Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Richie Havens

The 1960s folk revival, following on from the revivals of the 40s and 50s, introduced a staggering array of wholly individualistic talents, people like Odetta, Ramblin Jack Elliott, even Leonard Cohen and Mister Z, who went on to more mainstream success. And alongside them was the high-flying genius, Richie Havens. I've never seen anyone play a guitar like him. It was mesmerising. So was that voice.

Richie Havens has just died, aged 72.

I've always loved this recording, because the groovy 1960s camera work and lighting just seem to complement Richie's guitar style so well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Monday, April 15, 2013

All That I Have by Castle Freeman

All that I Have by Castle Freeman is a light comedy thriller with a plot crying out for a movie adaptation and a laconic narrator who is immediately engaging in a gruff, maverick-with-a-heart-of-gold sort of way. It’s good fun, a finely written diversion.

The novel begins with an incident that sets the tone: a man of Russian descent is found naked and badly battered and tied to a tree. You can write this in two ways: seriously, as drama, or for laughs. Here, it’s predominantly the latter. What unfolds is a mystery involving Russian mafioso unaccountably holed up in rural Vermont, and a local tearaway for whom our sheriff narrator appears, for reasons not initially explained, to have something of a soft spot. Wing is Sheriff Bell from No Country for Old Men without the ponderous religiosity and with a shade more ability. As the drama unfolds he is determined not to let things get out of hand, both in the investigation and in his private life. Circumstances conspire to make these aspirations increasingly difficult to achieve, but he perseveres with dogged determination and good nature. All of this is told with some brio, and the narrative rattles along at a fine pace, the short chapters pitching up one after the other in furious combination.

It’s good stuff, very enjoyable. It’s probably more than this, however: and for that, we must thank the central character, Sheriff Wing. He is a fascinating creation, possessed of a philosophy of life and, in particular, crime management, which is singular to say the least, but which is still rendered in a credible way. I could believe in a Sheriff Wing whose approach to dealing with crime is to “hold back and a thing develop”. I could believe in a Sheriff who contemptuously dismisses the democratic process behind his election to office by suggesting that - for very good reason - people getting onto an airliner don’t hold an election to decide which of them is going to be pilot, but rather rely on the one who is actually trained to fulfil the role. Wing is a man who knows his abilities and, more importantly, his limitations.

All That I Have is a short book, best taken in one reading. It works on a number of levels and is definitely worth a read.

Most challenged books 2012

Every year the American Library Association compiles its list of the most challenged books in American libraries - those books which librarians are most often called on to ban. This year's list is:
Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey (offensive language, unsuited for age group)
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie (offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group)
“Thirteen Reasons Why,” by Jay Asher (drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group)
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E. L. James (offensive language, sexually explicit)
“And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality, unsuited for age group)
“The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini (homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit)
“Looking for Alaska,” by John Green (offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group)
Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz (unsuited for age group, violence)
“The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls (offensive language, sexually explicit)
“Beloved,” by Toni Morrison (sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence)

This isn't quite as depressing a list as usual, although it is pretty depressing. In the past we've had Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple on the list. All of them presumably complained about by people who didn't understand a word of them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Scapeweed Goat by Frank Schaefer

I read The Scapeweed Goat over 20 years ago, when it first came out in the UK. I remember absolutely loving it but, apart from it being set in rural America and being decidedly strange, I could recall none of its details before picking it up again. I’m glad to have re-read it but, if I’m being honest, I think my original assessment of the novel may have been a touch inflated. It’s definitely strange and it explores some fascinating territory but, in the end, it all seems a bit flat. It seems to fall between two stools, too strange to be a straightforward historical narrative but not weird enough to be a fantasy. It’s an allegory, and it’s essential that allegory grips you simultaneously by its narrative and allegorical strands. I know my younger self was so gripped. My gnarled old grumpy self couldn’t quite sustain the interest on both levels.

On a personal level, what I find very peculiar is that the subject content of this novel is precisely the material which currently interests me, and has done for a number of years. We’re talking civilisation and barbarism, the nature of humanity, the role of religion, man as primitive savage or as subject of an unknowable deity, the place of good and evil in our psyches and in our lives. Now, while those subjects are what interest me now, I would swear that back in 1990, when I first read this novel, those were not particularly topics which would have set my pulse racing. Perhaps I’m wrong. I certainly first read Rousseau when I was a teenager so perhaps these have always been my interests. Nonetheless, I would say it’s undoubtedly true that they appeal more to my older self than my younger.

So what of the novel? It’s a first person narrative, told by an elderly man known only as J, who is holed up in a cabin in the mountains during a particularly violent winter, looking back on his early life and, in particular, a calamitous set of events which informed the passage of his later years. He is an engaging narrator, at first apparently somewhat curmudgeonly but clearly practical and in control. Gradually, one begins to wonder about his sanity. His constant discussions with his pet mouse, for one thing, arouse suspicion, as does his almost insane detestation of the “gluttons", the wild animals which appear to patrol outside his cabin in search of food and against which he engages in an increasingly demented battle.

In his reminiscences, he returns to the 1840s wild frontier of his youth, when he set off westward with his new wife to found a homestead. They move into a fine place and begin to set up home but their life is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a strange-looking and -sounding man, David, who has an otherworldly presence. So begins a nightmare in which J proceeds to lose everything. David is an escapee from a religious sect which has colonised a huge swathe of wild land in a valley to the west. Pilgrims from Britian, four generations before they founded their own society, shunning the sullied ways of all outsiders. Gradually, their insular society takes on the trappings of a cult, establishing its own gods and rituals. It is called New Rousseau, and the inhabitants are the Noble Savages. Clearly, then, we’re examining the possibility of the return to Rousseau’s ideal of the primitive nobility of our pre-civilisation state of savagery. And just as Rousseau himself explained, such a return is impossible. They become savage, for sure, but there is nothing noble about it. On the contrary, their rituals becoming increasingly barbaric, culminating in human sacrifice. David, born into the sect’s aristocracy, nonetheless deprecates the horrors of their cultish ways and effects his escape. That escape brings terror to J and his wife, K.

Does it work as a novel? Not quite, not completely, although it remains an interesting read. It doesn’t quite grip enough as a thriller – it’s all a bit obvious, in truth, a bit unilinear, with little doubt as to the outcome in either narrative strand. And twin-track timescales are always difficult to pull off, particularly in a novel where the aim is to maintain narrative tension: the result of the changes in timeframe is inevitably to reduce the level of tension. And finally, and most importantly, the allegorical content is not quite intriguing enough to sustain interest. The Rousseauian nightmare is too complete, and it emerges too quickly and too completely to truly draw the reader in. It lacks subtlety. Yes, it gives us an analysis of the dangers of fanaticism, but its analysis is almost cartoonish in its lack of complexity.

Overall, The Scapeweed Goat is worth reading, but perhaps not worth lingering long over.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Google blogger

Are Google trying to kill Blogger?

Basically, it seems to be getting clunkier by the month. They've already killed off Google Reader, which was one of the most useful things on the net as far as I was concerned. And Blogger is becoming tiresome to use.

For ages now, I've had to put my own HTML formatting in for line or paragraph breaks, otherwise everything appears in a continuous sprawl of words. Now, I'm having to insert my own HTML to embed photos in the text. Before, I could just say whether I wanted it aligned left, right or middle. Now it defaults to middle, which looks ugly and clumsy, so I have to go in and manually adjust the HTML to get it the way I want. Isn't the point of product refinement that they get gradually better, not progressively worse?

I'm thinking about moving onto another platform. I want to change the name of the blog anyway, away from Tom Conoboy, which is my creative writing pen-name. When I started writing this blog, it was purely devoted to my creative writing, but now it's pretty much entirely devoted to my reading and criticism, so I want to reflect that.

Anyone any recommendations for other blog hosts? And is it possible to transfer existing material from here to a new host?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Understanding where our interests come from

I've just re-read Frank Schaefer's The Scapeweed Goat (review to follow), which I first read more than 20 years ago. Actually, I imagine it was in 1991. That is when the UK paperback was published, and at that time I was a stock librarian, part of whose job was to read new books as they were published. Hell of a job eh? And I gave it up....

Anyway, I remembered absolutely nothing of the novel, except that it was set in rural America and I loved it. Absolutely none of the plot stayed with me.

Having re-read it, I'm fairly astonished by the subject matter. It's pretty much everything that I'm currently interested in - the role of religion in society, the nature of evil, whether it is inherent in humanity, the possibility or otherwise of a Rousseauian escape to the past. There are even "noble savages" in it (Rousseau's term) and the society they found is called New Rousseau.

What I find remarkable is that, in 1991, I would have sworn I had no particular interest in those subject areas. I would argue till I'm blue in the face that my interest in these matters has emerged over the past 10 years at most, six or seven more likely. And yet, here is this novel that I remember reading voraciously, and it deals with precisely these matters.

Now the question is, I suppose, was it this book which, unknown to me, actually fed my interest in the subject matter, so that it emerged more fully in years to come? Or is it that you are always pretty much preoccupied with the same things, but it's just that it takes a while for them to coalesce in your thinking? Did The Scapeweed Goat establish my interest in the subject, or did it just pique what was already there?

Most popular posts

While messing about because my man-flu leaves me incapable of doing anything useful, I came across the Google list of the most popular pages on this blog. They make interesting reading:

Racism in Heart of darkness 2810 hits
Scotland by Alastair Reid 2069 hits
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy 1697 hits
Sanctuary by William Faulkner 1178 hits
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 953 hits
Life of Pi by Yann Martel 895 hits
Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner 845 hits
Homer and Langley by EL Doctorow 814 hits
Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration 809 hits
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse 790 hits

I'm not surprised by number one on the list. It's my bugbear at the start of every academic year, kids googling "racism in Heart of Darkness". Chinua Achebe, who died last week, is simply wrong to state that Heart of Darkness is a racist novel, and I hate the fact that generations of students are being taught this masterpiece almost solely, it seems, in terms of whether or not it is racist.

Scotland is a poem by Alastair Reid which is linked to quite regularly from Facebook and other groups, so I'm not surprised by that one either. Suttree is clearly the most popular of my reviews of Cormac McCarthy, which does surprise me somewhat. I would have expected the Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian to be more searched for. Two Wiliam Faulkners on the list is very interesting. I had supposed Faulkner was falling out of fashion, but perhaps I'm wrong.

I can see why The Bell Jar is popular. Plath remains a cult author and, of course, it has recently been the fiftieth anniversary of her suicide so she's been in the news. And it's a brilliant novel, so I'm pleased people are reading it. I imagine most searchers for Life of Pi are looking for the recent film, rather than the novel. Homer and Langley is an interesting one. For some reason, I get a lot of hits from French readers looking for "Homer et Langley". I don't know why the story of these two Americans should be so popular in France. Anyone know?

Impressionism: Sensation and Inspiration was an exhibition in Amsterdam. I don't know why that one should be so searched for. Finally, we have Steppenwolf. Again, I would have thought that Hesse was largely out of favour, and I'm surprised to see so many people searching for him.

Altogether, an interesting list. And there are notable omissions too. I've written about Roth, Updike, Marilynne Robinson and others on here. Perhaps it's just that there is so much already written about them that people don't find their way to this particular, obscure part of the internet.

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

One of the few advantages of finally succumbing to the winter virus that has been circulating round my workplace since November, striking down everyone in turn, is that I’m too fuzzy-headed for my thesis research so have to fall back on the delights of pleasure reading. And so on to another Ron Rash acquisition from my recent soujourn in Kentucky. I’ve read most of Rash’s fiction now, but One Foot in Eden, the one I’ve come to last, is actually his first novel. What a first novel, what a talent.

Where to locate this? When I’ve written about Ron Rash before, I’ve labelled him a “southern” writer, and he is. The southern preoccupations are there: family, progress, agrarianism, the advent of technology, change, loss of connection with the past. All of those themes are threaded through his work: the vicious Serena unsettling the old ways in Serena (soon to be a film starring Jennifer Lawrence), the environmentalist backdrop to Saints at the River, the pernicious memories of the Civil War in The World Made Straight, all of them have strong southern undertones. And the language, and the careful depiction of nature and landscape and our place within it, again these are classic southern tropes. So in a sense, yes, it’s fair to say Ron Rash is a southern writer. But then again.

I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about southern writing to compile a sustained argument here, but there feels like there is a different dynamic at play here. Rash is from the Carolinas, from mountain country and, while many of the preoccupations and the conservative outlook of Appalachia and what you might call the deep south are undoubtedly similar, there is a different texture to them. Perhaps what I mean is that there is less certainty about Appalachian outlooks, less dogmatism, and maybe even a sense that things might just be bad because they’re bad, not because brute progress is making them that way. The Appalachian God, too, seems less punishing than the deep southern God of Flannery et al. There is less horrified certainty to their outlook.

But what of One Foot in Eden? This is a deeply impressive piece of writing, particularly given that it’s a first novel. There’s a confidence about it that is remarkable. Will Alexander is the local sheriff in a small South Carolina town in the 1950s, a period of drastic change. The backdrop of the novel is typically southern, with the imminent flooding of the Jocassee valley to create the new Carolina Power Jocassee Dam. Thus, we have the southern preoccupation with the relentless march of progress and the loss of connection with the past. This is brought dramatically to life with the horrifying descriptions of the way the local graveyards are dealt with by the authorities: the graves cannot be left intact, and not only for sentimental reasons: the coffins, filled as they are with oxygen, will break loose and eventually rise to the surface.

The key dramatic incident in the novel is the disappearance of Holland Winchester, a veteran of the Korean conflict and a typically combative, truculent southern misfit. His mother tells Sheriff Alexander that Holland has been murdered by neighbour Billy Holcombe because he has been having an affair with Billy’s wife, Amy. The rest of the novel is relayed in turn by the sheriff, Amy, Billy and, years later, by Billy and Amy’s son, and finally by the deputy sheriff. It is a murder mystery of sorts, although there is little mystery about whodunnit, so much as howdunnit. What we have, then, is an analysis of human nature and the complex, almost impossible inter-relationship of human beings with their disparate impulses and ambitions and fears and concerns. It is beautifully handled: such a stylistically distinct novel, told in different segments from the points of view of different characters, can be difficult to pull off naturally. Too often, such experiments feel exactly like that – experiments in voice and structure, rather than an organic story. But this is genuinely a story, and a riveting read at that. Through hearing the same events told from the conflicting points of views of each of the protagonists the reader obtains a far deeper understanding of the chronology which surrounded the tragedy. In a conventional narrative, one imagines an author would be forced to revert to all sorts of “show and tell” convolutions in order to get inside the heads of those characters who do not form the substantive point of view. Such techniques become very wearying after a while, and the lack of artifice in this novel is refreshing indeed.

If I have a quibble with the novel, it is probably the subplot featuring the old, witch-like Widow Glendower. She is an outcast, someone mistrusted, disliked and feared by the community, but a throwback to previous generations who possesses a healer’s knowledge of the old natural potions and treatments which served before the advent of modern medicine. I can see how she fits into the novel, I understand she is symbolic of the difficulty of communication and the danger of progress and the place for tradition. I see that. But nonetheless that whole subplot feels engineered and inorganic to me. It is not of a piece with the rest of the plot, which benefits greatly from its narrative tightness. It feels like it has been included to permit the – admittedly impressive – scene right at the end, years later, when her coffin is exposed by the works to flood the valley.

But whatever, this is a very fine piece of novel writing. It is mystifying why Rash isn't better known.