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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Pa pa Americano.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-14415-2
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.

Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.

Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.

In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.

Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.

Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.

Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.

‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.

On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.

So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.

It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.

It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.

And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.

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Margaret Laurence – The Stone Angel

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Be a bit nicer.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 301
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97769-6
First Published: 1964
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Hagar Shipley is in her nineties and her time is coming to an end. Living with her son and daughter-in-law she has had time to reflect on life and has been able to live with a modicum of independence, but Marvin is not her favourite son, his wife Doris is too religious, and both now want her to live in a home. Hagar has other plans.

Originally published in 1964 the reprinting of The Stone Angel by Apollo now is timely as it fits the current trend of books about older people. But it has a twist – the woman here grew up in the 1800s, a bit earlier than our contemporaries.

This book is a difficult read and it takes a while to work out what’s really going on, where fault really lies and so on. (This will be aided if you’ve read more recent novels in a similar vein.) Hagar is not completely forgetful, but she forgets enough that you learn to read between the lines and base your opinion of the other characters on the dialogue they speak. (There’s a chance, of course, that Hagar reports conversations wrongly but one can only go so far as the reader.)

So you go through a brief period at the start where you’re questioning who might be the ‘bad guy’ if such a person exists, and then you start to see what’s been in the background all along. Hagar is not a pleasant character by any means. Through the pages that pass by you can see her open favouritism – her favourite son is not the one who looks after her and through the reactions of Marvin and Doris you can see plainly that they’ve had that beaten into them. Hagar nags, belittles, and is critical 90% of the time; she may well have a personality disorder. She has seen herself as above so many people that she’s had few friends; very snobbish. She’s made bad choices but remained rigid in her views. Toxicity is a big feature of this book as while you feel for Hagar’s plight, her not wanting to be put in a home, you can also see how much emotional pain she has caused those who have looked after her for years. And Marvin and Doris aren’t young themselves – whilst Doris’ relentless devotion to converting Hagar to her own religion is a bit much, it’s impossible not to feel for this couple who have looked after a woman so ungrateful.

A difficult book at times, then, but not a bad one. There are a few drawn-out sections, which means it’s a good book to read in terms of its cultural status – it’s considered a Canadian classic – as well as all the things Laurence says, but it may not ‘wow’ you. Despite its character it is an easy, comfortable read, that has a lot of value nowadays for its social context and historical content. It also demonstrates how a strict upbringing can affect a person as well as showing what is important, even if what’s important may seem obvious – Hagar doesn’t get it.

You know from the start where this story is headed but its not a sad book. Hagar’s views and personality mean that she’s very open and confident so whilst she’s not particularly nice she does break through some of the social barriers in place during her younger years. The father who sees himself highly. The husband who was different but that different proved too much. The children much too like their awful father. The people one should not associate with. And Laurence’s 1960s take on it all can be fascinating.

One to read and love in places, perhaps fiercely dislike in others, The Stone Angel is one for contemplation. Where Hagar is loud, you’ll find yourself seeking quiet. It may not be fun – the lady is not for changing – but it’s memorable, interesting, and rather important.

I received this book for review.

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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

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Not being admitted, or keeping one’s distance?

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 305
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63832-7
First Published: 11th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Following his father’s death, Jay flies to Berlin to find his mother to hand over the keys to the family home; Yuki has been absent as long as Jay can remember yet his father still wanted her to have the house. Yuki’s teenage years and early adulthood were troubling times; as an artist and Japanese American growing up in the 1960s she always felt uncomfortable, distanced, and the few relationships she does have are not enough to change that, particularly as they aren’t all healthy.

Harmless Like You is a rather well-written dual narrative novel that looks at discomfort, identity, isolation, and social-racial issues in mid twentieth century America, in turn examining the effect of an absent parent on their child as well as the effects of artistic frustration on a person. Both subtle and to the point it uses interesting turns of phrase to create something rather new and full of interest but doesn’t quite make the most of the setting and characters.

The writing in this book is really something. Hisayo Buchanan favours a poetry in prose sort of style that fits somewhere between the experimental and the more usual, a narrative that could have easily swung towards the self-indulgent but doesn’t. Rarely does the author fall back on common metaphors, preferring to look at things in a different manner that fits well with the idea of an artist, a very creative style wherein you can see how much time has been spent on every sentence:

The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway. Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood, but she was dressed for a colder season.

In the playground, bodies swirled to the door like so much dish soap draining away.

Told in both the first and third person – one for each of the two narratives – the use of the two ‘persons’ boosts the overall atmosphere of distance and closeness; Jay, very much a part of society and in a loving relationship, even if it’s been strained recently by the birth of his daughter, speaks to the reader directly; Yuki, always feeling at arms-length to everyone around her and only at peace in an abusive relationship in which equates outbursts to love, is chronicled by the author. Yuki would probably be happy to narrate herself… sometimes. This use of third person means that although you spend a great deal of time with Yuki, far more than with Jay, and thus know a lot about her, the lack of the character’s own voice means you are distanced from her yourself. In any other book this would be a problem, and indeed some might say that even here it’s a problem, but it does reflect the author’s character and point well.

Yuki was a chīzubāgā [cheeseburger] – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.

Of points, Hisayo Buchanan uses a fine mix of the frank and the subtle. Yuki struggles with knowing where she fits in the world due to her heritage, ethnicity, and nationality – she looks Japanese and speaks it but does not want to live in Tokyo because it would not be a good fit, would not offer her what America can, which are things that match who she is. What and who she is are questions she asks herself often if not in so many words. In the same vein, this is a book in which Asian Americans – Japanese here – are both accepted and not, where many people have got past colour and many haven’t and the author shows both sides, where colour is irrelevant and unremarkable upon as well as that simple prejudice where it may or may not be discussed but certainly has an impact. It’s the latter that informs the text most, particularly because, like her usage of distance in her writing, the author shows unvocalised prejudice, the only vocalised questions and statements made by those who like Yuki and those who may or may not. It makes for an interesting reading experience because it allows Hisayo Buchanan to really look into Yuki’s anxieties, to show how many different elements make them up – she shows how the underlying feeling can have a big impact. Sometimes – we could even suggest it’s often – the girls who seem to dislike Yuki (because we see things from Yuki’s perspective ever time) have different reasons for disliking her, particularly as Yuki is what we’d now call flaky, other times you have to piece things together along with Yuki’s perception of what’s going on. And where there is room for debate, where it’s not definite whether Yuki’s thought is correct, there is Hisayo Buchanan’s frankness to show how Yuki has reached her opinion. (There is also a look at female friendship where distance and possible misunderstanding has eroded the connect, but this is distinct from the rest.)

Then there is the author’s own feeling, scattered throughout the text in a way that means you see it and the point of it but toes the line between the author being directly involved and not, about race and how we discuss it, of identity. It’s best to use an example:

‘So,’ Yuki’s boy asked. ‘Where’re you from?’
‘Six blocks away. Oh. My family,’ she replied. ‘Japan.’ When she moved back would she say she was from America?

There is also Yuki’s later exhibition, based on eating only white coloured food for a month, which is titled Shit’s Still Brown. It’s not commented on directly, but one can read subtext in it.

So this book is about being apart from people because of physical differences, perceived differences, and that stereotypical creative isolation – Yuki isn’t Cassandra sitting bin the sink, she’s Mr Mortmain in his room at the top of the house, staying away from relatives. Through its theme of artistry it also looks at the Vietnam war, Yuki using the Napalm girl photograph as a base for a photography series, contrasting the situation depicted with the childhoods she sees in action on the streets of America. It looks at artistic frustration and misunderstanding when Yuki photographs food for a series and people write to ask her about the restaurants instead of discussing the work itself.

And it looks at a life without a parent, parental neglect as well as purposeful separation, and the effects both have. Would Yuki have been happier if she’d not stayed with her friend and had followed her parents back to Japan? Would she have been a different person, capable of being a mother? Would she have left her abusive boyfriend earlier instead of finding comfort in the relationship? (That is something else the book looks at – why people stay, the reasons the have.)

This book does a very good job portraying characters – the main ones, at least; others aren’t so well drawn but that appears to be the point – and it does an excellent job in evoking the setting. It’s easy to imagine place and time. However the plot is minimal and this is only emphasised by the fact you know how Yuki’s life ends out because the author brings Yuki and Jay together as the introduction. The substance of this novel lies entirely in its themes and the ending isn’t particularly engrossing, Yuki remains roughly the same person as she begins. And as the theme work can be very subtle at times you do need to be happy with the idea of a gentle flow rather than something that you’re going to want to sit up and pay attention to. At times the writing becomes the best part. You may well very much enjoy the book but is it one you’d recommend to a friend?

Harmless Like You is a good début full of fine writing, well-written characters, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Yuki won’t be for everyone. And perhaps that’s also part of the point, falling very much in line with the thinking in the book. If you’re looking for something in particular, a literary element, you may find it middling; this is a book that uses broad strokes of the calligraphy brush liberally so there are patches where the ink inevitably misses.

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Dan Richards – The Beechwood Airship Interviews

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Fly away on my zephyr.

Publisher: The Friday Project (HarperCollins)
Pages: 510
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-10521-1
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

An idea sparks an artistic journey – after a brief conversation about a decoration for a student bar, Richards sets about creating a model airship, which leads him to think about how artists work within their creative spaces. He decides to contact various people of the arts world, interviewing them in context with his thoughts. (Amongst the icons are Jenny Saville, The Manic Street Preachers, David Nash, and Dame Judi Dench.)

The Beechwood Airship Interviews is a work of non-fiction the defies genre. At once a slight memoir and an arts/culture book, it’s an intriguing work that sports an overall artistic interest that’s apparent no matter how much or how little you happen to know about the interviewees themselves.

Richards’ starting point is the eponymous airship – a zeppelin of wood he creates as a sculpture for his student union bar. It is through this that he comes to ponder creative spaces, an artist’s personal connection to the place in which they create their work.

Richards’ interviews tend to follow a basic network connection – he starts with Bill Drummond who often lends work to the student bar, then moves on to Richard Lawrence who is a printer Drummond knows, then to Stanley Donwood who knows Lawrence and so on. The interviews span several pages and are offset by photographs. White space between questions and Richards’ now usual footnotes mean that the book is not quite the possibly daunting length it infers itself to be.

The questions are what make this book, along with Richards’ joviality and writing in general. There are no queries as to favourite roles as there are on TV shows or in papers, for example; Richards’ mission in visiting the people was to be different, to achieve the exact ideas and answers he was interviewing them to find. Some of the thoughts conveyed here are really quite mind-blowing in that artistic, literary pleasurable way.

In amongst the interviews, then, is Richards’ journey through the airship creation, his travels between places – home, university – and general diary-type content. His personable style pulls you along during the brief introductory periods – the vast majority of this book is formed of the interviews (as you might expect!)

Something of great importance to Richards in terms of education is the way art courses are run, how they’ve changed to become a lot more about rules and regulations – working towards a construct – rather than about creative freedom and becoming the artist/writer/musician one is destined to be. His thoughts – blunt, no prisoners – form a large part of the end though the thread is there throughout.

You learn a lot thanks to these interviews. How particular people work, yes, but also specific ideas, concepts, that unless you happen to be well-versed in every subject covered will be compelling at some point. You get the set-up – the off-stage portion of his time with each person; the cups of tea, the phone call between Dame Judi Dench and her daughter, the banter.

But really it’s the power, the almost inevitability, of this book to really wow you at times – supposing you are interested of course – that makes it the success it is. Richards’ enthusiasm is infectious; he tells you everything, taking you along for the ride in its entirety. The book itself may be niche and all about Richards’ desire to learn for himself, but the angle he takes and his writing style means that you’re just as much a part of it yourself from the word ‘go’.

The book could be considered a little too long; it does cover a lot and at a couple of points goes into the sort of artist philosophy that might turn off non ‘arty’ types. But that’s the way of interviews and collections, there will always be something a bit less interesting, and it doesn’t affect the book beyond that nor for any particular length of time.

Speaking in the present, if you’ve read Richards’ later work – rather possible as this book is somewhat of an outlier – you’ll find a slight difference in style that’s interesting in terms of the writing journey; this book was published a good few years after it was written. The Beechwood Airship Interviews won’t suit everyone but in terms of today it’s safe to say that with the recent publication of Climbing Days the potential audience number has increased, because, particularly, if you liked that book, you’ll like this one too.

I’ve met the author a couple of times and have interviewed him.

Update, 14th December 2016: Changed second usage of ‘decoration’ to ‘sculpture’ to more accurately reflect the project specifications.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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