Thursday, December 16, 2010

'There Are Little Kingdoms' by Kevin Barry

Were I a more prolific reader and book-blogger I would no doubt be inclined at this time of year to wax lyrical about my favourite book of the year. But I'm not, so I can't. Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, the very first book I reviewed here, would most likely take the crown if I thought about it. Though had Kevin Barry's debut short story collection There Are Little Kingdoms been released this year I would have had an awful lot to think about.
 It was, in fact, released in 2007 - leaving me mystified as to how it took until early this year for me to get wind of it. It appears to have had slow-burning success, garnering rave reviews and high profile admirers such as Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright on the way. It's a kick in the bollocks of a book, giving a stunningly accurate depiction of an Ireland that is so rarely portrayed well in culture, be it high or low brow. The Ireland of midlands ennui and petty personal victories. As soon as Barry launches into his first story, Atlantic City, you feel a surge of familiarity with the protagonist, Jamesie, king of the pool table and the pinball machine, a proud, bored fish in a slightly-too-small pond.
And so it continues from story to story. If you don't already know countless examples of these characters in real life then you certainly know they're out there, just a stroke of poor luck away from sitting beside you on a bus, or hitting on you painfully in a provincial nightclub. Donna and Dee, the restless and irritating twins of Ideal Homes provide a perfect example, somehow perfectly encapsulating the new mentality and morality that took hold just as the Celtic Tiger first stirred.
But if it sounds as though Kevin Barry has taken a harsh view of the people of these nondescript towns that dot the country then you'd be mistaken. His pages lack a sense of judgement, simply letting the characters be who they are, letting them reside in their own little kingdoms.
Read this to enjoy some side-splitting, heart-splitting prose, and to learn something you almost already knew about Ireland today.

Monday, November 8, 2010

'The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ' by Philip Pullman

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, a small qualm I have with this book: the 245 pages of the paperback edition contain some of the widest margins I have ever encountered, with a full inch to either side of the text, and about an inch and a half at the top and the bottom. This, coupled with the fact that each short chapter tends to conclude halfway down a page and is followed by a blank page (included in the page numbering) mean that the book is presented as a full-blown novel, though a more environmentally-concerned publisher could probably print the content on 60 or less pages without reducing its legibility. I have read longer short stories than this entire book, which leads me to believe that Canongate were being more than a little cynical by finding a way of duping people into spending around twelve euros on what is really a very slender novella. Clever.

What's left of this book when you cut out the excess paper is intriguing. Pullman retells New Testament stories by imagining the figure of Jesus as twins: the wholesome, well-intentioned preacher 'Jesus', and the sickly, shady 'Christ' - who recognises the potential for power that his brother's charisma represents, and reports on his actions to a mysterious stranger. Events, unsurprisingly, lead towards the crucifixion of Jesus, and it is only here that the story deviates significantly from the gospel stories as we know them and the sinister undertones of Christ's meetings with the stranger are brought starkly into the light. Most powerful of all is Jesus' lengthy soliloquy in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which Pullman's own atheistic viewpoint is shown both in a manner both strident and measured:

‘And slander’s what it is; you made this world, and it’s lovely, every inch if it. When I think of these things I’ve loved I find myself choking with happiness, or maybe sorrow, I don’t know; and every one of them has been something in this world that you made. If anyone can smell frying fish on an evening by the lake, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day, or see a little animal trying to run around and tumbling over and getting up again, or kiss a pair of soft and willing lips, if anyone can feel those things and still maintain they’re nothing but crude imperfect copies of something much better in another world, they are slandering you, Lord, as surely as words mean anything at all.’

The last line of the above quote also shows Pullman's awareness of the historical context of the story, with a clear reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. He shows himself to be generally well-informed when it comes to biblical scholarship and is largely respectful of it. He does, however, pick and choose when to go with the facts as they are generally accepted, and when to twist things slightly to fit his own narrative purposes. This is probably fair enough, as this book is ultimately one about storytelling, but it makes for a confusing blend of myth and history at times (the book is sold as part of Canongate's Myth series). Much like the New Testament, many would claim. The compelling question for me is whether Pullman is aware of Albert Schweitzer's findings in his book 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus' that anyone who postulates too much on the precise character and ideology of the historical Jesus ends up projecting their own personality onto him. I would warrant that Pullman is aware of this, and has taken the opportunity to quite openly use the figure of Jesus as a mouthpiece for his own philosophy and thoughts about organised religion.

Fortunately, it's a lucid and compelling one, well worth the money despite its brevity.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

'Disgrace' by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace was the first novel I read by JM Coetzee and, at the age of nineteen, was probably one of the first really "grown-up" novels I bothered finishing. It's a fine piece of work, notable throughout for Coetzee's complete control of the story and his utter lack of bombast, even when describing dramatic and traumatic events.The novel deals with the fallout of the early post-apartheid years in South Africa and shows how attempts to even the score in terms of land-rights and crime may well have gone too far in the other direction. Coetzee is sometimes criticised for having a certain cold clinicalness to his writing, but it is precisely these qualities that make Disgrace such a memorable book, deserved winner of the Booker Prize in its year of publishing, and one that is likely to stand the test of time.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

'The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts' by Louis de Bernieres

Every now and then you read a book that has little bits of magic in it, be they in the style or the story of it. The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is a book coated in big, dirty swathes of magic. Whilst being grandiose and intimate at the same time, this tale of love, corruption and cruelty in an unnamed South American state contains both belly-laughs and enough viciousness to make you weep for the world on virtually every page.

When you stop to consider that this was de Bernieres' debut effort you will start to weep for all the writers who never manage to demonstrate an ounce of this man's vision or ambition within their entire careers. If I'd ever gotten around to reading more than one short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I have a feeling that I'd be drawing most favourable comparisons right now.
Minor quibbles (if only because no-one enjoys relentless positivity) are that there are an awful lot of Spanish slang words to get your head around, and an awful lot of characters to follow. But really, these things matter not a whit, as this is one bad-ass muchacho of a book.

Friday, August 27, 2010

'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' by Stieg Larsson

"The new Dan Brown!" claim excited fans, who love Stieg Larsson's brand of page-turning, investigative excitement, and who relish the sight of the same book being read by so many people.

"The new Dan Brown," sigh the less easily impressed, who recognise something horribly familiar in the sloppily-written, even-more-sloppily-edited prose with a manipulative cliff-hanger shoehorned into the end of every chapter, and who despair of the sight of every single fucker on the bus making this their quarterly read.

Larsson is, to my mind, a couple of notches above Dan Brown. Make of that what you will.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Let The Great World Spin' by Colum McCann

"A poet with every living breath" proclaims Peter Carey of Colum McCann, with the kind of effusiveness that is now entirely typical from big authors providing a cover quote to help a lesser-known author flog their book. For once, however, this appears to be more than mere hyperbole.

McCann's book, set around Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974, is told from the multiple perspectives of people in New York at the time, and shimmers with pretty words and turns-of-phrase from start to finish. My reading of it suffered from lack of time due to work and wedding preparations, meaning some of the intensity of the book was lost through my spending over a month on it. Nevertheless, it was hard not to feel that it featured one or two fairly superfluous narrators - particularly the teenaged photographer Fernando, whose function within the centre of the novel I couldn't really understand.
More impressive were the middle-aged Claire - grieving for her son killed in Vietnam, and the loud-mouthed prostitute Tillie - an intriguing blend of arrogance and contrition.
Ultimately, I found the narration of the story a mixed bag: largely compelling but occasionally flagging. However, it is the constant beauty of McCann's prose that makes this book essential reading for those who are as concerned with style, perspective and profoundness as they are with out and out storytelling. Nowhere is this better seen than in the sections of the book that deal with Petit's (though he is unnamed in the book) daring walk:

"Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past, and this gave him the offhand vaunt to his walk. He was carrying his life from one side to the other. On the lookout for the moment when he wasn't even aware of his breath.

The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.

     He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake."

Monday, July 5, 2010

'The Slap' by Christos Tsiolkas

Here at Slightly Read we (meaning I, but 'we' sounds so much more authoritative) have noticed that copies of The Slap seem to have been flying off the shelves in bookshops. Reviews have generally been kind too, and the Irish cover features highly effusive quotes from respected authors like John Boyne and Colm Toibín; the two men nearly tripping over themselves with desire to tell us what a must-read this is.
So why was I left feeling so underwhelmed?

Firstly, the narrative structure of this book is extremely frustrating. The 'slap' of the title forms the starting point of the book as a man - Harry - slaps the child of Rosie and Gary - a properly dysfunctional pair of gobshites. The story is told from the perspectives of eight people who are at the barbecue where this event occurs. There is no apparent reason for this tactic and it renders the book somewhat like a collection of short stories on a theme, rather than a novel. The story progresses as each new section starts, meaning that we never get to discover how one character, who might have been central to events in the previous section, feels about or even reacts to key developments as they occur. Further to this, there are three (arguably four) characters whose sections are more or less incidental to the central plot and do little to shed new light on any character but themselves. If Tsiolkas was intent on examining a broad cross-section of Australian society up close in this manner he would probably have been better served with a book of short stories. One presumes that was less commercially appealing.

Secondly, the characters Tsiolkas chooses to focus on seem somewhat arbitrarily chosen. Why do we need to hear from both handsome,Greek Australian, reluctantly middle-aged Hector and Harry when they are both philandering husbands, casual drug users and obnoxious boors with little to separate them? Unless, of course, Christos Tsiolkas finds something particularly interesting in rogueish Greek men? Why do we hear from ageing, weary Manolis but never his long-suffering, even longer-complaining wife Koula? Why hear so much from damaged, childish Rosie but nothing from her alcoholic, delusional husband Gary? Why no section devoted to aboriginal Bilal, whose conversion to Islam makes him, in my mind, the most interesting character in the book?

Thirdly, the sections where Tsiolkas describes sexual acts and masturbation come across as prurient rather than realistic, giving parts of the book a silly, soft-porn feel. Which is fine, if you're only aiming to write silly soft-porn.

And fourthly, doesn't listing this book's flaws in such a manner make me sound like your mother lecturing you while listing your misdemeanours on her fingers? The Slap is fine, and will continue to sell well for the next few months or so, but unless you happen to be particularly concerned with the faults of modern Australian society I don't see any great reason to go with the hype and buy this book, as it won't really give you anything that hasn't already been better done by numerous authors.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

'Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth' by Naguib Mahfouz

In a break with protocol thus far, I'm reviewing the last book I finished. Books about pharaohs would not usually be my bag, but I picked this up a couple of years ago while on holiday in Egypt, where my interest in such matters was always likely to be uncharacteristically heightened. Akhenaten, though, was a name that had first piqued my interest a couple of years earlier when I heard brief mention of him during a college lecture. He was the first person on record for propounding monotheism - the idea that there is only one god. As such, given the course of history and whatever your own religious convictions might be, he might very well be regarded as one of the most significant people to ever live.

The book, written by the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, is a fictionalised look at the repercussions of Akhenaten's insistence on converting the whole of Egypt to monotheism - an act that led to civil war and the terminal decline of the pharaonic dynasty. The story is told from a multitude of angles as Meriamun, a curious young man who can't remember the reign of Akhenaten, questions those who knew him, from palace staff to temple priests to his widowed queen, Nefertiti.
What surprised me about this book was how emotive it managed to be. I've read little in the way of historical fiction and didn't expect to feel such an attachment to the main character. But Akhenaten's insistence on swimming against the tide is a moving struggle, even when recounted in some farly emotionally detached language.
An oddity, this one, but highly recommended for anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt or the evolution of religion.

Monday, May 24, 2010

'The Heart of the Matter' by Graham Greene

When I first took notions that I might like to be a writer some day, around the age of eighteen when I still had less than no idea of where my life was heading, I reckoned that I'd like to write at least one book that was absolutely gut-wrenchingly, heartbreakingly, stamp-all-over-your-soul-and-then-piss-on-it tragic. A book that would leave the reader crushed. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars may have been one of the reasons for this rather morbid desire, but an even greater one was The Heart of the Matter, the only Graham Greene I have read so far.

The precise details of the story of Scobie, a long-serving police-inspector in an unnamed British colonial town in West Africa (with Greene drawing heavily on his own experiences of living in Freetown, Sierra Leone) have long escaped me, as the details of most books I read tend to. What remains with me is the clarity with which Greene evokes the sadness and fear of a man torn asunder by pride, failure and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. A man who fails everyone by working so very hard to fail no-one.

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Tenderwire' by Claire Kilroy

When the list of the 50 books nominated for best Irish book of the decade was published a few weeks ago I was mildly ashamed to realise that I'd only read three of them. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, the list is a fairly broad one taking in several categories and including things I would rather eat than have to read, like PS I love You and Bill Cullen's autobiography. Still, there are plenty of good authors on the list, and several of those books have been sitting on my shelves for months now, awaiting my perusal.
One such book was Claire Kilroy's Tenderwire. I appear to be reading Kilroy's stuff backwards, having read her third and most most recent one, All Names Have Been Changed (a review of that will no doubt be along soon enough), before Tenderwire - her second.

Tenderwire tells the story of Eva Tyne, a young Irish violinist living in New York who is offered the chance to buy a supposedly rare and valuable violin by a gangster she meets in a bar whilst in the middle of a self-pitying, self-destructive bender. Her life subsequently takes a number of twists and turns as the violin brings triumph and danger to her life in equal measure.
A thriller about a violin? You're probably not gripped yet. But such is Kilroy's skill at characterisation and dialogue that the reader quickly becomes engrossed in the story and comes to understand the redemptive symbolism that the violin holds for the passionate, mentally unstable Eva - a character whom the reader may not necessarily like, but whom they will find themselves caring about. Such are her travails and such is her emotionally fragile believability that there was more than one point during the story where I wanted to wrap Eva up in a blanket, make her a hot chocolate and tell her to cop on to herself.
On this evidence Kilroy deserves her place among the best new Irish writers. I'll let you know for definite when I've read her first.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

'Not Untrue and Not Unkind' by Ed O'Loughlin

Not Untrue and Not Unkind came to most people's attention when it managed to make the Man Booker prize longlist last year. Before reading it I saw the author speaking authoritatively and engagingly on foreign news correspondence during a debate in the literary tent at the Electric Picnic. O'Loughlin worked for various newspapers, Irish and otherwise, in reporting on various conflicts in Africa over the past couple of decades. It's therefore easy to suspect that this tale of jaded foreign correspondent Owen Simmons and the various professional and romantic relationships he becomes snarled up in is more than a little autobiographical.

Reading the book would appear to confirm this. Journalist in-jokes abound, some of which hit the spot very nicely and some of which do not (constant lampooning of real-life journalist and author Jon Simpson in the bloated and laughable figure of Timothy Drysdale is hilarious, whilst references to UNICEF as 'Think of the Children' seem a little silly - though that may well be the point). Such details add colour and plausibility to the book, though they can seem a little too anecdotal. More difficult for the reader to contend with is the assumption that O'Loughlin seems to make that his readers will be familiar with the conflicts, politics and geography of central Africa. In reality, even the more informed of his readers are likely to be a little unsure as to where certain cities are in relation to each other and even less sure as to which action the Zairean government took when, and why. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic on O'Loughlin's part in order to illustrate the confused trekking from pillar to post that war reporters must do, as dictated by those back in western newsrooms who seem to know much  more of what's going on. It's hard to tell.
Where O'Loughlin really earns his advance, and presumably that Booker nod, is in some beautifully written passages - particularly those describing Dublin, and the breakdown of a relationship. The man has a way with words, both visceral and poetic, that save this novel from drowning in its muddy context and would seem to bode well for his future as a novelist.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'Animal Farm' by George Orwell

I read Animal Farm a good few years back. It came in a boxset of Penguin classics that my folks gave me and was the slimmest book in there. I'll get around to reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and On The Road one of these days, probably.

It also happened to be one of the options for prescribed fiction for the English Leaving Cert course, which I was doing at the time, but our teacher preferred for us to read Lord of the Flies. Turned out Orwell's little piece of satire was far more useful for the purposes of my history exam, as it helped me to grasp the intricacies of Stalin's Seven Year Plan and the full betrayal of the Marxist dream in a way that a bare history book never could. And that, I suppose, is chief among the reasons why we'll always need good fiction.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'Bad Day in Blackrock' by Kevin Power

It would be easy for me to hate Kevin Power. The man is less than two months older than me and has already written a prize-winning novel. I had always thought that aspiring novelists, bar Cecelia Ahern, were meant to sit around vaguely mulling life over until they were 35 or so. The fact that this novel is rather good makes it even more difficult to bear.
Bad Day in Blackrock is a fictionalised look at the death of Brian Murphy outside Anabel's nightclub in Dublin, involving three former Blackrock College students. It's a brave topic for any novelist, let alone a new one, and it inevitably left Power open to accusations of insensitivity. All names have been changed, of course, and some details are altered for the sake of narrative clarity, but it remains an immediately recognisable story to any Irish person.

Yet one only needs to read a few pages of the novel to realise that this is a far more respectful, measured way of examining a delicate issue than the oft-seen 'Tell-All Exposés' that unemployed tabloid journalists like to produce about contentious court cases. Power is examining the way of life of affluent South Dubliners at that moment in time, and the factors that can lead to such things happening. As such, he occasionally runs the risk of sounding like Ross O'Carroll-Kelly without the comedy. A morally barren, self-absorbed, hedonistic picture quickly emerges, whilst Power manages to stay sympathetic at the same time. These are young people behaving badly because their schools and their parents have told them that they can.
As someone who has had daily contact with precisely this milieu through teaching in a private school I find it hard to argue against this. Read Bad Day in Blackrock if you have an interest in how much of Ireland is raising its children. Or just read it if you like well-written, perfectly structured fiction that refuses to err on the side of bombastic, even when it must have been ever so tempting.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown

I read The Da Vinci Code at that point of saturation it had a few years back when a visitor to earth might have come to the conclusion that humans had only ever published one book, and decided to leave it at that. The experience was much akin to that of making love to Mary Harney: momentarily exciting, as long as you didn't think about what you were doing too much, followed by a massively unsatisfying climax and months and months of self-loathing, recrimations and seeking explanation for that which you already know there is none.

Hey, we all make mistakes. But delving further in Dan Brown's ouevre is surely akin to finishing up with The Harnster, lighting a cigarette, and then wondering aloud what Ann Widdecombe and Shane MacGowan were up to for the evening. No. Just no.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

'The Beach' by Alex Garland

I was bought a copy of The beach when I was 18 by someone who insisted that I'd love it. I wasn't so sure: the cover was the film tie-in version, prominently featuring Leonardo diCaprio with no shirt on. Hardly my kind of thing to be reading stuff with the twat from Titanic on it. But I gave it a go, and now feel like I owe an awful lot to that book.

The narrative, telling the tale of English backpacker Richard and his slow descent into madness on an island paradise shared by a handful of idealistic travellers, is arresting from start to finish. It awoke a dormant wanderlust in me and carried me along on waves of euphoria, fear, and horniness. Reading it, I felt like I was Richard - with his Vietnam movie fantasies, thwarted sexual desires, and hypocritical longing for a place untrammelled by other tourists.
More importantly, I was discovering for the first time as an adult the power that literature could have on me; a power that went far beyond anything a film or TV show could hope to achieve. Garland has only produced two more novels since (or three, if you count the novelisation of Sunshine, the film he wrote for director Danny Boyle) and while both could well claim to be more accomplished pieces of literature it's unlikely that Garland will ever manage to write anything as thrilling or as resonant as The Beach again. Few have.

Monday, April 19, 2010

'Skippy Dies' by Paul Murray

There was a time when I baulked at the sight of the larger novel. It's easy to become fixated with how many pages there are in a book, and how many you still have to go, particularly when the novel feels more worthy than engaging. I schlepped slowly through Haruki Murakami's 600-odd page The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles last year, assuring myself that it would be worth finishing, and that if I could even cover as much as twenty pages in a day then I would have the thing finished within a month.
Skippy Dies, the second novel by Irish author Paul Murray, did not feel that way. It's over 660 pages long, but during a few quiet days in Donegal I raced through it, devoting sittings of up to four hours at a time to it.
It's a remarkable book, set in the fictional Seabrook College - a place that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dublin's Blackrock College. The protagonist,14 year-old Daniel 'Skippy' Juster dies in a doughnut shop on the first page. The book thereafter devotes two-thirds of itself to the build-up to Skippy's death and the factors that led to it. Myriad other characters swarm comfortably about the place, and topics like fidelity, bravery, divorce, drug use, child abuse, religion and ambition abound whilst, astonishingly, never weighing too heavily on the reader. Murray manages to keep a lightness and humour to matters by employing more than a touch of fantasy in his writing. The conversations between the teenage boy characters, for example, read almost like an X-rated version of Saved By The Bell. But in a good way.
What this means is that, though Murray has all manner of important things to say about Irish society and about teenagers today, he manages to do so without ever becoming hectoring or shrill. Skippy Dies is an epic, in the very best sense of the word, and is well worth checking out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Have to Start Somewhere

Dostoyevsky, Banville, Russell, McGahern, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Proust.

I haven't read any of them, at this point in time. This is a blog about books by someone who is far from an expert on them, he just likes them. There will be little in-depth analysis, no talk of motifs, little in the way of delving into influences. I'm not a professional book-reviewer, so I won't be able to offer sneak previews of the hot new thing hitting our bookshelves in a fortnight. You may not have read a single one of the books that I have. There'll be no ratings out of ten given, because I don't believe in them. There'll be no particularly good reason to visit.
But there'll be honest reviews of books I've read and had something to say about, so I'll be delighted if a few people drop by. And if they don't, I'll still have read those books.