Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Currently re-reading...

Friday, 28 November 2014

Over-excited Post

It's here it's here!
I just received this in the post from the lovely people at Brit-Books and am very pleased that I can now put it on the shelves and stare at it until finally motivated to read it by some quirk of cosmic coincidence. 

Because that's how I roll.

Don't expect a review any time soon.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Awaiting review...

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.