Monday, 23 November 2015

The 42b: Dark Journeys In Cardiff

Currently reading...

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Awaiting review, although it may take a
while as I'm 45,000 words through NaNoWriMo...
And then there's the other three!
This book, and the three that follow, were kindly donated to me by the good people of Vintage Books.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Wrestling by Simon Garfield

"So he became a wrestler, like his mum."
I have a vague memory, nestling in there with various tableaux of my grandfather asleep in front of the cricket, the hardened red marbling of raspberry ripple ice-cream, and an insatiable childhood desire for the game Tank Command*, of grey-blue images on the television of fat men in leotards. This was 'The Wrestling', as both my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather would tell me, and was another television programme that my parents frowned upon but had no power to stop me from watching. Which I didn't. Before the 24-hour news cycle and WWE Superstars, I was only ever interested in cartoons, and later football and Star Trek: The Next Generation. 'The Wrestling' was something weird and quaint and discomforting to watch, so I didn't. 

Turns out that many other people didn't watch it either, and in 1988 it was binned from ITV's World of Sport programme for good. 

However, it seems I've been at best callously indifferent and at worst wilfully disrespectful of what had been, for a time, the most popular entertainment** on TV, and, it also seems, a truly colourful cast of rogues, roustabouts and rapscallions who were left to wither and die in obscurity. 

Mr TV's inside story!
In all honesty, there would have been very little chance that I would have opened the pages of this book in anything other than mild curiosity about the author's surname (in case he was related to a childhood hero, Jim Davis' cat of the same name), but after a drunken conversation in the midst of a pub full of #RWC2015 fever, a colleague insisted I borrow and read this rather idiosyncratic oral history of this much maligned entertainment. So I became immersed in the stories collected by Garfield of the antics and grievances of family favourites like Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Joe D'Orazio and Jackie Pallo (although in the words of Robbie Brookside, "we won't give any messages to Jackie Pallo other than 'Die you old bastard.'"). Heels and heroes, grapplers and brawlers, they all consistently, if rather cholerically, insist that wrestling was a hard game, a true sport, and the fronts that should have crumbled twenty years before are still propped up with the vim and vigour of youth. It's amazing that this bunch of ageing, crippled 'athletes' could keep up the pretence that wrestling was anything but a sham, a sport on which you weren't even permitted to bet, especially after Pallo's kiss-n-tell behind the scenes exposĂ© blew the covers off. Or not. It's equally likely that after years of treading the same line, telling the same story, that these old geezers are no longer able to differentiate between fact and fiction. But that adds to the charm of it all, and contributes in no small measure to the pathos of Garfield's book. 

Packed with whimsy and nostalgia, old codgers limping and griping, road trips with Giant Haystacks, people mythologising Kendo Nagasaki and Les Kellett (a hard bastard, mean as anything, and rubbish at replying to letters), this is a very British book. with more than one or two particularly cracking lines. I feel disloyal to let Mr TV, Jackie Pallo have the last word, but it is a good 'un:
Mick [McManus] had that know-how: a great performer. Horrible bastard, but a great performer.

*Which was awesome when I finally got it, but terrible when I realised it was a two-player game and that my brother would relentlessly cheat in order to win, or else refuse to play... 

**According to the wrestlers themselves, but then they are all irredeemable braggarts and liars.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of Suffering
There was nothing to know...
You know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased expression at the back of my raw, dry throat. Up to now, despite clues and suspicions to the contrary, I thought it was because they were 'great writers' and I was a simple hack. Now, when even thinly veiled biography such as this, and also Karl Ove Knausgaard, of whom much, much more to follow, lays bare the shared terror of creation, of freedom of expression, of working to no rule, I feel that I am simply at the bottom of a ladder, much climbed by those with a little more passion, a little more dedication than I, and that the answer for me might be on the next rung up, or the next, or the next, or on none of them, but that the goal of the climb is not to reach the top, but to  experience the climb. "There was no walker, no path, just the walking," says Pulitzer Prize-winning Buddhistish author Dick Macalister in The Noble Truths of Suffering.

Of course, all this aggrandised meandering is leading up to an expression of love for Aleksandar Hemon. He's an astounding writer, this Chicago-based Bosnian (and fan of Liverpool Football Club, dreamy sigh), and in his first-person narrated stories of just such a child, youth and man, there is energy, clarity, humour and despair, all hinged around a fulcrum of such astute observation, sometimes delivered entirely objectively, that I was left breathless with how far I might need to go to follow in his footsteps. I'd read a few of his others, perhaps not giving them the credit they were due, but I was a fan from the off. This has knocked me down and sat me back up again with a snifter of brandy. And around behind it all, much like any fiction written in or around New York post-9/11, sneaks the atrocity of the Balkan conflict, which often throws the narrator into relief with it's burning horror and dazzling absurdity. In one story, a young boy is charged with travelling across the country to purchase a chest freezer, during a few comic pratfalls but eventually succeeding, the family stocks it full of meat only for the war to each Sarajevo and the power to go off. "Everything in the chest freezer thawed, rotted in less than a week, and finally perished." In another, a bedraggled refugee from Bosnia arrives to rent a room in the flat of an idiosyncratic Ukrainian, whose rules he silently follows, until evicted by a poem. 

I risk letting too many cats out of bags by giving outlines to these stories, and they need to be considered in their entirety to justify the scope of Hemon's talent. Needless to say, I would urge you to put your hands on a copy of this and immerse yourself in a steady torrent of great writing, if only for a short while.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin

[Insert tired 'The Fast Show'
one-liner here]
To lead with an apology would be traditional, but I make no excuse for having better things to do than tell you all how much I enjoyed this novel. I've been gorging on televisual box sets including but not limited to Bones, Defiance, Hannibal, and Breaking Bad, a series I had promised not to watch until the furore had died down. 

Whilst that has nothing to do whatsoever with this novel, other than to have driven from my brain all thoughts of plot, structure, narrative and writerly panache, I can't simply dive in to a review now can I?

Based on a real-life unsolved murder spree from 1918-19, and not the first novel to bear this title, this historical detective story revolves around a pariah cop who turned state's evidence against his partner, who in turn gets out of prison to resume working for the New Orleans Mafia just as his ex-colleague is being offered up as scapegoat in the continuing failure to catch or stop the serial killer running around chopping up Italian greengrocers and leaving tarot cards behind. Into the mix comes a biracial would-be-Pinkerton secretary and her friend, legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong, just turned 19 and already sunk deep into the fecund yet violent emotional world of New Orleans life and music. I know what you're thinking: why the hell? I can't answer that one for you I'm afraid. I wonder if Celestin had a bunch of Louis Armstrong pins on his Scrivener board and was just trying to find a way to shoe-horn them into a narrative. The Armstrong passages were some of the weakest sections, notwithstanding the description of him playing on the fateful night of March 19th - that was pretty good.

As is typical of the genre, the narrative trips about between characters' viewpoints, exhibiting a light authorial touch, and with surprising deftness, carves out a cognitively dissonant landscape of deep racial division and proud collective identity, where casual lawlessness and disinterest in the dictates and prohibitions passed down from Capital Hill provide an umbrella under which a broad mix of peoples congregate and cohabit, usually peacefully. Into the mix comes the ineffable fear that is the Axeman, seemingly killing at random and risks sparking a racial conflagration. And of course, this being New Orleans, there's shit loads of jazz, more so once a letter appears in the local tabloid explaining that The Axeman is coming back and if there's no jazz playing in your house then he'll be in to pay you a visit...

At this temporal remove even with the book in front of me, I can conjure very few really explosively brilliant passages, very little that wowed or amazed me from its pages. I enjoyed the read, which passed pretty quickly, but I do recall a piece of dialogue–monologue really, and he does seem to have a way with dialogue, almost cinematic at times– towards the resolution of the book which did stick with me, and in its own way, encapsulated the tragic comedy at the heart of division and ignorant hatred. If even a solid, flawed novel can leave you with something positive to take away, it has to be worth a read, so in defence of Ray Celestin's award winning novel, I offer it up to you.
Atmosphere in the town changed. When we went in to get supplies, there was a whole lot more silence around the place. I think that's how these things always start, people not talking to each other.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Wobbling between hope and doom
Grudgingly, I have included the definite article to the title of this post. My 2005 uncorrected proof copy, sublime in its pure off-whiteness with embossed gilt lettering omitted the 'The' and, in my opinion, better suited the content. For whilst it is a chronicle of folly, specifically those of Nathan Glass, his nephew Tom Wood, neice Aurora, and the neighbouring denizens of Brooklyn, New York, I suspect there are many more that escape un-chronicled. 

But first, the usual detritus of contextualisation. Having tucked away D. B. C. Pierre's Lights Out in Wonderland, itself a story of outrageous folly, pinioned throughout by the protagonist-narrator's desire to commit suicide, the opening line of this book, always a winner when penned by Auster, struck me as contiguous:
I was looking for a quiet place to die.
I was to discover quickly that he had no plans to hasten his own end, but the connection was established. Narrator Nathan is a divorcĂ©, survivor of cancer, and a man isolated from his past life by pride, sloth and probably a few of the other big sins too. Having liquidated shared assets, he is able to realise a comfortably indifferent existence in Brooklyn, filling time between trips to see his favourite waitress at a local diner by recording, in what he considers his legacy to mankind, anecdotes and stories from his life and those of others that struck him as particular exemplars of the folly of humanity. Serendipity intrudes in the form of an unlikely rekindling of familial ties when he discovers his nephew Tom, once the great hope of the family, growing flabby and fusty in the dusty confines of a local second-hand and rare book shop. 

Typical of this book, and perhaps of Auster's novels in general, there is a light-follows-dark-follows-light pattern (consider the characters' names -  Wood, Glass, Dunkel [Auster tells us this means 'Dark' in German] - opaque and transparent in turn) and the narrative wobbles between hope and doom, through eye-brow-raising tales of extortion, road trips, and cult-kidnapping, between unlikely love stories and right up to another major health scare, before sending Nathan back out into the world filled with hope. And of course, this being a New York Novel of the post-9/11 age, the bleak, billowing clouds of dust and death mass on the horizon at the story's end. Pulling it all right along are Auster's own notable abilities as a storyteller, and the pages turn quickly in what is otherwise an excellent if lightweight offering. Auster is quoted (somewhere) as saying, "It's a book about survival." In terms of unlikely coincidences and unfortunate accidents, it could be said that The Brooklyn Follies is also a continuation of his work in The New York Trilogy of which he said*:
I believe the world is filled with strange events. Reality is a great deal more mysterious than we ever give it credit for.
*Joseph Mallia in BOMB magazine, 1988

Monday, 7 September 2015

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

said Death. "JUST THINK OF IT 
I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to end in a joyful bacchanalia of exuberance.

But sadly it didn’t.

Because in 1991 they came up with this little beauty. I must have read it shortly before or soon after going to university in 1996. I remember it on my bookshelves at student digs no. 4 or 5, gathering a fluffy grey mildew. In retrospect, I may have skimmed it as there were parts of which I clearly had no recollection, but again, it might just have been that there are levels and levels of fun stuff to discover depending on the state of mind of the reader. Now, as a more settled, confident reader of fiction, I am a tad more observant and reflective (I would hope it was so or God help me) and so those hidden depths are less hidden, and I am more able to appreciate everything past the rather silly British jokes that somehow become hilarious when Terry Pratchett writes them. Tempering the puns is Gaiman’s ‘dark steely style’ as the cover reports, a more subtle, macabre humour. And together, they have wrought what is a thoroughly entertaining story of the Apocalypse averted.

We have two angels, one fallen (or, rather one who sauntered vaguely downwards) and one tottering, both of whom have been on the Earth serving faithfully their respective masters, more or less, for a few thousand years. Having been the only constant in each other’s lives, they have developed a useful if unofficial partnership, a partnership which is threatened by the news that the Antichrist has just been born in a small rural village inside the M25, where suspiciously, the weather is always perfect, for the time of year, and developments like new housing estates and road improvements never seem to make it past the planning stage. Now aged eleven, it’s time for him to bring about the Apocalypse, and riding to his aid are the four Horsemen, updated for the modern age. In the meantime, the last remaining witch-finders and one witch (a good one) are on the case to avert disaster, separately, whilst a set of obtuse prophecies from 17th century witch Agnes Nutter predicts their every move.

It all sounds deadly serious, I know, but it’s not, as you would expect of this collaboration, and the broad cast of supporting characters combine to add sky, clouds and trees to the hay wain of Aziraphale and Crowley. Every character is apt to say something hilarious, in context, at any moment, and the writing is dry, witty, absurd and sharply intelligent at all times. In fact, I find it hard to find a significant weakness to either the story line or the delivery. This pleases me no end, as traditionally I’m a bit of a git. I am very happy to have returned a copy of Good Omens to the shelves of my new library where it can now grow yellow and dog-eared until I next feel the urge to pick it up again. Probably in another twenty years or so.