Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Millennials may have plenty to moan about but their children – so long as the public libraries stay open – have the richest ever variety of picture books available for their delight and edification. Here are a couple of favourites that I’ve encountered in grandparentage.

Ed Vere‘s Grumpy Frog (Puffin, 2017) is a morality tale.  Grumpy Frog insists glories in being green to the detriment of all other colours, particularly pink.  He has a running dialogue with his author as to his grumpiness: Green ROCKS my world! / Leaves are green … YEAH! / Grass is green … FISTPUMP! / DUDE! Frogs are green! / See … NOT grumpy!”  He won’t go swimming with his friends (water’s blue), and a bouncing game is out because it involves yellow, so they go off without him.

After a while he’s in existential crisis: “WHY ISN’T EVERYTHING GREEN? / WHY do I eat flies? / WHY isn’t it my birthday TODAY? / Why won’t anyone hop with me? / I miss hopping / I miss my friends.” 

Pink Rabbit, also into hopping, offers to be his friend, but … yup, no go.  So along comes a crocodile who eats frogs.  It is pointed out to frog that the crocodile is also green.  He is made to realise he is being both grumpy and really mean; he wises up and escapes the croc’s jaws because it only likes to eat grumpy frogs.  Grumpy Frog apologises to Pink Rabbit and is forgiven.  Dude! We all love hopping … together!” Not quite the end, and I’ve missed other bits, but I’ll leave it there.

Can’t say two-and-three-quarters grandson entirely gets Grumpy Frog but he likes it well enough, and it keeps its fun for we who do the reading.  There’s a crocodile to the fore in our next book too, but until he can read most of the pleasure’s mine.

Open very carefully: a book with bite, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne ‘with words by Nick Bromley‘ (Nosy Crow, 2013) plays with the book format something rotten.  It sets out to be a twee Han Christian Andersen’s The ugly duckling, but there’s an invading crocodile on the loose.  “What’s he doing in this book?

He’s on the move and what he’s doing is eating the letters (“I think his favourite letters are O and S“) before graduating to “… whole words and sentences!”  To stop him it’s suggested we rock the book backwards and forwards.  He nods off.  Revenge attack: let’s draw a pink tutu and ballet shoes on him – “not such a scary crocodile now!

Waking up he is not a happy croc but he’s fed up with this scene and makes a run for it, only to bump his snout against the book’s edge.  Taking pity, we give the book a shake to no avail, but he’s sussed it for himself and … eats his way out.  Of an actual hole in the last two pages and back cover.

Meanwhile, over in the adult section …

I don’t normally do supernatural horror – have never even (whisper it) read a Stephen King – but Sarah Pinborough‘s The reckoning (US: Leisure Book, 2005) is set in the small town I’ve lived in for the last decade – Streatford for Stony Stratford, Gallows Hill for Galley Hill, Dulverton for Wolverton (ouch, though note the publication date), York House for York House – so why not?

Spooky almost from the outset?  Rob, one of the main characters, is a successful horror novelist who moves back to his hometown; Ms Pinborough is a successful writer some of whose work is deep in the genre who has recently moved back to this very same home town (just round the corner, in fact).  The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ springs to mind, doesn’t quite fit, but I’ll use it anyway.

At a recent local event Sarah said she’d bought back the rights to her first three books (The reckoning was her second).  I’m speculating more to stop the American publisher cashing in on the recent success of the bestselling Behind her eyes and Cross her heart (see below), than out of embarrassment, because it aint half bad.  Indeed it shares some major ingredients with those two much later books – strong characters who swear a bit, friendship across class divides, multiple viewpoints, shifting timelines, an eventful youth coming back to bite, masterful suspense, at least one major narrative twist, and crushing climaxes.

I could nit-pick – the role of the police and other authorities in all the shenanigans is too peripheral – and everything would be much more tightly drawn these days, but in the face of an energetic prose I read on apace just the same.  That since reading it I’ve felt a frisson when I walk down Ousebank Way to get to the river, as I often do, must count as a measure of the book’s success, I’d say.  And after the peaceful resolution, ends all tied where they can be, there’s a beautifully executed tease, charming and chilling, left hanging there in the Epilogue.

Sarah Pinborough‘s latest novel, Cross her heart (HarperCollins, 2018) is such a taut page-turner that it’s difficult to write about in any detail without giving some of the game away. This time around she has eschewed the supernatural and come up with a powerful mainstream psychological thriller featuring,  ultimately, one of the most twisted psyches I’ve ever encountered in fiction (not that I hunt them out, mind).  The book displays all the characteristics listed in talking about with The reckoning above, but the writing and plotting is so much tighter.  There are twists, red herrings and turns aplenty, all topped off with an intriguing road trip pursuit, a scary climax (in Skegness) and a deeply satisfying coda.

The story is told through a web of first person present tense narratives and thought-streams (Now) from three people, interlaced with some Before and After, and significant Him and Her, passages.  The three are Lisa, a single mum, the main woman; Ava, her young teenage daughter, who is being groomed, and disappears; along with Marilyn, Lisa’s best friend from work.  They speak naturally, without particular inflection, with the occasional bon mot thrown in, but there’s no confusion as to who’s head we’re in (something I’ve often struggled with in similar circumstances).   Office intrigue and mother /daughter angst feature early on, and the office delivers a client-cum-romantic lead, who turns out to be highly useful; here’s a book that should be tremendous multi-episode TV.

There’s stuff in Lisa’s past that the others (and we) haven’t got a clue about that is the slow reveal crucial to what’s going on.  If I think too much about this mechanism, the accusation of we the reader being cheated creeps in, a low thought rebutted, I’m prepared to cede, by the real-time nature of Lisa’s worries as they mount.  And indeed they do.

Cross her heart gives great read.  Here’s Marilyn, a nice foil to Lisa, with marriage problems of her own – “My lasagne grows cold. Untouched and unwanted. I know how it feels” – giving a taste of the knots of the situation:

It’s a mean thought and I realise what a bitch being under so much stress is making me.  If Lisa were here we’d probably laugh at it, but alone it’s just bitter and mean.  But if Lisa were here none of this would be happening at all.

And here’s Lisa, on the run and on the hunt:

I pray to a God I don’t believe in before trying my debit card in a cash point, and I laugh with relief when it spits out the maximum two hundred and fifty pounds.  […]  I ditch my card, my handbag and Alison’s phone in a nearby bin and quickly go to Boots and buy battery-operated hair clippers and blue spray hair dye, make-up and black nail varnish.  I visit three charity shops in a row and buy the hippiest, grungiest clothes I can find, along with an army surplus jacket and some second-hand Doc Martens that just about fit.  I pick up a load of big junk jewellery of crosses and skulls and some leather bracelets.  […] They’d be underestimating me. Be big and bold and hide in plain sight. Be someone new.

Speaking of television:

The handmaid’s tale does grind on doesn’t it?  But that Our father who art in heaven … seriously? What the actual fuck?” muttered by Offred over the title sequence after that gruelling 11 minutes ritual execution scene opening episode 1 of the 2nd series is almost enough in itself to justify the whole continued enterprise.

Meanwhile, belatedly, another classic from the pen of Alison Graham, TV critic extraordinaire, in Radio Times, this time about the ITV series The Split, which finished at the end of May:

Characters in The Split spend an awful lot of time on bridges. Here’s hotshot divorce solicitor Hannah on the Millennium Bridge in London looking mournful as she absorbs the full import of revelations about her perfectly nice husband.
Once Hannah is in the office, though, Creepy Christie contrives to be a constant presence in her sightline, passing her glances so laden with meaning I’m surprised his eyebrows don’t fall off.
As Abi Morgan’s syrupy romance glides to a close on a sea of sentiment, we end with a wedding and a turn of events we can all see coming. The door marked Second Series is clearly left ajar. Please, slam it, lock it and walk away.

Amen.  I’ve not watched it, but she’s been on its case from the start, and when it comes to television dramas, Alison Graham is a woman to be trusted.





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Atwood - Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake

I knew I’d seen it somewhere else recently when I mentioned frogs using drainpipes as echo chambers in my last post, but I’ve only just realised it was in one of the books I did scant justice to here on Lillabullero before going away for a couple of weeks.  In Margaret Atwood‘s Oryx and Crake (2003), old nerd-mate at school Crake is explaining to narrator Jimmy how wasteful and destructive courtship behaviour and notions of romantic love are both to society and the individuals involved.  Jimmy says – to paraphrase – but what about art and poetry? John Donne, Byron and all that – isn’t that worth something?  And Crake tells him about mating rituals in the frog community, where size of male croak equates with his desirability among the lady frogs and the canny male hangs out where his croak croaks loudest: So that’s what art is, for the artist,” said Crake. “An empty drainpipe. An amplifier. A stab at getting laid.

Along with Atwood‘s customary intelligence, sly wit and feel for people, the specific strength of Oryx and Crake is the slow reveal of the nature of a catastrophe unfolding 25 years previously, leaving Jimmy, aka Snowman, quite possibly the last homo sapiens left alive.  All this set in the adventure narrative of his own struggle for survival and his reluctant stewardship of the Crakers (I’m getting to them).  It’s a variation on the mad scientist theme, nuanced by the (also) slow reveal of the changing nature of the friendship of three young people who as adults have significant roles in what plays out.  Basically, the reductionist scientist Crake has given up on homo sapiens’ chances of surviving, let alone solving, the planet’s big problems.  His solution is to create, via a cynically engineered plague (a sub-plot of its own) and genetic manipulation, the kind of society logically envisaged in the John Lennon song, Imagine – a song that has always troubled me if I try to think about it for more than about 30 seconds.  In his Paradice Project, what Crake had really been up to, hidden safely in the deepest core of the drug company RejoovenEsense’s Compound (the compounds – closed elite company communities – are another story) was something way beyond a Wells-ian two-nations super-capitalism:

What had been altered was nothing less than the ancient primate brain. Gone were its destructive features, the features responsible for the world’s current illnesses. For instance racism – or as they referred to it in Paradice, pseudospeciation – had been eliminated in the model group, merely by switching the bonding mechanism: the Paradice people simply did not register skin colour. Hierarchy could not exist among them, because they lacked the neural complexes that would have created it. Since they were neither hunters nor agriculturalists hungry for land, there was no territoriality; the king-of-the-castle hard-wiring that had plagued humanity had, in them, been unwired. […] Their sexuality was not a constant torment to them, not a cloud of turbulent hormones; they came into heat at regular intervals, as did most mammals other than man.

In fact, as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement. By means of a brilliant slice, incorporating genetic material from …

“Excuse me,” said Jimmy. “But a lot of this stuff isn’t what the average parent is looking for in a baby. Didn’t you get a bit carried away?”

But, but, but.  “The whole world is now one vast uncontrolled experiment – the way it always was, Crake would have said – and the doctrine of unintended consequences is in full spate.”  However,

Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.

And Jimmy/Snowman may be about to witness the birth of religion.  The Crakers are desperate to know what has happened to Oryx, their teacher (another story, again) and he knows all too well but can’t tell them.  Their speculation “… was like some demented theology debate in the windier corners of chat-room limbo.”  And while he has been away on the journey that the story is constructed around, they have built a facsimile of him from a tin lid and a mop:

Watch out for art, Crake used to say. As soon as they start doing art, we’re in trouble. Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view. Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war.

Oryx and Crake is not only a fine novel, it’s an intellectual tour de force that is both compassionate and thrilling.  And Margaret Atwood must have had a lot of fun on the way in its writing.  I look forward to finding the time to fit in the succeeding volumes of the MaddAddam trilogy.

Fiennes - Music roomThe music room

The other book that deserved more attention was William Fiennes‘ memoir of his youth and his damaged elder brother, The music room (2009), which managed with ease to disarm my inner  class warrior. His experiences of his family and growing up in a castle, prep school, public school, Oxbridge are related in vivid, quietly evocative and yet unassuming, spare prose.  This was how it was:

I didn’t question the world as I found it; our wide moat and gatehouse tower, the medieval chapel above the kitchen, the huge uninhabited rooms to the west and the parade of strangers that passed through them each year; the way our house was divided into two parts, one private, the other open to public view. I didn’t question my brother’s seizures or the frightening and unpredictable swings of his mood from gentleness and warmth to opposition and violence – these too were just facts I grew up among, how things were.

Add into this there being film and tv costume drama crews in regular attendance as his parents strove to do what they saw as their duty of stewardship towards their abode, along with various other enterprising ventures.  The surrounding countryside, beyond the moat, is his playground and the dedicated domestic staff are effectively part of a supportive family.  So there’s an innocent wondrousness to Fiennes’ experience that his modest sensitivity and observation allows the reader to share; he never lauds it.  His recollection of his astonishment at the warmth and convenience of normal houses when he visits school friends is delightfully done.

Richard, his elder brother by 11 years, was an epileptic, whose condition had resulted in brain damage:  while his IQ was close to normal “… free will wasn’t granted to him as it was to others.”  He doesn’t know his own strength, one of the less serious consequences of which is that he invariably tightens jar lids beyond the ability of anyone else to easily unscrew them.  On the surface an eccentric, with his suit, waistcoat, bow-tie and pipe smoking he adapts words, so ‘downput‘ is what he calls his “special melancholy.”  His mood swings in the football season rely heavily on how Leeds United have fared.  What makes this particularly poignant – not mentioned in the book – is that we are talking here of the thuggish bunch of cheats of the Don Revie era Leeds.

Throughout all this we are also granted short interludes detailing significant episodes the historical development of scientific knowledge of the brain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the moving away from notions of seizures as sinister possession to recognition of the part electricity plays in the way the brain works and later discoveries mapping its functions.  Some of the reading group disliked this structure, found it intrusive but for me it added another dimension of poignancy to what is a moving and extraordinary piece of writing.  A lovely book, indeed.

Further musical and other non-book based adventures

DTBThis was something special.  All three acts used backing tapes, loops and active sampling.  Dear John was duly love-lorn in finest doo-wop fashion, his backing group consisting of three pretty sharp suits, actually, lain over chairs, the picture completed with pork-pie and similar hats and some cool shades; it’s a good joke, though it was a bit loud.  Mrs Pilgrimm sat down unassumingly at her amplified cello and proceeded to spin dramatic swirling magic with said instrument while working effects from various foot pedals and singing simply and unaffectedly songs from the folk tradition; I recall Reynardine in particular.  She finished with a cheerful rhythmic pizzicato piece.  Looked about 20 but I’m told she’s probably double that.  Quite a prelude to the main man.  Elsewhere one has seen David Thomas Broughton described as the missing link between Nick Drake and Tommy Cooper.  I’d also throw some Les Dawson at the guitar too, but mainly a major digital upgrade of John Martyn‘s work with loop tapes and then some.  Oh, and some Ivor Cutler.  Broughton has a beautiful voice (probably  more than one, actually) and is an accomplished acoustic guitarist.  What he does when you throw all the above elements together in a pretty much uninterrupted performance of songs, music, poker-faced jokery and noise – oscillating signals and feedback are part of the canvas too – is remarkable.  Crescendos of multiple layers of guitar and voice and noise are suddenly stilled (at the push of a foot pedal) and we’re straight into another exquisite piece of guitar picking and a new song.  It is an extraordinary experience.  Never mind all the comedy business with the mic stand,  did I say it was incredibly moving?  Yup, that too. (Thanks MF, for the recommendation).

Scribal July 2014July’s Scribal was another goodie.  Vanessa’s 50th birthday poetry dare was highly enjoyable, especially the one about her handbag.  Palmerston, the featured band, were highly accomplished and great fun.  Infectious in a good way.  Who needs drummers?  Some of the songs are so good you wonder who did the originals, except they are originals.  Country rock, with all five of them potential vocalists and enjoying one another’s company, I was taken back to the days of some of my favourite pub rock gigs – Brinsley Schwarz no less.  Last number, I swear they were channeling The Mavericks.  Steve Hobbs did what started as a jokey advice piece on doing spoken word at open mic gigs that morphed into something else when it slowly became apparent he was using his speech at his father’s funeral as his example.  Thoughtful, moving, unsettling and effective.

Icarus by Hendrick Goltzius 1588What else?  Cadences, the new show at MK Gallery, features 40 pieces, most of them – hurrah! – paintings, engravings, or drawings mounted on the walls.  On loan from a Dutch art gallery, the works range from a few Old Masters to a big Bridget Riley (Breathe – not one of her more interesting, I’d venture) and M.C.Escher’s birds, and a few, like the neat Kandinsky, sharing themes of (it says here) “flight, falling, destruction and gravity“; so not a few Icaruses.  ‘Cadence’ also references the fall in the human voice at the end of a non-questioning sentence (or at up until the heinous influence of Australian teen soaps changed that given a bit) or the ending of a piece of music.

Photo filched from the MKG website.

Photo filched from MKG’s good-looking website.

As an exhibition it felt good standing in the centre of the long and middle galleries though individually the pieces did a little less for me.  Despite what I’ve previously said about the walls I think two of my favourite pieces were the ceramics in the display cases in the photo on the left – Chris van der Hoef Tea setChris van der Hoef’s geometrical tea set (from 1926! – illustrated left) and Dick Lion’s more recent Metropolis.  That big lettering thing – this is not a put-down, I quite like it – resembling the final round of BBC4’s fiendish Only connect quiz but with the vowels left in, is from Christopher Wool (1990).

Again I have to display my ignorance (sarcasm?) and question the point of much video art, and the space it takes up.  The whole of the Cube gallery is given over to showing Catherine Yass‘s Flight (2002).  Shot from a remote-controlled helicopter flying over and around and up and down urban buildings it apparently gives a “sense of dizzying disorientation“; but then so did playing around with the horizontal and vertical holds on old televisions.  Having said that, I shall probably return for the showing of her new commissioned work, Piano falling (from July 19):

Piano Falling is a new film commissioned by MK Gallery. It shows a grand piano being launched off the top of a 27 story building in East London as it falls and crashes dramatically on the ground. Called Balfron Tower, this classic Modernist tower block was designed by the celebrated architect Erno Goldfinger in 1963. The destruction of musical instruments, and pianos in particular, has a long tradition in art history, as an iconoclastic, ‘anti-bourgeois’ gesture. In this instance, the crash and scatter of the piano as it falls will create an unpredictable composition of sound and image. The idea of recording sound during the fall was inspired by Aeolian harps named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind – whose strings are played by the wind. As it flies through the air, this dark, three-legged object assumes an enigmatic, metaphorical character, echoed in the dragons and angels that fall out of the sky elsewhere in the exhibition.

Looks fun.  Meanwhile in a black video box with headphones attached we have Bruce Nauman‘s Violin film #1 (Playing the violin as fast as I can) (1967/8) in which, “the production of sound is subjected to certain actions that contradict its status as music and performance“; or … roll of drums … the sound and vision are well out of sync.

(c) Jessica Jane Eyre (but mucked about a bit)

(c) JJE (but mucked about a bit)

Nothing out of sync about Naomi “19” Rose‘s usual quality performance at the bijou music venue that is Newport Pagnell’s Rose & Crown pub on Friday.  “Sad songs sung with a smile”, I said, and MG suggested that would make a good album title.  Naomi was actually the support for the multinational Nothing Concrete, who played a wide-ranging mostly good-time set.  Not often you see a line up of cello (second cellist of the week!), mandolin, full size double bass, that box-thing percussion and a self-professed ex-professional busker on lead vocals.

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Atwood - Oryx and CrakeSometimes a word just comes at you from  unrelated directions.  Jimmy, aka Snowman, maybe the last of old model homo sapiens still alive in Margaret Atwood‘s brilliant trilogy opener Oryx and Crake (2013), keeps getting flashes of words he used to know and that, in pre-catastrophe times, had a use.  Feel the despair:

Rag ends of language are floating in his head: mephitic, metronome, mastitis, metatarsal, maudlin.
        “I used to be erudite,” he says out loud. “Erudite.” A hopeless word. What are all those things he once thought he knew, and where have they gone?

Fiennes - Music roomA metronome features in one of the many mesmeric (and erudite) passages in William Fiennes sad, beautiful and enlightening memoir The music room (2009).  Feel the magic of a very unusual childhood:

The metronome fascinated me; I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Mum told me it wasn’t a top and left it out of reach on top of the piano, but it wasn’t hard to clamber from chair to keyboard and bring myself eye-level with it. I turned the key at the side to wind the clockwork, unhitched the wand from the plastic clasp and set it rocking from side to side like a hypnotist’s finger, a loud tock marking each extremity. If you pushed the sliding weight down to the bottom, the metronome went berserk, wagging as fast as it could; if you slid the weight to the tip of the scale, the wand swung through lugubrious arcs, sombre grandfather-clock beats echoing in the stone vaults. Suddenly it seemed the time you set by the metronome was actual time, and that your life passed more slowly or quickly as you slid the weight up and down the scale, the music room a world that turned at whatever speed you judged appropriate. The tuning fork and metronome granted supernatural powers. The day’s pitch and time-keeping were in my hands.

May return for more on these two fine books at another time – they certainly deserve it.

Toumani and SidikiA metronome would have been no use at all to Toumani and Sidiki Diabate as they wove their spell over an entranced Stables audience last Thursday, serving up both contemplation and excitement seemingly simultaneously, very much in control of their own pitch and time-keeping.  I’ve always found the sound of the kora enticing, the notes coming at you like the flow of clear crystal waters, but beyond the traditional sounds here were unexpected Celtic harp moments, folk cadences and changes, and the close exchanges and rhythmic interplay of a seasoned jazz quartet (though there were only two of them; playing with only thumb and one finger albeit with both hands).  Interesting the chosen instrument stands, with père Toumani opting for old style dark wood upright compared with fils Sidiki’s space age laminated sculpture.  Longest queue I’ve seen to buy a CD after a show anywhere, and I was in it; prettier, doesn’t have the intensity of the live show but still good to have.

mk_smith154What will stay with me from Melanie Smith‘s exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery, that I caught in only its last week, is the green light suffusing the entrance and the long gallery.  The stuff in the vitrines – Mexico city bric-a-brac is probably too unkind a description – and the collages, orange (toilet seats etc bought in the market) and green (natural), in the long gallery had a certain interest but to tell the truth I’ve never really ‘got’ video art in a gallery setting and Spiral City in particular – not exactly sharp black and white shot from a helicopter above Mexico City – did nothing for me.  Fordlandia had a lot of images of an overgrown industrial failure filmed lingeringly and what I thought was just strung together but according to the catalogue “provides a critical reflection.”  I would have preferred photos on the wall.  That went on so long I couldn’t be bothered to wait for Xilitia, the one that might have pleased me more, featuring surrealist collector Edward James’s subtropical rainforest garden.  A miss in my book, I’m afraid.

And so to StonyLive!  Stony’s week-long extravaganza of musical events over and above the usual, a significant choice of what to see to be made most days.  Again the resolve to partake of something every day, though this year that was reduced one night to walking up and down the High Street and not fancying any of the music escaping from the pubs.  Moral: next year commit to the stuff you wouldn’t normally see, even if it does mean paying for the pleasure.  Highlights:

  • StonyLive Alternative Fringe 2014The Box Ticked opening a fine set at the Alternative Fringe event in the Bull courtyard with Rocking all over the world and closing with how Steve imagined The Clash would have done Abba’s Waterloo.  Quick dash up to the Fox for the annual dose of the Concrete Cowboys.   And back for more delights – not least the first time I’ve seen The Screaming House Madrigals for a while, a full set from Naomi Rose and some poetry – that I’ve not really got the time to mention.  Lucky with the weather for that one – dire forecasts but the sun came out just in time.
  • KGVWSun again for the Classic Cars on Sunday.  My favourite this time around the immaculate green Karmann Ghia treatment of the VW Beetle pictured here.  Love the way the reflection makes it look like there’s a grille.
  • Monday and a lively and varied a cappella session in the Vaults.  Oh what a beautiful morning was unexpected among the traditional stuff and at the line “I was lying in a burned out basement” in Neil Young’s After the gold rush Andrew said in passing, “Story of my life.”
  • June Scribal 2014Tuesday and it was Scribal Gathering’s bad luck for the June show to coincide with StonyLive and a lot of other stuff.  Showed loyalty and as it turned out a big crowd from the start for an evening with a difference.  As it turned out Caz didn’t compère – lost her voice.  For the second time in 4 days Second Hand Grenade had ’em dancing in the aisles.  Who’da thunk it – Jackson 5’s I want you back a showstopper.
  • Wednesday and a bit of the old Morris – saw a few of them on Sunday too – dancing and clogging in the garden of the Fox, that is.
  • Bard & friendsThursday and The Bard and friends downstairs at the Crown.  The memory of Bard Phil Chippendale‘s dance of the excited methane molecule will stay with me for a while – given an extended set he was brilliant.  Left field science based comedy.  Not seen Brian Damage and Krystall before but will again I’m sure – hilarious.  Another comic died a death but poetry saved the day.
  • Saturday and it’s back in the Fox at lunchtime for more bluegrass.  What The Hole in the Head Gang  (with a Cowboy or three in tow) described as their annual rehearsal.  A Goodnight Irene in the middle of the day.  And in the evening the mighty fine Bearcats Blues Band were what it said on the tin; was that a Magic Sam number that opened the second set.  Home to watch the footie; be nice if that Balotelli was playing in an Arsenal shirt next season.

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“You got a blog, right?”
Ann snapped her fingers. “That’s what’s been missing from my life.”
Carl Hiaasen: Star island

I’ve always been partial to a game of Scrabble, deeply frustrating though it can be when you’re stuck with a rack full of vowels or, indeed, consonants.  But never mind that.  It’s just that Scrabble has made an appearance in the last two books I’ve been reading.  Synchronicity or what?  What, probably.

A game of Scrabble is an illicit pleasure in the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood‘s classic dystopian novel ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985), while in the State of Florida it’s a sardonic throwaway line from kidnappee Ann DeLusia, pretty much the only decent, sane and grounded character in Carl Hiaasen‘s inspired tales another kind of American excess in  ‘Star Island‘ (2011).

It has always struck me there’s a problem with fiction set in the milieu of popular entertainment, the music industry in particular.  Apart from the art, something else is always missing.  The supper-realism.  The real thing just cannot be beat.  How to successfully invent someone like Mick Jagger, say, never mind Macca’s marriages, Madonna’s career, or that meat dress?   Hiaasen is up to it; that meat dress could have been one of his.  ‘Star Island‘ is a grotesquerie concerning itself with – or at least this narrative is hung on – celebrity culture, with a girl singer who can’t sing and her entourage; think Lindsay Lohan, Britney, Paris all rolled into one.  All in the context of Hiaasen’s regard for his native Florida and his ongoing environmental, social and political concerns.  It is so righteously funny I read it twice straight off and laughed louder the second time.

I’ll try and be brief.  There are basically two nicely interwoven narrative strands, united by the involvement of  one Skink.  Those familiar with Hiaasen’s work will be delighted to hear that Skink appears early in this book and that the remarkable aforementioned Annie – “She enriched my outlook on humanity” – even manages to get him into a designer suit and a night club called ‘Pubes’ at the climax.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of his acquaintance before, let me tell you about Skink.  Born Clinton Tyree, he was a college football star and authentic Vietnam war hero before briefly getting himself elected Governor of Florida, shortly after which political success, 30 years ago, he took refuge in the mangrove swamps:

Decades of hermitage had kept him barely on keel but his turbulent aversions never waned. He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suck-worms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous.

One of the story lines concerns the fate of a crooked land developer – and it would have been bad enough if he’d been legit – who, for his sins, ends up tied to a poisonwood tree, naked bar a nappy securing to his person a source of further exquisite swollen torture.  I say ends up – that is actually just the beginning of his troubles.

Briefly [Skink] thought of Jackie Sebago, the turd merchant, and wondered if the doctors had kept count of all the sea urchin quills they’d pulled from his necrotic ball sack. The photos must have been glorious, Skink mused. Maybe they’ll show up in a surgical textbook.

This is top-notch writing, a righteous revenge fantasy for us to gloriously share.  I’ll not say anything else about the main story line (“This is the most ridiculous kidnapping in history”) and denouement – the sassy and suss Ann, the wretched ‘star’ Cherry Pie (a BLS brand: ‘Barely Legal Slut’), the poor old paparazzo Bang Abbott (gross indeed, but you feel for him in the end), Cherry’s management teams’ stratagems, and many other seriously funny characters and side stories (like a brief hilarious episode in rehab).

I’ll leave ‘Star Island‘ with Chemo, bodyguard – main task to stop her from partying – to the awful Cherry.  Chemo’s physical details are something else in themselves.  However:

“I’ve been making a list in my head,” Chemo said. […]
“Like, what kinda list?” Cherry asked, and he touched the end of the cattle prod to her bare thigh. She made a noise like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck, and pitched over sideways in the patio chair.
“Every time you say like, I prod your ass,” he explained. “Also on the list: awesome, sweet, sick, totally, and hot. Those are for starters.
She stopped writhing for a minute or so. Her first breathless words were: “What the fuck, dude?”
“That’s another one – dude. Consider yourself warned.”

Don’t you just wish? 

Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985)  is a fine, chilling and (maybe) heartening novel.  I read it for the Book Group; some of us liked to think the ending was optimistic.  Classic dystopian/totalitarian moments – I immediately recalled the smell of real coffee from Orwell’s ‘1984’ – handled beautifully, from significant eye contact, little human moments and things, through to the realisationof the existence of a resistance movement, joining and jeopardy.

The setting is one region in North America (Canada – Atwood is Canadian – has escaped the madness, as has the UK).  What has happened is the result of a strange mix of environmental disaster (and consequent falling birth rates), patriarchal Christian fundamentalism and the Andrea Dworkin strand of feminism (remember ‘All men are rapists’?).  It is the handmaids’ role to formally do their appointed duty and procreate with their allotted master, taking no pleasure from the act, in a set of  bizarre rituals coldly and brutally played out.  I was miserable and elated, up and down, gripped, as the tale progressed.

Atwood gives a wry take, too, on ’60s and ’70s excesses in describing how this state of things came to pass.  As well as the formal societal relations of men and women she does not fail to address the personal in recollections of the past.  In the Reading Group someone asked if I – the only male in the group – felt I was under attack in this book.  My response: no, her sympathies are there for us all.

As it happens, apart from Scrabble, the books share another tangential and obscurely personal link – two of my favourite recordings, no less.  ‘A handmaid’s tale‘ is set in the Republic of Gilead; I love Nina Simone singing ‘Balm in Gilead‘, real aural balm from the emotional ‘Baltimore‘ album, the production on which she reportedly denounced – don’t trust her, trust your ears.  Added poignancy to the reading, that beautiful rendering of the tune never far from my mind’s ear every time Gilead is mentioned.  And in ‘Star Island‘, the name Ann DeLusia, once seen: how to keep the beautiful melodic swell of John Cale‘s sublime  ‘Andalucia‘ from his exceptional (and he white-suited on the cover) ‘Paris 1919‘ album out of one’s head, especially as she grows (“scrappy and funny and proud“) and wins Skink’s and Chemo’s (and our) hearts.

Oh yes, and mention of a white suit reminds me.  Carl Hiaasen, a true campaigning heir to the spirit and vernacular genius of Mark Twain.

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