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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…

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Hit harder. HIT HARDER.
There are not many people who could lay claim to knowing me who would look at this post and not wonder bemusedly what on earth possessed me to read the biography of a tennis player. Tennis, as anyone (i.e. everyone) knows, is a big bag of shite. Sure, it's one-on-one, mano-a-mano, an honourable battle. Sure, it's chuffing hard to play. Sure, it's hard, physical and mental exercise, pushing players' bodies to the very limit. But damn, is it ever boring as hell. And tennis players? Well, don't get me started.

In truth, I was caught out in a lie, by my boss, who told me it was great and I should read it. I paid lip service to the fact I thought he was interesting, given he hates tennis too (yeah, but he doesn't really hate tennis, does he? Yup). She said, great, I'll bring it in for you. And so I was stuck with it.

And I have to eat a little humble pie. It is quite an engaging read, and I found myself enjoying it, despite thinking Agassi is a bit of a whining dick, quick to play the victim card, and not really willing to go into the full horror of having a father determined to make at least one of his children into the world's greatest tennis player. I assume it was difficult. I assume he was terrified at least part of the time. I assume he had no choice. Boo hoo. I certainly enjoyed it more that I thought I would considering some of the pretty nasty reviews* it garnered back in '09 on publication. Yes, it was hard to believe in places: there's an extended passage about his money troubles when going on the road with his brother, but from that point on he's able to buy multiple houses and cars with nary a mention of cost. Yes, I was dismayed by his admission of the use of crystal meth and his subsequent lying about it–I seemed to have missed the original controversy–but then point out a celebrity who has not found succour in odd places from time to time. He says he's honest, 'open', and in parts, he is. He admits to some particular vanity that is risible (wearing a wig, putting lifts in his shoes at his wedding, not wearing underwear on court), and to some rather unsportsman-like throwing of matches when he just couldn't be arsed, but then I wonder at his view of himself, how he sees his life through his prism of otherworldly success (eight grand slams and $31 million in prize money, before sports endorsements). I would imagine that had he not had the collaborative support of his ghostwriter, not credited in the book except in an afterword where it is explained he wants no part of the credit (ostensibly because it's not his story, but also possible he literally wanted nothing to do with it, pulling an Alan Smithee), it would have been unintelligible too. So at least it has that in its favour.

But Moehringer highlights in an interesting NY Times article, 11 November 2009 something that I only realised in retrospect. He says of Agassi;

His memory was crystalline about matches but not about relationships. He hadn’t reached any conclusions about them and couldn’t make connections. 
Absolutely. Agassi knows nothing of himself and just can't put his relationships into context. They just happen–Brooke Shields, Barbara Streisand (Barbara Streisand?!)–and even his eventual happy-ever-after with Stefanie Graf is a bit lacking in introspection. It's framed in the 'she gets me, she gets tennis' context. Soul mates!

Of course, reading this back it seems I'm trying quite hard to put you off ever opening this book. Don't let me do that. It does have its merits, and is quite an unusual sport biography, with a level of English that belies Agassi's ninth grade education. It's entertaining in parts, it was quick to read, and I did sort of want to hear what he fucked up next. He fucked up a lot of things.

*For example, this evisceration in the Guardian, Sunday 1st November 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2009/nov/01/andre-agassi-autobiography
Savage.

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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 …