Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Triumphant Return Appendix 1

Bless you lovely people. I had a response from a reader to my previous post asking me which authors made the cut and survived the purge, and which were sent to the Gulag. So, in answer, in alphabetical order here are some of the authors whose books were deemed indispensible.

Paul Auster, Nicholson Baker, John Barth, Thomas Bernhard, T.C. Boyle, Richard Brautigan, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Umberto Eco, Tibor Fischer, Richard Flanagan, Joseph Heller, W.F. Hermans, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, John D MacDonald (unread ones), Harry Mulisch, Ryu Murakami (selected), Cees Nooteboom, Viktor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, Will Self, Natsume Sōseki, Mark Twain, Kurt (and Mark) Vonnegut.

On reflection, I appear to be a serial literary misogynist, or, for the sake of my own vanity, whatever word is next down the taxonomical hierarchy of hate from misogyny. I did have some novels by women, I’m sure, but then they went to charity / the recycling bin so I’m not really able to defend myself with any robustness. I hope this answers your question.
The Voyage of Somebody
The Sailor by John Barth
Tortilla Curtain by Tom Coraghessan Boyle

The Concert by Ismail Kadare
I Am A Cat by
Natsume 
Sōseki
Deep Blue Goodbye
by John D MacDonald



Monday, 10 December 2012

Triumphant Return*

If you can save any of them, my books can
be found at Oxfam, Albany Road, Cardiff.
I am moved. Both in the literal, location-swapping sense and in the lesser used (by me) "Jimminy-H-Cricket What Have I Done?!" emotional meaning. 

Gone is the old, mouldy and crumbling but generously proportioned flat, replete with ample bookshelves and free-standing storage facilities plus laundry room and three (count 'em, three!) toilets. Our new abode is the snug, warm, dry conveniently located two bed terraced house of our dreams, with one minor** drawback - no space for our combined collected (and also slightly mouldy) reading history. 

I clearly hadn't thought this through. When packing books into boxes (many, many boxes) we paid no heed to the relative floor spaces of future and erstwhile dwellings, including whether there would actually be enough space to unload the boxes, let alone unpack them. Once the move was under way, it quickly became apparent that once the furniture was in place, boxes of books would not fit. Not that many anyway. Therefore, I spent a very cold and miserable evening in the back of the transit opening boxes and dividing books into discrete piles:

2) Yet to read (try to accommodate)
3) Easily replaced (to re-buy once space allows)
4) Rubbish (off to the Charity shop!)
5) Advanced proofs (not for resale or distribution)

The horror etc. 

It transpires that only 1 in 7 books made it into piles one and two, a state of affairs which took me by surprise. I had expected it to be much, much more difficult to select books that I would not keep, and indeed, piles three and four were growing alarmingly quickly. Pile five was also on the colossal side. 

In fact, once the task was done, I felt a strange kind of relief bordering on the cathartic. My wife was the same once she wielded Occam's Razor on her collection. In the end we managed to accommodate our entire remaining combined collection in two wall alcoves in our downstairs living/dining rooms (floor to ceiling naturally). What the fuck we do with new books is a question I will not entertain until it arises (probably in about 30 minutes time when I accidentally browse some of my favourite independent book retailers' websites). 

The Baby Jesus Butt Plug
Zombie sex abounds.
So, if you're near Oxfam on Albany Road in Cardiff, it might be worth your while to pop in and see if they actually put my near complete Cartlon Mellick III collection on sale. I can confidently predict that Baby Jesus Butt Plug might be a difficult sale in a Christian charity shop. Incidentally, if you pick up anything with a dedication "To Gareth", I would also like to apologise if the author has followed it up with any personalised abuse. Or, in the case of Rolf Harris, a Rolf-a-roo. 

Lastly, I am left only to say that normal service will resume shortly. As predicted  my original time frame was overly ambitious, and it is likely that Christmas will pass before the next review appears. Thank you for accepting my hiatus and coming back to read more. You will not**** be disappointed.


*NB The post title has absolutely nothing to do with the album Triumphant Return  from the Christian metal band Whitecross, released on January 31, 1989 which reached #13 on Billboard's Top Contemporary Christian Albums chart and also won a Dove Award for Hard Music Album of the Year for 1989. I have no time for Christian metal.

**Only minor if I were to follow my own advice, and that of the Bible*** in so far as it's time to put away childish things - which the informed reader will clearly understand means MAJOR

***Sorry to any secular readers for the continued Christian references. They are accidental and in no way represent my own views on spirituality and organised religion, which are mired in a gleeful and sadistic ignorance. As Father Jack might say, "That would be an ecumenical matter."

**** [INSERT PREDICTABLE SELF-DEPRECATING JOKE HERE]

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

Prélude en Do M. Ja.
With the publication of Høeg's latest, The Elephant Keeper's Children, came a timely reminder that I had so far neglected his often disparaged 2006 "thriller". This may be a tiresome refrain, but it had been on the shelves for quite some time (since approximately 2006 in fact) and looked off-puttingly drizzle-grey, conjuring images of prose of vague beauty and uncrackable intellectualism, coupled with only a dizzy hint of narrative and mostly confusing characters. Of course, this is written with hindsight, so most of my now fully formed thoughts are informed by one particular review I read before starting, that of the much enjoyed Bookslut which one may read by clicking on the disturbing moniker so indicated.

Of course, regular readers (oh ho! More tired self-deprecation approaching - the plural noun there is probably redundant) of mine will understand that, as Aristotle puts it, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" so of course, believing myself to be educated (by which I mean I have amassed a substantial quantity of facts with which to give the lie to my restricted intelligence) I set out immediately to make camp in the opposite point of view. On went Bach's Goldberg Variations and out came the stern, furrowed brows and pensive lip-chewing.

For those of you unable to successfully navigate an embedded hyperlink, what Bookslut suggests is as follows: in order not to actually enjoy but to simply comprehend Høeg's much maligned novel, one would need most if not all of the following tools:
  • the complete audio recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach, which, as collected in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis [Bach Works Catalogue], amount to some 1,100-plus cantatas, canons, fugues and chorales;
  • a comprehensive book on music theory;
  • a detailed street map of Copenhagen;
  • a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device;
  • a guide to the Danish tax system;
  • a working knowledge of poker;
  • a thorough understanding of gambling addiction, which can be acquired through sitting in on a few Gamblers Anonymous meetings;
  • a Ouija board;
  • an picture book of nun orders of the world;
  • a familiarity with clown performances, ranging from slapstick to the highly stylized;
  • a hearing aid (or better yet a bionic ear, if you can afford one);
  • and a bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen [for the inevitable headache GBD]
"Get Bach, get Bach,
get Bach to where..." etc.
So, Kasper Krone, world-renowned clown (something it seems to be considered a boon in Denmark) has supersonic hearing, a deep and abiding love of J.S. Bach, and an awful lot of trouble with the Danish (and Spanish - she neglects to mention this point) authorities for various misdemeanours and felonies. For context's sake, he is thus manoeuvred into helping a bizarre cult-ish order of nuns (of an Orthodox Eastern Russian denomination if I'm not mistaken) find a missing child, whose proximity provides Krone with a mystical and mysterious oasis of calm in the sound-scape of the modern world.

However, to pick off the first on the above list: one need not be familiar with the works of Bach, or the modal key of his cantatas and fugues, to appreciate the reason for their inclusion. Whilst Bookslut accuses the author of overloading the reader, I would argue that the additional information comes as a caveat or footnote to explain to the lay reader what this means to the character and is therefore quite important to a fuller understanding. One may counter by saying that he is therefore spoon-feeding the reader. One wouldn't if one had actually read the book! 

In addition, Chabon makes no apologies for the use of the streets and environs of Sitka in The Yiddish Policeman's Union without providing a scale O/S map of the city; nor does Delillo for a similar oversight in Cosmopolis (worryingly, so it would seem, now a film with the versatile ex-vamp R-Patz). Høeg goes to town (pardon the pun) on the streets of Copenhagen, where he was born way back in 1957* with a love that is evident in the way he lingers on the names and places that evoke the place of his birth and no doubt bring back happy childhood memories**. The essential information is present, clearly so, and we understand where Krone is in relation to other key venues and points of action, and although perhaps persiflage to the reader in search of distracting enjoyment, the additional info adds value to the sense of place and indeed time.

I, no more so than any other, understand the lure of a good hook in a book review, but I think Bookslut may have over-reached with the employment of this one. After these two points have been addressed, the others are merely superfluity to draw out a creaking trope.

To reaffirm my thorough enjoyment of Bookslut's talents here would not be a bad idea. I think she is a very talented critic, with a mostly positive influence on the way that others read. Here, I think, she may have been slightly overawed to the point of fatigue by the weight of detail. As an apologist for Høeg I would defend this novel, even to the death (of course, not my death). I have since invested in the (nearly) complete works of Bach (as well as Haydn and have also added to my Mozart collection) and even pursued the foolish notion that Kasper Krone may have a real-life doppelganger (not that I can see). This book has inspired me to listen to beautiful music and suspend my disbelief, even in things as crazy as Children of the Corn-type telekinesis. For that I am grateful to the author and would recommend The Quiet Girl to anyone with some time and patience, and an ear for wonderful prose.

BUT - please go read more of Bookslut's reviews and columns. She too is the worth the effort.

Well would you credit it? The lovely author is only a chuffin' Taurean, born a day "after" me! In my book, that makes him a solid gold, stand-up guy with no praise undue. 

** Forgive the projections here. I SAID FORGIVE!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Metaliterature on Hiatus

Metaliterature is taking a break. Not a long one, and not by choice. You see, the Literature family, (Meta, Children's, Challenging Women's and Pet Care Literature) is moving home, and all of the family's library has been packed into discrete but very similar boxes with no obvious markings thereupon. Thus, I am in the startling position that I actually have nothing to read! 
Have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea etc.
We should be in and unpacked for December 2012* so normal service will be resumed once I've found where I put the latest Will Self novel.

In the meantime, there is a last hurrah on the horizon, what with Peter Høeg due a punt imminently, so don't go too far now, y'hear? 


*Realistically, July 2013...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard

'Ee's not the messiah etc.
All is not what it seems with Richard Beard and his writing. Taken on a primary level, as I do with most novels, Lazarus...is a slightly dry, mostly comic portrayal of an interpretation of the life of Lazarus, interspersed with "fact" taken and / or extrapolated from various sources, including the Gospel of John, various Renaissance paintings and the like. My wife, being an intelligent, literate and generally >170 IQ type person, quickly identified that this book was clearly not just a simple imagined biography.

I think the exchange went something like this:

She - Oh.
Me - Wassat?
She - Reminds me of Raymond Queneau and those chaps*.
Me - Exercises in Style Raymond Queneau?
She - Hm-hm, and the Oulipo bunch**.
Me - Aren't they a Romanian football team?


After her withering look and sigh of disgust, of course I rushed immediately*** to the library**** to check out Oulipo (or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and what that meant in context. I was none the wiser.


Me - You've lost me.
She - What are we talking about?
Me - Oulipo FC, the Romanian football team.
She - That was two months ago!

She graciously pointed out that I was, in fact, overlooking a very interesting literary conceit in that Beard was numbering his chapters from seven (also, so it happens that she was able to tell me an important biblical number) to zero and back to seven again, whilst restricting each chapter to the same amount of passages or sections therein, creating a sense of tension towards the middle where everything becomes contracted and the drama builds. 

Apparently, there was a
man on a bus.
Me - Oh. And did you like it?
She - Hm? What?
Me - The book? You read it?
She - No. Not my cup of tea. 
Me - Then how...?
She - What?
Me - ...did you know...?
She - I'm not a fucking moron.

She may as well have added "like you" to that last sentence. Well, the scales fell from my eyes***** and I wept with understanding at last. Beard is clearly influenced by these French intellectuals and therefore what is on the surface a very interesting and entertaining read (Lazarus is a good, solidly realised character in spite of the tiny amount we actually know about him) is made doubly so by the fact that he has forced such a curious restriction on his writing. The result, as mentioned, is right up my street, and makes Jesus out to be a very cold, calculating Messiah-in-waiting, as he tests all of his "stunts" on Lazarus before trying them himself, and as each "miracle" he performs increases in wonder, Lazarus becomes progressively sicker as he knows he must. Without risking a spoiler, Lazarus dies. Beard, however, continues his narrative. 

Erudite, imaginative and full of dry humour, I like Beard's vision of Lazarus and life in the time of Jesus. Personally, I think it stands up as a novel without all the extra literary guff, but then I'm clearly a dimwit.


*N.B. such gentrified nonsense as the use of the word "chaps" is purely a fiction of my own making. Being French, she would of course only use the correct word at the correct moment, and not be such a useless fop.
** Ditto for the use of the word "bunch".
*** For verisimilitude, in place of "immediately", please substitute "eventually". And you can probably trim off the verb "rushed" and replace with "found myself stumbling upon"...
**** Ahem. Wikipedia....
***** Need I highlight my unworthiness as a narrator once more?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I take exception to this tag-line;
Dexter barely does any killing
In retrospect, it is a fool’s errand to attempt to review one of a series of books, especially when earlier volumes have been given the old sacred cow slaying once before, thus outlining the particular themes and devices used by the author and the singular characteristics of the recurring character(s). Indeed, Dexter is now a household name, thanks to the popular Showtime series, and as such it is difficult to find a new angle amidst the entropy of my particular system. If one is aware of the main conceit, the only other areas of discussion are plot or style related. Therefore, after a cursory attempt to put across what is new or what continues to be good / bad in this, the sixth volume of the series, I might take the opportunity to digress.


Dexter is still alive and practising his dark arts in the Miami district, all the while maintaining his double existence as a forensic geek at Miami Metro PD. Curiously, in this volume, he doesn't get to do much killing, although it doesn't stop him from thinking about it. Apart from in the opening scene, the catalyst for the resulting plot development of which more later, the killing is performed by a mad chap with a mallet and a grudge, a sinister stalker, brother Brian, and a hammerhead shark. A little disappointing you might think, especially as Astor and Cody have seemingly regressed to being simply children and teenagers with a bit of a hump (suppressing their own dark urges for now). Oh, and Rita gets drunk a bit. So much for plot. On style, Lindsay does get a little maudlin in places, where the future is not so bright for the devilish Dexter and what appears to be depression sets in. Of course, being written in a retrospective, first person narrative style, everything is recounted in a very knowing fashion, with no doubt as to the successful conclusion of the story arc. Lots of the usual dramatic irony, some rather amusing one-liners, and the ubiquitous moral abyss of the main character keep Lindsay right on message, in the groove, and other metaphors for successful stylistic continuity. If you like books one through five, you will most likely like book six.

That digression I warned you about will begin right here. Those informed readers may wish to hit back on the browser about… now. So the digression is this – where do I go from here? Dexter is clearly brain candy, and should probably have gone in an In-Betweeners review – no disrespect to the author or his endeavours – where it could be appreciated quietly without upsetting anyone. There is no natural inter-textual link from here (not that I ever needed one) but I currently lack inspiration, due to the fact that most of my books are now weighing down fifty or sixty cardboard boxes adorning the formerly void spaces of my apartment, waiting to be shipped to my new house, should such a thing ever exist. I risk going off with tangential rage about estate agents and the whole house-buying scam, but I have been severely restricted in the visible choice of next reads. However, thanks to the broadsheets and a surprising second hand purchase via Amazon Marketplace from Waterstones Gower Street (I never knew they were selling books through the competitor’s website), Peter Høeg is back on the list, and I think may well be next. Either that or the new Will Self, a copy of which is winging its way me-wards as we speak, thanks to Jonathan Main and @booksellercrow. I’ll keep you informed.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective /ˈmetə/
  1. (of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential
Interestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, taken from a website which, despite having been on it several times, I'm not entirely sure what it's called (but is written by a Dr Wheeler who one would hope is a teacher, given his history of teaching people in US universities, although that may not be an essential criterion these days):

METALITERATURE: Literary art focused on the subject of literary art itself. Often this term is further divided into metapoetry, metafiction, and metadrama.
I'm pretty happy with my definition, and would welcome any comments to the contrary or, indeed, in support. I'm also happy to live in ignorance, so it's up to you**.

Meta-Literatur (German)
Meta-literaturo (Esperanto)
元文学 (Chinese - simplified)
μετα-λογοτεχνία (Greek)
मेटा साहित्य (Hindi - my favourite as is particularly pretty)
Meta-llenyddiaeth (Welsh!)
Meta-tài liệu (Vietnamese)
Meta-fasihi (Swahili)
Meta-bókmenntir (Icelandic)

*For a more interesting definition and in context, you should probably check out the Oxford Online Dictionary entry.

**You may consider this a fraudulent attempt to court mis-directed visits from random countries for no other reason that to clock up on hit-counts. You would be correct but also in danger of revealing the vanity of this whole set-up, so I would kindly ask that you don't tell anyone, okay?

Monday, 24 September 2012

***UTTER FILTH WARNING*** House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

My current favourite
is "Famished sluthole"
In order to truly do justice to this book, and the rather spiffy reputation of Mr Baker for clever and challenging fiction, I attempted to read several reviews, posted around the time of publication, in many British broadsheets of firm middle-groundedness and of some repute. This may or may not be a cardinal sin of lazy reviewers, but I was in need of inspiration, prior to beginning reading, to keep my focus, as from what I understood of Baker's latest "novel" (parenthesis may be clarified later) it could curdle a bishop's milk. 

Embarking on this tangent, you may expect that I found something unusual in my foraging. Indeed, the unexpected truffle among the mushrooms was the near constantly vituperative tone of most reviewers (the one exception - a rather entertaining piece in The Paris Review). Filth, pornography, and (sad to say I can't remember which review this was in, despite going in search of it a second time) a wank-book*, were just some of the surprising epithets cast about, some slanderous mud which, of course, was bound to stick to the mind of the consciously critical reader. "The dastardly swines!" thought I, champion of such cute verbose naughtiness as that of The Fermata, "How dare they sully my reading experience with such unfounded..." etc. [Damn, I bore myself sometimes - ed]. 

But, darn it all, they weren't wrong, reviewers and their epithets both. HoH is a series of rather daft sexual set-pieces with only a very confused framework of narrative continuity.

With the current outcry over literary filth - no names mentioned - one might understand the issues of the reviewers. The broadsheeters rightly point to the curious dream-like quality of the writing, the fleetingly fantastical situations and complete openness of all of the characters once they had arrived in the House of Holes (for the sake of context, HoH is a place where one's sexual fantasies are explored at an exorbitant cost and access to which is achieved via O-shaped portals hidden throughout the world - insert Freudian analysis here) including openness of thought, of speech, to suggestion and action, and suspension of disbelief, something I doubt Baker had any intention of creating in the reader. However, the action is all extremely explicit, sexually complicated (whilst emotionally straightforward) and blatant to the point of silliness, made all the more daft by, for me, the single redeeming feature of the book - the Viz-esque cornucopia of author-begotten sexual language. I have appended a list of some of the more entertaining metaphors, similes and imagery  to the end of this review, just for my own amusement and perhaps for your delectation. I can honestly say I have no idea what Baker is doing. I hasten to add "in writing this book" to that sentence. Ahem.

You could say I am disappointed, but then perhaps that's the point. I can imagine Baker thinking of his reader reading his arousing words with the avuncular bearded face of the author hovering in the background and engendering a confused mix of repulsion and lust and giggling to himself, schoolgirlishly, like John Barth might if he found a way to insinuate reported speech retold by a millionth narrator into yet another book about the Chesapeake Bay of his semi-retirement. Perhaps Baker is just being a dick for effect. Or perhaps this is catharsis of a sort, or counselling by the media, or artistic suicide by smut. I don't think I could second guess his motives, but I can enjoy the silliness, if I let the brain switch off. Give it a read if you want to draw your own conclusions, but I would advise against an overly public space.

As promised, some rude words over which to chuckle - I will let you translate yourselves:
Pornstarch
Bungee hole
Thumper bean
Peeny wanger
Blood-pulsing truncheoon
Slippery salope
Twisted shitter
Stiff fleshbone
Famished sluthole

*Hey, I found it! In an overly intelligent-sounding, but ultimately lackadaisical review in, that's right, you guessed it, The Guardian, James Lasden coins the limp phrase "Wank Book".

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson

Ouch. My wild magic hurts.
Every so often there comes along a book that is capable of devastation, one that wreaks emotional havoc and leaves strewn in its wake nothing but exhaustion, myopia and psychological ruin. I refer you to something like A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (back when it was biography and not fiction) or, for very different reasons, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, at over a million words, is the very definition of an exhausting read). Both books have had, at different times, the same power to make me want to engulf any handy intoxicant and cry myself to sleep.

Picture then, if you will, not one novel, not even 7 (à la Marcel Proust), but 9 books of the most soul-crushing emotional turmoil imaginable. Admittedly I have yet to read books 7, 8 and 9, but after reading the second omnibus of Thomas Covenant, I think I’m due a break.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever sees the eponymous sceptic and leper thrust back into the service of The Land, an alternate reality where Covenant’s illness is held in check and where his wedding band, a remnant from a marriage ended by the onset of his condition, holds the key to unimaginable power. The Land is sick, Lord Foul’s Sunbane afflicting all life with its alternating droughts, deluges, pestilence and febrile fertility. The people he once knew are gone, 3000 years having passed since his last visit, in relative temporal terms, and those that remain make sacrifices of blood to ensure their survival. The Land is devastated, next to death. This time, however, following him across the divide is an equally disturbed doctor, named The Chosen and also Sun Sage, and whose presence is a matter of great concern to everyone, especially Covenant.

I read somewhere that Donaldson was fearful of writing a follow up to the first three books, and also the third story arc once number two was under the belt. In fact, this is what he said:
“I was afraid. At my first glimpse of The Last Chronicles, I knew that it would be astonishingly difficult to write... in order to accomplish that goal I'll have to go far beyond my known abilities, both as a story-teller and as a writer. The prospect terrified me.”
Before beginning The Last Chronicles... he also told his official website, 
“I'm not ready... I'm probably never going to be ready.” 
You may think he is talking about the commitment of time, the pitting of his abilities against an Herculean task, or proving to the world that the success of the first books was not just a fluke. I believe he is talking about mining the depths of the soul, re-visiting the dark places where Covenant’s irrational and disease-ridden impulses push up through his conscious will to corrupt his desire to help. It must be a terrifying experience, to submerge oneself in such a dark way of thinking, considering that reading what he writes is a challenging endeavour. Reading 1200 pages of it is like submitting to electro-shock. I can’t imagine what writing it must take out of him.

Even if it takes the reader to the dark recesses of the soul, and strips psychological flesh from psychological bones, as Covenant and co. stumble from one disaster to the next, crises building to the point of ultimate crisis, it has one major redeeming feature: it is damned fine writing. The spectre of hope is always tantalizingly out of reach, just over the next page, just past this latest tragedy, just one more day bathed in the evil glow of the Sunbane, until you think you can’t go on, but you do. The reader must mirror the trials and tribulations of Covenant to reach catharsis, pushing relentlessly through pages of terror and torment to realise the release of The Land from the grip of the Despiser. Donaldson demands an investment of time and emotion that I have yet to discover in another author, and it is a cost I am willing to pay (albeit with some time off between chronicles to recharge the brain with some light-hearted tom-foolery). In all seriousness, something you probably won’t expect from the pages of this review-type blog, if you have a few weeks to devote to something good, something great, something challenging, something brutal, something beautiful to read, then devote it to this series. 


Friday, 7 September 2012

The Case For Working With Your Hands... by Matthew Crawford


You know those books where, prior to reading them under the weight of readerly guilt for having to this point completely neglected them, you had avoided them as you expect, once the plunge has been taken and cover opened, to be confronted by a whimsical piece of nonsense, written whilst whiling away a few hours between gloating about how wonderful your life is to your dwindling stock of friends and sleeping with your ridiculously good-looking wife who also makes the world’s greatest vegan curry, and destined to annoy the shit out of you because you had the vain hope that maybe just this once it would be worthwhile and life-changing but are fully expecting to be seriously disappointed? That.

Sorry, did I just utilise a Twitter device?

A condemnation of my life.
Well, “That” in this case would be a gigantic fucking* lie. This book, scholarly in a slightly biased fashion, anecdotal in an entertaining and endearing manner, so so very interesting in a “Jesus Hindu Krishna I’ve wasted my life” sort-of-way, is the antithesis of those vapid arse-wipers. God damn it all to Hell if only I had access to this sort of advice when I rather short-sightedly decided that Law was the path to the most riches with the least amount of effort pre-GCSE choice, aged 13**. What Crawford manages, in a manner on reflection which is somewhat preachy, is to give sufficient evidence, calling on sources ancient, old, modern and post-modern, to prove (to me anyway, with my penchant for idleness) conclusively that work without a product is not work – it is containment.

Why else would someone like B&Q advertise with a slogan that presupposes pride in a job done, not necessarily well, but at least by oneself if not because effort for an end product, a tactile, every-fucker-can-see-it product that illustrates just how fucking hard you’ve had to work to get there? Information Management is just so much shit. Bertrand Russell said the definition of “work” (and I think he meant this pejoratively) was twofold: “first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so.” Judging from this I would say he is of a similar position to Crawford, in so far as if your job fulfils the natural role in your life of producing something that makes you proud, that you can experience as a product of your labours, or that other people can enjoy and relate that enjoyment to you, then it does not count as work.

Oh fuck – if only I had been told all of this when I was a stupid, ignorant little dipshit by someone other than my mum, who, bless her, did tell me that a trade would always be in demand and that I should take up plumbing. At that tender age the spectre of rooting around in soil pipes was so abhorrent to me that the door closed forever (or nearly forever). Where would my life be now? I suspect that I would be living in a carved mahogany mansion overlooking the city I had built from the ground up with my bare hands, with grateful citizenry depositing offerings of fruit, bread and sexy young daughters at my doors daily.

All this distracting expostulating  with the way my life has turned out, at least on the work front, should not take away from the fact that this is a good book. Not brilliantly written, not easy to read (at first), and probably not well footnoted enough to pass as someone’s doctoral thesis, but very much an argument for a way of life that is so appealing to me that I have already stopped working very hard in my role as an administrator.

Anyone who raised an eyebrow just then, can leave now.

*A pre-emptive apology for all the swearing would normally appear here, but fuck you.

**In an aside worthy of getting myself a spousal kicking for my habitual “blame the fuck out of everyone except myself” whinging, I blame it on my parents’ obsession with L.A. Law.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I was told this would be a catered event.

I have always held the snug and comforting illusion that Eco, being a rotund, avuncular European in my mind (and in reality, once I’d bothered to look him up, judging from a photo grabbed from Wikipedia – Eco is the ever so slightly less hirsute mammal on the right) was a properly cuddly old European Intellectual (capital I no less) who wrote comfortable fables of a suitably magical realism or historical fantasy bent. No doubt, the rather good but clearly inadequate cinematic version of The Name Of The Rose is partially to blame.

A cursory investigation however dredged up a host of worrying and confusing concepts and authors from the swamps of my lost and forgotten academic hinterland – post-modernism, semiotics, intertextuality, honkadori; Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Roland Barthes. When I purchased a signed copy of The Prague Cemetery from the lovely people at Rossiter Books (you can follow them on Twitter so you can) I believed I was in for a challenging but entertaining belt through some of History’s (capital H mind you) most interesting events.

Not so cuddly.
What I got, however, made me anxious. Here I was, thoroughly enjoying the surprise, arising from the forgotten love of word-play, the fact that I didn’t need to care about Foucault or Kristeva to “get it”, the fact that my history lessons hadn’t let me down so much so that I couldn’t put all of the players into proper context, and the fun of the double and sometimes triple narrative (how the author likes to play with the Quixotic ‘found’ manuscript ruse!), and yet I found myself all too often identifying with a protagonist who fears and detests Jews to the point that his “work” eventually ends up on the tables of every anti-Semite in the Western world. Am I therefore an anti-Semite? Is Eco? Am I right to castigate myself?

Of course not - although at times I had to remind myself. My anxieties, as I understand it, are the pragmatic response of the reader to the symbolism and its uses in the novel. My own cosy assumptions were ripped asunder by the power and irresistible force of Eco’s prose. And of course, ‘Captain’ Simone Simonini does not just hate the Jews – he also hates the Jesuits, followers of Garibaldi, women, Palladians, Free Masons, Russians, psychologists and mystics to name but a few. To have all of that hate and bile decanted and distilled into one character, a curious gourmand whose actions might disgust but whose life – and therefore in this context, writings - you can’t help but wish to be prolonged, is quite masterful. I can’t remember a moment when I wished that he would get on with it, or when I found myself skipping a few lines to get back to the action. I loved it, a strong sentiment indeed you might say, coming as it does from a man who vacillates between delight and disgust when there are too many distractions in a novel. Eco is awesome, and I am truly cowed by the complete erudition that must underscore his writing talents – not that I was on his playing field to start with. However, as my boss once said, “aim for the stars, young man, and you will surely hit your ceiling.”

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Driving Jarvis Ham by Jim Bob

I had a very enjoyable weekend this weekend past, spent drinking and then recovering with some friends with whom this had not been done in quite a while. One of them is a former radio presenter from Coventry (he’s from Lincolnshire, but the radio station was in Coventry) who regaled those present with tales of performer misadventures, including Ginger from The Wildhearts, and amongst others (discretely, if not discreetly), Carter USM.

[The knowing amongst my readers would spot immediately to where I’m off with this little prologue]

In return for these interesting revelations, another of the party, himself a Wildhearts fan (a British band who interestingly offer their website in both English and Japanese) nodded knowingly as he offered an anecdotal riposte about his friend who baked a birthday cake for Les Fruitbat Carter.

[Eeep! In the drive for proximal glory I may have wandered, but shall endeavour to pull this back in]

Which in turn reminded me to ask both if they’d read either of the novels written by Jim Bob – curt shakes of heads to indicate the negative.  Thankfully (for them) I was unable to launch into a fevered pre-emptive defence of the prose stylings of Carter’s front man, as one friend turned to vociferously appraise the relative aesthetic values of the chicklets and crumpets of Cardiff in direct comparison to the nugatory beauty of those of his current place of residence, Hull.

What I might have said, given the chance, would likely have sounded much like the review I wrote of Storage Stories a few months back, but with more direct reference to Jim Bob’s latest offering.

That's not got much ham in it.
Driving Jarvis Ham, despite engendering a rather endearing Vimeo collage of Pets Reading Jarvis Ham, and being championed by the independent bookselling world at large (notably The Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, where I got my signed copy of Jarvis) is unlikely to burst onto the literary scene in the way that explicit pornography has done so recently, or capture the hearts and minds of generations of would-be public school whipping boys á la J.K. Rowling. It is however, likely to be embraced by those in search of an entertaining read, those with long-standing emotional ties to the music of the late 80s, 90s and perhaps those currently on the nostalgia trail with Carter USM’s recent touring activities – “the best show at [name of festival omitted due to drunken mishearing] by far” says @Governmentyard.

Ostensibly the story of the *cough* rise and fall of one fame hungry young man, with the talent of an ashtray and the looks to match (think 1960s ashtrays, not those cool James Bond cut glass ones), it’s told by Jarvis Ham’s long standing friend and *cough cough* manager, for whom the spectacle of a talentless turd endlessly wringing emotional resonance from a near miss with Princess Diana outside a Wimpey in the 80s, and prostituting his dreams to a public immune to their charms seems to be relentlessly engrossing, a bit like watching someone play Tetris to a high level and having to provide them with Pot Noodles and a bucket in which to piss so they can concentrate on what they’re doing. I didn’t quite understand this attachment, but didn’t worry myself over it, unlike the narrator’s unseen girlfriend, whose concerns are noted on occasion as narrative ballast. The dramatic twist, when it comes, hinted at through fricative warnings throughout not to become attached to the protagonist, involves a series of assaults and eventually murders in a chain of roadside diners along the arterial A road between London and the south west. And as an explanation for his long-suffering support, it barely does justice to the longevity of the narrator’s association.

However, Jarvis’ secret alcoholism, his own pathetic collection of Jarvis memorabilia, the dry voice of Jim Bob’s mouthpiece, the badly drawn pictures of newspaper clippings and shoes, and the references to “culture in inverted commas” (my inverted commas, not Jim Bob’s) all add up, idiosyncratically, to fill a slim volume with wit, charm and style, reminding me why I enjoy Carter and other Jim Bob musical vehicles, and making me chuckle to myself at the world and everything. Bordering on the daft, but never crossing the line, Driving Jarvis Ham is darkly amusing, a fittingly acerbic observation on the pursuit of fame by those without natural ability, but by a man whose own flame of fame deserves a little fanning.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Nevermore by William Hjortsberg

Quoth the raven, "What is
Conan Doyle on about?"
For a number of years I was mistaken in the belief that Hjortsberg's only contribution to the morass of the Western literary tradition was 1978's frankly awesome Falling Angel, intriguingly brought to the big screen as Angel Heart in the 80s by Alan Parker with Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel (names not so awesome, admittedly) and convincingly evil Robert De Niro as Lucifer incarnate. Now, I learn that not only has he finally completed a monster biography of Richard Brautigan called Jubilee Hitchhiker (for more on my own personal love of Brautigan, shared via the brains of the world's most eccentrically lovely people, visit The Brautigan Book Club), but that he has also dabbled in sci-fi and been consistently dribbling other literary content onto the bib of public opinion for many years!

As a former bookstore manager, I should be ashamed. But you clearly don't know me if so you think, as I am not.

This, written in 1994, is a work that, more than just a little, put me in mind of Glen David Gold's carpal tunnel-wrenchingly thick novel Carter Beats The Devil, in so far as both feature a world famous illusionist and a series of strange goings-on to tax the mind of a genius. That Gold's is fictitious and Hjortsberg's is none other than Mr Harry Houdini doesn't add much value to an otherwise intriguing murder mystery, but might explain why Gold chose to create one himself, rather than utilise one pre-fabricated, given that this one was already taken and there are few left to compare. Of course, Houdini gets a run out in Carter... if only to provide the whet stone against which Gold's character Charlie Carter sharpens his persona. 

What Hjortsberg does with an imaginative flourish that also carries echos through Carter... is to weave the stories of Houdini's attempts to expose fraudulent mystics with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's own spiritualist tour of America, in reality two circles which did touch, two personalities who did meet and a narrative device firmly rooted in the reality of the historian's pen, albeit with the artist's permitted license to tweak time lines to suit. Doyle, haunted by the ghost of Edgar A. Poe for a reason undisclosed but delicious for its mystery, arrives in Houdini's life just as Houdini's own faith in his scepticism is trembling with the blows landed by the arcane temptress  Opal Crosby Fletcher, another real-life charlatan making her fictive bow. 

Not to give away too much of the plot, for it is entirely engrossing and complex, but Houdini's retinue, past and present is being chipped away at by an unknown serial killer, who uses the stories of Poe as a template for his morbid entertainments, and Houdini becomes both enraptured and enraged by his adulterous lust for Fletcher whilst Doyle is swept up in Houdini's reckless boast that the mind behind Sherlock Holmes would easily solve the baffling killings. 

Mixed well, generously seasoned with wit and charm, brutal imagery and delicate word play, and baked in an imagination as febrile and fecund as that of Hjortsberg, what is served up is a stout and flavoursome stew of grand designs. I thoroughly recommend Hjortsberg to the uninitiated, to the avid crime reader and the sceptic alike, with no qualms about rejections. If you haven't tried him already, then it's not too late.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus by Harry Harrison

ssr-omnibus
I consider it an ill omen that I
have already forgotten the
character's name...
I don't really know what it is that draws me, apparently by chance but I suspect more by dint of character imbalance (mine) to books that I hope I will like, enjoy reading to a greater or lesser degree, depending on a variety of factors, not least being current mood, but then can't help but find flaws therein which, annoyingly for me as I'm quite keen on the romantic ideals of right or wrong, good or bad, still doesn't put me right off finishing and buying the next novel in the series. What's more frustrating for good old "Black'n'White" GBD is that this particular book, one I fished from a faulty returns crate  destined for the big book bin in the sky (actually Little, Brown publisher's incinerator) has a whole three chapters missing from the second installation of the tale of... damn. I can't remember the character's name. That is not a good sign. Still, as previously mentioned, it didn't stop me from gamely pushing on, reconstructing the missing action from hints later in the book, and plowing straight into the third novel of the three without upset at the lacuna left behind by random book-binding serendipity (or lack thereof). 

So far so meh; hardly a glowing endorsement or a damning critique. But then I came to Harry Harrison via Charlton Heston and more serendipity, as I discovered that Soylent Green was an adaptation for screen of Make Room! Make Room! by none other than HH himself (and starring Edward G Robinson in his last film role, so it happens). As is my want, actions dictated as they are by the whims of Fate (hence 'metaliteral' intertextuality) I bought Make Room!... and went after something else by the same author, to see if it uncorked a gluttonous desire for all of his books.

And so, Slippery Jim (it just came back to me) was next, figuratively if not temporally. I must say I'm pretty indifferent. It may be due to the anachronistic view of the far future that betrays Harrison's grounding in the technology of his day, or it may be because I can't abide (maybe too strong - am mildly irritated by) the way the protagonist can conjure an escape from every trap, can waltz through locked doors and has the luck of the truly imaginary on his side. It likely stems from an inability on my part to definitively suspend my disbelief, and that is a crucial let-down in a novel where the fantastic is intended to be common-place. 

If I have offended any hardcore sci-fi legend-worshippers by being smugly churlish about these three works, then please ask yourselves what do I know? I am happy to disagree with anyone with a more objective perspective, and would be pleased to enter into a terrible Twitter debate that descends into name-calling, fake accounts posting sexually explicit slander and eventual user suspension (or worse, show trial and extradition). Of course, you my dear reader may well be as imaginary as James Bolivar deGris...