Saturday, 31 December 2011

Coming Through Slaughter

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje

This is an incantation, a hallucination, an excavation. Melody and noise, beauty and disharmony, whisper and squawk do battle across the page. This is a poets novel, words weighted for their impact, the pulse of rhythm, short passages alternating with long, images that stop you dead with their own gravitational fields.

Buddy Bolden was one of the originators of jazz. "He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing. Had a good band. Strictly ear band. Later on Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard - they all knew he began the good jazz." But, like many such originators Bolden fell as low as he had previously ridden high.

As well as his music he published a scandal rag and was a conduit for the gossip he picked up cutting hair - "the details of the children and the ladies changing hands like coins or a cigarette travelling at mouth level around the room. All these contests for bodies with children in the background like furniture."

Friday, 30 December 2011

The Hour of the Star

The Hour of the Star - Clarice Lispector

"In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the North-east."

What makes fiction? How is it born? This book starts with a prolonged series of musings from the (fictional) author on the nature of the story he is writing, and how it came to him.

Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker - Russell Walker

This is a ghost story, and we the readers are the ghosts.

When I heard that Russell Hoban has died, I felt that I had to do something to mark his passing. My nom de plume on readers site Shelfari is Riddley, a name lifted from this book. It is probably the book that has left the greatest impression on me over a lifetime of reading, and rereading it feels like going home.

So we are ghosts, and now Russell is a ghost. But why is this book so special?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

There is a tacit admission of the weakness of this book in my edition. The book consists of alternate chapters in the voice of the Concierge of an Paris apartment block (Renée, 54) and the young daughter of one of the wealthy families who live there ( Paloma ,12). The chapters are differentiated by typeface. I feel that this is in part because neither voice is convincing, nor really differentiated by anything other than subject matter. Whether this is a fault of author or translator is undiagnosable by me.

Both characters are self diagnosed intellectuals who think profound thoughts and rush to dazzle us with their profundity. At times it is as if philosophy Professor Barbery has opened the window of her apartment on a stormy Paris and the wind has mixed pages of  sophomore essays she was marking with the pages of her novel. I thought I was reading a satire on bourgeois thought who's bite would soon become obvious but unfortunately I wasn't. There are also a few chapters from a Mills and Boon novel mixed through this for good measure.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Safety Net

The Safety Net - Heinrich Böll

This is an exactingly written novel, dissecting the exercise of power by the industrial and political elite, by outsiders and finally, by money itself. The church and the aristocracy have lost their place as the ruling classes. Priests are "caught in the sex trap that for centuries they had been setting for others." The aristocracy are gone to seed - "Holger Count Tolm, the last of the name, who for many years now had been disporting himself with women and gambling somewhere in southern Spain, trying without success to be accepted by the international playboy set: the very image of an embarrassing type of decay which, in its unashamedness, was still more to his liking than the decay of the clergy behind carefully preserved façades."

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Adjunct: an Undigest

Adjunct: an Undigest - Peter Manson

This is undoubtedly the most strikingly original book I have read this year. Giving Gysin's / Burrough's cut up techniques a spin through a random number generator this is a collage of found phrases, beer, slices of (low)life, deaths, John Cage, grammar, The Fall, whisky, the difficulty of publishing poetry while on the dole etc.

Manson has a killer's surname and an eye for killer phrases. I wonder if he feels The Fall returned to form in the 21st century? Does he still have boils behind his ears? This is like Lucky Jim for poètes maudits.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Brave New World

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

This is one of those books I seemed destined not to read for no particular reason. I went through a Huxley phase many years ago but left out some of the most famous books (This, The Doors of Perception, Eyeless in Gaza)  for some reason best known to my preconditioned subconscious. Part of the reason was probably the sense that I'd read it, so often did I see it referenced or hear and read discussions of its merits. All this, luckily, was a long time ago and I was able to read it without too much baggage.

In fact, I found it different to my expectations. I had for some reason, an idea that it would be drier that it is. It is easy to see its huge influence on science fiction, even for a dilettante like me. Exiles on Asperus, a John Wyndham story I reviewed earlier this year, takes the idea of extreme behavioural modification but has an alien race use these modifications on humans. A Clockwork Orange asks a similar question. What of the individual human is it worth giving up for the sake of the 'hive'?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

Masking and unmasking is at the very heart of comedy. Things aren't what we think they are, or are they? Nadezhda, our narrator, is the daughter of aged widower and tractor enthusiast Nikolai. She has been estranged from her older sister Vera since her mother's death, and they were not too close before that. She has ambivalent feelings towards her father, her mother was really the heart of the family. She sees herself as a feminist and a socialist; but is she?

When her 84 year old father becomes embroiled with the 36 year old Ukrainian divorcee Valentina her worldview is challenged. Although her father spins a tale of idealism, wanting to help a fellow Ukrainian escape from the mess the Ukraine has become, his interest in her 'superior breasts' seems just as strong as his idealism. Will this woman simply exploit her father? Is her father to exploit this woman?

Sunday, 11 December 2011


Tarr - Wyndham Lewis

"The ‘‘ Real Thing” is always Nothing. REALITY is the nearest conscious and safe place to “ Reality.” Once an Artist gets caught in that machinery, he is soon cut in half--literally so." from BLAST, the magazine of Vorticism which Wyndham Lewis played a key role in.

Wyndham Lewis was a key member of the modernist avant garde in the early decades of the twentieth century. As the founder of  Vorticism, an art movement the philosophy of which was outlined in BLAST, he had a influence beyond his own work. BLAST, of which there were only two issues still managed to publish TS Eliot, the story which formed the basis of Ford Madox Ford's classic The Good Soldier, Ezra Pound, paintings from Lewis and Edward Wadsworth and Jacob Epstein etc

Saturday, 3 December 2011


Ironweed - William Kennedy

Here is a romance of loss and despair. Winter light captured in a greasy wine bottle sparkles like the Hope Diamond; shattered lives form and reform like a million sparrows in an autumn sunset, freed from time by the red eyed gaze of  dead companions and adversaries. And through the cracks in broken pavements, abandoned baseball diamonds, grave rectangles of final repose and hobo jungles sprout weeds of unseasonal vigour fertilised by guilt and love; wine and memory.

Francis and Helen bound by weeds of iron, and poor doomed Rudy carrying his own end like a secret he couldn't keep, "the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums," the non existent "brotherhood of the desolate."

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Old School

Old School - Tobias Wolff

There are not many better books about writing than this. The narrator  goes to a boarding school where writing is taken very seriously. During his final year Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemmingway all accept invitations to visit the school for readings. The final year students compete for a one on one meeting by submitting some of their own writing. The narrator is one of the " boys who aced their English classes and submitted work to the school lit mag and hung around with other book-drunk boys." He is one of the editorial team on the school's literary magazine Troubadour.

The book is about truth and lies, loyalty and betrayal and much else besides. It is both wise and funny. It is unusual in Wolff's canon in that it is a novel that covers the period between his two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army. Indeed towards the end of  This Boy's Life Wolff tells us how he faked supporting letters from his teachers to help him get a scholarship to the exclusive Hill School.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Monkey's Raincoat

The Monkey's Raincoat - Robert Crais

Hollywood; sentences with the ends bitten off, sharply; drugs; sleazy producers; desperate actresses; vietnam vets; coffee drinking cops; swimming pools; marble floors; mafiosi; broken fists; broken ribs; broken worse than that; bad jokes; tai chai; yoga; rye bread; kidnapping; women balanced for hair colour and race; studio lots; dead fish and a particularly large Eskimo.

These are only a few of the ingredients in the first Elvis Cole novel and the debt to the master chef of such cuisine, Elmore Leonard, is acknowledged. Elvis reads some of his books, over and over.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Garden Party

The Garden Party - Katherine Mansfield

Taking my cue from the 1001 Books group on Shelfari I am counting this short story as a book as it is included on the LIST. I am limping towards 400 and reckon I will finish all 1001 if I live to 1001. This post contains SPOILERS so you should jump to this link and read the story first. It's short.

This collection of stories was the last Mansfield published before her early death and death haunts the title story. The preparations for a garden party in a big country house are interrupted by news of the accidental death of a man from the labourer's cottages not far from the gates of the estate.  Virginia Woolf may well have had it in mind when writing Mrs Dalloway.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne Du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel's opening, with a dead body swinging on a gibbet, reminded me somewhat of Great Expectations. That the narrator is also an orphan called Philip cemented the connection. In some ways you can look at it as a version of Great Expectations PULPed and reconstituted. It is also unmistakably from the same hand as Rebecca, using a similar structure and setting.

Philip, aged seven (one year older than Pip when he meets Magwitch) has been taken to see the hanged man by his cousin and guardian Ambrose, who feels that it will teach him a lesson. (Let's not go into whether this is an appropriate teaching method for seven year olds. Du Maurier's supposedly inappropriate relationship with her father finds an echo here.)  The body as thing is difficult for Philip to accept but when the connection is made to a person he knew this becomes even more so. "I wished he had not named the man. Up to that moment the body had been a dead thing, without identity. It would come into my dreams, lifeless and horrible. I knew that very well from the first instant I had set my eyes upon the gibbet. Now it would have connexion with reality..." The difference between judging someone you don't know and someone you do will play a major part in the novel.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet - Fernando Pessoa

Like a miniaturist drawing the most intricate maps of the universe Pessoa uses a tiny canvas to open huge vistas. The trains of thought seem to circle in on themselves but then you suddenly realise he has just been erasing all your preconceptions in preparation for a startlingly original phrase or idea. I didn't find this an easy read and found myself re reading far more than usual but I also found it rewarding. At once strange and familiar, Pessoa's world is one of paradoxes, both apparent and real.

The book was written over a number of years and assembled after Pessoa's death. It is an arrangement of some of the writings he left behind. There are pointers within the text to show that Pessoa had envisaged posthumous readers and didn't intend a direct narrative of any kind. "Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life." These are "the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions."

Saturday, 19 November 2011

More sweet Poesy

Over at the Better than Starbucks group on Shelfari there is a thread for original poetry. I have regaled readers here with some of my efforts inspired by this same thread before and (take cover) I'm about to do it again.

The poetry thread was being unpinned because of lack of new poems being posted and this would lead to it slipping out of sight until reanimated. These were my two responses. The second 'poem' was inspired by the fact that the first 'poem' led to the thread being repinned.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Leon Blum Before His Judges

Léon Blum Before His Judges 
at the Supreme Court of Riom
March 11th and 12th, 1942

I came across this book in a job lot of (largely) history books I bought at auction.  It and some others intrigued me because they were published during the Second World War and told a story of a battleground without guns. It showed how people were politically engaged with the shape their future would take while war was still ongoing.

This is a transcript of the 'trial' for treason of Léon Blum, who was twice head of the French government in the years running up to the outbreak of the war. Ironically, the Vichy government, at the behest of their Nazi masters, were trying him for treason in undermining the production of arms in the run up to the war and contributing to the French defeat. Blum was a lifelong advocate of pacifism and socialism and had overseen the introduction of new labour laws enshrining the idea of the 40 hour week and holiday pay in legislation he had passed as well as nationalising some of the armaments industry.

Broken City People

Here's some great music from an ex-member of The Knocking Shop and some friends.



Tuesday, 15 November 2011

By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile - Roberto Bolaño

The titular night is the night during which the priest Father Sebastian Urrutia narrates his feverish memoirs; it is also the darkness that passed over Chile under Pinochet; it also refers to the nightime activities of the Chilean literati and other dark times.

Right from the start Fr Urrutia introduces one of the novels main themes. Urrita immediately follows his declaration of Chilean nationality by letting us know that "My ancestors on my fathers side came from the Basque country, or Euskadi, as it is now called. On my mother's side I hail from the gentle land of France." Throughout the book, he will refer to people of native Chilean descent as 'ugly', while he himself is "noble" looking, a hint that he may not be much of a Chilean.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

All Souls

All Souls - Javier Marías

This is my second book by Marías in the past few months and I will be looking out for more. Different but sharing an interest in translation with my first taste of his writing Bad Nature , this is a variant on the English university novel. Given its name it seemed like an appropriate read for the Halloween season but  has more humour than horror, although horror is not absent.

The main theme of the book is time and the duality of experience. This duality meshes nicely with Marias' interest in translation. We have rivers with more than one name interwoven through the book, physically representing the movement of time and also the subjective nature of naming. The fact that Oxford is a hotbed of agents (and double, and even triple agents) is also mentioned. Everyone is seen to be playing games of deception and those who aren't are seen as suspect.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Bad Vibes

Bad Vibes - Luke Haines

In which Luke Haines turns his life into Auteurian legend with himself cast as a misantrophic Merlin calling down destruction on the party. The acid tongued songwriter was always at the literate end of the music industry (not that that says much) and he carries off this bookwriting thing with some aplomb.

It helps, of course, that I share my year of birth with Mr Haines and so the cultural references are very familiar and the objects of his withering fury are ones I would largely share. (Also he praises Johnathan Richman, Go-Betweens, Momus and Vic Godard among others so is clearly therefore a man of exquisite taste.)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Neuromancer - William Gibson

This book is credited with the birth of the cyberpunk genre and certainly it now seems very familiar from its many progeny. I never got around to reading this in the eighties so I cannot comment on whether or not I would have felt the shock of the new had I read it then.

The world in which it takes place is largely that of Burroughs meets Blade Runner but with added virtuality. In the afterword to my edition, Gibson credits reading Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Burroughs' Interzone and hearing The Velvet Underground's 'Banana' album with the inspiration for Neuromancer.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Nazi Literature in the Americas

Nazi Literature in the Americas - Roberto Bolano

An imaginary encyclopedia of literary losers who tend to fly in circles as they have only got right wings Nazi Literature in the Americas is both a humorous parlour game and a howl of disgust. Lying at its heart are the fascist regimes and disappearances that blighted South America over the course of Bolano's life. There is also a sense, which grows in it's absence, of the importance of literature, that evil needs it's apologists in order to flourish.

Although some of the entries in this sourcebook relate to each other, it is largely without plot and most entries are discrete. However, like in Nabokov's Pale Fire, we are invited to read between the lines to create the world that contains these people. There is no narrative line to follow through the book but the delight in the ever expanding detail of this parallel world. Were they to have existed, or exist now, many of these writers would not even have achieved obscurity.

Just Kids

Just Kids - Patti Smith

"I didn't mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called."
Patti Smith knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. This is the story of how she discovered her vocation and her fellow traveller on that early journey, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met soon after arriving in New York.  "I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on a Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me."
The book uses Smith's diaries and has a very immediate feel. You can sense her finding her feet in the city, and confidence in her various artistic enterprises: painter, poet, muse...

Sunday, 23 October 2011


Amulet - Roberto Bolano

There is something rhapsodic about Bolano's writing, making what is static and ephemeral in the plot seem propulsive and concrete. The action is in the metaphor, in the vigour of the writing.

Amulet revisits the terrain of The Savage Detectives. It is, in fact, a reworking of part of the longer work with the emphasis changed. Auxilio Lacouture, an Uruguyan living in Mexico city recounts events from her bohemian life among poets and academics, including the lightly disguised "Arturo Belano".

From the very start we are told that this book is a "horror story. A story of murder, deception and horror. But it won't appear to be, for the simple reason that I am the teller. Told by me, it won't seem like that. Although, in fact, it's the story of a terrible crime."

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Elephant's Journey

The Elephant's Journey - Jose Saramago

This is a journey sustained on a humourous tension between telling the tale and dismantling it. Before we even start on the story proper, Saramago tells of it's genesis in the mural on the wall of a restaurant. So we know the book is the result of "a chance encounter", almost a whim.

This provisionality is a key element of The Elephant's Journey, not just the writing but the story itself. The story involves the sending of  Solomon the elephant from the King and Queen of Portugal in Lisbon to the Archduke Maxmillian of Austria (the Queen's cousin) who is in Valladolid and will then take Solomon on the Vienna. The idea of sending this late wedding gift is a whim, which the Queen almost regrets (but not quite). Solomon had been a great success on his arrival in Lisbon but now he is yesterdays news and languishes in filthy obscurity with his Indian mahout, Subhro (white). This is projected to be his future in Vienna, too: "there'll be a lot of applause, a lot of people crowding the streets, and then they'll forget all about him, that's the law of life, triumph and oblivion."

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Shuttlecock - Graham Swift

Prentis is a minor civil servant in an office where dead cases are archived. He envies his boss his power and his father his status as a wartime hero. His wife and two children suffer the brunt of his dissatisfaction as he exercises his power over them, even when he knows that what he is doing is wrong.

This he writes down in a form of confessional, which begins with a memory he has of a pet hamster from his youth.  "You see, I used to torment my hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn't a case of wanting to play with him, or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him." He is trying to understand himself. Why was it that while he tortured Sammy he was a good son to his parents but before Sammy arrived on the scene and after he died he was difficult. Why?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Child of God

Child of God - Cormac McCarthy

"he turned and shook the rifle alternately at the flooded creek and at the gray sky out of which the rain still fell grayly and without relent and the curses that hailed up above the thunder of the water carried to the mountain and back like echoes from the clefts of bedlam."

At once futuristic and ancient, Child of God presents a story of disquieting horror dwarfed in a frame of wild nature and timelessness. Centre stage is Hank Ballard, a tin man whose clockwork is damaged yet inexorably drives him on. He is empty, unreflective as water in a pitch black cavern, and like that water he flows ever downwards. He is evicted and the first scene is a carnivaleque auction of his house and land, where while attempting to halt the sale he winds up knocked unconscious by an axe.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship - Colm Tóbín

This is a tender and careful book, probing gently into the shells wherein three generations of a family have housed their buried pains and unresolved emotions.

The catalyst for this exploration is the news that Declan, brother of Helen and child of Lily wants to go to his granny Dora's house to get away from the hospital for a while. He is dying of AIDS but hasn't told his family and has relied on his good friends Paul and Larry, who have nursed him through his illness until now.

As well as the immanent loss of Declan, the book focusses on earlier losses, particularly the early death of Helen and Declan's father, Lily's husband. The repercussions of this are still twisting their lives into uncomfortable shapes. On the surface Lily and Helen are successful professionals but emotionally, they are fractured and brittle. "When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back." Things have been so bad between them that Lily was not asked to her daughter's wedding nor has she met her son in law nor grandchildren.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Another World

Another World - Pat Barker

This book would make a great Graphic Novel. It is full of arresting and immediate images that are central to the plot and repeated visual motifs. It is the story of a family; psychology professor Nick and his daughter Miranda,  Nick's partner Fran and her son Gareth, Nick and Fran's "shared children": Jasper and his unborn sibling; and Nick's Grandfather Geordie.

The books masterfully builds a feeling of awful anticipation and a vertiginous sense of the anxieties of modern life: "like everyone else he lives in the shadows of monstrosities. Peter Sutcliffe's bearded face, the number plate of a house in Cromwell Street, three figures smudged on a video surveillance screen, an older boy taking a toddler by the hand while his companion strides ahead,  eager for the atrocity to come."

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Exiles on Asperus

Exiles on Asperus - John Wyndham

Aahh, some good old fashioned Boy's Own tales; ray guns and alien races; life on Mars and Venus and elsewhere; the future foretold. This is a collection of three stories from Day of the Triffids author John Wyndham. Two, Exiles on Asperus and The Venus Adventure, from the early thirties and the other, No Place Like Earth, from 1951.

The stories all look askance at the human race, using the horrors perpetrated in the name of colonialism as a model for how we will behave in space. The alien races are all far more moral than they are depicted. In Exiles on Asperus, Sen-Su, leader of the Martian revolution says: "They have made quite a bogy of me on Earth; I assure you they exaggerate. It has been Governmental policy to malign me - Governments have to create thorough-going villains. In private life we should call them liars, but in public life they are propagandists."

Ghost Light

Ghost Light - Joseph O'Connor

"Ghost light. An ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays."

Molly Allgood was engaged to John Millington Synge when he died. She was an actress in the Abbey and was the first actress to play the iconic role of Pegeen Mike in Synge's masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, playing to an angry rioting crowd incensed by this portrayal of themselves. We begin this book with Molly living in a "hungry room", her neighbours largely Irish navvies, her company largely poured from bottles and "the scuttle of the past out of cupboards.". It is almost a return to her girlhood over a junkshop in Mary Street in the infamous tenements of Dublin.

Molly's final residence is like Yeat's "foul rag and bone shop of the heart" and she swims among her memories, which are dominated by her years with Synge. Synge was a Protestant from a landowning family and almost twenty years older than Molly. The gulf between them was large and their relationship (in this novel) was not looked kindly upon by Synge's partners in the Abbey, Yeats and Lady Gregory, nor Synge's widowed mother. O'Connor imagines them meeting on the train to Bray, not acknowledging each other until they thought themselves safe from being seen by those who knew them, to avoid scandal.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Double

The Double - Jose Saramago

"an algebraic equation with people's faces where there should have been letters."

This is a book soaked in Mathematics. Indeed it reminded me forcefully of an occasion in my schooldays when I was asked to come to the blackboard and write out the proof of a theorem we were supposed to have learnt. The theorem was nice and concise but I hadn't learnt it. I may not even have looked at it and I had far more entertaining things to listen to in the classroom than the teacher. So I had to start from scratch and I filled the blackboard twice, following a number of hunches that brought me nowhere, before finally arriving at the proof. This was, of course, very amusing to the teacher.

Staying with half digested maths, it is my understanding that one of the many ideas in quantum mechanics is that anything that can happen, will happen. In this case the plot of The Double is not that farfetched. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a history teacher who is suffering from mild depression is advised to watch a certain film by "his colleague, the Mathematics teacher." He watches the video and finds it unremarkable and as cliched as its title "The Race is to the Swift."

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Centauri Device

The Centauri Device - M John Harrison

This is a strange and interesting novel. Written in a style which seems to try to meld Chandler and Burroughs it has a dreamlike ambiance while telling a straightforward enough Pirate tale full of ships, bo'suns and ports; albeit in space, and on the 400th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

John Truck is the son of the last pureblooded Centaurian, and as such he is the only one who can operate the Centauri device of the title. This device has been discovered by Grishkin, the leader of the major religion of the time, the Openers, who have windows in their bodies to reveal their innards. The device is also wanted by the Israeli's (IWG) and the Arabs (UASR), the conflict between whom has led to what's left of Earth being split between them, their conflict continuing amoung the stars.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Siege of Krishnapur

The Siege of Krishnapur - J.G.Farrell

I haven't laughed out loud at a book so much for quite a while. What began as a series of low civilised chuckles to myself ended up with quite a few loud guffaws and extended periods where laughter bubbled up from my stomach like carbon dioxide through soda water. I then had to sheepishly mumble to my partner that I was laughing at some particularly gory scenes of dismemberment.

The novel tells the story of an uprising in an isolated province in India which leads to an extended siege of the residence of the Collector, the chief bureaucrat in the province.

I feel obliged at this point to say that this review contains some spoilers although I feel that they will not in any way spoil the enjoyment to be derived from the book.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


I have been contributing the odd poem to one of my online reading groups this year and thought I'd gather some together here to give everyone who reads this a chance to point and laugh.

I unwound the bandages
and flinched
You were unwinding
Like a spring
gone loose
The years wind around me
Like a torn cloth

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Eye

The Eye - Vladimir Nabokov

"A thing I had long suspected - the world's absurdity - became obvious to me."

The Eye is an early (1930) novel from Nabokov which he translated from the original Russian in the mid sixties. In his foreword he talks of the difficulties faced in translating the title.
"The Russian title of this book is SOGLYADATAY (in traditional transliteration), pronounced 'Sugly-dart-eye', with the accent on the penultimate. It is an ancient military term meaning 'spy' or 'watcher', neither of which extends as flexibly as the Russian word. After toying with 'emissary' or 'gladiator', I gave up trying to blend sound and sense, and contented myself with matching the 'eye' on the end of the long stalk."

The book is set in Berlin in 1924-25 amoung the Russian emigre community but Nabokov doesn't try to make any political point - saying - "they might just as well have been Norwegians in Naples or Ambracians in Ambridge." The nature of emigrant communities, where disparate people are thrown together by the simple fact of their nationality is evident in the book, however. 

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Palace Walk

Palace Walk - Naguib Mahfouz

Palace Walk is considered by many to be Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz's masterpiece. It is the first part of a trilogy of novels which tell the saga of one family in Cairo, and through their stories the wider story of Egypt in the 20th Century.  It explores power and it uses and abuses in the domestic, social and political arenas.

At the heart of the book is the charming but despotic father Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. His family consists of his wife Amina, three sons ( Yasin, Fahmy and Kamal) and two daughters (Khadija and Aisha). His eldest son, Yashin, is from a previous marriage which is the first sign of a crack in his self image. The narrative voice is interesting, flexible enough to reflect the self image of the characters within an ostensibly omniscient voice. This allows for the deployment of weapons grade irony, especially in the descriptions of Al-Sayyid and Yashin.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bad Nature, or with Elvis in Mexico.

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico - Javier Marias

Language is a dangerous commodity. How we use it can determine our fate. It is a vessel for memory. It can be used not just to decide what happens, but also what happened. So when it is decided that Elvis never went to Mexico to shoot some scenes from Fun in Acupulco, so it is. This however, threatens the very being of our narrator, for whom his time in Mexico with Elvis was a lifechanging experience.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Musicians All Time Top Tens

Some more All Time Top Tens from the archives of Smash Hits. With thanks to Like Punk Never Happened.

Just click on the image to link to Youtube playlists.

Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

I didn't have any idea what to expect from this book but it certainly wasn't the missing link between P G Wodehouse and Mervyn Peake. That is however, what I got.

The book opens with a foreword dedicated to "Anthony Pookworthy, Esq., A.B.S., L.L.R." Gibbons bewails the years she has spent as a journalist "learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences."  Now, to "achieve literature and favourable reviews" she must learn "to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible."   His "books are not ... funny. they are records of intense spiritual struggles, staged in the wild setting of mere, berg or fen." It is clear that she finds them laughable and that Pookworthy represents a type of author who is to be wickedly lampooned in what is to come.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

John Peel Top Ten 1981

John Peel's All Time Top Ten 1981.
Click on the image for a Youtube playlist of the songs.

Taken from the very great blog Like Punk Never Happened, which simply uploads editions of Smash Hits from thirty years ago. Simple but giving me hours of browsing pleasure. I had a subscription for years and used to love collecting the magazine in the local newsagent and seeing my surname in the top corner.

At the time there was a lot of crossover between Smash Hits and John Peel. More than one would imagine. Check it out.

Can't wait until it gets to my plea for penpals, which got around two thousand replies. One day we got an actual sack full of post delivered to our house. Wish I had them still. I could scan one every day and run a complementary blog.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Hothouse by the East River

The Hothouse by the East River - Muriel Spark

This is an odd book. A couple (Paul and Elsa) live in an old overheated apartment looking out on the East River. Their talk is obtuse, disconnected. She looks out the window while talking to him and there is something wrong with the orientation of her shadow. "He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, cross town to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight."

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Good Earth

The Good Earth - Pearl S Buck

A E Housman's poem that gives James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover its name could just as easily provide an epigraph for this.
"Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep."

This is a sweeping tale set in China, almost a fable, although underpinned with startling pictures of reality. It tells of a rural family and their struggles to survive and even prosper through good times and bad. It brought to mind a mixture of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, although not quite as political as the first nor tragic as the second.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Blood's a Rover

Blood's a Rover - James Ellroy

"Scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content."

This is a study of, and exercise in, obsessions, compulsions and persistence. Sometimes it's hard to separate Ellroy's persona and history from his characters. Certainly Donald Crutchfield, the character who ties this book together shares peccadilloes with the author. He is a 'peeper' who has stolen women's lingerie. He has a missing mother who he searches for. He is also the narrator, him and his paper trail.
(Ellroy's mother was killed when he was a child and he did time for peeping/stealing women's lingerie.)
The book opens with a brutal heist, in the description of which are scattered a few very biblical imprecations to "Mark it now". This is the King James version of history, delivered in a declamatory style all Ellroy's own. Short "staccato™" sentences that borrow from police reports and gossip columns constantly invite you to join the dots and create a labyrinthine plot that takes in everything from the long decline of J Edgar Hoover to the mystical power of emeralds in Haitian voodoo (traveling from one to the other on (Howard) Hughes Air in the company of law ENFORCERS and lawbreakers a plenty).  They also take in the assassinations of the Kennedy's and King. Indeed all Ellroy's work can be seen to revolve about the murder of his mother and the murder of the American Dream in the guise of the Kennedys and King.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Girlfriend in a Coma

Girlfriend in a Coma - Douglas Coupland

"Because if it's not Love
Then it's the bomb, the bomb, the bomb,
the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb
That will bring us together
Nature is a language - can't you read ?
Nature is a language - can't you read ?
So, ask me, ask me, ask me,
Ask me, ask me, ask me"
The Smiths - Ask

This is an odd book. Firstly, it's got the oddly distancing use of Smiths' lyrics in sentences to no obvious effect. Coupland has said that this was "a little salute to those points in my life when I was melting down to soundtracks provided by British gloom rockers." It seems little more than a gimmick, although it does act as a metafictional brake on the potential gaucherie of some episodes. (and it's fun, in a trainspottery kind of way).

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Dubliners - James Joyce

In an newly persuasive argument against optical character recognition software here is a twenty five year old college essay on Joyce's Dubliners, a book so good it will even survive reading this. 

Dubliners is a book with a moral purpose. Joyce described it as 'a chapter in the moral history of my country'.  He saw himself as 'Stephen Hero', subversively fighting the paralysis endemic in his mother city.
However, he presents his moral guidance differently in Dubliners than in Stephen Hero or Portrait of the Artist . . . Rather than having a central character fight an epic battle with the paralysis surrounding
him, he shows pictures of the paralysed, and the aura which envelopes them. Of the three weapons of Daedalus, 'silence, exile and cunning', it is silence that is most telling in Dubliners. The characters are silent in the face of epiphany, silent in their failure to change. Joyce's own apparent silence also permeates the book, he doesn't appear to guide you, but in such a closely structured and controlled atmosphere, didactic comment is completely unnecessary.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is a mosaic of seventies cultural references, from movies to music to the spread of Dutch Elm disease, the World Wildlife Fund and sexual experimentation in suburbia... in this detritus one thing remains standing, either the legs of a giant statue or the last two Elm trees, stripped of their bark. A plaque beneath them reads "I am Donny Osmonde, King of Kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and my hair."
(with abject apologies to Percy Shelley)
On the surface this is the story of five sisters who kill themselves. We know this right from the start. But under the surface this is many things; an elegy for lost youth, an exploration of sexual fantasies, a gloss on seventies culture, a lament for meaning, a conjuration...
It is also the story of the narrators, a bunch of neighbourhood boys who have watched, fascinated, as the Lisbon girls grew up across the road from their tree house, from which they would watch them. They are now middle aged men and are still fascinated by the girls and their untimely deaths. The voice has been compared to that of a Greek chorus but it seems to me to be more that of a single person hiding behind the plural, and one who is not entirely reliable.