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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…

Dancing In The Dark: My Struggle Volume 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I would have loved to buy a hot dog from her,
just to watch her squeezing the ketchup and
mustard from the plastic bottles over the sausage.
Knausgaard fatigue might soon be a diagnosable condition, listed in future editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, if only readers failed to persevere past the first few volumes of My Struggle. I was certainly moved to take some time off between books, to recuperate and steel myself for the next onslaught. But just what it is that so thoroughly drains is something of a mystery, when I most certainly feel full and almost buoyant by book’s end. Is it the weight of confession? Is it the exposure of thoughts I’d had and still have, thoughts I believed were unique to me but were now laid bare for all to read? Some measure of shame? Whatever it is, it makes for a tense time to be around me, that’s for sure. It’s a strange thing to be bursting to talk about it but be too exhausted to explain the context.

Anyhow, volume four sees Karl Ove embark on his abortive teaching career, aged 18, in some far-flung corner of northern Norway. What this comes down to in essence is a typically brash and arrogant young person, not yet an adult, crashing into his own limitations because of insecurity – he’s still a virgin and painfully aware of it – and an over-fondness for getting smashed out of his tree. He’s a pretty despicable knob too. He urinates on a tramp; he nearly gets stabbed by some guys he insults; he trashes a hotel room on a football trip; he litters; and at one point he describes his latent and atavistic impulse for violent rape. Because of his various personal problems, hubris being the least, he runs into several problems at school – awkward and uncommunicative students, what he considers to be an interfering headteacher, and worse of all, sixteen-year-old girls fluttering eyelashes and smiling coquettishly – all of which serve to exacerbate his need for release which he then seeks in alcohol, believing himself to be trapped in a paradox of desire and impotence. Indeed, he manages to devote a large portion of the book to his problems with premature ejaculation. He is, in short, a pretty typical teenager. Except for the excruciatingly honest confessions – I don’t ever recall being quite so brutal with myself.

And yet somehow he still manages to win over the reader. His questionable reliability (I’m sure he’s said elsewhere he barely remembers a thing from his childhood) and fetishistic obsessions should really alienate but they don’t. We might not like what he does but eventually, it’s hard not to like him. Or admire him. Or something. I’m not sure what it is. And frankly, the resolution to his sexual crises is something many readers might find hilarious, but others will certainly not. I don’t know if I’m looking forward to the next volume.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.


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 …