Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Closing Time by Joseph Heller

Currently reading...

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Mr President swears in your ear.
I have long been a quiet admirer of Barack Obama. Not just for the obvious race-guilt reasons, which creep into my thoughts on occasion, for no other reason that I'm white, of the lower middle class (or upper working class) and smugly safe behind my liberal WASP upbringing and need something to feel guilty about. Firstly for his role as a reluctant trail-blazer for African Americans; in a country where there are [fill in the number yourselves] million people of African descent, it's quite amazing that one of them hasn't been voted in as POTUS before now, so being the first is not only a great victory for equality, much like when Obama got his job at a law firm it is also a burning shame. For America. Me, I couldn't give a monkey's, race-guilt or no race-guilt. Secondly, he looks and acts like a man of class, in the non-pejorative sense, a man who would make a good friend, be noble and upright about the right things, and flexible about the others. Nothing in this audiobook (well, nearly nothing, but read on for more on that!) takes away this impression I formed just from listening to his victory speech when he made Senator in 2005. Thirdly, he's not one of the George Bushes, in fact is so far from being another George Bush that it's hard to believe they were born on the same continent. He makes Democrats look less like uncertain Republicans and more like - shocked gasp! - British Socialists, in the non-pejorative sense. No matter that he and his party is still way right of centre, as befits a country of [insert your own xenophobic bias / jingoistic hooting here]. The majority of the policies he's implemented or attempted to implement have been worthy, notable changes to the status quo of American internecine and / or bipartisan politicking, and he just talks so much sense! I truly do admire him, particularly within his current context, both political and social.

For these reasons I have toyed with the idea of buying his books for a while, but since I had the opportunity to plunder my now estranged wife's iTunes account before I left, I pilfered this Audible version instead. It was a good choice! As it transpired, the very best thing by far in this account of a young man discovering his antecedents and his place in the world, better than the well-written, thoughtful introspection, meditative and self-aware; better even than the humour and poise with which Obama puts across his points, his thoughts on the African American experience, referencing luminaries like Malcolm X and his bestest buddy preacher in the whole wide world Reverend Jeremiah Alvesta Wright Jr.; better even than the fact that Obama narrates this audiobook himself with his wonderfully measured and soothing voice; bestest of all the best bits is the first time Obama as narrator drops the F-bomb, followed by the N-bomb, and them further F-, N- B- and MF- incendiaries across the chapters that follow. I admit I tittered aloud, walking the dark and menacing streets of Splott late in the evening, so that a scary man at a bus stop turned away either in fear or disgust. The President of the United States of America is swearing in my ear! It's great. In a conversation with LA ex-pat pal and one quarter of the black people in his school / college (I forget which), the back-and-forth has b*****s, n*****s, f***s and m*********s. This is the President I'm talking about! Admittedly, he's not the President at this point, back when he was narrating this in 2007 or so, but he must have had an inkling that a mere two years later he'd be sworn in. Did he not think of the consequences of him talking about smoking reefers, drinking to excess and talking about b*****s? No wonder he's only getting two terms as POTUS*.

So for all these reasons, I would urge you all to throw away your paper copies, dog-eared and broken-spined, well-loved copies though they might be, and go get yourself this version on audiobook. It's ace.


*I know full well the restriction in place of only having two consecutive terms in office. Don't insult me with your expostulations.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

You still live out by the airport?
It’s not a coincidence that, during one of the lowest points of my life of late, I reached out to Tom Waits, both for a soundtrack for my misery and to read more about his life and music. Having discussed, agreed, and facilitated a separation from my wife of six years, and in the middle of a temporary period of not seeing my son due to the complications of the move, I had no access to diversions other than my music and books – of course, who actually needs more than that? No TV, no internet, no telephone, no money. Had I been out of a job too I could have cracked open a bottle of white port and pretended I Henry Chinaski! 

Waits’ early beat-jazz style, his circus-freak albums, his junkyard phase; his bawlers, brawlers and bastards* have been ever-present since I first started working in a chain bookstore in 1997 and was introduced to Waits through the oxide-fatigued cassettes on semi-permanent repeat in the stock rooms (along with early Aphex Twin albums and, perhaps less excitingly, Evan Dando). I luckily picked up most of his albums on the cheap, in second-hand bins and by carefully targeting forgetful friends’ CD stacks for short unauthorised borrowings**, and they’ve been bellowing and crunching, thumping and warbling in pretty much every one of the formative scenes in my own narrative since university. That voice, like hobnails on gravel, like a demented mittel-European scientist, a bar-room balladeer, a lounge singer in the back room of a strip club, has the ability to flatten and uplift in equal measure, and I have playlists of the energetic, the lachrymose and downright bizarre to suit any mood.

But what did I know about the man behind the music? Apart from his occasional appearances on screen (of which there are far more than I ever imagined) I had no idea who the hell he was and what the hell he was doing. When Lowside… came out I snapped up a copy, but until now I’ve never felt the need to dispel the sense of mystery. What changed? Well, pretty much everything, but that’s another story.

From the start however I was a little disappointed – mainly with myself – as I hadn’t realised it was an unauthorised biography. It amused me however that the author had been stonewalled by pretty much anyone who still respected Waits and Brennan or who still sought a place at their table. It turns out Waits and family are Pynchonesque in their reclusion. Hoskyns’ rather petulant inclusion as an appendix of emails from various people who turned him down appears an ill-judged attempt to justify the gaps in his narrative and his over-reliance on the testimony of those who were burned, but who in the main still remained supportive of the artist. But on the flip-side it meant getting only a tantalising glimpse of an immensely private person, without hearing all about his toilet habits or getting a roll-call (with evidentiary statements) of the women with whom he slept. I should say that the biography itself was not at all disappointing. Its limitations acknowledged, Hoskyns actually does a cracking job at putting Waits’ life into context and arranges his chapters thematically, taking what must have been hundreds of interviews and distilling them down to add support to his own well-researched conclusions and suppositions. It was incredibly easy to read too***, especially compared to the other book I was attempting to read at the time, and I could consume whole chapters in a sitting**** without feeling the need to get up and move around. I got a very vivid impression of what it was to be in Waits’ circle of influence, and of a man bubbling over with both vigorous strength (of body and drive) and tender and gentle sentimentality. The portrayal is of a man of extremes, who embodies the line “there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk”, who has struggled with his family demons, his addictions, and with his latent parental instincts of kindness and patience, of his search for a father figure of his own. A tortured genius is an over-worked analogy, so I won’t use it. Instead I’ll say he’s a risk-taker and a guy with whom you’d probably want to chew the fat, have a beer, listen to some records. But don’t, just don’t, suggest you’ve got a drummer for his next album.

In the absence of an authorised or auto-biography, this is probably the best one out there (that I’ve read). Hoskyns is clearly a fan, but has an ability to be objective, and the writing is good enough that you don’t notice it. Does he do Waits justice? Who knows, and maybe only time will tell.


*The subtitles to the three volumes of his Orphans collection (songs that didn’t make the cut for his albums), provided by wife and muse Kathleen Brennan

**Tom, if you read this, I’m sorry. I would have bought them new if I had the money at the time. If you’re not reading this, then I am unrepentant and would do it again in a heart-beat.

**All bar the parts, occasionally overly drawn-out, describing Hoskyns’ own thoughts on the tracks included on each album, through which he takes the reader track by track for every album up to and including Real Gone in 2004

****The definition of ‘a sitting’ is the time it takes to make and drink a cup of tea and find and eat a small snack, and before getting fidgety.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Great writing poorly read
Having read the introduction by translator Joanne Turnbull, I was excited to begin reading Krzhizhanovsky, an author whose published output was stymied no fewer than four times by the strictures of the Communist regime and / or World War II, and is only recently available to buy (thanks in no small measure to NYRB who have at least two selections available). The introduction and the website reviews promised surrealism, dark subversive humour and avant garde satire. What I found was all of these things, but also, an obliqueness that prevented me from truly enjoying it. 

I wonder if it's just me. At the time, I was going through the dissolution of a six-year marriage, so justifiably my mind may have been elsewhere. I was reading whilst waiting in the car for other people, at my desk in my noisy office during my 'lunch hour', and at home only as a distraction given my new bolt-hole had yet to be graced with Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity. I was also reading the unauthorized Tom Waits biography by Barney Hoskyns which was much more directly entertaining, undemanding, and therefore alluring. In addition, alternating aural distraction was provided by both the music of Tom Waits' entire back-catalogue on repeat (minus Orphans which I have as yet insufficient capital to secure) and the meditative tone of Mr President, Barack Obama, reading his own biography. So plenty going on there.

This left me missing quite a lot of the humour, the references to the political and social upheavals of post-revolution Russia, and I only gently touched the surface of his writing like a butterfly on an anvil. At times I felt like a cell in my own body, functioning on programming only with no concept of the larger body, in this sense the writing from Russia around this period. I'd lost my context for the book, despite having read quite a lot from this period by Soviet authors and others looking into the country. In the stories' defense, their images, or themes as his fictional writer would put it, are striking and direct: an Eiffel Tower pulling up its iron feet and running amok, being lured by the siren call of Communism from Russia and being frantically hailed by the Capitalist West in an attempt to stop it defecting; a corpse missing its own funeral and shipping up at the grave-digger's house for help, being carted around the city trying to talk to someone in the bureaucracy to get the mistake registered and resolved, only for the corpse to be rejected by every office as it didn't have the correct paperwork so didn't exist; and in the longest, eponymous piece of the collection, a young boy fascinated by the workings of his father's clock grows up to create a time machine which propels him into the future for a glimpse of the inauspicious future of Communist Russia, and whose own manuscript of the experiment is rejected by his publisher for being too shocking to the establishment and therefore unpublishable.

Recollecting these things does bring back a small smile to my face, so there must have been some small, unrecognized reaction to the writing, the content, the themes, my Homo-Sovieticus radar bleeping faintly in a room where no-one was watching. In hindsight, therefore, I can only blame myself for not appearing to enjoy what is quite possibly a great selection of short stories, one I should probably re-read at a later date. Go, buy, make your own mind up.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Wait, how DO you row across a wooden sea?
Jonathan Carroll poses two problems to me, as a book reviewer. The first is not the usual one with which I’m faced when contemplating a favourite author, but rather one of device, trope, hook – in short, a theme for the review. Carroll’s works are large in scope even when centred in small, parochial settings. They are not easily pigeon-holed, despite the complacent person’s tendency to bung them into the fantasy genre (indeed, I have an aged Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version of The Land of Laughs), and are as spiritual as they are fantastical. They have an ease of language that often belies some hard-edged writing, and pretty much anyone in any given book could die or is already dead, even and sometimes especially the ubiquitous bullet-headed English Bull Terriers. So, what then, should I do to properly frame this review and subsequent Carroll critiques (for there will be more, with at least The Ghost in Love and A Child Across The Sky waiting in the wings)?
Perhaps theme-less-ness is as good a context as any. Indeed, with other contemporaneous contexts encompassing Neil Himself, and further out, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe Carroll occupies natural lacunae between other genres, and thus he forces his own niche in the publishing world. In The Wooden Sea Carroll has a rebellious teen turned respectable, confronted by his youthful self (and his aged sexagenarian self too), embroiled in a super- and supra-natural mystery, with time travel, death, disappearances, and, yup, aliens. Plus, there’s the dog. All told from the first person perspective of present-day Frannie McCabe, it unfolds quickly, from the first appearance of the three-legged pooch and precipitated by its almost instantaneous death. There’s feathers, a bizarre Dutchman, a friend high up on the autism spectrum, a wife and former lover, magical tattoos, coffee, angels / aliens, wholesale reality warping, as mentioned time travel, and more death. In all, it’s an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining novel, with moments of poignancy, slap-stick comedy, ok, there’s some fantasy too, and a whole lot of beautiful things to consider. I’d previously said that Carroll sees things in a different way to me, and frankly I’m glad, as he acutely de-familiarises things in a way which is a delight to behold and does pose a question or two for the reader. I’m not surprised that Neil Himself likes him so much. So without further plot spoilers, it only leaves me to say this book is marvellous, in a best-book-I’ve-read-by-this-author kind of way. I burned straight through it, and it’s one that’s going to live in the little cracks of my mind for quite some time.
Incidentally, the second problem, sadly, reflects a slightly embarrassing personal issue I have, as an armchair advocate for the footballing fraternity that is Liverpool Football Club, with ex-LFC footballers by the name of Carroll… But I shan’t bore you with that one.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Explorer by James Smythe

Stephen King in space?
I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I can't tell you. 

Instead, by way of a quick and, hopefully, tasteful introduction, what we have is a narrator aboard a spaceship, a herald of the vanguard of a new era of space exploration. He's a journalist, Cormac Easton, and was chosen from thousands to document the first true deep space mission, years after the last failed attempt to get to the moon again. His crew members are all handsome, diverse, TV friendly types, also hand-picked and seemingly perfect for the job. All goes well until they wake from stasis into which they're put to survive the G-forces of take-off.... 

Starting out, I had an inkling where this was going. Deep space missions, exploration; it's been a while since the first episode of Star Trek back in 1966 where the ship went off on a five year mission, from which they returned safely, eventually. Things have changed, audiences are less enamoured with the closed narrative loop (heh heh! a joke for those who've read this already!) and by the 90s, even The Next Generation crew were stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy rather than bombing about locally, galactically speaking. Now, when people head off into space you expect them not to come back, to blow up - Gravity notwithstanding* - or get detached from the ship, suits rupturing, heads-a-popping**, and spinning out into the blackness, all alone. Still not a spoiler, I promise!

What James Smythe does is set you up for a fall. He shows a monster early, in full colour, and you think, shit, is that it, is that what the horror is? He's played his hand too soon. How is he going to fill up the other 80% of this book and keep me interested? What I appreciate in an author is when he can slide up behind you and yank up the waistband of your underwear over your head and you're none the wiser until you're hanging from the gatepost by your tighty whiteys. It's all hinted at, throughout, very simply but in such a fashion that you think, nah, the tech guys are just dumbing down for the cameras, for the journo fellow, the one who's along for the ride and frankly couldn't understand what they meant if they told him anyway. I will say it is a tiny weeny bit of a sci-fi cop-out, but that really doesn't matter. Given the amount of reading he's probably done it was all but inevitable. There usually has to be an explanation - a sentient telekinetic ocean planet for example, or an ancient race of long-dead explorers and builders, or naughty alien oblongs. If it worked for Kubrick then what's not to love? In conclusion, then, I really rather liked this book, and the progression from his first, The Testimony, shows that he is developing significantly as a writer; he just may be a British*** sci-fi novelist to watch!


*Although they did kill off quite a few of the crew before - wait! I'm not here to spoil that film for you either!
**People don't actually decompress violently in the vacuum - that's a space-myth so I'm told.
***Welsh!

Monday, 22 September 2014

In-House Weddings by Bohumil Hrabal

"Two days on a bender and
the cash gone..."
There’s a term in Czech, coined to encapsulate Bohumil Hrabal’s particular headlong rush through sentences and ideas, skipping over syntax and playing with somewhat surreal juxtaposed ideas and images. In and of itself it is a beautiful word – Hrabalovština. According to Adam Thirlwell*, Hrabal preferred the term ‘palavering’ – talking unnecessarily and at length, or prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion. I suspect that’s just Hrabal’s way of dismissing his own work with typical wry modesty. In another of his books, Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age, this palavering style is taken to the extreme, the author using digression and repetition to basically write one novel-length sentence. Playful is my preferred description, and in In-House Weddings, volume one of three fictionalised biographies** of the writer, you come across multiple digressive compound conjunctions where you’d expect some stronger punctuation and the words simply tumble over each other, clause after clause raining down on you like water over a weir, and you find yourself a little swept up in the flow, interesting given the Doctor’s fascination with water – a little taste perhaps:
He ran down the steps again to the river and scooped handfuls of water and lashed them into his face, but even that didn’t do, he tugged off his shirt with his wet hands and splashed his chest all over with water, and when he came back up, he held the wet shirt in his wet hands and let water run down his waist and splatter and wet his pants.
The pedant in me is screaming, but the breathlessness of the sentences is addictive. They swoop through emotions, Eliška smiling one second, dizzy and nauseous the next, as when she goes to visit the Doctor at his paper recycling operation and meets his colleague who describes the horrors of animal transport because as a writer the Doctor needed to hear these things, the horrors. When they walk along the rivers, she takes in the sweep up and down of the landscape, amazed by the beauty of the things she never took the time to notice, snapped back to the present by the Doctor rushing ahead, or skipping down to the waters’ edge to splash himself, and cross that she decided to go with him, only for the water in his eyelashes to bring her back to happiness. She delights in the Doctor’s nostalgia for the places of his youth but is disgusted by the ruinous present, seeming very upset by visiting the brewery in which he worked but at which he could only see things as they were when he was there. She empathises with a beautiful woman at the gate of his family home who sadly congratulates them on their up-coming wedding, happy that she can cause such sadness in another woman but recognising the sadness in herself, a melancholy that almost drove her to suicide before she met the Doctor in his run-down courtyard. The constant danger of death-by-falling-plaster which crashes down into the courtyard from the crumbling walls is a comfort, a reminder of her new-found happiness. The characters are typical European archetypes, although drawn from real life and some real literary figures in places, and could be seen in the films of Jiří Menzel and Emir Kusturica, especially the wise fool, into which type Hrabal casts himself. Comedy and tragedy, gentle fun and genocide are constant companions, and the London Review of Books say as much in the review quoted on NU Press’ website
Hrabal's comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise...  It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation... Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.  And a great writer.
In terms of his available works in English, I still much prefer Too Loud A Solitude, and Closely Observed Trains but in this really rather delightful novel are all of the seeds of the narratives from both, clearly plucked from his own life experiences. I can’t think of another writer whose books I enjoy on as many levels, and if only he’d travelled past his Bohemian horizons, I’d be willing to bet his works would be as ubiquitous as those of his more widely distributed European contemporaries.

*Miss Herbert, Vintage, 2009
**The others being Gaps and Vita Nuova, both available from Northwestern University Press, for now at least