Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Red House by Mark Haddon | Families in Crisis

I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time years ago, and it's one of the best books I've read. After hearing Mark Haddon speak at the London Book Fair a few years ago, I realized he is one of the funniest serious authors alive, and since then I've continued reading his book. His latest novel, The Red House is no disappointment, and follows A Spot of Bother as a novel about the family in crisis.

Basically we have a sort of situation drama on our hands. Brother and sister Richard and Angela do not have the closest of bonds, but after the passing of their mother, they go on a holiday to a small town in Wales together. Angela is bringing her husband Dominic, her daughter Daisy, and her two sons Alex and Benjy, as well as the ghost of a daughter that didn't live. Richard comes along with his new wife Louisa and her daughter Melissa. The scene is set for long hours of reading (for our characters), less pleasant trips down memory lane, revelations, conflict and confrontation.

The families try to keep entertained throughout the duration of their stay by going to town, reading, "sightseeing" and going for walks. However, all of them bring emotional baggage with them, and this is forced to the surface as the days pass. Richard's problems at work, Dom's infidelity, Melissa's bitchiness, Daisy's secret, and Angela's grief over a child that died 18 years ago. As the secrets are revealed, some of the characters inch closer and closer to a breakdown.

What is interesting is the relationships between parents and children, and how they keep changing. Angela struggles with Daisy, whereas Dominic is the "cool" parent. However, when Daisy's secret is brought out, it is her mother she seeks. There is also a sense that disillusion and disappointment work both ways. The parents might dislike who their children are becoming, but as the children mature, they see their parents for who they really are. Angela herself must face this, as her memories of her dad differs from the view Richard portrays. 

What is initially striking about the novel is that all the characters are focalizers in the story, i.e. the point of view of the story keeps changing from one person to the next. This happens without warning, and in the beginning it was a bit hard to keep up with who was thinking what. Additionally, the dialogue is all in italics rather than inverted commas, which increases the confusion. It feels like we are inside the characters heads, and the italics underline the monotony and silence of the place.

What I love about Mark Haddon is that the families and problems he portray are so recognizable. And he is not afraid to broach any subject. I love how his characters are forced to not only confront others, but themselves. And I love the tenderness with which he portrays children. There is something so genuine and real about them, funny and confusing at the same time. There are not a lot of authors out there who has skill in that department. Haddon balances between funny and sad, but he never lets us down, and brings the book to a worthy conclusion. We might not have solutions to everything, we might only have seen a glimpse of these people's lives, but we do feel we were present at a pivotal moment. And when the families have packed up and left, all that remains to witness they were ever there are the used books they bought and left behind.


Thursday, 24 May 2012

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

A gem for any bookseller, this fun collection of quotes from bookshops is, in Neil Gaiman's words "so funny... So sad"... This is the book I wish I'd written! I guess I still can. In fact, all bookshops should have a notebook behind the counter to record outrageous questions and comments from the customers -all due respect!

Hihi, here are some quotes from the book:

CUSTOMER: Do you stock Nigella Lawson under 'sex' or 'cookery'?
BOOKSELLER: It's a tough call, isn't it?
p. 56

CUSTOMER: Have you read every book in here?
BOOKSELLER: No, I can't say I have.
CUSTOMER: Well you're not very good at your job, are you?
p. 70

... And here's a recent experience from yours truly in EB Nicolway:

CUSTOMER: Can you tell me where the nearest bookshop is?
ME: ...You're standing in it...
May 2012

This is a must-read for all booksellers - and customers! Read it and weep:) 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey | Modern Grief Meets the Gothic

I decided to read this book because of the reference to an automaton on the back cover blurb, which immediately got me thinking about E.T.A. Hoffman's short story "The Sandman" (1916).
A gothic classic, "The Sandman" has a strong concept of the "unheimlich" or the uncanny. In other words, when reading it, you are left with an uneasy feeling (an enjoyable uneasy feeling, that is).

In The Chemistry of Tears we meet Catherine, whose lover Mattthew just passed away unexpectedly. Being the mistress, Catherine has to confront her grief and memories on her own. She is set to work piecing together an automaton, a swan built in the 1800s. Among the parts are a bunch of notebooks written by the man who commissioned the swan, a Henry Brandling. To battle her grief, Catherine disappears into Henry's world, and reads obsessively about how the father Henry, after losing a girl child, attempts to nurture his son's will to live by getting a mechanical duck built for him. He leaves his failing marriage and his son behind to go to Germany to find a clockmaker who can build the duck for him. His welcome is anything but warm, but a mysterious Herr Sumper is willing to help him. In his desperation, Henry provides all the funds he has, and finds himself a prisoner whilst awaiting the construction of his duck. However, the elusive Herr Sumper seems to have other ideas, and Henry soon has doubts about his duck ever being constructed.

In the present time, Catherine drowns herself in alcohol, works on the swan with Amanda, an assistant who is not altogether balanced, and gets unexpected visits on her doorstep. Finding the secrets of the swan becomes almost an obsession to her, especially when she finds a cube that Karl, Herr Sumper's prodigy helper must have left there. Catherine is pushing the boundaries more and more, taking the cube home with her as a sort of souvenir, all the while refusing Amanda to even think about the significance of the cube. Amanda is convinced that the swan holds dark and menacing secrets.

As the mysteries surrounding its conception start to unravel, other mysteries appear. Herr Sumper gives dark testimonies to Henry, who shakes it all off as bogus, but both Catherine, and we as the readers can feel the chill run down our spines. The end of the novel is left rather open, and we are left with a delightfully uncanny feeling of not knowing.

If I had reread "The Sandman" while reading this novel, I am sure I would have a lot more to say about the obvious link between them. However, some parallels are clear. Both deal with someone who passed away and is being grieved. Both deal with a sort of haunting. And both deal with a sort of impossible love story.

I enjoyed this novel quite a lot. Henry's Gothic story sucked me in and left me hungry for more. Catherine's attempt to come to terms with the sudden death of her lover for thirteen years, in a world where she is not allowed to grieve him openly, touched me deeply (all my relationships together don't even come to thirteen years!).

The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic | A Proofreader's (wet) Dream

After reading Double Negative recently by Ivan Vladislavic, I was very eager to read the re-launch of an older novel, The Restless Supermarket. Once again Vladislavic writes about Jo'burg and the many changes it has undergone in recent times. Reading it left me with no doubts about Vladislavic' skills as a writer. What that man can do with the English language leaves me breathless at times; I am either stunned into pure awe or laughing so hard (inside) that I can't breathe! This book is a definite treasury for proofreaders, or anyone interested in/involved with the publishing industry, as well as logophiles in general.  For me, having done proofreading at Uni and being in possession of that healthy dose of anal retentiveness required for proofreading, I really had a fun time reading it. For people who can't stand being corrected, perhaps this isn't the book for you.

Retired proofreader Aubrey Tearle finds his world turned upside down when his daily haunt, the Cafe Europe in Hillbrow, announces that it is shutting down. Tearle is a lonely nit picker, and it seems that his only social contacts are other guests at the Cafe Europa. Little by little he tells us how he became part of a group of people frequenting the place. However, we get a strong impression that Tearle's strong opinions created a gap between his acquaintances and himself that he failed to see until it was too late.

Tearle is busy with his life's work, the Proofreader's Derby. Throughout his career, Tearle collected examples of written errors and typos. They now make up the Proofreader's Derby, a competition Tearle is determined to show his "friends" on the farewell bash that marks the end of the Cafe Europa. But will he finish it on time? And do any of his "friends" have the skills needed to correct it?

The Cafe Europa stands as a sort of symbol of apartheid in the novel. The name itself should be an indication. Hillbrow used to be one of the most trendy "white" suburbs of Jo'burg, but towards the end of apartheid an increasing number of black people moved in, and the whites basically ran away. Tearle mentions how the Cafe came under "new management", which echoes how South Africa itself came under "new management" in 1994. Tearle doesn't seem to be very happy about how the world as he knows it is changing. He sees the increasing number of errors in the newspapers as a sign that society as a whole is deteriorating.

Tearle sees himself as a kind of savior. Towards the end of the novel, we get to read his Proofreader's Derby, which is a kind of story or fairytale about an imaginary place where everything suddenly falls apart. The proofreaders are the ones supposed to hold it all together, and Tearle's alter ego is their leader. Boundaries are literally moved and erased, literary as well as geographical. There is a lot we can read into this as a comment on the novel as a whole. The South African geography is literally changing, but the language is also changing. And when you look around Jo'burg today, streets, hospitals, airports and universities have changed names, and there has been a geographical move of people and places in a much larger sense.

As the reader, I didn't much like Tearle, and to be honest, I don't think I'm supposed to. I sympathize with him, however, and I can kind of understand where he's coming from. Tearle estranges people, insults his "friends" without realizing it, and is completely oblivious to anyone else's needs. I often laugh at him (and a few times with him). Towards the end of the novel Tearle kind of gets a chance to redeem himself, however.

The Restless Supermarket is a comment on the changing South Africa, the changing political climate, and the many prejudices that are bound to stick around. It is both funny and thought-provoking, intelligent and sad. Tearle's fear of being erased by the changing landscape is understandable, as the world as he knows it is disappearing in front of his eyes.

A quality read, I hope countless logophile geeks take the time to read, and reflect on Vladislavic' book. It is important. And in today's political climate, where freedom of expression and artistic freedom is under attack by the current ANC government, it becomes even more important.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Literary tattoos

I have been thinking about getting a tattoo that illustrates my love for words, words, words. My awesome boss borrowed me a copy of the book Literary Tattoos: The Word Made Flesh* by Talmadge and Taylor. I'm in love! She also tipped me that there is a website devoted to "our kind". Check out www.contrariwise.org for some really stunning and inspiring bookish tattoos!

I am still undecided about what to get, and whether to get a quote or illustration - or both! I have far too many fave literary quotes! My mantra is "the words are purposes, the words are maps" ("Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich), but I'm not sure I want that tattooed on me. Khalil Gibran and the Bible are more spiritual options. And what about my Uni fave, J M Coetzee? Or my newfound love for Ivan Vladislavic' playful prose? My first fantasy love, The Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb? So many books, so little time! I'm even considering rereading my fave books to find the perfect quote!

...to be continued... 

*the phrase brings to mind the repeated mantra "dreams made flesh" from the excellent The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop. What a read! I wish I could be a "virgin reader" of that book again...