Saturday 31 December 2011

Coming Through Slaughter

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje

This is an incantation, a hallucination, an excavation. Melody and noise, beauty and disharmony, whisper and squawk do battle across the page. This is a poets novel, words weighted for their impact, the pulse of rhythm, short passages alternating with long, images that stop you dead with their own gravitational fields.

Buddy Bolden was one of the originators of jazz. "He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing. Had a good band. Strictly ear band. Later on Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard - they all knew he began the good jazz." But, like many such originators Bolden fell as low as he had previously ridden high.

As well as his music he published a scandal rag and was a conduit for the gossip he picked up cutting hair - "the details of the children and the ladies changing hands like coins or a cigarette travelling at mouth level around the room. All these contests for bodies with children in the background like furniture."

Friday 30 December 2011

The Hour of the Star

The Hour of the Star - Clarice Lispector

"In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the North-east."

What makes fiction? How is it born? This book starts with a prolonged series of musings from the (fictional) author on the nature of the story he is writing, and how it came to him.

Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker - Russell Walker

This is a ghost story, and we the readers are the ghosts.

When I heard that Russell Hoban has died, I felt that I had to do something to mark his passing. My nom de plume on readers site Shelfari is Riddley, a name lifted from this book. It is probably the book that has left the greatest impression on me over a lifetime of reading, and rereading it feels like going home.

So we are ghosts, and now Russell is a ghost. But why is this book so special?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

There is a tacit admission of the weakness of this book in my edition. The book consists of alternate chapters in the voice of the Concierge of an Paris apartment block (Renée, 54) and the young daughter of one of the wealthy families who live there ( Paloma ,12). The chapters are differentiated by typeface. I feel that this is in part because neither voice is convincing, nor really differentiated by anything other than subject matter. Whether this is a fault of author or translator is undiagnosable by me.

Both characters are self diagnosed intellectuals who think profound thoughts and rush to dazzle us with their profundity. At times it is as if philosophy Professor Barbery has opened the window of her apartment on a stormy Paris and the wind has mixed pages of  sophomore essays she was marking with the pages of her novel. I thought I was reading a satire on bourgeois thought who's bite would soon become obvious but unfortunately I wasn't. There are also a few chapters from a Mills and Boon novel mixed through this for good measure.

Sunday 18 December 2011

The Safety Net

The Safety Net - Heinrich Böll

This is an exactingly written novel, dissecting the exercise of power by the industrial and political elite, by outsiders and finally, by money itself. The church and the aristocracy have lost their place as the ruling classes. Priests are "caught in the sex trap that for centuries they had been setting for others." The aristocracy are gone to seed - "Holger Count Tolm, the last of the name, who for many years now had been disporting himself with women and gambling somewhere in southern Spain, trying without success to be accepted by the international playboy set: the very image of an embarrassing type of decay which, in its unashamedness, was still more to his liking than the decay of the clergy behind carefully preserved façades."

Saturday 17 December 2011

Adjunct: an Undigest

Adjunct: an Undigest - Peter Manson

This is undoubtedly the most strikingly original book I have read this year. Giving Gysin's / Burrough's cut up techniques a spin through a random number generator this is a collage of found phrases, beer, slices of (low)life, deaths, John Cage, grammar, The Fall, whisky, the difficulty of publishing poetry while on the dole etc.

Manson has a killer's surname and an eye for killer phrases. I wonder if he feels The Fall returned to form in the 21st century? Does he still have boils behind his ears? This is like Lucky Jim for poètes maudits.

Friday 16 December 2011

Brave New World

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

This is one of those books I seemed destined not to read for no particular reason. I went through a Huxley phase many years ago but left out some of the most famous books (This, The Doors of Perception, Eyeless in Gaza)  for some reason best known to my preconditioned subconscious. Part of the reason was probably the sense that I'd read it, so often did I see it referenced or hear and read discussions of its merits. All this, luckily, was a long time ago and I was able to read it without too much baggage.

In fact, I found it different to my expectations. I had for some reason, an idea that it would be drier that it is. It is easy to see its huge influence on science fiction, even for a dilettante like me. Exiles on Asperus, a John Wyndham story I reviewed earlier this year, takes the idea of extreme behavioural modification but has an alien race use these modifications on humans. A Clockwork Orange asks a similar question. What of the individual human is it worth giving up for the sake of the 'hive'?

Tuesday 13 December 2011

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

Masking and unmasking is at the very heart of comedy. Things aren't what we think they are, or are they? Nadezhda, our narrator, is the daughter of aged widower and tractor enthusiast Nikolai. She has been estranged from her older sister Vera since her mother's death, and they were not too close before that. She has ambivalent feelings towards her father, her mother was really the heart of the family. She sees herself as a feminist and a socialist; but is she?

When her 84 year old father becomes embroiled with the 36 year old Ukrainian divorcee Valentina her worldview is challenged. Although her father spins a tale of idealism, wanting to help a fellow Ukrainian escape from the mess the Ukraine has become, his interest in her 'superior breasts' seems just as strong as his idealism. Will this woman simply exploit her father? Is her father to exploit this woman?

Sunday 11 December 2011


Tarr - Wyndham Lewis

"The ‘‘ Real Thing” is always Nothing. REALITY is the nearest conscious and safe place to “ Reality.” Once an Artist gets caught in that machinery, he is soon cut in half--literally so." from BLAST, the magazine of Vorticism which Wyndham Lewis played a key role in.

Wyndham Lewis was a key member of the modernist avant garde in the early decades of the twentieth century. As the founder of  Vorticism, an art movement the philosophy of which was outlined in BLAST, he had a influence beyond his own work. BLAST, of which there were only two issues still managed to publish TS Eliot, the story which formed the basis of Ford Madox Ford's classic The Good Soldier, Ezra Pound, paintings from Lewis and Edward Wadsworth and Jacob Epstein etc

Saturday 3 December 2011


Ironweed - William Kennedy

Here is a romance of loss and despair. Winter light captured in a greasy wine bottle sparkles like the Hope Diamond; shattered lives form and reform like a million sparrows in an autumn sunset, freed from time by the red eyed gaze of  dead companions and adversaries. And through the cracks in broken pavements, abandoned baseball diamonds, grave rectangles of final repose and hobo jungles sprout weeds of unseasonal vigour fertilised by guilt and love; wine and memory.

Francis and Helen bound by weeds of iron, and poor doomed Rudy carrying his own end like a secret he couldn't keep, "the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums," the non existent "brotherhood of the desolate."

Thursday 1 December 2011

Old School

Old School - Tobias Wolff

There are not many better books about writing than this. The narrator  goes to a boarding school where writing is taken very seriously. During his final year Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemmingway all accept invitations to visit the school for readings. The final year students compete for a one on one meeting by submitting some of their own writing. The narrator is one of the " boys who aced their English classes and submitted work to the school lit mag and hung around with other book-drunk boys." He is one of the editorial team on the school's literary magazine Troubadour.

The book is about truth and lies, loyalty and betrayal and much else besides. It is both wise and funny. It is unusual in Wolff's canon in that it is a novel that covers the period between his two memoirs, This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army. Indeed towards the end of  This Boy's Life Wolff tells us how he faked supporting letters from his teachers to help him get a scholarship to the exclusive Hill School.