Tag: good books

18Jan

Waterlog & literary inspiration of a different kind

A confession: this time last year, I couldn’t swim. Not a single stroke. As a child, apparently, I could manage not to sink, but as an adult, whenever I got in the water, I’d not be able to swim at all. I’d flail around, or become one of those people who simply hang around the shallow end creating the impression they can swim but they just can’t be bothered. It was embarrassing, but I reckon I’d get away with it.

Roger Deakin’s book, Waterlog, changed this.

When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born. Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control. This may account for the anxieties every swimmer experiences from time to time in deep water. A swallow dive off the high board into the void is an image that brings together all the contradictions of birth. The swimmer experiences the terror and the bliss of being born.

Deakin was one of Britain’s finest writers. (His posthumous book, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, is one of my favourite pieces of literature.) Waterlog is Deakin’s exploration of British waterways, from rivers to coast to distant hilltop pools, and it has become the defining book of wild swimming; his rich descriptions map an utterly unique relationship between people, water and swimming – but particularly the natural world. Not indoors, not especially paddling on a sunny day on the beach: but more those remote gems, that hidden bend in a river, where a swimmer becomes part of a natural cycle.

There was much here I envied. Waterlog creates a yearning to escape to such places, to immerse oneself in them and discover something rare. I certainly felt that way, at least. Here was a relationship with nature I had never experienced, and one I badly wanted to.

I had experienced that mild sense of shame that I ought be able to swim for some time; it might not mean much to some people, but it did to me. It was really only because of Deakin’s book that I decided to swallow my pride and receive proper swimming tuition. I was amused at first, watching the toddlers in the class before me splashing around, only to realise that I was actually not much better (at least there were no tears with me). Humbling wasn’t quite the word, but soon enough, I began to form the correct, precise movements.

I can swim well enough, now; certainly the backstroke (my favourite) and a decent enough front crawl. My breaststroke leaves a lot to be desired, but I might get that right in a couple of months. I’ve made the move to going swimming on my own quite a few times at the local pool in addition to the lessons. I wouldn’t be here without Deakin’s words. And now I’ve reached that stage where I can frown at others and wonder how, with such eccentric strokes, they don’t sink. Old ladies in particular amuse me when they drift by with apparently no effort whatsoever, as if they’re privy to some swimming lore lost to the younger generation.

But I’ve still not quite reached my goal of wild swimming. Later this year I hope to venture out somewhere interesting – even if it’s just the sea, though I’d prefer some distant tarn. Only then can I see if Deakin’s descriptions hold true.

19Nov

Nightfall by David Goodis

David Goodis’ 1947 novel, Nightfall, is a surprisingly psychological noir thriller. It follows James (Jimmy) Vanning, who’s laying low in NYC, all paranoid and edgy, trying to pass as a freelance artist. It turns out people are after him – a bunch of crooks think he’s got their $300,000 dollars from a bank job across the country.

Meanwhile Detective Fraser, a detective who has recently become interested in psychology, is observing Vanning from a distance, watching his every move, following him about the city, knowing full well who the man is, but isn’t utterly convinced he’s a guilty man. He doesn’t seem the sort to kill a guy and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There’s not much more to it than that. We basically have a short novel that consists entirely of chase scenes, conversations in the shadows, and flashbacks. There’s a blonde involved and a seemingly innocent/guilty guy – it could be anyone at the centre of this novel – trying to cling on to his life and his own inner reality.

But! It’s good. The dialogue is superb. The descriptions are deeply poetic without straying from the the convention of minimalist noir prose. Here we’ve got everything that seems typical of genre, yet there’s fascinating, complex psychology at the heart of it – those shadows and backstreets heighten the sense of alienation – and it is all very well orchestrated. Goodis also has a habit of making his characters have profound conversations in bars or apartments.

What makes something so rich in suspense, I think, is not the immediate situation and what might happen on the other side of the page, but what’s at stake for every character involved, and that’s what strikes me as important about Nightfall. From Fraser to Vanning, to the crooks and the blonde, we’re constantly informed of what they’re doing what they’re doing, what could transpire should all the events in the book work out in their favour: prison, life on a yacht spending money, or simply settling down with a family. They’re big life-changing events and they have significance.

And that’s why Nightfall is a great novel: everything means something.

25Aug

Dark Mountain Anthology Review

My review of Dark Mountain issue 2 is up at the Ecologist. The book is a fascinating read around the themes of new and thought-provoking political movement.

The essays within collectively reject much of what we have become used to in environmental philosophy. Notions of stewardship are abandoned. Humans are no longer separate to the natural world; they are a part of it. Many of the results of current environmental thinking will simply contribute to a system that is inherently destined to destroy the natural world. The anthology attempts to grapple with these concerns and does not always use direct science as the method of exploration. In the construction of a greener society, there is plenty of room for philosophy and the creative arts.

Read the rest of the review here. I recommend taking a look at what the Dark Mountain Project is all about. Even if you’re not all that interested in environmentalism, the project manages to combine creative writing and the arts with a political movement – something that’s not all that common. I summed it up as: “part dystopian poetry along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; part post-apocalyptic River Cottage with the rest being a slice of philosophy”, which means I found it very unique indeed, and a genuinely different way of thinking.

27Jul

Author Returns

Sometimes I return to an author whose work I’ve tried before, but didn’t finish. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s for a particular reason, and I’m very conscious that I will return to such an author.

In the case of Iain Sinclair, it’s his spectacular prose, his eye for psychogeography, and his bizarre portraits of people. I tried reading Downriver, last year on holiday, and loved it, but couldn’t finish it. I got about half-way through. It was too rich for me, during a period where I had switched off my brain.

But Iain Sinclair remains one of the best writers I’ve come across, in any genre; his mastery of language is incredible. You can see the connections with writers such as Miéville and M. John Harrison, all of whom possess shared characteristics in the way they deal with the urban environment, stressing the madness and alienation of our British cities.

I knew I would return to Sinclair, but it was only when I saw an awful Amazon review that I decided to pick up White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, perhaps in defiance of some pillock who clearly did not get what Sinclair was about.

I then concluded something about my own fiction reading habits, which I’ve forgotten of late: I don’t often give a damn for what’s going on plot-wise. I think I’ll proudly admit that more often than not, I do not care for a romping, thumping beat to a novel (though occasionally I do). I do care about the way something is put together, very much, and that is what Sinclair does very well.

So I’ll give him a second go; and I don’t even mind if I can’t finish this novel, because I’m already enjoying flicking through and reading the sublime sentences, and I know even a scattering of these phrases will serve me well.

14Jul

The Silver Pigs

Lindsey Davis has written a cracker, a great narrative voice in Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman informer in the year 70AD (the Empire under Vespasian).

Okay, so Falco is a wise-cracking, Chandleresque character who is both charming and at first seemingly little on the dodgy side, but with a heart of gold. Nothing new there, of course, but it’s the way it’s done. Not only is Falco written superbly, with modernisms to make it his narrative a hugely accessible romp, but he blends in incredibly effectively with the context of Vespasian’s Rome and the Roman way of life.

Falco gets embroiled in uncovering a plot against the Emperor as well as financial fraud that takes him to Britain and back (it always amuses me to see the Roman loathing of uncivilised Britain). It’s a smart tale, with clever dialogue, lots of cunning plot twists (many of which are obvious but it doesn’t matter), a spot of love, and basically has something for everyone.

This isn’t a review (which you might have gathered by now, since I don’t quite have the energy to write a full one; I nominate Pornokitsch to write one, since they enjoy all things Roman), but I think even fans of fantasy fiction will really enjoy the trip to 70AD. The Silver Pigs is not as textured and in-depth as C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels, but it’s certainly as much fun. I think I’ve found a bit of a guilty pleasure.

7Jul

Recent Reading

My review of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, by Sandra Steingraber, is now up at The Ecologist. It’s a terrific book.

One of the greatest moral bargaining chips in the environmental movement is the fate future generations: to think of the children. Those who employ such arguments suggest that it’s our children who will be the ultimate victims of environmental degradation, and it is they who will have lost out on what we ourselves were lucky enough to experience: a cooler climate, pristine forests, greater biodiversity. But those looking to the future are overlooking something crucial: the impact of current climate change and ecological issues on children today.

Raising Elijah is a meticulously researched piece of environmental writing. The book requires little in the way of scientific understanding but despite this, hard facts are dealt with. Local problems are scaled up to be revealed as feeding into complex national or even international issues; topics are placed within the context of corporate greed and politicking. Legal frameworks are analysed against a historical backdrop of scientific understanding. This is a genuine, all-encompassing environmental study.

Here’s the review in full.

The second book this month was Ariana Franlkin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, which is a jolly old Medieval romp featuring Adelia Aguilar, a trained female doctor brought over to England to solve a mystery of child killings. (More complex review in the New York Times.) I really enjoyed this for the most part. The characters were drawn very well, introduced superbly, and the prose was vivid. In places it bordered of parody and the characters (deliberately) became a fraction too much of a caricature, but it was entertaining enough. The one problem with such jolly writing of such a dark period (or even crime writing in general) is that you don’t really take things all that seriously. You don’t bite your nails in anticipation of what might happen next. Or perhaps I’m just a bit grumpy in preferring historical crime books to be Serious.

26May

Review of “Dominion” at the Ecologist

My book review of Dominion is up over at the Ecologist.

Something has gone wrong with the way the world treats animals, Matthew Scully reflects in Dominion, his cerebral investigation into mankind’s treatment of animals. Published a decade ago in the USA, it has now been released in the UK with a new introduction and maintains, a decade later, contemporary relevance. ‘Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honourable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they stand unequal and powerless before us.’ These early sentiments are characteristic of Scully’s thoughtful approach to animal welfare. It comes from a conservative perspective, not a liberal one; and is not, strictly speaking, about rights at all, but conscience.

This is an important stance as well as an unusual one. Thousands of treatises on welfare or ecology are written from the perspective of the sympathetic liberal but Scully conducts his investigations from the perspective of a proponent of the free market. That a great many environmental problems are a result of market failures isn’t in question but you can’t help admiring American conservative Scully’s chutzpah in acknowledging it.

Check out the rest of the review, if that’s of interest. It’s a fascinating book. Hopefully I’ll be writing a few more reviews for the Ecologist, which I’m excited about because I’ve admired this prominent environmental publication for years. Also, it’s nice to be able to talk about environmental issues a little more.

10May

Recent Reading, Food & Crime

Felicity Lawrence’s Eat Your Heart Out is a fascinating little book, and another one of those important ones. This isn’t an attempt to scare people by revealing what’s in their food, but a look at the structure of the food industry and the impact on society and the environment (and, yes, a little look at the kinds of things we put in our bodies).

From an examination of milk to soya, to sugar to pork, to fats, and a final optimistic look at how things can get better. The general villain of the day is the hugely intensive agricultural corporations (not really a surprise) and big business/supermarkets (the inevitable shape of the capitalist food industry, as Raj Patel shows so eloquently in Stuffed and Starved) that puts profit before land and people.

It’s full of tidbits such as how deregulation of markets has crippled dairy farmers, and at how the biggest benefactors of the Common Agricultural Policy are not farmers (not even the disproportionately wealthy farmers who benefit with even greater subsidies) but giant, transnational food corporations, who get a rebate on the artificially high prices that subsidised agriculture brings. We’re subsidising the markets twice over, handing our EU payments to companies to produce high sugar, high fat, highly processed foods that health experts are telling us we should eat less of. There’s a whole lot of other shadowy stuff that goes on too. Anyway, it’s certainly a must-read for those who are genuinely interested in where their food comes from. For a more in-depth review see here.

Mo Hayder’s Birdman is a tremendously grim book. I read this with an interest in the mechanism of crime fiction, the feints an deceits, the way crimes are committed and certain information is revealed, the whatever-it-is that makes a reader keep on turning, which is an art not often explored. Hayder does this splendidly; you can see the planning that’s gone into the novel, the research, the structure. The action is intense, and it’s actually a rather hard quality to sustain for such a long period of time. The plot skips from clue to threat, without sacrificing logic and entering bizarroland. It all makes perfect sense and, the further you get into the book, the more layers are revealed.

When people talk about gritty books, they seriously need to expand their reading horizons to someone like Hayder. This makes ‘gritty’ fiction seem like a village show cake sale. It’s a seriously intense work, and does not shy away from some of the most horrific qualities a human may possess. From necrophilia to rape (and not rape purely to make a book seem grown up, like you get so much in fiction today – “Hey, let’s include a rape to make things nasty” (and what is that all about anyway?). No, this is truly brutal, life-ruining, gut-wrenching horror.

I like Hayder’s style, too. It’s written with an eye to thrillers, of course – minimal, precise, direct, yet it’s also got a touch of the poetic that has clearly been restrained. Despite the bleakness, there’s just enough humanity to keep you going.

All in all, not one for the faint-hearted.

18Apr

Notes From Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is one of the most charming and interesting books I’ve read in a long time.

Charming, because it is a collection of thoughts on nature, throughout the seasons, from one of our most well-respected British nature writers. Interesting, because it is unplanned; unstructured by the writer himself, who passed away in 2006, a couple of years before the book was published (it was compiled by Robert Macfarlane). Interesting, because it seems to distil so many things into pithy observations or philosophical reflections about a man living with wildlife at the centre of his existence. These are thoughts of someone so engaged in the business of watching the world in which he lived (predominantly at Walnut Tree Farm, in Norfolk), but also talking of the farm in the context of the wider world. Month by month, through all types of weather, through all times of the day, through all sensations one may experience with the natural world, this is all filtered through an acute and deeply sensitive lens; these are Deakin’s genuine attempts to understand not only his surroundings, but his reactions to it.

All of us, I believe, carry about in our heads places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that ‘feels its life in every limb’ in Wordsworth’s poem ‘We are seven’, our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far from them.

There are mentions or discussions, of a few writers and artists who have themselves engaged with nature, but more importantly Deakin discusses his interactions with the sentiments of those writers, an effort to engage with what they meant. In another sense, it becomes more than a book about nature, but a kind of free-form prose poem itself.

On Walnut Tree Farm nature is more than just a subject; it seems to be the medium through which Deakin understands literature.

31Mar

Henning Mankell – The Troubled Man

I’ve been a fan of this series for years, but Henning Mankell’s Wallander had long ago worked on his last case – or at least, that’s what I thought. In The Troubled Man, Wallander steps out of retirement (figuratively, he’s not retired), in his first novel for ten years. Mankell had something left to say.

I like this idea. I like the fact that Mankell is busy doing plenty of other novels with a political twist, and doesn’t even particularly like Wallander, but there was more to say. That makes it a rather rare novel: something that clearly isn’t a cash-in yet, being the first for a few years, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of narrative.

This means Mankell is forced to reference a lot of the artificial world that he has built up over the years: past plots are mentioned; characters from Wallander’s past send postcards; one turns up for a final farewell. I’m conscious of these being artificial creations, as we’re taken down memory lane. The experience becomes a little meta, and it is an odd read, though not bad in any sense – merely odd.

Wallander, now nearly 60, is still miserable, and comically miserable things happen to him. Misery, misery, misery – I really have missed it. I even like the sketchiness of the narrative, which seems to suit the illness that awaits Wallander as he advances into old age. Images aren’t quite right, things aren’t described that strongly. There’s a memory mismatch. This is Swedish minimalism without a hint of Ikea sheen.

I’ve not even got to the plot yet and I’m not going to dwell on it: Wallander’s daughter, Linda, has recently given birth, which adds a rare charming dimension to matters. Linda’s new in-laws are the crux of the novel. Hakan von Enke, a retired submarine commander, goes missing; later, so does his wife . Wallander sifts through their secretive lives to identify what has happened to them whilst seemingly battling to recall and repair his own life.

Wallander shows us a different side to Sweden; this is a post-Cold War thriller that clearly suggests much about contemporary foreign affairs as well as a casual critique of fascist views. One of the things I’ve admired about Mankell is his ability to simply show things as they appear, rather than have Wallander pass political comment. This is all done through the lens of the Left, of course, but to the reader it is only a lens.

Once you get a few books into this series you realise it has always been about more than a simple police procedural, and this is even more apparent – perhaps most apparent – in The Troubled Man. It’s beautiful despite its many flaws, and it’s morose, but no more miserable than life really can be for many people. There’s a raw, depressing honesty about this novel.