Thursday 30 July 2015

'Updike Willow': the first proof-copies

Updike Willow

By Chris Soul

I was born in a lorry outside A&E of the Royal Surrey County Hospital on June 6th 1980. Apparently my so-called father, having been a lorry driver, had rushed my mother to the hospital but at a very late stage; resulting in my unfortunate birth over the gear stick. I can only imagine the chaos of my entry into the world with nurses raising their hands to the high open lorry door hurrying to catch my head...

Updike Willow has always had a difficult upbringing. With an estranged father and an alcholic mother, he has had to find his own way in life. After terrorizing a girl at school with a rat sandwich, Updike is dumped on the doorstep of Aunt Ruth; a formidable iron-lady who means to transform her troubled nephew. But this is the 1980s and the 1990s will promise no better. Can Updike become the man he should be? Can he make sense of his life and unravel the secrets of his mother's past?

From 1980 to the present day, Updike Willow is a funny, poignant, troubling trek through our times'

'The Trial' by Franz Kafka and 'The Trial' play @ The Young Vic, London

It has been a long final term as a teacher. Thankfully over a week ago I finished up for the summer. As a result my blogging and reading has slowed with my own exhaustion! Nevertheless, I am posting a number of reviews and things before the month is out. It seems apt then that I review here Franz Kafka's classic novel 'The Trial' and the play adaptation of it currently showing at the Young Vic in London starring Rory Kinnear.

As a teacher, I know the feeling of being swamped by paperwork or feeling under scrutiny from management or the dreaded Ofsted. But, at least I have never been under an absurd trial like poor Joseph K. in Kafka's seminal novel. 'The Trial' is a frustrating, mad, prophetic tale of a banker, Joseph K., who is one day suddenly arrested with no information as to why. K. initially considers this a joke until he is plunged into a bureaucratic nightmare; escorted by wardens, attending an insane court, meeting half-dead lawyers and administrators who tell him nothing and offer little hope for his innocence.

It is a bewildering and intense work of fiction and I must admit I struggled, although this surely must be the point. There are no paragraph breaks and dialogue is mixed together, resulting in a confusing, often disjointed read. Most of the 'story' (if it can even be deemed as such) concerns the maddening bureaucracy of K's conviction and ongoing, mysterious trial. There are pages and pages of frustrating and confusing details of the judicial process (if there really is one) and I felt myself going insane as much as K. I want to think that there is some metaphorical or symbolic underpinning but I don't believe that this is what Kafka intended. Instead, the book seems to foreshadow the nature of totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century (the book was written before WW1 but published in 1925). It is Orwellian before Orwell. However, K's predicament is perhaps worse than Winston's in 1984; at least Winston knew what he was facing a little more than K. Also, I cannot help but see K's unexpected arrest with no reason as a glimpse of what was to come in Germany with Nazi officials simply turning up to arrest Jews in their homes. History, reality would become worse than even Kafka could imagine. In this way, the book has its place as a terrifying warning and should rightly hold its place alongside other books of its kind such as 1984 and Brave New World. Personally I found it very hard to read or particularly enjoy. Again, that may be the point.
The Trial image
The current stage play of 'The Trial' at the Young Vic is an engrossing and unique adaptation. The audience are seated like a courtroom (see picture) and the stage is literally a conveyor belt; actors, props, scenes, doors, paperwork are moved across like some judicial, dystopian Generation Game. It is a unique way to visually tell the story and, with the orange lighting, creates a disturbing, frustrating vision of the book. Rory Kinnear as Joseph K is superb. He plays the every-man effortlessly but also highlights K's growing frustrations and anxiety without being over-the-top; it could easily descend into pantomime. Kinnear brings enough reality to the surreal proceedings. At points, the direction reminds me of a mad Terry Gilliam film. There are moments of canned laughter and a cast of international freaks whose faces and actions would not be out of place in a Monty Python sketch. Sometimes this feels at odds with Kafka's far greyer, bleaker vision, but as theatrics works to vary the pace and change the tone. There are other notable differences with the book, namely more sexual undertones; suggestions of sexual guilt. Indeed the play starts with K getting a sordid lap-dance. In some respects this takes away the immediate mystery present in the book, but also updates the book for a contemporary audience. This has its merits but sometimes feels unnecessary.

If you are fed up with modern bureaucracy then I suggest you read 'The Trial.' If you have a nervous disposition or don't like to be easily confused, then perhaps just go and see the play, which is a more enjoyable, though twisted experience, with unusual direction and an excellent cast.

(The play is on until the end of August at the Young Vic, London:


Tuesday 30 June 2015

'Darkmouth' by Shane Hegarty

This is a lot of fun!

'Darkmouth' by Shane Hegarty is funny, monstrous and refreshingly different. It whips along at a cracking pace. There are unusual guns, bombs, vortexes, other-worlds, weird characters, lovable characters, twists and turns and of course... monsters! I love reading children's books, as much as adult ones, but 'Darkmouth' made me feel especially like a child again. It is just simply exciting and imaginatively stimulating.

Darkmouth is a small remote village in Ireland. It is also the last village on Earth, it seems, to continue to suffer monster attacks. Every so often monsters, or Legends as they are called, arrive through vortexes from another world, ready to cause havoc. Only Legend Hunters (a position decreed by birthright) can stop these monsters. And a twelve year old boy called Finn is the next in line to become a Legend Hunter... but he's a bit useless. He wants to be a vet.

There is enough mystery and excitement to entertain but I am hoping the next in the series will deepen its emotional pull and become far darker. It is perhaps an error to compare any new series to Harry Potter, but there is enough interesting back stories, potential back stories and mythology to warrant the comparison here. Personally, I would like it develop in a similar manner; to probe harder into the psychology of Finn and to expand its universe and themes in grander fashion. Perhaps it will.
Otherwise, 'Darkmouth' is just simply fun, and sometimes that is all that matters. Plus, the illustrations are fantastic and compliment the text perfectly.

Bursting with ideas, adrenaline and big teeth, 'Darkmouth' is a riveting new series. Let's hope the sequels can match it!

Saturday 27 June 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Epic, sad, poignant and magnificently realized ; 'We Are Not Ourselves' certainly delivers as a book longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Apparently it took ten years to write; it justifies the effort with a narrative which spans five decades. It is wonderfully written and ceaselessly engaging. At over 600 pages, it could be easy to feel overwhelmed by its sprawling narrative, its intricate portrait of family life and its study of a degenerative disease. But the characters are memorable and lovable; you invest your time in them. It is humble and compassionate in its exploration of family, memory, the American Dream and the limits of human ambition and knowledge. Without being overly sentimental, it is powerfully moving and emotionally credible.

A daughter of hard-drinking Irish immigrants in a rough area of New York, Eileen Leary dreams of having more. She wants a bigger house, a better job and a happy family. She marries a young scientist and everything seems to be going in the direction she desires, until her husband, Ed, is diagnosed with a condition which will change their lives forever...

I don't want to spoil the story by writing here what illness Ed suffers. But to suffice to say Thomas brilliantly details the slow, debilitating nature of Ed's disease with tenderness, realism and great understanding. Eileen is such a well-realized character. I felt that there could have been other books written about her; she just leaps from the page. We grow up with her, we share her pain, her ambitions, her frustrations, her struggles with Ed's illness. And this is what makes it such a wonderful read. As one review put it: 'It's all here; how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on... It's humbling and heartening to read a book this good.' I cannot help but agree and can find no other superlatives to express just how much I enjoyed 'We Are Not Ourselves.'

It is a huge book but it has a huge heart. Take your time and invest in its achievement. An amazing debut novel!

Saturday 6 June 2015

'Island' by Aldous Huxley

An antithesis to 'Brave New World', 'Island' is an absorbing philosophical novel concerning the possibility of a utopia, or close to it. Optimistic, enlightening, troubling, polemic; it is a novel of the 1960s but is still, if not more, relevant today. It is Huxley's last novel and suitably so, as it deals with the whole of life, spirit, learning, experience and finally death in an inquiring, fascinating way.

Will Farnaby deliberately wrecks his boat on the isolated island of Pala in south-east Asia. He is a journalist but is there to help seal a deal to gain rights to obtain Pala's oil reserves. Pala, however, is a paradise; a place opposed to the materialistic west and its forward march of progress; of its warring, commercial, lethargic, irreligious nature. In Pala the happiness of individuals, of the community, is regarded as more important than war, or products, or even oil. Meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga-love, controlled drug-taking, communal parenting and holistic education are the backbones of Pala's daily life. At first skeptical, Will is slowly enchanted by the island's life style and alternative philosophies. Will he succumb to its pull or find a way to exploit its oil reserves?

Granted, the plot is simple and most characters are half-formed and mostly used as vehicles to explain or signify some philosophical notion. But the dialogue brims with ideas. Unlike any dry philosophical treatise, 'Island' takes us on a whimsical, stimulating journey, exploring what it means to be human, how the psyche works, how humans can organize themselves, educate themselves and love one another. While it is demonstratively a product of the sixties, it remains highly relevant today. And it is evident Huxley has a dim view of humanity's progress. Growing populations, war armaments, pollution, television, consumerism clearly trouble Huxley. Unlike 'Brave New World', however, 'Island' offers an alternative vision; a possible utopia. And there are points reading it that you really wonder why the world hasn't sorted itself out in the way Pala illustrates.

I particularly liked comparisons between western and eastern philosophies: 'Western philosophers... they're nothing more than good talkers. Eastern philosophers are often rather bad talkers... but their philosophy is pragmatic and operational... When we make statements we back them up with a list of operations that can be used for testing the validity of what we've been saying.... The operations are called yoga... or Zen...' I am inclined to agree. As many people, including myself, are turning to 'mindfulness' as a way of coping with the frantic nature of modern life, I cannot help but think that eastern philosophies, although more mystical and ambivalent, give more instruction, more useful advice on how to live than western doctrine or religious statements. I found Huxley's musings insightful. The west may advocate the statement 'I think therefore I am' whereas the east actually tells you how to be. 'Island' offers an illustrative example of this difference in living.

Image result for LOTUS FLOWERConcurrently, 'Island' addresses issues of education. As a teacher, I found this especially interesting and think Huxley is not far off the mark on what constitutes the future of education; the best way children can learn. Children at the school in Pala are taught holistically. Experience or understanding experience in relation to the self, body and the environment takes precedence. Meditating on the experience first is important. As Huxley writes: 'Children are... taught to pay attention to what they see and hear, and at the same time they're asked to notice how their desires and feelings affect what they experience of the outer world, and how their language habits affect not only their feelings and desires but also their sensations.' In the story children in the classroom are learning about flowers. Formal education may only get children to learn the mere words, the talk, of the flower. Pala's alternative is that children need to meditate on, experience the flower first in a kind spiritual, osmosis-tic relationship: 'Never give children the chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the first that all living is relationship.' Unfortunately, this is the problem for Pala in the story. A paradise, or at least a different way of living, cannot continue indefinitely, in isolation, when the rest of the world, locked in on-itself, is marching ahead without a moment's reflection.

In the end, Huxley remains pessimistic. Even if an island like Pala were truly to exist, whether you agree or not with its principles, it could never survive in a world predestined for conflict, consumption and corruption. Reading 'Island' gives us hope. It is always highly illuminating, intelligently written and disturbingly prophetic. Give it a read and see if you don't think the world could do with some reorganizing in a similar vain...

Saturday 30 May 2015

'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald

Winning the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Prize and the Costa Book of the Year in 2014, 'H is for Hawk' is an instant classic. A memoir detailing Macdonald's training of a goshawk in the countryside of Cambridge, it tackles the wildness of bereavement alongside a taming of the self in relation to nature. It is a wonderful book, at once beautiful, engrossing and ultimately uplifting, much like the hawk it describes. Macdonald's poetic vision, her mindful awareness of the juxtaposition between nature and humanity, is what makes this book stand out and worthy of its accolades.

Struggling with bereavement, Macdonald decides to buy a goshawk off a man in Northern Ireland. She is an experienced falconer, has been inspired by birds and training them since a small girl, but the goshawk is a challenge. Brilliantly Macdonald describes her growing relationship with the hawk in vivid details which are sublimely readable and often disturbingly beautiful. In parallel to this she details TH White's (author of the 'Once and Future King') past struggle training his own, hot-tempered goshawk. There are interesting comparisons; however, it is Macdonald's exploration of the relationship between the loss of her father and the attachment to her hawk where, as one reviewer put it, the book really 'sings.' 

Having read books on mindfulness, I cannot help but see Macdonald's memoir as a mindful re-engagement of humanity through nature. She realizes the limitations of the hawk, its essential wildness, and mirrors this in herself. There are, of course, subtle references to climate change and our transforming countryside. As a reader, I am in awe of Macdonald's total immersion in nature and the livelihood of her hawk, but there are warnings of getting too close. This is what makes the book soar even higher; there is an underlying, highly relevant critique on humanity's link to the environment. Can human consciousness ever be harmonious with wild nature? Or are the two things the same? This is what lifts the book into higher realms.

It soars, it bates, it is wild in your hands; 'H is for Hawk' is a book with wings. 

Monday 25 May 2015

'A Tale of Two Cities' By Charles Dickens

More serious, more tense, less comical, Dicken's 'A Tale of Two Cities' is a uniquely different novel compared to the rest of his oeuvre. Dickens claimed it to be the 'best story I have written.' It is certainly tighter, more succinct in nature; however characters are not quite as engaging as in his other works. Despite this, 'A Tale of Two Cities' is a rich evocation of the turbulent end of the 18th century with Paris in turmoil to revolution and London buckling under crime and poverty.

The beginning of the novel is grand and, of course, instantly memorable: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief...' Dickens prepares us for the historical setting like a Shakespearean statesman: 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen...' Unlike many of his other novels, the grand themes of a previous age are announced as if from a pulpit. And with an opening scene pertaining to a carriage driving through fog, there is an atmosphere of stately moroseness. Dicken's effortless rendering of atmosphere is what gripped me the most; the sense of mystery and suspense the initial hook. Dicken's descriptions of London and particularly Paris through its bloodthirsty revolution are highlights. He researched ardently, and at the time he had come out of his marriage depressed and sombre. It shows. This is a Dickens looking upon the past with less humour, more wisdom.

At times I was frustrated by Dicken's masking of characters, his sometimes slow revealing of character's intentions and desires. In some ways this perhaps merely reflects the times, especially in Paris where so many were ambiguous personalities; spies, suspicious of the aristocracy. The expanded metaphor of Mrs Defarge knitting the plots of revolution is also symbolic of the story; it knits many characters together, across the English Channel. As I have said, in points I found this a little slow, but the reward is the finale, which took me by surprise. I expected a grand, revolutionary, chaotic ending, to parallel the stately opening. Instead the ending focuses on the sacrifice of one person for love. Dickens is, at the end, preaching less from the pulpit and more from the confession box. And this is what Dickens does best; showing the human condition in times of intense vulnerability. For me, the ending knitted everything perfectly or rather slashed the thread with a sharp edge.

I enjoyed 'A Tale of Two Cities' less than his other works, yet it remains just as memorable. It marks a turning point in his writing; one that is darker, less hopeful, more bleak.