Friday, 3 July 2015

Speechless by Stephen Puleston

Currently reading...

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

Currently reading...

Friday, 19 June 2015

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

Hit Somebody!
I suspect that, among other reasons why I, a sleepy, suburban, middle collar white class schmuck, stumbled across the music of L.A. hell-raiser Warren Zevon, and felt moved both to purchase his biography and champion his music to friends whose good graces I courted, sheepishly, was that I used to buy* and read** Uncut Magazine religiously, in whose pages Zevon made appearances around the time of his untimely, but some might say overdue, death in September 2003. It was certainly the case that I bought the Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon cd  (in 2004 and again in 2008 because of good natured misappropriation of the first by the aforementioned friend) because of an article they published on The Wind, November 2004. From what I knew of him before that point, I might well have been taking a punt on a cd of glam rock, New York anti-folk, or angsty navel-gazing singer-songwriter smugness. In retrospect, I'm pleased I took the risk, even if it was only to look well-informed. Certainly, his biography has sat on my shelves since release in 2008, unread until now. 

Zevon songs are growers. I think I heard 'Werewolves' on BBC Radio One on either the Chris Evans or Chris Moyles show (either way, an inimitably irritating radio show) and was immediately smitten. Yah, yah, Zevonites, I know. The rest of the tunes on Genius took a bit more time, 'Lawyers' aside. Likewise, Zevon's biography took a bit of getting used to. Compèred by ex-wife Crystal Zevon, this is essentially a collection of recollections of Zevon, from friends, musicians, roadies, tour managers, music execs, a variety of seemingly deluded women folk, and his children, all deeply devoted fans despite his irascibility. The format and style was a turn-off from the start. Having to stop at each paragraph to absorb the name and relevance of each new narrator was a chore. Anyone who knows how I feel about books that begin with a list of characters knows how I might feel in this case. But as always with a good rock biography, this one starts at the end, with Zevon's death. I think it was this that saved it for me from the off, that made me persist and push past my dislike, as the scene is so poignant, and frankly terrifying to someone with a family history of drink problems etc. that I was caught off guard. Nevertheless, Crystal intrudes, as she must, with regularity to ensure I never forget I don't really like her voice or choice of presentation. 

But what emerges is an ambivalent human being - incredibly talented, hugely self-destructive, seeking oblivion in multiple sexual and chemical encounters but also trapped in the grounding rituals of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So many people feel such strong connections to a man who looked for any excuse to cut people off, for however small a reason, if they got too close, that he must have been an awesome guy to know, to collaborate with, and to love, no matter how hard it was. I call his girlfriends deluded but in truth, they all saw some spark of greatness, loved him deeply despite serial infidelity, and really couldn't help jumping into the sack with him no matter how destructive the act was to their own lives. In that respect, it is amazing to hear second hand but from primary sources about the lives that intersected with Warren Zevon's and were touched by his cranky, maniacal energy and devastating charm. From tales of pretty upsetting drinking and drug abuse, through his sober years, to the sudden diagnosis of cancer and his topple from the wagon - hey, he's as good as dead, so why not have a case of scotch? - it's clear Zevon's reputation as a wild man "standing in the fire" is well-justified, but it's also clear that his talent and vision were indisputable, that he was a cultured and intelligent man despite appearances, and that he died too soon. 

It's certainly an eye-opening biographical work, with numerous endorsements, from writers Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom and Steven King, and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. But my favourite part, a tiny, almost missable exchange between Warren and Tom Waits reported in Warren's own journal where Tom's after some advice on managing his voice:
Tom Waits called: Stu told him I knew vocal exercises that help hoarseness... "Are you sick?" I asked. "Define sick." I said, "Mormon fever that keeps you home from school." He said he'd gotten a cortisone shot - "Where?" "Austin." And so on...

*Most of the time I bought it and didn't just pull the CD off the front cover in the newsagents...
**Listen to the free CD...

Friday, 12 June 2015

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

What's the difference who I am or if I am?
Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a way out of a stultifying career, a lifestyle and emotional state where he can't remember his parents, ex-wife and children, unless he can physically visit their house / graves. He embarks on a literary career, selling poems on the platforms of the underground, writing a novel freehand on yellow foolscap paper. He explores a profound connection with a beautiful but flawed woman he barely knows. And he suffers the medical explorations of a team of doctors who are intent on cutting parts of him away, to see if it helps, in a ward where no-one gets out alive. In that sense it felt like watching an episode of Reginald Perrin, engendering a very 1970s sensibility. The very gentle surrealism of it all sings out to me. Organs and health issues are given amusing if appropriate names (the diapason is both a tuning fork and the just octave in Pythagorean tuning), likewise medicaments (2-Nup etc.). Kleinzeit talks of the cold, soft-padding paws under the ground in the underground that step from below exactly where you place your own feet as though you walked on the soles of some subterranean beast. Underground (capital U as it's a proper noun), Hospital, Word, Death, God (and Vishnu) all interact as characters in their own right, and in his descriptive passages, even the scenes of action, the lens through which the reader sees is of a peculiarly, and wonderfully, Hobanian design. Let me quote a few lines from the very first page:
He put his face in front of the mirror.  
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit
Not my problem, said the mirror.
... He left the mirror empty and went to his job, staying behind his face through the corridors of the Underground and into a train.
For readers who love playful use of the English language, playful and profound, then Hoban is a delight. It's no wonder that a wordsmith of the calibre of Will Self can say that Hoban is his hero. Right the way through, Hoban toys with the quotidian interactions of commuters, paper-shufflers, seekers of fame and fortune, and the lonely, connecting through sparring handwritten comments on the posters and walls of the subway. His characters look for freedom but like timid mice daren't approach it when they find it. And smeared over the top, like a simple but tasty strawberry preserve, is a very healthy dose of smut. In fact, such smut that I became irrationally concerned that my son never discovers his backlist of children's novels.

Fair to say I was immediately entranced by this book. It does many things brilliantly, lots of things wonderfully, and slips along like a swollen river of words, so fast indeed that I worried I wasn't giving it enough attention and so had to deliberately slow myself down, attempting to rein-in galloping paragraphs and to savour each line. One such is this last offering with which I leave you, delivered by Sister to God in a dialogue about the inherent illness of mankind: 
It isn't a matter of finding a well man, it's a matter of finding one who makes the right use if his sickness.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Currently re-reading...

The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Unngh...
It might be twelve years since I first read this novel, drawn to it as I was at the time by the obvious and, I thought before reading it, gimcrack gimmick of having a mythical beast as the protagonist in a story about love, loss, rage, impotence, hope in the dust-bowl of Raymond Carver’s middle America. I picked it up again recently because of the confluence of two events – one, I found my first naive review of it in a stack of old clippings from a newspaper for which I wrote nearly ten years ago, and two, because of the unexpected loss of my friend’s brother, a man who despite his own issues, once pushed me to explore new horizons (both personal and chemical) and whose favourite novel, he told me in 2007, paraphrasing the microcosmic line “Maybe he sleeps, maybe he doesn’t”, was this very book.

It feels a very American novel, if I can put it thus and betray my own prejudices, given it borrows from European myth (M is not alone – there’s a nymph working in a truck stop, playing Ms Pacman; Pan chases pigs around a junkyard, and Medusa works in a freak show, scaring carnies into nearly decapitating themselves) and even everyday life feels post-apocalyptic, with peeling walls, stench and decay all-pervasive; cars are never new, work is impermanent, connections temporary and self-serving. M, submitting to the attrition of passing centuries, endures as best he can, watching rather than acting a part, finding scant comfort in the immutability of menial tasks like sewing, food prep and car maintenance. And yet, despite his advanced years, his itinerant life (he’s lived everywhere at least once in his long existence), the horrors of his past, he just wants to fit in. To be appreciated. To be accepted. Leaving his windows open so that the sounds of life at the trailer park wash over him as he fails to sleep; practising saying sorry to the new waitress, epileptic Kelly, in whom he sees the vaguest of vague hopes of a shared isolation, a folk community of two. And it’s hope that categorises this novel. Watching the atrocious Red Dwarf VIII earlier this week Kristine Kochanski said, ponderously, that even the word hopeless has hope in it, and M is not quite ready to give up on life, even if he has an unorthodox approach to communicating his desires.

Evocative, accessible, and gently melancholic, written sparely but poetically (or perhaps poetic because written sparely), Sherrill’s novel captured my imagination back then and re-reading it has meant discovering a new layer of enjoyment, as a more practised reader and a more mature* mind. I found out recently that it pre-dates America Gods by a few months, but it shares a landscape with my favourite Gaiman novel, and might now be inexorably linked. I think I will need to go find a new copy of that too…

*check that – less juvenile


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Mr g: A Novel About The Creation by Alan Lightman


It will all end in the ticking
of the atomic clock
On days when I'm feeling blue, under-appreciated, unmotivated, or lacking all the things I feel I should, by now, as a middle class WASP in his mid- to late-thirties, have accrued or achieved in order to make my mark on the world, I will think back to this novel and smile, wafting away such cares as I would a midge or the smoke of a barbecue on a summer's day. Whether you believe it to be a plausible history of The Creation or not, the story of a universe, possibly our own, has never before been presented to me in such a tactile, understandable way, and as such, I am absolutely delighted with this novel. If you ever wanted to feel small, insignificant, infinitesimal, but at the same time be totally uplifted, transcendental, and filled with the borrowed wisdom of someone with such a grasp on existential matters, then I urge you to pick this up post-haste.

On to the story, and from within a shapeless and formless void, three unknowable, infinite and immortal entities exist outside of time and space. Yet for one of them, curiosity and the urge for change manifest in the creation of everything we know. Guided by soulful, slow-moving Uncle Deva* and fractious Aunt Penelope** our un-named (but inferably eponymous) narrator is moved to create the universe. In fact, he creates millions of them. The act of creation means the existence of time is also established, given there was a before and now an after the point of creating the universe. Space also now exists within the bubbles of the newly formed cosmoses. Mr g then follows one particular universe, perhaps our own, from this point through to its ultimate demise, providing it with three immutable laws from which all else follows. This creation provokes into life another immortal, and his detestable familiars; Belhor: erudite, persuasive and exhortative of the counterpoint to beauty and goodness. Together they discuss good and evil, relativity and immutability, and watch as the lives of a billion billion creatures pass by in the blink of an eye. And as the universe ends, Mr g decides to do it all again, for as Ælfric notes in his Old English translation of Genesis, 'God geseah ða ðæt hit god wæs.***'

I have no ability to judge the accuracy of the time frames that Lightman projects, or of the reality of energy and particle interaction that creates animate matter from the inanimate, but if I feel anything it is something akin to absolute faith that he's right, which, considering my absolute lack of faith in most things is telling of the power of the storyteller here. In one fell swoop, Lightman has married a creationist and humanist world view, intelligent design and the accident of evolution. Life in the universe exists because of the initial act of creation (by thought not word incidentally) but life develops because of causality, because of the creator's immutable laws, but along rational scientific lines, until the entropic universe disperses all of its energy and the last light of civilisation blinks out. 

If you, like I, loved Sum by David Eagleman, then you will love this too. 

* Deity in both Hinduism and Buddhism

** Given Lightman's tendency to give his characters names from antiquity and religion, perhaps Auntie represents connumbial fidelity à la The Odyssey? It's not as if she has much choice...

*** And God saw that it was good. A potential tattoo right there, that.