Sunday 25 November 2012

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared - maybe the title's too long?

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Hesperus Press: 2012). A bizarre tale of a man who traversed the 20th century, inadvertently influencing world events as he goes. As he turns 100, he escapes from his own birthday party to embark on a last adventure, involving a criminal gang, a suitcase full of money, an elephant, and multiple murders.

I’m never sure with translations. I’m a mono-linguist - I can order a cup of coffee in
Germany, but that’s about it. So I have no idea how the process of translating a book goes.

Surely the translator takes on a lot of responsibility for tone and style? “Feel” is an important (if unhelpfully vague) characteristic for a book. How do you make sure you’re getting the same one in both languages? How do you make sure you achieve in English what the writer was going for in Swedish?

I bring this up because as far as “feel” goes, I loved this book. It reminded me strongly of another writer who also relies on translation - Andrey Kurkov. Both Kurkov and Jonasson write with an incredibly spare, matter of fact, short, punchy, frank style. I love it. It’s unadorned and achieves an innocent effect.

It fits perfectly with the straightforwardness of the main protagonists, and it contrasts neatly with the surrealism of the story lines - the bizarre twists and turns. Nothing is heralded with a chorus of trumpets. Everything is simply related as if it’s the most ordinary tale in the world (though of course it’s not).

But are Kurkov and Jonasson two writers with the same style, or do they just have similar translators? Or maybe Swedish and Ukrainian are simply very economic languages, and all Swedish and Ukrainian books are like this? Somebody could probably tell me the answer, but as of right now, I do not know.

I probably shouldn’t care. I should probably have stopped at “I loved this book”.

Whatever the reason for the style and tone, it grabbed me and it didn’t let me go. It’s a long-ish book (around 400 pages), but it didn’t grow old for me (pun entirely intended). I smirked every time Allan Karlsson got out of a tight corner with nothing more than a brand of na├»ve logic. I was intrigued every time he met another world figure without showing an ounce of awe. I grew fonder of him every time he related his incredibly simple outlook on life. His quirks and the quirks of those around him entertained me from beginning to end. The end itself was perhaps a little drawn out, with Jonasson continuing to mutter on for a few pages after the story itself was clearly finished, but I'll forgive him that.

I know people who disagree. I know people who got irritated with the lack of plausibility. People who feel this is a book with a neat trick which it plays far too many times. And I can see their point. That’s the problem with absurdity - it can have a short shelf life. But tell that to Dickens and the Pickwick Papers. Tell that to Evelyn Waugh andto  P.G. Wodehouse. If it’s done well, a little farce can go a long way.

I really enjoyed Andrey Kurkov when I first found him. Jonasson seems a pretty close contemporary of his. OK, so I don’t have the same feel that I’ve uncovered a hidden gem - this book has been in the hand of a lot of commuters in the last few months. But that didn’t take the shine off for me.

Bottom line - I enjoyed reading this, and I hope you will too.


Deserves at least as much as Death and the Penguin.

Next week, I may have to enny-meeny-miny-mo it. I have another Kurkov lined up waiting to be read, and Tom Wolfe is staring at me menacingly from my book shelf as well.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Astray - short story tastic

Astray by Emma Donoghue (Picador: 2012) A collection of short stories by Irish writer Emma Donoghue. All based on real people and real events, Donoghue shines a light onto the lives of a series of people who have all gone astray, crossing borders of nation, sex, race, law, sanity, etc.
Read the GBR interview with Emma Donoghue here.
She does a good job of making you pick a book up, Donoghue. The only other of hers that I’ve read, Room, had such a compelling premise that I fair sprinted to turn over the front cover and get going. Astray, too, has an intriguing sell – a series of historical fiction short stories, all focussing on people who have strayed beyond the boundaries of ordinary life in some profound way.
I like that.
And I like that this is done as a collection of short stories. It seems apt. Little snippets of lives, one after the other. It keep you a little dislocated as you’re going through it. You don’t spend days and days in the company of single stories, getting comfortable with motivations and setting. Just as you feel you’re starting to understand the meaning behind the latest tale, Donoghue whisks you away to the next.
It’s a showcase for Donoghue’s talent as well. Each story is distinct. Each voice authentic. Short stories they may be, but Donoghue gives a complete picture of each person she tells us about. Sometimes she does it through careful description, and sometimes she does it by simply writing in such a true way that the language gives you a distinct feel for the people.
I’m piling up points in the pro column here. The plots should go there too. Donoghue has corralled such a disperse but vital set of outcasts that each story grabs, often in different ways. There are explanatory notes at the end of each story and at the end of the book, constantly reminding us these tales are based on real people and real events. She shows where she takes artistic licence, but pushes home the point that the crux of these stories and the lessons she tries to show through them are real.
That’s the fascination of historical fiction. It may be dramatised and it may not be 100% real, but enhanced or not, the lessons are the true. And Donoghue has done a good job of picking some honest to goodness fascinating episodes, and enhanced them beautifully with her own talent.
So those are the pros. I’m going to paint myself out of the corner though. A little, at least. I got to the end of Astray and was desperate to pick up a novel again. I love short stories when in the mood, but reading a collection from beginning to end tends to leave me with a need to invest in something more substantial again. Not Donoghue’s fault, more a weakness of the format, but true all the same.
And then there’s the living-up-to-the-premise challenge. It was the major problem I had with Room (though that kicked in with an 8 GBR). And I recognised it again here. Astray promises to show us a diverse range of characters with a common theme – they’re all astray in society. I struggled to follow the common thread though. There was such an opportunity here to tie these stories together so much more than they are. It would have helped overcome that short story weakness I mentioned – the feeling you’re never investing in anything chunky. But as far as I could see, the opportunity was missed.
The stories were too disparate. The structure suggested by the title of the collection and the blurb on the dust jacket seemed a little manufactured, a little imposed. I enjoyed each individual story, some of them immensely, but I felt short changed there wasn’t a wider arc around them. A wider meaning. When I interviewed the author, she mentioned the stories were written over many years.  This made sense. It felt like they were all picked up and then a common thread was looked for, rather than written with the wider structure in mind.
Which is all a little harsh. The con column at the moment has only two things in it – one is a weakness of all short stories, and the other is a weakness of composition. The individual stories in here are incredibly strong. But both cons were enough to leave me feeling just ever so slightly flat by the time I turned the last page.
Donoghue is an amazing writer. Really she is. I like her a lot. I might go back and read some of her earlier stuff. And Astray  is really good, but falls short of amazing.
Next week, a book I’m reading on the recommendation of a GBR reader. So if it sucks, it’ll be your fault.

Thursday 15 November 2012

The GBR Interview: Emma Donoghue - shapeshifter

A new concept presented itself to me via a tweet the other day (in between Chris Addison and Robin Ince's constant twittering). Musicians have a “jam”. Artists continually “doodle.” But what do writers do? “Word vomit” was presented as a solution, but I’m not sure I like it.
Whatever the term is, all writers must do it. Get ideas and start bashing out some words around it, with no real intention for it to go anywhere or to take any real form – just playing.
Which is why Emma Donoghue’s ideas struck a rather large chord for me when we chatted. “I don't sit down with a format in mind. I try to respond to my material. I listen to an idea and to what it asks me to be. When I began it, I thought Slammerkin [Donoghue’s 2000 breakthrough novel] was a short story. It turned out it wanted to be a novel”
This whole idea struck me right in the forehead. Too many times, people go stright to "novel." They shouldn't. Just start with an idea and follow it wherever it takes you. It might just be a word vomit. Or it mind end up being a radio play.
Here’s a writer who has is bang in the middle of a long and successful career. She’s shapeshifted through turns at being someone who writes straight fiction, historical fiction, short stories, stage plays, radio plays – you name it, Emma Donoghue has had a crack. “If I ever come up with an idea that seems like it’ll work best as an opera, I guess I’ll have to learn how to write an opera.” This was a joke, but I absolutely believe she’d do it.
I believe it because it’s entirely apparent Emma Donoghue loves what she does. “It’s such a pleasure to write. I try to stay open minded, but novels are still my default position. You get to call all the shots. I’m like a child playing when I’m on a novel.” Having recently finished reading Donoghue’s latest volume of historical fiction short stories, Astray (GBR review to come soon...), I can testify that she’s pretty good at spinning mini tales as well.
That’s not to say it’s all easy for her. Astray is a set of stories with such ranging voices, such different feels, that it’s slightly exhausting to navigate. Each story strikes a true tone, so much so that Donoghue has been labelled one of fictions greatest ventriloquists. “That’s not something that comes easily,” she told me. “I do a lot of research into each character, every word needs to be true. I have to work at it, otherwise they they’d all end up as chatty and Irish.” Donoghue is chatty and Irish. That’s why that comment made sense.
Donoghue changes styles, perspectives, eras and method throughout the collection, perhaps an echo of her varied career to date. Successful as that career has been though, she only really arrived at the household-name level in 2010 with the Man Booker nominated Room.
I wondered if Room’s success has started to irk her, like the band with a twenty album back catalogue who are continually forced to sing the breakthrough hit they had twenty years ago. “I’ve thought of that analogy myself,” said Emma, (who I felt I could call by her first name, now that we’d bonded over a commonly conceived analogy). “I’m not sick of it though. It opened up a new audience for me, and I’m still doing readings of it now. In thirty years time, I may be a bit sick of it, but not yet. I knew from the start it was the strongest idea I’d ever had, so I had a feeling it would do well. People really care about Jack [the boy at the centre of Room]. I get letters from people saying they’re just like him, that they can identify with him. It’s been very rewarding.”
I segued our chat awkwardly away from Room and towards something I’ve been preoccupied with ever since Will Self told me he couldn’t care less about the reader experience. I can’t seem to interview an author without asking their opinion of Self’s doctrine. So I succumbed again. “I try not to allow the reader to have any censoring effect. I try to hear them at a technical level. I think of the reader as me, but me who hasn’t read the book yet.” That’s a neat idea. Me who hasn’t read the book yet. I like it. And it seems to work for Donoghue.
My half hour was up. I hastily asked my so what are you reading now final question. “Bring up the Bodies,” came the reply. “Then I’ve got a book by Zadie Smith lined up. And I’ve recently finished another Lee Child.”
I put the phone down with a strong sense of a writer who loves what she does. A writer who continues to find new ways to interest herself in her material. And a writer who isn’t afraid to follow that material into new mediums. A writer, in short, who should be admired for her approach every bit as much as for her talent.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The Lighthouse - you only get what you give

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt Publishing: 2012) Futh, recently seperated from his wife, decides to take a walking holiday through Germany. Along the way, he briefly meets Esther, a bored wife who runs a hotel with her husband. The Lighthouse explores the lives of both through a series of flashbacks to their formative experiences.

See the GBR interview with Alison Moore here.

There are a few words that pop up in a lot in reviews for The Lighthouse. “Atmospheric”. "Melancholy”.

They're all well earned descriptions. This is a sparse book. There are absolutely no explosions, no glorious resolution. Just the slow exploration of two characters whose only links seem to be their deep rooted sadness and their affection for a lighthouse shaped perfume bottle.

Not the stuff to make you jump out of your seat.

But these 192 pages made their way to the Man Booker Prize Shortlist. And I can see why. There’s a great deal of simple power about the way Moore writes. That's something which constantly fascinates me about good writing. When someone is able to create such a specific and complete mood using only the black and white of words on a page. Moore writes incredibly economically. The language is simple, the sentences clipped. But they're so carefully chosen and put together that there's a consistent and effective feel from beginning to end.

Moore is also continually playing a game of tag with the reader's imagination, leaving truck sized gaps between the lines for you to fill in. There aren't page long descriptions of exactly how someone is thinking. No long running sentences on the minutiae of scenery. The odd plot point is left unsaid, trusting you'll infer it properly.

Which sounds like a jerk thing to say. "It's not about what she writes, it's about what she doesn't." I know that sounds like an up-yourself, painfully art-house observation, and I can honestly say I've never fully grasped the importance of the concept before. But Moore plays the card so expertly that I think I get it here. She weaves a tale which, on the surface, is fairly pedestrian, but because of the mood she creates and the questions she poses, I found myself nontheless gripped.

The issues in play and the emotions attached to them grow under the influence of Moore's writing.

There's a danger here, of course. Let this pathos, this between-the-lines beauty pass you by, and you're left with a pretty bland narrative. Read this on a crowded train for ten mins every day, without giving it your full attention, and you could easily miss the value of it. I'm not saying it's too obscure, that Moore has hidden the nuggets too deeply; just that you need to engage your own brain a little when reading this. This isn't a book where you can just sit back and expect to be entertained. It isn't a thriller or a crime novel. You need to put a little of yourself in it as well. Only a little, not a lot, but some, all the same. 

It's totally worth it though. Let yourself get hooked at the beginning, and you'll be treated to some highly individual characters. Some fascinating and well developed psychology. A building, barely under-the-radar tension that remains taught thoughout.

Fail to get hooked at the beginning though, and you'll get bored. No doubt about it. But it's a pretty short book. So totally worth taking the punt.


I need to read something bad soon. There's been a glut of good scores in the last month or so. Maybe we all deserved it after the Wilbur Smith debacle. But if I'm not careful, you'll start thinking I don't mean it when I give a high score. I do. 8 GBR is a mark of a book that I hugely enjoyed. One that I'll pick up again at some distant date and re-read. One that will stick in my mind. A book I think you should pick up too (which is, after all, the point of all this).

I just seem to be reading a lot of them at the moment.

Next week, another interview+review double header. Bet you can't guess who.

Thursday 8 November 2012

The GBR Interview: Alison Moore - from short stories to the big screen (possibly)

Alison Moore - headshot tastic
In the second of the GBR Interview series, I spent a highly enjoyable half hour on the phone with Alison Moore, author of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lighthouse.
I’m a little bit obsessed with short stories at the moment. Who better to inflict this obsession on than a writer whose career has been made up predominantly of short stories.

Before her debut novel exploded onto the scene, Alison Moore was one of the large crowd of writers who spend their time submitting short stories to magazines. She did, to be fair, have a great deal more success than most.
“I really enjoy short stories. They’re very satisfying. They taught me how to write. They fit my approach - I write quite slowly usually, and often go back and redraft things over and over, adding in more where I can. Some stories come out in one go over 24 hours, but they tend to have a different energy. I often start them with the spark of an idea, without knowing where they’re going to go, and just take the journey with the character. It’s how I’ve always written.”
For more than ten years, Moore has plugged away in her spare time at short stories, picking up various awards en route, and eventually developing enough of a reputation for a small independent publisher (Salt Publishing) to take a punt on her first full length novel.
So for a writer used to short stories, how did she approach The Lighthouse? “I had little windows of writing, and I knew I had to make the most of them. When it starting to come, it came piling out fairly quickly. I didn’t plan it out chapter by chapter, but I had a good idea of where it was going.”
This lack of meticulous planning is perhaps a strength of Moore’s. It gives her a freedom to leave things out. I’ve talked about it before; the balance needed in leaving enough unsaid to engage the imagination of the reader, without confusing them with major omissions. Will Self doesn’t concern himself with such trivialities. If the reader is confused, it’s not his fault. But Moore seems to pay this balance more heed.
“You do have to write what you want to write - you can't be worried about what your parents will say if they read it. You can't think too much of the reader when you're writing, but I do like to set the imagination of the audience going. Everything in The Lighthouse leads to a very definite ending, but I didn't feel the need to spell it out. There are a few strands of the story I leave the reader to wonder about. I had to be mindful, not keep things too hidden away. Fairly obvious conclusions can be drawn, but it seemed to fit the feel of the story and of Futh [the main protagonist] to build in this slight area of doubt.”
It shows a lot of confidence in a debut novelist, to leave so much between the lines. Perhaps the fact The Lighthouse was picked up by Salt Publishing before it was 100% finished fed this confidence. Perhaps her years practicing her craft as a short story writer did it. Whatever, it clearly works. Man Booker shortlistings don’t come to poorly played gambles.
And not just Man Booker recognition. Interest from the big screen as well. Just initial talks (aren’t they always), but the possibility is there. “I’m excited by the prospect of a film being made from The Lighthouse. I’m interested to see what someone else’s treatment of the story will be. I’d love to see what a good director can show me. I’m very mindful that any film would belong to the director. Their take might be rather different – I’m not precious about it.”
I believe her. Moore seems a very likeable sort of writer. Not the serious, fragile artiste I’d expected after reading her very literary, very melancholic novel. Rather, a writer who loves writing – someone who has kept it as a hobby for over a decade and is now treating the rest of the world to a talent which has been well honed.
The success has meant changes, of course. “I’ve been invited to speak at the Nottingham Festival of Words at the Lakeside Arts Centre. I was invited by the director, to whom I was a PA for many years.”

That must have been a mind bender, right? To while away at short stories in your spare time for years, and then suddenly be asked by your boss to come in as an honoured guest?
Staff at The Lakeside Arts Centre show their
support with Alison Moore Masks. Creepy.
Not a bit of it. “It’s a very lovely relationship, the one I have with the Lakeside. They’ve all been incredibly supportive of me. It’s all happened very quickly.”
And long may it continue. I’ll tell you the reasons I liked The Lighthouse when I get the review up soon, but for now, believe me when I say Alison Moore seems a writer deserving of recognition. A writer who simply enjoys writing. A writer generous with her time. A writer appreciative of the applause.
But above all, a writer with undeniable ability.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Young Stalin - history, no matter how you slice it

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson: 2007). Never has a blurb been less needed. Never has a title described a book so completely. This is a book about Stalin, when he was young. What more do you need?
I said I was going back to the Man Booker Prize shortlist this week. Then I got an interview with the author lined up. So you’ll have to wait for the review. It’d be rude to post a review before I post the interview, right? I mean, there are rules, surely?
Instead, I thought I’d go for a bit of non-fiction. It’s been a while. Part of the reason is they’re usually so bloomin’ long, and I know how restless you trouble-makers get if you don’t get a weekly GBR hit.
So I decided to take one from the shelf. There was a time a couple of years ago when this book was on a billboard in every tube station. And you can see why. It’s got such a romantic premise (is that the right word when it’s non-fiction? Is it a premise, or just a starting point? I’m not sure I care).
Even the cover screams out romance. This glassy eyed, revolutionary figure. It’s Che Guevarra, but more. Here’s a chance to get to know a guy who came from the gutter (quite literally) and rode an idealistic wave all the way to the top of the world. And because this book focuses on Stalin - the early years, we can even keep all the future evil-acts and genocide in the pleasantly blurred distance. We are left to get to know Stalin more as a human being. Allowed to at least begin to try understanding how he got to where he got, rather than simply denounce him as evil in a black-and-white, unthinking sort of way.
The back cover hardly stops this romance taking root. We’re treated to photos of Stalin at every stage of his rise, from urchin to commissar, with pauses at poet and pirate in between.
Here, no doubt, is the material for a historical biography that can grab the attention of the masses.
Well, you’d think so, but you’d be wrong. Don’t misunderstand me; as historical biographies go, this is pretty darn neat. In the context of its genre, it’s exciting and it’s important. It goes some way to explaining one of history’s all time formative personalities. It fills in a huge amount of general knowledge gaps, and it makes you feel entirely unworthy for wasting your life reading and blogging.
But I can’t help but feel the marketers have over-reached on this one. I’m all for bringing history to the masses, but we have to be honest as well. This is not a thriller. This is not a love story. This is not a fiery politically driven piece of literary fiction. This is a historical biography. For all the promised rushing glamour of the cover, and for all the posters that lined the tube at the time of release, and for all the awards this book won, it remains, at its heart, a history book.
I like history, by the way. I love reading it. But the mis-match between what this book promises and what it delivers irks me. It’s long. It has an index at the back. When you’re bang in the middle of it, you’re acutely aware you’re reading something scholarly rather than an entertainment. No matter how much I enjoy history, no matter how much I can become embarrassingly absorbed in the high brow, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere picked this book up expecting it to excite at every turn of the page, and felt incredibly let down.
This leaves me with a dilemma. This is a good book. Approach it in the right way, and it’ll deliver what it’s supposed to. Yes, it’s a little frustrating the story stops just when you know it’s about to get global. Yes, it fails to deliver on the excitement of the premise (I’m using the word). But it feels harsh to give it a low GBR score simply because of a marketing flaw. Simply because its over-inflated promise and its reality don’t match up.
Thus ends our string of high GBR scores. I’m going to sit on the fence instead. Right in the middle of it.
If you enjoy reading history every now and then, go get this, quickly. If you’re expecting it to be as fast moving and arresting as fiction, don’t bother.
Next week, back to fiction, and back to the Man Booker Prize shortlist. I promise, this time.