Category: Books


A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS by Marlon James (Riverhead Books, 2014)

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The Novel

When asked in a recent Channel 4 interview how much of this bold and extraordinary novel came from personal experience and how much derived from rumors, Marlon James replies without hesitation “All of it is rumor. In Jamaica, you trust rumors, you don’t trust facts. Facts come with an agenda”.

 

It is something of a dumb platitude to say that truth is stranger than fiction but, like most dumb platitudes, this has a strong basis in reality. Nowadays, people increasingly struggle to separate the two concepts, reacting to natural and man-made disasters with comments to the effect that ‘It was like something out of a movie’ or routinely responding to some shocking or bizarre news story by saying ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up’.

To make sense of the ‘real world’ (whatever that is) and the irrational behavior of humankind, I must have some Jamaican blood in me because I don’t believe it is enough to stick to the facts by watching documentaries, reading history books or studying psychological manuals. While these resources can give valuable insights and context they, as James observes, always come with an agenda.

Fiction comes with its own baggage too of course but, while novels can take greater liberties with the ‘truth’ they can also encourage readers to embrace scepticism by ‘seeing’ events from diverse and multiple perspectives.

This is brilliantly exemplified in James’ masterly and multi-layered third novel, a worthy winner of 2015’s Man Booker Prize which has been accurately and acutely described by one New York Times critic as “an epic of post colonial fallout”. Continue reading

Ferragosto

People having fun at Ferragosto.

Most of the time, as an Englishman in Italy, and Brexit notwithstanding, I generally feel like an integrated European. However, there are still times when I feel I stick out like a sore Johnny Foreigner.

Depending on whether you’re a half empty or half full kind of person, Ferragosto is either the point at which Summer is just getting started or marks the date (August 15th) when it is nearly over.

Back in the day when people made things, paternalistic factory owners conceded this mid-August holiday to the workers. Since it coincides with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, it is also a good excuse to stuff yourself stupid. Old habits die hard, especially when you get to enjoy a day off work (unless, of course, your job is in the service sector attending to the needs of the thrill seekers).

So, traditionally, this state endorsed vacation is a day when traffic is severely jammed, restaurants are booked solid and beaches are ridiculously overcrowded.

What could possibly spoil your enjoyment? Continue reading

brainThe final section of case studies in Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ is called ‘The World of the Simple’.

The first of the four essays examines the case of a young woman called Rebecca who, because of a number of physical and neurological handicaps, had spent her life being branded as a moron.

Sacks admits that he also initially regarded her as little more than a “broken creature” and something of a hopeless case. The neurological tests he carried out only served to confirm her retarded state. But when he saw her outside the clinic, he formed an entirely different impression.

He witnessed her instinctive and serene response to nature then later observed that when she danced or performed in theatre workshops she exhibited none of the awkwardness and clumsiness he had assumed was her permanent condition.

All this forced him to question how such subjects are judged; he wrote: “I thought, as I watched her on the bench – enjoying not just a simple but a sacred view of nature – our approach, our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate”.

Reading this chapter made me reflect how the same inadequacies Sacks described can routinely be found in our educational institutions. For instance, standardized testing in schools is,at best, only a measure of one aspect of a young child’s intelligence. Continue reading

THE NIX by Nathan Hill (Picador Books, 2016)

thenixAccording to the cliché,  everybody has at least one book in them. Nathan Hill has now written his in the form of this bold and hugely entertaining debut novel.

The American author says that his previous attempts at fiction followed formulas in vain attempts to win a lucrative book deal.

After a series of rejections he decided to cut his losses and simply write a book to please himself. In doing so, he had no idea whether or not it would be published.

It took him ten years to write, a slow but enjoyable process that he equated to tending to his own garden. The result is a triumph. Continue reading

adams

“Bands are like psychotic families” – Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (A Girl In A Band)

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