Friday, 31 July 2009

Second-hand Treasure Trove

Charity bookshop trawls can throw up some unexpected treasures. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino was published back in the 70s, and it was so surreal I didn't know quite what to make of it at first. It's a brilliant satire on writing that most writers will enjoy. I loved the way the characters get so fed up with the author, and the dreadful book he's working on, that they try to plot their own way out of the story. I really liked the idea that characters from books live in a separate dimension where they are constantly looking for employment in other books by other authors. There are quite a lot of stories within stories, some of which are so bizarre and strange I was tempted to skip (but I would have missed some real treasures!). Halpin, the main character's, diary is a good antidote to the tedious chapters of the novel and the author's journal is such a send up I couldn't keep from smiling. His letters to publishers and critics are hilarious. There are some really good examples of 'how not to write' which I can use with creative writing students. The whole thing is wierd and bizarre, but incredibly well written. The 'author' is so pretentious and awful I can't help but feel I've met him.

Also in my second-hand book swoop was The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. How good she is. The writing is brilliant - the way she weaves the story, the dialogue, the characters. And yet it's quiet, not showy.

My New Zealand publishers sent me a book by another of their authors, Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova It's a wonderful memoir about growing up in communist Bulgaria, moving to the West as a teenager and then going back after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It captures perfectly the tragedy of communism, and the cultural schizophrenia that so many suffered from afterwards. She writes beautiful prose and is also a very good poet. I just missed her at the Edinburgh Festival and wish now that I'd been able to make it.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

This is the first time I've read anything by Kiran Desai and I'm impressed. Apparently this was her first book, written while she took a year off from a post-graduate American creative writing programme. It's beautifully written - rich in word-pictures that capture the odours, the colours, the tastes of India as well as its totally over-the-top, sensual overload effect. She's quoted as saying: 'I think my first book was filled with all that I loved most about India and knew I was in the inevitable process of losing. It was also very much a book that came from the happiness of realizing how much I loved to write.' That really does come off the page. I loved the characters, particularly the enigmatic, self-absorbed Kulfi, whose culinary witchcraft is the creative force of the novel.

'She was producing meals so intricate, they were cooked sometimes with a hundred ingredients, balanced precariously within a complicated and delicate mesh of spices - marvellous triumphs of the complex and delicate art of seasoning ...... The meats were beaten to silk, so spiced and fragrant they clouded the senses; the sauces were full of strange hints and dark undercurrents, leaving you on firm ground one moment, dragging you under the next. There were dishes with an aftertaste that exploded upon you and left you gasping a whole half-hour after you'd eaten them. Some that were delicate, with a haunting flavour that teased like the memory of something you'd once known but could no longer put your finger on. Pickled limes stuffed with cardamom and cumin, crepuscular creatures simmered upon the wood of a scented tree, small river fish baked in green coconuts, rice steamed with nasturtium flowers in the pale hollow of a bamboo stem ...... Desire filled Sampath as he waited for his meals.'

The novel is also funny - the revelations of Kulfi's son Sampath in the Guava tree, the antics of a plague of alcoholic monkeys, the formation of the Monkey Protection Society, and the romantic dilemmas of the Hungry Hop ice cream man. The ultimate chaos of the resolution, where the army and the police mount a dawn raid to banish the monkeys, is classic farce. The minimalist ending of the book is beautifully done, leaving the reader plenty of space for their own imagination. I can quote it, without giving anything away.

'Despite themselves, they drew their attention from the mountain top. Above Kulfi's enormous cooking pot hung a broken branch. In the pot were spices and seasonings, herbs and fruit, a delicious gravy.
And something else.

Gingerly, they approached the bubbling cauldron.'

Friday, 17 July 2009

Talk of the Town by Jacob Polley

I went to one of Jacob's book launch events to hear him read this and talk about it before I opened the book. I love his poetry - recently featured in ads for the BBC's poetry season programmes - so I was really interested to see how he'd tackle the novel. I don't know whether I'm disappointed or not. I found the novel uneven - very slow to start, but picking up pace towards the last third of the book. The 'voice' of the first-person narrator wasn't always consistent either in the way he spoke, or in what it revealed of his character. The dialect sometimes slipped between local idiom and southern english (as Jacob's own voice does), and sometimes the reader could hear the voice of the mature poet coming through that of the 14 year old boy. There were descriptions and images that didn't seem in keeping with the mind-set of the young narrator. But these are quibbles. The achievement of writing a whole first-person novel in dialect (Cumbrian at that) is amazing.

Talk of the Town is a Quest novel - Chris's quest to find his missing friend Arthur, but also to find answers to his own questions about himself and his place in the order of things. There's real violence and danger at the heart of this book and Jacob Polley makes us care enough about the hero to want him to emerge intact. It's initially hard to read, but worth persevering. It has a tight plot and the ending is much better than the beginning. He captures perfectly the tribal world of teenage boys, where you have to walk down the road in just the right way (not too nonchalantly, or too aggressively, and definitely not timidly!) in order to escape being beaten; as well as the magnetic attractions of violence and petty crime that masquerade as rites of passage.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

I've just finished Kate Summerscale's book and it was a very good read. I hadn't realised that Mr Whicher and his famous murder case were at the root of the detective genre, or that Jack Whicher was the template for Sherlock Holmes - even the Curious Incident of the Dog that didn't bark in the night came from this real-life mystery. I liked the way she unfolded the story, keeping the suspense, and letting the spotlight fall on different characters at different times. The historical detail was well handled too and not allowed to overwhelm the story. And what a story! I'd be fascinated to know how she found it in the archives. Kate Summerscale also exposes the myth of 'Victorian values', revealing the suffering, abuses of parental power and sexual repression that existed within outwardly respectable Victorian families. If you like crime fiction, this is a must-read, even though it's fact.