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Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

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?

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What Readers Are Reading

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …