REVIEW: The Fish Can Sing – Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can SingThe Fish Can Sing by Halldór Kiljan Laxness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a beautiful and complex book. It takes in themes of nationhood, the role of parents and grand parents, heroes and the complexities attached to being a creative person.

The book works in a funny, meandering way where we learn a lot about the people of Iceland in the form of stories told by our protagonist, all the while we get to know our protagonist slowly across the span of the novel.

Álfgrímur the protagonist feels like a stand in for the novelist himself (and for this reader) someone who has a creative spark which he doesn’t quite know how to harness or whether he should or can harness it at all. He builds up a complex relationship with Garðor Holm, a world famous singer from humble beginnings in Reykjavik. Garðor becomes a mentor of sorts as well as a bad example. His worldwide fame is not as pure as he lets on. When he visits Iceland he continually misses concerts and events in his honour. You are left wondering whether he can sing at all, whether instead the whole thing is a ruse. In the book he only sings a handful of times. A heartbreaking exchange nearer the end of the book nearly had me in tears on the train, all about how much Garðor had to struggle to become the artist he was.

I loved the world of this book, it had the completeness of an fantasy world. The narrative voice had shades of magical realist novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, but everything in the book was plausible and grounded within a reality, nothing quite stepped into that other world of magic.

Like all great novels it leaves you with unanswered questions. We wonder off and on for the whole book who the protagonist’s birth parents are, but in the end this doesn’t matter. The relationship Álfgrímur has with his adopted grandparents is a beautiful and the location of Brekkukot in the novel is very important and evocative, a sort of tavern where travellers come and go, some stay forever, some go there to die.

There was a lot about what it was like to be Icelandic before they gained full independence from Denmark in 1944. This sense of the ruling class being Danish and their use of language to distinguish themselves as the civilised people compared to the Icelanders was fascinating, and a story sadly recognisable in many other nations in the world.

A beautiful introduction to Icelandic culture, the humour of the people and the struggles of living in that world, as well as the trials of being someone who could escape.

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POEM: Vogue

Vogue

Whitney Houston, Eartha Kitt
Gladys Knight and Bessie Smith.
Ellen, Björk, and Britney Jean
on the cover of a magazine.
George Eliot, Austen, Jane
Intellectuals, eternal fame.
Nicki Raps, Madonna’s grand
Beyonce and Babs Streisand
They have style, they have grace
Nichelle Nichols explored space.
Michelle Obama, Malala too,
Hillary Clinton, we love you !
Ladies with an attitude
Women that are in the mood
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it

 

 

A recording of me reading this poem is available here

This poem was published in PERVERSE here 

 

REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your NameCall Me By Your Name by André Aciman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A universal and beautifully real novel which runs along so easily and wonderfully. Narrated by Elio, the younger of the two, you feel his fears, the thrill of his growing obsession with Oliver and, at moments, his fantasies made real. The novel has a few differences to the film (which is similarly glorious) in location and in time frame. The book has a larger scope in terms of the history of the relationship and, having seen the film, it’s lovely to read the book and to continue the story beyond what happens in the film.

A deeply affecting book which I read very quickly and intensely. I felt like it brought me closure on my own past, I was a similarly intense romantic boy once and it was incredibly emotional to see such a real portrayal of love like this.

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REVIEW: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Austen. Her wit and wry humour is something I have enjoyed immensely for a number of years. Knowing her other novels well, this one does have a slightly different atmosphere and tone at moments. For the first half of the book, it feels very much like a standard Austen, a witty comedy of social rules. Bath, Balls, and making calls.

This time our a heroine is idealistic and young and loves novels, something which was considered “women’s reading” at the time. Men were supposed to only read non-fiction! Austen names various novelists of the time who are now considered pioneers of the Gothic movement. Gothic novels are all blood, family secrets, old decaying mansions, murder and thunderstorms. When Catherine finally makes it to Northanger Abbey over halfway through the book, Austen uses the tropes of the Gothic as a prism in which to examine the heroine’s idealism and naivety. Catherine’s expectations of the Abbey are prejudiced by her love of the Gothic, as well as Henry’s flights of fancy describing the Abbey on the journey there. During her stay there, Catherine is consistently disappointed by the Abbey. It is too clean and modern. She becomes obsessed with living her own Gothic fantasies, which we as readers find increasingly irrational and absurd.

I imagine this book is used extensively on Gothic fiction modules at Universities, because in satirising the tropes of the Gothic, Austen perfectly describes them. Storms! Old Manuscripts! Ruins! Family Secrets!

There was one moment that really stood out when our heroine accuses a character of either murder, domestic violence and/or imprisonment of someone in a locked up wing of the Abbey. This excess of Gothic imagination on the heroine’s part was a step too far for me in terms of keeping the character likeable. But I do suppose this served well to remind us of the character’s youth (17!) and idealism.

This strong sense of a viewpoint and satire of the Gothic movement in this novel is unusual for Austen. Her work usually focuses more on the impossibility of human interaction, manners, social rules, and character studies. I enjoyed every aspect of this novel, but felt the especially Gothic sections were like reading a different book, which if it were meant earnestly instead of ironically, would not be as successful. Thankfully Austen always serves us with double helpings of sarcasm, irony and wit, so we know we’re not to take certain moments seriously.

There are some really wonderful moments in this novel where you feel Austen right there with you, she will announce herself as the narrator and remind you that you are the reader. She doesn’t do it often, but when she does it feels incredibly modern. You feel close to her as a person.

Loved it with all my Gothic heart!

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Poet On Pop: Saturday Night by Whigfield

Dee Dee na nah nah nah naaaah! 

I have long been a lover of a Scandinavian bop with a melancholic streak. Searching back in my history, Saturday Night may have been one of the first that I truly loved. It’s not just the catchy beats and the repetitive lyrics, it was the simplistic (but oddly iconic) video and the incredibly involved and energetic dance routine which went along with it. I remember being in discos or parties and jumping around trying to follow the dance moves to the beat of the song.

Revisiting the song now, years later, I really felt the melancholy that lies underneath the pop and rewatching the memorable video I discovered, to my horror, a moment of pure David Lynch style nightmare fuel (more on that later…)

The song seems to exist within a state of hope, or a sense of hoping for something to happen. The lyrics all lean on this “I WILL”:

“I’ll make you mine, you know I’ll take you to the top”

The sense of getting ready and of it actually not yet being Saturday Night is  reflected in the video. Whigfield sits in her towel with her hair up in front of a glamorous mirror getting ready. Through the video we cut between Whigfield in her towel and Whigfield dressed and plaiting her hair.

 

 

 

Of course music videos in the early 90s were not the grand affairs we see now. In this video there was just Whigfield and her mirror, her towels, and her hair dryer. A relatable and seemingly normal world. She was a normal girl getting ready to go out, she has someone she has a crush on that she is going to see out tonight, someone she has a history with or wishes to. The song plays on,  the electronic beats never really waiver but the keyboard modulates in the background in tones which I’d call either hopeful or pensive (if not outright sad). She has tried to pick up this crush before but it hasn’t worked. This is the last chance for her to get out there and make it work. She “likes the way [they] move” and pleas several times “BE MY BABY”.

As the video builds we notice that Whigfield has a handful of black and white photographs on her nightstand, which she is flicking through, the pictures are of attractive men, potential suitors from the club perhaps? Then, in what I found to be a truly upsetting  moment of pure Lynchian horror, one of the pictures is a colour photograph of a bloodied man with large devil horns coming out of his head, grinning demonically at the camera. Whigfield rests on this photograph for a second, kisses it and places it on her mirror.

 

 

 

All of this happens very quickly in the video around the 2mins 50secs mark, as the song itself is resolving and begins to repeat its refrain to the end. If you doubted the melancholic undertones to the song, this moment in the video surely proves that Saturday Night is about a strange longing which can never be fully realised. Are we to believe from this moment that Whigfield is in love with the devil? Or does Whigfield repeat this towel and hairdryer ritual each Saturday Night as a tribute to the devil until her strange magic has worked and the devil in the photograph has done her bidding, bringing the person she has a crush on into her Danish embrace?

I’m sure you’ll agree that there is something uniquely disturbing about watching something you loved and (thought you knew)  every frame of from your childhood to see it again as an adult and see this clear moment of unsettling horror all amongst the familiarity of the rest of the video.  Like noticing a ghostly face in the background of a family photograph.

I love you, Whigfield, and I love your strange Scandinavian Devil Magic. I hope whoever it was was worth it in the end and you were released from the groundhog day existences of these Saturday Night rituals.

Whigfield is still performing now, sometimes going by her real name Sannie, her most recent album was released in 2012.

Dee Dee na nah nah nah naaaah! 

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara: 1. Music

 

IMG_8209
Grilled Halloumi Wrap from Leon & Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems

 

“I am naked as a tablecloth, my nerves humming”

 

I walk up and down Tottenham Court Road finding lunch options slim. I discover when I arrive at a usually dependable last resort lunch spot that the whole shop has been gutted, emptied, even the sign taken off the outside. Peering inside, I press my face to the glass like a nosy child. I see empty chairs stacked up in the corner, nothing left of the counter or the coffee machines, even the huge coolers which once held sandwiches have been taken away (a reusable asset?) I wonder about music as I listen to the same Patrick Wolf song over and over (“The Days”) this was brought delicately into my mind by seeing the film God’s Own Country recently. I think about Frank, having bough Lunch Poems at Gay’s The Word the other day. I think about acting on this idea: reading a lunch poem every now and again at lunch and writing about what happened. I see a fire engine get stuck negotiating the sharp corner of Keppel and Malet street.

The afternoon is hot. I left my jacket in the office. I write this in pencil.

“Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear”  

 

1. MUSIC – Frank O’Hara 

      If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian
pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe,
that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf’s
and I am naked as a tablecloth, my nerves humming.
Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared.
I have in my hands only 35¢, it’s so meaningless to eat!
and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves
like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you
to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world,
     I must tighten my belt.
It’s like a locomotive on the march, the season
     of distress and clarity
and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter’s
lightly falling snow over the newspapers.
Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet
of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn.
As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue
I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets,
put to some use before all those coloured lights come on!
     But no more fountains and no more rain,
     and the stores stay open terribly late.

[1954]