Saturday, March 28, 2020

Isolation reading: Red Birds

Red Birds
by Mohammed Hanif

Any other novel, a jet fighter pilot who goes down in enemy territory, and is trapped in a small community deep in an incredibly hostile desert, and has to rely on friendly locals to keep him alive, would probably have that pilot be the main character of the story.

But in Mohammed Hanif's terrific Red Birds, that pilot is just a jerk, little more than comic relief, wearily tolerated by the people he had been dropping bombs on earlier. They're just trying to get through life with a minimum of high ordnance firepower falling on their heads, and trying to get a job at the mysterious bunker just outside their settlement. They don't care about the politics, they just need to put some food on the table.

Because the people who do cause this misery are buffoons, never questioning the decisions that leave them stranded in the desert, far from home, with nobody showing much interest in coming to get them. And they deserve all the disinterest they receive.

Instead, it's those people on the ground that really matter, trying to make a buck anyway they can, feeling guilty about lashing out at their dog, trying to move on from a life at barely sustenance level, and doing whatever it takes to get there. And if that means they have to throw a few scraps at some dumb pilot, that's what they'll do.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Isolation reading: It Would Be Night In Caracas

It Would Be Night In Caracas
By Karina Sainz Borgo

The recent and massive impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus have left a hell of a lot of us wondering how we'd survive if society totally collapsed, and looking sideways as the grocery shelves becoming increasingly empty with people stocking up on goods to stay inside.

Of course, even in the modern age, there are plenty of people all around the world who have lived through this scenario before, and the main character in It Would Be Night In Caracas is definitely one of those people, trying to get by in Venezuela as society falls apart around her.

The book really succeeds by never really getting into the politics behind the collapse, even though it's responsible for the whole mess. Instead it focuses on one woman's story and the logistics of making sure you have enough food and shelter to get through the week, and the way she holds it together, even as thugs take over her flat and steal and befoul all her treasured belongings

In the end, some sheer luck - courtesy of an unfortunately deceased neighbour - gets her to safety, and it's the ultimate lesson the book has to impart about surviving a societal collapse: just get out, any way you can, and take any luck you can.

That's not much comfort when the whole world is in the same boat, but It Would Be Night In Caracas gives the reader enough tips of how to get through this situation, any way we all can.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Isolation reading: The Yid

The Yid
By Paul Goldberg

The USSR had a shit of a time in World War II, and the people who came out the other side were tough as hell - survivors with the skills to survive in impossible situations. And when the secret police come knocking on actor Solomon Shimonovich Levinson's door as part of a Stalin-initiated pogrom against the Jewish people, they discover just how tough they can be.

Solomon's mission to stop Stalin and the despot's ultimate demise is a lot more theatrical than the grubby, petty death seen in the recent Death Of Stalin movie, but there is a real poetry in that theatricality, with a group of vengeful Jews making sure the dear leader goes out with a suitable ritual.

The crew who come together to plot the assassination are, at first appearances, a bunch of bickering old harmless Jews, but their arguments are sometimes centuries old, and their passion of righteousness runs just as deep and long.

It's a sideways look at a historical event, and while it's just a little too perfect to be realistic, it's a hell of a ride.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Isolation reading: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer 
by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Almost all the books in this tiny book club of mine have been insights into cultures and countries I have very little familiarity with, which is a lot of the point of the whole thing - I'll never learn anything if I don't learn from people I've never connected with. But some of them take place on the other side of the world, and still offer painfully familiar themes. Life is like that.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is ultimately a little hollow, and doesn't offer a lot of surprises - it does just what it says in the title, with a main character living in Nigeria and struggling with the fact that her witty, glamorous sister keeps killing people, and has now been linked to enough deaths to qualify as a serial killer. But it also captures a certain bond between sisters, where they can be jealous and angry and bitter with each other, but will still stick by each other and never betray the other, no matter what.

The setting might be far outside anything I've ever experienced in real life, and it might be a part of the world I'll never get to, but that sort of bond is universal. Family always comes first, no matter where or how you live.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Isolation reading: A Horse Walks Into A Bar

A Horse Walks Into A Bar
By David Grossman

A decent hook for a meaty short story is expanded out into novella length, and just about holds it all together, right until the end.

Dovaleh G, a scumbag stand-up, goes hard out on stage in a small Israeli town, and that's all that happens. His target is one particular member of the audience who he has a deep connection to, and the entire book chronicles the events on stage.

There are still plenty of flash-backs to get the reader out of the increasingly stuffy and increasingly deserted comedy club, (although it turns out there are more connections with audience members than is immediately obvious), and the setting is mean to have a stifling quality, trying to suffocate the reader beneath stale stage smoke and self-loathing.

It's a hook that is just clever enough to be irritating, but also really smashes into its high concept with relish. At the start of the story, Dovaleh comes across just as irritating and smug as you'd think, but as the layers are peeled away, there is a real human - who has suffered real pain - in there.

Some comedians claim stand-up routines are the best therapy in the world, but that kind of connection with your audience can be more than pure narcissism. And while it might be a long show to sit through, it's almost worth the sore butt.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Isolation reading: The Aosawa Murders

I've been doing a one-person book club for a couple of years now, and it's been remarkably rewarding. Every month, I head to the local bookstore, and buy a novel I've never heard of by somebody I've never read before, based purely on what the back cover blurb says, in a desperate bid to go outside my comfort zone. This has led to me reading an alarming number of books about slightly autistic women in menial jobs, but I've also read so many books by people who aren't white, English-speaking men, which can only be a good thing.

And now that so much of the world is in self isolation, or at least taking part in some kind of social distancing, I figured it was a good time to recommend a few new things to read, based on this experience. If you're culturally trapped for the next couple of weeks, here's 14 books that could be worth your time, starting with....

The Aosawa Murders 
By Riku Onda

A murder mystery told decades after the horrific event, where a crowd of people, including young children, were horribly murdered with poison wine, saki and soft drinks at a family gathering, The Aosawa Murders is also one of those murder mysteries where there won't be any clear answers by the end, and no clear culprit, but you'd have to be actively not paying attention not to work out what's going on.

Told in a series of interviews with an unseen and silent author, the plot unfolds like an origami swan being slowly pulled apart, and little details regarding visits to the local second hand bookstores become key to understanding what's really going on.

It's delicately told and sometimes a little frustrating, when characters disappear when they've told their story, just as you're becoming invested in their point of view.

But even with all the horror and obtuseness, the novel never forgets how one event can still be ripping people apart years later, and can have a permanent taste as bitter as poison.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Massive Attacking around town

All these years later, and there is still nothing that beats listening to Unfinished Symphony on headphones while walking around an urban environment.

There are still millions and millions of good tunes for beating your feet on the street, but nothing comes as close to sheer bloody perfection as the Massive Attack tune. Nothing at all.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

When bloopers were funny

I'm old enough to remember when bloopers from TV shows and movies were just good for a laugh, and weren't a symbol for everything that's wrong in the world and proves that the film-makers were incompetent and had contempt for their audiences and should never be allowed near a camera again.

Good times!

Friday, March 20, 2020

My baby don't mess around

Since becoming new parents, the lovely wife and I have had a lot of time to read and watch stuff. We always thought we'd be flat out, and plenty of other parents told us that we'd have no time to ourselves. But there are hours and hours where the new human just wants to sit on you, and you can't move, so you might as well catch up on the binge watching and reading.

It's easy enough to read a book or bash through a long comic run - I'm currently getting in deep on reading all of Scott McCloud's Zot for the first time - but there is some guilt about watching the telly. It's not like the little one cares, she has shown absolutely no interest in anything happening on the TV screen in the corner of the room, so I've swallowed that 'I'm-the-worst-parent-ever' guilt and watched things that are hugely inappropriate for somebody so young, including entire seasons of Breaking Bad and Vikings.

She doesn't care. She doesn't flinch at the gunshots and calls for a shield wall, and just isn't looking at or listening to the massive amounts of sex and violence and profanity behind her. There are probably a lot of parenting experts that would tell us that she is subconsciously sucking it all up into her tiny brain, but she looks pretty bloody asleep to me. She ain't sucking anything up.

But I know it can't last. As soon as the baby shows any real interest in the events on the telly, we are going to have to stop that. She still likes to sleep on us a lot, but once she's taking it in and repeating what she hears, we'll have to watch safe, g-rated fare.

It can't be far away. The other day, she showed a surprising amount of interest in the classic Outkast tune Hey Ya when it came up on the TV, and was actually watching Andre 3000 do his thing on the video. She was into it, rather than her father's hopeless gyrations, which usually cracks a grin or two.

So I'll just get the R-rated stuff in while I can, because I know that once we're past this sweet spot of baby ignorance, I won't be watching those kind of things in the daytime for a long, long while.