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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Sound of Things Falling

The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vásquez

"Then I realized no one wants to hear heroic stories, but everyone likes to be told about someone else's misery."

I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of this Impac Dublin Literary Award winning novel on Twitter, just in time for #spanishlitmonth. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago but it has, like some other posts languished in my drafts folder since then. However, in a final effort to post on some Spanish Lit for #spanishlitmonth, I am returning to it, grinding through the gears of my memory.

The book opens with the shooting of one of the hippopotami that took to the Columbian countryside fro the huge outdoor zoo presided over by Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. This reminds the narrator, Antonio Yammara, of his own memories that are tied up with the zoo and the Columbia represented by it, a Columbia where the drug cartel seemed untouchable, able to bribe, intimidate or kill anyone who stood against it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To the Bone


To the Bone - Jones

Regular readers will be aware of Mr Trevor Jones, who often stops by to comment and who, both as a solo artist and as part of Miracle Mile, has been producing excellent work since the eighties. Despite many critical plaudits and a small band of fanatics, this music has still to find its way to a wider audience. You can find my review of Miracle Mile's last album, In Cassidy's Care here.

His songs are carefully considered, mature reflections on the passing of time; friendship and its passing; disappointment; relationships; becoming and/or retreating from the self etc. The stuff of the considered life. My plan here (if you can call it a plan) is to listen to the album and respond track by track, somewhat fancifully imagining the album as a narrative and concentrating more on the lyrics than the music.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sniffin' Glue


Sniffin' Glue - The Essential Punk Accessory - Mark Perry, Danny Baker et al

"Now I wanna sniff some glue"

It feels ironic to be reading something as essentially ephemeral as Sniffin' Glue almost forty years after its xeroxed DIY appearance as the throwaway taste setter of the punk vanguard. However, it does provide a vibrant glimpse of the time, with humour and openness and enthusiasm making up for the occasional crudity of the opinions expressed. That's crude as in roughly sketched rather than crude as in rude, by the way. I don't mind a bit of fuckin' rudity.

In the introduction Mark Perry talks about looking for a magazine about punk at the Rock On record stall at the Soho market and being told he should do it himself. When he did a movement was born, even if the appearance of Blue Oyster Cult on the cover of Issue 1 isn't quite punk kosher.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When the Lights Go Out

When the Lights Go Out - Andy Beckett

I have read and reviewed almost no non-fiction over the lifetime of this blog. However, I continue to buy non-fiction in my all too frequent forays into charity shops, and even the odd one online, like this. I bought it at a time when I was researching a possible documentary project (long since dropped) and I finally got around to reading it as a result of taking up a challenge to present a paper at a conference on The Clash held in Belfast last month.

I really enjoyed it and hope that it kickstarts more non-fiction reading over the next few years. This book, subtitled "What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies" filled in a lot of detail missing in the faint impression of current affairs in Britain at the outer fringes of my memory - I turned three in 1970 and grew up in Ireland, exposed to British news and television channels but not quite immersed in it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Goats are Singing - for Dermot Healy.

photo courtesy of Steve Pyke: http://www.pyke-eye.com

The Goats are Singing - for Dermot Healy.

The news filtered in yesterday on Facebook and Twitter of the tragically early death of one of Ireland's greatest writers, the inspirational Dermot Healy. Séamus Heaney called him the heir to Patrick Kavanagh. Roddy Doyle called him Ireland's greatest living writer. My thoughts are with his family and friends, whose loss is immeasurably greater than the loss to readers, but the loss to readers is great too, as he was a master.

As a reader I have been savouring the fact that his most recent novel, Long Time, No See is on my shelves, waiting for me. I had also been thinking of re-reading his classic novel A Goat's Song, the title of which comes from the etymology of tragedy (from the Greek - tragos ‘goat’ + ōidē ‘song). And if his early death is a tragedy, he has left great work to remember him by. I have read two of his novels, A Goat's Song and Sudden Times, and his absolutely masterful memoir The Bend for Home. He also wrote short stories; the screenplay for Cathal Blacks hard hitting docudrama, Our Boys; four collections of poetry and a number of plays.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bring Up The Bodies




Bring Up The Bodies

"We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a land undespoiled by sheep or plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It's not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It's what's latent in the soil, what's breeding; it's the days to come, the wars unsought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm."

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Four Stories and Me


Four Stories and Me
(This essay retraces some of the ground covered in this post. It was written for the competition held by Thresholds and as they didn't appreciate it I thought I'd inflict it on you. Thresholds have lots of interesting essays on the short story if you feel like reading more.)

Sometimes it seems that a short story can embed itself deep inside the memory, into crannies that novels can’t fit into. Some stories are forever curling and uncurling deep inside my own head. Why have these particular stories burned so deeply into my mind? It seems to me that many of those that have managed to establish themselves in my mind depict an absurd world where actions are dictated by chance and prejudice and the frailty and insignificance of human life are foregrounded.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo


I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo - Augustus Roa Bastos
(translated by Helen Lane for Vintage Books. Published in 1987)
"It's awkward being alive and dead at the same time."
"imagination, mistress of error and falsehood?"

I read this in parallel with Richard at Caravano de Recuerdos. He has already posted three commentaries on Yo el Supremo, bringing to bear his greater familiarity with and understanding of South American literature and history. What do I have to offer? How do eccentric conclusions based on inaccurate speculation sound? Welcome to the home of vapour trails and reflections, or smoke and mirrors if you like that better.

This is a sprawling book with one of the craziest narrators in literary history. Fusing paranoia, puns and power El Supremo fires fusillades of vitriol mixed with artillery barrages of self-justification at his bewildered reader, forcing words to fit the flow of his conversation and dispensing with such things as temporal and character stability. By the end we feel we may be hearing the story from a consciousness born of it's own volition in a skull, long stored in a noodle box, that may or may not be the skull of El Supremo. But boy, can he rant! This is from the second page: "..all they know how to do is squeal. They haven't shut up to this day. They keep finding new ways of secreting their accursed poison. They get out pamphlets, pasquinades, lampoons, caricatures. I am an indispensable figure for slander. For all I care they can manufacture their paper from consecrated rags. Write it, print it with consecrated letters on a consecrated press. Go print your drivel on Mount Sinai if that will unshrivel your souls, you cacogenic latrinographers!"

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Bookshelves on Another Person's Blog

My Bookshelves on Another Person's Blog


Over at Savidge Reads there is a regular series called Other People's Bookshelves. I am "Other Person Number 43" if you feel inclined to have a peek at my shelves.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Wolf Hall



Wolf Hall  - Hilary Mantel

I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies together and it adds up to a long novel but it never felt like an effort. When I was a teenager I loved historical fiction and read quite a bit, most of which has been wiped clear from my brain, as has most of my knowledge of English history. Most of what was taught in Ireland back in my day focussed on the injustices perpetuated by the English on Ireland any way. Therefore we got more Oliver than Thomas Cromwell.

I mean I knew that heads would roll and monks faced eviction but not a whole lot else. Some other bits sounded familiar as I progressed but not awfully so. So I wasn't too worried about the absolute historical accuracy of this portrait of Thomas Cromwell, but instead focussed on how convincing a fictional character he was and the quality of the writing. I was not disappointed with either.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Young Skins



Young Skins - Colin Barrett

With the release of Young Skins Colin Barrett seems to have attracted the 'new Kevin Barry' tag. It's never easy having to wear someone else clothes and Kevin Barry probably thinks it's a bit early for a new him as well. Barrett has gracefully acknowledged Barry's influence and Barry has anthologised Barrett so the town seems big enough for both of them.
I find it difficult at times to write about short stories. I tend to read collections over a long period and indeed, I have many that I have dipped into on numerous occasions without finishing and often return to favourite stories again and again. Plans to cover my short story reading have yet to come to fruition. One of the problems is that it can be very easy to give away too much about a story, it's not like a novel where you can tell a lot without really giving anything away.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Flann O'Brien Documentary

Flann O'Brien Documentary
"a real writer, with the true comic spirit" - James Joyce

Here is a treat, a documentary on the wonderful Irish writer Flann O'Brien a.k.a. Brian O'Nolan, writer of two of the greatest Irish novels: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. He also produced one of the greatest satirical newspaper columns ever - An Cruiskeen Lawn.

In some ways he is the Irish Orson Welles, starting off with such great masterpieces that everything else is seen by some as a disappointment. And there is no doubt that he descended from those heights and suffered from frustration and alcoholism.

Thanks to Mick Mahon, who edited this documentary, for sharing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Scots Quair


A Scots Quair - Lewis Grassic Gibbon
(Sunset Song; Cloud Howe; Grey Granite)

This trilogy reminded me strongly of Thomas Hardy with it's powerful sense of the lives of the rural poor and the vagaries of fate. The books were written in the early 1930's in a poetic Scottish dialect and the action covers the years before, during and after the First World War. I became aware of them through the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Although popular in Scotland they had not previously attracted my attention. I'm glad they did. Indeed they are likely to meet with a surge in popularity as the great Terence Davies has just begun filming Sunset Song. The mix of tenderness and brutality he brought to the screen in Distant Voices, Still Lives would appear to be on the cards for a reprise.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Where do we to to to find authenticity in our lives? Artistic expression; meaningful work; love and marriage; family; children ... And what do we do if what we find there seems little more than cheap artifice or a momentarily shared delusion?

The opening of the novel largely concerns the unsuccessful staging of an amateur production of The Petrified Forest*. The play actually pre-empts much of the storyline of the novel, with dreams of escaping to France and artistic creation clashing against drear mundanity.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Death of the Heart


Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen

This has been on my TBR list for a long time. I was finally encouraged to pull it from my shelves by a list by author Yiyun Li of five books that she rereads.  It seems to me to be a masterpiece, an essential book. I have read The Last September and thought it great but this is even better. At times the writing is exhilarating in its cumulative virtuosity, even when the insights are speculative and eccentric. Or maybe because they are eccentric and speculative.

The book tells of a period of time in the life of the orphaned Portia Quayne,  a sixteen year old girl who is staying with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who have no children of their own and little time or sympathy for Portia. Portia was born when Thomas and Portia's father had an affair which brought an end to his marriage, after which he and Portia's mother lived in a succession of second rate accommodations around Europe. Thomas remembers her as a young girl who "stared at him like a kitten that expects to be drowned." It was their father's deathbed request that Thomas take Portia for a year. They feel that it would be bad form not to accede to a dying man's wish.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Top 102 Albums Minus 14 - Fire of Love

Top 102 Albums Minus 14
Fire of Love - The Gun Club
"I'm going to buy me a graveyard all of my own
and kill everyone who ever did me harm"

Hank Williams staggered from the bar onto the dusty highway. StEaling an aXe from John Henry he chopped down electricity poles and JACKed up on electro convulsive blues, as a WOLF drove past in a tattered limousine HOWLING some artery rippinG pUNk yarn discovered rotting in a bootleggers shack by Harry Smith .

Stripped back, shredded roCk that stands beside bands Like The Stooges, The Birthday Party, Einstürzende NeUBauten in the intensity of its exorcistic orgies.

Friday, April 4, 2014

How's the Pain?


How's the Pain? - Pascal Garnier
(Translated by Emily Boyce)

"In which part of Africa was it that people greeted each other every morning with the question "How's the pain?" Simon could no longer remember."

I was inspired to read this by a list of favourite noir books selected by John Banville, and it was not a disappointment. It has many of the reflexes of a genre novel but is also a humdrum existential meditation on death.

An older man, Simon arrives at Val-les-Bains, a spa town in rural France. He strikes up a conversation with Bernard, a simple young man and invites him out for dinner. He then offers him a job driving him to a seaside town and back. He offers good money. There has to be more to it than first appears and, of course, there is.

Indeed we know that it will end with Simon hanging himself and leaving everything to Bernard. For we begin at the end, the first short chapter being Simon's preparing to hang himself in his hotel room. And the second chapter lets us know that Bernard will assist him.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Antwerp


Antwerp - Roberto Bolaño
"reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences"

I started jotting down notes towards a coherent post on Antwerp but it seemed easier more in keeping with the spirit of the novel to leave them as simply notes towards a blog post.

Antwerp is the first known novel written by Bolaño. It was written around 1980 but not published until just before his death. It is short and experimental, with atmosphere and effect more than plot and character the driving force. It is closer in spirit to poetry than prose and perhaps marks the major staging post between both poles of Bolaño's writing.

The gun was only a word.”
Chekov, famously, said something about having to use a gun, if you introduce it. Bolaño seems to be saying that you don't.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna / The Man Who Went Up In Smoke

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who have left their stamp on Scandinavian writing.
Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna & The Man Who Went Up In Smoke - Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

Here, or elsewhere I made the statement that I'd immerse myself in crime for a portion of the year. I thought that reading a ten book series would be a good way to make good on that promise. Unfortunately I still have to find book three, four and ten so for the now I'll write up some thoughts on the first two books in the Martin Beck series, often blamed for the wave of Nordic noir that has descended upon us over the last number of years.