Skip to main content

Books of Note

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Yah, yah, I know, I’ve been lollygaggin’ and work-shyin’ and leaving all my lovely spammers in Tamil Nadu with nothing on which to post spam but old reviews. I’ve not even been all that busy, except when it comes to slapping on weight and destroying some neural connections, both of which I’ve done with glazed-eyed indifference and robotic monotony. Still, I feel I owe it to GDR to at least put Shantaram to bed before I buy (whoops, sorry, already done) and read his next book, The Mountain Shadow, which even now is winging its way to my door by the magic of Amazon Prime Same Day DeliveryTM.
It turns out that GDR was indeed a bit of a knob. He robbed building societies in Australia, always dressed in a three-piece suit and minding his Ps & Qs, and only targeting those with adequate insurance. How he knew which did and didn’t have adequate insurance is not mentioned. On the back of this, or maybe it was the other way around, his wife kicked him out and he lost contact with his only da…

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

He did not believe himself, but he
believed in his mother's belief.
This review contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I'd forgotten all about Jim Carroll. When I was between school and university in 1995, and the Di Caprio movie of Carroll's diaries came out, it was all my friends and peers were talking about. Perverse then as I am now, I refused to watch it; didn't get around to it until I was nearer thirty than twenty. But then I was mooching around on iTunes and it happened to recommend, given recent purchases of The Replacements and The Dead Milkmen, 'People Who Died' from the album Catholic Boy by The Jim Carroll Band, a song by the way which is both rocking and crushing, and I was pulled in by the Ramones-esque guitars, the crisp, punchy snare sound, and Carroll's hip, New York voice singing lyric poetry about friends who've died in the most terrible fashion, self-inflicted and accidental, all of whom were friends of his.

His iTunes biog mentioned being an author, and the pieces clicked. I was (partially) defeated in my cynicism, went straight out and bought a hard-back of The Petting Zoo (I still don't want to read about a child's addiction to heroin), and was delighted to find a forward by Patti Smith, and saddened to learn he'd died alone in New York on September 11th 2009, a date filled with enough suitable pathos to elicit an empathetic if metaphorical tear. I also learned he'd left the manuscript unfinished, and that his friends and editors and completed the task as sympathetically as they could. In retrospect, this might explain a few things.

His iTunes biog also mentions how difficult it often is for poets to translate their talents to writing music and to other genres, and how Jim Carroll is a notable success. On the basis of The Petting Zoo they are not wrong–there is poetry on every page, but balanced in parts by some passages of clunky philosophical extemporising. But the essential story is of a wunderkind whose mojo is stunted after what, on the surface, might look like a very incidental encounter with an art exhibition, who undertakes a period of deep introspection, considering the arc of his life's narrative and what drives him to create, from where his talents are drawn, and how art and life interact. But his search for a way back to art forces irrevocable changes in his life and on those around him, and his eventual obsession results in him freezing to death in his studio apartment during some extremely unseasonable weather, while being lectured by an immortal raven whose advice had helped bring Billy to both his zenith and nadir in quick succession.

I was desperate to love this book. I probably do. But it has its flaws. Billy Wolfram is my age or thereabouts, and speaks to many of my own anxieties, of many of everyone's anxieties I don't doubt. Carroll's prose is in parts amazing and otherworldly. However, his dialogue is occasionally heavy and unrealistic. Some of the passages where Billy replays conversations and experiences with his childhood friend Denny where both talk about the facts of creation (Denny is an artist too, a musician) are sometimes artificial, or at least feel like they might not fit, might not be quite what Carroll would have wanted to say–they're too indirect, feeling like someone who has an incomplete grasp of the matter and is working out what he's trying to say as he goes along. By contrast, many of the passages on Billy's expired Catholicism flow freely as if from a full well of experience and studied thought. His car journey from the hospital back to his flat, throughout which he holds a conversation with the pretty enlightened Hindu driver is both thought-provoking and made me smile broadly. The story about the veal and President Kennedy is teeth-grindingly realistic and awful (although I wonder at its power to completely over-shadow the rest of his life), but in some instances the supporting cast, Denny, Martha, former agent Max, feel a little less than fleshed out. Billy himself is occasionally incongruent, but then that might be by design rather than accident or omission.

Reading this all back to myself, I notice two things: firstly, that I desperately need an editor to knock my prose in to shape, and secondly that I'm coming over slightly ambivalent about this novel. I want to clear up that second point–this is good, and I like it quite a lot. I just wonder what shape it might have had he lived to complete it himself.

Comments

What Readers Are Reading

Dead Writers In Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

Another laudatory post about Unbound should surely follow had I the heart to go on and on about them again. I do but I won't in this instance, as they've just somehow bilked from me £60 for an as yet unwritten historical novel inspired by a TV script by Anthony Burgess, the dastards. I do it to myself and that's etc.

One definite pleasure of the crowdfunding model, for us end users, is the delayed gratification, something with which I, and it would seem the main character in this novel, have no small difficulty. I had sort-of forgotten this book was in the offing, only for it to land suddenly in my wheelie bin one sunny morning (it wouldn't fit through the letterbox). I was delighted to be reminded.

It also came at a fortuitous time. I've been unwell and looking for distractions to keep me from internet mischief in my restlessness (being ill is mostly boring). After finishing the beautiful but rather depressing Stoner I was in need of something lighter, or rather, so…

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…

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…

The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua

Seven months – a pretty reasonable turnaround for a review if you ask me. Of course, no one asks me. I’d be worse at hitting deadlines than Karl Ove Knausgaard, of whom most definitely more later (much later). But then of course I’m busy binge-watching the autumn programming on Amazon Prime Video (other content streaming services are available) and co-managing a chaotic household of at any time up to seven children (not all mine I hasten to add, and at least I know most of their names, yeah, de Pfeffel?). I’ve also been quite absorbed by banging my face into a coffee table at the incredible contempt the British people seem to have for politicians who appear to have morals and integrity, and their ability to be won over by a man whose own contempt for the common people caused Stewart Lee to append quite a few pseudonymous adjectives to his already ridiculous name; Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Famil…