Thursday, 22 June 2017

Miracle Brew by Pete Brown

Currently reading...

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Ways To Disappear by Idra Novey

If the whale.
If the boat.
If the rain.
You know what? I was excited to read this. That hasn't happened in a little while. It had something about it. The cover–lovely; the hook (a celebrated Brazilian writer climbs into a tree and disappears)–intriguing; the publisher–with a penchant for travel writing, this could only be particularly evocative of Brazil, a country of interest. I was excited. I don't recall who it was recommended it, and it might very well be the Amazon algorithm, but since I earmarked it to be bought and read I was grinning with anticipation.

And now I'm grimacing with consternation. First, a spirited defence of the book. It is fascinating, and although it teases with a magical realism plot synopsis it manages to steer clear of anything mystical, for the most part, and instead is deeply rooted in a convincingly tactile portrayal of Brazil–hot, unforgiving, corrupt, and completely seductive. Emma, the translator of 'her' author, the mysterious and absent Beatriz, is believable and complex enough, and Beatriz's adult children, Raquel and Marcus, add flavour, provide crisis and drama, and everyone is pleasingly flawed. Novey writes with no small craft and her experience as a translator of fiction is evident in the small ways a person might adapt to life as an interpreter of other people's words. 

Where it lost me, and this is in no way a criticism of the book or its author, is that I found I couldn't find my pace. I naturally fall into some sort of rhythm when I read, pausing where it feels natural, allowing myself time for words to sink in (if I'm not in the heat of an addictive gluttony for words–then I simply devour them without thinking). When reading this, however, with its short chapters, changes of narrative media, deliberately omitted speech marks, I found the sentences and paragraphs crashing into the next, and not in a compulsively readable, page-turning way either. I couldn't find a way to settle, I couldn't stop the words smashing into each other, obliterating themselves. I couldn't reflect. I tried to go back to find a salient quote for the picture caption and I couldn't remember one. 

And then there was poetry. I'm not anti-poetry, far from it*, but I honestly don't know what it's doing here, particularly in a scene where the book turns a little noir with Raquel trying to fend off her brother's kidnapper with her untraceable pistol. I also found the emails from Emma's estranged boyfriend Miles very irksome, unnecessary, and generally detracting from the story, the pseudo-dictionary entries trite and trying too hard to explain the joke, and the chapters from what, a gossip radio station? With the caps-lock on? Christ, what the hell was that? Just what the hell...

It was unsettling, but I suspect not in the way it was intended. For all its laudable and enjoyable verve, vim and vivaciousness, I felt that this is a novel written for someone entirely different than me, someone whose humour, opaque and odd, I would never appreciate even if I understood it. This is no bad thing as it made me stop and question whether this meant it was a poor book, or if I was a poor reader. I don't think the answer to either of those questions is yes. The book is good; clever, interesting and poignant in places, although I kind-of wish the author never came down from the tree, and I think I got most of what was going on. I'm on a different wave-length, is all.


*Not that far...

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson

Far from kicking against the pricks they
love their position and vote conservative. 
I know, or knew, very little about B. S. Johnson, except in the capacity of disinterested bookseller, wherein he was a singular, if not significant, thorn in my side, his loose leafed volume, The Unfortunates, causing much consternation among customers who had no idea a) how to read the damned thing and b) HOW TO PUT IT BACK TOGETHER AGAIN. Indeed, he presaged the bookselling omnishambles of publishers like Phaidon with their book-in-a-bubble, or the ones with bloody rounded bottoms, or odd aspect ratios meaning they never ever fit or even stay on the damned shelves, and don't get me started on FUCKING SPIRAL BINDING.... ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. He had come to my attention only when someone brought me a copy of Albert Angelo and complained that someone had torn holes right through the pages. At the time, I somehow managed to hold my tongue, even when she went and found all of the copies we had to show me this vandal had done it to every single one, in exactly the same place. I did, however, point out that given the similarity of the damage, to the visible eye exact to only a few microns, then it was likely to be deliberate and at the author's behest. She was aghast. He came back to haunt me when I realised we'd been using stray chapters of The Unfortunates crumpled up as packing material. 



Phaidon, you bunch of bastards.
Anyway, that experimental formatting is a large part of his charm (with apologies to him posthumously as I understand he equated the term experimental with unsuccessful). The other large part is that most of his novels are damned hilarious. But Christie Malry, the titular aggrieved accountant who decides he should open his own double-book on the credits and debits of life, is particularly funny, and sad, and angry, and with remarkable prescience suggesting the rising anger that the age of the internet has made possible with its instant access to famous people and ancient establishments. There are many people who have written more eloquently and with better research and tighter conclusions than me, on things like the undercurrent of dark pessimism throughout, his strong political convictions which poke up sharply in places, or his frankly brilliant postmodernism, so I shan't bore you with my own reactions. Rather, I will highlight and provide a useful glossary for future readers of one of the aspects I found most entertaining. Johnson's intermittent verbiage is deliberate, unnatural, and is usually also hilarious. So, here is a list of those head-scratchingly, dictionary-searchingly, reading-haltingly unusual words that forced me to turn down corners so I could come back to them later to find out what they meant. Page numbers refer to my Picador edition from 2001, and all humour is taken from the context. Have a read and a giggle.

P12 - exeleutherostomise - to speak out freely, especially in an inappropriate moment
P17 - incunabula - an early printed book, especially pre-1501
P29 - fastigium - the apex or summit of something
P40 - vermiferous - producing worms
P42 - helminthoid - vermicular, wormlike
P62 - nucifrage - nutcracker, from nucifraga caryocatactes, the Spotted Nutcracker
P65 - ventripotent - having a large belly or appetite (or both)
P91 - vermifuge - referring to something that acts as a drug to cause expulsion or death of intestinal worms
P104 - sufflamination - obstruction or impediment
P145 - brachyureate - I have no fucking idea!

There are also words like retripotent, campaniform, sphacelated, and ungraith but I can't seem to find which page they're on. 



Did you know they'd made a film? It looks terrible, but I wonder...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Dead Writers In Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

But how do dead people kill themselves?
Dead people like me. I'm dead. 
Another laudatory post about Unbound should surely follow had I the heart to go on and on about them again. I do but I won't in this instance, as they've just somehow bilked from me £60 for an as yet unwritten historical novel inspired by a TV script by Anthony Burgess, the dastards. I do it to myself and that's etc.

One definite pleasure of the crowdfunding model, for us end users, is the delayed gratification, something with which I, and it would seem the main character in this novel, have no small difficulty. I had sort-of forgotten this book was in the offing, only for it to land suddenly in my wheelie bin one sunny morning (it wouldn't fit through the letterbox). I was delighted to be reminded.

It also came at a fortuitous time. I've been unwell and looking for distractions to keep me from internet mischief in my restlessness (being ill is mostly boring). After finishing the beautiful but rather depressing Stoner I was in need of something lighter, or rather, something more amusing. Wikipedia suggests Paul Bassett Davies has some impressive historical writing credits, including one of my favourites, Spitting Image. What's not to love?

So to the book, at last. We find James 'Jim' Foster, pen name Foster James, waking up dead in a rehabilitation centre in which he is surrounded by famous dead authors from modern history (at least I notice there were no demonstrably post-modern writers). We have diary entries from him, and from several of his fellow... recovering addicts (it begs the question how does one recover from death), as well as transcripts of group sessions (largely bellicose affairs) and memos written to each other by the resident practitioners whose own tangled relationship quickly becomes clear. We meet Dorothy Parker, with whom Jim has a loveless dalliance, Wilkie Collins, whose need for opiates leads him, literally, to take whatever shit he's given, Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid and belligerent, and the pugnacious Ernest Hemingway, whose hostility for the British newcomer tips over into rather comedic fisticuffs in the first group meeting.

I'd posit that, when reading a book where the major crisis appears to have occurred previously, i.e. before the book has even started, the reader must wonder where exactly the novel goes from there. Is he going to get better? Is he really dead? Can dead people even have sex? And who the hell is that in the trees? The development of the plot suggests some resolution is to be found in the relationship of the two psychiatrists/psychologists (I forget which is the correct label). It's also a risky endeavour to write as someone else, particularly when that someone else is a panoply of famous dead writers, all of whom have extensive back catalogues against which to cross-reference your attempts. Thankfully for Paul Bassett Davies he needn't worry about verisimilitude in this respect because....

SPOILER ALERT

 ...it's not him doing the endeavouring, but rather his fictional dead writer, in whose literary denial of his own problems the famous dead writers all appear. Yep, it's all a literary construct that Jim, back in rehab for real after a personal catastrophe that knocks him off the wagon, is writing either as a way to process his grief or as an attempt to escape the trauma.

I wonder if I'm projecting a context onto this that isn't real (appropriately), but it all feels a bit like a made-for-TV comedy show. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's funny, and I was relieved to find myself chuckling and chortling along. I imagine I'd enjoy watching the show. It also put me in mind of Michael Dibdin's The Dying of the Light, itself a mix of mystery, pathos and comedy and which won him a comparison to a famous and funny Tom (Stoppard in that case–some Amazon reviewers have set PBD up as the next Tom Sharp on the back of his first novel). His riffing on the styles of famous authors is fun if risky, and as an unreliable narrator, Jim is hard not to like. In all, it was a fine antidote to some pretty miserable houseboundness, despite the darkness underpinning it all.



And not to forget it's also still available in hardback from Unbound!

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Stoner by John Williams

... Helen and bright Paris, their faces
bitter with consequences.
I presume upon my readers that you might be of a similarly perverse frame of mind; a frame that nearly always shudders at the cynically mercenary and often seemingly arbitrary branding of novels as the greatest this or the most astounding that. Take, for example, Stoner. Writ large and highlighted with a bold red circle (calling to mind the eye and therefore certain to draw the focus of such) it declaims that this is, definitively, "THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER READ" (the caps lock is theirs, (The Sunday Times, or Vintage? It's not clear (ooh, double and then TRIPLE parentheses! I am in heaven!) whose) not mine). Well, it put me right off for far longer than I care to think.

Now that I have read it, it is a lie (if it were not before), for I have read it. And I feel a bit of a shit because it is pretty great.

Pretty great.

We follow William Stoner from fictional birth to fictional grave in the fictional retelling of a fictional life, one strewn with small defeats and even smaller victories. Did I mention it's fiction? His life is not all that remarkable, given the conditions of similar protagonists in similar novels, in that he is embroiled in no major scandals (just a few minor ones), he works towards no great (sorry, enough of the greatness) or lofty ideals, and he makes no mark on the page of history. His upbringing is quiet, staid, closed, and his opening up to the world at large uneventful. He doesn't go off to war when it arrives in mainland Europe, and seeks no advancement in his position at the University where the parochial agricultural ambitions of his parents are frustrated by his burgeoning love of English Literature and where he slowly advances from pupil to professor.

Throughout, we are treated to a Hardy-esque omniscience from the narrator, who sees and describes with clarity and no little poetry the measure of Stoner's character: his acquiescence to the wills of others where his own will has no clear path; his wordless love and crushing sadness for his daughter and her eventual descent into alcoholism; his stubbornness when defeat follows defeat too closely; his dry, tearless sorrow for the death of his parents and his friend Dave Masters. It chronicles his long-suffering with compassion and dignity, and the ringing truth of the words make it almost beautiful, despite the suffering of its main character. In fact, if you consider Larkin's judgements of Hardy's prose work to be chiefly on the nature of suffering, then this is doubly Hardy-esque, given that Stoner experiences so little joy throughout the book–notable exceptions include watching his daughter watch him work, building his own bookcase, and in his forbidden but consummated love for a grad student, Katherine Driscoll, which he jettisons under duress. It also breaks a few of Elmore Leonard's rules, particularly about the writing of the weather, but those did serve to highlight Stoner's connections with nature and disconnect from his fellow man, woman, wife and child.

I, for one, can't chuffing stand Thomas Hardy's novels, no matter how many luminaries wax lyrical over his prose. I recall a seminar on Hardy in my own first year at University where a friend explained how absurd it would be for an all-knowing God (or Hardy in his role as narrator) to obsess over the lips of a milkmaid, and it stuck. I recall reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles with rancour in my heart and bile in my throat. Thankfully, this didn't occur to me until after I'd finished, but it does corrupt the novel's gloss a little, as did the raw red pimple on its skin before I began. But, you'll have heard you can't judge a book by its cover*,   just as you can't judge a book by the peccadillos of its reviewer, and in truth, I'm glad I finally got over my own prejudice. It is a fine novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed being made miserable by it.


*Likely also you'll have heard you don't start sentences with conjunctions. But screw that.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Hit harder. HIT HARDER.
There are not many people who could lay claim to knowing me who would look at this post and not wonder bemusedly what on earth possessed me to read the biography of a tennis player. Tennis, as anyone (i.e. everyone) knows, is a big bag of shite. Sure, it's one-on-one, mano-a-mano, an honourable battle. Sure, it's chuffing hard to play. Sure, it's hard, physical and mental exercise, pushing players' bodies to the very limit. But damn, is it ever boring as hell. And tennis players? Well, don't get me started.

In truth, I was caught out in a lie, by my boss, who told me it was great and I should read it. I paid lip service to the fact I thought he was interesting, given he hates tennis too (yeah, but he doesn't really hate tennis, does he? Yup). She said, great, I'll bring it in for you. And so I was stuck with it.

And I have to eat a little humble pie. It is quite an engaging read, and I found myself enjoying it, despite thinking Agassi is a bit of a whining dick, quick to play the victim card, and not really willing to go into the full horror of having a father determined to make at least one of his children into the world's greatest tennis player. I assume it was difficult. I assume he was terrified at least part of the time. I assume he had no choice. Boo hoo. I certainly enjoyed it more that I thought I would considering some of the pretty nasty reviews* it garnered back in '09 on publication. Yes, it was hard to believe in places: there's an extended passage about his money troubles when going on the road with his brother, but from that point on he's able to buy multiple houses and cars with nary a mention of cost. Yes, I was dismayed by his admission of the use of crystal meth and his subsequent lying about it–I seemed to have missed the original controversy–but then point out a celebrity who has not found succour in odd places from time to time. He says he's honest, 'open', and in parts, he is. He admits to some particular vanity that is risible (wearing a wig, putting lifts in his shoes at his wedding, not wearing underwear on court), and to some rather unsportsman-like throwing of matches when he just couldn't be arsed, but then I wonder at his view of himself, how he sees his life through his prism of otherworldly success (eight grand slams and $31 million in prize money, before sports endorsements). I would imagine that had he not had the collaborative support of his ghostwriter, not credited in the book except in an afterword where it is explained he wants no part of the credit (ostensibly because it's not his story, but also possible he literally wanted nothing to do with it, pulling an Alan Smithee), it would have been unintelligible too. So at least it has that in its favour.

But Moehringer highlights in an interesting NY Times article, 11 November 2009 something that I only realised in retrospect. He says of Agassi;

His memory was crystalline about matches but not about relationships. He hadn’t reached any conclusions about them and couldn’t make connections. 
Absolutely. Agassi knows nothing of himself and just can't put his relationships into context. They just happen–Brooke Shields, Barbara Streisand (Barbara Streisand?!)–and even his eventual happy-ever-after with Stefanie Graf is a bit lacking in introspection. It's framed in the 'she gets me, she gets tennis' context. Soul mates!

Of course, reading this back it seems I'm trying quite hard to put you off ever opening this book. Don't let me do that. It does have its merits, and is quite an unusual sport biography, with a level of English that belies Agassi's ninth grade education. It's entertaining in parts, it was quick to read, and I did sort of want to hear what he fucked up next. He fucked up a lot of things.

*For example, this evisceration in the Guardian, Sunday 1st November 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2009/nov/01/andre-agassi-autobiography
Savage.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

In the Trace, you know. You know to buy it
direct from Big Green Bookshop!
In a spontaneous act of Twitter altruism, (Twaltruism? Twittruism?), I deleted this and Darnielle's difficult second novel* from my Amazon wish list and ordered them from the Big Green Bookshop, an indie bookshop in Wood Green, London, whose co-owner Simon Key appears to be living one of my erstwhile dreams. He was once of Waterstone(')s, as was I. I once fanatsized of telling Waterstone(')s to fuck off and of opening my own independent bookshop. I clearly did not have the requisite fortitude to pursue my dream however, as one look at the business rates and shop rents in Cardiff city centre and I shut up and went back to work quietly and with no little abashment. Where was I? Oh yes, books. My choice was validated by Simon, who told me he really enjoyed Wolf In White Van.

And so did I. However, I wonder at my frame of mind when I read it. This may be a result of me having better things** to do than review books in a timely fashion, and thus leaving it weeks until I was at home, unwell and restlessly fidgety, to find the requisite motivation (boredom does wonderful things for my motivation) to get the job done. Because I can't remember how I felt when I was reading. 

There I was, only yesterday bemoaning Agassi for his lack of introspective powers, and here I am lacking the very same! 

So maybe some context and easily referenceable factual statements are in order. As you ALL will know, John Darnielle is the main force behind American indie folk band the Mountain Goats, and a stunning lyricist. This is his first novel proper (although he has written a 33 1/3 novella on Black Sabbath). In it, the narrator is Sean, a young man with, it's safe to say, some problems. He blasted his own face off with a rifle in his youth, and as a result, has thrown himself into the creation of his fevered imagination, what is essentially a role playing game, called Trace Italian***, managed entirely by post. Can you imagine? In this day and age! The game is managed with a file card system and players are given choices at each stage, with the idea that they make it across the desolate wastes of an end-of-world scenario America to The Trace Italian, a star-shaped city wherein the resolution of the game is to be found (if it exists). Unfortunately, for him and for the two players, two young people decided to follow his directions literally and interred themselves in the Kansas desert to survive a night out in the open; one died, one might as well have done so. 

Sean tells the story in as dispassionate a manner as he can, through veils of memory and often the pain of his own recovery. I recall his difficulties with his own recall, and one line which struck me as pertinent to my own experience of memory, something along the lines of 'was I even younger then than I supposed I was?' to paraphrase inexactly. And he tells without telling of the strange isolation he finds himself within, estranged from his parents who are unable to process his actions, both when he was seventeen and that led to the tragedy of his game-playing sweethearts, isolated from society for the way he looks. In one particularly interesting passage, he details a meeting outside a shop with some beer-drinking teenagers who are guilelessly fascinated by the damage to his face. Sean revels in the small and sympathetic interaction.

In truth, it is probably an incredibly moving novel, one filled with pathos, and a sad commentary on the barriers we erect and the ethereal bonds we make with others. In my memory, it flashed by without making much of an impact on me, although it nearly made me want to go out and buy some of the Robert E. Howard Conan novels. I will make a date to re-read it and will come back to you. 

*I have no idea if Universal Harvester is/was difficult–it's on the to-read shelves/pile. I just perpetuate literary myths for the fun of it.

**Not better, let me tell you...

***The title of the game, he tells us, is taken from a type of 16th-century fortification, the trace italienne, a star-shaped fortress designed to combat the use of cannonades by offering unrestricted defensive firing positions and which came to be the 16th-century ideal for the modern fortified city, in Italy at least.