Monthly Archives: January 2014

Holiday reading

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I’m just back from Melbourne, my favourite city, where I went for two weeks for some January sunshine. A heatwave arrived in town just after I did — it was around 44°F for five days in a row — so I got my wish. (Fortunately, I’m of that rare subspecies, the Scot who tans more than burns.)

As well as braving the sun, drinking a phenomenal quantity of phenomenal coffee (from, among others, Two Birds One Stone, Duke’s, Market Lane and Arcadia) and going into restaurants to sit at the bar and order more to eat than one solo diner really ought, I read a bunch of new paperbacks I’d saved up for a long trip (and the even longer flights).

I rattled through Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (Virago), whose plot possesses certain similarities to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal of a few years ago, but whose central character is entirely her own beast: a teacher and would-be artist, utterly lacking in self-awareness, Nora Eldridge is filled with anger and frustration that she cannot seem to make use of. She falls for the family of one of the children she teaches, becoming fascinated to the point of obsession with the child, his mother, and his father; as the book goes on, we discover that these people have in some way betrayed her, giving rise to the anger that possesses her. It’s a compelling but weird book, not because Nora is largely unsympathetic (which is quite an endearing trait in a character) but because the reader is able to see her failings and her constant errors of judgement throughout, making her final furious outburst seem less the springing-off point for her to reshape and better her life and more the petulant tantrum of a child.

A few years back, I read and loved Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog. The follow-up, Questions of Travel (Allen & Unwin), is a strange, meandering, largely unsuccessful doorstop of a thing, following two characters, frumpy Sydneysider Laura, who longs to travel the world, and Sri Lankan Ravi, who is forced to leave his country after his family become victims of one of the most gruesome crimes I can remember reading about in a novel. The book spans several decades, telling us about this pair’s (unrelated) lives in set-pieces and episodes, which may have something to do with why I found the book curiously uninvolving. Eventually, their stories do touch, but it’s three quarters of the way through this long novel by the time de Kretser permits this rather fundamental structural thing to happen. The prose is gorgeous, but the book as a whole — despite setting these two lives against backdrops of historically vast events, notably in its final chapter — feels curiously inconsequential.

I’ve long admired Helen Garner, who seems not very well-known in the UK (though her last novel, The Spare Room, received great reviews), and it felt rather bittersweet to buy up the last couple of her books I’d yet to read (as it always does when you’ve come to the end of exploring a favourite writer’s back catalogue). A collection of essays, The Feel of Steel (Picador), is insightful, candid and thought-provoking, though does suffer slightly from any such anthology’s rag-tag nature; The First Stone (Picador) is the now classic account of Garner’s investigation of sorts into a high-profile case in the 1990s in which the Master of a well-regarded Melbourne university college was dismissed after allegations of sexual misconduct. The story piques Garner’s interest, though less for the facts of the case (she isn’t ever able to get the accusers’ side of the story) and more for what it says about contemporary feminism and power balances. It’s a slightly messy book, appealingly so: Garner seems always to have the confidence to write with uncertainty, rather than to pick an unwavering rhetorical position and write towards it, and here, as her opinions modulate and alter, so too the book is allowed to embrace ambivalence. I do tend to prefer her fiction to her non-fiction, but I also can’t think of anyone who can rival her brutal frankness and her somehow ego-free examinations of her own beliefs, prejudices and viewpoints.

Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate) follows the lives of five characters living, whether or not they much want to be, in contemporary Shanghai. There’s a pop star who disgraces himself in public, a woman who steals another’s identity to boost her way up the employment ladder, a successful businesswoman, a property developer, and a self-help guru. These lives intersect at various points in this voluminous novel — sometimes glancingly, at other times involving characters teaming up. The arc that holds the book together seems a little thin or muddled to me, and there’s a certain smoothness to the way the whole thing is put together that made me yearn for some rougher edges or less puzzle-solution plotting, but it’s a very readable novel, highly enjoyable, that brings ‘news from elsewhere’: the 21st century megalopolis of Shanghai, where success can go as unrecorded or unremarked-on as failure.

Finally, Marjorie Celona’s debut novel Y (Faber) is the hair-raising tale of Shannon, abandoned as a baby on the steps of a YMCA on Vancouver Island, then brought up in a series of foster homes where, as one might expect, lurk some of the more unscrupulous characters in this book. It’s a novel in which one terrible thing follows another — both in Shannon’s life and in that of her teenage mother, Yula, whose (back)story is told in parallel with Shannon’s — but Celona’s touch is light enough that, without diminishing these unpleasantnesses, they aren’t the fictional equivalent of misery memoir fodder.By the time Shannon is herself a teenager, the book is on perhaps more formulaic ground: she’s an oddball, runs away compulsively, and has that familiar sarky, self-effacing Teenage Fiction first-person voice. But when Yula and Shannon are inevitably reunited, Celona has the confidence and good sense to push the book on past the point where another author might have abandoned these two to an ambiguous, uncertain future. A convincing reconciliation is harder to write than a suspended ending, leaving it to the reader to guess what might happen next; Celona does it very well indeed.

Some music I enjoyed in 2013…

Records of the Year

Albums:

David Bowie – The Next Day
Well, obviously. Some years belong to certain artists, and so 2013 was Bowie’s. His surprise comeback record sounds like the great album he didn’t quite get round to making in the 1980s — ‘Dancing Out in Space’ might have been rediscovered in an archive of 1988 recordings (in a good way) — and best of all, this was a revival which just kept going, via some inexplicably controversial videos, the happy coincidence (?) of the V&A’s David Bowie Is exhibition, and an EP of remixes and bonus songs to close out the year.

Savages – Silence Yourself
It sags slightly in the middle, but this is a fine debut from a studiedly cool — but no less enjoyable for that — new band. There’s something almost quaint about the band’s overt attention to its public image (moody photography, monochrome LP sleeve and stage outfits): not for nothing is their best song here a declaration of the new band’s intent: ‘I Am Here‘. Also responsible for two of my favourite gigs this year (one with Iggy Pop: quite the lineup).

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Overlong by far, though that’s hardly a new problem for Arcade Fire, who like to bludgeon you into believing their choruses are as good as they think they are. The title song contains at least three points where it could come to an end — but no. That said, there are some lovely songs here, as always; it’s just that the sheer length of each one, and the double LP as a whole, detracts (detrakts?) significantly from their impact.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
Harsh and scary, and very good indeed. Olympics nothing: most particularly on the concluding ‘Hidden Xs‘, Fuck Buttons need spaceships to land and disgorge hordes of hostile creatures fore these songs to find appropriate action to soundtrack.

Barn Owl – V
I wandered around heatwave-struck Glasgow this July with this record on repeat on my headphones. Utterly inappropriate: it’s better-suited to clambering through dilapidated buildings on stormwhipped industrial islands. Which I also did (but without the appropriate soundtrack).

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Though it contains some of The National’s weakest ever songs, where the customarily excellent lyrics are supplanted by banal rhyming couplets (‘She’s a griever, a believer / It’s not a fever, it’s a freezer’), Trouble also contains some of their finest in the wonderfully intense ‘Sea of Love‘ (in which they set out to demonstrate how many crescendos a song can have) and the lopsided, near-unbearably melancholic ‘Pink Rabbits’.

 

Songs and singles:

Two of these don’t actually have videos, and Cut Copy’s will drive you swiftly insane, but the Youtube links are there for the intrepid.

Glasser – ‘Shape‘, from Interiors

Julia Holter – ‘Into the Green Wild‘, from Loud City Song

Cut Copy – ‘Let Me Show You Love‘, from Free Your Mind

Neko Case – ‘Man‘, from The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight The More I Love You

Annie – ‘Invisible‘, from the A&R EP

Frightened Rabbit – ‘Backyard Skulls‘, from Pedestrian Verse

 

Gigs:

Julianna Barwick, London St Giles Church, 29th August (photo: kDamo, from Flickr)

The Knife, London Roundhouse, 9th May (photo: Passetti, from Flickr)
With its dubious dance routines, lipsynching and stagecraft gags, The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual tour didn’t really provide gigs per se, and backfired as much as it prompted questions about what a gig should be. Nonetheless, it’s the show that’s stayed with me most this year — even if it did feel, as the smoke rose, multicoloured lasers streaked out, and ‘Silent Shout’s familiar bubbling keyboard line emerged, that the whole thing was a 90-minute warm-up we’d had to endure before getting to hear the big hit.

Swans/Ben Frost/Grouper/Xiu Xiu, London Koko, 4th April (photo: DGJones, from Flickr)