The Guardian Book Club with Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City

Standard

There was a feeling during the 1980’s that the novel was dead. The golden and silver ages of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, respectively, had long gone as the search for the new Jack Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald of the literary world continued. Just as it seemed all hope was gone, a sudden wave of new and young talented writers would emerge to bring about what Norman Mailer would describe as a ‘bronze age of literature.’Among those writers to breakthrough were Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho (1991) and Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City (1984). 

Bright Lights, Big City (1984) by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City

Speaking to Guardian members at The Guardian headquarters in Kings Cross (6th September 2016), McInerney remembers what American life was like for him and other youth during the 1980’s: “New York was in crisis,” he begins. “There were growing levels of bankruptcy, problems in the stock exchange and a heroin and cocaine epidemic. It was also an age of rock music and night club culture, full of energy and diversity.” It was these experiences which McInerney drew on when writing Bright Lights, Big City and although now published some 32 years ago, the author feels that its a book which is routed in a time and place with timeless elements. He says: “During the 1980’s people were saying the novel was dead but I believe I helped to refute that argument. I wanted the prose in Bright Lights, Big City to reflect the drug consciousness and rock period I was familiar with. Today, people question this notion of high and low culture while back then down town New York, notably Manhattan, was a quadroon of performance, music and night club culture – I was merely looking for a literary equivalent.” 

Youth

McInerney was aged 26 when he wrote the novel and remembers it as a time of pain and confusion all too familiar to the youth of that age. “I struggled for years to write my first novel. It was about a moment when my life fell apart – I was fired from my job, my mother died of cancer and my wife left me. It took a while for me to revisit those events but they feature in the book.” As such, the book is semi-autobiographical with the minor characters drawn from different stages of McInerney’s life. It started as a short novel – the first three lines of which he wrote on a scrap piece of paper – which, in his words, “were the most authentic words I had ever written.” But the assumption that his book is merely just a reflection of the 1980’s is a claim he would clearly like to reject. “At the time, I didn’t think I was writing a book about the 1980’s but rather about my experiences during that time. Also, I was surprised by all the tags put on the book which seemed to suggest I was an advocate of yuppyism, cocaine and Ronald Reagan.”

Bronze Age

It took a while for the book to be well received by the US but now some 32 years later has been hailed as a classic as a growing number of young readers are rating it because of the resonance of its themes, which McInerney is clearly delighted by. “I think its still readable now because it has this timeless experience of the disaffected urban drug addicted youth which is also a feature in the work of my compatriot and friend Bret Easton Ellis. Therefore, a younger readership would get this, hence the book’s popularity today compared to yesteryear.”

Jay McInerney’s latest novel – Bright, Precious Days (2016) published by Bloomsbury is available now in all good book stores.

Labeled ‘King of the Bronze Age’ by Norman Mailer: Jay McInerney

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

Advertisements

Guardian Live: An evening with Ian McEwan (Monday 29th August 2016)

Standard

When a novel has as its a narrator an unborn baby in the womb who happens to discover the murder plot of its father by its mother and uncle then you know that your on to an instant hit. This latest plot comes from Booker Prize winning author, Ian McEwan, from his latest short novel – Nutshell. The narrative’s murder plot comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth while the remaining themes of the narrative are derived from Hamlet. So, how did McEwan come up with such a crazy idea? “I am a huge fan of Shakespeare (this year marking the 400th anniversary of his death) and had been reading Hamlet,” says McEwan. He continued: “I had a bit of a day dream but then soon after, my first sentence came and from there I didn’t look back.” Speaking to a sell out crowd of Guardian Members at the Royal Geographical Society, McEwan, author of bestsellers like Atonement (2001) and The Children Act (2015) shared his thoughts on his latest creation and life work. 

In a nutshell

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

The premise of Nutshell involving the unborn child narrator who quickly learns of his mother and uncle’s plot to kill his father is an interesting one. The mother is having an affair with Claude (the unborn child’s uncle) and together they devise a plan to kill Claude’s brother (the unborn child’s father) so that they can continue their secret relationship in peace. Unknown to the pair is the discovery of their plot to murder by the unborn child who is dead set on somehow putting a stop to their plans. In reference to these Hamlet and Macbeth inspired themes McEwan says: “Leaning on someone else’s plot allows you to be free to take the story somewhere else. This novel is preoccupied with notions of the self. Everything has to be heard and this narrator takes a privileged position in the narrative.”

Foetus talk

Guardian Live with Ian McEwan

McEwan’s highly interesting and unusual narrator takes readers on an almost detective like journey as he thinks of ways to thwart the plans of his cheating mother and uncle. Where he is similiar in character to Hamlet is in his obsession with himself along with his questioning of the world around him (albeit through the confines of the womb). McEwan explains this further: “Narrating from the foetus, the unborn child projects himself forward to an older age. Like Hamlet, he often has suicidal thoughts but also a strong sense of social justice while also being alarmed at some of the twists to be found taking place in intellectual life.” Besides fighting (in the womb) against his mother’s deadly intentions, the unborn child listens to the news she has playing on the wireless in the background from BBC World Service. 

On writing

McEwan addresses Guardian Members

Nutshell is a short novel – a form which McEwan readily admits he likes, as he can experiment and have more fun with it while also keeping true to some of its more serious content. For McEwan, a novel such as this, where the story is told from a character inside the womb and which enacts a plot from Hamlet is an idea that can only work in short story form because the stucture of it is so intense. As for writing in general, McEwan has no plans to stop any time soon: “I write everyday. If i’m not writing then I’m reading. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think a novella is hard to write because it places great demands on the writer such as in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The novel too, is a very personal form which makes it hard to write without giving yourself away. It therefore becomes partly an expression of who you are.” McEwan also had some valuable advice for those who struggle with writing, particularly school children: “I encourage writers, including children who struggle with it, to keep a journal, record what you do each day and from this you will begin to gather some useful ideas which not only shape your experiences but which will also help you in your writing.”

Final Act

Hollywood bound: The Children Act

Before leaving the jam packed auditorium to great applause, McEwan had time to reveal to Guardian Members the production of another of his novels into a potential Hollywood blockbuster: “The Children Act will be hitting the big screen soon and is being directed by Richard Eyre whom I’ve worked with before. So watch this space.”

Nutshell (2016) is published by Jonathan Cape and is available now in all good bookstores.

Ian McEwan

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

CONTEMPORARY CLASSIC BOOK REVIEW: ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan (2001) Jonathan Cape (Vintage)

Standard

Perhaps the most loved of all the novels written by Booker Prize winning author, Ian McEwan, is Atonement. Shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize while also picking up BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for its big screen adaptation starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley (2007), Atonement is a historical novel which focuses on a middle class English family before, during and after the second world war. The main character, Briony Tallis, a 13 year old aspiring playwright, witnesses and then discloses something during her childhood which later on, as an adult, she feels the need to atone for. 

The historical accounts are believable and well researched by McEwan – from the enlisting of Robbie Turner to the army, the registering of Briony and Cecilia Tallis to the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing to the evacuation of the family from Hackney to the Tallis country home – all of which give an accurate picture of what life was like during World War 2. This picture further comes to life through the depictions of the privileged life the Tallis family live in contrast to the, at times, challenging lives of Robbie Turner’s mother (maid of the house) and those encountered, albeit briefly, by the family from Hackney – powerfully evoking a rich and diverse set of voices and characters to have emerged during that time period.

BAFTA nominated Screen Adaptation

Atonement is also about writing in its many different forms: playscripts, letters, first and third person narration and novel writing. Each of the main characters (Briony and Cecilia Tallis along with Robbie Turner) are focused upon in some depth as each in turn contemplates the unravelling of results emanating from a childhood incident. As such, the novel is engaging and powerful in its descriptions of country life admist the physical and emotional traumas of war. Additionally, the portrayal of strength within the family and how these bonds can suddenly be tested and broken by events from the past are represented admirably. Atonement is an interesting and well written story which will have readers hooked and discussing its varied themes undoubtedly for many years to come.

Booker Prize Winner: Ian McEwan

 (C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

 

BOOK REVIEW: AUGUSTOWN by Kei Miller (2016) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Standard

There has been a recent boom in literature coming from the Carribean island of Jamaica. First, Marlon James took the literary world by storm when he became the first Jamaican to pick up the 2015 Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings based upon the attempted assasinations of Jamaica’s finest son and world renowned legendary reggae artist, Bob Marley. Now, from the same tradition comes Kei Miller’s Augustown – a novel which, like James’ award winning work, focuses on Jamaica – the island, its people, their traditions along with the history and politics to be found there. 

The novel’s title derives its name from the thought that freedom came to the enslaved people of Jamaica on 1st August, 1838. Hence the name August Town and with it the rising of Alexander Bedward – affectionately known as the “flying preacher man” and regarded as a prophet and pioneer of the rastafarian movement. 

The novel is steeped in history and contains stories based on traditions and myths. The descriptive and poetic language Miller uses is, at times, mesmerising, taking the reader on a spiritual-like journey into the past where the likes of Ma Taffy, Gina and Sister Gilzene share their stories of struggle with colonial powers and the babylonial systems of oppression from which they try to rise up and escape from.

Such is the power emanating from these stories that it becomes hard to put the novel down once you have started it. There are moments of laughter, anger, joy and sadness within the narrative which do much to keep the reader engaged. For these reasons, Augustown is a literary triumph which will ensure that Kei Miller, winner of the 2014 Forward Prize for Poetry for his collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, will, like the characters he describes in his novel, be a name to look out for as his stock rises higher and higher.

Kei Miller: Will rise higher and higher

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

Behind every great President there is a greater First Lady!

Standard

Returning to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia where eight years ago she had told the world why her husband should be the President of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, today, delivered a speech that will arguably go down in history as one of the greatest. The first thing that strikes you about America’s First Lady is her undeniable beauty, poise, decorum and class. Then there is her race and gender – a proud black woman. Then there is her language. When she speaks, one recognises her intelligence as demonstrated in her cultural, social and political astuteness. When she speaks, you listen – for what she has to say often resonates with both our experience and times. This speech begins with Michelle reminding the excited audience of the characteristics which she believed would make her husband (Barack) the right choice for President – “His character, conviction, decency and grace,” she says. Then she remembers how their two daughters (aged 7 and 10 at the time) were “piled into those black SUV’s beside big men holding guns…their little faces pressed to the windows and all I could think was what have we done?” For Michelle, this new experience her family were embarking on could make or brake her daughters. She shares how she remembers the need to teach her daughters to “ignore those who question their father’s citizenship or faith.” Taking this a step further to include everyone else who has been victim to scrutiny or oppression she encourages: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, we don’t stoop to their level. Our motto is when they go low, we go high.” Such a powerful motto which resonates well with the experience of our times in consideration of all that’s going on in the world on a social, cultural and political level – from the recent terrorist attacks in France and Germany to the Black Lives Matter campaign where the lives of both young black men and young white police officers have senselessly been claimed in a heightened climate of fear and disillusionment.

Michelle Obama addresses the 2016 Democratic National Convention crowd in Philadelphia

Michelle, who is backing Hillary Clinton to become the first female President of the United States of America when the polls open in November, shared her vision of the type of President she wants to have for her children. “I want a President who takes matters seriously,” she begins. Then in a swipe to President elect Donald Trump’s constant tweeting campaign on Twitter, Michelle continues: “I want a President who understands that the issues they face are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.” Michelle wants a President who is in touch with reality and ordinary people: “We don’t choose fame and fortune for ourselves – we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed.” Then, alluding to the tragedies which came during and as a result of the Black Lives Matter campaign she says: “I want a President who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters.” 

As in stories and life itself, the end is just as or even more important as the beginning. The greatest and most influential speeches are those which weave personal experiences to the symbol of the American Dream; which while demonstrating present truth do not forget about the truths of the past. From slavery to the American Dream, Michelle signs off in a manner which would have the likes of American greats such as Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy and Civil Rights pioneers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Rosa Parks looking down, beaming with pride and approval: 

That is the story (The American Dream) of this country. The story which has brought me to this stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that when I wake up in the morning in a house that was built by slaves and watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent black women playing with their dogs on the White House Lawn, I realise that we should not take for granted that we could have a woman be the President of the United States of America.

The Obama Family

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

Watch the full speech below: 

https://youtu.be/DyEeMkl_sHw

BOOK REVIEW: This Census – Taker (2016) by China Mieville (Picador)

Standard

image

Award winning author, China Mieville’s novella – This Census – Taker is perhaps in line to be one of the books of the year. Written in both the first and third person narrative, it brings to life the experiences of a lonely boy from a dysfunctional home who longs to escape life in the hills in order to be closer to the other children who live below him.

Surrounded by nature and animals, Mieville’s descriptions of the landscape are beautifully vivid and alarming at the same time, cleverely challenging and appealing to all the senses.

The Census Taker himself makes an appearance towards the latter stages of the book, appearing to offer hope to a boy seemingly in despair having witnessed some strange and traumatic incidents which impact upon his memory and identity.

The novella is one which should be read  at least twice in order to fully appreciate the meaning of the story along with the beautiful language and descriptions employed which go some way in keeping the reader fully engaged.

It is a really well written and interesting book which although short in length does include some language which defamiliarises and challenges the reader which consequently impress upon the mind for a long time.

(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip

BOOK REVIEW: The Children Act (2015) by Ian McEwan (Vintage)

Standard

image

The Children Act is the 13th novel by Booker Prize winning author, Ian McEwan. Its the highly entertaining and immediately gripping story of high court judge, (Fiona Maye) who must decide the fate of a 17 year old boy (Adam Henry), a Jehovah’s Witness, who’s refusing life saving treatment for cancer because of his religious beliefs. Added to that main plot are the marital problems Judge Maye experiences at home (husband Jack wanting to spice up his love life by having an affair with a younger woman). There are other mini sub-plots and cases which McEwan impressively packs in to a book barely 200 pages long.

The fast paced opening along with its sharp dialogue and descriptions instantly grip the reader in, taking you along for the ride through some of London’s busiest streets, from the Kings Road to Grays Inn Road and then the court house.

On a visually aesthetic level, the short story could easily be turned into an ITV drama in the same mode as Law and Order for instance. The scenes are visually appealing while, for the most part, the characters are believable as is the main case in question.

Arguably, McEwan´s exploration (or lack of it) of the boy’s religion and beliefs could have been given more careful consideration and perhaps less scrutiny; there was a sense of the judge’s reasoning in the case overshadowing a deeper understanding of the boy and his family’s religious beliefs.

Overall though, the book is a really interesting read; one in which the reader will not want to put it down because of the subject matter as well as the surprisingly unexpected twists along the way. For those reasons McEwan may just have pulled off writing another top book but only just!

image

Booker Prize winning author: Ian McEwan

© Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip