Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The everyday as exceptional

The Complete Talking Heads I studied Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at school and even forty years on I can recall, probably inaccurately, some of the wonderful language. The teacher had to explain what it was that would have made Queen Elizabeth 1 and her court laugh, although as a teenager it was enough to know that one of the characters is called Sir Toby Belch. The thing was tho', the play was rather dry and stolid on the page, and it was only when a group of us went to the theatre to see it performed that it came alive.

And so, I was wary of expecting too much from Alan Bennett's "The Complete Talking Heads",

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Too many books, not enough time

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts There are things that happened to you when you were a teenager, things you had no control over at the time, things that changed the course of your life. For example, that time when the headmaster told you your choice of A-Levels didn't fit with his timetable, so you had to choose different subjects. You made the most of it of course, changed your expectations, reassessed your career options, and achieved success nonetheless.

Years later you find the time to do that thing you wanted to do aged sixteen and you discover David Lodge's book, The Art of Fiction

Monday, 23 November 2020

A Marxist and a monarchist

The Untouchable The British royal family is an anachronism. Don't you find it odd in the 21st century that one family's wealth, prestige and standing is based on its claim to be descended from a French bastard who invaded England nearly 1000 years ago? Geneticists tell us that pretty much everyone with English ancestry is related to William the Conqueror, including Danny Dyer, who's traced his roots back to King Edward III. So why should Queen Elizabeth and her extended family be the exception and hang on to all the loot?

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A daft story with a philosophical theme

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang Imagine the scenario; climate change and ecological destruction has reached the point where a great catastrophe is about to unfold unless world leaders agree to "Turn off the factories, ground the airplanes, stop the mining, junk the cars." What would you do? If you're a member of the Sumners family in Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, you decide to build your own hospital and research centre, and start cloning yourselves to save the human race.

Friday, 16 October 2020

A Dark-Adapted Eye. What's the truth?

A Dark-Adapted Eye I used to love the telly series Columbo. Peter Falk as the shuffling detective in his rumpled mac knew who'd committed the crime right from the beginning. He just had to work out how to catch 'em. In Barbara Vine's book A Dark-Adapted Eye we know there's been a murder, we know the murderer was Vera Hillyard, and we know she was hung for her crime.

Over thirty-five years Vera's family has tried to forget about the incident, and in their own ways have distanced themselves from it. The long dormant memories are reawakened when a true-crime writer contacts Faith Severn, the murderer's niece.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Parson Peters - a life of dishonesty

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking The word parson, like matron, brings to mind saucy Carry On films and salacious newspaper headlines. So it was with plenty of nudge-nudging and wink-winking that I settled on the sofa to read Adam Sisman's The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking.

The Parson of the title is Robert Peters, and the book follows his career as he repeatedly tries to take up positions at academic and religious institutions around the world, using forged documents and bogus qualifications.

Friday, 25 September 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea? Not my cup of tea.

A Long Petal of the Sea Our book club choice for August was Isabel Allende's A Long Petal of the Sea, published in 2019. Len and Yvonne are fans of the Chilean writer and were keen to read it.

She's a new author for me. Allende's Wikipedia page was encouraging, mentioning magical realism and saying her novels are often based on historical events and real-life individuals. As for A Long Petal of the Sea, it ticked quite a few of my boxes. The opening part is set during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict I know little about, during a period of time that I find fascinating - the 1930s, economic depression, competing ideologies of Marxism and Fascism, the run-up to World War II. With a couple of weeks to spare before book club I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and then sat down to immerse myself in Allende's tome.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Period Piece: charmingly fearful of the lower classes

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood It's been difficult keeping Book Club going since March. Some members returned to their native land for lockdown, and most of our group are technologically challenged so Zoom is out. You can't imagine the relief when the rules eased and Sian invited the remaining four of us round to hers to discuss her book choice, Gwen Ravarat's Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. Much as I love The Dog, I was euphoric with the prospect of finally seeing someone other than my partner and somewhere other than the walls of our apartment.

There was me, Sian, Bernard, Marco, and Susan, white bread smeared with salted butter and topped with smoked salmon, and a glass of white wine, which always helps lubricate the discussion.

So what about the book?

Monday, 31 August 2020

Rats as big as cats

Homage to Catalonia You have to admire the courage of war correspondents, the journalists who place themselves in the middle of a conflict in order to bring us reports of the fighting and destruction and its effects on citizens. In December 1936, six months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell travelled to Spain "with some notion of writing newspaper articles". Unlike today's reporters he went a step further. He promptly joined the militia, "because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do". It's rather a lame explanation, ill-considered and reckless considering what happened next.

Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The culmination of a lifetime of struggle

A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage It was going so well. In the Prologue to A Cure for Gravity Joe Jackson describes an eventful 1975 gig in Basingstoke. He follows up with musings on where his love of music came from, his first musical memories (The Runaway Train, and Exodus), his working class upbringing in Portsmouth and first attempts at gigging. And then, aged sixteen, he has to choose what to study for his A-Levels. It was an important decision, because what you chose to study in 1970s England could limit your further education choices and consequently what sort of job or career you ended up in. I should know. My own plans had to change for the sake of the headmaster's timetable. I discussed my future options with Mum, as did Joe Jackson, whose mother suggested he become a librarian. His reply? "A librarian! I might as well be buried alive."

Aaargh! Yet another writer relying on an over-used, sloppy trope. Here's an educated man who talks about the problems of musical labels such as "classical", yet is happy to classify a diverse group of people by their choice of career. It's surprising, since as a child, the "little branch library" was his "favorite place in the world", and he "didn't buy books" because he could borrow them from a library. As a poor student he manages to get hold of the score for Beethoven's Ninth from - you guessed it - the library. How did all that stuff get onto the shelves? How was it possible for a working-class lad to educate himself if he had a passion but no cash? It was because of a librarian! They come in all shapes and sizes, just like the musicians and music lovers that Jackson artfully portrays in his memoir.

There, I've got that off my chest, so what about the rest of the book? A Cure for Gravity only takes us as far as Joe Jackson aged 24, when he achieved success with his first album, Look Sharp!. I've been a fan since a friend introduced me to his album Beat Crazy. His writing style is engaging and he has some cracking descriptions, such as "Beethoven .... is like one of those inspired chefs who can just throw a tomato and an onion and a couple of herbs into a pan and somehow manage to produce, in a few minutes, something both original and utterly delicious. Brahms, by comparison, is the musical equivalent of jam-sweetened porridge." I enjoyed the book as much as I did Tracey Thorne's Bedsit Disco Queen and Mark Ellen's Rock Stars Stole My Life!. It brought back memories of my own brush with the music industry in the late 1980s; svengali managers, mad drummers, goth bands who were nice as pie, and smart young men who were rude, ungrateful and arrogant.

The book was published in 1999, before Simon Cowell decided that anyone with the right attitude could make it in the music industry. Jackson has experienced working as an independent musician in addition to as part of a promoted, industry-backed act, in the guise of Koffee 'n' Kreme, who came to fame on New Faces, a 70s precursor to The X Factor. His success came with the good fortune never to owe his record company money, which guaranteed that he could do pretty much whatever he liked. But that was the "culmination of a lifetime of struggle." His story is not about becoming a pop star, nor is it about fame. It's a warts and all exposé of the hard work that goes into making music and making money from it. Jackson concedes that there was a bit of luck in how he eventually "made it", but his book stresses the other elements of success: education, intelligence and hard work.

In the last chapter, Jackson muses on the future of music in a world where our cultural agenda is being shaped by "the bottom lines of big corporations who want to sell us stuff, and preferably stuff that’s easy to sell." He says, "if we want music to survive, we must teach kids to appreciate it." And so I'd like to end my review with a quote about learning, by one of the musicians that Joe Jackson admires. Frank Zappa said, "if you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library."



More stuff

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The problem of society's expectations

Girl, Woman, Other How could a white person know what it's like to be a BAME woman in the UK? A good place to start is to read Bernardine Everisto's Girl, Woman, Other.

The book tells the stories of twelve interconnected characters: young daughters, middle-aged mothers, the childless, the celibate, monogamous and polyamory. From new born children to a woman in her 90s, all have experienced discrimination and abuse because of their skin colour and their gender.

It starts with Amma, who's into threesomes and whose play is about to be performed in London, where many of the characters were born and raised. The pleasure is in discovering aspects of each character's life that one can relate to. You might not be BAME, but you may identify the teacher Shirley's pride that "she’s the one who’s made it, not her older brothers who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturdays mornings doing both". Shirley has known Amma since they were at school, but "began to feel self-conscious of her body around her friend" after Amma came out as lesbian. In her profession she believes "intelligence is not innate ... it's acquired", which underpins her desire to help children who show promise. One of these is Carol, who studies at Oxford then works in the City. In a very poignant scene, teacher and student meet after many years when they're invited to Amma's luvvie party.

None of the characters is perfect, just as in any society. Amma kept her "predilection for big tits quiet because it was un-feminist to isolate body parts for sexual objectification". Gas-lighting of women is practised by women too. And Yazz is forced to look at her own prejudices when her white friend Courtney, who has read Roxane Gay, warns against playing 'privilege Olympics', that "privilege is about context and circumstance".

So, a white person may not be able to appreciate the problems of a BAME person, but a woman (or womxn) will certainly relate to the problems of the characters in this book. As Megan/Morgan says, "being born female isn’t the problem, society’s expectations are".

I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars and you may wonder why. As ever, it relates to my predilection for certain sorts of endings.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

What's with the teeth?

The Power and the GloryIs there anything more that can be said about Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory? Three things spring to mind.

First, there are the teeth: Mr Tench the dentist, cautious because "Any dentist who's worth the name has enemies", the mestizo with his two protruding yellow fangs, and the jefe (Chief of Police) with his incessant toothache. No-one in the story has a perfect set of choppers.

Second, there are the references that can be traced back to Greene's Mexican travelogue, The Lawless Roads: the black beetles that "exploded against the walls like crackers", mosquitoes "flashing through the air to their mark unerringly", and uncomfortable travel "bouncing up and down to the lurching slithering mule's stride".

And finally, there's the whisky priest's impossible dilemma, "the slave of his people, who may not even lie down in case the winds should fail". He remains at large to perform mass and hear confessions, yet puts his flock in danger by doing so. "It's your job - to give me up. What do you expect me to do? It's my job not to be caught", he laments, having witnessed an innocent young man taken hostage in order to flush the padré out. Unlike the humble and pious martyr Young Juan in the forbidden Catholic story books, the priest is certainly not happy to go to his death.

So, there you have it. My six penn'orth of opinion to add to the mass of words written in praise of this great book.

Monday, 29 June 2020

A dream-like love story

The House of Sleep The blurb for Jonathan Coe's The House of Sleep didn't really sell the book. It was instead a positive discussion on a podcast that brought it to my attention.

Much of the action takes place in the student accommodation where Sarah, Robert, Terry and Gregory meet. They lose contact after graduation, but a decade later a number of coincidences cause their paths to cross again. At its heart it is a love story.

Sleep, dreams and reality run through the narrative, in fact the book is divided into six sections that follow the sleep cycle. Odd numbered chapters deal with incidents in the 80s, even numbered ones the 90s. This constant shift in time from one chapter to the next initially gives the narrative a dream-like character, which is extended through ending each section with an unfinished sentence and beginning the following section in mid-sentence. It's not as confusing as it sounds.

Coe's work is often described as humorous. This example of his writing provokes most often a wry smile or chuckle, although I did laugh out loud on reading the incident of the fictional film-maker's after-dinner speech and its footnotes. There's another episode that appears to presage horror, also sad moments. Indeed one of the three appendices brought a tear to my eye.

Above all, Coe's skill is to be able to take a reader back in time. It's difficult to pinpoint how he captures the zeitgeist of the Thatcher years in The House of Sleep. Of course, he mentions the occasional cultural reference such as Dallas and Knots Landing, but it's more than this. There's a sort of alchemy to it which he refined for the 70s setting in his 2001 book, The Rotters' Club.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The decline of Bolton

The Town That Vanished Ian Robinson's The Town that Vanished uses the Mass Observation Worktown investigation of the late 1930s "as a frame of reference for exploring why industrial towns like Bolton disappeared." It is a descriptive study rather than an academic attempt to answer a research question. The author's intention is also to "introduce the Worktown project to people who have little or no knowledge of it", primarily Boltonions.

Each chapter covers a different aspect of working class life, with the most enjoyable and informative being The Bolton Odeon, Burnden Park, and King Cotton.

Robinson's narrative is to some extent driven by personal background and family lore, rather than objectivity, which is not a criticism, especially as the original Worktown investigation was also biased. The Oxbridge, public school educated Tom Harrison and his Observers had little if any knowledge of the northern industrial working class. In the chapter about Blackpool we learn that one researcher turned up "to peer at the working class in his Bentley motor car", others "were often appalled by what they saw as the grotesque, tacky commercialism", and Harrisson himself "expected to see copulation everywhere [but only found] petting and feeling".

One glaring omission is a chapter on religion, which is surprising since the book was inspired by the life of his mother, who "as a child ... was a Rose Queen". Perhaps Robinson had intended to cover the subject, as some of the chapters mention the importance of churches in their first paragraphs. The subject is as important to explain the female working class experience as the pub and the football are for that of the male.

In spite of this, it's an enjoyable trip down memory lane for those whose parents were born in Bolton around the time the Mass Observation took place.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

The obsession of a spy

The Long Room Francesca Kay's The Long Room is story about the loneliness and obsessions of a spy, the sort of spy whose life is dull, drab and tedious, not at all exciting.

It's primarily told from the point of view of Stephen, a man in his late 20s, recruited to the secret service at university. He works at the Institute with a team of friendly colleagues, but he doesn't like to socialise with them. During the week he lives in London where "it is a long time since he remembered to wash the sheets." At the weekends he retreats to his elderly mother in Didcot. It's a lonely life.

Stephen's job involves listening to tapes of telephone and house bugs and transcribing them to help identify security threats. This is 1981 Britain, when the IRA are planting bombs and members of CND are considered to be communists. In the course of his work, Stephen has become obsessed with Helen, the wife of a target, PHOENIX. He has only ever heard her beautiful voice, which "speaks poems to him, and her piano playing, and the sweetness of her nature." His thoughts veer towards worship, believing girls like Helen are "pure and vestal, the innocent and the good". His is a devotional, romantic idea of love.

Ultimately The Long Room is a character-driven story with a well-drawn protagonist, however it comes across as a bit too clever. If your literature studies ended at age 16 you might not pick up on some references. A google search after finishing revealed allusions aplenty to Byron and romantic love, Shelley and the quest for perfect union, Goethe and introversion, all of which are themes of the book. In spite of the fine characterisation and descriptions, Stephen's ultimate actions weren't credible, and if you're the sort of reader who needs a fast moving plot, you may find yourself putting it to one side without finishing.

Friday, 29 May 2020

A tale of two Johnsons

A Demon In My View Arthur Johnson has a secret that he keeps in the cellar of 142 Trinity Road, Kenbourne, where Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View is set.

Arthur is an odd man, old-fashioned and stuffy, but pretty harmless. He does have a strange attitude towards women tho', especially "women who waited in the dark streets, asking for trouble, he cared nothing for them, their pain, their terror." Everything changes for Arthur when a new tenant arrives, a young, lovelorn PhD student by the name of Anthony Johnson.

We know from the beginning of the story what Arthur is capable of and as it unfolds we get to know his character and his past actions. The "other" Johnson, Anthony, unwittingly becomes Arthur's nemesis when an innocent and absent-minded act is seen by the older man as a "deliberate shunning of him".

There are plenty of details that help take the reader back to London in the early 70s, when the local cinema was still in business but under the new name of Taj Mahal and with a program of Indian movies. More specifically the dustmen were on strike. The period is important because some of the plot relies on the fact that people used to communicate with public telephones and written letters through the post.

The book is an easy-read psychological thriller which builds tension not through action, but by slowly revealing Arthur's backstory. Ruth Rendell doesn't try to hide important details, everything is clearly laid out. Nonetheless, there's a surprise at the end which is very satisfying.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Not a daffodil in sight

Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt I should state up front that this review will be somewhat biased. John Cooper Clarke, aka the Bard of Salford, was born and raised in the industrial northwest of England, like me. He's working class, like me. I saw him perform I Married a Monster from Outer Space in the early 80s, and in the early 90s a friend and I tried to get him to play a gig in London (his mum was his manager). You'd be right to say I'm a big fan of John Cooper Clarke and that I was inclined to like Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt before I read it.

His poems are humorous, visceral, and deal with subjects that reflect the poet's background and experiences in the 1970s. There's not much punctuation in the book, but that reflects how Clarke performs his work. Check him out on YouTube reading Kung Fu International (from this collection) in 1978.

It was a pleasure to read favourites such as Evidently Chicken Town and Love Story in Reverse. There are also some which I'd never come across before. The self-explanatory Readers' Wives made me laugh out loud:

a fablon top scenario of passion
things stick out of holes in leatherette
they seem to be saying in their fashion
i'm freezing charlie have you finished yet


I also smiled at the holiday poem, Majorca:

I got drunk with another fella
who'd just brought up a previous paella
wanted a fight but said they were yella
in majorca


A couple of other poems stand out but won't be to everyone's taste: Gaberdine Angus is about a flasher, and Conditional Discharge is about STDs. But don't let this put you off. The collection is about real life and real experiences. I doubt many youthful working class poets from Salford would be writing about daffodils.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

How were the Nazis possible?

Defying Hitler: A Memoir "What is history, and where does it take place?" Sebastian Haffner's book isn't concerned with the type of history we learn at school. Great leaders take small roles in the narrative because "decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals." Defying Hitler is the memoir of one such individual and "offers direct answers to two questions [-] 'How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’"

As a child Haffner was less concerned with the lack of food than with the daily war bulletins. Like many young people he thought little about politics and was nearing the end of his studies when the Nazis seized power. Before the young Haffner had time to think, it was already too late to act. He resorted to small acts of rebellion, such as hiding in doorways when the SA marched past so that he wouldn't have to give the Nazi salute.

There is no single, simple answer to the questions posed, and this memoir sees events from the point of view of a well-educated, middle class male. Who knows what the working class or female position was? Regardless, after reading Defying Hitler one has a better understanding of how individual Germans suddenly found themselves in a situation where their lives were completely controlled by the State. Nonetheless, we've recently seen one democratically elected government attempting to push through legislation without parliamentary oversight, and another democratic parliament granting a Prime Minister the ability to rule by decree. Reading a book won't change the course of history, but it might help us avoid making the same mistakes in the 2020s as the Germans did in the 1920s.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Extremely shoddy editing

Hunters in the Dark Some people like to lie on a beach and do nothing on holiday. Robert, the English protagonist of Lawrence Osborne's Hunters in the Dark prefers to do nothing whilst upright. When we meet the 28-year-old teacher, he's crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, where the story is set. He'd just experienced "the happiest month of his life thus far. The happiest and also the vaguest: the two were connected." He has no firm plans for his remaining month other than to roam, and since there "would be little else to do here anyway" he visits a casino, plays roulette and wins some money. His holiday takes a more interesting turn after he meets a louche American called Simon.

Robert is variously described as naive, lonely, mediocre and empty. You could add irresponsible to the list too, as he wonders if there's anything he wants to go back home for. He "only worried about his mother, even though there were other things to worry about, a thousand loose ends left in a chaos of abandoned responsibility." This desire to live elsewhere is perhaps credible, but his actions in the story are less so. Bizarrely Sophal, the doctor's daughter, describes Robert as "a bit Heathcliff," but he's the least Heathcliff person I can think of.

Other characters are more believable, especially Simon's girlfriend Sothea, and policeman Davuth, who has a very interesting background.

Osborne uses Buddhist concepts such as karma, samsara and ghosts to drive the characters, as he does in the more enjoyable The Ballad of a Small Player, and overall it's an enjoyable read and an interesting plot. However, the first few chapters are a bit heavy on the use of frangipani and nagas to describe the surroundings. Much worse is the poor editing throughout the book. I lost count of the number of times I came across a sentence with a missing word. There was also an instance where the character name Sothea had been incorrectly used for Sophal. Worst of all, Simon's last name was inconsistently spelled, sometimes Beaucamp, other times Beauchamp. This is very shoddy.