Friday, 16 December 2011

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer

Brixton smells.

Just who Fischer thinks he is, first attacking Martin Amis and then telling me, his earnest reviewer, that “...most books reviews aren't very well-written. They tend to be more about the reviewer than the book,” is an interesting question, and, frankly, one I don’t care much for. Me. I don’t care. I have other views too, which may or may not come out in the course of this review of a double-header by Fischer from the wonderful, wonderful people at Unbound. Okay, so I’m stuck in 2003, but then it was a nice place to be, with anticipation building at getting my hands on first a proof of Yellow Dog and then a pristine signed copy of Voyage To The End Of The Room. After 2003 it all felt a bit of a letdown, with the bathetic release of both to muted praise and fierce criticism.

Still, I must focus on pastures new and not on muddy old fields.

A quick word (you know what that means) about Unbound. The theory or model is that by securing an agreed level of support from the public, that is you and me and him and them etc, before the book is published, an author and the publisher are able to off-set risks and cover costs, whilst also being able to create a book of rare beauty with a high quality design and, as mentioned in the Guardian, “paper so creamy you long to lick it”. The bonus for us literati is that one gets one’s name printed in the book as a supporter, and if you’re particularly energetic in promoting a particular title or author, by spreading your personalised link to all and sundry via whatever social media site you choose, you may even become a Promoter, earning credits (for use against future projects) for every supporter one convinces to pledge a contribution to a project. Copacetic.

And so on to my first fully formed fiction from Unbound. Depending on which way you pick it up, you may or may not get Crushed Mexican Spiders first, so that seems as good a point as any to start projecting my own insecurities.


I jest, I jest.

In a very short story, barely 14 pages long, Fischer goes after London, a city with which he has seemingly fallen out. In a Guardianinterview in 2003 (sigh) he says:
“London has become a much more unpleasant place than it used to be. I don't think that's to do with any kind of recent climate of fear, it's just that nothing works. There are just too many rats in the rat cage now.”
His nameless protagonist struggles no longer against the apathy of the city, and is rewarded with a cold shoulder which borders on the Kafkaesque. Her key doesn’t work, her neighbours aren’t the neighbours she remembers, and there’s a woman in her flat who says she’s lived there for seven years. Are her memories false (of crushing a neighbour’s Mexican spiders) or is she simply forgotten? It’s dark and uncomfortable reading, and plays on our fears of lives passing unremembered. Not much to laugh at there, but then Fischer likes to challenge himself, and it is this constant newness of his writing that is quite so appetising. Like another superb British author, Glen Duncan, who can make even the same old same old something fresh and invigorated, Fischer does not dwell on his laurels.

Compare with the flip side story, of an eye-witness to the sacking of Troy. An old tale, reborn, and as disparate a setting from the cold darkness of Brixton as one can imagine. With more of the old humour returned, the narrator, under unnecessary threat of torture (for he is willing to tell all) tells a tale straight out of the Barth oeuvre of an alternate history, where Menelaus is marooned on the shores of Troy and is accepted into the Trojan court to fulfil a role as the courtly butt (of jokes, wine, roasted pigeon and, suggested but not confirmed, rogue Trojan noble seed). When he gets tired of this life, he plots to return home with Helen, with whom Paris is now bored, and his trusty and dispensable retainer, whose reluctance to burn Troy to the ground is not a barrier to random chance firing the hollow horse filled with incendiaries. Cute, curt and entertaining, it bears comparison with Sumerian pottery and Hungarian basketball players.


Fisher is an author I would make time for at every new publication. I might even read articles in the newspaper if I saw his name attached. And in conjunction with the lovely people at Unbound, with whom I suggest you make an immediate connection (preferably via this link to Letters of Note, another book so worth supporting it makes Libyan Independence seem trivial), I would hurt kittens if necessary. Go buy, read, support, tell everyone etc etc.

And lastly, simply because I couldn't find a way to slip it seamlessly into the review anywhere else, here's a great quote from the same Guardian article by Fischer about Martin Amis, and the shame he felt after years of defending Amis from attack, only to be greeted with Yellow Dog:
"It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."

Monday, 12 December 2011

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr


NOT a Nazi. Got it.

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Percival Everett, Mark Twain, Ismail Kadare and Bohumil Hrabal, but is not strictly limited to such esteemed company. Other noteworthy residents include Carlton Mellick III, John Connolly, Michael Marshall Smith, Dan Rhodes, Viktor Pelevin etc etc.  

You see? As you, my learned reader(s) will quickly divine, my problem is obvious. Such displacement activity as listing some of my favourite authors is indicative of a degree of trepidation about adding my critical and (I fear) ill-qualified opinion on the author(s) in question to the general melee of criticism already thrashing about on the web. What could I say that hasn’t been said before? Usually, in a self-deprecating article such as this I would now list what I thought about the book to check them against what has already been said, e.g. Chandler-esque, story-driven, enthralling and appalling and so on etc, with some witty quip or snide remark to position myself as above such obvious chicanery. 

A pink elephant. Reproduced from
 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/5344770.stm
without the kind permission of the
BBC or Banksy. Sorry.

None of which is currently getting to the bottom of just how I feel about this book. So, some salient fact at this point might serve to help. Firstly, the back story: what bigger crime to provide the backdrop for a series of crime thrillers than the biggest crime of the 20th (and possibly 19th, 18th, 17th...) centuries? You can’t fault Kerr, a man who claims to have watched “every Nazi documentary there's ever been”, for taking what is often a scarily huge elephant in the room and painting him thriller-pink. 
Gunther’s story is so closely intertwined with the rise and fall of the Third Reich that, as the title suggests, borrowed as it is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer*, Gunther is drawn unwillingly into the gears of the death machine and is spit out onto a ferry bound for Argentina with none other than Adolf Eichmann. Not a Nazi** himself (he takes great pains to point out he was never a party member, never carried a card, and only met with the Nazi top brass so he wouldn’t get shot), Gunther makes a living as a PI on the streets of a Berlin in the grip, and in the aftermath, of history’s greatest monster. How’s the writing? Chandler-esque would be close, Hammett-esque similarly accurate, but altogether, judging by the way Kerr himself is portrayed in the obliquely aforementioned Scotsman.com article from February 29th 2008, a lot like Philip Kerr – curmudgeonly, gruff, straight talking and probably in over his head. None of that stops him from unravelling in this case an atrocious medical experiment covered up by a variety of non-Nazi parties. 

It’s truly gripping stuff. Really. I can’t lavish enough praise thereupon, despite the series of frankly ludicrous coincidences that one is expected to overlook in the mad thrill of the narrative chase. Kerr excels in this milieu (I can’t honestly say I can compare his children’s fiction or other writing for that matter) and at a healthy and stately 55 years of age, let us hope that he is around long enough to leave behind a legacy of truly superb crime fiction.


* The first recorded version goes something like this: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

** For some interesting information on the origin of the nickname “Nazi”, see The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth, aka the Inkyfool. Free preview at http://blog.inkyfool.com/

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell

Better than
The Walking Dead
(the TV series)

Straight off the bat, and perhaps therefore to sport my oak somewhat, I should mention that this review borrows heavily from an interview with Alden Bell (aka Joshua Gaylord) posted in August of 2010 at FantasyBookReview.com and, in all honesty, you may prefer just to go there and read it, rather than heroically struggle on through the desolate wasteland of this entry. Go on, I give you permission.

Still here? Then on with the story (to borrow from Barth).

There has been a glut of late* (or at least two I can think of without straining myself) of post-apocalyptic novels winning acclaim etc and so on - Rhys Thomas’s On The Third Day is worthy of a mention just because he’s a local (in the sense that he comes from round my way), and The Road is always worth squeezing into a blog entry as any mention of Cormac McCarthy guarantees a load of misdirected hits from America. Different from dystopian novels, but singing from the same hymn sheet, they maroon an identifiably contemporary character in a world without the nice, comfy social mores that make this functionally dystopian reality more bearable. That and a nice cup of gingerbread coffee from @coffeenumber1. Alden Bell seems to like the freedom they permit to re-write the rules, so that his young protagonist, Temple, a girl of indeterminate teenage years, can be both a ruthless killing machine, meting death whence she goes, and a reverent observer of the sparse beauty of nature. And he does it with a style which engenders comparison with writers like Faulkner on the one hand and, on the other, slightly bemusingly but in retrospect, acceptably, Flannery O’Connor.

But what I like best about this zombie road novel - and there are lots of things to like, from his southern gothic style, to the pathos of the starved dead heeding only raw animal instinct – is that Bell doesn’t give in to the urgent desire of the popular genre for a closed circular narrative. 
 I love it when a narrative builds toward an expected conclusion and then subverts it at the very end—which gives you, the reader, a feeling of thrilling weightlessness, as though a rug has just been pulled out from underneath you and you are suspended at the moment of falling,“ 
he says in the aforementioned interview. To really discuss what this means in context would make for a rather indulgent plot spoiler, so I’ll put the kibosh on that for now. Still, as a university lecturer / teacher (if there is a difference in New York) of English, he at least knows how to subvert such cosy narrative structures. Obviously not like the lecturers that Flannery O’Connor ran into:
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."
9th July 2014, and I find on re-reading some old reviews, notably this one, I had left you somewhat hanging in space with Alden Bell. It's never too unlikely that, being a bit of a tool, I did it on purpose, thus subverting cosy reviewer best-practice and leaving you with the words of someone much wittier than me so that you might go away feeling the weight of wit and mis-remember it as mine. I do mention a personal opinion early on, namely that I do like this book. In fact, if memory serves, I did really like it. It stands out in its genre, for me, and in my memory, so, to combat willful, smug pillock-ness I'll append this ending so that you might finally understand that you too should read this novel, because it is quite good. Zombies. What's not to love?

* ”of late” - a period of time that is of a crepuscular nature but could be defined justifiably as anything up to five years ago as it all blurs into one

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Backlist - More stuff inappropriately appropriated

There is something intrinsically pleasing about Baker's work. Whilst this is not his best by a long way (for that you should pick up Box of Matches or The Fermata - pant-wettingly brilliant stuff), this transcript of a (CIA?) taped conversation between two friends in a Washington hotel room is something other, a novel that is social and political commentary, that is a stylistic adventure, that deviates from the norm without falling into the post-modern mosh pit of literature by the likes of John Barth or Mark Z. Danielewski. It's also damned funny. Until fairly recently I had no strong opinions on American politics, on the lust for scandal and the love of celebrity that saw the population elect, in the words of Jonathan Coulton "a sweating filthy liar" in Richard Nixon, and a slightly deranged cigarette spokesperson and cowboy in Ronald Regan. Of course, W changed all that, and Obama has helped somewhat, like a temporary salve on a wound that will only fester eventually. Baker just sticks it to the man, having lots of fun in the mean time. If you're looking for something conventional, perhaps this isn't for you, but for an hour on a train, or indeed on a bench outside the Lincoln Memorial, then this is the perfect tonic for the world-weary.

Perhaps if I hadn't known that Jasper Kent had written musicals, then I may have enjoyed this more than I did. As it stands, I was stuck between enjoying the premise and the gore of it all and being terribly annoyed by Kent's almost 19th century Russian novel style narrative, with long introspective passages more suited to a down moment in a Broadway show (with accompanying musical diminuendo) than a properly horrific horror novel. As Aleksei "struggles" to reconcile his enjoyment of the lovely prostitute with his "love" of his absent wife and child, I struggled with my desire to put this down and go rock climbing or kick boxing, something manly and dangerous that wouldn't rob me of my masculinity. Still, being the avid devotee of violence and bloodshed that only a child exposed to George A. Romero movies at a very early developmental stage can be (and I am very definitely NOT blaming zombie movies for my lack of social skills - that was deliberate on my part) I pushed on through the guff to get to the good bits, and there were just enough of those to keep it interesting.
In conclusion, this is good, but flawed, much like the best of us, and if he could temper his willingness to replicate his musical style or the long-winded rumination typical of those great (great meaning large or immense - I use it in the pejorative sense) Russian epics, then he could have a future as a writer of horror. If not, he better sharpen up on his show tunes.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Backlist - A load of stuff reproduced without the author's written consent

 Being somewhat silly, I began my discovery of Jeff Lindsay by reading the fourth novel first (publisher freebie) and then watching the first episode of the TV series. As it transpires, that's the wrong way to do it. So, keen to make amends I picked up this three volume omnibus edition to motor through the first three books before I remembered what has happened to Sergeant Doakes, Dexter's arch nemesis (at least, his arch nemesis in the Miami PD) by book four.
The appeal lies not just in the pacing, the fact that our protagonist is a merciless killing machine, and that he's doing what most people have occasionally dreamed of doing - taking out the trash! - but in the oddly affecting and twisted humour of the novels. Whether he's ruminating on why his "dark passenger" guffaws at a particularly amateurish crime scene (amateurish from the point of view of the killer that is), or balancing the training and development requirements of his protégés (seriously) against the code his "father" Harry instilled in him, Dexter never fails to bring a bleakly humorous quality to the narrative. Take for example, the time he finds himself alone in his head without the dark fluttering of evil wings to keep him comfort - "I was alone in a dark, mean world full of terrible things like me." That's a good line right there.
The only problem with this omnibus is the third novel - Dexter in the Dark - which loses some of the forensic and psychological analysis of the killer's mind in favour of a John Connolly-esque supernatural solution which just doesn't gel, which feels flimsy, and which diverts the narrative flow by inserting a third party perspective on things. It's still good, just not as good as it should be. But at the risk of a feedback sandwich, I still really love this stuff. And I'm sure if you've stuck with me this far, you will too.

It's a trepidatious feeling, to have read a work variously described as a masterpiece. With the weight of so much opinion on the readers' shoulders (whether they realise or not), to attempt a review such as this is daunting. This is partly to blame for the length of time between finishing this novel and starting this review (the other reasons being laziness and lack of energy / internet access). For it was some time in spring when I read this on the commute between Cardiff and Swansea, and the memories I have of it are suitably dulled with the passing time. This isn't exactly a glowing reference for the prospective reader, but then Mihaly exists in some kind of dream world, and there were definitely parts of this book where I was almost asleep. Again, not such a great recommendation. However, it wasn't sleep; rather more like a trance. Szerb's story starts from a moment of crisis, where Mihaly gets his trains confused and, on his own honeymoon, realises with a rush the sudden freedom he has, and how addictive it is to live outside expectations. Of course, being the fool he is his idyll is soon shattered. He reeks of desperation. It is a curious experience, the reading of Journey by Moonlight, and whilst I'm sure my attempts at a review fall far short of the relative quality of the book, just look at the star rating [at www.waterstones.com] and be comforted by such simplicity. The book will not leave you so at ease with life.

For some reason, a reason that I can't fathom but that makes me slightly angry, frustrated and not a little melancholic, I can't get anyone to be interested in this really great book. I've tried comparing the story to Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game / Chess (depending on which edition you have), with Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (because there's a chess puzzle at its heart), and with the only other English translation of his work, Night Work, a novel which with its unanswered questions polarizes opinion, and yet not one person who has read the blurb has decided to press on. Admittedly, it's based on a real-life chess player, the little known Austrian Grandmaster Karl Schlechter, and at its core is the game of chess. But the game does not overwhelm the story. It is necessary, serving to illustrate the fabulous characterisation of Carl Haffner, and the joyful creation of the Vienna school and of his opponent Emanuel Lasker, without ever threatening to bore those whose appreciations lie elsewhere. Haffner's very existence is geared to wrench an emotional reaction from the reader, steeped in pathos and so endearing that throughout the legendary duel one's heart is in one's mouth with every move of the pieces. It is uplifting and devastating, and despite the rather bland cover is a revealing portrait of what it is to be human. I loved it, and I hope someday to convert at least one person to Glavinic's brilliance.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Backlist - Adolf in Wonderland by Carlton Mellick III

The search for
perfection
Such a concept as this may have been doomed from the start, destined never to have been fully and accurately realised. From personal experience, the stuff that resides in the head rarely survives the transition from thought to word – hence the struggle to successfully find backers for my Dirty Despot trading cards – and in Mellick’s story of the futility and indeed folly of the pursuit of perfection, the prose is clumsy and awkward, the ideas beautiful and disturbing but uncomfortably chopped and fitted rather than allowed to smear sticky fluids across the page as they might wish, and although it ends on the up, the general reaction may more likely be one of disappointment than euphoria (and vomiting). Supremely ironically, and acknowledged in the introduction, the twiddling and fiddling over 8 years between conception and publication, has deprived Mellick’s fable of its joie de vivre and left instead a somewhat mechanical novel, the joys of the flesh removed and replaced by something artificial. Fitting, you might say, but still irritating.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Awesome, mate.
First encounter with Flanagan came via Gould’s Book of Fish in hardback, a victim of some aggressive pre-post Christmas price slashing back in twenty tickety boo (along with a first edition of Martel’s Life of Pi in hardback at 2 for £20), and with the beautiful colour plates so sadly missing from future flimsier incarnations. As much as I loved and coveted more of the same, it’s taken me nearly ten years to catch up on the backlist, and I still haven’t gotten to Death of a River Guide – there are just too many things that need doing.

 ‘Oh, woe is me!’ etc etc. Time-theft from work isn’t often available to be recycled as reading time when in full view of the open plan office. But I have managed to squirrel away a bit of reading elbow room in which to fully appreciate the latest offering from Tasmania’s answer to Thomas Bernhard.

At this point I should perhaps clarify such a throw-away remark as that just this second made, just there.  In no way does Richard Flanagan resemble Thomas Bernhard, except in one very specific instance. He is not wiry of hair (having none), a playwright (to my knowledge), and did not spend any time in a sanatorium as a youth due to a severe lung condition which robbed him of the opportunity to become a professional actor or singer. Unless you know any better. In fact, the only way I can compare the two is by revealing a very personal reading of his work which could, gallingly, be seen to be a misreading. How embarrassing for me.

Here goes.

Bernhard clearly hated Austria, the land of his birth and death, and made use of every opportunity for contumely. In my reading, Flanagan has a similar (but slightly diluted) misanthropic distaste for all things historically Van Diemonian, despite some rather beautiful passages towards the end of this particular novel where he traces the sunlight on the water and portrays the nobility of work in the fields with a respectful nostalgia. In general he seems to feel a degree of shame for his unfortunate heritage. Of course, it’s not restricted to Tasmania – his descriptions of Dickensian London are equally vitriolic and gruesomely tactile. However, from other books I have spotted the trend. Feel free to disagree and disabuse me of the notion.
Back to Wanting and Flanagan’s dissection of desire, and it is an achingly good read, with some great passages, notably depicting Dickens and Wilkie Collins and, amongst other pieces, their periwinkling trips to various houses of disrepute. The back and forth between Van Diemen’s Land and London are well spaced, allowing free flow of his copious imagination, and historical detail be damned! he wilfully uses the main points of history as threads on his wonderful literary loom. The result is a soulful, crushing and ultimately addictive novel, and Dickens’ avatar is quite remarkable.

Ultimately, I have probably done a stupid thing by reading Gould’s... first as it really did blow my literary mind at the time, so every follow-up is likely to be a disappointment, but Wanting is a significant harking back to that scent of greatness, and is probably a book I will come back to in the future. And it’s not often I can find the time for that sort of thing. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Metaliterature welcomes guests from the US of A

Hey friendly American types! I don't know what it is but you guys seem to be hitting my webpage pretty chuffin' hard - one third more hits come from the USA than from the UK, and honestly, I can't count more than four Yankee Doodles as friends (two of them are from America's Hat so shouldn't count anyway). It may be because I am hard-wired into reading classic and not-so-classic American fiction that my reviews pop up on your search engines, and if that gets in the way of your browsing I can only apologize. However, if you like what you read, and want more, let me know. I'm keen to have a little feedback from anyone who may read regularly, or just pops by occasionally, or stumbled across this by accident. I don't care who you are, what you do, or why you're here, but I do want you to go away with a positive impression of the place, and will take steps to make it a bit more user friendly. Tweet or message me @TheMightyBuch or you can just post comments underneath. You're not getting my email address until I know you're not after me for something I reported about Jon Ronson's private view of his brother... 
Postscript -  I'm not all that great with HTML, so if you have technical or design advice, make it simple! I pretend to know way more than I actually do.


Love you all, and stay peaceful.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Scapegoat by Charlie Campbell

You can keep up with
Charlie on Twitter.
I have to be a little careful here for fear of treading on ground previously and better trodden upon by reviewers of deserved repute. By that I mean making it clear I've stolen the ideas of people paid to do this sort of thing and passing it off as my own. Francis WheenChristopher Bray and Frances Wilson have, in their own eminently imitable fashion, paid tribute to this entertaining Socratic examination of our tendency to offload guilt like an unwanted Christmas pullover on to the first likely charitable candidate, presented in a willowy thin volume of no little beauty. To this formidable array of talent I would be as an independent bookshop is to Amazon - of no concern, until I start stealing their copy for my own nefarious purposes. I know critics all meet up for gin slings and vol au vents at the Pigalle Club, so if one were to notice, then I'm certain all would quickly find out. And like Amazon crushing independent retailers, my fate would be sealed. In cement and dropped in the Thames.
So, I will mind-wipe their excellent reviews and pootle about with a few words of my own. 
I have much time for the digested read. In my fast-paced yet strangely work-shy world, I don't have time to read lengthy critiques of cultural folly. Indeed, the soundtrack to my life is infuriatingly up-tempo. It's quite tiring. So thank the lord I can read a thoroughly enjoyable potted history of the blame game in an afternoon without other interests suffering. Both whimsical and serious, Campbell does a great job of making us laugh at ourselves whilst gently highlighting the propensity for scapegoating in even the more enlightened of societies - here I might make a point of saying that in the Buddhist view sin and suffering are not synonymous - and that it is not confined to the dusty annals of history. I can't help but chuckle at the image of Lord Mandy being soundly thrashed by Tony Blair in his incarnation as the Labour whipping boy. And one cannot help but find the reports of trials of animals, flies and even swords bemusing from a contemporary perspective. What the book lacks, and this is likely deliberate so can't be a criticism as such, is more - more of everything! I want to read more about the witch trials (especially in Britain), about the biblical scapegoat, about the etymology of the word and about the Jungian concept of the Shadow. But there isn't any more to be had.
No blame can be attached to Mr Campbell. Frankly it's probably a bit rich to expect it all in one handy volume. In this case (and this is rare so mark it in your diary) I can only blame myself for expecting too much. What is here is rather good - fun, illuminating and well written, Scapegoat is definitely worthy of a Wheen review. Perhaps in paperback or later print runs we could get a list of further reading, you know, to keep us going. Feel free to blame the editor if it doesn't come to pass.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Dose (n): I've no
idea what it means
"Not all that crazy" was my rather insipid first impression of the previously imposing-looking Lethem. Quite what I had expected is now unclear, but there is an inkling of a memory of a semi-conscious association of the word fortress with the anticipation of a challenging read. Stupid me, I had completely missed the direct reference to Superman's arctic hideaway, and the pretty comprehensive blurb should have pointed out that in many respects this is a straight forward semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Brooklyn. Straight forward except for the bits of Superman-esque flying, as well as invisibility, bestowed by the ring of a guy who lived on the roof tops of Brooklyn tenements and thought he could fly.
It's been a little while since I finished this, and perhaps that could explain why this review hasn't exactly exploded from the blocks. I recall wishing to drop what it was I was doing at any given point and go back to reading with a cup of tea or head down to my local Coffee #1 and take up valuable soft leather armchair space, but this may have been due to what it was I was doing rather than how rapt and enamored I was with this book. In fact, although I can clearly remember lots of character names, the plot, the twists, the rather odd super powers and so forth, I don't seem to have a strong emotional response to the book. I recall clearly feeling that his insights and portrayal of aspects of childhood resonated with my memory of childhood. That's good, right? I remember the comic book heroes of which he speaks, and can identify some if not all of the music he mentions as formative or at least important to the book. And yet... And yet...


So it's big (in scope) and captures accurately what it is to grow up in a place where you are so often on the outside looking in, and lots of blah blah blah. Christ, I'm just not that interested. Not in the book or in this review. I've read it, and am happy to have done so. Dylan as "genuine literary hero" though? I think Michael Chabon may have had a few drinks too many over a boozy lunch with Lethem's publicist. You probably should read it at some point, but on the patented GBD scale of "Should but can't be arsed" (1 being Did I see this on Richard & Judy? Never going to happen, 10 being Top of the pantheon but have you seen the size of if?) it might sneak in around 4 or 5, just behind [insert any Dickens here] but ahead of anything by Richard Ford.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

Lost? I'm fucking clueless.
Reading John Barth makes me feel a mixture of ignorance and pride - ignorance because many of the references, devices, tropes (and on and on) he uses are beyond my comprehension (or current reading level), and pride because I know which ones are which. In his appended introduction (not the one from 1966 where he blithely waffles on about listening to certain stories as recordings which don't actually exists per se) he talks about the need to get more John Barth on to the reading lists of creative writing courses across the great continent of North America. This was his attempt to add Barth to Borges, to get himself mentioned in the same breath as others who subvert the comfortable illusions of tale and teller. 


Hence the scratching of head and puffing of cheeks and regular stoppages of reading for a cup of tea or to see what the weather is like outside.


Most short stories take it out of me; all that emotional investment only to have it stop short of resolution, or to end abruptly, or be generally and frustratingly unsatisfying. I love the idea (and keep buying them) but in the 15 minutes afforded me at lunch time to dive into a book (something at which I've become adept), it is endlessly discouraging to come back to a tale only for it to end, and be that irked that to start another in the time left to me is distasteful. I'm a sucker for the closed narrative loop - forgive the lack of correct discourse - with a starting point, a sense of impending dread as a crisis looms, the nadir of the crisis, the resolution and the happy ever after (as long as it doesn't drone on for pages and pages - eh Tolkien?). Kurt Vonnegut illustrates such narrative patterns very well in a You Tube clip I saw recently, linked here for your amusement. Short stories so rarely deliver. I read the door stop that is John Cheever's collected stories from beginning to end and died a little with every story. 


Anyway, on with the story, and Barth goes a bit further than is probably necessary with this collection of brain-bending post-modern complexity. Tales where the teller is possibly one of seven or eight characters (including one where a fictional authorial voice supposes the story he's writing contains a man who suspects his existence is due to the story the author is writing which contains... and so forth) and where at one point King Menelaus uses so many quotation marks to outline reported speech that one can't help feeling that time would be better spent writing down the value of Pi ad infinitum, serve only to prove what a genuinely clever fellow this Barth is and funny too, for genuine hilarity resides therein. For entertainments sake he does include what might be termed simpler narratives, based around a boy Ambrose and his unusual family, including one where he may or may not get stuck in a fun house - the text is ambiguous - but for the majority of the book, entertainment plays second or possibly even third fiddle (or doesn't play fiddle at all - instead uses Chinese pears to knock bottles onto glass chimes which shatter in a particular blah blah blah etc) to show just how fucking clever someone can be when he really puts his mind to it. Want more proof? It's possible that Barth uses the only instance of reported Martian speech in two consecutive stories, but doesn't even tell you about it! Heh? Heh? Oh, wait he does, in that incongruous end piece. I think this may just be a bit of a "fuck you" to those students who would inevitably look to outmanoeuvre their tutor in lectures or tutorials in a constant battle of wits, a pre-emptive strike against those cocky twats unavoidable in fee-paying universities.


Still, for all of that, I do feel a little weightier in the brain department for having persevered. I now know Helen of Troy was possibly made of clouds at some point, and that lots of Ancient Greeks were potentially pederasts or sodomites. Was that worth the effort? On reflection, etc ditto.

The In-Betweeners

Nobody Move by
Denis Johnson
Not everything I read makes it onto the pages of this blog. Indeed, of some books it pains me to say I may well be slightly embarrassed to admit having read them, being slightly superior and a somewhat jaded critic of the popular milieu. However, what sort of chronicler of intertextual flow would I be if I were to omit those texts that fill the void between the titles carefully chosen by me to illustrate what an esoteric and highly educated reader I am? 
Therefore, I've chosen to humble myself by exposing those little items of brain candy that I occassionally treat myself to, behind closed doors of course. Those shavings of Occam's Razor I call, The In-Betweeners.


These little beauties all occurred at various points between Lethem and Barth, but considering that I haven't as yet gotten to either, and that my desk is slowly disappearing below miscellaneous unanswered correspondence, dust, and thoughtlessly discarded clothing I decided it was better to get them out of the way and safely onto the shelves before they were lost permanently.
Walk On, ostensibly
by Ronnie Whelan
Beginning at the beginning was always my preference but as always, my preferences are less important than countless other considerations; in this instance they are subject to my own recollections as to what exactly these books were about, and with the passing of (no matter how little) time, these are already dim at best. So perhaps the most obvious one would be to start with Ronnie, yet another Red Ledge with a handful of tuppenies to chuck about from his life in the dressing room. As always, you'll not get a very objective viewpoint from me on the quality of erstwhile Liverpool footballers' biographies, but as it does appear in the In-Betweeners pages, perhaps you could come to an understanding of its relative merits from things left unsaid. Otherwise, it's another blisteringly brilliant piece of ghost-writing from Tom Conlon, pulling together the uncollected thoughts of the great Red utility player who was no friend of Jacky Charlton to be sure. Lots of rumbling emotional turmoil brought about by the well-documented traumas of the past, and a few undocumented traumas suffered at the hands of the incomparable Souey, former friend turned big bad boss, and similarly, one Kenneth Dalglish. Lots to recommend it there, and it's a quick and enjoyable read to boot.


The Stranger's Woes
by Max Frei
Max Frei's rather slapstick namesake is someone who was destined to wind me up from the beginning. He was a tosser in his former life (i.e. in this dimension) and unfortunately, due to this irreverent attitude and charmingly confused naivety, is received as a king in his new world, that of the city of Echo - literally, as he somehow wangles a claim to the throne of the dung-eating peoples of the so-called Barren Lands. Plus, for some reason Gollancz thought that a direct comparison to Harry Potter on the front cover would attract readers rather than repel them. If you were to think Sergei Lukyanenko without the ability to pull a variety of plot strands together then you wouldn't be far off. Nonetheless, for some reason I still cared enough to finish it, and perhaps that is Frei's triumph after all. 

Lastly (but conversely, the first of the bunch), comes Denis Johnson, another victim of apathy to this point, rapidly proving that my own preconceptions are wildly inaccurate and that I should stop judging books by their covers / by their sales representatives' opinions / by the fact that proof copies were handed out like sweets. Johnson is an accomplished writer of fast-paced hard-boiled thriller romps, or so it would seem from Nobody Moves. The plot just boots along unrelentingly and characters are developed in situ and as required - if you don't need to know something, it ain't made known. Shit starts happening, stuff gets done to people, there's some scary dude in a hat and a wild cat drunk Native American lady with a viscous streak and an unhealthy attachment to someone else's money. You want something to read that'll take your mind off your bunions and make your tea go cold, then Denis Johnson might just suit. I may just take a punt at that proof of Tree of Smoke that I've studiously ignored for 4 years...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin

Bears like to put
blankets on moose
Having walked past Shoplifting from American Apparel (thanks to John Barth I've been reminded to italicize the names of complete works, among other things) for several months after it became a mainstay of the cult fiction display (hurrah for Bert!) of a local book chain, and dismissing it casually due to its self-confidently svelte appearance, I was finally convinced by a split-tongued straight-edger of the relative merits of Lin's oeuvre whilst he was chuckling his way through another, Richard Yates, and wondering aloud why Dakota Fanning wasn't being assaulted more often. At random, I poked blindly at the shelves around the letter L willing fate to procure a serendipitous gem and came up with a book the title of which I was unable to pronounce without some sort of context. That context is, less than quixotically, dolphins.
What Lin serves up as I was to find soon after is a tale of Karinthian (which is to say, Kafka-esque) absurdity populated by bears, moose, dolphins and hamsters who appear to dwell in various stratified metropolises beneath ours (Lin's) city. And there are aliens too, mostly vegetarian ones who are in with the President. However, wandering lost and alone through this bewildering landscape is Andrew, pizza delivery boy / man (can one with such a humbling occupation truly feel himself a man?) and self-professed musician - we never once hear him sing or play, only refer to singing or playing - who frustrated by not knowing what to think or feel at any given point (the book opens on him being fired by his manager but not caring to understand, which is never followed up on as his manager doesn't seem to know what to do either) turns to a variety of cinematic or literary references, mainly violent ones, to make sense of his ennui. The perfidious nature of his own understanding is exemplified by what turn out to be the penultimate few lines of the book - 
If [Ellen] came he would tell her he was afraid.
He felt a little lonely. He felt good.
This constant and unresolved self interogation is punctuated by random killing rampages, not to mention the aforementioned menagerie. Oh, and did I mention that a particularly depressed dolphin kills Elijah Wood on an island in a fit of self-hating homoeroticism? No? Read into that what you will. 
To cut a long and dangerously pointless recap slightly shorter, for I have many more unresolved resolutions to which to attend, a shortish story about the disengaged in society has been padded out with the degenerate bits perchance cut from the works of Lewis Carroll, but none of which feels wrong (in context you understand, as I hate dolphins; they're worse than Nazis) and all of which serves to underscore the increasing weight of unrest of those in the wrong quadrant of the inequality matrix (i.e. everyone in the west who doesn't earn enough to be safely ensconsed behind his arroyo blanco from the rest of us). Lin may be forcedly absurd but it suits his purpose, if he would agree that he has one. Plus, the dolphins don't come out too well either.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Darker Than Amber by John D. McDonald *SPOILER ALERT!*

 
Darker Than Amber (Travis McGee Mysteries)
Dr Sea Cock!
I was looking about the internet, bookless as I was at the time, for the line that opens this particular Travis McGee novel (#7 no less). For those who are interested, it starts "We were just about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge". However, I found the most entertaining review, positively apoplectic in it's febrile biliousness, posted on a random website which rather than make me blanche at the suggestions I enjoyed revelling in the debasement of women by proxy, made me want to tell everyone about it. Therefore, rather than come up with my own rather insipid review, I've nicked this one instead. Full credits go to Amanda, whoever she is, and if she should stumble across this wholesale theft, perhaps she'll get in touch and I can tell her how much fun I had reading it. Enjoy.

's review
Jul 15, 11

1 of 5 stars
bookshelves: crap
Read from July 10 to 15, 2011


Holy shit snacks. I can't believe I read the whole thing.

First off, let's get one thing straight. Reading this was a dare. All parties involved, including myself, knew I would most likely despise this book and find it a vile-coated offering with a noxious nougat center. I started to shelve this bad boy as "book rape" until I remembered that I had willingly agreed to subject myself to this slow torture and I didn't even have to be double dog dared. I'm that kid from A Christmas Story who would willingly lick the frozen flag pole just because someone thinks I won't. I may need to reassess my response to challenges after this. Oh, and I should also state that there are likely to be spoilers.

In Darker Than Amber, Travis McGee and his whip smart buddy Meyer are fishing under a bridge in the middle of the night when somebody drops a perfectly good whore over the bridge (people are so wasteful--she had lots of good tricks left in her), chained to a cement block. McGee rescues her and thus stumbles upon a prostitution ring that has a habit of lovin' up and then killing its johns by dumping them off cruise liners. McGee decides this must end because whoring is wrong (*cough* hypocrite *cough*) and oh, yeah, one of the prostitutes has $32,000 stashed somewhere that's his if he can find it.

So, without further adieu, let the hatin' begin:

A) You know, it's actually kind of hard to truly hate this book because it's so dated it reads almost as a parody of itself. Every man in here is all hopped up on testosterone and adrenaline, while all of the women are highly sexualized nymphettes. Men are meant for fighting and women are meant for screwing after the fighting is done. The only thing differentiating the men is whether or not there's a brain behind the brawn and athletic prowess. The only thing that differentiates the women is cup size and whether or not you will have to leave money on the nightstand after the screwing is done.

B) From what I gather, Travis McGee is a beloved literary figure. Well, I can certainly see why. Nothing is more lovable than a misogynistic sea cock (which I shall forever think of him as after he describes having a cleverly hidden stash in the boat's sea cock and I thought, "No, sir, you are the sea cock.") One might argue that, no, McGee doesn't hate women--look at how many women have had the exquisite and life changing opportunity to experience his magical sea cock. One would be a dumb ass to argue such. Sleeping with women doesn't equate respecting women. At one point, Meyer tells McGee, "You like women as people. You do not think of them as objects placed here by a benign providence for your use and pleasure." To which I say, bull shit. I don't like the cut of that gibberish. All he does is objectify them. After a lengthy description of their sexual attributes--after every swell of breast has been noted, after every curve of hip has been catalogued, after every ass has been analyzed--he immediately culls these potential sexual conquests into one of two categories: worthy of the sea cock and not worthy of the sea cock. Depending upon to which group a woman belongs, she can expect to be called "kitten," "pussycat," "honey," "broad," "punchboard," "slut," "whore," or "bitch." I detect a strong whiff of misogyny in the air.

C.a) But at least McGee uses his sexual prowess for good sometimes. In the beginning of the novel, he regales us with the story of Vidge, a housewife who worries that she has become "frigid" after her domineering husband has made her doubt her own sexuality. Poor Vidge. She'll never enjoy sex again. Paging Dr. Cock! Dr. Sea Cock! Oh, McGee has the cure for what ails her. He takes her "swimming, fishing, beachcombing, skindiving" and then takes her pants off after he's tired her out to the point of least resistance (life was so much tougher before roofies) and reminds her of why it's good to be a woman. McGee found some "pleasure in the missionary work"--pun intended?--but it's something of a sacrifice because "dealing at close range with a batch of acquired neuroses can make your ears ring for a week."

C.b) What's good for the gander apparently isn't good for the goose. Despite his admission that he's done his fair share of sleeping around, McGee seems to think that too much sex can ruin a good woman. From the philosophical musings of McGee: "I have the feeling there is some mysterious quota, which varies with each woman. And whether she gives herself or sells herself, once she reaches her own number, once X pairs of hungry hands have been clamped tightly upon her rounded undersides, she suffers a sea change wherein her juices alter from honey to acid, her eyes change to glass, her heart becomes a stone, and her mouth a windy cave from whence, with each moisturous gasping, comes a tiny stink of death." Right. So we women apparently die a little each time we sleep with someone new. But maybe that's because our morals have been compromised, whereas, when McGee shags nasty, he's just out there doing the Lord's work amongst the frigid masses. What an asshat.

C.c) Sleeping with hundreds of women? Living on a houseboat? Specializing in frigidity reduction therapy? Does anyone else see a connection between Travis McGee and Leon "The Ladies Man" Phelps? I fully expected McGee to proposition a woman with the old, "Hey, sweet thang. Can I buy you a fish sandwich?"

D) After saving Vangie (the aforementioned whore), McGee seems to have respect for her intelligence and is actually proud of her refusal to scream after being tossed to her death. However, after a second and more successful attempt is made to kill Vangie, McGee seems to suffer from "When they're dead, they're just hookers!" syndrome. Suddenly, he begins rhapsodizing about how "she was a cheap, sloppy, greedy slut" and philosophically wondering, "Wasn't the world maybe just a little bit better off minus one slut?" This inconsistency in character continued throughout the novel and really made me dislike McGee because I felt I could never really get a firm hold on the character. Is he meant to be a likable scofflaw, a salty Casanova, a greedy knight in somewhat tarnished armor? And this isn't the result of complexity of character. What he would say or do at one point in the novel was often at complete odds with something he said or did at another point in the novel. If anything, I'd say he suffers from a lack of definition and is often as 2 dimensional as the female characters.

E) I was baffled by the whole plan to bring down the prostitution ring in the end. It seems like Meyer and McGee go to some ridiculously complicated lengths when simpler ones would have sufficed. Like the whole hiring an actress to play Vangie bit or the buying a doll and making it look like Vangie to freak out her killer. Yeah, because nothing messes with the mind of a stone cold killer like the old Madame Alexander porcelain doll scheme. Those dolls are creepy as shit.

After finishing this book and giving an audible sigh of relief, I noticed the promo for the next book: "Now that you've finished this Travis McGee adventure, we bet you can't wait for another exciting case. To satisfy your craving, please turn the page . . . " In case you're wondering, I did not turn the page as this is where I and Travis "Sea Cock" McGee shall forever part ways.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

 Unfortunately it's been that long since I've been motivated enough (or not distracted sufficiently) to attempt to deal with the once again steadily increasing backlog of paper currently causing my wife to slowly begin hating the sight of my face, that I've nearly forgotten just what it was I wanted to tell people about the late Tony Judt and his "thought-provoking polemic" (thanks Chris Patten c/o The Observer). I'm sure it was considered and erudite whilst lacking succinctness, as is most of the dribble currently blotting my online copy book.

Of course, temporal distance is not the only problem. For what Judt does in his collection of related essays (or is it one long essay? Damn those extra tequilas of my misbegotten youth and their brain-cell damaging fun) is basically moan about what's wrong in the world, harping on about developing a new discourse that allows Americans to join in the debate surrounding representative forms of governance and their impacts on society instead of making them poop their red-necked undies at the mere mention of phrases beginning with "social" and the accompanying but unintended pinko-commie imagery. Having read The Spirit Level very soon after, Judt's rather forlorn hope that social democracy (or Social Democracy - I can never remember) can transform the youth of this and subsequent generations into motivated and politicized participants in the debate (instead of the insipid turds he regards as polluting the representative governments in this "age of the [political] pygmies") just seems a bit like a fart in a chocolate teapot in comparison. God bless the missus for her stoic insistence that she not be divorced with children! Otherwise I'd be on the streets for continually trying her patience by regurgitating facts and figures illustrating points only half-remembered and completely inadequately expressed drawn from the pages of this astounding work. If you are presented with a choice between the two (unlikely, as most threatened high street book chains refuse to waste valuable shelf space on interesting and potentially world-changing political debate despite the pressing need for such) then Wilkinson and Pickett (sounds like a country duo) should get the nod. Sorry Tony. Whereas Judt resolutely defends outdated leftist ideology, Wilkinson and Pickett get stuck into some serious solution-focused stuff, thanks to years of dedicated research on the topic. Visit the website of the Equality Trust for more stuff on things, and for all the evidence you need to put an end to a solid relationship via boredom. They're also on Twitter so they are.