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.

So far so mid-twenties problems. I had to work hard to remember what life was like when I was 25, Queenie's age. I mean, the older you get, the easier it is to put life's problems into perspective. So yes, I admit that I rolled my eyes at the young woman's inability to accept her relationship was over, and tutted at the young man's weakness.

Pretty soon tho' it's obvious that for Queenie the episode is a catalyst for finally facing the demons she has kept locked up since childhood. Her life spirals out of control.

This isn't a "comic" situation. Even Kyazike, "pronounced 'chess-keh'", my favourite character, cannot lift the utter awfulness of what Queenie goes through. Her self-destructive behaviour is shocking, but even more difficult to read are the experiences that have led her to where she is. The last quarter of the book is filled with anguish.

What none of the blurb says is that this book is about abusive relationships and mental health problems, neither of which I would call "breezy". Don't get me wrong, it's a great book and the story needs telling, but if you're in a fragile mental state yourself go for Three Men in a Boat or The Uncommon Reader, or Good Behaviour. You won't get any references to casual racism, but at least they'll make you laugh and not cry.

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?". The two men strike up a friendship over the next few months, drinking gimlets in a local bar until one night Lennox needs to leave town.

Later in the story Marlowe helps a writer named Roger Wade, another unhappy husband, this one struggling to finish his latest book. When he's drunk he's "‘Horrible. Bright and hard and cruel. He thinks he is being witty when he is only being nasty." Wade suffers black-outs, or he's off with the fairies on addictive medication.

The third alcoholic is of course Marlowe himself. Much like Lennox and Wade, he has become a man who doesn't seem to care about anything and has nothing to live for.

The Long Goodbye, then, is dark, filled with fatalism, addiction and corruption. There's plenty of shocking violence too, often perpetrated by the cops who are bullish and corrupt. The wealthy people who aren't addicts are bored and engaged in extramarital sex with their "Idle Valley" neighbours. None of them are likeable.

In spite of this I enjoyed it. It's narrated by Marlowe himself in the same fast style as The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely. According to the book's Wikipedia page, Chandler himself reckoned it "my best book", and of the ones I've read, I reluctantly agree. The Big Sleep is fine as an introduction to the hard-bitten Marlowe, and The Long Goodbye shares with the first in the series the characters of a powerful father and wayward daughters. Farewell My Lovely is full of fantastic descriptions and is more lighthearted. They both reflect Chandler's excellent education. In the later book there's a nod to the detective's Elizabethan namesake Christopher Marlowe, a jibe referencing Gustave Flaubert "that makes you an intellectual, a critic, a savant of the literary world", and criticism of Khachaturian's violin concerto like "working in a tractor factory... a loose fan belt." The Long Goodbye has serious themes and fewer wonderful descriptions, although they do still shine through; "The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

At the end I wanted some sort of redemption, but how could there be? Like "Scott Fitzgerald... the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope", there was only the recognition that Chandler, himself an alcoholic, had somehow written a masterpiece.

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.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

General Elektriks, merci infiniment!

In 2004 I went over to Cimiez Gardens, City of Nice, to the Festival de Jazz. You can't do that now, it's not held there anymore. But that night I heard a band that for me redefined the word funk. I remember being knocked out by their energy, their stamina and their tidy clothes. That band was France's now legendary General Elektriks. 18 years and 5 albums later General Elektriks is still going strong. So when I heard that the Elektriks was promoting a new album called Party Like A Human and was planning to perform in Monaco, well, needless to say I jumped at the chance to write the blog post that you're about to read. I wanted to capture the sights and sounds of a November Sunday night. (1)

Friday, 4 November 2022

Developing your sixth sense

Wild Signs and Star Paths: The Keys to Our Lost Sixth Sense In 2018 Stuart Heritage wrote a review for the Guardian of Tristan Gooley's Wild Signs And Star Paths and I immediately added the book to my "to be read" list. This year I finally got round to it.

Gooley explains what he's going to do in his Introduction: "I will show you how to sense direction from stars and plants, forecast weather from woodland sounds, and predict the next action of an animal from its body language–instantly."

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Celebrate good times, come on!

Did you ever dream of being in a pop group? I certainly did. I was young and starry-eyed and I played bass guitar in a band called The Young Mark Twains. The practice sessions and politics are best forgotten, but being on stage... Wow! That was amazing.

The experience of performing music to an audience is what's behind Monaco On Stage, which opened on 15 October in the Salle d'Exposition du Quai Antoine 1er. It's not strictly an exhibition, more an immersive experience, a bit like a side show to the fun fair. Let me give you a tour.