NEVERHOME by Laird Hunt


neverhomepicSet during the American civil war Neverhome tells the story of gallant Ash Thomson, a married farmer who joins the Union Army in search of adventure. What makes Ash’s story stand out from the thousands of young men who followed a similar path is the fact that Ash is a woman.

Referring to her husband, Ash reasons: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,” Leaving him behind to tend their farm, Ash is driven to fight by the memory of her formidable mother and a wanderlust which taunts her like an itch that can’t be scratched.

Passing as a man isn’t too difficult for Ash given her fondness for arm-wrestling and facility with a firearm. She soon enlists and undergoes training.

On the way to battle Ash earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” by giving her coat away to an overexposed young lady who has suffered a wardrobe malfunction whilst cheering on the troops. This exploit is made into a ballad which follows Ash throughout her travails.

Over the course of the novel Ash experiences the horrors of soldiering first-hand and finds the possibility of switching between genders strategically useful. Her dual gender roles also give her more access to female perspectives and what their wartime experiences entails.

Along the way she encounters a heroic former agoraphobic, a professor of classics who is a reluctant colonel, a village where the soon to be dead bear witness to each others indiscretions in a public forum, and a widow who keeps an outdoor bed beneath the stars.

The story is told from Ash’s perspective so we have to take her word for truth in regards to the veracity of what transpires, although at times we are left to wonder whether our narrator is embroidering certain aspects of her tale.

As a result of experiencing the story through Ash’s eyes we are party to what may be hallucinations as war takes its inevitable toll on her psyche. A memorable moonlit bath with confederate soldiers ending with asphyxiation is one of the events of uncertain provenance.

Throughout the novel allusions are made to different tales about war, most obvious are the references to Odysseus. Similar to the Odyssey, the plot of Neverhome is as much about Ash’s homecoming as it is about her going to war.

Ash’s post-war encounter with Bartholomew, an inconstant Penelope as it transpires, is as important as her decision to go to war in the first place.

Neverhome is a very enjoyable novel. This is due, in a large part to the character Ash who is a well realised and genuinely interesting character. She is a pragmatist who does what she must to get by. While her actions are radical in terms of women’s expected roles at the time, Ash proceeds without an ideology, preferring actions over words. She doesn’t politely insist on equality but instead takes it using her cunning and her pistol.

Interestingly the physical aspect of Ash’s transformation is not dwelt on by the author. An occasional reference is made to certain precaution Ash must take to avoid discovery but it is not a central preoccupation of the novel. We are spared over-long depictions of breast binding and “gosh darn yer a girl!!!!” moments.

For the most part other characters accept Ash for what she presents herself as, her superiors perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to details like gender in the case of such a capable soldier.

By avoiding the temptation of stock gender switching clichés the author is free to create a genuinely original and engaging character who breathes new life into an almost  worn out old trope.

I have not read any novels by Laird Hunt prior to Neverhome but I intend to rectify that in the near future.

From The Fatherland,With Love by Ryu Murakami


fatherlandThe other Murakami

Ryu Murakami’s novel From The Fatherland, With Love tells the story of a covert invasion of Japan by North Korea.

The novel, originally published in 2005, is set in the near future. It depicts a vulnerable economically stagnant Japan where unemployment and homelessness are rife.

An advance invasion party composed of crack North Korean commandos are tasked with infiltrating and taking over a strategic Japanese peninsula, Fukuoka.

To avoid bringing the wrath of the American military, Japan’s allies, down on their heads, the commandos masquerade as an independent faction who are looking to break away from North Korea and annexe the vulnerable peninsula, taking its inhabitants hostage.

When this ploy succeeds the Japanese government struggles to find an adequate response. Fukuoka is cordoned off from the mainland as the Government dithers about the correct way to proceed.

It’s up to a colourful band of misfits, who inhabit unofficial outcast colony on the peninsula to fight for Japan. The question is should they fight for the very society which shunned them in the first place?

From The Fatherland, With Love features a huge cast of characters, none of which are fleshed out very deeply. Most of the assembled sociopaths, due to their outlandish nature, resemble cartoon characters.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, and allows for a lot of gung-ho fun and some tongue in cheek stylised ultraviolence. This is done without overburdening the reader too much with ethics or consequences.

My favourite parts of the book involved the North Korean Commandos. I especially enjoyed when they were passing themselves off as South Korean tourists as part of the initial invasion plan.

The North Korean’s are consistently bamboozled by capitalist decadence. A particularly funny scene involved two of the female commandos puzzling over the impracticality of first-world women’s underwear.

The fish out of water scenario worked very well, and I felt a full novel could have been spun out of such a premise

My gripes with the novel derived mainly  from not fully understanding the cultural context in which the novel was produced, which I can hardly blame the author for.

I assume aspects of it are allegorical critiques of modern Japan, which in the author’s eyes has become too soft.

The novel seems to be a call for a more hawkish approach to Japanese military and less dependence on its military allies although I could be wrong.

From The Fatherland, With Love is a fun-filled romp, although it is perhaps a little over long. It is also a tad bogged down by the author’s over reliance on exposition as a narrative tool.

Despite these flaws I had enough of a good time reading this book to warrant taking a chance on reading more of Murakami’s novels.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith



How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.

This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.

The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.

The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.

In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.

We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.

Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.

Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.

The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.

Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.

George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.

George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.

The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.

As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.

George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.

The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.

As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.

Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>

Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.

To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.

The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.

An interview with Red Button Publishing

red buttonI recently got the opportunity to interview Caroline Goldsmith, co-founder of Red Button Publishing. Established by Caroline and Karen Ings, Red Button are an exciting new e-publishing company whose second e-book, The Anchoress, by Paul Blaney has just been released. Expect a review of the Anchoress here soon.

Steve: So first things first, red button publishing, that an interesting name, how did you come up with it?

Caroline: Yeah it was interesting, Karen and I had been talking about setting up Red Button for a while, but the name was something we really had no idea about. We wanted something that grabbed attention also we didn’t want a name which harked back to paper publishing. Lots of people have said, quite disparagingly about digital publishing, that all you have to do is press a button nowadays, which isn’t true but we wanted to sort of play on that. We made it red because that’s the button that you really want to press, it’s the tempting one, it’s the exciting one. It’s the one that wants to be pressed, and really that was the type of books we were looking for, the ones which want to be read, which want to find an audience and want to be out there in the big wide world.

Steve: So it seems like it was important for you to establish a separate identity from more traditional modes of publishing?

Caroline: Well we didn’t want to be disingenuous about what we were doing, because we had both worked in traditional publishing our entire careers, and it’s a fantastic industry to be in. But what we are offering now is a voice through the digital medium. We’ve been very upfront from the start; we understand that lots of authors would love to see their names on the cover of an actual printed book. So our hope is that when our authors become hugely successful and they get Penguin knocking on the door we will be able to handle the transition over. We’re about giving people an audience and we can do that for them digitally.

Steve: So you’re hoping to launch authors and help them to maximise their potential audience?

Caroline: That’s one of our goals, certainly. But our key goal is really to just publish some fantastic fiction, and to work with some authors who we find really exciting, and who we hope other people will find exciting too. That’s the primary goal. Further down the line we wouldn’t stand in the way if one of our authors got a big deal out of this.

Steve: And who knows how big you guys will be in a couple of years…

Caroline: Yes! It’s just the two of us at the moment. There’s lots of work to be done.

Steve: You mentioned earlier how you both have previously worked in traditional print publishing. Have you noticed any major differences between that and digital?

Caroline: Well for a start you’re not printing on paper, that’s the crucial difference. Actually I would say that’s probably the only difference. I think the self-publishing revolution has been really fascinating and really empowering for writers. Increasingly I think a lot of writers are realising that people within publishing, do have certain skills which can be applied to e books just as well as paper books, you know there are production values involved in producing a good e-book. Cover design is something which needs to be professionally done, or to at least look professional. Editing is probably the most crucial thing that a lot of self-published authors are missing out on. Equally there’s the marketing. We found that a lot of self-published authors that we’ve spoken to find it quite exhausting and quite difficult to do their own self-promotion. It’s a difficult enough thing to cold contact book reviewers when you’re a publisher; I know having worked in publicity, it’s another thing if you’re ringing up and saying “my book is brilliant” as opposed to someone else’s book is brilliant. So I think that people are actually realising that the publishing industry, whilst it’s evolving, it still is relevant. If you want to have good quality fiction to read then you need those curators.

Steve: That’s actually what my next question is about, Curators and discernment. The quality of stuff published through e publishing can be variable, more dramatically perhaps than in traditional publishing. When I read Red Buttons debut novel, The Human Script by Johnny Rich, the first thing that leapt out at me was the high quality of the writing and presentation. I could immediately tell that it had gone through an editorial process.  This really challenged my sniffy pre-conceived notions about e publishing, which I had previously assumed to be the preserve of strange people writing vampire fan fiction in their bedroom or vanity projects. Do you think that stigma is slowly being challenged by the likes of red Button who apply traditional editorial standards to e publishing

Caroline: Yes absolutely. I think that stigma is still there, but that was really what we wanted to do with Red Button. Carol and I are both passionate about good fiction. And I do read Vampire novels as well…

Steve: Me too, actually!

Caroline: But we decided right from the start, because it’s just the two of us and because we are running on our energy at the moment, we wanted to do books that we really believed in. When Johnny came to us with The Human Script (Red Button’s first release), I think the two of us must have read it in a day, and we both immediately got on the phone to each other and I recall jumping up and down in my lounge. We knew it was something good and we knew it was something that should have been published and the fact that it wasn’t and that it had just sat under Johnny’s bed for the last decade was a real tragedy, it deserves to be read, it is a brilliant book. For us, we are still finding that there is a stigma attached to e publishing. For example when I tell people what doing, even former colleagues go “oh well that’s not really publishing is it?”  People don’t seem to realise that digital publishing is not just pushing a button. There’s a lot of work, thought and creativity, not just from the writer, which goes into making something the best it can be. So yes I think there still is a big stigma. One of the things we found very frustrating are the literary prizes. We’ve been approaching various literary prizes. The new Goldsmith Prize is one, which is a prize for innovation, and they’re not accepting e-book submissions this year, I have put my case to them and they are apparently going to reconsider for next year but of course that’s too late for Johnny’s book. The Booker does take digital submissions, but there are many who don’t and I think that closes doors to some really interesting writers so that it’s a shame that paper still has such a hold over the list.

Steve: It’s like the rest of the culture still has yet to catch up with the concept of e publishing?

Caroline: Exactly. Equally it’s the same with the mainstream press, which is why Karen and I have been really focussing on the book bloggers, not just because they are becoming increasingly more influential on what people read. I mean even for people who are publishing paperbacks at Penguin it can be difficult to get your books on the Guardian book page because they’re getting smaller, they focus very much on hardbacks and they focus very much on a key demographic, I mean you very rarely see sci-fi books sitting on the Guardian literary pages you have to go elsewhere to find reviews and recommendation for that sort of stuff, but I do think things will change as the move towards more digital reading happens and I do firmly believe that will happen, that it is the future.

Steve: Well to be honest Red Button are the publishers who changed my mind about e publishing and who challenged my preconceived notions about what it can be so I hope you continue to succeed in this. I believe you have another book due out soon?

Caroline: Yes I’m currently wrestling with the formatting as I sit at my Mac. It’s called The Anchoress by Paul Blaney. He’s an ex-pat based in the States, he’s writer in residence at Rutgers University. It’s a fascinating book. Its novella sized, a nice neat little package. It’s a very quirky, very touching and very brilliantly written little novella. Paul is a really good writer and we were really impressed with him. That is coming out imminently.

Steve: Excellent, I look forward to that. You mentioned its format is the novella. Do you have plans to publish other formats such as short stories or serialisations?

Caroline: We haven’t had any short story submissions yet actually, but as we’ve said on our submissions page we are leaving the door wide open really. We will consider any genre. We’ve had thrillers, sci-fi and romance submitted to us. Basically our motto is if Karen and I like it, and if we think we can do right by the writer, we will offer the author a contract. That’s the other thing: we really don’t want to take people on if we don’t think that we work well with them and be of benefit to them. If a short story collection came along and we loved and felt we could do right by the author we would definitely consider it.

Steve: Well I think that covers everything Caroline, Thank you very much for talking to me today and best of luck to Red Button for the future. I look forward to the next book.

Caroline: It was a pleasure, thank you Steve.





The Valentine’s Post.

We are approaching that time of year again, Valentine’s day, when romantically unimaginative couples convene to eat overpriced meals and express their mutual affection via materialism. Personally I find it depressing to observe such individuals conducting their liaisons according to the dictats of the romantic industrial complex, aka Hallmark. Perhaps you will think me a cynic for expressing such views but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The spectacle of Valentine’s day appals me precisely because I am a 365 days a year romantic, 366 on leap years. Oh yeah. The idea of one day put aside for romantic gestures seems a little stingy to me. My disillusionment with Valentine’s day may also be traced back to time spent working in the service industry where I had the opportunity to observe the grim spectacle first hand while waiting tables.

A Valentines card from your grandmother. The only thing worse than not getting any cards.

A Valentines card from your grandmother. The only thing more depressing than getting no cards.

I’ve seen it all, the harried looking couples eating joyless meals while speaking through clenched teeth, the drunken boyfriends looking longingly at every other woman in the room rather than the one they are sitting across the table from, the bored couples who grunt rather than communicate. Even if your relationship is reasonably healthy you have booked a meal on one of the busiest days of the year. The service is going to be terrible and you will be expected to vacate your seat as soon as the last spoonful of dessert has passed your lips.

That’s why I quit the service industry; I was unable to stand the sight of love’s young dream being steamrollered by the heavy weight of expectation every February. It felt like watching a cherub being mauled by pit bulls .Sometimes I still wake up at night in a cold sweat as the question which haunted me every Valentines plays over in my mind: How many of these people are actually in love? While I’ve no doubt that a lot of couples believe they are in love, in most of the relationships I observe I see little evidence of anything beyond a kind of vaguely reflected mutual narcissism. I’m sure most people in relationships would quickly answer “of course we’re in love!” But the value of love depends on how the person using the word means it.

Unfortunately our contemporary culture has a very superficial understanding of the term which has intrigued philosophers and artists for generations. Inquiries into love and its many varieties forms a sizable portion of Greek philosophy with distinctions being made between Eros, a passionate love filled with sensuality and desire, Philia, a virtuous dispassionate form of love which encompasses friends, family and community and Agape which is an idealised non-physical love or love of the soul, to name but a few.

The Greeks. a very wise culture. But don't follow ALL their suggestions.

The Greeks. a very wise culture. But don’t follow ALL their suggestions.

Our contemporary definition of love is rather less nuanced and seems to be a hybrid of Eros and Agape with some wishy- washy notions of fate and finding “the one” thrown in. This rather basic conception of love inspired by movies, songs and badly written books can even cause us to reshape historical literature in order to suit our rather limited mind-set. The most famous example of this may be found in how we interpret Romeo and Juliet. These star-crossed lovers have often been used as exemplars of the meaningless maxim, “love conquers all”. it doesn’t.Well-equipped armies with access to good supply routes do.In reality these rich entitled brats illustrate the tragedy which can happen when individuals place their happiness over the demands of society.

Their lust for each destroys everything around them. Rather than showing us the wondrous power of love to overcome obstacles Shakespeare shows us the dangerous side of powerful emotions and co-obsession. Because of their selfishness four others namely, Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady Montague and Paris all die. These are friends and extended family members! Then to top things off they both kill themselves! Absolutely nothing positive can be taken from this situation. Only a sociopath could find this in any way a desirable scenario, yet our culture holds these young thugs up as ideal lovers.

Double suicide. A bad way to end a date.

Double suicide. A bad way to end a date.

Another strange thing about our culture is how there is so much pressure to be in a relationship that to not conform is to be seen as a failure. Most “chick-lit” focuses on the search for Mr right. Rather than enjoying life in the moment you constantly defer your happiness in the hope that Johnny hunk pants will materialise out of thin air. What if he never comes? Or when he does he turns out to be cad and a bounder? Ask Dicken’s Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Having put all her faith in Mr right she’s is jilted on her wedding morning when she finds out he’s a swindler.

Traumatised by this experience she lives out the rest of her tortured life as a ghoulish parody of a bride venting her hate through her adopted orphan Estella who she grooms to break men’s hearts. Now if that’s not a warning against putting all your eggs in one basket and making others the sole cause of your happiness I don’t know what is?

All the single ladies!

All the single ladies!

Yet heedless of Mr.Dicken’s sound warning we idolise characters that do exactly such a thing, like Bridget Jones for instance. While the original novel lampooned such a world view, that nuance seemed to get lost in the transition to the big screen and the sequels. Should we really be encouraging such a co-dependant approach to life? Are we not just producing a future generation of insane child groomers in wedding wear? Do we as a culture find this desirable? I mean it’s nice to find a partner and all that but should the entirety of our happiness be based on the possibility of encountering a magical being who will complete us?

You may be wondering why I’m asking so many rhetorical questions? Speaking of relationshipaholics brought Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her dubious prose style to mind which seems to be having a (rhetorically?) questionable effect on my writing.My final point about the juvenility of romance in our culture may be summed up in two book titles Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.Case closed. Happy Valentine’s day!

Once Upon A Time: Hans Christian Andersen and Harry Clarke.

ISBN# 978-0-7171-5023-6

ISBN# 978-0-7171-5023-6

I recently received a gift of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales Illustrated by Harry Clarke, published by Gill & Mac Millan, from a certain thoughtful individual. This beautiful hard back edition contains Andersen’s timeless and much loved tales such as, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Pea, as well as lesser known tales like The Storks and The Marsh King’s Daughters. Rereading these stories transported me back to my childhood, where I had the good fortune of being introduced to them by my mother as bedtime stories. Through this activity the foundations of my lifelong love affair with stories were set.

As I gradually mastered my ABC’s and developed my literacy, again assisted by my mother, or mam as I call her, these were the tales with which I developed my reading skills. It didn’t matter that I had memorised most of them by heart. With a child’s delight for a good story no matter how many times it is told, I undertook to read these tales myself now that I possessed the ability. Unlike the anodyne but well-meaning text books found in school, such as Ann & Barry, Andersen’s stories conjured up the danger, mystery and magic my young mind craved. Far away from the conventional suburban banality of Ann and Barry’s world, with their “Ann likes cake, Barry likes playing football” style sentences, Andersen’s tales presented me with a world of danger and excitement. My young mind eagerly absorbed tales of cruel princes, homeless orphans, sinister magic, and unexpected consequences.

The Song of the Mad Prince

The Song of the Mad Prince

Tales such as The Ugly Duckling engaged with complex themes such as bullying and social exclusion. Anderson was no stranger to these topics, due to his unconventional physical appearance and humble origins. And here lies the genius in Andersen’s stories. Although written with children in mind, they were not childish or dishonest about the more unpleasant aspects of life. How many writers can claim to have encouraged a five year old to engage with themes like ethics and justice?

The Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling

 I was equally enthralled by the Harry Clarke illustrations found in this edition of Andersen’s tales. I recalled my childhood self being mystified by these images, equally intrigued and intimidated by the exotic depictions of Andersen’s stories. Their sumptuous imagery was surrounded by an aura of foreboding which I still can’t fully account for. Perhaps it was something to do with their sophistication which was in stark contrast with the general standard of illustration found in more contemporary children’s books? Or maybe it was the illicit thrill a child receives from engaging with something intuited to be more intended for adult consumption?

The Little Mermaid.Definitely not the Disney version!

The Little Mermaid.Definitely not the Disney version!

Influenced by practitioners of Art nouveau such as Aubrey Beardsley, Japanese prints, the Ballet Russes, and in his stained glass work by the French Symbolist movement, Clarke melded these styles into his own unique vision. Characters are androgynous and flamboyant, particularly wealthy ones. Cruel faced princes with macabre smiles are dandy peacocks decked out in splendour, which equals and surpasses that of the princesses. Minor details on clothing and background objects are meticulously and ornately illustrated. Clarke’s images are a visual feast meriting many viewings, each one yielding new details unnoticed before.

Elf Hill

Elf Hill

Reencountering these images piqued my interest in their creator Harry Clarke, who I discovered, much to my delight, was a native of Dublin, Ireland, which happens to be my own place of dwelling. Born in 1889 Clarke, the son of a stained glass maker and church decorator began studying in his late teens at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, now known as The National College of Art and Design or NCAD. At the age of 24, having finished his training, he headed for London to find work as an illustrator. On presenting his portfolio to George Harrap, the main man in illustrated children’s literature at time, Clarke immediately received a commission to illustrate Andersen’s Fairy Tales for deluxe and trade editions.

Such a commission was not the norm for aspiring illustrators yet to establish their reputation, and stands as a testament both to Clarke’s skill and Harrap’s good taste and eye for talent. The success of this book sparked a productive relationship between Clarke and Harrap’s publishing house resulting in commissions to illustrate titles such as Poe’s Mystery and Imagination, Charles Perrault’s, The Fairy Tales of Perrault and Goethe’s Faust amongst others.

Clarke, Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Clarke, Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Clarke also continued to compose images in stained glass, working on the Honan chapel in University College Cork around the same time he was completing the illustrations for Andersen’s tales. The influence of Clarke’s stained glass works on his illustrations and vice versa is immediately apparent upon viewing his work. His coloured illustrations glow with a jewel-like luminosity mimicking the effect of light through coloured glass with startling effect. Likewise his stained glass pieces reveal the complex compositions of a master illustrator.

Windows, Honan Chapel, University College Cork

Windows, Honan Chapel, University College Cork.

Unfortunately access to much of Clarke’s work has been denied to us by the vagaries of history. His compositions created to accompany Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, were destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin when a fire broke out at the Maunsel and Co Ltd. publishing house on middle Abbey Street. Further to this the London premises of Harrap’s was destroyed in the blitz during World War Two resulting in some of Clarke’s work which was stored there being destroyed. Fortunately Harrap’s American publishing partners, Brentano’s of New York, had acquired some of Clarke’s illustrations, including the originals of the Hans Christian Andersen illustrations, thus preserving them for our continued enjoyment.

The Hardy Tin Soldier

The Hardy Tin Soldier

Ten of these illustrations may now be found in the National Gallery of Ireland. Due to the fragile nature of drawings on paper these pictures are not on permanent display but can be viewed by appointment in the Gallery’s Prints & Drawings study room. Examples of Clarke’s stained glass work may be found in Dublin’s Hugh lane Gallery. There are also a smattering to be found in their original locations such as Bewley’s café on Grafton Street, the aforementioned Honan chapel in Cork, and The Chapel of the Sacred Heart in Dingle, to name but a few.

Detail from Harry Clarke Window, The Sleeping Christ.The Chapel of the Sacred Heart  Dingle

Detail from Harry Clarke Window, The Sleeping Christ.The Chapel of the Sacred Heart Dingle

Such was Clarke’s skill his commissions can be found in places as far afield as Australia where he completed a three-light window commission entitled ‘The Ascension’ to much critical acclaim. His famous design for a window in the International Labour Court in Geneva, commissioned then rejected on completion by the conservative Irish state due to its sensuousness, is on permanent display in the Wolfsonian at the University of Florida.

Detail from Geneva window

Detail from Geneva window

I would recommend anyone with an interest in art who finds themselves in the vicinity of any of these locations to check them out and spend some time in the company of a truly great Artist. And if you can’t afford the air fare pick up the book and enjoy its beautiful reproductions of Clarke’s work as well as the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. The only downside is that after encountering such sophisticated work you will find it hard to shake the feeling that much of contemporary children’s literature leaves a lot to be desired. For further information about the work of Clarke and his life the definitive biography seems to be Nicola Gordon Bowe’s, The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. I have also included links to some of Clarke’s influences as well as resources related to Clarke below.

Clarke Biography:

Aubrey Beardsley images:

Art Nouveau:

Ballet Russes:

French Symbolism:

Japanese Prints:

A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

ISBN# 978-1-936365-74-6holo

A Hologram For The King is the title of literary superstar Dave Eggers’ latest novel. The book comes in a rather handsome hardback edition and is published by Mc Sweenys, the company founded by Eggers. The novel features more pared back prose than Eggers’ other forays, telling an allegorical tale of America’s economic decline.

The protagonist Alan Clay is a burned out businessman. As a salesman of the old school Alan is something of a relic in post-industrial America. Having contributed to his own obsolescence through participating in the outsourcing of labour to Asia, Alan is on his way to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of securing a lucrative communications contract which will restore his finances and allow him to afford his daughter’s college fees.

The communications contract entails providing communication infrastructure and tech for the King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC, an ambitious project sanctioned by the king which involves raising a futuristic city in the desert. Securing the contract entails setting up an exhibition featuring a cutting edge holographic presentation, and hopefully impressing the King.

Being an old school businessman Alan also has a belief that his vague acquaintance with a relative of the King will help his pitch. On arriving in Saudi, Alan and his three young assistants find the KAEC to be something of a white elephant. Due to its unfinished nature they are forced to set up their stall in an unconditioned tent without an internet connection, which is most inconvenient when trying to stage a display of cutting edge tech. Further to this no definite date has been given for the king’s visit leaving Alan and his staff in a sort of limbo.

As the novel progresses Alan discovers a worrying lump on the back of his neck, recounts episodes from his life, stumbles around Saudi Arabia aimlessly, encounters locals and expats, and writes a sequence of letters which he will not send to his daughter. While all of this may not sound like a thrilling read it is well executed and seriously engages with some of the economic issues of our day. Of particular note are his observations on America’s collective loss of ambition as its global power and influence declines.

Eggers uses the abandonment of the NASA project and the absence of any recent ambitiously monstrous architecture as emblems of this decline. An American architect who specialises in such buildings encountered by Alan explains that he no longer has projects in the U.S, he has been working for the last ten years in Dubai, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and China, where “the dreaming’s being done”.

The novel’s sparse prose contrasts sharply with Eggers earlier hyperactive style drawing inevitable comparisons with Hemingway. This is not the only stylistic departure taken by Eggers, the story is told from a first person perspective unlike in his preceding novels. Both of these new approaches work well for the author and overall I found A Hologram For The King to be worth reading. My only problem with the novel lied in its tone. While I do not doubt Eggers sincerity, at times I felt I was being lectured by an overly earnest American undergrad backpacker. The novel is largely devoid of humour and its allegorical aspects can be a little overcooked.

The recurring problem with much of Eggers work is the authors overwhelming desire to be perceived as a nice socially responsible guy. Don’t get me wrong, Eggers seems genuinely nice and the various projects he supports are no doubt worthy, but his niceness sometimes gets in the way of his writing. It feels as if he is embarrassed by what he perceives to be the decadence of being a writer and writes about ‘worthy’ topics to mitigate this. He would do well to remember that great literature can be, and more often than not has been, written by terrible people.

Rediscovering My Library

The classic essay Unpacking my Library by cultural critic and book collector Walter Benjamin gives us an account of that venerable old bibliophile unpacking his bookcase. I had the opportunity to read this excellent piece of writing while performing the very task described in it. Some people might call such an occurrence an example of synchronicity or in the idiom of the idiot “like totally meta!”

I prefer the term coincidence. Due to renovation work being done to my house I have had to relocate my books from my bedroom to a temporary home in the kitchen. The labour involved in this task was so onerous that in a moment of madness I temporarily considered purchasing a kindle or some other kind of electronic reader, as much for the sake of my spine as any other reason.

That is until I pondered a potential future apocalypse where electricity was no longer widely available and realised what a fool I’d feel holding a defunct piece of plastic in my hand, no longer able to access my library. Not that I ponder apocalyptic scenarios more than your average individual.I  assure you that I don’t belong to a Mayan calendar misinterpreting doomsday cult. The reasons for my apocalyptic reveries are a lot more pedestrian than that. I have recently been playing Bethesda games post-apocalyptic near master piece Fallout 3:New Vegas and reading Justin Cronin’s the Twelve, both of which are conducive to literary survivalist frames of mind.

After the useful  e-reader insight had passed I continued my task piling my books in a chaotic jumble upon the kitchen table. Amongst this literary rubble I spotted a familiar striking yellow cover bearing large black print pronouncing its title and author in capital letters: ILLUMINATIONS by WALTER BENJAMIN.  On seeing this I recalled the aforementioned essay inspired by the author sorting through his books. Unable to resist the temptation  I picked up the book. After briefly consulting the index I found the essay I was looking for and sat down to enjoy it.

While reading the many observations Benjamin makes about books as objects of acquisition and those who acquire them, one idea stood out most clearly to me. That was about the intoxicating newness of a jumbled pile of books unchained from their previous bonds of order, or as the author states more eloquently than I ever could: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

My books scattered and chaotic as they were now took on a new appearance in the light of having read this essay. Ghosts of characters, plots and ideas were unleashed in my now haunted  kitchen engaging in energetic chatter and debate, Adam Smith and Karl Marx among the most vociferous. Heavy weights such as Nabokov and Joyce rubbed shoulders with more whimsical novelizations’ of sci-fi series such as Star Wars written by the armies of  jobbing authors who will not be remembered by posterity, books by self-proclaimed rationalists such as Richard Dawkins sandwiched between a Bible and a Koran. Book titles combined through proximity to make strange new sentences like the poetry of the Dadaist movement, which comprised of cutting and pasting words, phrases and sentences from different sources and joining them together in order to make them anew.

My collection seemed revitalised. Books I had read long ago tantalised me with their half-remembered contents, requesting to be read again. This moment made me realise the full extent of habit’s sometimes deadening effect.How often do we live our lives ignorant of the treasures laid before us due to the blinding force of habit? My bookshelves had become objects of utility, the familiarity of their order blinding me to the wonders they contained. How often had the effect of habit blinded me to the excitement of life itself let alone the limited realm of my bookshelves? The mind can be like a bookshelf where we order and compartmentalise our experiences and memories in a comprehensible package. While this is necessary for the cohesiveness of our consciousness we should also maintain an awareness of how in ordering our reality we can rob ourselves of wonder through the reflex of habit.

This insight in itself is not a new or particularly original one, yet it is one which due to its obvious nature we often lose sight of. So join me! Overturn those bookshelves and liberate your library! Look at your books and maybe even your life with fresh eyes! I have included a link to a pdf of Walter Benjamin’s essay below should you wish to read this wonderful essay. I have also included a link about Dadaist poetry:

Do you like books? And reading?

You are at a party displaying your natural wit and generally enjoying yourself. A young man/woman approaches you. They are wearing fashionably ugly glasses, a t-shirt with “I ♥ BOOKS” on it, and a shoulder bag featuring a print of a Penguin Classics cover. They exude a generally twee aura of the type you take pains to avoid; alas they have marked you for conversation.

You glance at the bottle of beer you have been drinking from and note its satisfying heft. Given the option you would gladly knock the approaching individual unconscious and quickly make a break for an exit, but sadly society deems this behaviour unacceptable. Cornered like this and given limited options by your culture in terms of courses of acceptable action to take, you begrudgingly accede to their attempts to engage you in conversation.

The chat begins and to your pleasant surprise it is not too excruciating, rattling along covering the topical issues of the day. Having covered religion and politics successfully you feel safe to enter the conversational minefield of popular culture. Your interlocutor asks which movies and music you enjoy and in turn tells you about their love of Wes Anderson. Things are beginning to go downhill. Rapidly. They list the various handsome sensitive singer song writers whom they adore and suggest you “check them out”. You inwardly vow to never do such a thing but take a mental note of all the names mentioned as forewarned is forearmed.

And then with crushing inevitability the moment arrives.Their mouth has begun to form the dreaded sentence. Suddenly you remember the weight of the bottle but it’s too late. The question has been asked, “Do you like books and reading?” Seems harmless enough? Okay let’s rephrase that: “Do you like DVDs and watching? Do you like mp3s and listening? ” Sounds a little vague and weird right? If asked this question I would assume my interlocutor was at least slightly unhinged. Why? Because a DVD or mp3 is a content delivery format. I have no particular affection for the disc itself rather the content which is on it. So if the DVD has Jaws on it I like it. If it has Jaws 2 on it I don’t. Because Jaws is a good movie and Jaws 2 is not. The content is what matters.

The same applies to books. To say I enjoy books suggest that I indiscriminately embrace them all which is just not true. There are books which reliably inform me or entertain me, which I enjoy, and there are books full of spurious nonsense or badly written prose, which I don’t, there are genres which I enjoy and genres which I avoid. Professing a love of books without discrimination seems overly inclusive to me for a medium which includes Mein Kampf and David Icke books. Not to say that the aforementioned mightn’t be read out of academic or morbid curiosity but certainly not because I “like” them. My interest in something doesn’t necessarily denote a like for the object of my interest. So do I like books? The answer would be it depends on which book. I am suspicious of anyone who says they love books without giving me the specifics.

I am also suspicious of people who inform me that they “adore the smell of old books”. Old books generally smell musty and dank. If you genuinely enjoy this type of aroma I suggest ripping the insulation out of your house and boring a few holes in your roof. That way after a few rain showers have soaked into the plasterwork your house will be filled entirely with that lovely musty old book smell.

Second hand books are great for many reasons, the primary ones for me being affordability, collectability or the feelings of intellectual superiority mixed with tenderness you get from deciphering the cack brained ramblings contained in the margins of scribbled notes of ill informed, self-important English lit and Philosophy undergraduates. I feel that questions such as “do you like books?” and the weird fetishisation of musty smelling books comes from the notion of books as pristine tomes of wisdom. In our culture, books are weirdly venerated without any distinction made between content.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why such veneration occurs in places such as developing nations where books may be hard to get, but I am talking from a first world perspective where Amazon exists and there are at least six bookshops in walking distance from my house, and that’s not including all the charity shops which also deal in books. I guess the fetishisation of books probably stems from attitudes in place before the development of the printing press, when books were handmade labour intensive endeavours of high value written in monasteries by candlelight.

The ancient method of production not only ensured that books were worth a lot monetarily but also acted as a filter given that scribes were unlikely to spend their time laboriously crafting an illuminated manuscript containing the ancient equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. As such publishing tended to be limited to the prestige texts of a culture containing the sum of the cultures knowledge. With the arrival of the printing press and the increase in their affordability, books gradually became more about entertainment, hence the emergence of the initially ridiculed novel.

While the book remained a format for important thoughts and ideas the floodgates opened and a multitude of genres and forms proliferated, varying wildly from each other in terms of content and quality, yet the aura of worthiness persisted, helped partly by patronising Victorian notions about the ‘improving’ effects of literature. Given that this epoch is commonly believed to have ended around 1912 it is strange that such archaic notions persist to this day.

The question is why? Personally I believe this comes down the performative aspects of human identity. The superficial understanding of books as being somehow connected to being “intellectual” makes associating oneself with these objects an announcement of one’s own intellectualism without the hard work of actually thinking. The pronouncement of loving books is sufficiently vague to allow pseuds a way of professing their “bookishness” and therefore their intelligence without the need to be specific, in other words it is a victory of form over content. Ditto for those musty book sniffers.

Please don’t infer from this rant that I don’t like books. I do but my likes are specific not general. I like books which I enjoy and dislike those I do not. Nor am I an advocate of Kindles and the like, as they don’t suit my reading purposes. I just dislike the mystification around books which results in idiotic utterances such as “do you like books and reading?”