Thursday, 22 June 2017

Miracle Brew by Pete Brown

...the lure of drinkability!
Assume the usual laudatory Unbound crowd-funding preamble has taken place and we're moving forward into the realms of legitimate readerly opinion making, and on with the story!

Straight into a hangover.

I can in no way blame Pete Brown for the singularly disappointing situation in which I find myself. Yes, he talks knowledgeably and enthusiastically about the wonder of beer, it's amazing diversity and unfathomable origins, the breadth of flavour and taste experience available to the adventurous drinker, and yes, hearing about such wonderful experiences that I am not currently having begets in me such powerful feelings of want, and need, and of missing out that I have to rush out and purchase lots (and lots) of exciting and unusual beers. However, he is not to blame, for the most part, for the two-week long hangover I've been having this past, well, two weeks. I can blame only myself*.



If you get the chance,
DRINK THESE
I don't have any fondness for Mr Brown. I saw him once at a book event in Abergavenny, and he was somewhat curmudgeonly. Perhaps he was on his way for a drink and I (and the rest of the audience) was stood between him and the bar. Nevertheless, I enjoy that he enjoys his subject with such obvious enthusiasm and that he is not afraid to admit the lacunae in his knowledge (in Miracle Brew we are taken on a shared voyage of discovery as much as being lectured by an expert). He writes quite simply and with an authentic voice (a little curmudgeonly perhaps, but demonstrably honest), and in this book, he discusses the building blocks of beer, the four ingredients (and quasi-mystical art) that are all it takes to brew the world's favourite alcoholic beverage. He also drinks quite a few beers around the world. You can smell the hops crushed between the heels of his hands as he wanders the hop gardens of Kent. 

AND ALL THESE**
To be fair, it doesn't take much to make me consider going out for some beer. In fact writing this I'm itching to visit The Wild Beer Co. website to buy a crate of something sour. However, I suspect that even those whose tastes don't quite run to Belgian lambics would be tempted to go out and see what the fuss is about. Craft brewing is something to be celebrated, and Pete Brown celebrates with the best of them. He delights in learning where he'd been accepting popularly believed myths as truths, talks to some of the most avant guard brewers in the world, and visits with the foremost brewing scientists to find out just how it all works. And gloriously, the science never ruins the mystery of the art of brewing. It's truly remarkable, the journey from barley grains to urine on the steps of the magistrate's court...

The only problem now is that I risk turning into one of those old c***s you find at 'real ales' pubs writing tasting notes on a little flip-up notebook and tutting when the publican apologises that they don't have anything on tap that isn't from Anheuser-Busch InBevSABMillerHeineken International, or Carlsberg Group.


*Of course, I could also blame, alphabetically, Arbor Ales, Buxton Brewery, and The Wild Beer Co. (amongst others) whose fabulous beers I have been working my way through since starting this book. If you get the chance, go out and buy Buxton's Imperial IPA or Axe Edge, Arbor's Oz Bomb, and pretty much anything from The Wild Beer Co as I'm crying a little bit just thinking about their Sleeping Lemons Export and Breakfast of Champignons beers...

**Please note the quality of photography is not indicative of the quality of beer, but rather the inability of a man who has drunk all of these and more to hold still a camera.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Ways To Disappear by Idra Novey

If the whale.
If the boat.
If the rain.
You know what? I was excited to read this. That hasn't happened in a little while. It had something about it. The cover–lovely; the hook (a celebrated Brazilian writer climbs into a tree and disappears)–intriguing; the publisher–with a penchant for travel writing, this could only be particularly evocative of Brazil, a country of interest. I was excited. I don't recall who it was recommended it, and it might very well be the Amazon algorithm, but since I earmarked it to be bought and read I was grinning with anticipation.

And now I'm grimacing with consternation. First, a spirited defence of the book. It is fascinating, and although it teases with a magical realism plot synopsis it manages to steer clear of anything mystical, for the most part, and instead is deeply rooted in a convincingly tactile portrayal of Brazil–hot, unforgiving, corrupt, and completely seductive. Emma, the translator of 'her' author, the mysterious and absent Beatriz, is believable and complex enough, and Beatriz's adult children, Raquel and Marcus, add flavour, provide crisis and drama, and everyone is pleasingly flawed. Novey writes with no small craft and her experience as a translator of fiction is evident in the small ways a person might adapt to life as an interpreter of other people's words. 

Where it lost me, and this is in no way a criticism of the book or its author, is that I found I couldn't find my pace. I naturally fall into some sort of rhythm when I read, pausing where it feels natural, allowing myself time for words to sink in (if I'm not in the heat of an addictive gluttony for words–then I simply devour them without thinking). When reading this, however, with its short chapters, changes of narrative media, deliberately omitted speech marks, I found the sentences and paragraphs crashing into the next, and not in a compulsively readable, page-turning way either. I couldn't find a way to settle, I couldn't stop the words smashing into each other, obliterating themselves. I couldn't reflect. I tried to go back to find a salient quote for the picture caption and I couldn't remember one. 

And then there was poetry. I'm not anti-poetry, far from it*, but I honestly don't know what it's doing here, particularly in a scene where the book turns a little noir with Raquel trying to fend off her brother's kidnapper with her untraceable pistol. I also found the emails from Emma's estranged boyfriend Miles very irksome, unnecessary, and generally detracting from the story, the pseudo-dictionary entries trite and trying too hard to explain the joke, and the chapters from what, a gossip radio station? With the caps-lock on? Christ, what the hell was that? Just what the hell...

It was unsettling, but I suspect not in the way it was intended. For all its laudable and enjoyable verve, vim and vivaciousness, I felt that this is a novel written for someone entirely different than me, someone whose humour, opaque and odd, I would never appreciate even if I understood it. This is no bad thing as it made me stop and question whether this meant it was a poor book, or if I was a poor reader. I don't think the answer to either of those questions is yes. The book is good; clever, interesting and poignant in places, although I kind-of wish the author never came down from the tree, and I think I got most of what was going on. I'm on a different wave-length, is all.


*Not that far...

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson

Far from kicking against the pricks they
love their position and vote conservative. 
I know, or knew, very little about B. S. Johnson, except in the capacity of disinterested bookseller, wherein he was a singular, if not significant, thorn in my side, his loose leafed volume, The Unfortunates, causing much consternation among customers who had no idea a) how to read the damned thing and b) HOW TO PUT IT BACK TOGETHER AGAIN. Indeed, he presaged the bookselling omnishambles of publishers like Phaidon with their book-in-a-bubble, or the ones with bloody rounded bottoms, or odd aspect ratios meaning they never ever fit or even stay on the damned shelves, and don't get me started on FUCKING SPIRAL BINDING.... ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. He had come to my attention only when someone brought me a copy of Albert Angelo and complained that someone had torn holes right through the pages. At the time, I somehow managed to hold my tongue, even when she went and found all of the copies we had to show me this vandal had done it to every single one, in exactly the same place. I did, however, point out that given the similarity of the damage, to the visible eye exact to only a few microns, then it was likely to be deliberate and at the author's behest. She was aghast. He came back to haunt me when I realised we'd been using stray chapters of The Unfortunates crumpled up as packing material. 



Phaidon, you bunch of bastards.
Anyway, that experimental formatting is a large part of his charm (with apologies to him posthumously as I understand he equated the term experimental with unsuccessful). The other large part is that most of his novels are damned hilarious. But Christie Malry, the titular aggrieved accountant who decides he should open his own double-book on the credits and debits of life, is particularly funny, and sad, and angry, and with remarkable prescience suggesting the rising anger that the age of the internet has made possible with its instant access to famous people and ancient establishments. There are many people who have written more eloquently and with better research and tighter conclusions than me, on things like the undercurrent of dark pessimism throughout, his strong political convictions which poke up sharply in places, or his frankly brilliant postmodernism, so I shan't bore you with my own reactions. Rather, I will highlight and provide a useful glossary for future readers of one of the aspects I found most entertaining. Johnson's intermittent verbiage is deliberate, unnatural, and is usually also hilarious. So, here is a list of those head-scratchingly, dictionary-searchingly, reading-haltingly unusual words that forced me to turn down corners so I could come back to them later to find out what they meant. Page numbers refer to my Picador edition from 2001, and all humour is taken from the context. Have a read and a giggle.

P12 - exeleutherostomise - to speak out freely, especially in an inappropriate moment
P17 - incunabula - an early printed book, especially pre-1501
P29 - fastigium - the apex or summit of something
P40 - vermiferous - producing worms
P42 - helminthoid - vermicular, wormlike
P62 - nucifrage - nutcracker, from nucifraga caryocatactes, the Spotted Nutcracker
P65 - ventripotent - having a large belly or appetite (or both)
P91 - vermifuge - referring to something that acts as a drug to cause expulsion or death of intestinal worms
P104 - sufflamination - obstruction or impediment
P145 - brachyureate - I have no fucking idea!

There are also words like retripotent, campaniform, sphacelated, and ungraith but I can't seem to find which page they're on. 



Did you know they'd made a film? It looks terrible, but I wonder...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Dead Writers In Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

But how do dead people kill themselves?
Dead people like me. I'm dead. 
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, something more amusing. Wikipedia suggests Paul Bassett Davies has some impressive historical writing credits, including one of my favourites, Spitting Image. What's not to love?

So to the book, at last. We find James 'Jim' Foster, pen name Foster James, waking up dead in a rehabilitation centre in which he is surrounded by famous dead authors from modern history (at least I notice there were no demonstrably post-modern writers). We have diary entries from him, and from several of his fellow... recovering addicts (it begs the question how does one recover from death), as well as transcripts of group sessions (largely bellicose affairs) and memos written to each other by the resident practitioners whose own tangled relationship quickly becomes clear. We meet Dorothy Parker, with whom Jim has a loveless dalliance, Wilkie Collins, whose need for opiates leads him, literally, to take whatever shit he's given, Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid and belligerent, and the pugnacious Ernest Hemingway, whose hostility for the British newcomer tips over into rather comedic fisticuffs in the first group meeting.

I'd posit that, when reading a book where the major crisis appears to have occurred previously, i.e. before the book has even started, the reader must wonder where exactly the novel goes from there. Is he going to get better? Is he really dead? Can dead people even have sex? And who the hell is that in the trees? The development of the plot suggests some resolution is to be found in the relationship of the two psychiatrists/psychologists (I forget which is the correct label). It's also a risky endeavour to write as someone else, particularly when that someone else is a panoply of famous dead writers, all of whom have extensive back catalogues against which to cross-reference your attempts. Thankfully for Paul Bassett Davies he needn't worry about verisimilitude in this respect because....

SPOILER ALERT

 ...it's not him doing the endeavouring, but rather his fictional dead writer, in whose literary denial of his own problems the famous dead writers all appear. Yep, it's all a literary construct that Jim, back in rehab for real after a personal catastrophe that knocks him off the wagon, is writing either as a way to process his grief or as an attempt to escape the trauma.

I wonder if I'm projecting a context onto this that isn't real (appropriately), but it all feels a bit like a made-for-TV comedy show. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's funny, and I was relieved to find myself chuckling and chortling along. I imagine I'd enjoy watching the show. It also put me in mind of Michael Dibdin's The Dying of the Light, itself a mix of mystery, pathos and comedy and which won him a comparison to a famous and funny Tom (Stoppard in that case–some Amazon reviewers have set PBD up as the next Tom Sharp on the back of his first novel). His riffing on the styles of famous authors is fun if risky, and as an unreliable narrator, Jim is hard not to like. In all, it was a fine antidote to some pretty miserable houseboundness, despite the darkness underpinning it all.



And not to forget it's also still available in hardback from Unbound!