Monday, February 25, 2013

Books I read in February (Part one)

Dot In the Universe, Lucy Ellmann. The cover looks like a parody of a moron's idea of a parody of the "chicklit" aesthetic, but the novel itself is pure, raging satire. Ellmann writes with rare passion, dotting (heh) the pages with shouty caps. This might have gotten old fast, but the little old lady who lives in a shoe in my brain who is responsible for reading the books I put in front of my eyes quickly assimilated the technique. Besides, it fits perfectly with Ellmann's authorial persona, which is as forthright and unshrinking as a bayonet charge.

Ellmann writes with bracing anger. Her target: humanity in general. We are meatbags of folly, our achievements as nothing compared to our innate awfulness. "Love, like defecation, is never a settled matter," the narrator confides early on, which gives some idea of Ellmann's cynicism, and her Swiftian bluntness when it comes to bodily functions. Later: "Having children is always a mistake, leading to destruction and dismay..." The novel is dotted (ha) with such misanthropic epigrams. Sometimes Ellmann abandons irony in favour of a battering ram. One chapter is titled, simply, "FUCK SCIENCE", and it is as thrilling and disturbing and (I guess maybe) wrong-headed as it sounds.

Ellmann has a genius for invective, yet she demonstrates a Vonnegutian compassion for the poor species she lambasts. There is a sense that anything goes here - very few books outside of late Thomas Hardy feature a protagonist who is reincarnated as a possum, complete with photos - but Ellmann is also profoundly moral. Ultimately, for all its deliberate and often amusing ugliness I found this a cathartic, strangely touching novel.

Survival, Russell Evans. Political prisoner Ivanov escapes from the gulag, trudges across the tundra, mile after mile, holes up for winter in a cave, and eats a lot of really foul-sounding meatballs in this stirring against-the-odds thriller with anti-authoritarian undertones.

I first encountered this Puffin Plus in 1991 in Mrs Murray's Year 7 English class. It made a big impression on me, marking one of the very few times I enjoyed reading a set text for high school. I've thought of it occasionally in recent years, but I couldn't remember the author's name, nor if the book was called Survival, Survivor, or something else entirely. Needless to say it proved ungoogleable.

Then, a few weeks ago, Anna turned up a copy in a second-hand bookstore in Camberwell. Same edition I read all those years ago, with the same stupid cover illustration. (In the story, Ivanov is described as being in his twenties, with a "boyish face". Obviously one has to factor in his ordeal, but even a year living rough on the taiga would scarcely be enough to turn the fresh-faced Ivanov into the ravaged, Joaquin Phoenix-circa-2009 figure depicted on the cover.)

Reading it now, I appreciated Evans's concise storytelling. No sooner has the idea of escape been planted in Ivanov's mind than he has jumped the wire and begun his adventure. The bulk of the book is taken up with his year or so on the run, hunting, fishing, freezing, and generally acting like a Soviet-era Bear Grylls minus the rampant testicle-consumption. I found this stuff riveting, with the ever-resourceful Ivanov using guile and intelligence to survive.

The last few chapters, in which Ivanov returns to the world of men, provide some delicious twists and not a few digs at (the author's idea of) the Soviet mindset. It could be irksome in its neatness, but Evans handles it well, and frankly by this point I was so pleased for Ivanov that I was willing to indulge Evans's contrivances.

Going by his rambunctious (and presumably self-penned) bio, Evans seems like a larger than life figure, having done all sorts of odd and dangerous things before settling down to write this Cold War parable for teenagers. I haven't been able to find any information about him online, nor have I found another review of this excellent book. Given he fought in the Spanish Civil War, I assume he was getting on in 1979, the year Survival was published. I'd love to know whether he published anything else.

Artful, Ali Smith. If you've seen, or read (seeing is better), Ali Smith's 2012 lecture on style vs content, you'll know that her lectures do not unfold in a measured style. "A man's gotta have enthusiasms," declares Al Capone before smashing an underling's head with a baseball bat in De Palma's The Untouchables, and that seems to be the underlying philosophy behind Smith's lectures. (The enthusiasms, not the battering of skulls.) She's all over the shop, but, as a writer of not a little skill and standing, she engagingly imparts a vivid sense of her aesthetic.

Artful collects four lectures Smith gave at St Anne's College, Oxford, in 2012. The speeches are typically diffuse, but Smith has made the unusual decision to tie them together with a fictional framework in which the narrator - the partner of a recently-deceased academic/writer - reads and reflects upon the speeches. (Which are here attributed to the dead woman, rather than Smith herself.) This creates a shifting counterpoint that allows Smith to reflect on, even debate, her own ideas.

Sadly, the lectures rarely come alive on the page, and they are so scattershot that it is difficult to find a thread to latch onto. I had feared that the fiction portions would be even less appealing, but I warmed to the narrator and enjoyed the way her thoughts developed the ideas found in the lectures. Artful is a bold experiment, offering frequent moments of insight and the pleasure of Smith's company, but it's also a bit of a mess.

Grinny, Nicholas Fisk. While reading Survival, I kept thinking about this book, another formative experience from around the same period. Well do I remember the dread that crept through my entrails every time Mrs Campbell, my Grade Six teacher, announced that she planned to finish up the school day with a "treat" - another chapter from Grinny. I was a sensitive lad, already terrified of aliens - also clouds, lambs, dogs with eyebrows - and the prospect of an unidentified flying objectionable infiltrating my comfortable suburban household in the guise of a kindly old lady was... Well, just look at the cover.

Reading it now, I didn't find Grinny especially scary. I've been through parenthood, relationship breakdowns, and one time I saw an entire episode of The Block - having known true terror, what's a little alien invasion action to me? Still, I experienced chills when I hit scenes that had frightened me as a lad. I say "scenes", but I was frightened of more or less everything that happened in the last 80 pages, and the book is only 90 pages long.

With great concision, Fisk builds a credible world, and brings it under increasingly sinister threat. His young protagonists are imbued with intelligence; also, just as crucially, emotions. Mat sums it up well in his reviewGrinny "is a slow-burning, tense and eventually explosive parable about the powerful anger of children under threat."

So, in many ways, Grinny remains a terrific book. Unfortunately, it is one of the most insistently sexist novels I have ever read. Dated language is to be expected from a novel published in 1973, but the anti-woman agenda expressed here is pathological. Barely a page goes by without the pubescent narrator directing a jibe or two at women for their (I quote) "built-in bitchiness". I'm glad I revisited Grinny, but I won't be rushing to press it into my kids' hands.

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