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Posts Tagged ‘Alice Munro’

The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

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I’ve grown fond of that phrase, “a zodiacal sign without portfolio.”  Pure Terry Pratchett, or Douglas Adams maybe.  And yet it comes from L.P.Hartley‘s The go-between (1953), the book that famously – even unto pub quizzes – kicks off with “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Hell, yes.  Reading the damn thing – this month’s Book Group selection – certainly proves that.  1953 – check it out – was not a good year for the novel.  It didn’t help I was reading it off the back of Alice Munro‘s remarkable The view from Castle Rock (2007) either.

 

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Guaranteed to re-awaken the inner class warrior, The go-between, set deep in Downton territory, is a tale told by a 60-something-year old virgin looking back on events that led to the ‘tragic’ happenings occurring on his 13th birthday back in the year 1900.  Leo, an in-awe country house summer guest of the much richer family of a public school chum, finds himself being useful/used – oh the delights, the moral agonies with the prospect of a new green bicycle involved – as a messenger, helping facilitate secret liaisons between the only two half-decent recognisably twentieth century human beings in the vicinity: Marian, the daughter of the house, soon to be wed to the local Boer War-damaged Earl, and Ted Burgess, a local tenant farmer.  Initially our naive Mercury hasn’t a clue what’s going on; Leo allows the denouement to scar him for life. (Not that they weren’t happening before he appeared on the scene).

This is a rite of passage tale where basically the narrator fails; other readers have, it must be admitted, had more sympathy, but he remains a snob with no sense of outrage at what Ted feels he has to do, nor, more generally, at what such a strict reading of the social order can do all, wherever in it they reside. (For what it’s worth, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was being written pretty much half way between the events related in The go-between and its publication in 1953, though it wasn’t widely available until 1960).

I feel obligated to add here, in italics, a couple of days on, that at the Book Group meeting earlier today The Go-between was described as “a devastating critique of the class system”.  This is not unreasonable; it just wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  I’ll admit to feeling – a minority of one – something of an unfeeling clod some of the time, though I still think if that’s the case then for all the subtlety of its presentation, through the eyes of a sensitive, insecure 12-year old, there had to be some anger from the older man rather than it having to be brought to the party by the reader.  It was a good meeting.

The go-between has its moments – the progress of the cricket match is nicely done, the boys’ exchanged franglais insults are a delight, there’s a wonderful description of a fully grown deadly nightshade bush – it flows, but it’s so Downton grand and precious, and Leo the adult narrator is beyond the pale (no, is so incredibly pale): “It was 11.5, five minutes later than my habitual bedtime. I felt guilty at being still up …”; “Anyhow I do not like pubs and had rarely been inside one“.   And as for a sex life – or, um, “spooning” – as he rather dramatically puts it, ‘shown’ here in the quote that follows not exactly being a fair description of what happened: “Ted hadn’t told me what it was, but he had shown me, he had paid with his life for showing me, and after that I never felt like it.”

In the matter of class, Leo is intelligent enough to recognise favourably certain elements in Ted’s behaviour, but just cannot transcend his sense of the social order to draw any critical conclusions: “Oddly enough I didn’t mind him doing this; I had an instinct that, unlike people of my own class, he wouldn’t think the worse of me for crying“.

am-viewThat is just the sort of observation that sings out – though presented more economically – in an Alice Munro story.   For her I find myself abandoning hyperbole; it’s just that she is such a good writer.  Her vivid prose manages to deliver objectivity and intimacy simultaneously.  You observe with her, you feel what her characters are learning, how their lives are coming along.  The prose is precise, unspectacular yet never spare.  The lack of sentimentality is crucial to just how moving the stories – most of her work is short stories – can be.  I’m gripped by the stuff – physical description, the weather, journey details – I skimp over with others too.  I usually take a few notes when I read; I can’t do it with her.  It doesn’t work like that.  The results are extraordinary.

The view from Castle Rock (2007) brings together two strands of stories.  The first – No advantages – developed out of her interest in family history, going back to the early nineteenth century on the Scottish borders – a place of ‘no advantages’ as a source of the time has it – and their emigrating to and hard times in North America; America is first ‘seen’ from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.  She draws on letters and journals and other documentation but the families are made flesh in a way no straight non-fiction treatment could do.  The second strand of stories – Home – is, she says, more in the nature of memoir, or at least they start from staging posts of emotional development and social awareness in her life, but somehow as short story, with that conceptual remove, they become so much more.  It’s an extraordinary reading experience.

Out and about

alice-in-stonylandThe continuing effects of a virus is are still limiting cultural ventures beyond the telly, but no way were we going to miss the local panto.  (The couple in front of us at the end of their row was also strategically placed to make an easy exit if the cough took hold – it didn’t).  The Stony Stratford Theatre Society’s production of Alice in Stonyland ay York House was a delight.  Developed from a script by Danni Kushner, who also charmed in the role of Dinah the Cat, this was a panto full of local references but refreshingly devoid of the traditional double entendres.  Great cast, great fun, great music, ovations galore.

Stonyland is in your heart
Its music will keep you strong
You don’t need to stamp your feet
You don’t need to shout
You just need to find your voice
Stand up, speak up, speak out!

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Alice in Stonyland (c) Bursteardrum Samuel Dore

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But it’s only the new one until the next one (why not a sticker if you must?); and thankfully it’s the same old Rebus – no remake or remodel – doing his stuff anyway.

Siobhan Clarke was in a corridor of the Royal Infirmary, phone held up to her face, when she recognised Rebus making his way towards her.
­‘You’re limping,’ she said.
‘Just to correct you, I’m actually walking like John Wayne.’
‘John Wayne had a limp?’
‘Technically it’s called “moseying”.’
‘So you didn’t hurt yourself kicking in a door?’

There is a lot of sharp dialogue in Rather be the devil, the latest installment in Ian Rankin‘s Rebus saga, and highly enjoyable it all is too.  The retired Rebus is picking over a society murder case that had frustrated him earlier in his career, while his old mate and protegé DI Siobhan Clarke is involved in a case involving an Edinburgh criminal gang boss.  An ex-cop that Rebus goes to see is murdered not long after their meeting, and to Siobhan’s chagrin that case is taken up by Police Scotland’s elite squad, where another Rebus regular Malcolm Fox is now working.

Inevitably – this is crime fiction, after all – the cases are intriguingly discovered to be tangentially linked, not to forget an East-European connection, and the plotting provides ample room for Rebus putting his oar in and generally getting in the way, and for inter-police re-organisation rivalries to be played out on various levels, down to an entertaining sub-plot as to who gets the milk and provides the biscuits.  Old rival old school gang boss Big Gerry Cafferty – still a player – ends up figuring significantly and the tantalising prospect is held out at the close of proceedings that the next book will indeed be, in current tv terms, a spectacular series finale involving a final conflict between our man and Big Ger.

I get the impression Rankin really enjoyed doing this one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rather be the devil rattles along as effectively as ever, Rankin the plot-juggler still more than adept at keeping the balls in the air and the tension up, but the writing seems at times to take on a more relaxed feel.  Rebus has health worries – a “Hank Marvin”, a shadow on his lung – and is drinking low alcohol beers, chewing nicotine gum; he is also (hurray!) in a stable relationship with a woman.  Even though Rebus’s cold case involves a rock musician, the explicit musical references – becoming something of a genre cliché in certain circles – are thankfully more restrained.  The book’s title is still taken from a track on John Martyn’s Solid air album, though …

john-martin-solid-airstaring out at the night. Then he had walked to the record deck. Solid air was still there from the evening Deborah Quant had stayed over. It was an album that had always been there for him, no matter the troubles in his life. And Hadn’t John Martyn been troubled too? Johnny Too Bad – hitting the booze, falling out and brawling with friends and lovers. One leg hacked off in the operating theatre. But barreling on through life, singing and playing until the end.

… and without giving anything away there’s Over the hill, another Solid air track playing in the background in the restaurant in the final pages.  Rory Gallagher is really the only other featured artist.  Rebus is on a long drive with Malcolm Fox:

… I need to do a bit of thinking, which necessitates muting you – sorry about that.’
‘Muting me?’
Rebus reached for the stereo, pushing a button. Music burst from the speakers, filling the car as Rebus pressed his foot against the accelerator. Had Fox been any kind of music buff, he might have recognised the guitar sound, Rory Gallagher, ‘Kickback City’.

Ah, Malcolm Fox.  I salute you, Ian Rankin, for keeping faith with the man you created in your writer’s holiday from Rebus, and I realise you’re trying here, with Rebus off-handedly tutoring him in the ways of becoming a ‘real’ detective, in his heroism, but he’s condemned in his own words: “nobody paid him any heed.  He remembered that he was good at this – blending in, becoming invisible. He’d always enjoyed stakeouts and tailing suspects“; I’m afraid he remains anonymous, I can’t visualise him.  Siobhan deserves better as a beau (which seems to be the way the wind’s blowing).

Ah, Siobhan.  Calls for a bit of a diversion beyond teh printed page.  The original Rebus TV series, with John Hannah in the lead part, didn’t really work; Hannah was too young, too handsome.  I seem to recall that Rankin – apart from a Hitchcockian appearance as an extra – said he wasn’t getting involved in the production or script side of things at all.  Not even wanting to watch the finished product.  Something about Colin Dexter’s Morse, how in Dexter’s later books Morse morphed into the character actor John Thaw was playing, that the author allowed himself to lose control of his creation.

rebus_7078788Subsequent series of Rebus, with Ken Stott’s Rebus the living breathing character straight off the page, have fared much better in reflecting the books.  I’ve been watching them again recently and they strike me as being one of the best cop shows out there.  What I do wonder is whether Ian Rankin has been watching; although the character in the book has not changed, the dialogue here is sharper and wittier and I can’t help but, when reading, see it coming out of Ken Stott’s mouth.

But Siobhan … how great is Claire Price’s portrayal of Siobhan?  Impossible, I’d say, to replicate her reactions in prose: the half-smile, her muted grimaces, the odd gentle smirk – sometimes all at the same time –  her whole facial repertoire of affection, amusement, appalled admiration and suppressed surprise; but they all had to be hinted there in the text for her to pick so fully up on.  Worth a mention too is Jennifer Black’s performances as DCI Gill Templar, Rebus’s boss and former lover; the scene where Siobhan Clarke discovers that past liaison is a joy to behold.  Tremendous performances that I don’t think get the credit they deserve, and fully born of the books.

Before we leave Edinburgh here’s a snippet, a taste and feel of the lightness among the mayhem in Rather be the devil:

The solitary barman was entertaining the only two drinkers in the place to a sullen silence, the new arrivals doing nothing except darken his mood.
‘Help ye?’ he snapped.
‘Bottle of your best champagne, please,’ Rebus said.
‘If ye want fizz, we’ve got cider and lager.’
‘Both of them fine substitutes.’ Rebus held out the two photos. ‘Care to take a look?’

… dialogue  the likes of which you are unlikely to find many examples in the works of Alice Munro, where the odd wry smile is more the order of the day among much else of emotional import and the forensic examination is mostly taking place in the particular region of the heart.  Come to think of it, Siobhan might have escaped from one of her stories.

alice-munro-dear-lifeNobel Prize for Literature winner Alice Munro has been on my check-her-out list for at least a couple of decades, so thanks to the Book Group I can tick her off that list and transfer her onto the almost-certainly-read-some-more one.  (These are not real lists).  Shame of it is I left the reading of Dear Life (2012) late for the Book Group meeting and so had to zip through it when really I should have been savouring every word.

Hers is not a flashy prose, but it sings, takes you straight into how her people feel the changes in their lives; she documents social change in communities – post-war rural church-going, small town Canada through to the ’70s – through the events in women’s and men’s lives.  Intense, insightful, poignant, painful, melancholic, nuanced, rarely but oh so sweetly celebratory.  Loves lost, love foiled, found or never had.  Hopes extinguished, held on to, or newly discovered through the shifting sands of contingency, coincidence, happenstance.  And growing old.  That title – Dear Life – puts it so nicely.

Dear Life, published when she was 81, so probably her last collection, consists of 10 short stories and a Finale of 4 “not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last – and the closest – things I have to say about my own life.”  These ‘not quite’ stories are fascinating, covering her childhood and early youth: the moment she failed to believe her socially aspiring mother; her father seeing her through a scary unhappiness, and various other events, described so vividly:

I think that if I was writing fiction instead of remembering something that happened, I would never have given her that dress. A kind of advertisement she didn’t need. [from Voices]

You would think that this was just too much. The business gone, my mother’s health going, it wouldn’t do in fiction. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember that time as unhappy. There wasn’t a particularly despairing mood around the house. [from Dear Life]

There’s enough in the ten stories for at least half of them to justify novels of their own.  Dolly, which starts with an old couple, the man a poet once celebrated for his first book of love poems, looking for the perfect place to end their lives together, before they become too decrepit (spoiler alert: they don’t) takes on some wondrous and distressing turns in the twenty or thirty odd pages as the story unfolds.  Haven, a multi-layered family tale of disastrous good intentions involving a cellist and sibling indifference, builds to a stunning climax at a big church funeral, and along the way contains a deliciously strident (what we could now call anti-metropolotitan elite) rant:

“Now tell me,” my uncle is saying, addressing me as if nobody else were there, “tell me, do your parents go in for this sort of thing? What I mean is, this kind of music? Concerts and the like? They ever pay money to sit down for a couple of hours and wear their bottoms out listening to something they wouldn’t recognize half a day later? Pay money simply to perpetrate a fraud? You ever know them to do that?”

Funnily enough, at Book Group, most of us loved Dear Life, save the youngest member and a Jungian therapist.  But I’ll be reading more.

 

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