Friday 30 March 2012

GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review - Noises Off

Blurry poster. Soz.
Time for the next short instalment of the GBR Occasional Mid-Week Show Review (I know you’ve been waiting for this, don’t pretend you haven’t).

Last night saw the third instalment of my resolution to watch more shows this year. It’s the first one I didn’t pick myself, my wife taking the risk of introducing me and a couple of our friends to something new. Well, I say new, it was Noises Off. It’s a show that’s been done for years, but only recently returned to the West End.

It’s comedy farce. Huge amounts of slapstick timing, double entendres, misunderstandings, and physical comedy. Nothing massively new, sure, but it doesn’t need to be. Take an old genre or concept and do it well, and you can end up with something brilliant.

And this was. The characters are huge cartoons, performed with confidence and commitment. They’re packed with personality quirks that build and get funnier as the show goes on, introduced at exactly the right times for maximum effect.

The danger with farce is that it can get boring, I think. It can all be laid out in the first ten minutes, and then slip into repetitiveness. Not here though. The tempo built slowly but surely to a breathless crescendo at the end.

Downsides? Not many to be honest. There was a lot going on at all corners of the stage, so I felt as if I missed some of the funny in places. But can I criticize a show for packing too much in? Frankly, it just makes me want to go back and see it again so I can try and pick up more of the action.

Also, despite watching this from start to end, and talking about it much of the way home, I still can’t figure out why this is called Noises Off. I’m probably being dumb. There’s probably a pretty obvious reason. But again, criticize a show for an opaque name? Nope, not going to do that. Ignore this last paragraph.

I enjoyed this, a lot. If you get a chance, go see it.

Now, what show to see next in my “year of shows”? Think I’m going to rely on a recommendation for the next go. Seemed to work out this time out.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Metamorphosis - the cockroach in the room

Rubbish picture this week, as I'm
in Essex, sans camera. Soz.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (originally published 1915. My copy is from Penguin Modern Classics: 2007) A short story of a hardworking man who finds difficulty supporting his parents and sister when he finds himself turned into a cockroach.

Kafka is a name I’ve only really become aware of in the last few years. Slowly but surely, you’ve started to hear his name uttered here and there. Maybe I’ve just been in the literary cold for most of my life. It’s not like I ever go too far out of my way to find stuff, and my formal education pretty much started with Lord of the Flies and finished with Seamus Heaney (and didn’t make too many major stops in between).

So I thought I’d give him a go. And if you’re going to give someone a go, then you might as well start with what they’re most famous for, which I’m reliably informed by the blurb at the start of this book is the short story entitled Metamorphosis. It’s tucked in amongst a bunch of other short stories in this book, many of which I read as well, but let’s focus our attention on that one, eh? Makes this thing a whole lot easier on us both.

First things first; it’s bizarre. Properly bizarre. You’re landed right from the first sentence in a world where someone can just wake up one day as a cockroach. There’s a certain amount of confusion, disgust and embarrassment (naturally), but not really any disbelief. More like the guy has just woken up and all his hair has fallen out. Inconvenient, but not something to call the national press or police (or whoever else you can think of) about.

It gives the whole story an edge that works really well (something he does in a lot of his writing, but I promised not to talk about that, so I won’t. Disregard this whole bracketed section immediately, unless you want to turn me into a liar). You’re suspended in a constant state of what-the-hell-is-going-on-ness throughout the story. Kafka never really lets you off the hook from that feeling. He explains in excruciating and sometimes graphic detail the problems of the situation, the feelings of isolation, the discomfort, the changes in relationships - everything. But he ignores the most obvious questions. Why? How?

Got to assume that’s on purpose. I mean, you don’t write that someone’s turned into a cockroach and just forget to explain how or why. Kafka presents a reach-out-and-touch-it world, populated with solid people (and one giant cockroach). He relates the story of a man and a family, beholden to work and duty in a way that plucks one or two heartstrings (fairly gently). By concentrating on those sorts of factors, and ignoring the elephant in the room, the story has more life, more tension. If it was just about the “why” or the “how”, then I’d probably lose interest.

Downsides? I get nervous here, to be honest. It’s Kafka. One of those I don’t really feel qualified to criticise too much. But I will. The language is a little grey in places. And the main character (Gregor) changes quite a bit. I was never sure if it was intentional, and supposed to signify the effect of his metamorphosis, but I just felt his personality swung a bit too violently. His reaction to some things came off as unrealistic, and his opinions seemed to vary from one page to the next. I’m sure this was all done on purpose, but the pace of it stopped me sympathising and identifying with him in any real way. And I’m not interested in a hero that I can’t connect to in at least some small way.

Kafka, on the GBR scale?


Really interesting read. A different one. And only a short story, so why not give it a go. And while you’re at it, pick through some of the other stories on offer in here.

Next week (if I finish it in time) a modern Hungarian book that is apparently “Kafka-esque”. I now know more about what that means. Gold star for me.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Before I Go To Sleep - sandwich making paperclips

Before I Go To Sleep (Doubleday: 2011) A novel following a woman who wakes every day without any memory of the previous twenty-something years. She needs to piece together her life every day, only to start from the beginning again the next. The more she learns, the more she questions things, and the more suspicious she is of those close to her.
Some things just work. Paperclips. BBQ tongs. Really well written books. If it works, it works.
This book achieved pretty much everything it sets out to. And it does it for two big reasons. The first is the plot. It’s brilliant. It starts from an incredibly intriguing jumping off point, one that opens up a huge array of possibilities and has a truly fascinating quality. But it’s then worked hard. Watson doesn’t let the plot sit back for a breather for more than a few seconds at a time. It’s driven so energetically and expertly that it grows all the way through.
It does what Room didn’t – it continues to build and change and twist and turn from beginning to end. Watson makes sure it never gets contrived, never leaves you too disoriented, but never gets static or stale either.
I said two things, right? The second is the writing. It’s beautiful. It’s heartfelt and powerful and simple. And it floats by without intruding on the story. It looks like an easy thing to do. Simple things often do. Like a paper clip. Or BBQ tongs. They’re the kind of things you look at and think, yeah that’s pretty simple, must have been thought up of in about two seconds flat. But (and I’m sure you guys know this) they weren’t.
Giant paperclip
A hundred and fifty years ago, our poor sods of forefathers had to make do with attaching papers together with their spit (I assume). It took someone to have a moment of inspiration and follow it up with hard work. And it’s the same with this writing. It’s really and truly amazing, because it achieves so much with so little. The language is stripped back and simple, not a word wasted. But it tells the story powerfully. Easily.
That’s a pretty effective one-two combination. Brilliant story, brilliant writing. Knocks you back a little. It meant that I burned through this book pretty swiftly. First book in a long time that I found difficult to put down. I even stayed up past bed-time to continue reading it, making me a bit tired and grumpy the next day, only to do it again that night. Yeah, that’s right, I have a bed time and this book made me miss it. That’s an endorsement right there.
If I’m going to be picky (and I’m going to be) then there were one or two things missing. Firstly, I really didn’t like the main character. Which wouldn’t be a problem if I wasn’t meant to like her. But I think you’re supposed to like her, to sympathise and identify with her. But I didn’t.
Also, no doubt this is a page turner, but it fails to do much with the attention it demands other than entertain. It never introduces much that makes you go away and think (other than about what might happen next). It succeeds big time in grabbing you, but once grabbed, I think it misses a bit of an opportunity to do more with you. I put the book down breathless and thoroughly entertained, but not changed. It didn’t make me look at the world differently. Which is something that I want a book to do to me.
I guess that’s not what this is about though. Maybe if you inject a bit more something into it, you could spoil what’s brilliant. Maybe there’s only enough room in here for a great plot and great writing. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
This book entertains massively. It does amazing things in a very simple way. Asking it to do everything else too is probably a little unrealistic. Like expecting a paper clip to also make me a sandwich.
Go read this book. Soon.
Next week, a short story or two from a guy I’ve wanted to read for a long time.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Touching the Void - devil in the detail

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (Jonathan Cape: 1988) The pretty harrowing account of the very nearly fatal attempt by Joe Simpson and his climbing buddy Simon to climb the Siula Grande mountain in Peru.

I went on a walk in Thornley Woods once when I was a kid and got lost. For like a whole hour or something. Even started getting dark. Had to get a lift back home with some random farmer in the end. It was pretty scary stuff.

That’s about as close as I’ve ever got to frontier peril. So reading about Joe Simpson’s ill fated trip up a mountain somewhere in South America was a world away. He (and his climbing buddy Simon) faced disaster after catastrophe after calamity on their trip. They stared death in the eyes on numerous occasions, and often assumed the other had perished, never to be seen again.

This book has all the virtues of a real life disaster adventure. If it was fiction, the eyes would roll at pretty much every turn of the page. You’d throw your arms up and say “come on now, get serious, this would just never happen.” But it’s not fiction. It’s the opposite. It’s non-fiction. So all you can do is sit back and be amazed at the recollections of Joe and Simon.

And what recollections. They go to town with some of the detail.

My brother (and regular GBR commenter) writes the odd report for his rugby club in Gateshead. It’s a feat that impresses me. I can barely remember the score of a game ten minutes after I leave the pitch, never mind recall enough details to write a report with any accuracy. But my brother plays in the game, and then manages to recount all the major instances in sequence hours (sometimes days) later.

These guys though, these climbers, they’ve got down on paper every single thought, feeling, impression, technical detail…you name it, they’ve put it in here with painstaking care. And I’m guessing this was written at least a few months after the fact. It’s mind boggling.

In a lot of ways, this detail really helps. It livens up the text, and helps it go from simply being a literal telling of events into being a compelling account of how the experience effected the two climbers. The way they felt and the way they reacted, the thought that went into their decisions, the agony of the accidents and how they quantified it at the time. It’s all detail that adds richness to the text.

But the detail has two fairly annoying draw backs too. First, the climbing jargon in here is fairly heavy. I’m sure it makes sense for climbers, but there were entire scenes that I found it hard to picture as I have no idea what a “crampon” is, or a “moraine”, or even a “crevasse” is (though that one got pretty obvious after a while). You learn to skip past the jargon, but I can’t help but think the book would have been more translatable and have a more powerful visual quality without that sort of heavy detail.

The other problem with the detail is you have to start wondering where it all came from. These guys were dead on their feet. For days. Going through hell. Then months later they remember with perfect clarity the song that got stuck in their head at a particular moment, or the exact amount of screams they heard in the night. Even getting the sequence of events straight must have taken some doing. I imagine they put a bit of research in. Looked at maps and stuff like that to jog their memories. But still, the detail is at such a level that its authenticity remained a nagging doubt for me all the way through. I’m not saying any of it is untrue, just that elaboration and assumption may well have been co-writers.

To be fair though, there was enough good in this book to overcome the rest. It is inspiring in a pretty real way. Whilst the constant set-backs take on a bit of a repetitive quality, you can’t help but be amazed at how they’re conquered. (And no, that’s not a spoiler. The guys got out to write the book, so it’s fairly obvious they survived. Idiots).

And whilst a little distracting, the detail did help create a real atmosphere. I’d sit there reading this and be properly transported to the bottom of that freezing crevasse (that’s right, I’m using the word now). This book does a good job of putting the outside world on the outside.

It’s a little clich├ęd, but it does put things in perspective a little. Any real-life book that involves near death experiences will do that. My train may be ten mins late and the coffee shop may have short changed me this morning, but at least I’m not half way up a mountain with a broken leg and no hope of escape before I freeze to death. So, you know, suck it up.

How about a score then? Finger in the air, and it comes down with a…


Good and bad aspects to this. But it’s definitely worth a pop. It’s a bit different from stuff I’d usually read, but there’s enough inspiration there, and enough raw emotion to make me recommend it. Also, it’s only like 200 pages, so if you don’t enjoy it, it’ll be over soon. And there’s always the pictures to look at if you get bored.

Next week, something from my wife’s book club (if I finish it in time).

Sunday 4 March 2012

Anna Karenina - big biscuits

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878). Nearly a thousand pages of love, intrigue, disgrace, politics, philosophy and farming. Set in nineteenth century high society and spanning Moscow, Petersburg and a raft of unpronounceable Russian districts, the novel follows the title character as she falls in love with Count Vronsky, and follows that love as it takes her away from her husband, her son and her sanity. Anna Karenina’s story is balanced by that of Levin, a man more comfortable on his farm than in the city, but whose life and loves drag him into society and forces him to ask the big questions and come up with big answers.
Apparently this is the best book of the 19th century. How they can judge that before it’s been given a GBR rating, I’ll never know. But there you go. They had a chat and decided it. Best book.
It’s not universally loved though. On seeing I was reading it, one family member (who shall remain anonymous, dad), simply pointed out “that’s a bit of a girls book, isn’t it?” I guess that’s not necessarily a put down, but it definitely was.
I do kind of feel like my thoughts on this are fairly irrelevant. I mean, this is a book that broke moulds. Girly or not, there’s no doubt it’s a “great book.” And from a “great author” too. You might not know much about Anna Karenina, but you’ve heard the name. It’s one of those that has a permanent place in literary history.
But a book can’t be read with that weight on it. It’s words on a page, like any other. And for it to be a great book now, it needs to be judged against the same criteria as everything else.
I loved a lot about the book. There’s a bunch packed in. Some of the characters are really and truly amazing. And there are big themes too. A bag full of them. From the introduction of modern farming methods in nineteenth century Russia at one end of the scale, to the meaning of life at the other. Some hit the mark better than others, but when Tolstoy hits the nail on the head it stays hit. The last hundred pages or so in particular are dynamite. One of the central characters, Levin, spreads out his thinking on the meaning of life, the “what’s it all for then?” question, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing because it’s clever and complex, it’s amazing because Tolstoy tackles the question within the confines of a novel, but most of all it’s amazing because Levin has become a real person over the course of 800-odd pages, and so by the end you really care what he thinks.
There are some fairly significant down sides too though. This is a massive book, which is fine. Massive books can succeed, often spectacularly. But they need to remain tight. I found a lot of Anna Karenina fairly loosely packed. There were big sections that I really didn’t care about. There was a lot of scene setting and a lot that I didn’t see the point of. I’m sure there was a point, but I often had to work too hard to find it, and regularly failed.
And the sketching of the characters was hot and cold. Some of them were skipped over and melted into a fairly large and interchangeable cast of extras. And the central ones sometimes got squashed under the weight of literal explanation. Their every thought and reaction and feeling was explained overtly and loudly. You got to know them and understand them because you were told about them, rather than being given the opportunity to watch them.
It’s possibly a harsh criticism – I’m sure it’s a characteristic of nineteenth century writing, and I can’t blame Tolstoy for leaving one or two moulds unbroken. But I’ve been brought up in the twenty-first century, on a diet of novels where the author is at pains to stay in the background and let us get to know the characters in the same way as we’d get to know real people, by watching them and drawing our own conclusions from what they say and do. When Tolstoy spends a hundred pages loudly explaining the thought process of someone and exactly how they feel about every little thing, it jars.
Oh, and I wanted to mention the “love” aspect a little. Anna Karenina is known as a love story. And love is definitely a big presence. But it’s such a teenage love that it sometimes trips into ridiculousness. The jealousies and dramatic emotion too often comes off a bit Hollyoakes. Not always. There were bits that got me. Bits that hit home and made me take a minute. But they were in the minority.
This is all sounding a bit negative, isn’t it? I don’t mean it to. Like I said, there were some glowing patches of brightness in here. Some lightning bolts. Some flashes of brilliance. Especially that last hundred pages. But there were plenty of troughs amongst the peaks too.
This is a massive book in a hundred different ways. I didn’t study it. I read it. Like I’d read any other book. I’m sure there are levels it should be appreciated on that I was entirely blind to. But in the GBR world, it’s all about enjoyment. Not literary merit. Not importance. Not historical significance. Enjoyment.
Ouch. That’s Tolstoy, and he just got a six. Time to start re-evaluating a few things.
Next week, something completely different.