Thursday, September 30, 2010

book review - C - Tom McCarthy

"Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-like gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould..."

There is a moment in the book when the C in the title is defined to the leading character, as standing for Carbon the stuff of life, but by then you have already made up your own mind what it stands for.

Although having said that it would be too easy to talk about Communication which is the big theme of the book. Communication via the wireless and radio waves is a theme from start to finish but there are also ideas about communication between the living and dead and the present and the past. Could you hear Christ's last words on the cross in static form stretching back from time? asks one character as he muses on the static that crowds the fringes of the radio airwaves.

C is also the initial for the Carrefax family who dominate the story and from where the lead character Serge (often confused for Surge another technical communication reference) comes from. He starts the story as a baby being born but increasingly comes to dominate the story as it goes along.

Carrefax senior runs a school for the deaf and uses technology in the form of wax recordings to encourage the children to speak and puts them through performances to show off how his techniques are succeeding. His wife is also deaf, Serge's mother, and she has a ghostly presence in the book never emerging beyond giving an impression in a couple of scenes.

But the C also stands for cocaine and the drug abuse that Serge inflicts on himself as he goes through the First World War as an observer in a plane with the RAF. He comes back to London and the drugs continue to be part of his life as he hangs out with the theatrical scene and tries to find a role for himself in a world that is far too normal for a man who has lived through and witnessed the things he has on the battlefield.

There is a cleverness to this book that means that even when the main character becomes difficult to empathise with you want to see how it ends. Technology changed the world shaping communication not just in peace but also in war and throughout the book Serge's father is constantly looking to push the boundaries. The pressure he puts on himself is transmitted to his children with his daughter taking her own life as the madness of being constantly brilliant takes a vicious hold.

Serge himself seems to be looking for something. The teenager who listened in on radio stations and static is lost himself in the noise of normal life after he returns from the war and struggles to relate to the sort of life that his contemporaries are getting on with.

There are some big themes being discussed here and you sense that one day someone could do something similar with the web and its impact on the way people live. Just because you can communicate with people across continents and use technology to push what's possible doesn't always bode well for the individuals using it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

book review - Vivian and I - Colin Bacon

"Despite chronic alcoholism and failing health, Viv remained at the top of his game until the end. He never let an audience down."

There are a few characters that manage to make drinking something that is part of their personality in an almost positive sense. Think Oliver Reed and the other hellraisers and think of Jeffrey Bernard (who was most of the time unwell) and their alcohol abuse made them memorable, adding to their popularity.

Added to that list could easily be the name of Vivian Mackerrell who inspired the character of Withnail in the Bruce Robinson film Withnail & I. His drinking finally killed him but he went down keeping the audience laughing until the end.

Sadly that audience became fewer and fewer, made up of medical staff and the few friends who had been prepared to stay with him. One of those who was there at the end is Colin Bacon who has put together a book that not only provides the details, which at times are sketchy, of Vivian's life and brief career but through anecdotes and memories provide an insight into the world that both Mackerrell and Bacon came from.

It was a life set against a Nottingham childhood and time spent as a drama student living in a house crammed full of other trainee actors. This provided the stage for Mackerrell to perform and perfect a routine he would become so well known for. Drinking heavily but with great charm and wit amusing those who stood him drinks.

He was still doing the same when he could no longer speak, having had his voice box removed, and was injecting the pints straight into himself through a syringe meant to be helping him eat.

There is something about these characters that provokes admiration rather than pity and contempt. Bernard had a play about his lifestyle play over many years to packed houses and Withnail & I is famous for its scenes of heavy drinking and the slide of Withnail into failure as his flatmate gets an acting job and moves on.

Bacon has produced a book that is part biography part autobiography of his own past as he shares the importance of his friendship with a man that amused many but died a fairly horrendous death with most of the old names and faces long since gone. The book will no doubt introduce a new generation to 'the real Withnail' but it also shows the depths to which real friendship can go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Worst month so far

This has easily been my worst month for blogging so far all I can do is apologise. I am trying to read more and as a result the reviews are stacking up unwritten. Please bear with me while I get the fingers tapping again.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of C

The C of the title could mean clever as the number of times names of people, places and objects crop up starting with that letter. It reminds me a bit of the sort of word games that Georges Perec and his ilk liked to play.

But for me the C so far stands for communication with the deaf school mixing with the birth of wireless signals and the impact that this technology has on the limitations of the world.

As the Carrefax family experiment in communication and chemistry the world is changing with the spectre of the First World War moving closer where the knowledge the family possesses will be required for more war like purposes.

As the potential main characters fall or fade away the reader is left with the teenage Serge as he recovers from his sister's illness in terms of finding his purpose and sets out to conquer his own internal mysteries as well as those around him.

Review will follow soon...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

bookmark of the week

there is a shop in Greenwich market selling designs by Hartwig Braun and this is one of a couple of bookmarks he has produced. Will plan to show the other one later on this year. he draws London in a cartoon style but manages to cram in a fair few of the major landmarks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

book review - The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole

"Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily - but what a sight for a father's eyes! - He beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers."

This slim but dense book comes with a reputation akin to wearing black and winklepickers with the Sisters of Mercy on the stereo.

The word Gothic has connotations that are valid with the idea of the creepiness but perhaps would put some readers off preventing a readership from enjoying this clever tale of treachery and ambition.

In some ways it reminds you of Macbeth and at other points the magical world of Peake's Gormenghast came to mind.

The story is perhaps slightly less accessible than you would like because of the language but once you get used to that the events of the story start to exert their power over the imagination.

Starting with what has become the classic - I found this manuscript somewhere in Italy and thought I would publish it - approach the story gets straight into the action.

A castle dominated by a Prince that has manipulated events to take power is set for the nuptials of the Prince's son and his chosen bride. But when the son is killed in a freak accident things start to move rapidly and ghostly premonitions indicate that the son is the first to die if the father will not relinquish the castle.

Far from taking heed what follows is a tale of a man determined to hold on to power even if it means the destruction of everything he holds dear.

In a Shakespearean type of way several moments of hidden and mistaken identity are revealed that compound the Prince's problems and reveal that events have moved far beyond his control.

In the midst of all of the ghostly sightings and terror love blossoms and the future foundation of the castle of Otranto emerges.

Not the easiest book to read thanks not just to the style but also the various references are dropped in about claims to thrones and lineage that can become confusing and despite its slimline look it took a while to read.

Still for those fancying a chill as the night's draw in it provides a few scares and plenty to keep the imagination going.

Monday, September 20, 2010

book review - Kings of the Water - Mark Behr

This book unravels like an onion with it matching that vegetable for its power to start the tear ducts tingling.

The fact that it manages to get you feeling involved and connected with the lives of a farm running family in South Africa is something that you would struggle to predict at the start.

With things starting with a son flying home from America to South Africa to attend his mother's funeral the reader struggles to get to grips with the landscape and the history. Both unfold bit by bit leaving you understanding more about the lead characters but also more about the country.

The family at the heart of the story have lived and run a farm for generations through the years of apartheid. Now things in the country have changed but the ghostly trace of previous attitudes remains and are heightened for someone who has not visited the country for many years.

But why has Michael not visited for so long? His disgrace leaving a pregnant girlfriend and being demoted in the army because of a homosexual encounter with a fellow solider haunt him and his family.

Coming back for his mother's funeral he has to face the people he hurt and face the bitterness of his father. The fact his eldest brother, who drowned, was also gay and took his own life to avoid death through AIDS is an extra twist that weakens the position of the father even more.

But as much as this is about personal reconciliation and forgiveness it is also about South Africa. The past can never be forgotten but it is the way people not only act now but how they act given their past that counts.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark shows the downside of London in 1872. This reproduction of a print by Gustave Dore shows Orange Court, just off Drury Lane. Again this was purchased in the Museum of London, a great place for a day out in the capital.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is the second bookmark showing a vie of London, this time dating from 1630. This also came from the Museum of London and is one of the iconic views of the capital from the South side of the Thames. The skyline is dominated by the original St Pauls.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

book review - From a View to a Death - Anthony Powell

"Mrs. Brandon did not answer. She had ceased to fan herself with the Illustrated London News and now she lay back on the sofa quite still. Her eyes remained open, but they stared in front of her at nothing in particular. Mrs Dadds made preparations to leave the room. She was an unobservant woman and did not notice that her mistress was dead."

Cards on the table I like Anthony Powell. I know some people think of his Dance to the Music of Time as an upmarket Eastenders but it charts a world that has gone forever blown away by the bombs of war and the decline of the aristocracy. But From a View to a Death is slightly different.

It contains all of the Powell hall marks of characters from country houses that have wealth and eccentricities that are designed to make the reader laugh. The problem is that those characters were probably seen with some fondness back in 1933, when this was first published, but now seem not just vulgar but irrelevant.

The world inbetween the wars was one when those that had served in the First World War got to stroll around and talk about the war and the need for everyone to be a gentleman. But the spectre of Nazism was looming when being a gentleman was not going to be enough and those in houses that were already in decline were facing serious problems.

But this is written before that was clearly happening. In a nutshell an artist, Arthur Zouch, who is neither successful or a hit with the ladies exploits the hospitality of a family in the country setting his sights on an engagement and marriage into a comfortable life in the country.

He finds away from London he manages to start a couple of affairs with not just his intended target but another pretty girl in the village. Set pieces about a pageant and hunting are played out as the characters move through a vanishing world. What you sense clearly is how boring it is to be part of that and how protected they all are not just from reality but ever being told about it. Butlers might grumble about them but they dare not say it to their masters faces.

The two problems for me were firstly that the humour didn't carry through 80 years and the scenes about transvestitism were just awkward when presumably they were meant to be rib tickling.

But secondly the main character of Zouch never really worked for me. Was the reader meant to like him as he broke hearts and schemed his way through engagements? Were they meant to feel pity when the family he had chosen to become part of closed ranks and made it difficult? I felt neither and as a result found it lacking any real engagement.

As a piece of social history charting a world that has largely disappeared then it is worth a read but those heading for Powell would be wiser to go for the Dance rather than this.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

bookmark of the week

The bookmarks for September are all going to have a London theme. The first one, from the Museum of London is a print of the long view of London produced by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647. No eye, Gerkin or Shard back then.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Month review - August

If there were any themes this month it was short stories with the Jergovic collection and Wessex Tales by Hardy. The first was easier to get through than the second, which although containing great content is quite a dense read.

The other theme was the history with the Luneburg Variation a tale of the holocaust, The Courilof Affair of Russian revolutionaries and the Legend of Elizabeth Siddal a biography of a remarkable woman.

List of books read:

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic
The Luneburg Variation by Paolo Maurensig
Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy
The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh
The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia
The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky