McEwan, Cannon, Kent: it’s all in the writing.

A writer never stops learning. I always feel that I have so much more to learn about the skill, the art, the craft of writing, and reading widely is always a good way to prompt thinking, learning and  improving.

I’ve just read three books, each good in its own right, each very different. Ian McEwan’s Saturday was recommended to me by another writer I met in a networking situation. I’d read Enduring Love and Atonement so I added Saturday  to my bookshelves. I also bought Joanna Cannon’s debut, The Trouble with Sheep and Goats. I know very little about the popular genre, Scandi Noir, so I also read Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. All three books were clever, well written and , of course, as the old ingredient of subjectivity comes into play, I appreciated them all but loved only one.

All three writers can put words together skilfully; they can create a character and tell a story, and each of them possesses a unique talent. The author’s voice becomes a voice inside our own head, we are reading the story and suddenly we are seeing it, believing it, living it. That’s a sign of a good writer.

McEwan ‘s language is sinewy and taut and he doesn’t waste words. He strives to be astute and his characters are led by action, circumstance and background rather than emotion. His main protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a neurosurgeon and McEwan describes Henry’s skill with neuro operations in detail, his neat incisions, his efficient hands, his erudite diagnosis. McEwan could be describing his own writing, operating brilliantly with words, an accomplished practitioner. Henry and his lawyer wife Rosalind were not characters for whom I felt much empathy but I read and admired the book for all it’s  assured poise and honed skill.

Joanna Cannon’s novel, The Trouble with Sheep and Goats is a clever story which spans the summer heatwave of 1976. It  is a coming of age story from the viewpoint of a ten year old girl but the prose moves smoothly from first to third person narration. The novel reminds me of so many others: Jeanette Winterson’s Why be happy when you could be normal? and Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit. Cannon even echoes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the central character of a growing girl learning about life amid prejudice, and the community’s harsh misunderstanding of Boo Radley is mirrored in the discrimination against Walter Bishop. However much I felt the novel was contrived or derivative, however much I didn’t really care about the central characters’ situations, I still enjoyed Cannon’s book, because she writes so engagingly. She pulls the reader in with humour and a wry smile. Even the chapters where the Kapoor family move into the estate and are received with well-meaning ethnocentricity, however predictable the situation, resonated as credible and I cheered at the put-downs, even though I saw them coming. Cannon moves skilfully between character, setting, time and I admired her book for it’s control and creativity.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is set in Iceland and the changes of weather and the bleak harshness of the landscape parallels the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a prisoner awaiting execution for stabbing a man and burning a house. The story is told through Agnes’ ‘confession’ to a naive priest and also through a more objective third person narrative. Agnes is housed and made to work on a farm after her trial and we see her through the eyes of those who don’t doubt her guilt. It is a gripping story, in which information, action and  background seep skilfully  through each chapter and we are always in touch with the characters’ feelings. We grow to like the hardened Margret, we understand the complex Natan. Reverend Toti’s dilemmas and their effect upon his faith are completely credible and there is a little of Agnes in us all: we admire her wilful passion, her independent spirit, her strength and ability to survive and her internal monologue is always informative and loaded with impact. It is because I could visualise and empathise with the many complex characters that I liked this book the most.

There is much to be learned from talented authors: the way they write, their choice of style and words, the way they evoke setting, character, action, time, is always fascinating and it is so helpful to analyse techniques used by popular authors. McEwan is a talented writer whose prose is effortless on the page. Cannon writes with wit, mischief and is entertaining while keeping her novel’s tension tightly bound. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a page-turner: she has written a whirlwind of a novel which, for me, fuses character and action and tension in such a way that my imagination is illuminated like a technicolour screen.

All three books are highly recommended. They are, each in their own way, complete and powerful. One is the work of a maestro conductor who has performed many times and can continue to perform with his eyes shut: one is a witty, smart solo debut which promises much more in the future; one is a memorable night at a rock concert which leaves the audience danced out, sweaty, sublimely happy and smiling for days to come.

 

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‘Mary and Max’ – ‘All humans are imperfect’

Mary and Max is a 2010 stop motion animated film by Adam Elliot. It is narrated by Barry Humphries: Mary is voiced by Toni Collette and Max is voiced by Philip Seymour-Hoffman.

Mary is a young Australian girl with a distant, overworked father and a kleptomaniac, alcoholic mother.

Mary is bullied at school and lonely. She finds herself in a post office and discovers a telephone book of American addresses. A curious child who has no-one to answer her questions, she selects a random address and her correspondence with Max begins. Their letters to each other are natural and honest. Mary tells Max about a neighbour who is agoraphobic.

He’s scared of outside, which is a disease called homophobia.

Max is a 44 year old Jewish atheist who is morbidly obese and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is isolated and, despite having an anxiety attack when he reads Mary’s letter, he is compelled to write back to her. A bond develops, despite Max having difficulties relating to other people.

Max knew nothing about love. It was as foreign to him as a salad sandwich.

Their relationship is poignant and charming and it begins because they both have a liking for chocolate and a TV cartoon show. Max is able through his letters to explain to the young Mary that he has problems with relationships.

People often think I am tactless and rude. I cannot understand how being honest can be improper. Maybe this is why I don’t have any friends.

Their letters serve to develop their characters. Mary is unsupported at a time in her life where she is looking for a strongly influential role model and, in Max, Elliot is showing us a caring and heroic individual who is thoughtful and generous, even though he is misunderstood and marginalised by society.

I was born Jewish and used to believe in God but I’ve since read many books that have proven God is just a figment of my imagination. People like to believe in God ’cause it answers difficult questions, like where did the universe came from, do worms go to heaven and why do old ladies have blue hair. And even though I’m an atheist, I still wear my yarmulke as it keeps my brain warm.

Max has a breakdown: he is institutionalised and his correspondence with Mary stops for several years. Then on his 48th birthday, Max’s fortunes change with a lottery win.

Not much has happened since I last wrote except for my manslaughter charges, lotto win, and Ivy’s death.

Mary has grown up, married childhood sweetheart Damien (Eric Bana); she goes to university and writes a book on Asperger’s Syndrome with the intention to cure Max. He feels misunderstood, exploited and rips the letter M from his typewriter.

The rest of the story line is not to be spoiled for people who haven’t seen the film, but the characters’ lives take unexpected turns and the tension is palpable.

At the end of the film, Mary and her baby visit Max in New York. The ending is surprising, powerful and  the music Que Sera Sera is used as an ironic semiotic for the unexpected things which happen in life.

The impact of Mary and Max is twofold. Firstly, it is the intention of Elliot not to avoid the important discussion of issues such as loneliness, childhood neglect, alcoholism, depression, suicide, anxiety, isolation and the importance of friendship. Asperger’s Syndrome is dealt with in detail and, although not everyone with AS will manifest all of Max’s problems, the film serves to show clearly that autism and other ‘disabilities’ are in fact not the lens through which we should see the whole individual, but that the individual should be accepted wholly for who they are. Max writes to Mary:

Dr. Bernard Hazelhoff said if I was on a desert island, then I would have to get used to my own company – just me and the coconuts. He said I would have to accept myself, my warts and all, and that we don’t get to choose our warts. They are part of us and we have to live with them. We can, however, choose our friends, and I am glad I have chosen you.

The second strength of Mary and Max is the remarkable impact of the medium of stop-motion animation which renders the film both informative and funny. The characters are beautifully created and the use of music and the witty script are completely effective and the rapport between all the characters is bittersweet and heartwarming.

Taken for what it is, an animated film which has a message but is, at the same time appealing, moving and thought-provoking,  Mary and Max is a really good film to be enjoyed and treasured. It is certainly not just for children.

Tetro, anyone? Not for me, thanks.

Have you ever seen a trailer for a film and thought ‘This looks brilliant. I must watch it.’ Then you watch it and all the best bits were in the trailer and the rest of the film is just not for you? That’s Francis Ford Coppola’s black and white film, ‘Tetro’.

It’s quite an old film now – it came out in 2009 – and I hadn’t seen it, but the trailer depicted a lively film with a strange and quirky rapport between two brothers, one a young ingénu and another eccentric and jaded. The younger, Bennie, is now a waiter on a cruise ship and he visits his older brother, Tetro, in Buenos Aires. Tetro is crotchety, not pleased to see him, he refuses to call him brother. He lives with Miranda, a psychiatrist who has nursed him back to health and now she panders to his every need.

At first it looks like Tetro – played quite well by Vincent Gallo – is an interesting character. He’s mercurial, enigmatic, charismatic and petulant. At first, it feels like we’re watching a play by Tennessee Williams: both men share an overbearing father who somehow destroyed their lives and, in particular, was the abusive driving force behind Tetro’s disappearance. So when the brothers meet, there is some unravelling of their past to be done and sparks will inevitably fly.

The acting is good. Certainly, Gallo as Tetro and Maribel Verdú as Miranda do their best with an implausible script. Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie is credible, despite looking like Dicaprio as Arnie Grape.

 

 

The film has several problems for me: it is indulgent, boring, contrived, implausible, over-complicated and pretentious.

Harsh words, certainly, but just watch the scene where Tetro walks towards the awards ceremony carrying an axe and his subsequent interchange with Bennie,  where the poor actor playing Tetro has to repeatedly beg his ‘brother’ to kill him. It just doesn’t work.

Subsidiary characters are stereotypes. The camera shows several women’s bodies from an aesthetic male viewpoint: the film stems from a rigid concept where women exist to serve men and I was never going to get much from such a conceit. Poor Miranda does everything for Tetro, only to be harangued, blamed, stood up and ignored. She even pours his breakfast coffee and gives him spiritual and career guidance. We see in flashback the scene where she fell in love with him. She was his psychotherapist and he was aloof and damaged, a gifted writer burned out and in need of being rescued and revived. So of course this beautiful woman rescues him and dedicates her life to his genius and continues to do it against odds and abuse. Not my sort of film at all!

The story which follows includes Tetro’s patriarchal misuse at the hands of his father who is a genius conductor. Tetro is damaged for so many reasons: flashbacks show us his part in a car accident involving his opera singer mother and his loss of true love, provoked by his egomaniac father. Bennie’s mother is in a coma. Some of these scenes are shown as ballets and we’re supposed to drop our jaws at the meaningful moment. It doesn’t work: it is pretentious and improbable and all the while, the women are rag dolls, drudges, dupes or dead.

There is a scene where Tetro is driven to Patagonia by Miranda where he will, finally, be rewarded for his genius. We see the sparkling light from the sun on the snow of the mountain range reflected in his eyes like daggers, blinding him and making him look hollowed and mesmerised. This is just too indulgent.

It’s hard to equate Coppola with this film; here is the director who brought us ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Godfather’.

I suppose everyone has their off days. ‘Tetro’ was certainly his!

‘Howl’ is a fantastic fusion film.

Love the poem, love the man, love the film.

‘Howl’ is a 2015 film about the landmark obscenity trial in 1957, concerning ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg’s signature poem. It features excerpts from the poem as we see beat poet Ginsberg reading his work to an adoring audience of famous writers such as Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The film takes us back to a time in the fifties when jazz was blowing in the clubs and there were fixed ideas about what made poetry valid and acceptable and what was considered to be breaking the boundaries of decency. Ginsberg is a pioneer poet and his work changed public perceptions.

We cross cut to the trial where ‘Howl’, Ginsberg’s first published piece, was considered obscene because it dealt with  subject matter and used language which had been previously taboo. A few years later, in England, D H Lawrence’s Lady ‘Chatterley’ was put through the same ordeal. Both writers works are seminal and influenced the freedoms we share as writers and readers.

‘Howl’ is considered to be one of the great works of American literature. It has a hallucinatory style which tumbles from the page and the tongue. It is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a psychiatric institution.

‘Howl’, the film, will not be to everyone’s taste. I think it may be better suited to people who love poetry, performance poetry and who are interested in the seminal jazz age and have a vested interest in hearing James Franco, who plays Ginsberg, read chunks of the poem out loud in his strong, musical voice. It’s not your standard linear story.

It’s not an easy  film: it’s not divided into three or five acts. Three strands interweave and some people may find this halting as it interrupts suspension of disbelief or emotional investment.

For me, the three parts of the film worked well. Franco as Ginsberg reading his work or being interviewed by an unseen reporter is the main element of the film,  which fills in detail and biography. The trial of ‘Howl’ which, interestingly Ginsberg doesn’t attend, is fascinating in its own right for the comparison of witnesses: experts who demonstrate hypocrisy by suggesting that ‘Howl’ is obscene  and has no literary merit contrasting with others who consider the talent of Ginsberg to be a breakthrough in literature.

The third strand is an animated interpretation of the poem, which we see as a graphic interpretation as Ginsberg reads. It may be somewhat crude and dated as animation, but it serves perfectly to illustrate the poet’s intention and puts his own experiences at the heart of his writing.

James Franco is well cast as Ginsberg. He recreates the poet’s conviction, his vulnerability and his  engaging personality credibly. The era of the Beat Generation with its new thoughts about freedom, the music, the influential characters and the integral arts movements are evoked colourfully and I found the film worked well.

Some people will prefer an interpretation which is less documentary and more linear and perhaps therefore more satisfying as a biopic. I can see the merits of such a film but, although not a Hollywood blockbuster, ‘Howl’ is interesting for its unusual interpretation. Its format of poetry, trial scenes and visual graphics works well on screen and it is a celebration of Ginsberg’s unique and thrilling talent.

I watched ‘Howl’ with people who knew nothing of the Beat Generation or the poetry of Ginsberg, and they found it exciting, so it’s not just for poetry fans like myself.

‘Game Girls’: a tough tale for today’s young readers.

I read Game Girls by Judy Waite in two hours, trying to imagine myself as a fourteen year-old reader. I was lying in a hammock in the sunshine and there was nothing to disturb me but a few tweeting birds, yet I still managed to slip from my idyllic setting into the whirling world of sixth formers, Fern, Alix and Courtney. Three girls, very different in nature, are united in their new hobby, to make easy money as sex workers.But they are very naive:

 ‘It’s actually better to charge for sex than it is for cooking. You need certificates and inspections and things to sell cooked food.’

Recently, at a writers’ conference, I signed up for a class on ‘using visual stimuli to improve  writing’. Judy Waite was the tutor. It was last thing in the afternoon – the graveyard slot – and I’d just been to one of those lazy sessions where the person leading it had prepared nothing. We were simply asked to ‘ask questions’ and I was bored.  An hour later I was thinking about going down the pub instead, but I’m so glad I went to Judy Waite’s session. Swirling around the room in a white dress, she offered us all a variety of stimulating visual images to work with and she led the group through a process which had us all writing in superb detail. She knows her stuff and she is an inspiration. I bought her book.

Game Girls is a story which will worry some school librarians in terms of its content: it’s a fast paced tale of three girls who think raising money for designer clothes and fun through paid sex will be perfectly safe. Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way, and it’s a clever story about risk and danger and Waite is warning her YA market of the pitfalls involved.

I researched readers’ response to this book – (since I’m not fourteen) – and the reception was very positive. ‘Game Girls’ benefits from the slightly risqué content.  I remember reading Go Ask Alice (by Beatrice Sparks) as a teenager for its content about sex and drugs. Novels which fill in a lot of gaps about the changing world are fascinating to youngsters. Mind you, I read the Miller’s Tale because I was told not to by an English Teacher at A-level: a bit of spice and the odd expletive will always make a story more appealing.

My research suggested that some readers found the ending of ‘Game Girls’ a bit disappointing or surprising. I read the novel from the perspective of learning from a skilful and experienced writer, so I was constantly asking myself ‘How is she going to resolve this?’ or ‘How will she deal with the next scene?’ I think the ending works very well.

Judy Waite writes with detail and flair and her characters and their dilemma are absorbing. The three central protagonists aren’t very likeable. Alix is selfish, Fern is weak, Courtney is confused. I don’t think that matters too much: the characters are deliberately flawed and written to entice the reader to enter into their lives. Waite is to be congratulated as she is unafraid of facing  important issues: she touches on child abuse, a dying parent, sexuality, bullying, rape, and she is to be lauded for her gutsy take on presenting these aspects of life to teenagers in such a way as to provoke thought.

The ending is very satisfying in some ways. Courtney meets a charming character called Elroy and he instigates a change in how she views life, offering hope. Fern and Alix, however, have different stories. I was a bit surprised about what happened to Fern and  yet it served to shape the rest of the story, leading to an ending which, like it or not, crackled with tension and resolved the action very cleverly.

Waite writes with confidence and a real understanding of character and purpose. She is also able to create setting well and bring a scene to life. For me, the strength of ‘Game Girls’ is her determination to face important issues while creating a safe platform for readers to explore the world and the potential consequences of risk. Teenagers for whom sex is a new and fascinating subject will be drawn in by Fern’s character: she is an ingénue with little confidence, a girl who finds it difficult to say no, and her experience with an on-line date at the opening of the novel is poignant and shocking, and sets the pathos of the character up for the rest of the novel.

Young people will empathise with Courtney, who is more likeable but suffers from the trauma of her past secrets and has no real respect for herself. Alix is the instigator, a spoilt rich girl for whom money is more important than the love she has been denied. All three girls learn lessons in the book and teenagers will find their experiences gripping. The consequences, too, are hard hitting enough to be thought-provoking.

Judy Waite is a good story teller and I would recommend the book to teeenagers of both genders. Her novel is part of a huge debate about banned books in school libraries and the dilemma that exists for teachers. Teenagers want to read edgy books which reflect their lives and their interests: this includes books with expletives, sexual content and issues which concern them.

Parents, however, worry about their child being confronted with material which may confuse or frighten them; parents worry about their child’s innocence being taken away, or that their child will be exposed to something which contradicts their parents’ beliefs or lifestyle. Parents have the right to monitor what their child reads but there are so many good, award winning books which may be edgy or sexually explicit which reflect the adolescent’s world back to them in a meaningful way. Certainly, I’d have read this novel as a teenager to explore a world outside my own experience..

I think Judy Waite gets it right: it’s well written, almost credible and with the right balance of explicit content. ‘Game Girls’ is a coming of age story which brings with it a warning of the dangers of the world from the safety of the desk, the armchair, the bedroom or the hammock.

‘The Fishermen’: everything about Obioma’s novel is superb.

In the blurb on the back cover of The Fishermen, New York Times suggests that ‘Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.’ I read Things Fall Apart years ago and loved it: it was the archetypal ‘modern’ African novel and the title comes from a wonderful W. B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming.

Achebe died three years ago and, if there is a second coming, there would be no more deserved nominee than Obioma. But comparisons can be irritating. Obioma is a brilliant novelist in his own right and his story The Fishermen is ripe with the themes and tensions which make a great story crackle.

The narrator is Ben, one of four brothers who are the central protagonists, although the family has two younger siblings. We quickly understand the boys’ characters, hierarchy, rivalry and filial loyalty. Obioma transports us to a Nigeria we assimilate very quickly due to the power of his visual imagery and his ability to evoke the family relationships, local characters and the vibrant sounds of nature around their compound.

The story takes wings when the brothers go fishing in a local river and a madman, Abulu, prophesies that Ikenna, the oldest brother, will be killed by one of his siblings. Despite their strong bond, the boys’ loyalty is challenged and events unfold and things really do fall apart.

Ben’s narrative is fast paced and one chapter’s haunting and harrowing events lead to another. The story is set in 1990s Nigeria and Obioma shows us a background of social disintegration and change. There is a strong sense of the Nigerian cultural belief in faith, prophecy and myth. Ben’s strict father does all in his power to control and stabilise his family’s future but, on their doorstep, there is a wild madman who masturbates in public, rapes a corpse and fries refuse in a wok. The central role of the family is clearly established and then broken apart. Ben’s close-knit unit  which once held so much promise and hope is challenged and fractured by a sequence of unavoidable consequences: the tension is palpable and thrilling.

The story is poignant but there is no excessive sentiment. Ikenna’s fate is played out and events are set in motion in a way which can’t be avoided and each brother’s story, in turn, becomes a central focus. The novel deals with Ben’s rites of passage and of him coming to terms with dilemmas which face us all: the central unavoidable question is, where does loyalty end and vengeance begin?

In chapter after chapter – and I won’t create spoilers – every member of Ben’s family is deeply affected by what happens to Ikenna and consequences heap on former consequences to create tragedy and a shocking story which makes the novel hard to put down.

Obioma’s style is always evocative, clear and never indulgent. He writes with the lucid understanding of the changing world through the eyes of a growing boy, but there is always a rich landscape of characters and setting which brings the context of modern Nigeria into sharp focus. The story accelerates with perpetual breathlessness towards a thrilling ending and it is beautifully told and always credible.

This is Obioma’s first novel and I loved it from cover to cover. It is richly imaginative, with an original voice and it’s a gripping read. Goodreading Magazine has called it ‘African Kite Runner’: I assume this is because Obioma’s ability to weave a haunting story is, like Khaled Hosseini’s, powerful and it makes for a stunning read. I will buy all of his books.