks – see what he did there?).  Although the language and imagery are gory and full of violence and the characters are unpleasant and unstable, there is a thick thread of humour running through the book, lifting the story and stopping it from being a pure gothic horror.  The way in which he slowly divulges the secrets of the plot is skilful and leads us from feeling revulsion for Frank to liking him.  The ending is shocking and unexpected and has the effect of totally changing our perceptions of the book.

Banks not only uses the gradual explanatory style of Frank to tell his story, he also uses the books to explore themes of parental control and deception (Frank's father at one point convinces him that fellatio is a character in Hamlet) and the way rituals act as a crutch for belief.

When the Wasp Factory was first published, the reviewers were divided.  Some thought it was the debut of a wonderfully talented writer, while others thought it was just a nasty gore-fest.  In truth (and with the inestimable benefit of hindsight), it is actually both.

The Wasp Factory is not the novel to give your aged Auntie Ethel for Christmas.  Even though I have read other books by Iain Banks (with and without the additional “M”) and know that he is a deeply imaginative writer, I did find myself wondering about the state of his mental health.  If you have a tolerance for gore, violence and madness, however, it is a great contemporary novel.  I had always shied away from it in the past, thinking it would be too grim for me.  I am thoroughly glad that the 1,001 Books made me try it.  Read it, if for nothing else than the twist in its tale – simply fantastic.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

2,594: 1,001 Book Challenge - Broken April by Ismail Kadare

There used to be an old parlour game called Famous Belgians, which, as the name suggests, entailed naming as many famous Belgians as you could think of.  For most people, this resulted in a list comprising Eddie Merckx, Tintin and Hercule Poirot, of whom the latter two are, unfortunately, fictional.  The more literate might also come up with Hergé and Georges Simenon and the more artistic could usually win by adding Magritte and Rubens to the mix.  The whole, highly amusing point was that there aren’t many famous Belgians.  Now, this is obviously a complete slander, as demonstrated by the excellent website  I kid you not.

Anyway, I have now devised a sequel game:  Famous Albanians.  I can list the famous Albanians I know of on the fingers of, well, one hand:  Enver Hoxha, Mother Teresa and King Zog.  If you stretch the rules of the game to permit persons of Albanian descent, then you can add in John and James Belushi.  Apparently, Kara Dioguardi and Antonio Gramsci could also count on this basis but I found that out on the Web and so can’t count them in my total.  But, I now have another famous Albanian, Ismail Kadare.

Kadare was the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and has also been a Nobel Prize candidate several times.  Until I read Broken April, I had never heard of him but now, having read Broken April, he shoots to the top of my list of famous Albanians.

The main plotline of Broken April revolves around one Gjorg Berisha, a young man entangled in the intricate web of blood feuds that spreads throughout the High Plateau of rural Albania.  These feuds are governed and determined by the law of the Kanun, a detailed and complex set of traditional customary Albanian laws that sits outside the official law of Albania but is still followed in some parts of the country.  When his brother is murdered, Gjorg is compelled to join in the blood feud that exists between his family and the Kryeqyqe family.  He, in turn, murders a male member of that family and is condemned to be killed in revenge.  Under the Kanun, he is entitled to 30 days grace before he may be killed, a period that ends in the middle of April.

Entwined in this plotline is the story of Bessian and Diana Vorpsi, a newly-wed couple from Tirana.  Bessian is a writer and intellectual who has written about the Kanun and who has dragged Diana to the High Plateau on their honeymoon. The Vorpsis encounter Gjorg at an inn and Diana becomes obsessed by him and distanced from her husband.  Their honeymoon changes Diana and their relationship forever.

Broken April is a beautiful piece of writing.  Kadare creates an almost dream-like atmosphere around the High Plateau and makes it a place where the modern world is unable to destry the traditional way of life, regardless of how damaging it is.  As the two stories draw, inevitably, to their climax, the deceptively simple writing drew me in and kept me hooked until the end.  I would unhesitatingly recommend it and even more so, now I know that the Kanun  is a real set of laws and has made a comeback in Northern Albania since the fall of Hoxha.

Two final thoughts:  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the USA and did you know that Audrey Hepburn was, in fact, Belgian?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2,595: Banned Book Challenge - Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I have been suffering from a certain amount of blog ennui  recently.  My list of books to blog about  is growing inexorably , yet my will to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) has about as much strength as Gillian McKeith facing yet another bushtucker trial.  I don’t know whether this is a permanent problem or just a temporary blip – I’m hoping it’s the latter.  It’s probably not been helped by the fact that I have been quite busy, both at work and domestically, which has given my tendency to procrastinate ample scope to operate.

I actually have an alternative theory to explain my malaise.  I’m a little reluctant to give it an airing because it would appear it puts me in a distinct minority in the book world.  I am coming to believe that my “bloggers block” may be caused by the fact that I didn’t enjoy Fahrenheit 451 and am struggling to find anything interesting (or even uninteresting) to say about it.

I know it’s a modern classic.  I know it’s one of the great dystopian works.  I’m more than happy to agree that the central conceit of firemen causing fires by burning books is clever and that it raises important questions about the dumbing down of society and the ability of government to close down sources of dissent if the general population begins to lose its will to object.   And yet..........

I just didn’t enjoy it.  It didn’t hold my attention.  I didn’t find Guy Montag to be a sympathetic character.  The revelation that he has been stealing books for a year is a bit awkward too.  Why would he have been stealing them if he hadn’t wanted to read them?  And if he had, why is such a big issue made of his theft of the single book from the old woman whose house he and his team burn?

In general, although there were some well-drawn scenes, I found the plot to be more of a vehicle for his ideas and images, as opposed to a coherent and developed story.  Many of the characters were one-dimensional and, all in all, it won’t be a book I return to.

I know many people love the book.  I know it has remained in print since its first publication and that it has caused huge controversy as well as being an icon for campaigners against censorship.  I’m sorry.  I wish I’d liked it.  I wish I had been more impressed by it.  I didn’t and I wasn’t.  I’m sure it’s more a reflection on me but Fahrenheit 451 and I just didn’t gel.

Even the title irritated me.  Book paper burns at around 450 degrees Centigrade, not 451 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A shocking fact

Mini-Falaise loves to read.  Obviously, as she’s only 2, she can’t actually read but she is very content to sit on her little stool with a book, turning the pages and saying words that she has heard me or Mrs Falaise use, whilst reading it to her.  She also adores having stories read to her.  No matter what time of day, a suggestion of a story will almost always find favour with her and she is extremely adept at conning persuading me to let her have “just one more” book before bed.  Her book collection is also regularly augmented with new purchases by us or by her grand-parents.

I’ve always taken this kind of thing for granted.  I have been a bookworm since my very early days and have had to deal with the thorny “too many books, not enough space” dilemma more times than I care to remember.  I’ve always assumed that everyone reads, even if it is just the newspaper, and especially that every child reads or has stories read to them.  So I was shocked and upset to read on the Times’ School Gate blog* yesterday about some new research carried out by the National Literacy Trust.

According to their recent report, more children in the UK own a mobile phone than a book.  Yes, you read that right.  The NLT surveyed over 17,000 children between the ages of 8 and 16 and found that 86% owned a mobile phone, whilst only 74% owned a book.  Assuming these figures can be extrapolated, that would mean that 1 in every 4 children in the United Kingdom do not own a single book.  The report went on to conclude that children who owned books tended to be better at reading than those who didn’t.  Although that is probably a bit of a “No sh*t, Sherlock!” statement, it bears thinking about, especially as many of the non-book owning children are amongst the most disadvantaged of the population.  I’m not ashamed to say that I felt the odd tear pricking my eyes when I read this.

Not coincidentally, the NLT has just launched a Christmas appeal to provide books to children in disadvantaged communities in the UK this Christmas.  A donation of just £7 will allow a child to choose a book of their own, possibly the first they have ever owned.  When I think of the pleasure I had as a child, opening and reading a new book and when I feel the joy of reading a book with mini-Falaise snuggled up in my lap, my heart aches in the knowledge that so many children do not get to experience this.  I have un-padlocked my wallet and donated to this excellent scheme and it would be wonderful if you could do so too.  I am sure any amount, no matter how large or small, would be gratefully received by the NLT. If you like to donate or to find out more about the scheme and the NLT, please click here.

* I would post a link to the blog but the Times paywall would block you, unless you have paid, so I haven’t bothered.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

2,596: The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley

Apparently, everyone over the age of 50 or so can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  My parents certainly can.  They can also remember where they were when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind.  If you are at all interested, my mother had got me up for a feed at 3 a.m. or so and was winding me at that precise moment.

I’m unfortunately not so good at remembering where I was when important world events were taking place.  Fall of the Berlin Wall? Not a clue.  Resignation of Margaret Thatcher?  Can’t help you there.  Release of Nelson Mandela?  Sorry.  Collapse of Lehman Brothers?  Nope (although, to be fair, I had only become a father two weeks earlier and wasn’t really firing on all cylinders.).  In fact, off the top of my head, I can remember where I was when I heard that the Princess of Wales had been killed, the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 bombings and the Heysel Stadium tragedy but not much else readily springs to mind.

I do, however, vividly remember the morning of Friday 2 May 1997.  It was a bright sunny day in London, with a cloudless blue sky.  Walking to my bus stop on the King’s Road to go to work, the air smelled unusually fresh and even the buildings looked less grimy than normal.  The previous day’s General Election had seen the ousting of the Conservative government after 18 years of uninterrupted rule and the election of New Labour and, in particular, an energetic young Prime Minister called Tony Blair.  Overnight, it seemed that the sleaze, arrogance and general unpleasantness of John Major’s government had been washed away.  Tony and his friend and Chancellor, Gordon Brown, promised to govern honestly and openly, for all of us and not just a particular class or interest group.  There would be an end to political scandal.  There was hope in the air.

Fast forward 13 years, almost exactly.  That hope had long died, killed off by a succession of scandals, wars and failures.  Tony had gone off to make his fortune, pushed by Gordon and his friends.  Gordon was holed up in 10 Downing Street, refusing to concede defeat until Nick Clegg ruled out a deal with him.  The country was on its knees economically and the good times of the previous decade were revealed to have been an illusion, created by a debt-binge of unimaginable proportions.  So what the hell happened and where did it all go wrong?

Andrew Rawnsley, one of the UK’s leading political journalists, may not have all the answers but his retelling of the New Labour story certainly gives some pretty big hints.  The End of the Party is the follow-up to his first book on New Labour, Servants of the People, which tells the story of New Labour from its beginnings up to the end of its first term in power.

The End of the Party continues the story from the beginning of Blair’s second term right up to the point where Gordon Brown goes to Buckingham Palace to tender his resignation to the Queen.  It is a fast-moving narrative which does not pause for analysis or deep thought but concentrates on telling the story.  At times, it reads like a thriller with dramatic prose and plenty of action.  Rawnsley conducted hundreds of interviews with both key players and less important figures in British politics during the past 15 years.  There are fruity quotes aplenty and some devastating character portraits, especially of Gordon Brown, here shown as a raging bully, driven mad by ambition.

The book is not perfect.  There are many references to anonymous sources, which weakens the book’s authority.  Rawnsley seems also to be incapable of refraining from inserting himself into the narrative, either by quoting himself or making references to his own articles as evidence of the truth of his later observations.  There is also the impression of imbalance, caused by the unequal treatment he gives to the dramatis personae.  For example, the extra marital shenanigans of Messrs Blunkett and Prescott are given a good old airing, while the nasty decision of Tessa Jowell to jettison her husband out of political expediency is skimmed over.  Finally, much of the story is told through the medium of recreating scenes, including quotes that the author could not have been party to.  Although making for a good read, many of these quotes can’t possibly be accurate and, even if they reflect what the subject actually said, they detract from the credibility of the book.  This is only highlighted by the fact that almost all of the actors appear to speak in exactly the same way.

The book weaves several main narrative threads together.  There is the story of the transformation of Tony Blair from a man obsessed by public opinion into a conviction politician, seemingly convinced that public opprobrium was the sign of being correct.  There is the story of the “psychologically flawed” Gordon Brown, tortured by his desire to be Prime Minister yet too timorous to drive Blair out of office.  Finally, there is the story of the ongoing battle for prestige and power between Blair, Brown and their respective teams, reminiscent of gang warfare or a political version of the Montagues and Capulets. 

When the End of the Party was first published, much was made of its characterisation of Gordon Brown as a crazed, megalomaniac bully, surrounded by piles of half-eaten bananas  but, in truth, the real revelation was the shadow of madness that lurked behind many of New Labour’s key courtiers.  From Alistair Campbell’s manic depression to Mandelson’s narcissism, from the deranged brutality of Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan to Cherie Blair’s seeming detachment from common sense, most of the key New Labour figures appear to have been at least slightly disturbed.  I don’t know if this is common to successful politicians (or maybe even a pre-requisite!) but it was faintly unsettling to read about the psycho-dramas and delusions at the top of British government.  Indeed, the most incredible thing of all is that the Labour government managed to do so much, whilst apparently spending most of their time engaged in power struggles, briefing the media against each other and just plain fighting and squabbling.

Although it is only 6 months since the fall of Labour, there is already a substantial body of literature on the period.  The End of the Party is, without a doubt, one of the best of these.  There will be more complex pieces of analysis in due course but when future historians come to consider this period in Great Britain’s history, they will be using this book as source material.  I would strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in British politics.

Incidentally, what are your “where were you when” events?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

2,597: the Heredity of Taste by Soseki Natsume

On 8 February 1904, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the Imperial Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur in South East Manchuria.  In a foreshadowing of the events of December 1941, the Japanese government failed formally to declare war on Russia until several hours after the commencement of hostilities.  By the time the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in September 1905, ending the war, two of the three main Russian naval fleets had been destroyed and the Imperial Japanese Army, led by General Nogi, had captured Port Arthur.  80,000 Japanese and 43,000 Russians lost their lives during the war, which saw the use of the mass human wave attack tactics that became the hallmark of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.

The conclusion of the war gave rise to mixed feelings in Japan.  There was pride that one of the great European powers had been defeated and that Japan was now recognised as a Great Power.  However, there was also anger at the number of casualties, which was compounded by the belief that Japan’s negotiators had failed to secure adequate concessions in the Treaty of Portsmouth.  In particular, Japan had not been granted territory and had been refused the payment of financial reparations when President Roosevelt had supported the Tsar’s objections to this.  These feelings of mixed pride, anger and humiliation were to colour the country’s foreign policy for decades to come and were significant factors in Japanese expansionism in East Asia in the 1930s and the subsequent War in the Pacific during the Second World War.

This is the background against which the Heredity of Taste is set.  Described as Soseki’s only anti-war novel, it tells the story of the narrator’s reactions to the death of his friend Ko-san, a junior officer in the Japanese Army, who is killed during a human wave attack on a Russian fort in Manchuria.  The story divides into two halves.  The first sets the scene, describing the death of Ko-san and witnessing the triumphal return of Japanese soldiers by train to Tokyo.  The second part changes gear and tells of how the narrator visits Ko-san’s tomb, sees a beautiful young woman laying a white chrysanthemum on it and determines to find out the identity of the young woman.

The story addresses the savagery of war and the waste of lives it causes.  The narrator has a vision at the beginning of the book where he envisages war as a pack of dogs, let loose by the gods to tear men limb of limb and to devour their flesh.  Soseki had spent two years in London, studying English literature and there is something Shakespearean about this – “Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”.  In fact, later in the Heredity of Taste, Soseki makes explicit reference to Macbeth.

He also focuses on the sheer numbers who failed to return, using a repeated image of Ko-san being unable to climb out of the ditch in which he had died throughout the story to give a sense of more and more young men who would not return.  Another recurring image is that of Soseki’s mother who, lacking even a daughter-in-law to comfort her, will be lonely and bereft for the rest of her life.

For Soseki, the pity of war is not only the obvious one of the waste of lives but also the loss of individuality.  The body of troops of which Ko-san is a part is described as a long mass of black creatures and Ko-san can only be identified by the fact that he is carrying a standard.

The Heredity of Taste is held up as an anti-war piece but I think the truth may be a little more complex than this.  It is true that the book draws attention to the consequences of war on individuals and their families and how Ko-san’s death kills the budding love between him and the young woman the narrator sees at the tomb but even someone who believes that war is acceptable can have these views.  The book really needs to be seen in its historical context.  As I have mentioned above, the failure of Japan to gain territory or financial indemnity from Russia at the end of the Russo-Japanese War caused unrest in Japan and a deep sense of anger at the sacrifice of so many lives for so little tangible gain.  I believe that the Heredity of Taste can be read as a rebuke to the Japanese government for its failure.  Look at the pain you have caused, look at the waste and the sacrifice and what did we get for it?  This is not a repudiation of war, it is an indictment of political failure to exploit the war.  Now I need to caveat this – I am not a Soseki expert and I have no idea whether he wrote elsewhere about war or whether there is other evidence of his anti-war views.  I can only go on this book, which does not, to me, support an unequivocal statement that Soseki is anti-war.

The book itself is nicely written.  Amongst the sadness, there are occasional witty flourishes that lighten it as well as some very moving passages, especially the final paragraph.  Although I have read a few Japanese novels, I have never read anything from the Meiji period before but would be happy to read more.  One side-note:  Soseki, apparently, did not like mystery stories as a literary form, which is quite amusing as the second half of the story turns into what is, basically, a detective story.

This post is part of the the Classics Circuit's Meiji era Japanese literature tour.