Friday, 27 March 2009

Books read in November

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in November. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy – Brian O’Doherty (3.2)

I love stories about cities under siege, whether through disease, warfare or weather; the resentments and relationships; the gossip and the rumours; the isolation and ignorance are all fascinating. Short listed for the Booker Prize in 2000, The Deposition of Father McGreevy has all these ingredients.

In his fictional memoir, Father McGreevy recalls the transformation of a once thriving Irish mountain village into a deserted ghost town. It begins with the mysterious deaths of six women in the winter of 1939. The bodies are buried in the hard, frozen ground but when the town, and the deaths are scrutinized, they are exhumed for analysis, which is a double sorrow for the family.

Young folk leave the village, never to return, and Father McGreevy sees households torn apart by death and poverty, but he holds fast to his faith in human nature. For a celibate, childless man, he has great insight into familial behaviour.

He is keen to preserve the community and the customs, but at what cost? Father McGreevy maintains that “The life of a language is in its poetry and there’s great poetry in Irish.” The argument over tradition versus progress as symbolised by the language is familiar: think Welsh; Māori; Latin.

Father McGreevy believes that everything has a reason and is ordained, even the great suffering through the long, hard winter. He embodies the belief that if you cast your burdens onto Him, God will help shoulder your responsibilities and fault.

He spends a lot of time alone and observing his flock – there are ovine images everywhere as the Lamb of God becomes a scapegoat. The mixture of Catholic theology, Irish history and folklore and poetic language make this a haunting, lyrical novel, rich in local colour and pathos, but strangely lacking in impact.

Tennyson’s Gift – Lynne Truss (3.2)

This novel featuring famous people in farcical situations is a world away from the bestselling grammatical treatise, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. As photographers, authors, painters and actors frolic on the Isle of Wight in July 1864, the novel has more in common with Sue Townsend than Noam Chomsky. It is easy and de rigueur to make fun of Victorians and their values, but she does it mainly in an amusing way.

George Watts, the painter, is on holiday with his new bride, Ellen Terry, the actress. Julia Cameron is a photographer who likes to do ‘abstracts’ and she needs sitters for her compositions. She is in love with Alfred Tennyson who bores everyone at dinner parties by droning on about his poetry. His wife hides bad reviews in various places such as teapots or the rose bed. And then there is Charles L Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, who wants to dedicate his novel to Tennyson but needs his approval. Between knock-backs he roams the beaches looking for young girls and telling them they have inspired his stories.

Into this cultural cacophony come Lorenzo Fowler, a travelling American phrenologist, and his precocious daughter, Jessie. When Ellen dresses as a man to try and gain information from Lorenzo about Watts, it becomes full of Shakespearean references and ludicrous situations.

Tennyson’s Gift is half Victorian drama; half French farce, all dosed in post-modern irony. It is too clever to be compelling and although everything is sorted out by the end, you just wish it had come sooner. It’s like one of those scientific experiments that simply doesn’t work – much better in theory than it is in practice.

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin (3.7)

Lilly Aphrodite’s tale is one of tragedy heaped upon tragedy. She is brought up in convent orphanage in Berlin; she works as a maid where she is raped by the master of the house when working as a maid and has a backstreet abortion; is sacked from her job at a bar for not ‘doing extras’ for clients; she works in a hostel cleaning excrement-splattered latrines; she marries a man just before he goes to fight in the First World War and is missing presumed dead, and she falls in love with a man who is already married. The novel is full of coincidences and the grimmest things that can’t break her spirit, as though Catherine Cookson combined with Paullina Simons.

Berlin has a starring role in this novel and Colin captures the atmosphere with a telescopic style which is light on detail and can be confusing, but she illuminates each period in time and place, from the Kaiser’s pre-WWI constraints to the decadent aftermath that was the Weimar Republic.

Lilly learns to reinvent herself and the lines between reality and fiction become blurred. Of course she happens to be beautiful, because she is a heroine and they always are in this type of novel. In fact she is “the face, if you can imagine it, of Berlin at that particular moment in history.” She never had the talent for stage, but her face suits the screen and she becomes an icon of silent movies. The novel is interspersed with celluloid history, snippets from faux interviews conducted later in her career, clumsy foreshadowing.

To be honest, I don’t much care for Lilly. She is a vacuous character – an empty vessel to be filled with whatever will make her solid and give her form. She morphs into the creation that someone wants her to be, rather than having any strength herself. But perhaps this is what was needed to survive the war. It may be a love story but it lacks the emotion of a Casablana or more recently The Bronze Horseman which seems to be the market it is trying to capture.

The Beloved Son – Jay Quinn (2.6)

This reads like a debut novel (although it’s not) about how to cope with your ageing relatives, drinking coffee, and the nature of faith. Karl is worried about his trip to see his family in Florida because he might have to display some emotion; as a town planner who designs ways to control traffic, Karl dislikes mess.

His brother (Sven) is gay and may be separating from his partner (Rob). Their mother (Annike) has the beginnings of dementia, and their father (Frank) resents her attention to Sven. Karl has his own family dynamics to deal with – his own daughter (Melanie) sounds like the worst kind of precocious American brat with no sensitivity to others’ feelings and a conviction that her own thoughts are right. His wife (Caroline) is simply bland. With a gay son, Catholic Swedish mother, and right-wing father, the stage is obviously set for family disharmony.

Control is a big theme in this novel, whether it relates to relationships, world politics, faith, or mental capacity. As there is Catholicism, there is of course, guilt. Annike assures Karl that she doesn’t want him to visit her when she is senile and has forgotten who he is, which absolves him from any cluttered responsibilities. Life is not as tidy as this wish fulfillment.

Jay Quinn is not a natural writer. He corrals his characters with stereotypes; as Sven and Rob are gay, they must have a decorating/design business while Karl has a perfect nuclear family. Politics are introduced in a totally unnatural way; everyone has the right to an opinion and the so-called liberals are as bigoted as anyone else. Frank debates rationally with his granddaughter and things never get personal as they would in any normal family.

The novel swings between the vague and the precise. We read about every aspect of their domestic habits in tedious detail. Quinn frequently repeats himself and overdoes the adverbs. There is nothing to it and it leaves an impression like candy floss – it looks as though there might be something there, but it all just evaporates into sickly sweet wisps of nothingness.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Opening Night

Tonight is the opening night of Necessary Targets. Naturally, I am nervous. Hence this is a very short post. If you're in Wellington, come and see it; if you're not then you won't be able to. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I manged to take a night out from rehearsals last week and went to see Strange Resting Places at Downstage, which combines Māori and Italian culture and song. It was well-worth seeing and is going on tour around the country - it's been up in Auckland and is heading to the Festival of Colour. I would recommend catching that too, if you can.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Dare we believe?

Eight games to go, one point behind, the dreaded 'game-in-hand'; dare we believe? Are we back in the race? I had set my sights on the Champions League, but I must admit, I would not say no to the premier.

This morning's game was incredible for a number of reasons - not least Stevie's hat-trick of course. But it came on a day when he didn't actually play all that well, and nor did Torres. It's a sign of their influence that they were marked so heavily, leaving other players to run free - and didn't Riera make the most of it?

That goal was fantastic. It will have critics complaining - indeed Him Outdoors did mutter the words 'Wimbledon' and 'hoof' before I glared at him (I have a pretty mean glare at 5.30am) - but it was inspired. And I love seeing keepers play a decisive part in scoring goals, rather than conceeding them. Reina seemed pretty happy about it too.

Generally I have a soft spot for Villa (it's a long story and involves Andy Townsend) but right now, to mix sporting metaphors, the gloves are off. It's 19 years since I saw my team brandish the league trophy aloft, and I would love to see them do it again. But can they? Will they stand firm, or will they fall at the last hurdle? You can't say I didn't warn you about those metaphors.

In the infuriating words of my mother, 'We'll just have to wait and see'. Whatever happens, it will be exciting. And in the words of an even more infuriating cheerleading debacle (now, that can't even be called sport!), bring it on!

Chopping down the trees

What is it with Kiwis and trees? We had a beautiful tree outside our house. It provided privacy, shelter, birdsong and greenery - with a blast of red when the flowers were in bloom. The next-door neighbours didn't like it. They have a BMW convertible which they park beneath it and the birds shat through their roof onto the leather upholstery.

I came home the other day to find it completely razed to the ground. The landlord did it. Obviously the neighbours had complained, although we weren't consulted about our thoughts. Now everyone from the cafe opposite can see directly into our bedroom window, and I can hear their screaming children with no shelter or protection.

My sister tells me there is a row of trees at the playcentre her child attends. The committee wants them chopped down because a stray branch might fall off and hit a child. My sister - bolshy little madam that she is - said she told them she would have nothing to do with their arboreal massacre. 'I simply cannot condone the chopping down of trees' she said, which may be slightly grandiose, but good for her!

Trees have history and dignity. They are romantic and poetic with gnarled roots and spreading branches. They have evocative names and curious seeds - whirling sycamore wings and glossy horse chestnuts. I love their leaves and blossoms - the colour, shelter, fruit and tranquility they provide. I'd rather have a tree than a parking-lot anyday. I just can't understand people who wouldn't. And it seems there are a lot of them in this country.

Dead Wood
As a woman of a certain age,
I am invisible to all
But advertising agencies who see me
As fertile soil for creams, treatments and poisons
To reduce wrinkles; enhance elasticity;
Stop sagging, drooping and dribbling;
Promote lustrous hair and shiny teeth,
So I can pretend I am not
The woman I am.

If I were a tree, I would be
Marked with a pink cross, spraypainted
On my spreading trunk so that
I can be removed; chopped down to size;
Cleared with the dead wood and sacrificed
On a pyre, to make way for the
Young thrusting saplings, because
I am blocking their light and
Stealing their nutrients.