January 21, 2005

Books Derailed


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by James Siegel

First published: USA 2003

Original language: English

This guy called Widdoes is teaching two nights creative writing at Attica State Prison in between teaching days at the local High. He sets his culturally diverse class a task to write something about themselves. Along with the predictable vents berating the justice system for incarcerating the innocent author-cons, one story is very, very different…

The slick and professionally presented story has a highly promising Hitchcockian start: caught short commuting into work on the 9.05 from Babylon to Penn Station without ticket or wallet, New York advertising exec Charles Shine is saved from embarrassment when drop-dead-gorgeous Lucinda - thighs swishing together the other side of his sports page - pays his fare: at that moment, Charles is ‘clearly and spectacularly derailed’.

As night follows day, the reasonably happily/boringly married Charles, father of one teenage daughter with a remarkably rare blood sugar disease, gets besotted up with the lovely Lucinda, who, albeit equally married and doting a mother herself, reciprocates his timidly passionate advances, sexed-up to the gills by his dry and wry one-liners.

In the background, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, Charlie’s career tips over a mid-life cusp as he’s downsized from the glitzy credit card account that has brought him a mountain of glittering prizes over the ten years he’s creamed his ego on it (deaf through hubris to his client’s inane suggestions) to be humiliatingly weighed-off with an aspirin commercial, a genre recognised as the pits in Charlie’s dog-eat-dog world. But what does he care? - the thing with Lucinda’s getting hotter and hotter, the mercury rising from lunch through cocktails to dinners and clubs, until threatening to break the glass when he gets the longed-for date for breakfast nookie, in the pre-booked consummation ground of Room 1207 in sleazy downtown Fairfax Hotel

Okay, cool. Even maybe, wow. For although Charles is genetic light years from the kind of hard-boiled, moody ne’er-do-wells who once illuminated the scary shadows of American sex’n’murder story time - like, in the landscape of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Pickup on South Street, Black Angel, Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity…- being at the outset a testosterone-challenged, uxorious ,carol-singing, undrunk-driving, non-smoking, timidly voyeuristic, wet-behind-the-ears, new man human, daughter-doting, all-American regular worker bee wimp, at least that leaves him plenty of room for serious growth when the shit eventually hits the fan.

And it does. And again. And again. And maybe three or five times more. It never stops. What looked as though it might be a tight, one-strand, close-up story about a man and a woman and mutual destruction turns instead into a Job’s chronicle of bummer piled on bummer, way beyond anything believable, and in an unfortunate kind of way, ultimately rather shallow and, erm, just a little bit silly.

True, you can’t always know what’s going to happen next in Charlie’s unrelenting run-in with pain and suffering and disaster, but that’s simply because what happens next comes right out of nowhere, entirely disconnected to anything that came before.

What I did quite like about Derailed was its almost total removal from the distractions of any obtrusive period or zeitgeist - although there is the very occasional reference to products or TV shows or whatever that belong to the world of now, for the most part the story takes place in a kind of timeless American void - even New York hardly impinges, it could be anywhere, and that doesn’t happen too often.. This strangely abstract atmosphere served to concentrate the attention on the characters and the things done to them, in what felt like a detached, distanced manner that was possibly as noir as a West Yorkshire miner’s jock strap after a long day at the coalface, before Margaret ‘MuthaMarka’ Thatcher put an end to his type for good..

Derailed is James Siegel’s first novel (he’s got a good name, hasn’t he?), and if - as the first 30 or 40 pages promised - it had turned out to be a blinder, as first novels quite often will, I was looking forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship between me and Mr Siegel, not to mention the social kudos that’s achievable from finding someone no-one’s heard of before everyone’s heard of them. As it is, it might well be JS goes on to bigger and greater things - he’s certainly not a bad writer, and he seems to espouse the sentimental nuclear-family morality and Patriot Act ethical insularity that are all the rage in American crime writing at the moment - viz. Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwall, Dan Brown (aaarrrgggghhhhh…) and innumerable other brand-name dealers in sanitized heroes and heroines who help to drool away our empty hours, in return for extraordinary financial reward. I think I’ll take a rain check the next time, however. Time’s running out, after all.

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Rated 3 Stars - an acceptable waste of your time, just by Iain Stewart at 4:16 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 15, 2005

Books Snowleg


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by Nicholas Shakespeare

First published: Great Britain 2004

Original language: English

On his sixteenth birthday in 1977, Peter Hithersay is told by his mother that his father is not Rodney, the kind and stoically failed artist-turned-designer of wedding invitations to whom she has been married to for the past fifteen years, but a young East German dissident she met for one night when visiting Leipzig as a young girl to compete in a Bach choral festival. Peter is immediately transformed from the typical English public schoolboy he thought he had been into a German boy teased and bullied for his unpatriotic parentage when he returns to the same public school (perhaps Winchester) in the wake of this birthday revelation. The only thing he carries over from his past is a devotion to his ‘No. 1 hero’ Sir Bedevere, the last Knight of the Round Table to whom the dying King Arthur had entrusted his sword: “He loved the story and sometimes wished he might come across a dragon-threatened damsel so that he could display a courage which his surface hid.”

German Peter’s taste changes from Jim Morrison to early Sex Pistols punk, and he decides against all advice to go and study medicine in Hamburg. In his third year, he becomes the lighting electrician for a theatre group of two, and travels with them across the Iron Curtain to Leipzig, where they have been invited to perform during the week of the Trade Fair.

While in this bleak East German city once the home of Bach, Peter attempts to find out what happened to his real father. Instead, he meets a girl whose nickname is Snjólaug, after an Icelandic Indian woman in Canada who had taught her grandfather how to skin a muskrat and hand-bleach rabbit skin, skills which later allowed her family to survive in the devastation of post-World War One Germany. Peter calls her Snowleg. They go to a grimly drunken party being held for Snowleg’s brother Bruno, to celebrate the latter’s imminent departure for the West, and afterwards they spend the night together in a freezing shed in Leipzig’s Shreber gardens, where they talk and fall in love.

The next day - the last day of the visit to Leipzig - Snowleg asks Peter if she can hide in the theatre troupe’s dressing-up box as a way of getting across the border. He agrees. He then asks her to come with him to a reception being held at Leipzig’s posh Astoria Hotel, to which the theatre group have been invited. They travel separately to the hotel and, arriving first, Peter goes in to the glittering and snooty reception with his two West German friends. Wondering vaguely if Snowleg will be able to get into the banquet, he loses himself in the fullsome praise for his theatrical skills being lavished on him by the wife of the Permenant Representative seated next to him at the table. There is some kind of scuffle on the other side of the room, and then the Astoria’s doorman approaches him, holding Snowleg by the arm, and asks whether, as she claims, Peter had invited her to the do. Peter says no. The doorman takes Snowleg out of the room, and out of Peter’s life, leaving him with “a terrible clairvoyance that he had become someone else”.

Peter, now shorn of all Arthurian aspirations of gallantry and heroism, returns to Hamburg and spends the next sixteen years as a good German doctor, first as a pediatrician and subsequently changing to gerontology.

His inner life remains defined by his moment of treachery, cowardice and denial in the Leipzig Astoria. He has a succession of affairs and relationships, in the course of which he fathers a son, Milo, with an avant-garde installation artist in Berlin. He is increasingly successful in his career, his earlier experiences in the fashionable world of pediatrics helping him minister to his ageing patients when he moves into the extremely unfashionable milieu of gerontology.

Both Peter and his son Milo become drawn to the oldest of these patients, Frau Weschke, who is 103 when admitted to his clinic in 2002. When she dies, unable to persuade the Berlin post office to accept the silver-topped cane he is trying to return to the old lady’s family in Leipzig, he decides to return her property in person. So Peter returns to Leipzig, now over a a decade into its post Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain reunified era, and the story enters its cathartic final act as Peter renews the first-hand search for both his father and for Snowleg, travelling into the realms of darkness that had been at the heart of the German Democratic Republic, in which the Stasi secret police had ruled supreme.

Nicholas Shakespeare tells this story with a sharp intelligence and sophisticated sense of style. A series of striking images and metaphors involving colours, smells, dogs, birds, books, tastes, movements of the air and Athurian swords gives his writing a rich texture and descriptive accuracy that is a source of pure reading pleasure. The book’s numerous themes and sub-themes, including the complex emotional-historical relationship between England and Germany, the comparable tension between West and East Germany, and the timeless polarities of youth and age, fathers and children, chivalry and reality, love and sex, are each organically developed from the stuff of the narrative, providing a commentary on the characters and action full of insight and ideas, giving the work much of its delicate weight.

The evocation of East Germany in the Iron Curtain period is as fascinating as it is memorable, and is thankfully far removed from any black-and-white simplicity. The landscape, rural and urban, is painted in raw Francis Bacon-like colours of meat, pollution, disease, dull stone and muddy earth, beneath its occasionally enchanting but usually streaked and cruel covering of ice and snow. Yet this bleak and rancid environment of cowardice and corruption is the home to human complexities far more subtle and charming than any standard perceptions of a down-trodden populace heroically surviving beneath the ultimate Stalinist ‘big brother’ bureaucratic dictatorship.

When we first meet Snowleg, she is an enthusiastic proponent of the ideals and purposes of the East German state, trotting out endless comparisons with the trivial obsessions of the West. Even as the true nature of the nation is revealed, to both Snowleg and the reader, its pervasive paranoia and espousal of control culture encompass a degree of complexity that few in the West are likely to have considered.

For the majority of its 400 or so paperback pages, Snowleg is written in the cool ironic tone that one has come to be associated with the best recent English (i.e. British) fiction, within what may be described as the Booker Prize genre - cosmopolitan, detached, post-modern - the fiction of Ian McEwan, Kasuo Isiguro and the like. (I have learnt since finishing Snowleg that it is among the hot favourites to win the Man Booker Prize 2005). Unsurprisingly with such a surname, Mr.Shakespeare is a natural and beguiling writer, as expert and precise in his characterisation as he is in his superb atmospherics and the almost-photographic precision with which he describes his locations. He tells his mixture of love story, search thriller and redemption novel with a lightness of touch, numerous flashes of wit, and consistent sympathy and non-judgemental compassion. He obviously likes dogs and children a lot, as well as birds and teenagers and old people, and he (via his protagonist Peter) has an excellent taste in music. It is a joy to fall beneath his spell.

If the book had been distinguished by these qualities alone, welded together through the fluent assurance of the writing, it would have been enough. But in the final section - when Peter returns to Leipzig in 2002, from where he is drawn inexoribly back into the dark and elusive twilight world of the Stasi, and as the frontiers of reality and deception, information and misinformation, merge and break apart, he sees the Excalibur/Grail of his long and reluctant quest finally take on a form - everything in the book goes up at least another gear, and Snowleg becomes a very special novel indeed, something rare and terrific.

Despite some minor quibbles - a reliance upon serendipity that may be intrinsic to the romantic nature of its plot, certain over-repetitions in the language of its imagery, most notable in the number of sentences containing/ending with ‘the colour of…’ (cold liver, disease, rancid pork, torn paper…whatever) - there is little in either the story or its telling that is not compelling and out-of-the-ordinary.

The very fact that this is a ‘search saga’ that keeps our interest not through the mountain of obscure factoids derived from months of in-depth research but through the powerful ability of its writing to give a far more tangible identity to places, people, even history itself, is sufficient in itself to make the book stand head-and-shoulders above the morass of contemporary fiction. An end result is thereby achieved that is a far more profound and accurate truth than any deriving from a Gradgrind-like sifting through facts, however mountainous and astonishing.

Snowleg is an absolutely essential and wonderful book.


Rated 4.5 Stars - memorable, brilliant, do not miss by Iain Stewart at 12:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 9, 2005

Books Firewall


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by Henning Mankell

First published: 1998

Original language: Swedish

Translated by: Ebba Segerberg

Firewall is the first Henning Mankell thriller I’ve read, although I discover it was his last book to star Kurt Wallander as the detective hero - in its last few pages the way is set for Wallander’s daughter Linda to take over the lead in subsequent stories of the series.

As it happens, I don’t mind starting at the end of a detective series like this and then, if sufficiently struck, tracking back through the earlier works, often in descending date order, like a blog.

And in the case of Mankell and Wallander, I have certainly been struck enough to want to read more their earlier exploits, in very near, possibly even immediate, future.

The things that have appealed to me most in this first taste have been the usual aspects of police-procedural thrillers that tend to hook me: the character of the main cop, the writing style, the book’s atmosphere, and what it tells me of a place, culture, and/or people which are either new to me, or offer insights on somewhere I already know.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that when it says on the cover of a crime writer I haven’t read (as it does here) something like “The most impressive…blah blah blah…since Ian Rankin”, then that’s often enough to get me to include it in my 3 for 2 or whatever.

Plots - with some notable exceptions - are not such an important factor in whether or not I get off on a ‘new’ author, unless so stunningly absurd as to swamp anything else of possible interest that may lie squashed beneath the risable twists and turns and twists and twists and other serpentine antics of the desperate plotter in the grips of terminal plotting psychosis. One thinks of plots like those of Jeffrey Deaver at his most manic, yet lacking his slick ability to make such exponential twisting reasonably readable, albeit ultimately tiresome, like a fairly good joke repeated ad infinitum in some barroom of hell (by a paraplegic drunk?).

As for the plot of Firewall, it certainly verges on the absurd, involving a computer virus conspiracy to destroy capitalist society via its well-known technological vulnerabilities, i.e. another ‘backdoor worm’ variation on Homer’s Trojan Horse story, that has provided the computer virus industry and its chroniclers with much of its language and metaphor. Yet it is such seemingly apocalyptic cyber-terrorist codswallop that lies behind much of the mayhem and murder inflicted on the inhabitants of Ystad, the Baltic port in the south of Sweden’s Skåne province linked to Poland by ferry, and which not surprisingly causes the very down-to-earth and hard-working police team lead by Wallander so much bafflement when lumbered to make sense of its grandiose objectives, that provides the novel with one of its most original and stimulating attributes.


Rated 4 Stars - good, no regrets by Iain Stewart at 5:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack