Sunday, 1 February 2015

Book #11 The Tongues Of Men Or Angels by Jonathan Trigell

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels will be released on February 19th 2015, my thanks to the publisher Corsair for the complimentary copy.

The Tongues Of Men And Angels is Jonathan Trigell’s fourth novel, following Boy A, Cham, and Genus and I’ve spent 2 years waiting for it. In what is something of a departure for him we have moved from contemporary analysis of society from within the parameters of fiction to an analysis of an historical one. Specifically, the moment the line on the calendar of time blurs between BC and AD, the birth not of a man, but of a religion, how a man became a legend.

I would imagine that this book is really many different books depending on the position of belief in the reader, to come to this book having been raised in the faith, and particularly with a good working knowledge of the Bible would I imagine be an entirely different experience from somebody who had been brought up in a secular way, either with definitive lack of belief, or of a plain position of being undecided on the matter, the wisest of course knowing they don’t know.
I was brought up in the Christian faith but beyond childhood have always practiced discernment, critical thinking and an open mind. I do not have either a blind faith or an unquestioning one and sometimes struggle to define what it is I truly believe. I studied theology and as a consequence made certain departures from the faith of a child, but I suppose I’d come to a conclusion that if Christianity were a cake then the bits that were clearly untrue, myth or embellishment could be brushed off like unwanted hundreds and thousands and the legit part of the cake was still pretty tasty.    

It is impossible to really know what went on in those bygone days and that I suppose is the reason this book is marketed as a fiction, because Trigell’s guess is as good as anyone’s at the end of the day, but I read that sentence and it sounds dismissive and this is a book which is nigh on impossible to dismiss, mostly because sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re reading fiction at all but rather facts written in a creative way. It’s a bit like this book predates the New Testament and the New Testament as we know it today is its blockbuster movie adaptation “inspired by a true story”.

Prior to this novel I’d read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, and Colm Toibin’s The Testament Of Mary both of which irked me for an identical reason. The purpose of both those books appeared to be the author jumping out from behind a couch and shouting “SURPRISE! The Bible’s version of events and people probably isn’t what actually went down” only you aren’t remotely surprised and it's not news and the point is just beyond basic.

As a theologian at heart I was kind of yearning for someone to say something more intelligent and now someone has.

In the Tongues Of Men And Angels the version Jonathan Trigell posits here is a full scale assault, a veritable disembowelment of the Christian faith as we know it, if the true part of Christianity were a cake that cake would be burning in an oven in a house that had fallen down in an earthquake - GOOD LUCK FINDING YOUR CAKE. That is, not in terms of what is or isn't really true, but that which we can know for certain. It seriously impacted my religious beliefs for sure, and on that level could prove uncomfortable for some.

What he has done is a forensic examination of what is known of that era in terms of Judaism, local cultural customs, the way of life and contemporary history and takes the Bible stories contextualises them and goes not from all is true or some is true, or none is true, but “given what we do know amalgamated with what is said to be true what is MOST LIKELY to be true?

Be warned this is not a book which will have universal appeal if you like your Christianity to be fundamentalist, bigoted and unchallenged.

The format of the novel shifts in time; before the crucifixion, after the crucifixion and onto the birth of a church. At times these shifts were hard to rearrange into a linear chronology, but not in a way that really effected the ongoing plot.

Yeshua the Jew, son of Joseph, claims the line of David, he has some support, and he espouses a certain way of living, for his faith is an eschatological one. After his death his followers continue to live in the ways he taught, and it is essentially a small sect within Judaism known as The Way.

Enter Saul of Tarsus better known as Paul. Paul converts to The Way of The Nazerenes after a “vision”. There’s a problem. Paul is an arrogant man who wants to achieve greatness and Paul is a zealot. Paul never knew Yeshua, but believes he is special, more special indeed than the living men who knew him and loved him, who remember his words and his beliefs.

The Early Church stands in two camps, followers of a lifestyle, and a man who would turn flesh and bone into a deity, a man who will morph and manipulate The Way to “sell” it for ends that justify means, who won’t be told what to do or follow the rules and in spreading the cause to Europe will turn his back on Judaism for good.

With this novel Jonathan Trigell has attempted and, I would say successfully, to insert some intellectual honesty into the jumble sale Magic Jesus that we have today. There were some great moments in the prose reflective of what it is to be human, as Jesus was, essentially.

Prior to the book there were stories/aspects of the faith such as Christmas celebrations that I knew were completely groundless not merely standing on a shaky one but from a personal educational perspective there were moments that were simultaneously revelatory, and annoying, annoying solely in the sense that my mind was both blown and yet I felt an imbecile for never spotting it myself. 

There are minor imperfections, the use of Anglo-Saxon swearing is jarring, it somehow doesn’t flow, even though the book is (obviously) written in Modern English. Use of distinctly Northern colloquial words like ‘daft’ and ‘gubbins’ seem to feel out of place too, though I’ve since dated ‘daft’ back to the 14th Century. 

Occasionally, we slip into either repetitious prose, or the belabouring of a point.  The Irish joke ‘to get there you wouldn’t start from here‘ is used many times over the course of a few pages, and there is an exhaustive listing not once but twice of Yahweh’s Old Testament victories, which within its context feels like an excellent point, excessively made. There are other examples of this too.

To single these out in this way, feels slightly like nitpicking when placed within my opinion of the book overall which was, as has become customary with Jonathan Trigell’s work, very high. I have always held things which are clever in high esteem and there were times I felt it bordered on genius.     

For a book that decimates a belief system it ends on a very hopeful note, that perhaps if Jesus was never worthy of our worship, he remains worthy of our respect, righteous in all his ways.

In truth I feel like I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for a lot longer than two years, and I’m pleased to say I feel like it was worth the wait. The Guardian gave this a bad review, ignore it.

Verdict 9/10

2015 Challenge : Given that this book got a scathing review in the Guardian this week, in terms of the challenge I'll call this my "book with bad reviews"

Book #10 We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

My thanks to the publisher, Fourth Estate, for the complimentary copy

Eileen Tumilty is the child of proud Irish immigrants, a first generation Irish American, both parents struggle with alcoholism and she becomes a carer at a young age. Later, she marries Ed, but suddenly his behaviour becomes inexplicably erratic, leading them to a devastating diagnosis. 

This was a tough read for me. I felt an utter sense of detachment the vast majority of the time from any of the characters, I couldn't emotionally invest in anybody. Somehow the early years of Eileen Tumilty feel like a description of a person rather than a story with a character in it. I never really felt like I knew her. Even before Ed becomes ill, they don't have the greatest marriage, they did not seem particularly well suited and I didn't take to him as a character. Nor did I feel that I understood either of their behaviour in terms of their relationship with their son Connell.

At the books most dramatic moments, I failed to feel very moved at all, even though the story was sad, whereas normally, given the subject matter, and the events, I would have expected to cry.
Secondary characters didn't really come off the page either. I felt like characters such as Ruth, and Frank, and even cousin Pat, were not particularly fleshed out, and felt rather empty.

What is odd then, is that in spite of the fact that it's quite dry and certainly long, I did keep reading it, right through to the end, so something kept me reading. Because I never understood what made Eileen tick, I couldn't understand her decisions. Like choosing to pretty much force her declining husband out of the neighbourhood he knew for apparently racist reasons.

A puzzling experience, not a bad novel, certainly, but somehow a completely disengaging one.

Verdict : 6/10

2015 Challenge : A book set somewhere you want to visit (New York)

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Book #9 Last Night On Earth by Kevin Maher

Last Night On Earth

Last Night On Earth will be released be on the 2nd April 2015. My thanks to Little, Brown Group for the complimentary copy.

As I started reading Kevin Maher's Last Night On Earth two unexpected things happened. I grew up in England, but my family hails from a tiny Irish town in the West that no-one has ever heard of. Last Night On Earth is partially set in this town, something that I was delighted by from the off. This never happens, I've never even seen its name in a novel. Secondly, I myself had a difficult and oxygen deprived birth, as does the child of the man from this town. Eerie. Frankly, at this point, Last Night on Earth could have been "a pile of shite altogether and I would still have thought it was deadly. It wasn't a pile of shite though, it was mighty"

I write that using the Irish vernacular because that was the thing that made me love this book deeply. The lead character Jay has this incredibly authentic voice that has the cadence and vocabulary of home and just sounds so right. Particularly at the beginning, I was just dying laughing at every page and it just filled me so full of happy nostalgia.

A young Jay has fled Ireland for undisclosed reasons and like many diaspora taken a job in the building trade in London. He ends up being selected for work on a program about films and joins the media, were he simultaneously stands out for his background yet is patronised because of it.

Throughout it all, he writes letters home to his dear old Mammy from her Right Hand Man. And they are so funny, and often, inappropriate. I would be thinking "ah sure now, why wouldja say that to yer poor Mammy? would he not have killt the poor old girl stone dead with the carry on outta him?" - the answer becomes clear down the line.

I liked less the sections which focused on Jay's wife Shauna's therapy sessions with Guert, because it's Jay's voice which makes this book what it is. The sections near the end about the docusoap and the Millenium Dome felt a little dated stylistically and perhaps something of a cliche. Perhaps I've read too many books in the last decade about people who live in London and work in television....Jay is a great character, and doesn't need this backdrop to succeed as a character.

I've read a lot of books that are billed as "comic" and are nothing of the sort and don't even raise a smile. I stayed up for hours giggling at this and kept texting bits of it to my mother. One for the Irish, definitely, but also those who love Irish humour. Jay's friend "The Clappers" should get her own spin off as well.
Despite the slight criticism I've made, my entire family is going to be told to buy this book, aunts, uncles, the lot, and I'm really looking forward to getting a hold of and reading The Fields, Kevin Maher's first book, he's now writing a third, and he's pretty much got a reader for life in me now. As long as he keeps writing, I'll keep reading, and I would recommend you did too!  

Verdict 10/10

2015 Challenge : a book set in your hometown

Book #8 The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

The Girl In The Photograph

My thanks to Penguin Books UK, for the complimentary copy of this book

In The Girl In The Photograph, set in the 1930s, Alice Eveleigh finds herself facing the kind of trouble that was a nightmare for unmarried girls of that era. Pregnant and to a married man, she is shipped off to stay with a childhood friend of her mothers, Mrs Jelphs, who is the long standing housekeeper to a well to do family at Fiercombe Manor.

The novel shifts between the present perspective of Alice, and Lady Elizabeth Stanton, former mistress of the estate, whose belongings and notes are to be found in unexpected places.

The description of Stanton House made me think of Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of the Fitzwilliam family notorious for its almost grotesque dimensions, so I found it really easy and really atmospheric to imagine this imposing structure built to impress but also to subdue. It was as though the full force of Edward's artifice was contained within its form.  Clever.

There is a beautiful sense of landscape, but a ghostly sense too, it is as if you can feel the wind. I felt it made great use of pathetic fallacy.

The thing I most loved about 'The Girl In The Photograph'  is that it joins a number of recent books critical of the psychiatric system and in particular its historic abuse of women; were once reasons for admission to an asylum included "novel reading" and "grief". Though some might say the system has improved for the better, in some ways poor treatment with sinister overtones remains the experience of many. As a topic, it is one that deserves to be better remembered and more openly discussed, behaviour coercion and punishment, masquerading as "medicine".

There is a lot of comparison between Alice and Elizabeth, though Alice lives in a supposedly more enlightened age than that of Elizabeth, social conventions of 80 years ago, still meant that she had to run away or live in disgrace. As women I think we do need to be reminded of just how much womens rights and lives improved in the 20th Century, lest we forget what previous generations had to suffer through to get us to this point.
I also loved the ongoing motif of the Girl In The Photograph, more than one girl and more than one photograph encompassing several lives.

A spooky, gothic tale, I feel this is a great recommendation for people who have previously enjoyed Sarah Waters' novels, particularly The Little Stranger and Fingersmith.  I find that after a week I can still visualise moments in this novel very clearly and feel that the story will stay with me for a long time.


2015 Challenge : Book by a female author.  

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Book #7 Holy Cow by David Duchovny

Holy Cow

Holy Cow will be released on 3rd February 2015. My thanks to Headline Publishing Group for the complimentary copy.

Elsie Bovary is a cow. She leads a pleasant life in the fields and she can't complain, until one day her world is rocked by "the Box God" watched by the humans. It suddenly reveals to her the cycle of farming and food production. Her mother did not leave her - she was killed for food.
With a similarity to Aardman Animation's "Chicken Run" - Elsie must escape the farm or die, and in this endeavour she is joined by a pig and a turkey, who are also seeking pastures new.

You have to suspend all disbelief to enjoy Holy Cow and just join in with a fantastical world where a cow, a turkey and a pig can adventure off together without attracting attention. And it is funny, especially when they board the plane and Jerry the Pig's ill conceived notion of conversion to Judaism. To its detriment, it is often decidedly preachy.

On some occasions Holy Cow proves unsubtle and soapbox-esque. There is almost an acknowledgement of this by the author, as when his forthright opinions become very clear, a parentheses will appear saying, "the editor told me to leave this out." 

The Arab/Israeli conflict is over-simplified for comic effect but somehow feels uncomfortable not amusing.  There is a clear agenda at work here and it often loses the ability to show not tell.
Where Holy Cow would fare best I think in terms of audience impact is within the 12-15 age bracket as a think piece and debate starter about ethics, animal rights and vegetarianism. Also, it provides scope for thought and discussion about why certain cultures and religions discern between animals they won't eat because they are sacred, or because they are unclean. Why not one for all and all for one?

It will certainly sell widely, both to Duchovny fans and like-minded souls. Short chapters, with a quirky talent for the surreal and a lighthearted tone, make this a vivacious, pleasant, read, but one not without its flaws. 7/10     

2015 Challenge : A funny book

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book #6 Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Hausfrau will be released on 26th March 2015, my thanks to Mantle for the complimentary copy

I read Hausfrau, the debut novel from Jill Alexander Essbaum, in one night last night and I'm still thinking about it today. It's the story of Anna Benz who, after getting pregnant, married the father of her child and emigrated to Switzerland. Several years later more children have followed, but Anna has never assimilated into Swiss society and stands on the outside looking in. I was struck by the duality of my response to Anna as a character. On the one hand, I felt like I didn't understand her at all, on the other I felt as though I understood her completely.

It flummoxed me that after nine years in the country she had never made a true effort at learning the language, a thing bound to isolate. So too, that she had not learned to drive, and does not have a bank account. Is this her own failure or unwillingness to fully commit to a life chosen by accident, or something else more sinister, engendered by her husband? The question hangs in the air, neither one or the other, perhaps both.

Anna, depressed, somehow got caught in a vicious circle, a psychological rut that she does not know how to escape. Alone becomes her default, no longer just her condition, but her coping mechanism, finding Swiss society insular, she goes through a private insulation of the self, rejecting as she feels rejected and her sense of self splinters.

My favourite quote was :

It is possible to lead several lives at once. In fact, it is impossible not to. Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need. Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the rubbish. Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others. This is when a woman stops leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her. 

Unsurprisingly, the stifling, controlled, isolation of her life has led to the need for an outlet. And in Anna's case the outlet becomes sex, but both this outlet and her inability to establish human connection will have dire consequences.      

I found the way that it was written really interesting, and admired it, it was reminscent of Marilynne Robinson's recent novel Lila. Anna will, for example, be at a party, in one sentence and in the very next suddenly be in bed with her lover, or at her therapy session, ( with the worlds most cold, judgemental, therapist) before being recalled back to her present. The natural habit of suddenly getting lost in a thought, an echo, a memory, and no longer feeling present in the moment or the place. By writing it in this way, it feels like we the reader are inside her head, it also further reinforces Anna's disconnect, she can never fully function because she is never in the moment.

As well as the clear contrast to Anna Karenina, Hausfrau is very much in the same tradition as Doris Lessings 'The Grass Is Singing' and Ibsen's 'A Dolls House' as a reflection on the loss of identity through marriage.

A bleak tale, certainly, yet somehow, a compelling one.


2015 Challenge : A book that takes place in another country

Monday, 19 January 2015

Book #5 Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything 

The point of Freakonomics is as follows: applying the principles of economics to real world scenarios. The cover calls it a phenomenon, and a sensation, a controversy which has shocked the world. In reading it I find myself nonplussed.

It's very slight for a start, six chapters with a bunch of shorter articles and blogposts at the back.

Among the chapters are :

Why are the Ku Klux Klan like Real Estate Agents?

Answer : They aren't really, unless you massively force them to be analogous to one another

Why are Public School Teachers like Sumo Wrestlers?

Answer : They aren't really, unless you focus all your energy on how teachers cheat because they want to keep their jobs (the obvious reason of not wanting to be unemployed) and ignore the myriad of extenuating social and indeed economic pressures which leave them unable to teach effectively in certain communities (see The Wire : Season 4) which bear no comparison to the way sumo wrestling is organised in Japan other than they too cheat for fear of unemployment. Reductive.

Why do drug dealers live with their Mums?

Of all the chapters this is the only one with a genuine relevant comparison to economics, in terms of the fact that drug dealing empires operate on the same model as any other business, with the street dealers themselves being the equivalent of a McDonalds worker,  but another researcher who is neither of the authors did all the leg work here. If you've watched The Wire : Season 1, again the answer is quite obvious. 

A Roshanda By Any Other Name?

The chapter about names reinforces views recently espoused in the UK media by Katie Hopkins, which some find incredibly prejudiced and others see an inherent truth to. Though the chapter seems to support Katie's views to say that if you give your child a certain type of name they will suffer as a result there seems to be no direct academic evidence to back that up, just a rudimentary speculative awareness of societal prejudice and instead the chapter comes off as very mean spirited and slightly racist. Also much of this chapter is just lists of most popular names.

A lot of what is in this book seems like a statement of the obvious, unless you are very young and have very few analytical skills. An Amazon review calls this book intelligence insulting and I would tend to agree. I was massively disappointed in it. Indeed it seems like an attempt to build a book around a single successful article (Drug Dealers) and stretch the idea out, by drawing artificial juxtapositions between unlinked things, and in actuality is really a thin exercise in areas of sociology, with little to do with real world economics. A case of money for old rope.


2015 Challenge : A non-fiction book