Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Album Review - Asobi Seksu: Citrus

Bilingual Brooklyn-based band forego shoegazing in favour of giddy pop psychedelia

If your knowledge of Japanese stretches no further than sushi and sudoku, here’s a new one: asobi seksu, Japanese for ‘playful sex’. Asobi Seksu is also a Brooklyn three-piece whose pretty package of heavily textured bilingual pop has been making its way around the UK tour circuit this last month. Though still relatively unknown, sophomore release ‘Citrus’ is a convincing introduction for newcomers to their psychedelic breed of shoegaze. It showcases melodic direction and newfound pop sensibilities whilst retaining a trademark white-noise euphoria, caught in orbit around Yuki Chikudate’s beguiling, breathless vocals.

Citrus is spattered with enough dizzying distortion and squalling tremolo bar manipulation to relegate it to the been-done basket beside noisy nineties albums from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, but meticulous production saves it from this fate. The fuzz of feedback and amorphous distorted guitars no longer saturate and overwhelm, instead being employed to create waves of texture and detail that push through each track.

Contrary to the tumultuous walled sound of early shoegaze that suffocated subdued vocals, Asobi Seksu keep steady focus on the winding melodies of Yuki’s piercing siren-singing. Guitars and synth drop out and pick up as appropriate around catchy if completely unintelligible refrains, often sung in Japanese.

The bubble-gum cloy of ‘Goodbye’ is pop-sensible to the point of mundane, and ‘Strings’ seems to wander aimlessly on the precarious fringes of Yuki’s vocal range, but these are mediocre exceptions. Collectively, the measured, magnificent exhilaration of the album is exemplified in ‘Thursday’, where an incessant hi-hat propels James Hanna’s mingled guitar riffs forward under the catchiest of Yuki’s melodies. A coursing bass lead and the gradually intensifying splashes of cymbals build texture through each refrain before crashing into a synth-led finale that intertwines elements to the point of ubiquity. This is what pop should sound like: propulsive, carefully pieced together pandemonium that entices and encompasses in equal measure.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Book Review - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

The gonzo genius's finest hour

It is nearly two years since Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head. Afterwards, Johnny Depp financed his funeral. It involved Thompson’s ashes being fired, alongside multicoloured fireworks, from a canon in the shape of a fist, atop a 150ft tower, to Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

It all sounds a bit eccentric, and for anyone else it might have been, but Hunter S. Thompson is probably the only man for whom this weird, celebratory sending off seems almost understated in comparison to his oddball existence. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is his best work: a furiously fast-paced account of Thompson (under the alias Raoul Duke) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo in Vegas, commissioned by Sports Illustrated to cover a dirt track motorbike race, the Mint 400. That’s just about the whole plot right there.

What follows is two hundred pages of unstructured, drug-addled madness: some of it true to experience, large swathes fabricated or fictionalised by Thompson’s own intoxicated mind. Faithful to his own invented journalistic genre, gonzo journalism, ‘Fear and Loathing’ reads as the highly entertaining, unedited exploits of two messy maniacs, lewd and lost in the washed up wastes of ‘the high and beautiful wave’ of sixties counterculture. The seventies are portrayed as the afterparty of the ‘decade of dope’, a time when a whole hungover generation drugged themselves to delinquency to escape rather than to explore.

Stylistically apocalyptic, the work is anchored by and unequivocally connected to the notion of the American dream gone wrong. The literary tradition into which it falls is an important one: from the gorged excess of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the voracious appetite of Henry Miller, Thompson emerged with the spewed-out scribblings of the kids that could have it all, and took too much.

‘Fear and Loathing’ remains funny and fast and fucked up to just about everyone fortunate enough to read it, but underneath all the entertaining skits and piecemeal details a careful eye will see that Thompson knew the good times were over. The politically turgid decade of Nixon and Vietnam awaited those who survived the hedonism of the sixties, and emerged from the froth of the wave that finally broke.

Book Review - The Gathering by Anne Enright

Irish outsider strikes gold with grim family tragedy

Anne Enright was the outsider to win last month’s Man Booker Prize 2007, perhaps the best known of all British literary accolades. Despite this, the Irish 45 year old beat off stiff competition from authorial heavyweights such as Ian McEwan to walk away with £50,000 for her fourth novel ‘The Gathering’.

‘The Gathering’ is a funereal family occasion that reunites nine disparate Irish siblings following the suicide of their troubled brother, Liam. Veronica Hegarty, the sister closest to Liam, is psychologically and physically tormented by her loss, and seeks out the reasons for Liam’s death in the family’s dark history. And so the novel oscillates between the past and present, the real and the imagined.

Veronica imagines her grandparents meeting in 1925 in a hotel foyer, spinning stories to compensate for the lost truth, and ease her overworked mind. She returns repeatedly to the tunnel-vision of childhood memory: lilac flowers on her grandmother’s dress, seaside sandwiches in waxed paper, her eight year old brother on his knees before a squirming man, in the front room. It is Veronica’s inability to comprehend these childhood events and her obsession with reconstructing a lost past that renders her sleepless and drunk each night, some thirty years later.

Enright described ‘The Gathering’ as ‘the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie’. Whilst it is rather exquisitely bleak in places, attention to detail and Enright’s knack for good storytelling makes ‘The Gathering’ more enthralling than depressing. The Irish clich├ęs are there: big family, relentless alcoholism, childhood abuse. But there is also clarity of tone and an underlying wit that stops the narrative from going stale. Action packed it is not, but the way Enright evokes human emotion, so precisely, really is quite astounding.

‘The Gathering’ has been a controversial prizewinner for some literary critics, distracted by sober distaste for Enright’s remarkably grim evocations of carnal desire, or disappointed, maybe, by a plot that largely takes place in the hazy realms of the narrator’s mind. But Enright’s razor-sharp eye for detail so exactly captures the essence of internal human struggle that her prose seems to crawl out from under the reader’s skin and onto the page. The result is a novel that explores the excruciating imperfections of human perception and recollection inch by inch, with unflinching honesty. The ghosts Veronica grapples with are her own, but the magnificent exploration of the universal themes of self-denial, shame, and flesh and blood love makes this an immensely satisfying read.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Found: Peace in the Middle East

All is not yet lost for Israel and Palestine: Hazel Sheffield explores past conflicts and uncertain futures in the Holy Land

At the heart of the conflict in the Middle East lies one country, torn apart half a century ago with the end of the British mandate of Palestine and the much needed creation of a homeland for Jewish people worldwide: Israel. This tiny territory, roughly the size of Wales, is in and out of the press weekly as tensions grow and subside. These days though, it’s often relegated to a brief mention in the international news: not many of us have retained interest in a such a long-running conflict, the origins of which are now almost lost in historical obscurity.

A Summer In The Holy Land
It is with these vague televised troubles in mind that I decided to spend my summer in Israel. Somewhere behind generic war-time images of exploding buildings and nameless politicians in never-ending negotiations I knew there must be real people keeping on with their lives. But I knew I’d never see all this from the comfort of my living room.

A week after I’d made that decision I was there, living in a basement apartment in the centre of Jerusalem with two friends. I stayed for a month, forging my own little life in the Holy City. I talked endlessly with strangers who soon became friends, found out as much as I could, and tried to help when I was able. The most striking part of my investigations was the way in which I was received: everyone I met had a story to tell and no one resented my curiosity. To the contrary, on many occasions people were delighted by my interest. The Palestinian owner of the framing shop next to my apartment would often stop me on my way past to talk to me about his ideas for peace. One memorable time he said, “We need people like you, people to tell our stories in Britain and abroad. We need your help to make peace here.”

In the beginning it baffled me: although I’m well travelled, I’ve never experienced a pervading sense of goodwill and peace anywhere as much as I did in Jerusalem. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a friendly “Shalom”, meaning peace. I felt safe to walk the streets alone at night, which I would never do in my hometown. I involved myself in conversation with perfect strangers, something I could rarely bring myself to do in England, being used to the very British fear-of-the-foreigner attitude. It was almost impossible for me to reconcile my experience with the horror stories I heard in the news.

One day a friendly stranger asked me what I thought of Jerusalem. “It’s magnificent,” I replied, “I’ve never experienced anything like it before.” To which he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Well, maybe that’s why everyone’s fighting over it.”

The Homeland of the Jews
At the end of the Second World War pressure increased for the creation of a Jewish State to put an end to the Diaspora (the dispersion of Jewish people across the globe). The Holocaust had been a terrifyingly brutal expression of how a race without a homeland could be abused by an adoptive nation, thus by 1948 international consensus favoured a recognised Jewish state to protect the Jews, and Israel was born.

Immediately mass Jewish immigration to Israel began, displacing the existing population. Palestinians, who once occupied all of modern Israel, emigrated or moved to the West Bank as Jews and Muslims struggled to live in harmony with one another: violence became commonplace. Since 1967 Israeli forces have occupied the West Bank for ‘security reasons’, which more often translates as an unwillingness to hand over natural resources, especially water supply. This occupation and continuing violence from both sides culminated in the construction of the separation wall in 2003, which is still being extended.

At the heart of the conflict lies one city: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but Palestinians, too, claim East Jerusalem as their capital, although Israel currently severely limits Palestinian access to the city. Today Christians, Jews, Muslims and Armenians all live in separate quarters within the Ottoman walls of the Old City. This is also the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified; the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed ascended to heaven; and the Western (or ‘Wailing’) Wall, significant in Judaism as the only remaining wall of the Second Temple.

No wonder I could sense a certain spirituality about the place. During my time in Jerusalem I fasted for Yom Kippur as Islamic prayers washed over the city, emanating from the mosques on the first day of Ramadan. I pressed my head to the Wailing Wall and pushed prayers for peace, written on scraps of paper, into the cracks in its smooth, warm surface. I walked in the footsteps of Christ when he carried the cross. As an atheist, I’d certainly never expected to reap such spiritual benefits from my time there. The extreme energy of the place is pervasive, almost physical, certainly unavoidable, and the extent to which the Israeli government will go to maintain exclusive possession of the city is equally extreme.

Separation Barrier
The separation barrier, built in direct contravention to UN security council resolutions, means that Palestinians are now living within the walled confines of a veritable Israeli prison. It falls just to the east of Jerusalem, cutting off Palestinian access to many essential facilities belonging to them in East Jerusalem, including the three main Palestinian hospitals.

To gain access to these facilities Palestinians have to cross the barrier at an armed checkpoint just outside the city. Here, I witnessed hoards of Arab men crammed like cattle through metal turnstiles to get home after a day’s work in Jerusalem in Human Rights violations that left me open-mouthed. Papers and passports have to be presented to the army, protected inside glass booths, in order to pass through. Papers don’t guarantee access though, as the Government Security Service (GSS) routinely bars people from crossing for suspected terrorism. Those who are refused entry will not be told why, though it might mean they can’t get to their place of work or go to hospital: such is the omnipotence of the GSS.

Addressing Human Rights Violations
Inside the crossing points two older women can normally be found, watching the proceedings. They are from an organisation called Machsom Watch, which was founded in 2001 in response to repeated reports in the press of the Human Rights abuses of Palestinians crossing army and border police checkpoints. Since then the organisation has grown to some 400 women, most of them mature professionals, all of them Israeli, who volunteer daily at checkpoints. Their quiet but assertive presence demands accountability on the part of the security services towards the civilian state.

The day I passed through the checkpoint, the Maschomwatcher on duty told me, “One year, before we started volunteering at the checkpoint, forty Palestinian women gave birth here because they were refused entry and couldn’t get to hospital. Since we’ve been monitoring only one woman has given birth here, and that was because she left it a bit late to get to hospital!”

It might not seem like much, a bunch of grey-haired women standing around watching people pass through the gate. But in a society where the dominant discourse is military and where young soldiers with guns openly patrol the streets, the non-violent and unyielding presence of these benevolent women is a direct challenge to the moral authority of the military.

The Israeli Response
Yet Jewish Israelis remain largely supportive of the project. When I asked people within Jerusalem if they were comfortable with the limitless controls being imposed on thousands of Palestinians to ensure their own safety from Palestinian attack, the response was often that if such measures were necessary, so be it. One woman said, “If the separation barrier means I can sit in a restaurant without fear of terrorism, then I think it’s the right course of action.”

It might sound callous on her part, but who among us here at Durham would not expect the state to protect our liberties in the face of a terrorist threat? Statistics show that since the construction of the barrier terrorist bombings and actual violence has all but stopped in Jerusalem. This is reason enough for it to stay in the eyes of most Israelis.

The Future
On the 15th November, Israeli President Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with the heads of the Arab states in the US for a peace summit, the first since the enormously unproductive Camp David in 2000. It is unlikely that this summit will be any more effective - for one thing the militant Palestinian organisation that currently has control of Gaza, Hamas, hasn’t been invited.

One thing I am sure of is that any real change on the ground in Israel and Palestine isn’t going to come from politicians. It has to come from real people: from the coming together of Israelis and Palestinians in a mutual quest for peace. I’ve no doubt from talking to people within Israel and the West Bank that both sides are tired of the conflict, willing to co-operate, and bemused by the resounding militancy and destruction of the whole crisis. But there are plenty of barriers that need to be broken down before co-existence can become reality: language, religion, and the irrelevant battling of politicians remain far greater obstacles than any concrete wall.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Book Review - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Struggling rural writer hits big time with bestselling insight into the autistic mind

Given that Mark Haddon’s second novel, ‘A Spot of Bother’ has been gracing the current top ten paperback chart for several weeks now, it might seem a rather curious incident that this review is of his first piece of adult fiction, published in 2003. Narrated by the fifteen year old Christopher Boone, a mathematical genius with Asperger’s syndrome, Haddon’s first novel is a remarkable insight into the workings of an emotionally remote teenage mind, a modern must-read far superior in its ability to change the way we see the world than his latest offering, which brims with the same perceptive, cheerful wit but lacks the endearingly odd narrative that sets ‘The Curious Incident’ apart.

And it really has been set apart: an estimated 10million copies sold in 42 countries, winner of 16 different literary accolades, including the Whitbread; all this for a farmer’s son from Rutland whose first five self-confessed ‘breathtakingly bad’ novels remained unpublished whilst Haddon explored his many other talents: illustrating, children’s writing, poetry, television adaptations, but always with the sense that he had his ‘little cold face pressed to the window pane of the house of literature.’

The painstakingly literal interpretation of the adult world as invoked by Christopher in ‘The Curious Incident’ has propelled Haddon through the window of literary acclaim, all as the result of the strange image of a dog impaled on a pitchfork that popped into his head one day. It is this same dog that inspires the autistic Christopher to write a murder mystery for his school project, after he uncovers the unfortunate animal on his neighbour’s lawn one night.

Whilst endlessly humourous due to the dramatic irony of Christopher’s absolute inability to understand the illogical complexities of human emotion, Haddon credibly avoids patronising or romanticising the autistic condition. When Christopher’s father tells him his mother is dead, he records his scrabble score and notes that his dinner was spaghetti in tomato sauce: how does one sympathise with someone so incapable of feelings? Haddon paints a portrait of a familiar world, a mediocre middle-England of spaghetti hoops, cheap sweets and Coronation Street omnibuses, but in the strangest of colours. This book will simultaneously humour and consume you, but it might also make you think about things a little differently, too.

Book Review - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Award winning Canadian fiction writer features at British Literary Festival

October saw tens of thousands of arts enthusiasts descend upon the pretty little spa-town of Cheltenham for its ten-day literary festival, where the big names of the book world featured in abundance. The lucky ticket holders had the chance to take part in discussion and debate led by key cultural celebrities, from Helen Mirren to William Hague. One acclaimed author who didn’t manage to make it to the festival in person, however, was the prolific Canadian feminist, poet, novelist and activist, Margaret Atwood. She chose instead to invent a long distance contraption entitled ‘The Long Pen’, enabling her to autograph her work from her home in Toronto via the internet, whilst wearing her ‘fuzzy slippers, and that is a big plus because there’s nothing better than comfortable shoes’, as she told one British newspaper. Quite.

This is entirely characteristic of a woman who regularly takes the world and turns it on its head in her novels, which are sometimes graphically dystopian and futuristic, and yet often also piercingly sensitive to the universal human condition. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which won Atwood two literary prizes back in the eighties, features this absorbing ability to get to the very core of human experience, within the foreign surroundings of an imagined sci-fi world. Set in a Massachusetts university town in the aftermath of nuclear disaster and civil war, the renamed Republic of Gilead is under the control of Christian Fundamentalists, who have attempted to combat widespread sterility by reverting to old testament practice. This means that fertile young women who have sinned – unmarried mothers, divorcees, adulteresses – are assigned to the wives of the Commanders in the new regime as ‘handmaids’, in order to be impregnated and ensure the future of the human race.

Written from the perspective of one such handmaid, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is at once horrifying and beautiful, with the pervasive poetry of Atwood’s formidable talent seeping from each word that warns of what the world could become, if we don’t begin to appreciate our freedom and protect our environment. The fundamentalist politics involved are reminiscent of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, but the voice is much subtler, almost seductively reticent, and, of course, female. Feminist preoccupations permeate the narrative, yet do not diminish the impact of Atwood’s exploration of the seemingly innate human ability to destroy: ourselves, each other, the environment. These are themes of resounding relevance, relevance that has only augmented in the two decades since the novel’s publication.