CATEGORY: Literary POLEMICS

Moses Ascending by Sam Selvon

Couldn’t be absolutely certain that I haven’t read this one a few decades back, but either way, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable read. Certainly not politically correct by today’s standards but since when has satirical humour worried about such niceties as political correctness. It was a bit like watching some old episodes of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ or ‘Rising Damp’. Some highly dubious satire but funny and poignant in places nevertheless. There is no doubting Selvon’s astuteness when it comes not only to the racial tensions of the London of the 1970’s but of the human condition in general. So while we might conclude that his comic portrayal of those dark days is a little dated, we might equally conclude that there is a wonderful universality about this tale.

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A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

There is one thing you can say with some degree of certainty about Mantel. She understands class, she understands sex and she understands human frailties. What better tools can novelist possibly need? The fact that she is a writer of stunning ability is the final ingredient for greatness. Nearly nine hundred pages of historical recreation and not for a single moment does the tension let up. Having been blown away, like so many people, by Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and her subsequent ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, I was very reluctant to take on a novel that was written over twenty years earlier. Surely I would be disappointed. Surely it would just represent her apprenticeship for the masterpiece that was yet to come.

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Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

These days it’s not so wise to say you have heroes, they’re sure to let you down sooner or later. Some dirty little secret is almost certain to emerge, or they turn out, after a trailblazing start, to be a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Notwithstanding this caveat, Ayaan Ali’s journey to date can be described as nothing short of heroic. In some ways her journey reminds me of that taken by Malcolm X, a journey that was cruelly if predictably cut down by America’s forces of reaction. Ayaan Ali also faces, on a daily basis, such a fate, but she is far from cowed. We will never know just how far Malcolm X would have travelled had he been spared the assassins bullet, but we do know that towards the end of his short but spectacular life he was meeting with the likes of Fidel Castro and other radical nationalist world leaders.

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Black and Blue by Paul Canoville

There are so many powerfully tragic angles to pursue in Paul Canoville’s autobiographical, Black and Blue, it is hard to know where to start. The racism he experienced and eventually overcame as a professional footballer at Chelsea, the career ending injury he received at Reading, his drug addiction to crack-cocaine that he now hopefully has under control, the fight against cancer which is at least in remission, or the inner torment concerning the parental love that he always craved but never received and the eleven children he fathered with ten different women as a distorted form of compensation for the missing affection.

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This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Still working my way through this one but thought I’d whet the appetite of potential readers by drawing out the main points in what can only be described as is a scintillating introduction. A genuine stick of dynamite. Perhaps the definitive work on climate change to date. There is hardly a single line that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted, underlined and generally broadcast across the planet. Which brings us to the key point. Klein is telling us that our planet is dying. Right in front of our eyes. Not in one hundred years time. Not even in twenty years time but right now. And we’re all complicit. At least all of us in the developed world. But most significantly it is not so much the individual that is complicit, though clearly we each must take some responsibility, but rather our insane economic model, the one that generally goes by the name of capitalism.

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In The Light Of What We Know by Zia H Rahman

A serious polemic, with class as one of its central themes but also a fascinating deliberation on the issue of belonging in a globalised world. Did I enjoy this book? I’m still not sure. The two central characters are the two narrators who offer over five hundred pages of polemical wisdom. The trouble is, there is only so much wisdom a reader can genuinely absorb in any one novel without starting to switch off. Rahman offers philosophical insights by the bucket load with the danger of placing his readers in overload mode. The plot, such as it is, is rather light, and when the novel does get involved in real stuff towards the end, it becomes all rather fanciful. Without rooting his two narrators into something more solid it is difficult to warm to either of them.

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This Bleeding City by Alex Preston

Something of a book of two halves, with the first half an absolute cracker tense, gripping and relevant. The second half I’m afraid is something of a damp squid, except for a clever twist at the end, which I must confess I should have seen coming but didn’t. The first half of Preston’s story, I assume largely autobiographical, tells the exhilarating story of an ordinary sort of bloke making it good in the City of London until, you guessed it, the big crash of 2008. After the crash come the bankruptcies, the suicides and the disillusionment. The second half of the story gets bogged down in relationship stuff which is not, to be honest, Mr Preston’s literary forte. But the twist at the end makes it all worthwhile and leaves the reader with much to ponder.

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Amnesia by Peter Carey

In too many places this one reads like something from the much loved childhood classic Famous Five series, but it does contain, for all that, much of interest, both historical and current. It is certainly not the novel I had hoped it would be. The illegal sacking of the left leaning Australian Labor Government in 1975, which forms the backdrop to the novel, is close to home for me. This was precisely the subject of my degree dissertation way back in the day. Of course there was nothing startlingly original in what I served up, just a reasonable summation of what was already in the public sphere at the time. But what did I get for my troubles? Scribbled all over the thing by my straight laced supervisor were the words, circumstantial evidence.

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Revolution by Russell Brand

This is a damn good book. In fact a great book. Great in the sense that it is a great read, and great also in that it is of great importance. It is an intelligent book and in places touches the sublime, almost poetic level. Not bad for a recovering junkie. If you start the book and find yourself getting irritated and a tad frustrated in places, don’t give up on it. Complete the book and your efforts will be handsomely rewarded. Sure, Brand drifts in and out of incoherent, metaphysical ramblings. All that stuff about transcendental meditation changing the world and other obscurantist nonsense can definitely irritate. This is its central flaw, yet paradoxically, it is precisely because it is flawed that it is so engaging.

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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

There is a consistent historical materialism running throughout Harari’s Sapiens, and for that he should be congratulated and his eminently readable book widely recommended. There is no pandering to imaginary gods or other supernatural forces, just a down to earth account of the human story from the time of the big bang right through to our genetically and biologically modified future. From our humble hunter-gatherer beginnings, through the Neolithic revolution and onwards to both the industrial and now information revolutions, Harari paints a convincing narrative. This sort of text is desperately needed to help counteract the superstitions and historical ignorance that amazingly, still persists to this day.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I suspect Sylvia Plath’s poetry anthology and her one single novel have been examined and analysed ad infinitum, and I’m damn certain I can offer nothing remotely new. But having just reread The Bell Jar some fifty years after its publication, it seems there is still much of relevance for our contemporary times. Two central themes from The Bell Jar still resonate today. Firstly, questions surrounding mental illness and clinical depression are far from having been resolved. Is mental illness and breakdown a social phenomenon or simply the result of a chemical imbalance? Or more likely, is it a complex combination of the two?

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Small Island by Andrea Levy

If you need help in exploding the UKIP fantasy of a golden era of England, when there were no thieving, scrounging, terrorist migrants to blight this green and pleasant land, Small Island is the perfect place to start. For in reality, England had no such golden era. Prior to post war immigration, Britain was a miserable class ridden, bigoted island, where working class poverty was deeply entrenched, the ruling class elite lived in their protected private school bubble, and social mobility was virtually non-existent. Furthermore, attitudes across the board were profoundly insular and blatantly racist. The idea that England had fought a war to keep the world safe from fascism is something of a joke.

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Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker

At last a gem emerges from the sea of dross that is British TV. And what a gem it is. It is difficult to find the superlatives to adequately describe Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A powerful and disturbing technological dystopia. A masterpiece of futuristic gloom. An unparalleled examination of where our new technological powers might be leading us to. Charlie Brooker must now be considered Britain’s pre-eminent TV dramatist with no one else remotely close. This is up there with the very best of British TV: Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, I Claudius, Talking to a Stranger, Our Friends from the North and This Life.

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Fury by Salman Rushdie

Well, that makes it three in a row. First there was John Williams stunningly imagined 1965 ‘Stoner’, dragged out of obscurity for a new lease of life in the 21st century. Then pops up Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’, where we can engage with his brilliantly drawn Henry Perowne. And more recently, I stumble upon Salman Rushdie’s turn of the century ‘Fury’ where we can follow the travails of the angst ridden Malik Solanka. All three novels have as their overriding theme the horrors of mid-life existential dread. So what can we say of these three authors? Either they have far too much time on their hands or they have all reached the same point of existential crisis; that is, once basic need have been met; regular food, shelter and income, there is the small matter of trying to create meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe.  Read More…

Saturday, Ian McEwan

It has become popular to mourn the passing of ‘community’ and ‘society’ as the juggernaut of global capitalism crushes all before it. I must confess to having indulged in that pastime myself. But on deeper reflection could it not be possible that the seeming inevitability of personal atomisation is a good thing, or if not actually good, then at least a necessary stage in our collective human development? Could it not be argued that to stand naked, free of all the idiocy of religion, nation, race and tribe, in front of an uncaring, unblinking universe, is the real starting point of human adulthood? To be forced to find meaning in a meaningless universe, without recourse to gods, divine or supernatural, is perhaps the hardest task of all.

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J by Howard Jacobson

‘Karl Marx was once asked what his views were on the ‘Jewish Question’. Marx curtly replied, ‘What Jewish Question?’ In a similar vein, Einstein was asked if he thought there was anything special about the Jews. He quickly replied he could discern nothing special and he was certain that if the Jews ever were to attain nationhood they would soon behave like every other nation. It seems that Howard Jacobson has not taken on board either of these eminent men’s wisdom, both of whom by the way were committed atheists from a Jewish background. No, our Mr Jacobson, though I suspect he himself probably tends towards an atheist view of the world, insists on conjuring up a Jewish predicament when indeed there is no such thing.

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Pride / Two Days and One Night

By sheer coincidence, I have recently watched three films with a trade union/solidarity theme. I should more accurately say two and a half because one, a Ken Loach film called ‘Bread and Roses’, was so full of trite cliches that I was forced to abandon it half way through. Don’t misunderstand me; the politics in the film was spot on, as is invariably the case with Loach films. No, the problem was not the politics but the banal and lecturing manner in which he invariably approaches his work. (The Wind That Shakes the Barley being a notable exception). No nuances, no inner tensions, no unresolvable paradoxes.

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The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

There’s a strong argument to suggest that all humans, across the planet and throughout time, have three perpetual hurdles to face. Firstly and obviously there is the material hurdle the challenge to feed and shelter oneself, to make ends meet and to provide a standard of living close to the local norm. Secondly, there is the challenge to navigate through the minefield of relationships; parents, siblings, offspring, friends, partners and colleagues. And if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, there is an ever present existential angst to contend with, generally kept at bay through some combination of ideology, religion or dearly held projects.

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A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks

After a few early reservations concerning some contrived characterisation and plot, ‘A week in December’ quickly proved to be a gem of a novel, providing both a tense story line, largely credible characters and most important of all, a most thoughtful discourse on what is real and what is illusionary. Sanity and insanity are cleverly juxtaposed until in the end the reader is left to ponder just where the boundaries between the two might actually lie. There is the socially recognised insanity associated with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders; the more controversial insanity associated with extreme religious fundamentalism, and finally the rarely talked about insanity deriving from an obsession with monetary gain and social status.

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What Was Promised by Tobias Hill

There is a touch of Hilary Mantel about the first section of this beautifully crafted London novel. Just as Mantel is able to take her readers back in time with consummate ease, so too can Tobias Hill. Admittedly Mantel has made a name for herself by travelling back hundreds of years whilst TH contents himself with a more modest sixty, but both have that ability to produce absolutely convincing historical narratives. Just like Mantel, in TH’s prose not one word feels out of joint. The second and third sections of ‘What Was Promised’ might be considered a touch uneven; either it is good, very good or superb. Rarely if ever does it dip below good.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There was a heavy sense of deja vu hanging over me as this novel unfolded, which could have been all part of the mysterious Marquez magic, or alternatively, I may have actually read this bewitching novel a couple of hundred years ago. Either way, it was an enchanting read that, by the pioneering use of magic realism, was able to engage the reader on any number of dimensions. The fact that Marquez was not on my radar until the avalanche of glowing obituaries started flowing in, is probably more an indictment of my Anglo-centric reading habits than anything else, but having finally registered, I knew straight away I was dealing with one of the twentieth century’s great literary gems.

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