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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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avia-peseus

So, I write this blog and I publish novels online. I do it all for free because publishers don’t want my stuff, and life’s too short to be endlessly promoting it against a tide of whims all running the other way, and it doesn’t matter anyway because there are far too many books in the world and too few of them ever made a difference to anything, and no one actually reads books anymore, do they?

Writers! Well, we’re a pretty conceited bunch, all of us thinking our book, our blog, is going to change the world if only the world would shut up and listen, ether that or we’re thinking it might help us to get laid, or that this small clique of other writers we hob-nob with, will be daunted, if only for a moment, by the size of our gargantuan ego/intellect, as demonstrated by our latest killer piece.

There was an age when books changed the world, I suppose, back when knowledge was first written down and disseminated by copy-scribes – the mathematics of the Greeks, perhaps? Nowadays someone would be making it up, just to get a name for themselves and refusing to blush when the logic fell apart and swearing blind it was someone else’s fault, and everything is fake anyway, and most of us couldn’t tell the difference. And books are hard to take in, aren’t they? Five hours the last one took me to read, and I can barely remember any of it now. As for those seriously droneful fictions of the Victorian era, I’d sooner watch the box-set.

Books simply don’t matter any more. Nowadays we’ ve got Youflicks and Fishwit, and that Tweety-Bird thing and we believe every damned thing they tell us, their psychometric algorithms feeding back on our deepest darkest selves as betrayed by our clicks, and tuned in turn to bend the shapes of who and what it is we love or hate, and even how we vote. The Internet is the thing, you see? For sure it is! At least it is in its most addictive incarnations, where we crave the novelty of that latest notification and all in the hope it’ll finally change everything for the better. And even though you know by now it won’t,… go on, resist it, I challenge you. The Internet for five minutes is the same as all the books in the world on steroids. People walk the street like zombies, glued to it, plugged into it, oblivious of reality, so defenceless are we now against its clever little memes and all its tiny brain-devouring worms.

I mean how else do you explain it?

The fix we’re in.

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The road from lamghom avenue new cover - smallThere are two major weaknesses of the spirit – well,… there are more than two but we’ll keep this simple. One is the misconception that change must be resisted at all costs, the second is our inability to move on when everything we believe in turns out to have been false, or when everything we have or hold dear is erased by what we perceive to be an adverse fate.

An early lesson is unrequited love. Part of the  psyche begins to break through and we project it with a terrifying vigour onto an unfortunate member of the opposite sex. We fall in love with them but, hampered by our own pathological reticence, we cannot make our feelings known. Instead we believe the other party must know we love them, because how can they not? This love we feel is so elemental, so visceral, so spiritual, it’s like a sickness we cannot shake. Surely, it’s inevitable they will pick up on it somehow and, as is the way of all true love stories, we will have our happy ending?

Eventually we wise up to the fact the object of our desire is not in love with us, never was and never will be, and worse, that we might have wasted years in sad lament for this one love that was not reciprocated, nor even guessed at by the other party. What we earnestly believed in was one thing, the truth of the matter quite another. We look back wondering what the hell it was all for, and the truth is, actually,… nothing. Worse, unless we can overcome the void it leaves behind, it will cast a shadow over our potential for future happiness, future love.

Another lesson some of us encounter is when we invest several decades in a particular profession, say as an engineer working for a vast organisation manufacturing something we think is important, something we love doing. Then the economic plug is pulled, the era of de-industrialisation is born and our profession goes through a decade of decline – year on year friends and colleagues are handed their redundancy notices. And then maybe we’re made redundant ourselves, coming up on our middle years, having apparently wasted most of our lives establishing and perfecting skills that are now useless.

The shock of change, the shattering of long held beliefs leaves us naked before that ultimate of all existential questions: what am I doing here? And what the Hell was all that about if everything and everyone we ever loved can so easily and arbitrarily taken from us?

The protagonist of The Road From Langholm Avenue, Tom, a designer of marine engines, is facing the closure of the factory where he’s worked all his life, the prospect of long term unemployment and he’s about to go through a messy divorce, so the whole bedrock of his life has crumbled. He’s also haunted by memories of an unrequited affair from his schooldays with a girl called Rachel, as if in calling him back to his past, Rachel holds the key to his future. Powerless in all other respects, Tom sets out to do the one thing he feels capable of physically doing, and that’s finding Rachel and, regardless of her circumstances after a quarter of a century, asking her on a date.

The story of the unravelling of Tom’s life is contrasted by this Quixotic quest through which we learn of a woman, Rachel, who, unlike Tom, has dealt with tumultuous change throughout her life, reinventing herself at every turn. It takes spirit and a certain ruthlessness to avoid getting buried in the wreckage of the past, and Rachel is an expert, still fighting, still making something of herself every day while Tom is imprisoned, overwhelmed by a cloying sense of stagnation and decay.

Only when we’ve untangled ourselves do we see the opportunities in the present clearly enough and realise our purpose is not defined by anything in our past, be they objects or mind-constructed things, or group loyalties, or past loves. More, the one thing we fear to lose as a result of sweeping change, our sense of self, is the one thing we cannot lose. What we do risk though is holding our selves hostage to the past, by our inability to let it go.

Tom has his denouement with Rachel, and rejects his dying profession, sees his past bulldozed to make way for a housing estate, and he steps out into the wilderness of a post industrial, post millennial Britain.

In simple terms the existential quandary boils down to the fact that every time we wake up, we know our life is not over and, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can then ‘either get busy living, or get busy dying’. We needn’t take dying literally here, we can read it metaphorically. And most of us, if we’re honest, risk dying a little each day, poisoned by stuff we know to be toxic yet can’t seem to let go of.

 

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When the heart is young, by John William Godward

For a male writer, it’s perhaps safer to write only as a man, and about men, that all the characters in our stories should be men, and the women no more than cardboard cutouts in the background labelled loosely: mother, sister, wife, love/sexual interest. Except that by doing so we eliminate half the population from our stories, and that would be silly because – you know – women can be interesting too!

But when we include women, and particularly when we try to write women characters, and especially in the first person, we risk making ourselves look ridiculous – especially to women – and that’s half our potential readership right there, laughing at us. It’s a terrifying prospect for any male writer who wants to be taken seriously! But knowing how women think is something men have been debating for millennia without coming to any satisfactory conclusions, so it would seem even the most diligent research on the subject is pointless. As for actually passing ourselves off as a female writer, with a female pseudonym, it would be a very brave man indeed who hoped to get away with that!

Apart from the monks among us, most men have at least some experience of women, so if we’re writing from experience, how come we’re prone to making such a hash of it? Don’t we take any notice of women at all – even the one’s we’re with? Could it be there’s something simplistic about the way we relate to women? For example how about this:

“She breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downwards.”

This little gem went viral on social media a while back and, yes, it’s a fair description of how a man might describe a woman in his story – what she looks like, what she did and how she did it. It’s exaggerated of course, but it drives the point home nicely. We do tend to relate on a physical level, eyes glued to bosoms and bums. All right, maybe as a man, what makes us notice a woman is what we find sexually attractive about her, or not, but if we’re introducing her as a character there must be something else about her that others – i.e. women – can relate to.

A woman might notice what the character is wearing and what that says about the person’s social, income and even moral standing – is she casually dressed, smart, frumpy, tarty? Does she look happy, sad, pensive? How does her appearance, her demeanour make you feel?

The fact she has bosoms probably wouldn’t be mentioned by a woman writer, any more than a man would write about another man having elbows – it’s simply a given that all human beings come equipped that way – unless the lady’s bosoms are the reason a guy got distracted, tripped over his feet and crashed into the water-cooler. Then it would be reasonable to mention them.

Altogether it would appear a lighter brush is needed when us chaps are writing women into our stories. We mustn’t get hung up doodling extra goggle-eyed detail into those erogenous zones – it’s all a bit adolescent. Yes, we’re programmed to respond that way, but we have to somehow transcend that level of thinking as writers of stories, realise there’s more to women than whatever it is that gets us going in the trouser department, unless of course, it’s a woman our male protagonist is interested in sexually. But even then, is it purely her physical appearance that attracts him? If it is, then say so, but accept that also says something about your guy, and is that really what you’re trying to flag to others?

What else is there? There must be something? The way she looks at him? The fact she bites her nails, taps her toe, fiddles with her hair. Why does she do that? The fact she likes re-runs of Mork and Mindy – what does that say about her? And why does he like that about her?

Now for the hard part: try imagining you’re a woman, writing as a woman, and what it is that attracts you to a man. Do you imagine it’s simply the bulge in the trouser department, or  the enormous, rippling gym-honed torso? If that’s all there is to it then fine, we can assume women are wired the same way as men – only the other way around. Except, that can’t be the case can it? Because why do you see so many good looking women hanging out with such defiantly unhealthy looking guys? Is there, after all, something fundamentally different about the way women relate to men? I mean why would they waste a body like that on such an unreformed slob? Could it be women see bodies differently – both men’s and their own?

You could have a stab along those lines: that it’s more something in his smile perhaps, or his eyes, or maybe it’s that a woman can tell a lot about a guy simply by the way he smells, and not so much by the things he says, as the things he doesn’t say. And if you’re really, really struggling, then try reading some books written by women. And if you want to know how they relate to others in an erotic way, then read some female erotica, but make sure it’s erotica written for women by women, not by men pretending to be women for men.

I’ve written ten novels now, so I’m sure I’ve come a cropper several times, had the girls breasting boobily all over the damned place. I suppose in one sense it doesn’t really matter if you get it wrong, because we’re all just amateurs writing online, aren’t we? But if you’re a big shot writer making millions, priding yourself on your authenticity, and you have your girls breasting boobily,… well, shame on you!

Of course the other argument is you’re wasting your time writing if you’re a man anyway, or at least flagging yourself as male with a male pseudonym, because an oft quoted and very discouraging statistic tells us 80% of readers these days are women and most of them prefer books by women, at least when it comes to genre stuff. About the only place left for men to write as men is  literature, but since no one’s reading much of that anyway these days no one’s going to notice, or care, if we’re breasting boobily or not.

How to write a woman into your story? There are no rules. Just do it,… but think about it, and in the process you might learn something.

 

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Unless you’re involved in espionage it’s unlikely you’ll ever know what that world is truly like. We can hazard a guess it’s not the glossy shaken Martini and fancy sports car world we see portrayed in the James Bond movies, that the truth is rather less glamorous. John Le Carre worked both as a spy and a handler in the early cold war years, and it’s this formative experience we trust lends such authenticity to his work. Coupled with that we have a unique voice, bleakly charismatic, like an old English folksong. When it comes to writing about spies, there’s nobody else I can take quite as seriously as John Le Carre.

The emphasis of your typical Le Carre spy story isn’t the gadgets, fast cars and guns but the people themselves and through this the revelation that spies are often deeply vulnerable, flawed, fragile individuals, chosen by their handlers for the ease with which they can be manipulated. Then there are the handlers themselves – in Le Carre’s world usually of a classically educated public school background, as is Le Carre. Then there are the people they work for, and of course the tiresome bureaucracy of it, and then the politics, the ambition, the vanity. In other words it’s a distinctly human world, rich in deception, duplicity and betrayal, and one in which people occasionally meet with a terrible end.

In the Perfect Spy, we are introduced to Magnus Pym, an intelligence officer working under cover of the diplomatic service who finds himself sidelined to a posting in Vienna which is a bit of an espionage backwater. The reason? For years, and secretly, his masters, but especially the Americans, have doubted his reliability, and suspected he might in fact be a double agent. When he suddenly disappears, the assumption is that it’s true, that Pym has been spying for the other side and has now defected. The chase is then on to catch him and limit any damage he might do. But Pym has not crossed over – yet. He’s gone to ground in a nameless English seaside town, where he pens his life-story for the benefit of his son, Tom.

As Pym’s story unfolds we discover a man of many layers and many faces – always an actor playing to an audience, always walking a tightrope of love and betrayal. The son of a con-man and a black-marketeer, even his upbringing was one of deception and spin, but as the novel unfolds we begin to feel the yearning in Pym, and the search for the one thing that’s authentic in himself.

Too deliberate and nuanced to be called a thriller, this is more like reading a piece of existential literature, with giant characters, impossibly conflicted and totally believable. Le Carre’s bleak world-view is as infectious as it is at times repulsive, and nowhere is that world view better portrayed than here.

Pym’s potential nemesis is his one time handler, Jack Brotherhood, sometime friend, most times bully and arch manipulator, a man so deeply intimate with Pym over the decades that Pym’s disappearance has led to him being sidelined in the investigation. But while the career types chase their tails, and the CIA with its vast resources muscles in on the hallowed ground of British espionage, it’s Brotherhood, the crafty old field hand, who painstakingly closes in on Pym.

The story unfolds mainly from two viewpoints, Pym’s and Brotherhood’s, but remember both of these men are  spies, which makes neither of them entirely reliable narrators, leaving the reader to bounce around between them in the most dizzying and fascinating way in the search for our own truth amid the smoke and mirrors. Thus, slowly, we form a picture of where Pym has come from, what it takes to be the perfect spy, also the baffling nature of what it is, exactly, that Pym has done, and of course, as the net closes in, what it is he’s about to do.

Often cited as the best of Le Carre’s many novels. If you’re not familiar with him, this is a really good place to start.

 

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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