issue 37: July - August 2003
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
|Buddha Da by Anne Donovan:
Canongate Books, Scotland, 2003
Picture this: working-class Glaswegian family of three; the father (da), Jimmy McKenna, is a housepainter/decorator who loves his bevvy and the footie; his attractive wife, Liz, works in an office and cares for her aging mother, who lives nearby; twelve-year-old Anne Marie, a sharp little girl with a great singing voice, is their only child. Jimmy and Liz met in the early eighties when both were in their teens and theyve been together ever since. Sex is still good for the two and both have job security. Its a happy family even though Jimmy and Liz have settled into routine and dont talk much outside of everyday chit-chat. Your typical marriage, in other words. What then could shake its foundation and throw the family into turmoil?
Well, its not a death or illness or an adulterous affair. Slowly, family relations begin to shift when Jimmy, of all unthinkable things, takes up meditation. As Anne Marie tells us in the opening lines:
Nobody thinks much of it at first when he starts dropping by the Buddhist Centre, since hes quite the outgoing type and often starting a wee project, such as building a garden shed, and rarely finishing it. But meditating every Tuesday night at the Centre soon becomes a regular thing, replacing his night at the pub. Liz only gets disturbed when he goes away for a weekend retreat. She doesnt understand what its all about and feels shut out. Sure, he invites her along, but she doesnt want that. She wants things the way they were.
Instead of returning to normal, however, Jimmy gets more deeply involved. In addition to the meditation, he becomes vegetarian and gives up alcohol. And then the coup de grace: he takes up celibacy. Its about controllin ma desires, Jimmy tells Liz, to which she responds: And what aboot ma desires, Jimmy? Liz suspects there may be another woman, specifically a woman he met on the retreat who has hired him to paint and decorate her house in Edinburgh, quite a commute for a housepainter. This new age woman does influence Jimmy and he enjoys her company, but there is no hanky-panky.
Still, the marriage is on the rocks. Jimmy moves out of the house with his sleeping bag and takes up residence in the Centre. The cooking facilities are minimum, however, so he returns home after work for tea and supper, often staying to watch the tele with Anne Marie. Liz discovers she likes the extra space she has around the house without Jimmy there all the time. Shes not sure if shes a single woman or what, and so it is slowly that she gets drawn into a relationship with a grad student. A spiky haircut and some new clothes from GAP turn her into quite the hip, young woman; she is, after all, only 36. Jimmy, of course, hardly notices. He also misses Anne Maries school theater performance because it conflicts with a Buddhist speaker passing through. With both her ma and da runnin aboot, plucky Anne Marie finds refuge with an Indian schoolmate, Nisha, and the two work hard to produce a CD to enter in a competition.
Can the marriage be saved? Will the family be a real family again? Buddha Da is all about lives changing. It is also all about how an obsession can blind one to everyday reality, the irony being that the obsession in this case, Buddhist practice, is followed in order to bring clarity and enlightenment into ones life. It may seem incredible that a bloke such as Jimmy would take up Buddhism, but Donovan convinces us. As soon as I heard the Rinpoches voice it semed tae get me calmed doon and followin ma breathin, he tells us at one point.
The simple, endearing plot is made ever so vivid by the first-person narrative structure, with each family member alternately telling the story from their personal perspective. Each voice is notably distinct and wholly believable. We get into their hearts and minds and share their individual concerns. Donovan uses the Glega working-class dialect - a lovely music unto itself - to create an intimate contact with the characters. Its honest, moving, without drifting into sentimental ground, and full of good humor, one of the authors trademarks. Buddha Da was shortlisted for this years Orange Prize. It is Donovans first novel, following the publication of Hieroglyphics and Other Stories, 2001. I cant wait to read what comes next. J.A.
Glory Goes and Gets Some by Emily Carter: Serpents Tail, 2003
This collection of 21 interrelated stories is narrated by Gloria (Glory) Bronski, whose voice youll long remember. Little by little, 30-year-old Glorys life story is revealed, with a quick overview of it all in the story The Bride, appearing halfway through. What we learn: Glory is born in New York, parents divorce when shes a child and a stepfather enters. She's sent to boarding school at twelve because shes blown it at all the private schools her parents have sent her to; gets expelled from there and bombs out of college as well for too much getting drunk and obsessing over various boys . . . .I had proven there were rules everywhere and I was capable of following exactly none of them. She takes off for Portland, Oregon with a group of boys, ends up working in a tavern there and marrying the bartender, who she claims loves her for being a Jewish girl from New York. That crowd manages to stay drunk a good bit of the time or doing cocaine, etc. Then its back to New York, alone, and a life of heroin addiction. AIDS enters her life along the way. Rehab comes next, in Minnesota, and then life in halfway houses. And so it goes . . . Sound depressing? Well, its not, at least not the way Glory tells her story, which is honest, full of amusing, often insightful, introspective revelations, and wry and witty observations. Despite the anything-but-optimistic world view, there is something upbeat in Glorys energy, will and rebelliousness. Heres how she greets the news shes got AIDS:
The stories tell of Glorys encounters and perceptions along the way. East on Houston, the opening story, set in Manhattan, doesnt introduce Glory by name, but recounts her memory of the voices of men in traffic, while . . .walking east on Houston . . . .Their voices glittered like tossed beer cans on traffic islands and said, Excuse me Miss, excuse me, can I walk you? . . . those are some fine young thighs youre sliding along on there, with that creamy swish-swish, sweet, like my wifes when she was still walking. Next comes Glory B and the Gentle Art, a delightful story of Glorys encounter with an old high school boyfriend who wants to introduce his fiancée; one thing Glory loves to do is to talk, talk, talk, and here she does - right into a hole. This is followed by the story of another acquaintance, ex-Sister Jacqueline of Pitt Street, who finds Glory passed out on her doorstep and later, at Glorys insistence, tells why shes an ex nun. Yet another casual encounter, this time in a bar with an older guy: He was in the middle of a long binge, is what it looked like, the kind Ive always secretly wished to go on myself, the kind of drunk that goes beyond inebriation into a state of almost genteel lucidity.
Minneapolis gives us Glorys take on that city. In answer to the question of why anyone would want to stay in Minneapolis, crusted with defunct machinery and empty grain elevators and having only over-priced drugs, well . . . interestingly, Minneapolis, Land of Ten Thousand Treatment Centers, provides the cure to any addiction you can name (Glory should know), and people come from all over.
This is followed by stories in which she speaks of those she met in the treatment center and halfway houses. WLUV sees Glory in a boarding house where her closest friend is an 81-year-old man; while Parachute Silk recounts the story of her relationship with a fellow addict, whom she met in rehab; here in passing we find a typical Carter observation:
Ask Amelio tells of how she rebuffs a reporter who wants to ask her questions about women with AIDS. She speaks of how she comes from a wealthy and supportive family, its resemblance to a spider web notwithstanding, and how shes single, no kids. She suggests the reporter ask Amelio, whose story is very different. Another fine piece is Zemeckis Cat. Here we have an ex-addict, a dweller on the margins as his counselor would say, who can presumably only show emotion towards his cat. Near the end, we have the story A, in which Glory speaks of her second (failed) marriage, this time to a fellow ex-addict who is also HIV positive.
A counselor once asked Glory to find the thread that ran through her life. Wanting to get approval from men is part of it. Needing to feel glamorous, but identifying with the Bride of Frankenstein, is tied in. A recurring image is one of parachutes, which can open or not, save you or not. Ultimately, without being explicitly stated, Glory knows she must accept herself and take responsibility. She speaks of the end of time in the final story, but typically it involves a touching description of the people in a run-down laundromat . . . and, there is laughter.
I suspect - what I shouldnt, but do - that a part of this stunning collection is autobiographical. I hope, if there is a connection, that it doesnt involve T-counts. But if so, Id bet my money on the author of the defiant Glory to wisely hold course and sail on. Emily Carter can write the pants off any of her generation. Her descriptions, whether of an area, event, character or emotion, are rendered in fresh and original prose, perfectly phrased; and there is heart, daring and soul at the core. Shes a natural and not to be missed. J.A.
See WLUV in this issue of TBR
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Scribner, 2003
Set in the poverty-stricken Puerto Rican community of Troy, New York in the mid-80s, and leading up to almost the present day, the book follows the ups and downs of Lourdes and her family, of whom Jessica and Cesar are two of the more important figures. Jessica gets pregnant at 16, which is pretty old for this neighborhood, and Serena is born, soon to be followed by twins fathered by Serenas fathers bother. Jessica later meets Boy George (not the British singer) who is a big-time heroin dealer and living the good life off his massive earnings. He has various women but treats Jessica as a sort of wife-cum-punchbag. Cesar, now 14 and a thug-in-training, meets Coco, also 14, and soon she too is pregnant. Another character, Milagros, enters the picture, and although she gets the least mention, she is for me the most intriguing. Milagros is a tomboy and has no partner, male or female, throughout the next 16-plus years, but she becomes a surrogate mother to Jessicas children and others. (Jessica will drop another set of twins while in prison, fathered by a guard.) Jessicas children see Milagros as their mother, and at one point she becomes their legal guardian. Quite what her motivation is is not clear but both Jessica and Coco and their children 10 altogether at the last count owe Milagros big time.
Boy George is caught and sent down for life. Cesar takes the rap for a shooting but is underage so is sent to a correction facility. Coco gets pregnant by someone else, but then Cesar has fathered a few other kids with other women, so thats all right then. On his return he gives Coco baby number three. He is then sent down for nine years for (accidentally) killing his best friend. Coco manages to have two more kids. Just 21 with five kids and no job and I think lifes a bitch. This all, more or less, is part one and it is worth looking at a typical extract just to get a feel for the style and how much information is crammed into each paragraph. The following could practically be expanded to book or film length:
With the Robert later said one can see the documentary angle but so much is hidden in the simple having the means to move boosted Lourdess spirits. She is moving to what later turns out to be a rat and cockroach infested pit, worse than the one she is leaving, and this is a spirit booster?
From part two on, the writing becomes a lot less compressed and frantic. Days, events, characters are given space to develop and the author shows her effective writing skills. There is a nice page describing Cocos attempt to get an evening meal together with four young girls under her feet. The piece is held together by the simple imagery of food and utensils, delivered with a rhythm built on the beat of short sentences and the demands of the children, I want, I need. Earlier the author, who usually offers the reader little but the facts, gives us an insightful example of attention seeking, a recurring theme throughout the book. During a visit to see Cesar in prison, his three-year-old daughter wants more candy. Cesar takes the last piece, puts it in his mouth
The pleasure of holding power can be applied to almost any of the protagonists actions. Power lies not just in money or having drugs or wielding violence but also by being a virgin or being pregnant or having a simple tattoo.
It is a bleak book but also strangely soap-opera addictive. One wants to continue reading to see if Serena will get the belly by fourteen. Her mother, herself in prison most of the time, and her aunt should have learned how to steer her right, or so one would think. But how? Too many kids, no money, no time, temptations to make easy money through drugs and crime or ripping off the creaking welfare system .all lead to indifference. All the children seem to be heading for disaster, to repeat their grandparents and parents mistakes, yet none of the main protagonists is stupid - Cesar, too late, discovers he has quite a good brain and enjoys learning; Jessica too, but there is no light at the end of any tunnel as there doesnt even seem to be a tunnel.
This very well-researched book offers an extraordinary insight into a world I wouldnt wish on anybody, but it also presents the reader with a dilemma which side of the fence do you sit on in the welfare/poverty debate? LeBlanc remains fairly aloof. We get, in almost microscopic detail, the cycle of poverty, but no comment from anybody on how to shove the spanner in the works and somehow stop the train from coming round again. Take this: if two young girls, Jessica and Coco, can rear seven girls and three boys, then those seven girls could easily deliver thirty plus, and god knows what three boys could do. Without any suggestion of resolution,s LeBlanc has left her book open to be abused and used by both sides of the argument and one can imagine from the simple mathematics above some idiot right-winger calling for bromide in the drinking water.
Over the years the researcher and her subjects must have bonded, but by coldly opening up these people as if she were performing a live autopsy, and showing them warts and all (literally in one case), the author may ultimately be doing damage, especially as she offers no solution. The reader doesnt feel a lot of sympathy with the family because they dont appear to be learning from their mistakes or to be helping themselves, or the next generation, to get out of the rut; and it is pretty obvious, in a Republican USA, that no one else is going to lift a finger to help them either. Read as a novel there is a small, dim possibility of hope by way of that sexless person, a thing, called Milagros in English, Miracles. But sadly this book is not fiction. Grim but highly absorbing, the discussions evolving from this book will rip apart many a Reading Club. M.G.S
Nineteen Eighty by David Peace: Serpents Tail, 2001 (reprint 2003)
David Peace was selected as one of Grantas Best Young British Novelists 2003 and obviously Serpents Tail has celebrated by re-releasing the penultimate of Peaces acclaimed Red Riding Quartet. For those not in the know, the series, as the titles show, covers certain years from the early 1970s until the mid 1980s (1974, 1977, 1980, 1983). Set mostly in Yorkshire, and loosely connected to actual events, the general theme is police corruption and/or cover-ups at a high level. An early tag Yorkshire Noir is erroneous; Nineteen Eighty certainly doesnt fit the loose definition of noir given in TBR 36, but the series is, like the Yorkshire Moors themselves, bleak, moody, dangerous, complex, a little muddy but with flashes of outstanding beauty.
Nineteen Eighty is set at the very end of that year. Lennon has just been shot, but the Yorkshire Ripper is still at large and after six years of killing he claims his thirteenth victim. The police appoint Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter to head the bogged-down investigation. He is about to open a can of worms, not knowing how tight-knit and vicious his fellow police officers can be in their desire to keep the lid on.
For legal reasons, as well as artistic, the facts are quite close to what happened, but the names of the victims, killer and police have all been changed. Peaces take on events points to there being two killers, one still free, which interestingly seems to be gaining credibility in reality.
Having made his name as a crime writer, it is interesting that Granta gave a nod to someone from a genre usually ignored by literary circles. I can't see the likes of James Ellroy appearing in a literary collection, yet his style is a major influence on many, many writers - including, I'm sure, Peace. Hopefully Grantas acknowledgment may just serve to open eyes to some vibrant literature that is every bit as artistic as the latest literary author de jour.
In Nineteen Eighty Peace widens his style and uses repetition to create
a beat? A tension? Its a trick Ellroy uses, maybe overuses, but Peace has
taken it a step further by at times repeating whole paragraphs, again and again, with just
a wee change at the end. Annoying? It can be, but I do wonder if the authors
intention may well be one of asking us not to read the repeating passage. The
technique could be seen as the literary equivalent of a blink, confirming the situation
after milliseconds of blackness; i.e., a rapid unconscious scan or skip. Or, put another
way, it is like when you look at your watch but two seconds later when a friend asks the
time you look again but dont really see it you just confirm what you already
know. Where it becomes really annoying, however, is toward the end of the novel when you
are on the edge of your seat waiting to see just if and how Peter Hunter is going to
survive. I can imagine hardened thriller readers screaming fuck art, get on with
it! and skipping the passages altogether. But then, as Peace himself says, crime is
not cosy, it is not an entertainment. He grew up under the shadow of the real Yorkshire
Ripper, fearing his mother was next; he writes of this experience on the Serpents
Tail website where you can also find excerpts
from the Riding Quartet, a series really worth the effort.
Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley: Serpents Tail, U.K., 2003 (U.S: Atria Books, 2003)
For those who are familiar with Walter Mosleys best-known character, the title cheekily explains that we have six Easy Rawlins short stories. Easy fans in the U.S may have come across the stories before, but seen in a collection one notices a plot line concerning the death of Easys childhood friend and sidekick, Mouse, which runs through the stories, and therefore carries on from the last novel Bad Boy Bobby Brown.
Over about seven books Mosley has built a complex character in Easy. As an unemployed war vet Easy tries to better his lot in 1960s U.S.A. He strives to educate himself, constantly reading, and invests in bricks and mortar, but hes uneasy with the money so works as a janitor. Later he gets a safe job as a supervisor in a school. It is this period of his life that Six Easy Pieces covers. It is not a bad introduction for Easy virgins (sic) as it does more or less explain his past as it goes along, and one can also get slightly into the mans head. At first the stories lull the reader into a false sense of security; everyone seems to like Easy and to help him; he is kind, thoughtful and considerate, always helping others and hes very generous with his money. Then suddenly, in the story Lavender, we see a man burning with vindictive jealousy, wanting to beat up Bonnie, his live-in lover. Its not quite as shocking or as unexpected as a character like Christies Miss Marple saying The fuckin vicar did it, but the jolt is enough for Easy to be seen in a new light. The stories, mostly concerning minor local problems, missing people, suicides, murders and so on, work just fine with Easy sort of plodding along, usually finding the body just a wee bit too late but getting the answers fast enough.
For Easy fans this collection is a must. Mosley seems to have given up on him; the last Easy book, Bad Boy Bobby Brown, came six years after the previous one, Gone Fishin, which is a sort of Easy prequel going back to before WWI. (It was actually the first book Mosley wrote despite the many others published beforehand.) He has since created a new character, Fearless Jones, and the second Jones novel, Fear Itself, will be out this October. Look for a review in the next issue of TBR. M.G.S.
Extracts from some of the Easy novels are available on the Serpents Tail website.
Dummyland by Steve Aylett: Gollancz, London, 2002
Dummyland is the third book in Ayletts Accomplice series, which began with Only an Alligator, 2001; followed by The Velocity Gospel, 2002. If youve never read Aylett, he should come with a warning: whatever preconceived notions you generally have as a reader when opening a book - expectations of a coherent plot, logical connections, congruent imagery - wont be found here. Aylett territory resembles some sort of deranged parallel universe where characters may have anvil heads, external brains or a huge glowing octopus of hair; and buildings may be constructed of slimy bone lumps removed from a thigh, but thats just the norm; there are also chef schools, bookstores, cafes, all the usual stuff, but as they might appear in some feverish dream after an absinthe binge. Apart from that, theres something eerily familiar about the place. Take the framed sign at the barbers: "You pay me to oppose your preferences."
Its not absolutely essential that the books be read in order, but it does help to read the first in the series to get an idea of the key players and the layout of the town of Accomplice [See TBR review of Only an Alligator]. Theres the young, innocuous Barny Juno, friend of "the winged and stepping animals of the earth"; Mayor Rudloe, whose office is nearly overrun with "floor lobsters" - scuttling carapaces that dwell in corrupt environments; and the demon exoskeleton, Sweeney, who lives in the creepchannel below Accomplice. Our boy Barny ticked off Sweeney when he wandered into the creepchannel and rescued a gator from the "melted pizza cheese of the channel wall." The mayors down on Barny, too, which has all inadvertently led to our boy being "the motivating force for every recent atrocity in town."
Dummyland opens in the Church of the Automata with hinge-baby Maquette awakening "into the flavour of wooden teeth plugs and the rigid fit of her own jaw." Yes, shes a doll and shes on the loose in Accomplice. Elsewhere, there is Barnys blob-like friend Gregor, who is about to stand trial for humping one of the statues on the town clock while Mayor Rudloe ("corrupt so you dont have to be") was giving a speech. Gregors lawyer, Death, tries to console his client: "Listen carefully, Gregor. One of the big guns in the court armoury is its sedative effect. Bigger is its dismissal of objective reality . . ." The prosecuting attorney is Max Gaffer: "I pretend to conceal a large sentiment behind my licence, but in fact theres only a piece of plywood and then the wall." The trial is actually a sham, a way of trying to get Barny through Gregor.
Two defections: Gaffer, who "specialises in the hobbling of humanity," has switched allegiances to the evil Sweeney; still in the mayors employ, Gaffer now works as an inside agent. Bat-like fiend Dietrich Hammerwire, who used to be Sweeneys cohort, now allies himself with the upper strata: "Whats attempted below is here perfected. Humanity can begin a season in the abstract and end it with blood in the road."
Amidst all that, we have Barnys nightmares to contend with (dreams of the Rakeman, a demon from below whos "approaching Accomplice in search of a horizontal mirror to exit shrieking") and . . . an eclipse is on the way. Mayor Rudloe plans a Miasma of Culture fair for the occasion, which everyones hoping to capitalize on in some way. In the meantime, life goes on: the chef of the Ultimatum Restaurant ("Garbage at crippling prices") is still "aiming for one hundred per cent pasta consumption within two years"; Eddie Gallo, who is still running his opposition campaign in hopes of gaining the mayoral seat, has recently made headlines: GALLO SENSES FLOWER; Plantin Edge is going after the Quadraface harpies in the swamp in order to sell them as meat to gain money for . . . . oh, never mind. There is a plot, but the fun is what happens along the way. As Bingo Violaine, Accomplices philosopher, says: "Cheese which, when sliced, can bend double without breaking, is likely not cheese." I think that says it all. J.A.
Note: The last of the Accomplice series, Karloffs Clown, is
due out in January 2004. Ayletts CD, Staring is its Own Reward, with readings from
many of his works, will be available July 26, 2003.
tbr 37 July - August 2003
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