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Monday, 31 December 2012

There are Little Kingdoms


There Are Little Kingdoms - Kevin Barry

Having won a copy of Kevin Barry's second book of short stories and enjoyed it I put this, his first collection on my Christmas wish list and it turned out to be the one I received.

As predicted by a couple of people I found this a stronger collection than the second. The odd final line seems to be grasping for something it doesn't quite achieve, like a gymnast who takes a couple of steps after a dismount. But phrases are coined that sound both original and like the argot of a group you half belong to.

Top 102 Albums No. 74 Nixon


Top 102 Albums No. 74 
Nixon - Lambchop

'Think of me as fetal 
Think of me as the fifth Beatle"

In which Nick Cave rings The Stylistics who are in an apartment block called Watergate. He whispers secrets in code down the phone while they tune up. In the apartment above them an orchestra translates the phone messages into strings.

The collision sounds like the bar scene in The Shining played straight by the Marx Brothers. You're not sure whether to laugh or shiver.   "It's really just pretend."

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 75. Moanin' in the Moonlight


Top 102 Albums. No 75. 
Moanin' in the Moonlight - Howlin' Wolf

"Ah, oh, smokestack lightning
Shinin', just like gold
Why don't ya hear me cryin'?"

This was Howlin' Wolf's first album and it collects some of the stupendous singles he recorded for Chess Records in the fifties. These ain't no re-recordings but the genuine article. A fragment of the one true chord. Although these records somewhat define the Chicago Blues sound it is worth noting that the first two songs were not recorded by the Chess brothers but by Mr Sam Philips in the Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Wolf already had twenty years of playing behind him. And here's what Sam thought - (or so Wikipedia says) - "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'" You can't have a halfway decent record collection without the (Burnette) name in the credits of a number of songs. He's been imitated, borrowed from and lionised by so many there's no point trying to list them.  Here's That Petrol Emotion's paean to this extraordinary bluesman.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Best Books of 2012


Thoughts on Books and other things in 2012

This year has been a far slower book year for me than 2011. A sort of general tiredness seems to settle over me, particularly towards the end of the year and at times it was a real struggle to write. I hope that I  have a more energetic 2013 and read more, and write more.

At the beginning of the year my main target was to read Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. I had thought a couple of months would do it but it took me a lot longer. It's hard to compare it to anything else but it is an experience as much as a book. The most positive thing about it was that it gave me the impetus to tackle my second target of the year, which was to finish a short story.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 76 Murmur

Top 102 Albums. No. 76
Murmur - R.E.M.

The albums you hear when you are an impressionable adolescent always hold a particular place in your affections, don't they? There is a real excitement when a current band seems to sit easily with the best of the music you have to catch up on. I couldn't decide whether this or Reckoning would be my R.E.M. choice as both are firmly ensconced on my favourites list and I return to both often.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Top 102 albums. No. 77. Marquee Moon


Top 102 Albums. No 77.
Marquee Moon - Television

Given the day that's in it and the fact that this album has the magic '77 attached to it I thought I'd try to link both. At first I was trying to think of early punk with a christmas twist but then I thought of this and it then seemed like the perfect fit. And then I realised that this is almost a Christmas concept album as I will now show in a track by track exploration.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Top 102 albums. No. 78. Tapestry

Top 102 Albums. No. 78. 
Tapestry - Carole King

In bed with the winter vomiting bug I feel the need for something comforting, relaxing and perhaps restorative. I have plumped for Carole King's Tapestry. The other advantage is that there is not much that needs to be said about this album. It is part of our aural DNA.

Long before she finally hit the heights as a performer with Tapestry King had written numerous hits, most famously as part of the Goffin/King partnership, including "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" for The Shirelles which was the first U.S. No.1 by a girl group and makes an appearance on Tapestry, as does (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, made famous by Aretha Franklin.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 79 Slayed

Top 102 Albums. No. 79
Slayed - Slade

I've been thinking a lot about the connection between memory and music as I pick the albums that appear in this list. It's impossible to separate memory from 'critical evaluation'. I have also got a fairly clear idea of what I'm going to include. This, however, is a complete outlier. I hadn't really been thinking about including a Slade album but then I heard Mama Were all Crazee Now and my hypothalamus was immediately injected with a rush of adrenaline and my skin tingled with remembered excitement. And not just remembered excitement. Slade may come perilously close to descending into pub rock boogie but they also ascend the adrenaline crackling heights. The opening bars of Mama could almost be The Stooges for chrissake!


But whatever they do they own some of my life. In 1972 there was only one band to chant along to in the playground. Songs about going crazee, with a blatant disregard for spelling. How I wished I was so free. The swagger is irresistible.

The hatforms, suits, glitter and extraordinary success often gets in the way of recognising how great a band Slade were. But you know The Ramones were listening, and so were the Pistols and so, I guess, was Jimmy Pursey. I have always had a sneaking regard for the terrace chant with crashing guitars and its Slade and The Sweet who gave me that taste and Slade are far the greater.

I never saw Slade live but when I listen to Slade Alive I wish I had. I did see The Sweet in the '90's, long after their heyday and including an unknown number of original members probably > zero but not including singer Brian Connolly. They were godawful until the last few songs when they played Fox on the Run, Blockbuster and the immortal (in my mind) Ballroom Blitz. They then encored with Ballroom Blitz (again) and the concert ended with seats been torn up and some kind of mayhem. I went back to the dressing room afterwards to find the band released from the leather suits a few sizes too small for them and in a state of some shock, having not experienced a reaction like that in decades. Sweat dripping from and into places I don't want to describe, or even think about, they told us to take all the beer we wanted as they bemoaned the fact that their bottle of Jack Daniels was only 750 mls, "and that's not a litre, is it?" TAP! They also asked us where the girls were. Frightening thought.

The point of this digression, if there has to be one, is that most of the album tracks on Slayed would rouse the dead. They were a great singles band but they were in flames at this time and could have released every track as a single if the practices of the eighties had been in place. Noddy was a great vocalist with enough rasp to file through the bars of any jail. And you don't hav t spel - freeeedumb!

The Youtube video below is part of a playlist of the whole album complete with crackles, hisses and skips from the vinyl. The only way to listen.

C'mon, Mama Weer All Crazee Now. And BBC4 have a Slade night tonight! See those TOTP performances in full technicolour. I don't think it's ever been so much fun since.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 80. Teenage Snuff Film.


Top 102 Albums. No 80. 
Teenage Snuff Film. Rowland S. Howard.
*Albums not presented in any particular order.*

Here's a distressed jewel of a record, the first of a few in this list to feature Rowland S. Howard "crown prince of the crying jag". That crying white (Fender) Jaguar is one of rocks signature guitar sounds, and the dry humour of the line a snippet of Howard's desertified wit. He may not be for everyone but if you acquire a taste for him his work is  consistently rewarding and unique.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Left Handed Woman


The Left Handed Woman - Peter Handke

 This is an odd, spare novella. Set in anonymous suburbia it tells a tale of marital disintegration, or does it? It manages to be both mundane and fabulous. The reader is never quite sure what exactly is happening.

The book opens with the woman (who is never known as anything else) sitting at her sewing machine in a room which has a glass window taking up one side. The window opens on to the windowless wall of the neighbouring house. A clear visual metaphor for isolation and communication difficulties.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 81 The Day the Earth Stood Still


Top 102 Albums. No. 81 
The Day the Earth Stood Still - Bernhard Herrmann

Reading Trevor's post at Hissyfit on Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in America got me thinking on soundtracks. I have a few in physical copies and others tied securely to the films they accentuated. Years of watching rough cuts of films taught me that you can get away with poorly shot images in a film but bad sound just doesn't work. Music is a big part of this, of course although sound can be carefully composed for film without becoming music.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Top 102 Albums, No 82 My Dark Places

Top 102 Albums, No 82 
My Dark Places - The Television Personalities

Once again, very late at night, I choose (with ever more desperate randomness) another of my favourite albums with which to regale my many acolytes. Having mentioned Dan Treacy in a comment on my last post I thought I would continue my random linking and choose a Television Personalities album for your perusal.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 83 Songs for Drella

Top 102 Albums. No 83
Songs for Drella - Lou Reed & John Cale

Over on Cathedrals of Sound the selection at No. 84 was Grant McLennan's Horsebreaker Star, an excellent album. Following a trail from it I've been listening to it, then others by McLennan and his on/off songwriting partner Robert Forster. I remember the trepidation when buying the first solo album after The Go-Betweens split. Then I followed the trail to albums by Husker Du's Grant Hart and Bob Mould and then spent a long time listening to John Cale albums before I thought of this and for some reason this spoke to me and said "I'm today's choice." In a tone not to be argued with (I started this post yesterday but something disagreed with my stomach and I had to take to bed. Seems sort of appropriate as this album was made between disagreements.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 84. A Tonic for the Troops.


Top 102 Albums. No 84. 
A Tonic for the Troops - The Boomtown Rats.

Time has not been kind to The Boomtown Rats. They are generally written off as a side project of that famous philantrophist and controversialist Bob Geldof. But there was a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world, and whats more, they came from just a few miles away. I even saw Johnny Fingers in his trade mark pyjamas walking past Trinity College when I was in Dublin City Centre shopping with my family. That practically made me a celebrity.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Group Portrait With Lady


Group Portrait With Lady - Heinrich Böll

The form of this book is fictional documentary, with the author interviewing as many as possible of the friends of Leni Pfeiffer (nee Huyten) with a view to establishing the facts about her life experience and character as closely as possible. As well as citing interviewees the author often cites the most mundane opinions as being his own (Au.). However he claims to imagine nothing: "The Au. imagined nothing, his sole desire being for factual information."

This method allows Böll to distance us from the events and to lace the book with industrial strength irony.  And given that Leni came of age in Nazi Germany and was thrice bereaved during WW2, distance is necessary to tell this story.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 85. Dread Beat 'n Blood


Top 102 Albums. No 85. 
Dread Beat an' Blood - Poet and the Roots / Linton Kwesi Johnson

"blood, bitterness, exploding fire, wailing blood, and bleeding"

Once again I feel like I am doing this album a disservice by listing at 85. But I guess any album on this list should feel like a top ten album, should be capable of bewitching my ears and energising my belief in music when I am listening. And there is a reason for it being '85, for that is the year with which it is yoked in my mind, although it was released in 1978 (of which more later).

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 86. Jazz Goes to College.


Top 102 Albums. No 86.
Jazz Goes to College. The Dave Brubeck Quartet

I am late with today's instalment and had an album in my head but when I read the news of Dave Brubeck's death I figured that it was time for this album to make an appearance. When I was younger jazz both attracted me and made me slightly uncomfortable. There is just so much of it. How could you establish a foothold on the lower reaches of the foothills?  Well like everything in life all you can do is take small steps and hope that they are the first steps in an interesting journey.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 87 Current Affairs

Top 102 Albums. No. 87
Current Affairs - Johnny Duhan

This is one of the more obscure albums on my list, an album that, as far as I know, has not seen the light of day since it's initial release in 1984. And, on form, we were lucky to hear it then. Johnny Duhan has become very much a part of the Irish songwriting elite, with songs covered by Christy Moore, including The Voyage, which is particularly ubiquitous. That was not the case back in the late seventies / early eighties..

Duhan had originally come to notice as part of Granny's Intentions, a 'beat group' from Limerick who moved to London and released some singles and an album on Deram and flirted with success before they broke up in 1972.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 88. In My Own Time

Top 102 Albums. No 88. 
In My Own Time. Karen Dalton


When I first came to town
They brought me drinks plenty
Now they've changed their tune
They bring me the bottles empty
(Katie Cruel, Trad.)


I thought of this album last night but decided to leave it until later in the list but I kept listening to it and so decided by default that it would be the album added today.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. N0. 89. The Carl Stalling Project.

Top 102 Albums. N0. 89.
The Carl Stalling Project, Vols 1 & 2. Carl Stalling & The Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra.

I started this post with the intention of posting on a jazz album, narrowed it down to Miles David but then couldn't narrow it down to an album. There are just so many - Sketches of Spain, Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, On the Corner & on & on. I was listening to Davis and thinking of how his music reminds me at times of a Mondrian canvas, full of joy and imagination, references and surprises.

And then I thought of this record. Few are as full of joy and imagination. This is wild anarchic, joyful, funny music, hardwired into our brains from an early age. This is some of my very favourite music to listen to on my iPod. It seems to make the world around a different place although it's hard to resist the urge to spread banana skins on the pavements and sit back waiting for life to match it's soundtrack.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 90. New Wave


Top 102 Albums. No. 90.
New Wave - The Auteurs.

This is the first, but will not be the last appearance of Luke Haines on this list. In a voice dripping cynicism and a talent for melodies Haines could claim to be a progenitor of Britpop and simultaneously nothing to do with it. In terms of his own progenitors I would proffer Ray Davies and Steve Harley. Like both Haines often sings in a voice dripping with cynicism but with a simultaneous talent for creating beautiful melodies.

There always seems to be a tension between his desire to 'make it' and his disdain for the circus of fame. Somewhat like that wielder of American Guitars Kurt Cobain. Haines had a subversive bent and was often to subvert the possibility of success.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 91 Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

Top 102 Albums. No 91
Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano - John Cage / Maro Ajemian

When it comes to selecting some albums I feel very much as if declaiming from a dark fount of ignorance. This is the only album by Cage that I own, and the only version that I have heard. (I have now briefly listened to two other versions  which did not match this version.) However, using ears and instinct, I was drawn to this having heard snatches and have never regretted that attraction.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Hawthorn and Child


Hawthorn and Child - Keith Ridgway

"The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast."

Regular readers will possibly remember that I recently undertook a course in reading and writing fiction with Keith Ridgway. I have read his earlier novel The Parts and enjoyed it but it was really the synchronicity of seeing some glowing reviews for Hawthorn and Child and a friend sharing the course on Facebook that led me to take the course. And I'm very glad I did. It gave me push to complete a draft of a short story and some other short pieces of fiction. I hope to hammer the short story into something approaching a finished form by years end, completing one of my resolutions for the year. It's just finding time to write that is difficult, (or is that making time?), a form of alchemy I rarely master unless it is to no useful purpose.

Top 102 Albums. No 92 Born Sandy Devotional

Top 102 Albums. No 92 
Born Sandy Devotional - The Triffids

As some of you may be aware, I am listing 102 favourite albums, having joined in with similar listings at Cathedrals of Sound and Hissyfit. Tonight's listing at Cathedrals of Sound is The Black Swan by The Triffids, which was sketched to appear in my list.

For added value, I thought that I'd change my selection and having wavered with the thought of including a compilation of the early EP's which includes the extraordinary  Bright Lights Big City, indeed the whole Field of Glass EP and their great version of St James Infirmary along with other great tracks and a violent, glassy edge which is subsumed largely by doomed romanticism as their career progressed. But few people do doomed romanticism as well as The Triffids.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 93 Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music

Top 102 Albums. No 93 
Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music - Various Artists

When I started this list of albums I laid out the two rules - no live albums and no compilations. I broke the rule on live albums early on and thought it was about time I broke the other. This various artists compliation is about as far from Now That's What I Call Music as you can go. Harry Smith was an eccentric, experimental filmmaker, artist and practitioner of magick who lived in the Chelsea Hotel where he was, late in his days, a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. This neatly connects him to Lenny Kaye who was responsible for the similarly influential compilation, Nuggets.

Hunger


Hunger - Knut Hamsun

This is a book that I approached wary of its great reputation but neither my wariness nor its reputation spoiled my appreciation. It seems to look backwards to Dostoievsky and forwards to Samuel Beckett. I also found parallels with Robert Wasler's Jakob Von Gunten, which I finished not long before this.
Both books deal with renunciation, although in Jakob Von Gunten the renunciation is deliberate but not successful whereas in Hunger it is successful but not deliberate.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 94. Saturday Captains

Top 102 Albums. No 94. 
Saturday Captains - Saturday Captains

This is my list so, my rules. It might seem a bit previous to be including an album that I only discovered this evening but, hey, it's my list. Firstly, a declaration of interest. More years ago than I care to remember I met Barry O'Mahony. I was working with him and got on famously. Barry had the most encyclopaedic knowledge of music and a wonderfully sly sense of humour. When he asked me along to see his band play I was worried that they wouldn't be good and that I'd end up in awkward prevarication when he asked me what I thought.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 95. Song of a Road

Top 102 Albums. No 95. 
Song of a Road - Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger

Ewan MacColl is now probably best known as the writer of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Dirty Old Town, either of which would guarantee the debased immortality available to us poor sons of Adam.

I could have selected one of Ewan's albums of the Child Ballads or of Sea Shanties but for me the most extraordinary albums he produced were the Radio Ballads, in collaboration with Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger. These records share Harry Partch's fascination with the voice and are made up of sound collages and songs, the songs often arising directly out of the interviews with which they are intercut.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Dark Lies the Island


Dark Lies the Island - Kevin Barry

Before I begin this review first I have to thank Rob at robaroundbooks.com for I won my copy of Dark Lies the Island as a prize during the Edinburgh Book Festival. His thoughts on this, far more comprehensive than mine, are here. I was eager to acquaint myself with his work for there is a buzz attached to his name and I have had a few recommendations for his novel City of Bohane. Also, one of the stories was set as a reading exercise in the writing/reading course that I have been doing with novelist Keith Ridgway. (Hawthorn and Child)

This is a collection of thirteen short stories set among Irish emigrants in Britain and Berlin, real ale drinkers on a train to Llandudno, a hotel in the west of Ireland, a traveller settlement in rural Ireland and elsewhere. I approached it with high expectations, and a certain wariness of how high expectations can damage the experience of reading. And I have to admit that some stories did pass me by without leaving much of an impression. However, even these were easy to read and there are a few stories here that feel like they will repay multiple readings.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 96. Liege and Lief

Top 102 Albums. No 96. 
Liege and Lief - Fairport Convention

Once again I would like to repeat that these albums are appearing in no particular order. And sometimes a day late - yesterday I didn't have a chance to post. I'll try to catch up tonight.

If they were this wouldn't be appearing for quite a while. It was a difficult choice between this and Unhalfbricking as the Fairport album to include.

Unhalfbricking, amoung others has the magnificent Who Knows Where the Time Goes but this has its equals, and doesn't have a weak track.  The highlight for me is Matty Groves. I just love the existential howl of Richard Thompson's guitar at the end. I don't think it fanciful to hear some of the grief and pain which he was going through at the time expressed in his playing. The band had been involved in a car accident and drummer Martin Lambe and Thompson's girlfriend were killed. These lines must have been difficult to hear.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 97. This Is Hip

Top 102 Albums. No 97. 
This Is Hip - John Lee Hooker

Time to break another rule. Live albums and compilations were to be left out of these lists but I couldn't resist this compilation because:

A. It was a formative record for me. This was the first blues record I bought and remains one of the best. The snaking, hypnotic rhythms fascinated me and hook(er)ed me for life.

B. It showcases songs from a period when John Lee released no albums, to my knowledge. In fact he released singles on multiple labels, under many names, including, the sleeve notes tell me, John Lee Cooker!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 98. A Grand Don't Come for Free

Top 102 Albums. No 98. 
A Grand Don't Come for Free. The Streets.

This is as much to convince myself that I have been listening to the odd record released after the year 2000. The Streets were one of the only bands I discovered at the same time as my daughter but despite this I was able to take this to heart and felt it was an instant classic. I was not alone. Youth and age recognised this one.

It seems to me that Mike Skinner is the poet laureate of the blindingly mundane. He talks about trying to find his phone in his pocket and the battery running out, what was on TV the other night, betting on footie, broken tv's, "watching Eastenders or the Bill". He manages to undercut the whole world of 'gangster rap' by being really 'street'. In one of my favourite moments he pastiches drive bys: "Then of course a mandatory car, drives by and splashes me."

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 99: Link Wray, Link Wray.



Top 102 Albums. No 99  
Link Wray - Link Wray

For many years Link Wray was defined for me by his early instrumentals, particularly the mighty Rumble, an instrumental so suggestive of its subject matter that it was banned form some radio stations (I'm too lazy to look this up, if you want to know you know what to do).

That was until I found a double cd called Wray's Three Track Shack which included this album and two others recorded in Link's titular shack in 1970/71. This compilation is probably the easiest way to get these albums today and all are worth having but the Link Wray album is my favourite.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Jakob Von Gunten


Jakob Von Gunten - Robert Wasler

Wasler is one of those writers I have become steadily more aware of over the past couple of years as his name cropped up in blog after blog. He was published in his lifetime and is often cited as an influence, both during his lifetime and afterwards. Kafka and Hesse, it is often mentioned, were fans. He is also cited as an outsider artist, spending much of the latter part of his life in asylums, and producing work written in pencil in a miniscule script which wasn't published until long after his death.

I have just finished reading Knut Hamsun's Hunger and it seems to me that the two books share a lot. They both deal largely with the tension between renunciation, pride and desire. They are both narrated by people who are on a knife edge, physically or mentally.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 100 Resurrection of Bayou Maharajah

Top 102 Albums. No 100
Resurrection of Bayou Maharajah - James Booker

I'm not doing this in any sort of order, just picking whatever album jumps form the list when I sit down to blog. And few albums jump like this!

I first came across James Booker through a combination of The Clash and, I think, Jools Holland. Anyway, I remember hearing him perform Junco Partner and I recognised the song from The Clash's pick 'n' mix masterpiece Sandinista. The name stuck and I would always listen when I heard his name, and when you listen, you're hooked.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 101 The Wayward - Harry Partch



Album No. 101 - Harry Partch - The Wayward

One of the pleasures of music has always been the way one discovery leads to another. And some discoveries are harder to make. It was probably fifteen or twenty years after first reading about Harry Partch in a Tom Waits interview that I finally got to hear him. These days that sort of time span is unimaginable as typing a word into Google will lead you down the most obscure musical pathways. And perhaps, had Partch been in a Youtube clip then I might never have pursued him any further, nor given his music time to infiltrate my mind. I'm glad I did, and glad for the impetus given by the years of waiting.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Top 102 Albums. No. 102 Red Headed Stranger

My Top 102 Albums

Two of my favourite bloggers are currently going through their top albums on a daily basis.

Friend of Rachel Worth at Cathedrals of Sound is blogging their Top 125 Albums  and Trevor Jones at Hissyfit joined in to blog his Top 110.

I thought I'd try to join in today, at 102, although keeping it to 102 is quite difficult. At this stage I have a still growing list of 140 plus albums. I'm going to start blogging an album a day and edit this list as I go along. It's sure to lead to some fraught choices when it gets to the what do I leave out stage.

There are some rules - no compilations, no live albums and I'll try to stick to these but will probably break them a few times. That is what rules are for.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Infinities


The Infinities - John Banville

John Banville is one of the most artful of prose writers. His sentences are often delightfully cadenced and structured and are a pleasure to tease out. However, I was reminded at times while reading The Infinities of Beckett's decision to write in French because he was afraid of English “because you couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” I take this to mean that Beckett felt his writing in French achieved greater directness.

One of the narrators of this book is Hermes, holder of "the grave title Psychopompos, usher of the freed souls of men to Pluto's netherworld." Hermes is waiting in the house of Adam Godley (the other narrator), an eminent mathematician who is in a coma and apparently dying. His wife Ursula has placed his body in a bed in the "sky room' where he did most of his work. This work has concerned the infinite, and infinities. It has led to the discovery of nuclear fusion. Despite being called the "sky room" the room is dark as the curtains are kept closed. Both narrators are quite detached from the concerns of the world around them, separated by immortality and immanent mortality.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

White Teeth


White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Right at the start of this book we are shown that there will be some darkness in this light comedy of modern metropolitan life in London. We arrive "Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975" to witness the suicide attempt of Archie Jones, recently divorced. Smith loads this one image with religion, marriage and war, three of the big themes taken on in this big, sprawling, comic novel "He lay forward in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed either side like some fallen angel: scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage licence (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him." The image of the hoover tube which is to form a part of the failed suicide attempt stayed with me, it "lay like a great flaccid cock on his back seat, mocking his quiet fear.."

The overriding theme of the novel is identity, particularly as it is formed in the furnace of cultural expectations. More specifically the competing cultural expectations at play on the second generation, represented in this novel by Archie's daughter Irie, and Millat and Magid, the two twin sons of Archie's best friend Samad, great grandson of Mangal Pande, the sepoy who fired the first shot in the Indian rising of 1857. (The uprising upon which J G Farrell based his comic masterpiece The Siege of Krishnapur). The uprising was a result of bullets being covered in "a grease made from the fat of pigs, monstrous to Muslims and the fat of cows, sacred to Hindus. It was an innocent mistake - as far as anything is innocent on stolen land - an infamous British blunder." And the date, New Years Day, introduces the idea of new beginnings.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

The darkness which clings to every personality is the door into the unconscious and the gateway of dreams, from which those two twilight figures, the shadow and the anima, step into our nightly visions or, remaining invisible, take possession of our ego-consciousness.”  Carl Jung

I was a latecomer to the phenomenon of Haruki Murakami. This is only the second of his books I have read. And yet I have already started to wonder how much more there is to be drawn from the particular well he draws his water from. He swims in the sea of Jungian archetypes, trusting that the unconscious has a message for us.

The problem with the idea of the collective unconscious is that it can, no matter how strange or bizarre its denizens appear, be strewn with cliches, the collective phrases and ideas worn of the friction and risk that makes great literature.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Woman in White


The Woman in White®- Wilkie Collins

If you like long meandering gothic tinged plot lines, villainous aristocrats and comic 'foreigners' with an edge of threat, this is the book for you. Throw in some proto-feminist comments on the place of women and a few more labyrinthine plots and you're almost there. You can add multiple voices, from diaries, comments written in diaries, letters, lawyers notes, a confession and even straight narrative. It's genesis as a serial in one of Dicken's magazines is betrayed by enough hooks, tantalisers and cliffhangers to keep even the most demanding audience engaged.

Right from the off Collins is busy setting the tone and letting us know some of what we are in for. He also tells us that the story will be told by many narrators. Then there is a humourous interlude where we meet Walter Hartright, painter, and his best friend, the Italian, Professor Pesca, a comic innocent who seems not very far from  Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law. But when Walter Hartright leaves his mothers and sister to head back to his room a sense of mystery is introduced as he walks by Regent's Park.   "The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and the broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious light to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay beneath it."

Monday, 1 October 2012

Time Regained

Time Regained

"In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self."
And every writer too, it would seem. While continuing to excavate the sexual mores of society, snobbery, human attraction, the meaning of art etc this volume is where our narrator describes how and why he starts to write. His thoughts and conclusions are, one presumes, close to being Proust's own. The events in the life, he says, are not nearly as important as the perception of the motivating forces that inspire them, for those are the truths of humanity, no different in the drawing room or the hovel, although expressed in a different manner. "Just as a geometer, stripping things of their sensible qualities, sees only the linear substratum beneath them, so the stories that people told escaped me, for what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character and their foibles; or rather I was interested in what had always, because he gave me specific pleasure, been more particularly the goal of my investigation: the point that was common to one being and another. And as soon as I perceived this my intelligence - until that moment slumbering, even if sometimes the apparent animation of my talk might disguise from others a profound intellectual torpor..."

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Sweet Cheat Gone / Albertine Disparue (2nd post)


 The Sweet Cheat Gone / Albertine Disparue (2nd post)

In this book Proust returns again and again to the idea of a sort of RAPTURE engendered in the mind. Even if only for a moment we can have experiences which are so rich that they seem of a different magnitude of experience to everyday life. And yet they can be inspired by the most commonplace objects and attached to the most quotidian experiences. This is because the real epiphanies happen inside our head and are the result of intellect, emotion and memory acting upon experience.

I was reminded at times of passages in Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa's narrator feels that the real journeys are internal -  "Only extreme feebleness of imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel." Proust's Marcel says something similar - "Let us leave pretty women to men devoid of imagination." Whatever we see is not transferred COMPLETE to our consciousness, it is interpreted and shaped by our consciousness.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Sweet Cheat Gone / Albertine Disparue (1st Post)

The Sweet Cheat Gone

This is the second last volume in Proust's masterpiece and it is difficult to discuss it without there being some spoilers, although I will try to keep these to a minimum. For although plot is not pre-eminent in this book, it is full of twists and turns.

Albertine has gone and Marcel alternately misses her and explains how he is forgetting her. He is still eaten with jealousy, both of what is happening in the present and what might have happened in the past. Before she left, Marcel imagined he had fallen out of love but her leaving turns the wheel once more and fills his heart with loss: "a moment ago, before Françoise came into the room, I had supposed that I was no longer in love with Albertine, I had supposed that I was leaving nothing out of account; a careful analyst, I had supposed that I knew the state of my own heart. But our intelligence, however great it may be, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart."

Friday, 7 September 2012

On Vapour Trailing, an update.

The Moon on the tide at Midnight. (holiday photo)
On Vapour Trailing, an update.

Things have been quiet around here as I was on holiday for a week and have found it difficult to get back into the swing of things since returning. The best weather in months is also pulling me away from th'internet.

However, I am working on a post on the second last volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and am into the last 100 pages of the final volume. Completion of my main target for the year is at hand, Hurrah!

One of my other targets for the year was to write a short story and to try to focus my mind I have signed up for a very exciting course with novelist Keith Ridgeway. I hope to have positive things to report from this over the next ten weeks. It includes directed reading as well as writing. http://someblindalleys.com/index.php/workshops/fiction-with-keith-ridgway/


Friday, 24 August 2012

The Captive, Post Two. (a short one this time)


The Captive - Marcel Proust: Post Two

One of the most effective scenes in The Captive is one in which Marcel, who rarely leaves his room, imagines the sounds of the world outside waking up as a musical composition. This is an excerpt and the whole piece raised some nostalgia for city life. Over a number of pages Proust compares the calls of traders and the sounds on shops opening and carts passing to plainchant, song and symphony. It is a wonderful passage of description, of unseen streets.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Captive / La Prisonnière

Love the way these copies straddle the decimal divide.
The Captive - Marcel Proust

The captive is Albertine, who Marcel* keeps in his apartment, unbeknownst to his friends. The captive is also Marcel, who is so jealous of Albertine that his movements are severely constrained by his need to watch her all the time. And as one expects by now (if you've got this far into Remembrance of Things Past) these positions are also reflected and refracted through other characters, particularly the relationship between scion of the Guermantes family Baron de Charlus and Morel, the socially ambitious violinist. However the focus of the book is very much on Marcel and Albertine.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Vanity Fair


Vanity Fair - W.M. Thackeray

Right from the beginning of this book, an 'introduction' by the 'Manager of the Performance' Thackeray involves us in a conspiracy of humour. I know a wink is as little use as a nod to a blind man but even the blind must feel the tremors from the furious nodding and winking which the author indulges in. On one level this is a realist novel with a huge cast of characters which spans a relatively long period of time. On another it archly acknowledges its fictionality as the author addresses us directly:  "He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire. The famous little Becky Puppet has been pronounced to be uncommonly flexible in the joints and lively on the wire: the Amelia Doll though it has a smaller circle of admirers, has yet been carved and dressed with the greatest care by the artist: the Dobbin Figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys' Dance has been liked by some; and please to remark the Wicked Nobleman, on whom no expense has been spared, and which Old Nick will fetch away at the end of this singular performance."

Thackeray is constantly pointing out the tension between reality and morality, and how the morality practiced by one kind of person may be very contingent upon their circumstances. The wealthy aristocracy may look down upon mere merchants, who are vulgar enough to have to make their money from trade : "'Hullo, Dobbin,' one wag would say, 'here's good news in the paper. Sugar is ris', my boy.' Another would set a sum: 'If a pound of mutton-candles cost sevenpence-halfpenny, how much must Dobbin cost?' and a roar would follow from all the circle of young knaves, usher and all, who rightly considered that the selling of goods by retail is a shameful and infamous practice, meriting the contempt and scorn of all real gentlemen." However, many impoverished members of the aristocracy will desperately seek out a woman who brings with her a dowry from her rich merchant father.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

In Search of Klingsor


In Search of Klingsor - Jorge Volpi

This is a (quite) big novel, a novel of ideas set in the aftermath of World War 2, in a desolate Germany, among scientists, spies and sexual intrigues. It uses old German myth and modern theories to give shape to its exploration of the undefinable. Clearly, the shadow of Gravity's Rainbow must hang over this. Indeed the crossed matrices of Mathematics and Morals could be considered essentially Pynchonian terrain, and he is unlikely to be ceding much ground to Volpi.

Volpi has gathered an arsenal of scientific and mathematical theories, conundrums and stories with which to bone out the flesh of his story. My problem is that he hasn't quite fleshed out these bones. At times I felt that I was reading information cribbed from Sunday magazine articles or textbooks. The questions of voice and tone were also, I felt, imperfectly answered. I felt slightly put off by the tone, which is sometimes stilted, but am unsure as to whether this was an issue in the original or the translated text. However, it was hard to imagine some of the metaphors being elegant in any language.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Drown


Drown - Junot Diaz

The epigram in Drown is a poem by Gustavo Pérez Firmat about linguistic exile:

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I 
wanted to tell you.
My subject: how to explain to you that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else

The last pages of the book include a glossary of the Spanish words with which these stories are liberally strewn. In between are ten stories that bridge the immigrant divide between the Dominican Republic and the United States. (For this reason it could be said to fit in to Spanishlitmonth. What do you think Richard?)