Monday, 23 January 2023

Fish, felines, and fowl

In the run up to Christmas I read three more of the books that have been sitting on my shelf for years. They're all novella length and each one features a creature alongside a human. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952) recounts a lone man's struggle to land a fish, George Mikes's Tsi-Tsa (1978) charts the writer's relationship with a cat, and Barry Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) relates how a bird of prey lifts a boy out of misery.

Hemingway is the most well-known and feted of the three authors, indeed The Old Man and the Sea won him the 1954 Nobel Prize. His work is stuffed full of fighters and hunters, and in this one we go out with Santiago, "an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." Santiago sets out to break his run of bad luck and hooks the biggest marlin he has ever seen. For three days he struggles alone, talking to himself and to the fish for which he has great respect. As Santiago says, "I am only better than him through trickery".

Before starting it, I wondered just how engaging the story of one man's fishing expedition could be, but Hemingway's writing has a simple, lyrical quality that keeps you reading. He makes you feel you're sitting in the boat with Santiago, bobbing up and down on the waves.

Tsi-Tsa is, as its subtitle states, the biography of a cat. Our eponymous puss adopts journalist and writer George Mikes, whose previous relationship with animals "did not come to much", and who had "made fun of British cat-worship for several decades". Completely unawares tho', he "fell for Tsi-Tsa in the grand way".

This is a story filled with humour and affection and was bound to appeal to someone like me, who loves cats. It's also rather philosophical. Mikes questions whether it would be better to be blind or deaf, and asks if we do or should "value human beings, however hateful, above all animals, however lovable?"

The Hungarian-born writer was new to me. He studied law, was sent to London to cover the Munich Crisis and never left. I doubt I'll search out another of his books even tho' I really enjoyed his conversion to cat-worship. He ends on another philosophical point: "'Cats come and go. Cats are born and die, leaving little trace behind and very few memories. What does it matter whether they live or not?' How true. Cats, in this respect are just like human beings."

I was already familiar with the third book, A Kestrel for a Knave, since years ago I'd seen the 1969 screen adaptation by Ken Loach. It portrays a teenage boy's life in 1960s Yorkshire, is sometimes darkly comic and often utterly bleak. Billy Casper is in his last year at school and in spite of a potentially good salary, insists, "I'm not goin' down t'pit". But what else is there for him? He's used and abused by his older brother Jed, regularly caned by his headmaster, and mistreated by his sadistic games teacher. His mother is uncaring, his father absent. Unsurprisingly Billy himself is no angel, not averse to filching items from the milk dray and reading The Dandy before delivering it on his paper round. For all the hardship that Billy suffers, he can always find escape in the company of his kestrel, Kes, out in the countryside that lies beyond his back yard.

Hines deftly contrasts Billy's home life with his sense of wonder and freedom when encountering nature. In one memorable description, the teen walks through dew drenched grass and bends down to touch an individual drop with the tip of his tongue. At the end of the book one hopes, if not senses, that Billy will survive.

So there you are, three excellent reads: Hemingway for literary merit, Mikes for entertainment, Hines for emotion.

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

So. Farewell then Stars n Bars

2023, the start of a new year and the end of an era as it sadly heralds the closure of Monaco's Stars n Bars on 27 January, thirty years to the day since the American diner opened.

So many memories have been made there! We've had rowdy meals with friends and convivial drinks at the bar. And all the events! The first floor venue, Stardeck, has great views over Port Hercule, and if you've been in Monaco as long as me, you'll remember it as Fusion. It hosted the Riviera Comedy Club where the Other Half and I saw Isy Suttie in 2009. And what about all the networking evenings? You never knew who you'd meet. One time we were just about to leave when an Australian couple came over to say hello and we ended up having dinner with Mr Nightclub of Melbourne. Monaco's musicians entertained us at Open Mic Nights, we watched Barack Obama's inauguration and SuperBowl streamed live on TV, and at one memorable quiz night we were joined by a Monaco VVVIP.

Here then is my tribute to Stars n Bars for all the great times I've had there.

In Memoriam

Stars n Bars, we must say our goodbyes.
Adieu! No more burgers and fries.
Thanks for thirty great years.
Cheerio, ciao and cheers!
From the ashes a phoenix will rise.

Monday, 5 December 2022

Oh, poppycock! Who wrote this rubbish?

Automated Alice If I hadn't just read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland I wouldn't have got much further than the first couple of chapters of Automated Alice. But then I wouldn't have got much further than the first couple of chapters of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland if a pristine copy of Jeff Noon's book weren't sitting on my shelf, unopened since buying it twenty years ago. The two were inextricably linked, just like Alice and her 'twin twister' Celia.

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Mis-sold by the marketers

Queenie In 2019 there was a lot of buzz around Candice Carty-Williams's debut novel Queenie. The marketing bods, of which Carty-Williams is one herself, did a sterling job. I was sold on the idea of a "smart and breezy comic debut", "astutely political, an essential commentary on everyday racism" in Black British life.

It starts when Queenie's boyfriend of three years, Tom, has just told her he wants a break. She interprets this to mean and then we'll get back together. However what he really means is that he wants to break up permanently.

Friday, 2 December 2022

I'm rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?

The Long Goodbye (Philip Marlowe, #6) I once knew a man who was an alcoholic. He was intellectually brilliant, literally a rocket scientist. When sober and not hungover he was charming, but under the influence of booze he became nasty, unreasonable and incapable of work. Why do I mention this? Well, I've just finished reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye in which there are at least three alcoholic characters.

Drinking and drunkenness pervade the book. Right at the beginning, Philip Marlowe meets Terry Lennox when the latter is "drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith." Lennox is an ex-soldier, the unhappy husband of a wealthy wife; "I’m rich. Who the hell wants to be happy?".

Sunday, 20 November 2022

A load of old nonsense

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland "Why are you reading a children's story, Cabbie?" Well, I'll tell you. I've found yet another unopened book on my shelf, bought over 20 years ago in an airport shop; Jeff Noonan's Automated Alice. The Wikipedia page says it "tells of the character of Alice from Lewis Carroll's books in a future version of Manchester, England". I've never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so research is my motive.

There can't be many who don't know the story. Disney's 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland introduced it to a wide audience, but I've never seen that either. If you're as ignorant as me then, here's a brief outline.

Saturday, 19 November 2022

Waiting, interminably waiting, and then...

The Tartar Steppe Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe is one of those books where it pays to read something about it before you start. It's the sort of book they study in literature courses, the sort of book that you have to work at.

Fortunately the edition I have contains an introduction written by Tim Parks, but you could also check out the Wikipedia page before you buy. Buzzati originally titled it The Fortress, which is a better title. Most of us can visualise a fortress in reality as well as metaphorically, whereas The Tartar Steppe invokes a sauce I like to eat with fried fish. When the introduction tells you, "for an Italian, the northern mountains are the locus par excellence of military glory" it gives the title some meaning.