Friday, 2 October 2015

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

Currently reading...

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin

Awaiting review...

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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Lights Out In Wonderland by D.B.C. Pierre

I will admit two things: 
'Our elegant place has become a level of hell.'
1) I have never willingly paid for a novel by DBC Pierre – the Booker winning Vernon God Little I received as an uncorrected proof (ditto the second, Ludmila's Broken English) from a sales rep trying desperately to generate interest in what he was concerned was a massive waste of an advance (how wrong he was); 
2) I haven't got a shiny clue what either of Pierre's first two novels are about, despite having read them both. Damning? Possibly. Equally likely it's some sort of degenerative disease of the brain.

This was the very last uncorrected proof copy I ever made off with from my life as a bookseller (that I still own that is), and in large part this was due to the fact that it had (and still has) a shiny embossed belly band which nicely obscures the title and author on an otherwise drab trade-format paperback. It also helped me overlook it for the best part of five years. There I go, judging books by covers again. So, for posterity, or to remind me about my worryingly high levels of casual prejudice, I've left the following rash judgement here, hastily typed during paragraph one of page one of chapter one of this novel:
I've just started reading this and already I suspect it'll have the Engleby effect on me.
Engleby, for the bored, is the eponymous character in a rather dreadful Sebastian Faulks novel which made me grumpy, fidgety and rather unpleasant to be around–more so that normal. Which in turn made me bilious and resentful of the book, and the bearded twat-faced author*. I suspected the same of this, based on the opening passage of the novel, which lays bare the premise of the entire book, related below.
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea: I don't have to do it immediately.
Whoosh – through a little door. It's a limbo. 
Unreliable narrator. Self-indulgent. Intent on deceiving himself and his audience. Instantly dislikable. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Bleugh.

To be fair, in this Pierre is remarkably consistent; but he also allows Gabriel small, believable steps along the path to self-discovery, by the end of which he may well have some modestly likeable characteristics, rather than simply a collection of irreverent personality tics, as effortlessly laid bare by Anna, stern and disapproving German love interest. Yup, despite endlessly repeating himself, in both actions and words, he does slowly grow on me, more through his interactions with the other characters than by any accidental revelations of hidden worth. And Pierre's prose style, swilling around the page like wine in a glass, has the legs of a fine vintage, softening what might otherwise have proven to be unpalatable. But I feel it's the supporting cast that steals the show, Smuts notwithstanding. The Germans particularly light up the novel with a little bit of gentle stereotyping, subverted by equally gentle humanising. Gabriel himself is caught out in some assumptions by Gerd, Anna and my favourite, Gottfried, the stone-faced Stasi man. Berlin has never sounded more attractive than when reflected by these lost bastions of a divided city and the girl of the future Berlin, on her way to the Galapagos Islands to visit Lonesome George and delayed only by distant filial responsibility into working for Uncle (?) Gerd at his kiosk in the massive and soon to be discontinued monument to the Third Reich, Berlin-Tempelhof Airport.

In Gabriel's exploration of vaguely confusing states of limbo, of his own competing motivations–self-destruction and enlightenment–we see some of the ambivalence at the heart of the human experience, and some of the snide diatribes against the current capitalist ethical model (which his epigraph invites the reader to change) are amusing, as are his theories of the relatively low level of ingenuity it takes to con the majority of people the majority of the time. There are also some genuinely funny set pieces. But the novel suffers from its form, of notes taken during the boozing and scheming, written in who knows what lucid moments between bottles of wine and snorts of cocaine and is lacking verisimilitude to a damaging degree. For all that, it is an entertaining read once my own peccadilloes are appropriately handicapped by some advance generosity, and I wouldn't let me talk you out of picking up a copy, which you can do by clicking on the little picture below.

*Odd - since re-reading my original review of Engleby, I notice I wasn't quite so vitriolic in the first instance and even seemed to grudgingly enjoy the novel. It seems then, that over time the Engleby effect strengthens to the point of acute psychological poisoning. What utter filth.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I am also not Harry Belafonte.
I found Percival Everett through a typical, but at the time exciting, bookselling ploy of massively discounting select titles, in this instance to 99p, to add units and value to transactions at the till point. Thus Erasure was the first Everett novel I read. His smouldering anger and furious hilarity stuck me instantly, and although I can claim no kinship or even shared social or cultural experience, I decided I had found someone with whom I felt somewhat aligned. In typical gluttonous fashion I quickly picked up a shit-load of his other work, including two I've reviewed here: A History Of The African American People... and Damned If I DoI loved the Will Self-esque humour of 4-year-old Ralph in Glyph, the anger of Ralph Ellison added to the parodying of the publishing industry in Erasure, and the absurdity of Ted Street, headless and suicidal, in American Desert. It was something I realised I longed for in contemporary American fiction; a writer with clarity, using humour to unpick our interwoven assumptions, received and innate, about race, class, and accepted wisdom, but without resorting to slapstick. 

I Am Sidney Poitier is a return to form. I say return, and form, because I have a faulty understanding of the parabola of his work, coming in at the middle as I have, missing out on his earlier parody of the western, God's Country from 1994, and having read his first novel, Cutting Lisa in the middle of my own discovery. Nevertheless, what we find is a character named, implausibly, Not Sidney Poitier, by his 'crazy' mother for reasons unknown, a mother whose seemingly speculative investment in Ted Turner's media stocks turned them both into multi-millionaires, albeit secretly. Not only does Not Sidney share Mr Poitier's surname, he also shares his features, so much so as to lead to speculation concerning his parentage, all of which are vaguely dismissed by Mrs Poitier, who takes the secret to her early grave. Not Sidney is taken under the wing of Ted Turner himself, and so the story unfolds. He is arrested on an impromptu road trip through Georgia, for driving whilst being black, escapes chained to a 'cracker' who would rather drink moonshine with a blind hill-billy girl than start a new future in Atlanta, winds up solving a murder mystery in Smuteye, Alabama (so named because of the prevalence of a corn-blighting fungus which is harvested and eaten by the inhabitants - in Ted Turner's fictional opinion, not half bad, more like three quarters bad), and attends a black college only to be too black for the coffee-and-cream co-eds and their parents (that is of course until they learn he's filthy stinking rich). Throughout, each time Not Sidney closes his eyes he dreams of lives past, where he or maybe not he faces slavers, haters, and pernicious freedom. Not Sidney is defined by that which he is not - not white, not poor, not Sidney Poitier, not part of the mainstreaming culture (or lack thereof) - but remains sure of himself and succeeds in retaining the reader's sympathy despite (or maybe because of) occasional inclinations to indulge his animosity towards hypocrites. 

Bookslut references Kurt Vonnegut in her as always excellent review from a few years back, and I tend to agree with her, which only adds to my sense of spiritual homecoming when I read Everett. It is a brilliantly comic satire, particularly of the author himself who appears as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Nonsense, aptly spouting the same when asked for advice or help. Perhaps I lack the appropriate discourse to discuss the politics of race, but the sentiments of arbitrary prejudice and exclusion chime nonetheless. I love it when I read a novel that is so clearly bigger than me, that pushes my horizons that bit further out, and as a comedy of miscommunication, a clean, approachable story such as I've come to expect from the author, I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

True Grit by Charles Portis

'Men will live like billy goats
if they are let alone.'
In my current mood of nostalgia for things and books past, I thought I'd return to a Charles Portis novel I read quite a few years back, one recently* 'rebooted' by the Coen brothers for cinematic audiences. The story, related by an octogenarian Mattie Ross, heroine of sorts of her own story, is of a 14-year-old Mattie hunting and attempting to bring to justice the murderer of her father, Frank Ross, with the help of dyspeptic, drunken and (middle-) ageing civil war criminal turned Federal Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn. In a humourlessly delivered monologue, which is nonetheless very funny in and of itself, Mattie tells of her trials at the hands of horse dealers, lawmen, Rooster and the bandits and brigands to whom she wishes to bring the iron hand of justice. She also captures all the wry pragmatism of Rooster himself, and the slick bluster of Texan law man LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) who is in pursuit of her personal nemesis after he killed a senator because of an argument about a dog.

A simple premise, delivered simply, but highly effectively. What I found troublesome, probably shared by anyone who has watched the most recent of the two famous movie versions, is that I can only see Jeff Bridges when I think of Rooster Cogburn. And when I see Jeff Bridges, my mind wanders to The Dude. Gone is the gnarly gun-toting Rooster of the John Wayne film. Instead, it's The Dude in dress-up, which makes me not believe in him. To be fair, it was the same for Iron Man. Of course, this is in no way down to Charles Portis, whose character is equal parts billy goat (as Mattie observes) and killer. Furthermore, and also irksome, after reading Donna Tartt's introduction to this novel, something I might never have done if I had ever read her novels and therefore possessed no curiosity as to how she might sound in print, with her bons mots nicely italicised and her reminiscences about her own family reading traditions***, I began the novel with the sourness of rising bile in my throat, something which appears to have leeched out some of the pure pleasure of reading Portis purely for pleasure's sake. Still, with a surfeit of pleasure to be had in this novel, this is a small grumble in the face of overwhelming enjoyment. For the book is brilliant, well-deserving it's place on most critics' lists of 'great American novels'. Now, as I'm tired and clearly grumpy, I'll simply finish with this: if Chalres Portis isn't a name you recognise, this would set you well on your way to finding a new favourite author. 

*Regular readers** will recognise the fluidity of my temporal referencing.

**This self- referential and -deprecating nonsense is starting to get old, don't you (I) think?

***And what sort of hypocrite would I be if I didn't mention that I subsequently gave my copy to my dad to read?