Sunday 26 May 2024

Euphoria - Elin Cullhed (2021)


Rating: Admirable

Sylvia Plath was a brilliant writer of both verse and prose and even the most casual reader of literature would know something about her. Her only novel, The Bell Jar (1963) made a huge impact on me when I read it some eighteen years ago, it seemed brilliant and radiant in its intensity, despite its challenging subject matter. Plath was married to English poet, Ted Hughes, and during her last year she was living in Devon whilst pregnant with their second child. Their marriage unraveled and Plath ended up living in London with her two children whilst Hughes pursued his need for ‘freedom’ (as quoted in the novel) with another woman. Plath’s tumultuous relationship with Hughes is well documented and for most of the rest of his life Hughes was attacked by feminists and critics for having treated Plath poorly or for even being the cause of her death. Elin Cullhed, in an interview, relates how she read Plath’s journals during a trip to England when she was twenty, which made a big impact on her. Then years later, during a period in which Cullhed was diagnosed as having extreme exhaustion, she was inspired to write a novel about Plath’s last year before her untimely suicide at the age of thirty. In Euphoria’s forward it is noted that the depiction of Plath is a fictional one, a 'literary fantasy' as Cullhed puts it, a notion that the reader should remember while reading the novel. 

Hughes and Plath

Euphoria is a novel intense with emotion and inner psychological tension and in this sense Cullhed has succeeded in portraying both a troubled individual and a marriage compromised by interpersonal and professional struggles. Written in the first person point of view of Plath, the prose is ripe with a heightened state of self-awareness, of neurotic desperation and self-sabotage. The portrayal of Plath's state of mind is suffocating and unrelentingly neurotic and, as a result, Cullhed has done Plath no favours, as she comes across as impossibly demanding and impossible to live with. Ted Hughes was undoubtably flawed, but the Plath of Euphoria weakens her position as a hard done by literary genius who battled depression while not getting the sympathy or help she needed from a husband who ultimately cheated on her and left her caring for two young children. Hughes comes out of the novel in quite a sympathetic light and with Euphoria so heavily weighted toward Plath's first person perspective it seems very unbalanced. Ultimately it’s an exhausting read and in the end I was speed reading just to get it over and done with, which is, obviously, never a good sign. I'm also troubled by the moral implications of putting words and thoughts into the mouth and mind of such a well know literary figure and portraying Hughes' and Plath's relationship in such a skewed manner. Despite the 'literary fantasy' warning at the beginning of the novel, I can't help but feel that readers will come away from the Euphoria with the notion that they have an accurate perception of Plath in her final year and her relationship with Hughes. Ultimately I admire the quality of the writing, but didn't enjoy the novel overall, an impression shared with many of the book club members, although some did enjoy it unreservedly. Euphoria is a flawed novel with dubious moral standing, so read with caution!

Thursday 25 April 2024

Pattern Recognition - William Gibson (2003)


Rating: Admirable

Around the turn of the twenty first century William Gibson stated that any possible future that he could imagine would not be as weird as what was happening in the present. Accordingly, Pattern Recognition was the first of his novels to be set in the (then) present, so weirdly it is now set in the past. It has been a long time since I’ve read a Gibson novel, longer than the life of this blog. Pattern Recognition attracted me due to its fantastic premise, involving a female protagonist, Cayce Pollard, who displays allergic reactions to logos. Cayce makes a living as a marketing consultant, the worst her reaction is, the better the logo. Cayce is employed by the marketing company, Blue Ant, owned by the toothy Tom Cruise-like Hubertus Bigend (one of the best character names ever). In London to meet with the Blue Ant marketers, Cayce starts to experience a sequence of unsettling events, including being bullied by Blue Ant hard bitch, Dorotea Benedetti. In addition, Cayce, along with a world-wide coterie, is obsessed with very short arty film clips (referred to as ‘the footage’) that appear intermittently via the internet, and are created by an anonymous source, a source that Bigend wants to uncover, seeing it as a brilliant marketing art-form. Bigend, all toothy and hirsute, uses his persuasive powers, basically oozing cinematic charm, to hire a reluctant and paranoid Cacye to track down the creator.

Gibson, feeling weird in the (then) present

Pattern Recognition reveals a Gibson different to the one who produced significant novels such as Neuromancer (1984) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I always felt that although Gibson’s ideas were brilliant, technically his prose was slightly clunky. Not so with Pattern Recognition, in fact after only fifty pages I was comparing his prose style with that of DeLillo and Ballard, and I started to see the world differently while under the novel’s influence, something that happens rarely (but does with Ballard and DeLillo). Typically, Gibson displays a fine degree of cultural insight, tapping into the opaque signs and signifiers that lurk in our oversaturated media dominated world (as it already was back in 2003). Curiously, however, there are some quaint uses of technology; to watch segments of the ‘footage’ Bigend uses a potable DVD player! The novel was published six years before Smartphones became sophisticated and cheap enough to completely change our interactions with media, therefore DVD technology seems completely out of date as a portable medium now. Gibson produces some brilliant lines, and the novel is replete with visually expressive writing. The overall feel is very noirish, especially when Cayce ends up in Tokyo, perhaps the most natural environment for a Gibson novel. Despite an excellent start the novel begins to taper off about two thirds of the way through, particularly after several mysteries are cleared up. The novel’s denouement is melancholic (a good descriptor for the overall tone of the novel) and subdued, which was disappointing after such an intriguing beginning. Recently I read that short stories tend to be all middle, which is an appropriate descriptor for Pattern Recognition, as it doesn’t quite ignite. Overall, the novel is full of promise that doesn’t completely deliver, but I haven’t been put off and will read the second and third books in the trilogy, Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010).  

Sunday 21 April 2024

The Bee Sting - Paul Murray (2023)


Rating: Excellent 

Paul Murray is an Irish writer and fittingly in the long tradition of Irish literature The Bee Sting is an epic literary work filled with weighty themes and experimentation with form. Essentially a novel about family dysfunction, it also deals with wider themes, such as climate change. The Bee Sting weaves a tapestry of alternating perspectives into a whole that is, at times, overwhelming and demanding to an almost maddening extent. The Barnes are a wealthy family living in a town just outside of Dublin, with the patriarch, Dickie, running a car dealership that has run into financial trouble. This appears to upend the family dynamic, with his wife, Imelda, and their two teenagers, Cass and PJ at odds with each other and themselves. However, there is far more going on under the surface due to a dysfunctional past that has led the Barnes family to an inflection point of crisis. Murray reveals the inner perspective of each character in turn, piecing together a narrative jigsaw puzzle that eventually leads to an understanding of both past and current events. The reader is granted direct access into the mind of Imelda via Murray’s use of stream of consciousness for all her sections. An old Modernist technique, it causes the reader the tumble over her thoughts and actions, as if you are inside her traumatised and harried mind. As a technique it is a risky move, as the lack of punctuation makes it difficult to read, but you do get used to it and ultimately it is totally appropriate for Imelda, as her experiences form the backbone of the narrative. In the latter stages of the novel Murray utilises second person intermittently, which, once again, takes a bit of getting used to, but it effectively places the reader right in the shoes of the characters.

The Bee Sting has been critically successful and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for 2023, however once I finished it, I realised that, for me at least, it is a novel to admire, rather than one to enjoy, at least in a conventional way. Strangely, however, despite my misgivings, that The Bee Sting is far too long, has too many unsympathetic characters and forces you to relent to the overwhelming urge to speed-read large sections, I did enjoy it in a weird, almost perverse kind of way. The novel is a challenge to read, which brings its own level of enjoyment, depending on what you want from a novel. The plot presents a host of surprises, most that were already lingering in the background, but not visible enough for the reader to guess (except for the actual bee sting, that was obvious). As the plot twists and turns, it propels the reader on through a sea of words that often present a real drowning threat. It doesn’t help that all the main protagonists are dysfunctional, which makes for bleak reading, even the humour is darkly ironic. Despite these challenges The Bee Sting is a fine novel, and I can’t help admiring Murray’s literary bravery with his liberal use of narrative techniques that challenge the reader. There’s also the shear bulk of the book to consider, coming in at over 650 pages, which places unrelenting pressure on the modern reader’s attention span. Read The Bee Sting, give it a chance, but be prepared to be pushed beyond the boundaries of literary endurance. Many of the book club members hated the novel with a passion, but the few that did admire it, also hinted at some enjoyment, or at least satisfaction that they finished reading it.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Blood on the Moon - James Ellroy (1984)


Rating: Mediocre

Most regular readers of this blog would know that I don't read much in the way of crime, but I've long known about James Ellroy, in particular his tragic back-story, with his mother's unsolved murder. I also know that he is an intense guy and this was confirmed when I read about his upbringing, in particular after his mother died, but that's another story. I picked up an omnibus (I've always loved that term...) edition of all three novels in the Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy, his first major series of novels, preceding the L.A. Quartet (1987 - 1992), which includes L.A. Confidential (1990), which was then made into a great movie of the same name. So, a big build-up, but unfortunately I was disappointed. In an introduction to the omnibus written by Ellroy, he talks about reading Red Dragon (1981), the book that helped inspire the Silence of the Lambs (1991) movie (along with the book of the same name), after writing Blood on the Moon and realised that it was far superior. Blood on the Moon is Ellroy's third novel and you can tell that he's learning to write as he's actually writing; it's a transitional piece of writing, and I assume that he improved later, as he is so well regarded.  Here the writing is poor, in that you can see the joins, it's a bit clumsy and ham-fisted. The depictions of character psychology, and this includes the renegade sex-addicted cop, Lloyd Hopkins himself, comes across like a lurid cartoon. Everything is exaggerated into a hyperreal state, including the dialogue and scene descriptions. It became tiresome after a while unfortunately.

What Ellroy does have going for him, at this point at least, is his that his intense personality is shining through. There's something compelling about his style which urges you on and sometimes overcomes the poor writing. The plot moves along at a brisk pace too, although it's sometimes kind of ludicrous. The killer is a florid creation, bordering on the ridiculous. His motivations become apparent in the last third of the book, and are kind of cliched. That Ellroy is conflating Hopkins with the killer (I can't even be bothered looking up or recalling his name), showing that they are not that dissimilar, is handled reasonably well. Thanks to Hopkins Protestant ethics he's been drawn onto the side of 'good', although a highly flawed version. Hopkins dealings with women are cliched as well, the women are initially wary and then are irresistibly drawn to him, they just can't help themselves! Even the feminist poet can't help herself! The depictions of the mean streets of L.A. is also cliched, along with the corrupt drug-using gay cop who gets in the way of Hopkins crusade to find the killer. Fortunately the novel ends quite quickly, with the showdown between Hopkins and killer wrapping up before tedium kicks in. Will I read more Ellroy? I'd say so, I'm still curious and I acknowledge that Blood on the Moon is an early book. I don't think I'll bother with the other two books in the trilogy, Because the Night (1984) and Suicide Hill (1985), but I will try the L.A. Quartet, after all, they've been republished as Everyman Classics, so that should count for something.

Monday 4 March 2024

The In-Between - Christos Tsiolkas (2023)


Rating: Excellent

The In-Between, the first book club book after a long break of five months, is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, infamous author of such around the water cooler conversation starters as The Slap (2008) and Damascus (2019), (actually, not a around the water cooler for this one, more like around the pulpit). The In-Between follows too middle-age gay men, Ivan and Perry, as they first date and then embark on a relationship that causes both to have to come to terms with prior significant romantic disappointments. As usual for Tsiolkas the sex scenes are explicit and detailed, especially the initial one between the two main protagonists; Tsiolkas does not hold back, and this may be too much for some readers. There are several such sex scenes throughout the novel, and, after a while, they do come across as a tad performative and become slightly tedious. Far more interesting, however, is the psychological intensity of both men’s attempts to come to terms with their past and to move on into the kind of functional relationship they both really want. In the end it is insightful and tender writing, coming across as very believable and relatable to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and loved again, regardless of sexual orientation. Despite the eye-opening sex scenes and the focus on relationships, the main thematic thrust of The In-Between is really class, as explored in the extended dinner party scene (see below) and also in the stark cultural and societal difference between Perry and Ivan’s worlds. The other major theme is generational change, as explored in depictions of how older gay men had to live, in comparison to contemporary Australia, in which marriage between gay couples is legal and there exists an increased level of acceptance within the community. 

Around the middle of The In-Between Tsiolkas produces the best dinner-party scene I have ever read. Perry is university educated, has travelled widely, and works as a translator, whilst Ivan is a landscape gardener and has barely travelled. At the dinner party, with some of Perry’s old university friends, Ivan is subjected to a thinly veiled, class conscious, ‘friendly’ grilling about his background and worldview. It’s cringeworthy stuff, with the portrayal of Perry’s friends, who on the surface project left-wing acceptance, as judgemental and reactionary. Another interesting aspect to the novel is the device of using minor characters, often ones with no significant presence in the narrative, as a means to observe and comment on the main protagonists. It’s a clever way of thinking about the characters from a perspective outside that of the reader’s, and Tsiolkas uses it to great effect several times. After the brilliant dinner party scene the novel loses some of its focus and tension, in particular when the setting moves to Greece and focusses on another gay couple, however this is a minor quibble, as ultimately The In-Between ends poignantly and effectively with a scene that would touch even the most cynical among readers.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Sound Man - Glyn Johns (2014)


Rating: Excellent

When Peter Jackson’s long-awaited re-fashioning of The Beatles Let It Be footage emerged in 2021, retitled Get Back, it was a revelation. The three-part documentary totally recontextualized the original film, featuring hours of unseen footage. Glyn Johns had worked on the sound recording part of the project and he remarks in Sound Man that when Allen Klein become The Beatles manager, he wanted only The Beatles to feature in the film, which Johns reflects was a pity, as it meant that he wouldn't feature. One of the highlights of Let It Be was seeing Johns working with the Beatles and parading around in sartorial splendour, out doing even The Beatles themselves for elegant cool. Sound Man details working with The Beatles during this era, and it is fascinating stuff, but it was only a small part of Johns career, which saw him working with some of the most significant artists of the 60s and 70s, such as The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, The Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Who. Sound Man is both Johns story, beginning from his early years and how he managed to get into the cloistered world of English sound production in the early 60s, and a cultural history of one of the most amazing periods in musical history. It's worth reading for this fact alone. 

Johns at work, circa late 60s
Johns writing style is economical and to the point, but with a light touch that is highly readable. He is also honest about the lows of his career and certainly does not come across as an egotist. The book is chronological, yet also moves back and forth in time when needed, as Johns worked with many of the artists over a span of decades. There’s plenty of great stories among the making of many significant albums. One that comes to mind was when Johns suggests to Keith Moon that he gives up drinking so he can manage demanding drum parts and he fires back to Johns that he was just as bad, smoking cigarettes constantly. So Johns suggest that they both give up their vices, which Johns duly did, but, of course Moon did not and went on the cause more chaos with his drink fuelled capers, many of which Johns details in Sound Man. Engineers and producers like Johns don’t really exist in today’s world of digital and fragmented recording techniques. Johns recorded many of the bands playing together in a room, with overdubs later to correct or flesh out the songs. Johns does lament the passing of his type of recording and producing (as does the likes of Tony Visconti, who when asked what modern producers he admired a few years ago replied, “None”), however he does still work occasionally and as evidenced by this book, he will be remembered as part of musical history due to the sheer number of amazing albums he worked on. I recommend Sound Man to any reader interested in the great music of the 60s and 70s and musical history in general. Sound Man is a classy book, well written and is absolutely fascinating. Makes for good holiday reading, or for when you are recovering from Covid, as I was when I read the bulk of it. The book also made me want to listen to the albums in question again, many of which have been done to death, which can only be a good thing, as I really think that the 1970s was the greatest decade in modern musical history.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Bee Gees: Children of the World - Bob Stanley (2023)


Rating: Excellent

Many years ago I became a casual fan of the Bee Gees, specifically their 1969 album Odessa, a double album that is eccentric, over the top, fascinating and, as I concluded after a while, pure genius. Over the years I've bought quite a number of their albums second hand and have become a big appreciator of the Bee Gees unique musical world. Their albums are still cheap to buy, despite second-hand vinyl prices rising in general due to the demand generated by a new generation of collectors and vinyl lovers, because, well, the Bee Gees are still pretty uncool. They may be uncool, but the reality is that they were song-writing geniuses. Children of the World delves deeply into both the Bee Gees personal lives and their music, with the emphasis on their music. Somehow Bob Stanley has managed to give the reader a well rounded sense of the Bee Gees as people, whilst mostly being concerned about their music. Stanley notes that the three Gibb brothers, Maurice, Robin and Barry, were basically outsiders, despite their stellar commercial successes. They lived in their own hermetically sealed world, for example, he points out, that even their version of disco was very different to that of other acts disco; in one of Stanley's many great lines, he compares Bee Gees disco to a wafting summer night's breeze, as opposed other acts disco, which he describes as like stepping into the oversaturated perfume section of a department store. In telling the Bee Gees musical story, from the Isle of Mann, through to their decades of both slumps and global dominance, Stanley writes supremely well about music. To convey both the technical aspects of music and its intangible magic, is a very difficult thing to do without resorting to cliches, but Stanley manages it. Essentially Children of the World is perhaps the best music book I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Odessa - eccentric brilliance

One of the things that Stanley does best is make you want to hear the music he's talking about, so be prepared to be listening to the Bee Gees a great deal whilst reading. It is double the pleasure basically. Stanley also begins each chapter with a rundown of either the US top ten chart, or the UK top ten chart, which gives the reader great context regarding the musical world the Bee Gee's were existing within. The thing that Stanley convey's really well is just how unique the Bee Gee's were, there is nothing else like them in the history of popular music really. It is best to read this book, as it is difficult to explain this adequately within a few words, however, to give it a go, the Bee Gees were kind of kooky, eccentric and unhindered by the kind of restraint that rendered many other commercial acts of their era banal. Actually to understand the Bee Gees unique appeal it is best to start listening to them properly, not just their many hits; albums like Idea(1968), Odessa (1969), Cucumber Castle (1970), To Whom it May Concern (1972), Trafalgar (1971) and Main Course (1975) would be good starts. The story of the Bee Gees is one of true graft, they worked really hard, sheer musical talent and also personal and family troubles and tragedies (no pun intended). Andy Gibb's story is also included, which is both inspiring and very sad. Like Brain Wilson, Barry Gibb has ended up being the last brother left in the family, with the premature deaths of Maurice and Robin. Stanley has been criticised for paying scant attention to their deaths in the book, but he deals with their deaths with taste, and besides, it's mostly all about their lives and their music. Another criticism is that there are no photos included, however this is barely noticed, as Stanley's writing is so good images are rendered unnecessary, besides, that's what the internet is for. Essentially Children of the World is a must for Bee Gees fans, and if you are a casual admirer of their music, reading the book will turn you into a big fan, which is one of the best things that could happen to you frankly, just make sure you don't care about being cool.

The Bee Gees in action, circa the late 1960's