28.7.13

Don Carpenter - Hard Rain Falling

Rating 8.2

This novel was four star material for a long while of the reading process due to too much of pool games descriptions in the early and middle chapters. Masterful pool games descriptions, I reckon.
Save that I cannot stand billiard.

Anyway, just like it happened with all that baseball business in Underworld by Don De Lillo, eventually I won over my lack of interest (and knowledge) for the sake of the engaging plot.

For Don Carpenter certainly knew where to find pool joints of ill fame in the US West Coast and spent days looking at the fellows playing there, but - most importantly - he knew how to write a eight ball of a first novel at the age of 33. Yes, it's hard to believe that, but this is a first novel.

I won't lie here.
Hard Rain Falling took a good 50 pages to get me (blame it on the snooker), but at the end of the day it deserves the highest mark. This is a sincere, brave and poignant novel.

It's sincere because the author never tries to be cheeky, but rewards the reader writing about people rather than characters. People who think and double-think, bluff and double-bluff. People who pose questions to themselves and often struggle to find the appropriate answer, but never stop trying.

It's brave because Carpenter writes about heavy topics such as social isolation, gambling, racial issues, alcoholism, flawed justice, incarceration, masturbation, homosexuality, and postpartum depression. These contents are always handled at just the right time and delivered in a straightforward and yet profound way.

It's poignant because one cannot help but feeling more and more emotionally attached to Jack Levitt and Billy Lancing - the two protagonists of the novel - in all their misadventures. Levitt and Lancing are actually pretty distasteful cats at the beginning of the novel, but Carpenter let them be and somehow they both grew on me.


This song by John Grant fits the mood of the novel very well

I'm glad this book got republished. It was a shame to let it fade neglected.

In some of its parts this novel reminded me of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, but Hard Rain Falling is more realistic than that and displays a much better psychological insight on the main protagonists. Which is kind of funny if you think that this is a work of fiction while Capote wrote about something that really happened.

Unlike the one by Capote this is not a novel about crime and its punishment. And neither a novel about moral redemption and its social rewards. Hard Rain Falling is a book about outcasts looking for something they're not fully aware of: their real selves.

Johnny Cash would have loved it. Live at San Quentin was recorded in 1969. Carpenter's novel was published only five years earlier and features plenty of the same prison

21.7.13

Julian Maclaren-Ross - Of Love and Hunger

Rating 7.7

Well, to be completely honest with you, I had even forgotten I bought this one on a second hand books purchasing spree in Paris. Then, as soon as I've seen the novel on my bookshelves stuck in between scores of moth-eaten Penguin titles by David Lodge and George Orwell, I remembered how excited I was when I found it back in France.

Now you know it.
I will be partial in this review.

As a matter of fact, there's no other place and time in literature which I like more than England between the 1930s and 1940s.
Think about this. In a span of 15 years and a radius of 100 miles from London novelists such as the aforementioned Orwell, Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Christopher Isherwood, Evelyn Waugh and P.G Wodehouse wrote some of the best stuff I've ever read.

From now onwards, I will make sure to include the name of Julian Maclaren-Ross in this pantheon of mine.  For Of Love and Hunger is one of those novels which does leave a mark.

If I taught my own class of English literature of the 1930s and 1940s I would tell my students to read this book together with The Slaves of Solitude by Hamilton, Coming Up For Air by Orwell, Put Out More Flags by Waugh and The Ministry of Fear or Brighton Rock by Greene.

Julian Maclaren-Ross was an interesting chap - bit of a scoundrel if you ask me - with awful drinking habits, dandy clothes and sordid lodgings. He wore shades in all seasons, spent fortunes in the pubs and didn't manage to write as much and as good as he could have done in his debaucherous life.

However, this Of Love and Hunger is an achievement in itself.

There's only one thing that doesn't work here and it's the title of the novel.
Even though there is something called love (and not predominant) here, I cannot see what that hunger stands for.

The protagonist of the novel, Mr Fanshawe is no wealthy man, but certainly doesn't starve or doesn't wish to starve (à la Hamsun) to get his daydreaming sharpened.
Richard Francis Fanshawe is not really hungry for something. This guy does have a strong character, has principles and knows how to slam doors, but shows no proper ambition to take charge of his life. Mr Fanshawe has no happiness to pursue. He's spoon-fed by events. He doesn't wolf life down.
Would Of Love and Anger have been a better title, then? I think so.

So what does work great here?

Uh, quite a number of things. First and foremost the writing style. Maclaren-Ross' style is so terse and yet meaningful, the sentences so short and straight, the lines of dialogues delivered like bullets that one cannot get distracted.
I could easily picture the author sitting at his desk pushing the keys of his typewriter in a bout of apparently furious but calculated inspiration with a bottle of whiskey on his left and a flask of gin on his right

Then there is the dark humour.
I cannot recall such brilliant grim humour in, say, Patrick Hamilton another half-forgotten British author of the same period with whom Maclaren-Ross shared much in lifestyle and in prose.
Of Love and Hunger is certainly derivative in some of its parts paying a clear debt to Keep the Aspidistra Flying and introducing a capricious female character, Sukie, who bears many a resemblance with the suburban femme fatales portrayed by Hamilton and Waugh.

Nevertheless, the ability of Maclaren-Ross shines when introducing the reader to the pedestrian world of vacuum-cleaner door to door sellers. These sometimes young and always disillusioned chaps lead a depressing life made of 'rackets', 'dems' (demonstrations) dreaming for sales and commissions while hoping to escape a sudden 'sack' (termination).

These people are a lost generation of no public-schooled, hardened Englishmen who took the first job they could find out in the street and are unsure if considering themselves members of the working class. Having a problem to define their own identity, these vacuum-cleaner sellers spend their time trying to outsmart each other, eventually getting all swindled by their 'team leaders' and ultimately by the firm they work for. Not that they care much to lose: they have never won and never will.

Julian Maclaren-Ross is masterful and pitiless in portraying the competition between the two rival vacuum-cleaner firms Richard Francis Fanshawe has to work for.
A competition which looks so dramatically contemporary to me with all of its empty slogans, its fake team spirit, its 'best seller awards', its internal hyerarchies, its dodgy 'schools' where agents are told what to do and say to sell well.
All of this reminded me of at least a couple of places where I worked and is surprisingly close to the whole customer service subculture now so ubiquitous in the UK (and elsewhere).

This is a novel written in 1947 and set around 1938 so I assume it was not regarded as 'ahead of its times' when it got published. But still, Of Love and Hunger deserves to be read and enjoyed for plenty of bloody good reasons in AD 2013. Go and find yours.

19.7.13

Sometown-on-Thames

Morris dancing kills boredom.
Fact: take an off-key accordion,
coloured napkins tied to white sleeves,
bells, castanets, full grown men
jumping in circles all Saturday long
on the Market Square by the Town Hall.
Now, how do you guys feel
in this corner of good old England
estranged from the Home Counties
and kept afloat on the Thames?

Back to the working week.
It's business as usual (9 am 5 pm)
down the three hours free High Street
one bank, two banks, an estate agency
a second branch of the first bank
Oxfam, WH Smith, another charity shop
then a co-operative funeral care
opposite the fish and chips
and before a score of Lebanese, Thai, Greek
Indian, Italian, Chinese takeaways (or eat in)
there where dancers, commuters, revellers
somehow end up after the sixth Friday pint
White Horse, Black Swan, Red Lion, Blue Boar
all serving the same lukewarm Greene King.

Now, if you are from here
you might know there's a river somewhere
behind Tesco, the Con Club, Saint Mary
(formerly C of E now Methodist, Anabaptist etc),
but the creek hides itself bend after bend
lulling ducks and Canadian geese winding
through lawns and skip hire wasteland.
The bell tower chimes half past seven
A squirrel jumps from a fence to an old MG
Today The Herald asked for 'More trees'
To be honest, I couldn't see that happening
Morris dancing in progress: bear with me.


The Ghosts of Summertime Past

12.7.13

David Mitchell - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Rating 6.6

If you go to the beautiful and recently re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, make sure not to miss the rooms dedicated to the deeds of the Dutch East India Company.

You will see heaps of colonialist paintings and dioramas showing ships flying the Dutch flag docked to piers surrounded by dark skinned slaves sweating their hearts out in plantations dotted by the random elephant.

When walking over these paintings, please spend some time looking at the one portraying a romanticised view of the Grote Postweg 'created by Dutch engineers' and running across the island of Java in Indonesia.
If you read the through the tiny lines of the painting caption, you will learn that up to 12,000 Indonesian unpaid workers died building up the Grote Postweg. Don't get fooled by the innocent name The Great Post Road' as this was actually a military road used by occupying Dutchmen and Frenchmen to defend in a more suitable way Java from the British forces (who eventually never showed up).

This preamble to say that Dutch colonialism which is still known in The Netherlands as a key element of De Gouden Eeuw (The Golden Age) was far from being based exclusively on trade, science and art. While the works, ideas and thoughts of Spinoza, Rembrandt, Grotius, and Huygens flourished back in the motherland the Dutch East India Company made money overseas. And moneymaking is not exactly the province of honest and gallant gentlemen.

One of the greatest peaceful achievements of the Dutch East India Company was the creation of the first European commercial outpost in Japan on the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki.

You will find a cute scale model of Dejima in the Rijksmuseum looking like it has been made with matchsticks and paper tissues. The whole island was a tiny thing no bigger than a modern day football pitch but played a significant role in opening up Shogun Japan to the outside world for bad or for good.

One of the colonial dioramas displayed at the Rijksmuseum. This is about Suriname.

















One day in the 1990s David Mitchell - back then an English teacher in Japan - was wandering through Nagasaki and stumbled into the former Dejima which had been swallowed up by the city growth in the meantime and was no more an island but a neighbourhood wrapped up in motorways.
Thus the decision, years later, to write this novel. Or this is how Mr Mitchell explained it.

The result is a compelling story all right, but left me quite disappointed due to many a historical inaccuracy I believe David Mitchell should have studied his subject more carefully before embarking on such an ambitious novel. True, some of the characters are drawn very well here and the carefully chosen setting of the novel is not a mere background but actually a fascinating standout by itself.
All the same, I couldn't switch off my reader's brain and just bask in the old land of the rising sun.

Dejima in all its mighty if slightly diminutive glory

I'm not an expert on 18th century Japan, but there are a few bits of information here which left me dubious while leafing through the pages. I will give you two.

a) It's the year 1799 and Mitchell tells us that some Japanese women spend their time playing mahjong. Now this rang an off-key bell as the game is actually a Chinese one. By checking online it seems that the game was imported to Japan only in 1924 by a soldier coming back from China.
Mahjong known and played (by women!) in an isolated community in rural Japan in the year 1799? Hmm, very unlikely.

b) Same year. A Japanese scholar suggests that his fellow countrymen should learn how to use and produce rifles to defend themselves, thus avoiding being exterminated 'like the natives of Van Diemen's Land'.
Now, in AD 1799 Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was not even fully explored and the awful, bloody massacre of its local population - known as the Black War - began no earlier than 1804 lasting around thirty years. Someone stating in 1799 that the natives of Van Diemen's Land are exterminated was either a foreseer or the proud owner of a customised Delorean car hidden in a barn.

I'm not sure if I can forgive David Mitchell his laziness even though I rather enjoyed his way of writing.
After all, he lived in Japan and he was supposed to check his facts.*

This is how Dejima looks like in present day Nagasaki

*Surfing around the Net, I've found an interview in which Mitchell claims that he spent FOUR years researching this novel. Apparently he got very concerned regarding the existence of shaving cream in 1799. It's a pity that he overlooked many other significant details.

5.7.13

Evelyn Waugh - Put Out More Flags

Rating 7.6

ROYAL MARINE CORPS                              
Per Mare, Per Terram

Memorandum for:
Flow Bookshop, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China

Subject:
Recommendation for Special Duty

1. I am privileged to write in support of one of our members, CAPT Evelyn Waugh. CAPT Waugh was assigned to our naval base in Chatham and has soon been involved in a daily training routine that left him with - quoting CPL. Chubb - 'so stiff a spine that he found it painful even to pick up a pen'. 
During the time CAPT Waugh has spent here in Chatham, I have witnessed his tremendous growth and development among other Men at Arms. This development came not only in the area of literary works, but in maturity and character as well.

2. CAPT Waugh arrived here as an incipient writer eager to make his mark and certainly not expecting to make quick progress through the ranks. At first, he had difficulty adapting to regimental life meaning that he soon lost his command and became his battalion's Intelligence Officer. In his capacities of IO, CAPT Waugh finally saw action leading his men to withdraw from Dakar hampered by a Handful of Dust and misinformed by Black Mischief about the extent of the town's defences. But eventually he learned the valuable trait of humility and enjoyed the opportunity to learn from his older peers and supervisors.

3. CAPT Waugh was later required to assist in the evacuation of Crete. Even though he was shocked by the disorder, loss of discipline and - as he saw it - cowardice of the departing troops to the extent he called them Vile Bodies, CAPT Waugh proved to be an invaluable asset all through the most unfortunate Decline and Fall of a British outpost.

4. CAPT Waugh quickly learned to manage his time, work in group situations under strict deadlines and to recognize the importance of a strong work ethic, persistence, and integrity. He has become the most valuable and dependable member of our section and is a role model for newly assigned Officers and Gentlemen alike.

5. I recommend CAPT Waugh as the officer appointed to return the unabridged book entitled Put Out More Flags to you with absolute confidence. The aforementioned book has recently been found in Abingdon, UK after having last been seen in room 5090 of the Shangri-La's Mactan Island Resort, Cebu, Republic of the Philippines on 2nd January 2004. We have reasons to believe that the book was brought to the Philippines by a former employee of the CIA who leaked details of several top-secret US and British government mass surveillance programs to the press and travelling by the name of Basil Seal. It is my opinion that CAPT Waugh would be a trustful envoy to accomplish this mission and I highly recommend him.

Yours faithfully,
LTG Sir Alistair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington Esq, CBE