Archive for the ‘books’ Category
A right Charlie wrote this, which seems to say something about the year we’ve just gone through:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
The Charlie in question was Dickens, written in 1859 about 1775 in A Tale of Two Cities.
I read A Tale of Two Cities between May 1989 and January 1990. Much though I loved it, I can be a slow reader. The story is set in the run up to and during the French Revolution. During the 9 months it took me to read the novel a number of actual revolutions broke out across Europe from Poland to Turkmenistan, Hungary to East Germany. The book sits on my Shelf of Honour:
So we had our 15th Anniversary Book Group gathering last night and the book in the spotlight, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was highly praised by all but one of our number, getting 9s and even 10s in our scores (for Literary Merit and Enjoyment), one of the most popular choices in the whole decade and a half.
My review on Goodreads: A dense and intense tour de force with shades of Catch 22 (absurdity), David Foster Wallace (intensity) and Candide (humanity), filled with insight about how black people are seen and see themselves in the USA (and beyond).
Here are 4 good reasons to read this standout satirical novel:
(i) On lawyers:
The Chief Justice meekly raises his hand.
“Excuse me, Mr Fiske [the defending lawyer], I have a question…”
“Not right now, motherfucker, I’m on a roll!”
(ii) On education:
Two hundred kids quieted instantly and turned their attention deficit disorders toward me.
(iii) On weed:
“What the fuck is this, dog?” Puppet coughed.
“I call it Carpal Tunnel. Go ahead, try to make a fist.”
Puppet tried to ball his hand but failed.
(iv) On intellectuals:
The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly “bimonthly” means.”
Classic satire in the heritage of Waugh and Swift that’s laugh-out-loud funny.
This review originally appeared on A Penguin a Week.
|Cover design uses still from the MGM movie ‘All Fall Down’.|
“Tomorrow I’m going on a health binge, get some filter cigarettes and start doing push-ups every night. Maybe I’ll do some right now, to make myself sleepy. Because I’ve got about forty-seven big knots in my chest, and they hurt.”
When I pick up an old Penguin I’m hoping for a surprise – something off-beat, long neglected, out of left field, a lost gem. ‘All Fall Down’ delivered.
It’s the first novel from the Detroit writer who went on to write ‘Midnight Cowboy’ five years later in 1965, James Leo Herlihy. It’s a coming of age story in the heritage of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a decade in its wake. It follows the growth of Clint Williams from an isolated, uncommunicative 14 year old to an emerging adult with the capacity to care and love.
A fair proportion of the story is told through Clint’s diary – it’s like an external hard drive he relies on to compulsively capture memories and documentation from his chaotic family life. He steals his mother’s private letters (outgoing and incoming) to copy into this notebook which he keeps tucked in his trousers, right against his flesh. It’s the one place he controls and to which he can bring some degree of order.
Clint’s hero, his older brother Berry-berry, is absent for much of the story, on his low-life travels around the USA, much of the time just one step ahead of the law. Yet his being has immense gravitational pull on the family. The disparity between what mother, father and little brother hope for from Berry-berry and the real man (in as much as he is grown up) is the source of the all-round disillusionment which engulfs the family.
When the Williams move to a new house across the city in Cleveland, Ohio, the cracks open up. Berry-berry takes off before he’s even spent a night in his new room. The father, a former left-wing activist, spends his time in the basement doing puzzles. The mother immerses herself in domesticity on the ground floor, while Clint eavesdrops from the laundry chute upstairs and records the exchanges in the diary which he “made use of … with an unconscious ease similar to that of walking or feeding oneself”.
Clint, in an attempt to come to the aid of the older brother he idolises, goes on a road trip across the country to the Florida Keys. He loses his innocence along the way when he is sheltered by Shirley, a young tart with a heart, whose inner beauty and profound loss influence Clint for life.
The person who catalyses the final destruction of both the dysfunctional family and their illusions is the unmarried daughter of one of the mother, Annabel’s, friends. Echo O’Brien is a dynamic young woman, very attached to her perfectly preserved 1929 Dodge touring car. Tall and slender, she could, in a parallel universe, have been in the pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Think ‘Gatsby’ and Tennessee Williams for the kind of tension Echo brings into the Williams household as she becomes the object of both Clint’s innocent, tender love and Berry-berry’s careless lust, the latter returned to his home city and the proximity of his family, but living on the edge of town with a dark secret.
Watching Berry-berry live a lie and talk up his hollow, self-centred life, gradually grinds away at Clint’s hopes and illusions. Like Holden Caulfield’s obsession with ‘phoneyness’, Clinton Williams can’t take the lies: “I just stayed there at the table and thought about what big liars we all are”. Berry-berry tells his biggest, most unforgivable lie at the climax of the novel and it is this which finally severs his bond with his once adoring brother. Berry-berry ultimately cares only for himself and loves no-one, not even himself. Clint though has a great capacity and desire to care and cherish. His growth into adulthood is complete with the realisation that “[in] the difference in the love offerings people make to one another, lay the reason for all the pain in the world.”
First published in the U.S.A. 1960. Published in Great Britain by Faber & Faber 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1962.
So back to Trigger Mortis. The question was: Is the cover superior to the content of the new Bond book by Anthony Horowitz? I ended up reading it as a double bill with Fleming’s own rocket book Moonraker. So that’s this one, set in 1957 and published in 2015:
versus this one, set in 1955 (I think) and published in 1955:
Somehow Trigger Mortis fails to capture the essence of Bond – it lacks his hard brutality and the underlying S&M going on in Fleming’s books. The cover wins out in the end. Though even the cover loses out to echt Fleming. The flame cover of the Jonathan Cape 1st edition of April 1955 was conceived by the author. The Pan ones are charming version after version.
This is the edition I read, picked up at Black Gull Books, East Finchley. A nice phallic rocket and a slightly naughty underwear shot (resonant of the beach skinnydipping scene with Gala Brand under the virgin white cliffs of the Kent coast).
For anyone else who embarks on Trigger Mortis, and don’t get me wrong it’s an entertaining enough read, there are a couple of fine machines towards the climax which are worth following up. First of all the Triumph Thunderbird 650cc on which Bond and the heroine Jeopardy Lane chase the baddie into the centre of New York City.
The baddie meanwhile is hurtling along on the R-11 subway train, the so-called ‘Million Dollar Train’. As Horowitz explains, “they had caught the spirit and dynamism of the (post-war) age.”
Bond is a world of style and glittering surfaces, the right motorcycle and subway carriages as much as car, watch or booze.
Apparently I registered with WordPress 9 years ago today. How time flies. I’ve got to fly myself now (to Bournemouth to drop off Enfant Terrible No. 1, which is a far more important landmark) so this is a quickie to reflect on the statute of limitations on titles. I’ve written before on the importance of titles such as in Starless and Bible Black.
Any way, it looks like 56 years is the statute of limitation in the world of Anthony Horowitz / James Bond / The Fleming Estate. The title of the new, just published Bond book is Trigger Mortis. The book below was published in 1959 and it’s also a thriller.
By the looks of things, the covers are far superior to the contents. Whether that’s the case with the new Horowitz book, I’ll find out soon as I broached it last night. Its cover is well designed and cool but not much fun, promising something very different to Frank Kane and Johnny Liddell. The title’s crucial. and so is the cover/image. That applies equally to other media such as the one I’m currently focused on: Short Form Video.
I marked the 10th anniversary of our old slippers of a book group by listing all that we had read to that auspicious date. The personnel is remarkably stable, adding members very rarely, so to herald the arrival of my friend Martin Bright I am updating the list:
- In the Country of Men – Hisham Matar (Jun 15)
- The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell * (Apr 15)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Mar 15)
- Oblivion – David Foster Wallace (Nov 14)
- The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Sep 14)
- What Was Promised – Tobias Hill (Jun 14)
- Stoner – John Williams * (Apr 14)
- Rabbit at Rest – John Updike *** (Feb 14)
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro (Dec 13)
- May We Be Forgiven – A. M. Homes (Nov 13)
- Irretrievable -Theodor Fontane (Sept 13)
- Wise Men -Stuart Nadler (July 13)
- Bring out the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (March 13)
- Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers (Jan 13)
- There’s no such thing as a free press – Mick Hume (Dec 12)
- Love and Summer – William Trevor (Nov 12)
- The Uncoupling – Meg Wolitzer (July 12)
- A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 12)
- Nemesis – Philip Roth ** (April 12)
- Old School – Tobias Wolff (March 12)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (Jan 12)
- the first ten years
I’ve been in a book group with some old school friends and a motley crew of other geezers for 13 and a bit years now. Here is a summary of our first 10 years. Well it’s my turn to choose the book again now – it takes 18-24 months for the honour to come round these days so you can’t take it lightly. I put a call out to social media friends for books that had really changed their lives or ways of seeing the world. Loads of interesting suggestions came in and rather than let them fade away in the ephemeral world of Facebook etc. I thought I’d save them here so other people in other book groups/book clubs/reading groups could make use of the titles. (The quotations are from the friends making the suggestions.)
- Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson
- Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
- A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
- My brilliant friend – Elena Ferrante
- Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
- Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane
- Don de Lillo’s Underworld
- Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
- Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels – “made me think differently about how the past shapes your present/future and how as individuals we get to choose if the negative parts of our past consume our futures or not. It is also beautifully written and made me revisit poetry too.” “it is the book that taught me how beautiful words can be”
- Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
- The social animal – David Brooks
- Do No Harm – Henry Marsh
- Andre Agassi’s “Open”
- The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities
- Us – David Nicholls
- Amongst Women by John McGahern
- Malloy by Samuel Beckett
- The Master by Colm Tóibín
- The Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien
- Foster by Claire Keegan
- At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien
- The Quest for Corvo – AJA Symons
- Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
- Birchwood by John Banville
- How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston
- The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
- Love’s Work – Gillian Rose
- The History of History – Ida Hatemer-Higgins
- Inventing God, Nicholas Mosley – “felt my mind shifting on religion/geopolitics/Middle East. God as the greatest invention of humankind. Humanist but generous to those who have faith – a gentle riposte to the Hitchens/Dawkins approach. In a novel.”
- A window for one year – John Irving
- A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving – “love, friendship and sacrifice”
- Wild, Cheyl Strayed
- Dracula – Bram Stoker
- The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- For whom the bell tolls – Ernest Hemingway
- To the End of the Land, David Grossman
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – “felt the terror of teenage girls when read and re-read both as a teenage girl/40 yr old woman”
- The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – “felt the power and grace of the quiet man”
- Things Fall Apart – Chinwe Achebe
- Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother “Made me respect young people more”
- A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
- The Mezzanine by Nicolson Baker “It’s very short, very unlikely and some in the group will HATE it and for others it’ll change the way they look at the world around them. You’ll never see perforations or a straw in a fizzy drink the same way again.”
- Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman – “had a huge influence on my going to university and recognising the need to never find oneself in a position where you are wholly reliant on a man. All teenage girls should read it.”
- William Leith’s The Hungry Years “taught me how not to be a food addict”
- Cervantes’ Don Quixote “taught me to rely on my inner compass rather than external signage.”
- Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow “showed me that our personal interpretation is where the colour and joy of the world are to be found, but to keep it just shy of solipsism”
- Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book “became my personal cultural key to unlocking New York”
- Stoner – John Williams
- Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse “made me see my middle class/ inner animal struggle in a clear & cleansing light, Damn you Herman Hesse!”
- Plumed serpent, D. H. Lawrence – “opening to the mythic underbelly”
- Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ “because his characters are so compelling and so flawed. Our heroine’s youthful arrogance and stubbornness sees her turn down suitors because she values above all her freedom, only to find herself trapped in a way she could not have imagined. I was excited at her prospects and I feared for her. There were other characters I was rooting for too! Having re-read it more than 20 years later, I was interested and surprised to find I had more compassion for some characters I disliked intensely and impatience for those I felt sympathy for when I read it as a teenager. A truly astonishing, complex masterpiece.”
- The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
- Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “is the most piercing book I’ve read. The description of the trials faced by the father and son has stayed with me for years.”
- 1984 – George Orwell – “”We are the dead” “You are the dead” stopped me in my 13 year old tracks. Never saw it coming”
- Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day – “because it really does require you to take a big chunk out of your life to read it – Rams home the idea that reading is subversive: stops you working, earning, socialising and kinda does stop time.”
- A fraction of the whole – Steve toltz
- Douglas Coupland’s ‘Microserfs’
- Be Here Now – Ram Dass
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
- The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
- The english and their history by Robert tombs – “Amazing and definitive book that filled in every gap for me in understanding where we live and why it is how it is”
- The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom “Despite the title, it’s a real page turner. Yalom goes back and forth between Spinoza and Rosenberg (part of Hitler’s propoganda machine). My book club had a fantastic discussion.”
- Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
- Humanity: A Moral History of The 20th Century by Professor Jonathan Glover
- Lolita -Vladimir Nabokov
- The Bone People by Keri Hulme
- Homage To Catalonia – George Orwell
- The Unbearable Lightness of Beingby Milan Kundera
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle -Haruki Murakami – “Extraordinary writing that made me see the world differently”
- Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
- Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
- House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
- Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Again, thanks to all those who kindly contributed to the list.
In the end I opted for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (partly because I thought Cloud Atlas was something pretty special). Will report back on how it goes.
A friend of mine, Carol, (aka The Naked Novelist) via my bestman Stuart, passed on a challenge this week: to list the 10 books that have had the most impact on my life. So that’s impact, not my favourite 10.
Here’s my stab at it…
1. ‘Here We Go’ – the Janet and John book I learnt to read with: “Look, Janet, look!”
3. ‘Paradise Lost’ Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent – the poetry’s pretty damn good but the footnotes were a revelation – it helped me realise school subjects are artificial divisions and everything’s connected to everything else. “Of man’s disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree…”
5. ‘The Dinosaur Strain’, Mark Brown – got me into the subject of Creative Thinking, led to me making a computer game (MindGym) and ultimately to writing my own book about Creativity, ‘When Sparks Fly’ (5/8 finished, interviewed Jamie Oliver for it today)
6. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakey – emblematic of the year I had an inspiring teacher (English teacher of course – Mr Fitch RIP MA Cantab) who got me really reading
7. ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, Erskine Childers – made me realise what a burden material possessions can be in the scene where the protagonist can’t get his trunk into the sailing boat and has to dump all his shit on the quay
If it’s not too Neknominate, please do share your Top Impact 10 below (or a link to it)…
…and because I enjoyed the movie so much this evening at The Phoenix on the high road in East Finchley, here are four of the supporting characters (one of whom lives in Blighty now, in Bracknell of all unhip places)