Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Book Review - The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Friendly philosophy fall-out from Eastern European revolution

Not so much a novel as the Kundera’s seamlessly spliced together philosophical musings, The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes affected people gush that this book can change your life. It can’t. But it will make you think, and think hard. If you liked last month’s Alain de Botton then read this next: Kundera is one of de Botton’s forebears in style and substance, a man influenced by the likes of Rousseau and Nietzsche, and imbued with the electric realities of the revolutionary times in which he wrote. The Unbearable Lightness is both passionate and reserved, alive and yet removed. Published in 1984 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where Kundera was born (though the book is more French than Czech in style), it is a diametric work that contrasts bright and dark, lightness and heaviness, the head and the heart. It will leave you floating somewhere between these poles, all the richer for having read it.

The plot is functional for this philosophical purpose and Kundera’s characters never fully develop enough psychological depth to give them personal warmth, but despite this one of the most common responses to The Unbearable Lightness is that readers identify with the four main protagonists. Tomas is perhaps the most outstanding of the quartet. A successful Czech surgeon and rampant womaniser, Tomas falls foul of the communist regime through his misunderstood political articles, and is reduced to washing windows. He boasts hundreds of mistresses, but clinically separates these sexual misadventures from his honest love of his wife, the downtrodden Tereza. Tereza only fully comprehends the extent of Tomas’s adultery when she identifies the strange odour emanating from his hair as the smell of other women’s genitalia. The plot attaches itself to one mistress, Sabina, and follows her to Paris, and through her relationship with another married man, Franz. These, then, are the most substantial storylines of Kundera’s work.

But the characters are merely marionettes to play out sequences that Kundera can apply his ideas to, each carefully prepared with philosophical paintwork that is more significant than the puppet itself. The significance of this modern classic, then, rests on Kundera’s understanding of the human condition as fragile and ephemeral; a lightness of being that weighs each of us down with the passing profanity of our existence. If this seems a little convoluted, don’t worry. Kundera’s brilliance is in his ability to make the most intricate of philosophies not only relevant, but also manageable. Read this book. You might not understand it all, but you’ll certainly be better off for having tried.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Album Review - Editors

British rock quartet emerge from the shadows with second album An End Has A Start

Editors return to the musical limelight this June with the release of their second album, An End Has A Start. This much anticipated follow-up to The Back Room sees the band emerging from the shade of understated post punk promise to capture their encompassing live sound on tape for the first time. Whilst in An End Has A Start overproduction sometimes impinges on the distended interwoven sounds that gave the first album such appeal, Editors’ still retain enough of that musical cacophony and lyrical melodrama to keep fans of the first album engaged, although maybe only just.

An End Has A Start is typically a lot darker than its predecessor, showing obvious preoccupations with death and the power of redemption alongside a newer commercial confidence derived from the hectic touring of the last two years. First single and album opener ‘Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors’ allows Smith’s almost operatic vocals to surface above cleanly produced instrumentation, giving the lyrics a melodious intensity more distinguished than previously in 'The Back Room'. Raucous, pounding romantic punk interjections keep the musical appeal of the first album alive, but are somewhat diminished with power piano chords and the addition of a choir at the end of the track, giving the finished sound elements of overwrought punk-pop reminiscent of lesser bands and their stadium filling anthems.

Generic pop sensibilities are in evidence throughout the album, especially in the romping piano of ‘The Racing Rats’. Whilst there is still something of the new romanticism of Joy Division evident in the visceral appeal of ‘Push Your Head Towards the Air’ and ‘The Weight of the World’, there is also the sense that Editors have been unable to recapture the suffocating rawness that made The Back Room so exhaustingly satisfying. Garett ‘Jacknife’ Lee has accomplished quite a feat in wrapping the enormous live Editors’ sound up quite so succinctly in this album, but the fused layers of sound previously so characteristic of the band are pulled apart to achieve this, and the result is something a little more clinical and commercial that may leave you disappointed.

Where once Editors pushed their post-punk with a bit of a shadow in ‘Munich’, ‘All Sparks’ and ‘Bullets’ making way for deserved comparisons with New York’s Interpol, much of their new album sees the band bypassing the shade, proceeding directly to ringing guitars and the incessant downbeat crash-cymbal-bashing of every band trying to sound ‘big’. This is undoubtedly a ‘big’ sound for Editors, but you might miss those shadowy subtleties that made that first album quite so exciting.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Book Review - A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Global controversy over critically acclaimed, drug fuelled memoirs

A veritable fracas of controversy surrounds these remarkable ‘memoirs’. In them, James Frey recounts his time at a drug treatment centre at the tender age of twenty three, fighting a decade of alcoholism and three years as a crack addict. There is a love interest forbidden within the confines of the centre in the pale skinny Lilly, a fellow crack addict and prostitute since childhood. There are father figures reminiscent of gangster movies in the organised crime leader, Leonard, and equally in the black alcoholic judge, Miles, who are both patients themselves. James’ parents are affluent, loving, well to do. His counsellors are wry, sympathetic and intelligent. In short, A Million Little Pieces is packed with stereotypes and extremes.

This is part of the reason that it became such an instant success upon publication in 2003. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her monthly bookclub: surely the benchmark for an American bestseller. Amazon.com chose it as their favourite book of 2003. It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for 44 weeks. And then, in 2006, the enormity of Frey’s success turned on him when the investigative website, Smoking Gun, revealed that large parts of these ‘memoirs’ were in fact fabricated. Frey refuted the claims, conned his publishers, and perhaps worst of all for the adoring American public, fooled Oprah live on television. From all-American hero, Frey became the repudiated criminal that he rather ironically professes to be in his book.

This was apparently a Very Big Deal for a lot of fans and a lot of Americans. Personally, I absolutely couldn’t care less. A Million Little Pieces is audacious, glitzy, offensive and addictive. Frey is inventive in style and substance, doing away with speech marks, reflecting compulsion in his mastery of the stream of consciousness technique and erratic train of thought that drip, unedited and unpunctuated, from every page. Through this unique ability to manipulate language Frey manages to convey with uncommon perfection the torments of addiction and the consuming obsessions of a ravaged mind. This is Hunter S. Thompson’s drugs-fuelled arrogance reborn for the eighties, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, whether Oprah likes it or not.