Monday, 28 December 2015

Glass Soup by Jonathan Carroll

God was a polar bear named Bob?
On the face of things, it might be easy to write-off Jonathan Carroll as a facile fantasist, someone who uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors for the whole meaning of life and love, and is overly obsessed with battles of good and evil and the grey areas in between. God knows, when I first read The Land Of Laughs I was confused as to why it merited a place in the Fantasy Masterworks series of books, and was left feeling distinctly bamboozled and empty afterwards. But there is a positive insidiousness about the writing, a depth betrayed by its apparent shallowness, and despite being annoyed at myself for seemingly confusing obviousness and profundity in the book, I went out and bought a load of other books by the same author, and have been steadily working my way through them for the best part of fifteen years. I still have a couple more to go. 

What does that tell you about Carroll? That he has a gift for reminding us of the ubiquitousness of the human experience? That he tells us we should trust ourselves, work hard at love, enjoy the wonder of life and not over-think things? That he sees there is poetry in a slice of chocolate cake, a shop window, a name carved on a tree? All of the above. In addition, he writes simply of complex things, creates impossible worlds in which you just have to believe, and uses vaguely oblique references and metaphors to make the most profound and startling suggestions about the world and our perceptions of it, our relationship with it and each other, and our often blinkered and ignorant solipsism. 

Each character in Glass Soup, lovers Vincent and Isabelle, friends Flora and Leni, conjured memories Broximon, Bob the polar bear, even the octopus driving the bus, serves a deeper purpose, pushes the story to its climax and revelations, and does so with surprisingly biting humour and an astonishingly casual panache. This novel is ridiculous, daft, bonkers, and wonderful, and if I don't appear to have said much about it, that is because I am still working out what to feel; something that is guaranteed to keep a novel in my thoughts and heart for a long, long time to come.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

A Man In Love: My Struggle Volume 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Indifference is one of the seven
deadly sins, actually the greatest
of them all, because it is the
only one that sins against life.
First off, Merry Christmas everyone, and also, here's wishing you all a very happy new year. Let's all hope that 2016 is the year that we all learn just what it is we want and how to get it.

To the task and book at hand, and I am trying desperately to space out my intake of Knausgaard, despite my usual trick of buying everything he's written as soon as I've read half of one book. I am an author-glutton, it's undeniable, but defensible in this instance as, after all, Knausgaard's work is compulsive reading, and very much like life itself it has episodes of great intensity dotted with moments of total self-immersion, acute scrutiny of the minutiae of existence, and rambling discourses on the nature of everything from emasculated fathers to whether madness is desirable in the literary arts. But I have one great reservation about this project, to which I'll come shortly. 

Book two follows on from one, picking up on the new, exciting relationship with Linda Borström, poet and dramatist, who fills the Tonje-shaped hole in his life almost as soon as he has left his first wife for life in Stockholm, hence the subtitle. It is almost very satisfyingly bookended by the story of an abortive and stressful-sounding holiday taken with their three kids, but of course, bucking all literary tropes (or perhaps using all that derive naturally from the storytelling arts) it can't possibly end in such a formulaic fashion  As it turns out that he had met Linda before, at a Nordic writer's seminar in Biskops-Arnö, where she spurns his drunken advances so he cuts up his own face. But she returns by dint of coincidence–she lives in the building in which he miraculously finds an apartment (which he refuses because he was ashamed she might consider it more than a coincidence)–and thereafter he discovers she really does hold a candle for him. So they get married and have the aforementioned three children, which changes his life in so many frightening, uncomfortable and instantly recognisable ways that he almost can't cope with it all.

It's does get a little post-modern. Towards the end of this book, Karl Ove is starting to write the first book, for some reason thinking it a solution to the cycle of anger and frustration on which both he and Linda are stuck. I may have missed the bit where he explains how that works. This book also seems to end with a tacked-on segment, after the spurned opening for the nicely circular ending, which rushes through his best friend mother's funeral to an ending in an unusually forthright manner, with little discussion or digression considering it takes in a revelation from his mother about his father (nothing earth-rending, but it does appear to have come out of the blue for Knausgaard). But honestly, it has me champing at the bit to read book three, so who's laughing now, eh?

Anyway, to the reservation at which I baulked earlier. I fear this cycle is going to end no-where. That there will be no satisfaction for the reader. That Knausgaard is going to go on living, angry, ashamed, indignant, perfidious, and we don't have a climax, or a dénouement, or a cliff hanger, or anything of the sort. It may be some sort of confessional series, something Knausgaard had to write for one of the many reasons has thus far touched upon in the first two books, and serves a purpose in that respect, but as a reader expecting some sort of narrative arc, some hook other than the writing is outstanding and complex and shockingly honest and "intense and vital, ceaselessly compelling" yaddah yaddah, I fear I'll come to the end and like watching a serial that is inexplicably cancelled mid-storyline, howl frustratedly into the sky in impotent rage. Of course, as drawbacks go, it's the least worst one imaginable, but that I'm worried about it already wears a little at my generosity of spirit. 

I've committed to reading two other novels before book three, but I confidently predict I'll race through them en route to Boyhood Island. I honestly can't wait.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald

I was leaving bloody footprints on
their shiny grey vinyl floor.
I fear the bored among you, those who clicked the wrong link or were betrayed by your search engine into clicking on to what is basically a giant advert for a real-life Evil Corp. but with added sarcasm and poorly framed* literary endeavour, will not stand for any preening or keening about the high regard in which I hold MacDonald as a gifted storyteller but the low regard in which I hold him for his insistence that masculinity, no matter how progressive the thought behind the action, is basically just about physical effort–at work, at play, in perilous situations and in the king-sized bed aboard The Busted Flush, McGee's 53 foot house boat, which he won in a poker game along with the owner's girlfriend and who he ditched at the first opportunity. For Travis McGee does pretty much bed all the attractive women he meets, unless they are actually spitting acid or filleting children. For that sort of exuberance, you can go visit my reviews for A Tan And Sandy Silence, The Long Lavender Look, The Turquoise Lament, Dress Her In Indigo, Darker Than Amber, Bright Orange For The Shroud, and A Deadly Shade Of Gold, but if you do, start wth ...Amber as it's by far the best (as I didn't write it).

No, for once, I will let the book do the talking, as despite reservations and embattled enthusiasms, the one thing you can count on in a John D. MacDonald novel is that something will surprise you, something will ring true, and make you realise that all those crazy mixed-up thoughts that spin around in the drum of your brain are felt by someone else. In this case, and because I'm feeling lonesome as it's Christmas and I'm all alone**, this is what captured my attention. Apologies for the wholesale theft of text, but I'm sure it constitutes less than 10% so up yours, Fair Use!


"Travis, I've mentioned to you the second law of thermodynamics."
"Which is?"
"That all organised systems tend to slide slowly into chaos and disorder. Energy tends to run down. The universe itself heads inevitably towards darkness and stasis."
"Cheering thought."
"Piogogine altered this concept with his idea of dissipative structures." 
I'm sure you're with me on this one. I've never felt so connected by someone else's analysis of the spiral of lonelin–– shit, hang on I'm missing a bit.
"He used the analogy of a walled city and an open city. The walled city, isolated from its surroundings, will run down, decay and die. The open city will have an exchange of material and energy with its surroundings and will become larger and more complex, capable of dissipating energy even as it grows. I have been thinking that it would not warp the analogy too badly to extend it to a single individual."
"The walled person versus the open person?"
"The walled person would decline, fade, decay."
"Meyer, dammit, I have a lot more interchange of material and energy with my environment than most."
Ugh. Always back to that. Never mind, on we press.
"In a physical sense, but you are not decaying in any physical sense..."
"The decay is emotional?" 
 "And you are walled, in an emotional sense... You are getting no emotional feedback."
 "Where do I go looking for some?"
 "That's the catch. You can't. It isn't that mechanical. You merely have to be receptive and hope it comes along."
"Meanwhile, I am being ground down by the second law of thermodynamics?"
"In a sense, yes." 
"Thank you so much." 
Yeah, that sounded a lot better when I was crying into a pint of red wine...

* And poorly executed I might add
** And milking it

Monday, 23 November 2015

The 42b: Dark Journeys In Cardiff

Firstly, I would like to take a moment to congratulate the people behind We Are Cardiff for taking the brave first step into the publishing world, a process initiated, so Hana Johnson said at the launch in November, because no-one else was as invested in the outcome as they felt it merited. I was able to briefly attend the gathering at Porter's (another good place in a city of good places in which to relax with people who don't want to stab you) before my non-alcohol-alleviated social anxiety took hold and I ran out into the fireworks. It seems I've not met anyone new in twenty years without some level of intoxication being involved, so this was a new and terrifying experience. From a distance, everyone seemed very lovely and a good time was had by all. 
Buy yourself a copy, Tidy.

Secondly, I would love to know what was the initial creative brief of this collection of twelve related short stories. What emerged, fetchingly packaged in high contrast black and silver and punctuated by designs from at least one of the nine separate authors, is a thoughtful selection of somewhat absurd and disturbing stories, hung on the central conceit of a journey through Cardiff on the fictional titular bus route, with a number of recurring themes and devices. An old-school wrestler travels to his last and likely terminal bout; a man with a carrier bag of mystery meat hopes no-one notices the flap of skin with a tattoo on it which has flopped out; a spurned lover confronts his paranoia; a suicide gone wrong has to get a spare key from his car dealership in order to tidy up an accidental murder. Grotesque, bizarre, some stronger than others but all arresting, these stories showcase the breadth of talent that sometimes cuts unnoticed furrows about the city in groups like Rhyme and Real Ale, Roath Writers and Cardiff Writers (and the hundred other worthy creative collectives that no doubt inhabit other neighbourhoods in the city) and find sympathetic and supportive readership courtesy of brave champions like We Are Cardiff and local hero Christian Amodeo of I Loves The 'Diff

To find out more about We Are Cardiff, you can probably just click one of the various links on this page and you'll get there eventually, but I thought it was worth printing their mission statement as printed on the cover of the book:
We Are Cardiff Press is a small, non-profit community of writers and artists. We publish literature and art from creators in the city, crafting collectible, limited edition runs of beautiful books, from literature to photography, and illustration to personal storytelling.
Each book is created as a special piece of art that you'll want to read over and over again.
Hyperbole you might think, but it is a statement to respect and they do try to do as they say; suit the action to the word, the word to the action, as someone famous once said.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Both inspiring and distracting me
from my own novel...
I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 

Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).

First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin's Law thing going on, what with the title (in Norwegian and in translation) being a whole lot like that of another book of controversial fiction. You may rest assured however that the similarities begin and end there. The controversy arises from the raw, shameless writing, the unfettered descriptions of a perfidious man (and boy), and of everything that he experiences (that he can remember for he often is at odds with his memory). In book two, his editor, Geir, is reported to say that he was deeply moved by Knausgaard's description of sleeping with a thirteen year-old girl, that he could not believe that he would go so far as to take about such a thing openly. I think that, as a microcosm of the reaction to these books, is pretty much spot on. Not that Knausgaard goes around enjoying statutory rape–he denies in book two having said and performed this particular crime, despite writing about it–but rather that his perceived honesty surpasses any boundaries set by contemporaries or antecedents. Indeed, his form, whilst on the surface is simple, a first person narrator telling of his childhood and youth, his family life, growing up with a father both he and his brother hated, his father's death, his mother's casual distance, his drinking, his inner life, his excesses and restraint, his shame and fear and pretty much everything else, it is a revelation, a freeing of the writer from the constraints of form, which is probably why Vintage are unsure whether this sits in biography or fiction. It is classified as fictive, but I believe only in so far as the narrative of a person's life is pretty much all fiction framed by experience. Of course, people are apt to pigeon-hole things. As such he has been dubbed the Scandinavian Proust.

Meh.

In a way, book one is the chronicle of why this book and the five that follow (only four have made it into English thus far) came about. In it, he talks without censure or censoring, of his childhood with a father who wasn't very nice to him. His father was a teacher, and became a severe alcoholic in later life once he and Knausgaard's mother split up. Karl Ove and brother Yngve lived in fear of him, and yet when he dies, Knausgaard is overwhelmed and completely bewildered by his grief. In the WSJ article he mentions that his father retreated into a bottle in order to be able to deal with his world. He himself decided he had to write instead, that this was his way of coping. And, as a man given to the odd football analogy, I might have to compare his writing to the football philosophy of Jurgen Klopp - it's heavy metal writing, not pretty tiki-taka wordsmithery. In fact, what emerges is multi-layered and massively entertaining: it's part essay: Knausgaard has some insightful and startling views on life, art, fear and death; part simple narrative, sometimes exhausting the reader with his recollections of each situation, each moment; and part stream of consciousness. I lost a good few hours to this book after deciding to read to the end of a passage or line of thought before going to get a cup of tea or heading off to bed (or indeed getting back to writing my own NaNoWriMo novel from which this book distracted me but in equal measure inspired me to continue). I simply devoured it. Knausgaard himself is unsparing with himself as a character too, and in places I found him distasteful, whining, obtuse, ridiculous, but so much like how I see myself that it was liberating–not that I compare myself to him, but rather that by reading of his honesty about his experiences I can see patterns in my own behaviour that I choose to ignore or dismiss, or simply don't understand.
This book, and the three that follow, and my ace t-shirt, were
kindly donated to me by the good people of Vintage Books.

Knausgaard says there is nothing new to be done in literature, but in disregarding trends, forms, the restrictions of taste, concerns about the peccadilloes of any potential audience, he has written a truly liberated novel, foundation-shaking, intense, vital, passionate and most thrillingly, a daring book, but by all accounts the world is lapping it up. It appeals to the common humanity in us all.

I cautioned a colleague, and would extend this to everyone, that if, like me, you have even the smallest suspicion of an addictive personality, steer clear of this first book, or else you can kiss goodbye to evenings, weekends, and relationships with things other than the next three books, and his other fiction (which I'm busy collecting, even risking a pre-Christmas Saturday in the city to pick up a copy of A Time For Everything). 

You have been warned.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Wrestling by Simon Garfield

"So he became a wrestler, like his mum."
I have a vague memory, nestling in there with various tableaux of my grandfather asleep in front of the cricket, the hardened red marbling of raspberry ripple ice-cream, and an insatiable childhood desire for the game Tank Command*, of grey-blue images on the television of fat men in leotards. This was 'The Wrestling', as both my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather would tell me, and was another television programme that my parents frowned upon but had no power to stop me from watching. Which I didn't. Before the 24-hour news cycle and WWE Superstars, I was only ever interested in cartoons, and later football and Star Trek: The Next Generation. 'The Wrestling' was something weird and quaint and discomforting to watch, so I didn't. 

Turns out that many other people didn't watch it either, and in 1988 it was binned from ITV's World of Sport programme for good. 

However, it seems I've been at best callously indifferent and at worst wilfully disrespectful of what had been, for a time, the most popular entertainment** on TV, and, it also seems, a truly colourful cast of rogues, roustabouts and rapscallions who were left to wither and die in obscurity. 


Mr TV's inside story!
In all honesty, there would have been very little chance that I would have opened the pages of this book in anything other than mild curiosity about the author's surname (in case he was related to a childhood hero, Jim Davis' cat of the same name), but after a drunken conversation in the midst of a pub full of #RWC2015 fever, a colleague insisted I borrow and read this rather idiosyncratic oral history of this much maligned entertainment. So I became immersed in the stories collected by Garfield of the antics and grievances of family favourites like Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Joe D'Orazio and Jackie Pallo (although in the words of Robbie Brookside, "we won't give any messages to Jackie Pallo other than 'Die you old bastard.'"). Heels and heroes, grapplers and brawlers, they all consistently, if rather cholerically, insist that wrestling was a hard game, a true sport, and the fronts that should have crumbled twenty years before are still propped up with the vim and vigour of youth. It's amazing that this bunch of ageing, crippled 'athletes' could keep up the pretence that wrestling was anything but a sham, a sport on which you weren't even permitted to bet, especially after Pallo's kiss-n-tell behind the scenes exposé blew the covers off. Or not. It's equally likely that after years of treading the same line, telling the same story, that these old geezers are no longer able to differentiate between fact and fiction. But that adds to the charm of it all, and contributes in no small measure to the pathos of Garfield's book. 

Packed with whimsy and nostalgia, old codgers limping and griping, road trips with Giant Haystacks, people mythologising Kendo Nagasaki and Les Kellett (a hard bastard, mean as anything, and rubbish at replying to letters), this is a very British book. with more than one or two particularly cracking lines. I feel disloyal to let Mr TV, Jackie Pallo have the last word, but it is a good 'un:
Mick [McManus] had that know-how: a great performer. Horrible bastard, but a great performer.
Edit: November 2015. I've just realised that the copy I read, borrowed from the aforementioned friend and purchased secondhand, was missing everything after page 196, meaning there's another sixty odd pages I've not read. However, I shall assume that nothing is very different in those last pages and no-one suddenly shoots to British Wrestling stardom and saves the sport. I'm sure I'd have heard about that.

*Which was awesome when I finally got it, but terrible when I realised it was a two-player game and that my brother would relentlessly cheat in order to win, or else refuse to play... 

**According to the wrestlers themselves, but then they are all irredeemable braggarts and liars.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of Suffering
There was nothing to know...
You know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased expression at the back of my raw, dry throat. Up to now, despite clues and suspicions to the contrary, I thought it was because they were 'great writers' and I was a simple hack. Now, when even thinly veiled biography such as this, and also Karl Ove Knausgaard, of whom much, much more to follow, lays bare the shared terror of creation, of freedom of expression, of working to no rule, I feel that I am simply at the bottom of a ladder, much climbed by those with a little more passion, a little more dedication than I, and that the answer for me might be on the next rung up, or the next, or the next, or on none of them, but that the goal of the climb is not to reach the top, but to  experience the climb. "There was no walker, no path, just the walking," says Pulitzer Prize-winning Buddhistish author Dick Macalister in The Noble Truths of Suffering.

Of course, all this aggrandised meandering is leading up to an expression of love for Aleksandar Hemon. He's an astounding writer, this Chicago-based Bosnian (and fan of Liverpool Football Club, dreamy sigh), and in his first-person narrated stories of just such a child, youth and man, there is energy, clarity, humour and despair, all hinged around a fulcrum of such astute observation, sometimes delivered entirely objectively, that I was left breathless with how far I might need to go to follow in his footsteps. I'd read a few of his others, perhaps not giving them the credit they were due, but I was a fan from the off. This has knocked me down and sat me back up again with a snifter of brandy. And around behind it all, much like any fiction written in or around New York post-9/11, sneaks the atrocity of the Balkan conflict, which often throws the narrator into relief with it's burning horror and dazzling absurdity. In one story, a young boy is charged with travelling across the country to purchase a chest freezer, during a few comic pratfalls but eventually succeeding, the family stocks it full of meat only for the war to each Sarajevo and the power to go off. "Everything in the chest freezer thawed, rotted in less than a week, and finally perished." In another, a bedraggled refugee from Bosnia arrives to rent a room in the flat of an idiosyncratic Ukrainian, whose rules he silently follows, until evicted by a poem. 

I risk letting too many cats out of bags by giving outlines to these stories, and they need to be considered in their entirety to justify the scope of Hemon's talent. Needless to say, I would urge you to put your hands on a copy of this and immerse yourself in a steady torrent of great writing, if only for a short while.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Axeman's Jazz by Ray Celestin

[Insert tired 'The Fast Show'
one-liner here]
To lead with an apology would be traditional, but I make no excuse for having better things to do than tell you all how much I enjoyed this novel. I've been gorging on televisual box sets including but not limited to Bones, Defiance, Hannibal, and Breaking Bad, a series I had promised not to watch until the furore had died down. 

Whilst that has nothing to do whatsoever with this novel, other than to have driven from my brain all thoughts of plot, structure, narrative and writerly panache, I can't simply dive in to a review now can I?

Based on a real-life unsolved murder spree from 1918-19, and not the first novel to bear this title, this historical detective story revolves around a pariah cop who turned state's evidence against his partner, who in turn gets out of prison to resume working for the New Orleans Mafia just as his ex-colleague is being offered up as scapegoat in the continuing failure to catch or stop the serial killer running around chopping up Italian greengrocers and leaving tarot cards behind. Into the mix comes a biracial would-be-Pinkerton secretary and her friend, legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong, just turned 19 and already sunk deep into the fecund yet violent emotional world of New Orleans life and music. I know what you're thinking: why the hell? I can't answer that one for you I'm afraid. I wonder if Celestin had a bunch of Louis Armstrong pins on his Scrivener board and was just trying to find a way to shoe-horn them into a narrative. The Armstrong passages were some of the weakest sections, notwithstanding the description of him playing on the fateful night of March 19th - that was pretty good.

As is typical of the genre, the narrative trips about between characters' viewpoints, exhibiting a light authorial touch, and with surprising deftness, carves out a cognitively dissonant landscape of deep racial division and proud collective identity, where casual lawlessness and disinterest in the dictates and prohibitions passed down from Capital Hill provide an umbrella under which a broad mix of peoples congregate and cohabit, usually peacefully. Into the mix comes the ineffable fear that is the Axeman, seemingly killing at random and risks sparking a racial conflagration. And of course, this being New Orleans, there's shit loads of jazz, more so once a letter appears in the local tabloid explaining that The Axeman is coming back and if there's no jazz playing in your house then he'll be in to pay you a visit...

At this temporal remove even with the book in front of me, I can conjure very few really explosively brilliant passages, very little that wowed or amazed me from its pages. I enjoyed the read, which passed pretty quickly, but I do recall a piece of dialogue–monologue really, and he does seem to have a way with dialogue, almost cinematic at times– towards the resolution of the book which did stick with me, and in its own way, encapsulated the tragic comedy at the heart of division and ignorant hatred. If even a solid, flawed novel can leave you with something positive to take away, it has to be worth a read, so in defence of Ray Celestin's award winning novel, I offer it up to you.
Atmosphere in the town changed. When we went in to get supplies, there was a whole lot more silence around the place. I think that's how these things always start, people not talking to each other.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Wobbling between hope and doom
Grudgingly, I have included the definite article to the title of this post. My 2005 uncorrected proof copy, sublime in its pure off-whiteness with embossed gilt lettering omitted the 'The' and, in my opinion, better suited the content. For whilst it is a chronicle of folly, specifically those of Nathan Glass, his nephew Tom Wood, neice Aurora, and the neighbouring denizens of Brooklyn, New York, I suspect there are many more that escape un-chronicled. 

But first, the usual detritus of contextualisation. Having tucked away D. B. C. Pierre's Lights Out in Wonderland, itself a story of outrageous folly, pinioned throughout by the protagonist-narrator's desire to commit suicide, the opening line of this book, always a winner when penned by Auster, struck me as contiguous:
I was looking for a quiet place to die.
I was to discover quickly that he had no plans to hasten his own end, but the connection was established. Narrator Nathan is a divorcé, survivor of cancer, and a man isolated from his past life by pride, sloth and probably a few of the other big sins too. Having liquidated shared assets, he is able to realise a comfortably indifferent existence in Brooklyn, filling time between trips to see his favourite waitress at a local diner by recording, in what he considers his legacy to mankind, anecdotes and stories from his life and those of others that struck him as particular exemplars of the folly of humanity. Serendipity intrudes in the form of an unlikely rekindling of familial ties when he discovers his nephew Tom, once the great hope of the family, growing flabby and fusty in the dusty confines of a local second-hand and rare book shop. 

Typical of this book, and perhaps of Auster's novels in general, there is a light-follows-dark-follows-light pattern (consider the characters' names -  Wood, Glass, Dunkel [Auster tells us this means 'Dark' in German] - opaque and transparent in turn) and the narrative wobbles between hope and doom, through eye-brow-raising tales of extortion, road trips, and cult-kidnapping, between unlikely love stories and right up to another major health scare, before sending Nathan back out into the world filled with hope. And of course, this being a New York Novel of the post-9/11 age, the bleak, billowing clouds of dust and death mass on the horizon at the story's end. Pulling it all right along are Auster's own notable abilities as a storyteller, and the pages turn quickly in what is otherwise an excellent if lightweight offering. Auster is quoted (somewhere) as saying, "It's a book about survival." In terms of unlikely coincidences and unfortunate accidents, it could be said that The Brooklyn Follies is also a continuation of his work in The New York Trilogy of which he said*:
I believe the world is filled with strange events. Reality is a great deal more mysterious than we ever give it credit for.
*Joseph Mallia in BOMB magazine, 1988

Monday, 7 September 2015

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

“DON'T THINK OF IT AS DYING," 
said Death. "JUST THINK OF IT 
AS LEAVING EARLY TO
AVOID THE RUSH.” 
I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to end in a joyful bacchanalia of exuberance.

But sadly it didn’t.

Because in 1991 they came up with this little beauty. I must have read it shortly before or soon after going to university in 1996. I remember it on my bookshelves at student digs no. 4 or 5, gathering a fluffy grey mildew. In retrospect, I may have skimmed it as there were parts of which I clearly had no recollection, but again, it might just have been that there are levels and levels of fun stuff to discover depending on the state of mind of the reader. Now, as a more settled, confident reader of fiction, I am a tad more observant and reflective (I would hope it was so or God help me) and so those hidden depths are less hidden, and I am more able to appreciate everything past the rather silly British jokes that somehow become hilarious when Terry Pratchett writes them. Tempering the puns is Gaiman’s ‘dark steely style’ as the cover reports, a more subtle, macabre humour. And together, they have wrought what is a thoroughly entertaining story of the Apocalypse averted.

We have two angels, one fallen (or, rather one who sauntered vaguely downwards) and one tottering, both of whom have been on the Earth serving faithfully their respective masters, more or less, for a few thousand years. Having been the only constant in each other’s lives, they have developed a useful if unofficial partnership, a partnership which is threatened by the news that the Antichrist has just been born in a small rural village inside the M25, where suspiciously, the weather is always perfect, for the time of year, and developments like new housing estates and road improvements never seem to make it past the planning stage. Now aged eleven, it’s time for him to bring about the Apocalypse, and riding to his aid are the four Horsemen, updated for the modern age. In the meantime, the last remaining witch-finders and one witch (a good one) are on the case to avert disaster, separately, whilst a set of obtuse prophecies from 17th century witch Agnes Nutter predicts their every move.

It all sounds deadly serious, I know, but it’s not, as you would expect of this collaboration, and the broad cast of supporting characters combine to add sky, clouds and trees to the hay wain of Aziraphale and Crowley. Every character is apt to say something hilarious, in context, at any moment, and the writing is dry, witty, absurd and sharply intelligent at all times. In fact, I find it hard to find a significant weakness to either the story line or the delivery. This pleases me no end, as traditionally I’m a bit of a git. I am very happy to have returned a copy of Good Omens to the shelves of my new library where it can now grow yellow and dog-eared until I next feel the urge to pick it up again. Probably in another twenty years or so.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Lights Out In Wonderland by D.B.C. Pierre

I will admit two things: 
'Our elegant place has become a level of hell.'
1) I have never willingly paid for a novel by DBC Pierre – the Booker winning Vernon God Little I received as an uncorrected proof (ditto the second, Ludmila's Broken English) from a sales rep trying desperately to generate interest in what he was concerned was a massive waste of an advance (how wrong he was); 
2) I haven't got a shiny clue what either of Pierre's first two novels are about, despite having read them both. Damning? Possibly. Equally likely it's some sort of degenerative disease of the brain.

This was the very last uncorrected proof copy I ever made off with from my life as a bookseller (that I still own that is), and in large part this was due to the fact that it had (and still has) a shiny embossed belly band which nicely obscures the title and author on an otherwise drab trade-format paperback. It also helped me overlook it for the best part of five years. There I go, judging books by covers again. So, for posterity, or to remind me about my worryingly high levels of casual prejudice, I've left the following rash judgement here, hastily typed during paragraph one of page one of chapter one of this novel:
I've just started reading this and already I suspect it'll have the Engleby effect on me.
Engleby, for the bored, is the eponymous character in a rather dreadful Sebastian Faulks novel which made me grumpy, fidgety and rather unpleasant to be around–more so that normal. Which in turn made me bilious and resentful of the book, and the bearded twat-faced author*. I suspected the same of this, based on the opening passage of the novel, which lays bare the premise of the entire book, related below.
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea: I don't have to do it immediately.
Whoosh – through a little door. It's a limbo. 
Unreliable narrator. Self-indulgent. Intent on deceiving himself and his audience. Instantly dislikable. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Bleugh.

To be fair, in this Pierre is remarkably consistent; but he also allows Gabriel small, believable steps along the path to self-discovery, by the end of which he may well have some modestly likeable characteristics, rather than simply a collection of irreverent personality tics, as effortlessly laid bare by Anna, stern and disapproving German love interest. Yup, despite endlessly repeating himself, in both actions and words, he does slowly grow on me, more through his interactions with the other characters than by any accidental revelations of hidden worth. And Pierre's prose style, swilling around the page like wine in a glass, has the legs of a fine vintage, softening what might otherwise have proven to be unpalatable. But I feel it's the supporting cast that steals the show, Smuts notwithstanding. The Germans particularly light up the novel with a little bit of gentle stereotyping, subverted by equally gentle humanising. Gabriel himself is caught out in some assumptions by Gerd, Anna and my favourite, Gottfried, the stone-faced Stasi man. Berlin has never sounded more attractive than when reflected by these lost bastions of a divided city and the girl of the future Berlin, on her way to the Galapagos Islands to visit Lonesome George and delayed only by distant filial responsibility into working for Uncle (?) Gerd at his kiosk in the massive and soon to be discontinued monument to the Third Reich, Berlin-Tempelhof Airport.

In Gabriel's exploration of vaguely confusing states of limbo, of his own competing motivations–self-destruction and enlightenment–we see some of the ambivalence at the heart of the human experience, and some of the snide diatribes against the current capitalist ethical model (which his epigraph invites the reader to change) are amusing, as are his theories of the relatively low level of ingenuity it takes to con the majority of people the majority of the time. There are also some genuinely funny set pieces. But the novel suffers from its form, of notes taken during the boozing and scheming, written in who knows what lucid moments between bottles of wine and snorts of cocaine and is lacking verisimilitude to a damaging degree. For all that, it is an entertaining read once my own peccadilloes are appropriately handicapped by some advance generosity, and I wouldn't let me talk you out of picking up a copy, which you can do by clicking on the little picture below.

*Odd - since re-reading my original review of Engleby, I notice I wasn't quite so vitriolic in the first instance and even seemed to grudgingly enjoy the novel. It seems then, that over time the Engleby effect strengthens to the point of acute psychological poisoning. What utter filth.


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I am also not Harry Belafonte.
I found Percival Everett through a typical, but at the time exciting, bookselling ploy of massively discounting select titles, in this instance to 99p, to add units and value to transactions at the till point. Thus Erasure was the first Everett novel I read. His smouldering anger and furious hilarity stuck me instantly, and although I can claim no kinship or even shared social or cultural experience, I decided I had found someone with whom I felt somewhat aligned. In typical gluttonous fashion I quickly picked up a shit-load of his other work, including two I've reviewed here: A History Of The African American People... and Damned If I DoI loved the Will Self-esque humour of 4-year-old Ralph in Glyph, the anger of Ralph Ellison added to the parodying of the publishing industry in Erasure, and the absurdity of Ted Street, headless and suicidal, in American Desert. It was something I realised I longed for in contemporary American fiction; a writer with clarity, using humour to unpick our interwoven assumptions, received and innate, about race, class, and accepted wisdom, but without resorting to slapstick. 

I Am Sidney Poitier is a return to form. I say return, and form, because I have a faulty understanding of the parabola of his work, coming in at the middle as I have, missing out on his earlier parody of the western, God's Country from 1994, and having read his first novel, Cutting Lisa in the middle of my own discovery. Nevertheless, what we find is a character named, implausibly, Not Sidney Poitier, by his 'crazy' mother for reasons unknown, a mother whose seemingly speculative investment in Ted Turner's media stocks turned them both into multi-millionaires, albeit secretly. Not only does Not Sidney share Mr Poitier's surname, he also shares his features, so much so as to lead to speculation concerning his parentage, all of which are vaguely dismissed by Mrs Poitier, who takes the secret to her early grave. Not Sidney is taken under the wing of Ted Turner himself, and so the story unfolds. He is arrested on an impromptu road trip through Georgia, for driving whilst being black, escapes chained to a 'cracker' who would rather drink moonshine with a blind hill-billy girl than start a new future in Atlanta, winds up solving a murder mystery in Smuteye, Alabama (so named because of the prevalence of a corn-blighting fungus which is harvested and eaten by the inhabitants - in Ted Turner's fictional opinion, not half bad, more like three quarters bad), and attends a black college only to be too black for the coffee-and-cream co-eds and their parents (that is of course until they learn he's filthy stinking rich). Throughout, each time Not Sidney closes his eyes he dreams of lives past, where he or maybe not he faces slavers, haters, and pernicious freedom. Not Sidney is defined by that which he is not - not white, not poor, not Sidney Poitier, not part of the mainstreaming culture (or lack thereof) - but remains sure of himself and succeeds in retaining the reader's sympathy despite (or maybe because of) occasional inclinations to indulge his animosity towards hypocrites. 

Bookslut references Kurt Vonnegut in her as always excellent review from a few years back, and I tend to agree with her, which only adds to my sense of spiritual homecoming when I read Everett. It is a brilliantly comic satire, particularly of the author himself who appears as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Nonsense, aptly spouting the same when asked for advice or help. Perhaps I lack the appropriate discourse to discuss the politics of race, but the sentiments of arbitrary prejudice and exclusion chime nonetheless. I love it when I read a novel that is so clearly bigger than me, that pushes my horizons that bit further out, and as a comedy of miscommunication, a clean, approachable story such as I've come to expect from the author, I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

True Grit by Charles Portis

'Men will live like billy goats
if they are let alone.'
In my current mood of nostalgia for things and books past, I thought I'd return to a Charles Portis novel I read quite a few years back, one recently* 'rebooted' by the Coen brothers for cinematic audiences. The story, related by an octogenarian Mattie Ross, heroine of sorts of her own story, is of a 14-year-old Mattie hunting and attempting to bring to justice the murderer of her father, Frank Ross, with the help of dyspeptic, drunken and (middle-) ageing civil war criminal turned Federal Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn. In a humourlessly delivered monologue, which is nonetheless very funny in and of itself, Mattie tells of her trials at the hands of horse dealers, lawmen, Rooster and the bandits and brigands to whom she wishes to bring the iron hand of justice. She also captures all the wry pragmatism of Rooster himself, and the slick bluster of Texan law man LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) who is in pursuit of her personal nemesis after he killed a senator because of an argument about a dog.

A simple premise, delivered simply, but highly effectively. What I found troublesome, probably shared by anyone who has watched the most recent of the two famous movie versions, is that I can only see Jeff Bridges when I think of Rooster Cogburn. And when I see Jeff Bridges, my mind wanders to The Dude. Gone is the gnarly gun-toting Rooster of the John Wayne film. Instead, it's The Dude in dress-up, which makes me not believe in him. To be fair, it was the same for Iron Man. Of course, this is in no way down to Charles Portis, whose character is equal parts billy goat (as Mattie observes) and killer. Furthermore, and also irksome, after reading Donna Tartt's introduction to this novel, something I might never have done if I had ever read her novels and therefore possessed no curiosity as to how she might sound in print, with her bons mots nicely italicised and her reminiscences about her own family reading traditions***, I began the novel with the sourness of rising bile in my throat, something which appears to have leeched out some of the pure pleasure of reading Portis purely for pleasure's sake. Still, with a surfeit of pleasure to be had in this novel, this is a small grumble in the face of overwhelming enjoyment. For the book is brilliant, well-deserving it's place on most critics' lists of 'great American novels'. Now, as I'm tired and clearly grumpy, I'll simply finish with this: if Charles Portis isn't a name you recognise, this would set you well on your way to finding a new favourite author. 


*Regular readers** will recognise the fluidity of my temporal referencing.

**This self- referential and -deprecating nonsense is starting to get old, don't you (I) think?

***And what sort of hypocrite would I be if I didn't mention that I subsequently gave my copy to my dad to read?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

More demons please.
A number of years back, I believe (but cannot prove) that I read this book out of the Milford Haven library. I then found it in a second hand store in hardback whilst at university and read it again. Now, after an instance of maudlin self-pity, combined with wine (much wine) I ended up purchasing it again from a second-hand book store on line, along with Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, an act which I forgot until one day on return from work I realised I couldn't open my front door because something was jammed underneath it, a something which turned out to be these very books. What a lovely surprise, although I immediately checked my browser history and bank account to check I'd not purchased a fold-up bicycle or second-hand city car on my credit card, both items which I've been pondering in the last few weeks. It turns out I hadn't.

So, to prevent further rambling, the point is that this might have the distinction of being the first book that I believe have read for pleasure more than twice. That deserves a hurrah for Mr Moore.

The fact that I couldn't remember much about it, other than there's a bloody great demon named Catch who likes to eat people, tied inextricably to a chap named Travis who doesn't age and also doesn't like it when Catch eats people, would therefore indicate either early onset dementia (not ruled out) or that the story is significantly less entertaining that the idea. 

Messieurs Gaiman and Moore will
be pleased to note they were very
capable doorstops
To be fair to Mr Moore, when I realised what was preventing access to my home, I felt a warm rush of excitement. I was genuinely pleased to see it, and that means somewhere in the grey matter a long filed memory had coughed quietly, startling the record-keeper into a surprised fart, making his colleagues turn round in disgust and tut noisily to each other. That can only be good. And when I finished it yesterday, in time to start watching Gillette Soccer Saturday with Jeff Stelling, I was feeling happy. I would have rather seen more of the supporting cast eaten, including but not exclusively Robert (drunken hubby of Jenny, grand-daughter to Amanda, a figure from Travis's past) whose past in photography is suspiciously similar to that credited to Mr Moore on his Wikipedia page and provides the answer to a thorny plot issue, and Rachel, coven leader of the Pagan Vegetarians For Peace and deserving of a worse fate than driving off into the sunset with eventual hero Augustus Brine and his pet Djinn, both of whom could also do with a bit of being eaten, if I'm honest. In fact, the book is deserving of more Catch and less everyone else. I guess I'm just drawn to the caustically sarcastic spawn of Satan.

Nonetheless, all of my positive feelings remain post-novel, and I have gained no new negative bias against the work of Mr Moore, so on balance, I would have to say that this is a very entertaining work of comic fantasy, maybe worth a seat at the table with Messieurs Gaiman and Pratchett, or at least Robert Rankin, of whom nothing later, at all. EVER. 


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The 210th Day by Sōseki Natsume

"It may perhaps make sparks
in the centre of Tokyo..."
Many (many) years ago I came across I Am A Cat by Sōseki Netsuke (a bookseller's nightmare considering the occidental trend to westernise Japanese names and thus oft-times finding itself in both N and S on the shelves) in a manner I can no longer remember, and was instantly smitten by its insouciance and wit. I went about flogging it to every vacillating browser I could assault in a typical fit of smittenness. In fact, you can find a link to it just below this review, down there. Click on it. It's a great book and is cheaper if you choose to purchase it on Kindle. Take a look. Just down there. You'll love it, I promise. Go on. Ahh go on. Go on, go on go on etc.

So anyway, I also went about hoovering up all the English translations of his work I could find, as is my particular peccadillo, and to stare lovingly at them as I promised, but failed, to actually read any of them. Worryingly, when recently prompted to revisit the shelves by more Eastern wonderfulness, I realised that only two very slim volumes remained; My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature (see below. Ah go on.) and this very short novella, The 210th Day. Where were the rest? Oh, ah. Um. Yes. I gave them all away. Whoops.

So, not in the mood for literary theory, I picked this one up, and got stuck in. Thirty-five minutes later, I was back at my shelves, looking for something else to read.


No that this was terrible. Far from it. It's just that, even with the enlightening introduction, it runs to barely 90 pages*. "A relatively minor work," warns Marvin Marcus in his introduction, and an étude of sorts.

What it is, basically, is a conversation, based on a similar experience the author had with his friend, in 1899, between two characters; one with a strong opinion on inequality in society, and the other fairly well to do and with a much more laissez-faire attitude about these things (but not about having to eat udon...). The two have agreed to climb Mount Aso, an active volcano, to take a look at the white hot rocks it is reputed to eject regularly, but unfortunately, have chosen the 210th day of the lunar calendar to do so, which is, ostensibly, typically associated with storms and typhoons. They fail to make it to the top, one of them losing his hat and the other falling into a lava channel, but back at the inn, fed and watered, our former tofu-seller, the social conscience of the dialogue, convinces his friend to try again, and there the story ends.

It's fun, if brief, and has some lovely moments of humour, particularly when the maid at the inn misunderstands their food order for half-boiled (i.e. soft-boiled) eggs, and brings four, two of which are boiled hard and two of which are raw. It also has a fairly standard dichotomy of views on the rich industrial barons and the workers on the shop floor, but explored in an entertaining fashion. As a literary experiment, I can't tell you if it was successful, but as a train station diversion, a waiting room book, it has enormous merit. 

*And I paid £10.99 for it.