Monday 29 December 2014

What A Carve Up!

What A Carve Up! - Jonathan Coe
(US Title The Wimshaw Legacy)
(The US title of the film What a Carve Up! was No Place Like Homicide)

"Mum, I want to stay and see the end."

In this earlier post I explained how I and some others decided to read this together. Hopefully all have progressed and there will be  a bundle of posts over the next few days. I will link as I discover them.

Here's Jacqui at JacquiWine's Journal
Here's Guy at His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly…..

How do you package anger and disgust, at yourself and the world you live in? Here is one answer, with a mixture of bile and belly laughs. Coe's book goes straight to the top table of comic novels that I have read, and is also one of the best political novels I have read. That's the gush done with, for now at least.

Coe parodies many styles, but it is mostly a cod gothic novel which reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm and Gormenghast. There are multiple narratives at play, all of which are pulled together by fantastical coincidences. Michael Owen, author of two moderately well received novels, is offered very attractive deal (any deal that involves money is attractive to a novelist!) to pen the history of the Wimshaw family for the vanity publishing firm Peacock Press. The rich, greedy Wimshaw's are almost all an odious crew, solely motivated by money. Their home, Wimshaw Towers, is a grim, gothic pile overseen by a 'gaunt, solemn' butler called Pyles. "As for the mad conglomeration of gothic, neo-gothic, sub-gothic and pseudo gothic towers which gave the house its name, they resembled nothing so much as a giant black hand, gnarled and deformed: its fingers clawed at the heavens, as if to snatch down the setting sun which shone like a burnished penny and would soon, it seemed, have descended inexorably into its grasp."

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Shipyard

The Shipyard - Juan Carlos Onetti
(Translated by Nick Caistor)

"Many people swear they saw him that lunchtime in the dying days of autumn. Some claim he looked like his old self resurrected in the exaggerated way, almost caricatured, that he was trying to recapture the indolence, the irony, the sparse disdain of the postures and expressions he had employed five years before; they recall how keen he was to be noticed and identified, his two fingers ready to rise jerkily to the brim of his hat at the slightest hint of greeting, at any look which remotely suggested surprise at seeing him again. Others on the contrary remember him as indifferent, hostile, resting his elbows on the table, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, parallel to the drenched Artigas Avenue, as he peered into the faces of those coming in for no other reason than to keep a personal tally of loyalties and betrayals, acknowledging either response with the same easy, fleeting smile, the same involuntary twitch of the mouth."

Larsen, the focus of this novel, is banished from the city and his return is brief. On a journey to a nearby town he meets the "idiot girl" of local industrialist Jeremias Petrus and later gets a job managing the shipyard of the book's title. The shipyard is in an advanced and advancing state of decay and Larsen and the two other staff (Galvez and Kunz) who work there are involved in a sort of self-delusion that alone can give any meaning to turning up to plan for the future of a clearly ruinous and derelict facility. They are not paid, although they have contracts and nominal salaries. Ends are made to meet by selling off a load of the rusting equipment in the sheds to scrap merchants once a month. Galvez and Kunz live in the shipyard, Galvez with his pregnant wife in "an enlarged version of a dog kennel", Kunz in a "doorless, abandoned office, with wooden planks for walls."

Monday 8 December 2014

The End of a Mission

The End of a Mission - Heinrich Böll
(Translated by Leila Vennewitz)

My second choice for GermanLitMonth allowed me to continue to make my way through the collected works of Heinrich Böll. The End of a Mission is the fourth Böll novel I've reviewed here and there fifth I've read. The Safety Net; Group Portrait with Lady; The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum are all featured on the blog but my first Böll, and my favourite thus far Billiards at Half Past Nine was read before I started blogging.

As with many (all?) of his other books The End of a Mission has, as it's central concern the relationship between post war Germany and what happened during that war. How has it affected community, memory, the relationship with law and the state? How can/is language calibrated to reveal/hide it? It is a satire, or perhaps more accurately a farce in which the blind, remorseless and often senseless needs of bureaucracy collide with individuals and community in the small town of Birglar.

Friday 28 November 2014


The Faber Academy have started a competition called #Quickfic. Details at this LINK.

You get a prompt and a few hours to come up with a 250 word story based on the prompt. I gave myself fifteen minutes.

Monday 24 November 2014


Rebellion - Joseph Roth
Translated by - Michael Hofmann
"They were blind or halt. They limped. They had shattered spines. They were waiting to have limbs amputated, or had recently had them amputated. The War was in the dim and distant past." "They had made their own individual peace with the enemy. Now they were readying themselves for the next war: against pain, against artificial limbs, against crippled, against hunchbacks, against sleepless nights, and against the healthy and the hale."
Given that The Radetzky March is one of the best books I've read since I started this blog, I felt it was well past the time when I should read another Roth and GermanLitMonth seemed the perfect opportunity. The introduction to Rebellion is written by the masterful translator Michael Hofmann who informs us that this is the fifteenth and last of Roth's novels to be translated into English, a full sixty years after his death. He also suggests that the reader "might read the whole of that oeuvre", and although I have only read three so far (I read The Legend of the Holy Drinker a few decades back) I hope that I will get to read all fifteen.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Memory of Fire: Genesis

Memory of Fire, 1: Genesis - Eduardo Galeano
(Translated by  Cedric Belfrage)

Genesis is the first part of Galeano's ambitious and brilliant retelling of the history and mythstory of the American continent. Short, anecdotal passages jump from location to location, leapfrogging through time to build a picture of the civilisations that existed in pre-Conquistador America. It's a couple of months since I read Genesis and I stopped part way through the second book in order to complete some reading I had committed to. I hope to get back into it soon, as it has lived up to my high expectations so far, expectations raised by my reading of another of his books: Upside Down, A Primer for the Looking-Glass World.

Saturday 8 November 2014

The Goat's Are Singing - Long Time, No See

The Goat's Are Singing
Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy

"It's a terror to hear a sound that is not there. Have you ever heard a sound that is not there?"

Long Time, No See, barring an unexpected posthumous work, is Dermot Healy's last published novel. All of his other three novels were set in multiple locations and the characters were often running away from or towards somewhere but here the main characters are all deeply rooted in the small rural enclave of Ballintra on the west coast of Ireland. This time the world comes to the characters, rather than the other way round.

Friday 31 October 2014


Mysteries - Knut Hamsun
Translated by Gerry Bothmer
"In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behaviour and then vanished as suddenly as he had come."

I was inspired to read Mysteries by the fact that both Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Tom at Wuthering Expectations would be reading it and it seemed like too good an opportunity to read it alongside two of my favourite bloggers. (Indeed Tom has already started splashing ideas about in this post; and there will possibly be more by the time I finish this post). I already wanted to read more Hamsun after reading Hunger and happened to have this one on my shelves. There are sure to be many angles on this book, which, as the title suggests, is hard to pin down.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Top 102 Albums Minus 15 - Broken English

Top 102 Albums Minus 15
Broken English - Marianne Faithfull

A few weeks back, watching Later with Jools Holland I was delighted to see Marianne Faithfull appear and since then I have been listening regularly to Broken English, her coruscating and quite brilliant album from 1979. It brings together her sixties credentials with songs from John Lennon (Working Class Hero) and a song from underground provocateur Heathcote Williams (Why'd Ya Do It) and a sound that owes more to Giorgio Moroder than the folk and country stylings of her earlier work.

Essay published on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum.

Essay published on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum.

The blog post previously known as Four Stories and Me, which I had written for a competition on the Thresholds International Short Story Forum has been edited to Three Stories and Me and published on Thresholds.

The site is hosted by The University of Chichester and has a number of interesting essays and links for lovers and authors of short stories everywhere.

Pay them a visit - THRESHOLDS

Sunday 19 October 2014

The Goats are Singing - Sudden Times

The Goats are Singing
Sudden Times - Dermot Healy

"The regrets come with a vengeance. The want of revenge comes with a vengeance."

Sudden Times seems to me to be the most concentrated and controlled of Healy's books. The narrative voice is carefully and shaped and the structure is that of a thriller, with details being drip fed to us to let us know that there will be a revelation by the end. For a long time we are not sure what that revelation will be, and it leaves us feeling unsure as to how to judge the narrator. Is he suffering from grief or guilt? Or both.

The book comprise of a series of very short chapters titled rathered than numbered. Some are no more than a sentence. The titles are sometimes gnomic, often comic and always in dialogue with their respective 'chapters'. Healy's skills as a poet and playwright are in evidence throughout.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Fourteenth Floor - The Drays

Fourteenth Floor - The Drays

When I heard that Stephen Ryan (ex Stars of Heaven and The Revenants) was releasing new material I was excited. A year or so after hearing about it I finally heard it when the actor Aidan Gillen played a song on the radio when he was standing in for Tom Dunne. He linked it up with an Alex Chilton cover of a Seeds song - I Can't Seem to Make You Mine.

The Goats are Singing - The Bend for Home

The Goats are Singing
The Bend for Home - Dermot Healy

My enjoyment of re-reading Healy's sparkling and generous memoirs has been enhanced by reading it alongside his other books. It is possible to see how many of the incidents outlined here have metamorphosed into parts of his fiction.

The forces that create the writer are at the very heart of this book, with even Healy's birth connected umbilically to the well of fiction. The book opens with the story of his birth, or at least the story he long believed was of his birth. The mix of humour and contrariness reminded me of Laurence Sterne, and also of Monty Python.

Sunday 5 October 2014

The Great Christmas Carve Up! December Readalong.

The Great Christmas Carve Up! 
December Readalong of Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up!

This post on Jonathan Coe's Expo 58 has led to a proposed readalong of Coe's eighties satire What a Carve Up! which has the reputation of being great fun and one of the most successful satires of recent times. (It was published in the US as The Winshaw Legacy)

It seems somehow appropriate following the stir caused by Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher to take another baleful look at the acquisitive and divisive eighties when Thatcher and Reagan did their level best to reintroduce feudalism.

Committed readers already include star bloggers Guy at His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly…; Jacqui at JacquiWine's Journal and Kim at Reading Matters , and me.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Goats Are Singing - A Goat's Song

The Goats Are Singing
A Goat's Song - Dermot Healy

They say that character is fate and that that is the key to great tragedy. A Goat's Song has a character damaged by sobriety and one damaged by drink. The real tragedy, though, is not to be found in character but in a country, divided.

If you want to see a character fall you have to walk him over the edge and Jack Ferris, playwright, fisherman, drunk and lover does just that. Healy, who lived where Jack lives, on the western edge of Mayo, seems to have had an instinctive understanding that the marginal sees clearest, and while Jack feels the pull of Belfast and Dublin, it is the sea that hauls hardest and he always returns to the peninsula and the fishing boats.

Saturday 20 September 2014

The Goats are Singing - Fighting with Shadows

The Goats are Singing 
Fighting with Shadows, or Sciamachy - Dermot Healy

Fighting with Shadows, published in 1984, was Dermot Healy's first novel. It would be ten years before his second, A Goat's Song, hit the shelves. In many ways Fighting With Shadows has the mark of a first novel. It covers a huge amount of ground and seems almost overcome by all the things it has to say. However, it does say a lot and Healy's talent, already clear from his short stories, was confirmed by this novel.

The focus of the novel is on the Allen family, three generations of whom are featured. They are from the town of Fanacross, situated on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The influence of the border is referred to on the first page: "The lorry-loads of watchful pigs descending the mountains by night to a slaughter house in the South. How the cattle get dizzy crossing the border for the grants in the North and back again for the grants in the South."

Wednesday 10 September 2014

The Goats Are Singing - Banished Misfortune (5)

The Goats Are Singing 
Banished Misfortune (5) - Dermot Healy

I've been stumbling slowly through the works of Dermot Healy for the past month, my reading somewhat ahead of my writing, but not too far.

I have been getting very tired, something which may be somewhat down to increasing myopia, which has led me to finally start wearing the glasses which made so little difference when I got them a couple of years back.

Here are some thoughts on the final five stories in Banish Misfortune.

Thursday 4 September 2014

1984 Playlist

1984 Playlist

I am going to my thirty year school reunion this weekend and I put together this playlist of music from 1984 for atmosphere...

Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday 31 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (4)

The Goats are Singing
Banished Misfortune (4) - Dermot Healy

Further thoughts on Dermot Healy's debut collection of short stories.

Blake's Column
Mr Blake is a "well known" newspaper columnist who is also a dramatist. He has moved into the country with his wife and son but they have since left and he is isolated and somewhat bitter. It is near the place where he was born but he has been living in Dublin for a long time. In many ways he prefigures the narrator of A Goat's Song, who is similarly a rural dramatist separated from his ex-partner and living in isolation.

Thursday 21 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (3)

The Goats are Singing 
Banished Misfortune (3) - Dermot Healy

The third story in Banished Misfortune is The Island and the Calves, a story that I found it harder to find my feet in than the first two.

It takes place in England during Easter Week to the soundtrack of Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ and is suffused with religious imagery. The world seems not yet to have solidified, and there is a sense that what is important are the things that can't be pinned down - "History became the studying of disappearing softness, for hardness always remained, the most accessible material of man."

Monday 11 August 2014

The Ice Age

The Ice Age - Margaret Drabble

"there was no rational explanation for the sense of alarm, panic and despondency which seemed to flow loose in the atmosphere of England.`'

It's a while since I read The Ice Age but with one thing and another I haven't been able to get around to writing anything about it. Not that there isn't a lot to say. It is a very interesting novel and I enjoyed it a lot and will be reading more Drabble. I read this partly to take the temperature of the mid-seventies which the book does very well, integrating big social and economic issues with the character's stories.

The book opens with a scene which reminded me strongly of The Sopranos: "On a Wednesday in the second half of November, a pheasant, flying over Anthony Keating's pond, died of a heart attack, as birds sometimes do.."

Thursday 7 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (2)

The Goats are Singing - 
Banished Misfortune (2) - Dermot Healy

Thoughts on the second story in Banished Misfortune, Dermot Healy's book of short stories published in 1982  and featuring stories from the preceding decade.

A Family and a Future
This is an odd story which is redolent of the sexual repression and abuse which overshadows Ireland's recent past. Set in the sixties, its main character is a woman called June who blithely satisfies her sexual desires with many men, and boys. The narrator is somewhat involved in the action early on, having an early (and somewhat traumatic) sexual experience with June, who is three years older.

Monday 4 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (1)

The Goats are Singing  -
Banished Misfortune (1) - Dermot Healy

My intention to read all of Dermot Healy's fiction this month and write about it is ambitious considering the current speed of my reading and the rate at which I post. However  I will complete the project, even if I have to stretch the idea of August. You can read my introductory post on this project here, which aims to act as my own reader's memorial to the Irish master who died in June.

I have started with reading Healy's first published book of fiction, the short story collection Banished Misfortune and I am finding it a rewarding if somewhat resistant collection. The stories demand an immersion without, in many cases, a simple revelation of plot or character.

Some stories are like incantations, passages of startling clarity resolving into an impressionist blur of time, place and character. Others are far more straightforward.

Thursday 31 July 2014

The Sound of Things Falling

The Sound of Things Falling - Juan Gabriel Vásquez

"Then I realized no one wants to hear heroic stories, but everyone likes to be told about someone else's misery."

I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of this Impac Dublin Literary Award winning novel on Twitter, just in time for #spanishlitmonth. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago but it has, like some other posts languished in my drafts folder since then. However, in a final effort to post on some Spanish Lit for #spanishlitmonth, I am returning to it, grinding through the gears of my memory.

The book opens with the shooting of one of the hippopotami that took to the Columbian countryside fro the huge outdoor zoo presided over by Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. This reminds the narrator, Antonio Yammara, of his own memories that are tied up with the zoo and the Columbia represented by it, a Columbia where the drug cartel seemed untouchable, able to bribe, intimidate or kill anyone who stood against it.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

To the Bone

To the Bone - Jones

Regular readers will be aware of Mr Trevor Jones, who often stops by to comment and who, both as a solo artist and as part of Miracle Mile, has been producing excellent work since the eighties. Despite many critical plaudits and a small band of fanatics, this music has still to find its way to a wider audience. You can find my review of Miracle Mile's last album, In Cassidy's Care here.

His songs are carefully considered, mature reflections on the passing of time; friendship and its passing; disappointment; relationships; becoming and/or retreating from the self etc. The stuff of the considered life. My plan here (if you can call it a plan) is to listen to the album and respond track by track, somewhat fancifully imagining the album as a narrative and concentrating more on the lyrics than the music.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Sniffin' Glue

Sniffin' Glue - The Essential Punk Accessory - Mark Perry, Danny Baker et al

"Now I wanna sniff some glue"

It feels ironic to be reading something as essentially ephemeral as Sniffin' Glue almost forty years after its xeroxed DIY appearance as the throwaway taste setter of the punk vanguard. However, it does provide a vibrant glimpse of the time, with humour and openness and enthusiasm making up for the occasional crudity of the opinions expressed. That's crude as in roughly sketched rather than crude as in rude, by the way. I don't mind a bit of fuckin' rudity.

In the introduction Mark Perry talks about looking for a magazine about punk at the Rock On record stall at the Soho market and being told he should do it himself. When he did a movement was born, even if the appearance of Blue Oyster Cult on the cover of Issue 1 isn't quite punk kosher.

Thursday 10 July 2014

When the Lights Went Out

When the Lights Went Out - Andy Beckett

I have read and reviewed almost no non-fiction over the lifetime of this blog. However, I continue to buy non-fiction in my all too frequent forays into charity shops, and even the odd one online, like this. I bought it at a time when I was researching a possible documentary project (long since dropped) and I finally got around to reading it as a result of taking up a challenge to present a paper at a conference on The Clash held in Belfast last month.

I really enjoyed it and hope that it kickstarts more non-fiction reading over the next few years. This book, subtitled "What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies" filled in a lot of detail missing in the faint impression of current affairs in Britain at the outer fringes of my memory - I turned three in 1970 and grew up in Ireland, exposed to British news and television channels but not quite immersed in it.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Goats are Singing - for Dermot Healy.

photo courtesy of Steve Pyke: http://www.pyke-eye.com

The Goats are Singing - for Dermot Healy.

The news filtered in yesterday on Facebook and Twitter of the tragically early death of one of Ireland's greatest writers, the inspirational Dermot Healy. Séamus Heaney called him the heir to Patrick Kavanagh. Roddy Doyle called him Ireland's greatest living writer. My thoughts are with his family and friends, whose loss is immeasurably greater than the loss to readers, but the loss to readers is great too, as he was a master.

As a reader I have been savouring the fact that his most recent novel, Long Time, No See is on my shelves, waiting for me. I had also been thinking of re-reading his classic novel A Goat's Song, the title of which comes from the etymology of tragedy (from the Greek - tragos ‘goat’ + ōidē ‘song). And if his early death is a tragedy, he has left great work to remember him by. I have read two of his novels, A Goat's Song and Sudden Times, and his absolutely masterful memoir The Bend for Home. He also wrote short stories; the screenplay for Cathal Black's hard hitting docudrama, Our Boys; four collections of poetry and a number of plays.

Monday 30 June 2014

Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies

"We still have, every Englishman and woman, some drops of giant blood in our veins. In those ancient times, in a land undespoiled by sheep or plough, they hunted the wild boar and the elk. The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It's not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It's what's latent in the soil, what's breeding; it's the days to come, the wars unsought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm."

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Four Stories and Me

Four Stories and Me
(This essay retraces some of the ground covered in this post. It was written for the competition held by Thresholds and as they didn't appreciate it I thought I'd inflict it on you. Thresholds have lots of interesting essays on the short story if you feel like reading more.)

Sometimes it seems that a short story can embed itself deep inside the memory, into crannies that novels can’t fit into. Some stories are forever curling and uncurling deep inside my own head. Why have these particular stories burned so deeply into my mind? It seems to me that many of those that have managed to establish themselves in my mind depict an absurd world where actions are dictated by chance and prejudice and the frailty and insignificance of human life are foregrounded.

Saturday 7 June 2014

I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo

I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo - Augustus Roa Bastos
(translated by Helen Lane for Vintage Books. Published in 1987)
"It's awkward being alive and dead at the same time."
"imagination, mistress of error and falsehood?"

I read this in parallel with Richard at Caravano de Recuerdos. He has already posted three commentaries on Yo el Supremo, bringing to bear his greater familiarity with and understanding of South American literature and history. What do I have to offer? How do eccentric conclusions based on inaccurate speculation sound? Welcome to the home of vapour trails and reflections, or smoke and mirrors if you like that better.

This is a sprawling book with one of the craziest narrators in literary history. Fusing paranoia, puns and power El Supremo fires fusillades of vitriol mixed with artillery barrages of self-justification at his bewildered reader, forcing words to fit the flow of his conversation and dispensing with such things as temporal and character stability. By the end we feel we may be hearing the story from a consciousness born of it's own volition in a skull, long stored in a noodle box, that may or may not be the skull of El Supremo. But boy, can he rant! This is from the second page: "..all they know how to do is squeal. They haven't shut up to this day. They keep finding new ways of secreting their accursed poison. They get out pamphlets, pasquinades, lampoons, caricatures. I am an indispensable figure for slander. For all I care they can manufacture their paper from consecrated rags. Write it, print it with consecrated letters on a consecrated press. Go print your drivel on Mount Sinai if that will unshrivel your souls, you cacogenic latrinographers!"

Saturday 31 May 2014

My Bookshelves on Another Person's Blog

My Bookshelves on Another Person's Blog

Over at Savidge Reads there is a regular series called Other People's Bookshelves. I am "Other Person Number 43" if you feel inclined to have a peek at my shelves.

Monday 26 May 2014

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall  - Hilary Mantel

I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies together and it adds up to a long novel but it never felt like an effort. When I was a teenager I loved historical fiction and read quite a bit, most of which has been wiped clear from my brain, as has most of my knowledge of English history. Most of what was taught in Ireland back in my day focussed on the injustices perpetuated by the English on Ireland any way. Therefore we got more Oliver than Thomas Cromwell.

I mean I knew that heads would roll and monks faced eviction but not a whole lot else. Some other bits sounded familiar as I progressed but not awfully so. So I wasn't too worried about the absolute historical accuracy of this portrait of Thomas Cromwell, but instead focussed on how convincing a fictional character he was and the quality of the writing. I was not disappointed with either.

Friday 16 May 2014

Young Skins

Young Skins - Colin Barrett

With the release of Young Skins Colin Barrett seems to have attracted the 'new Kevin Barry' tag. It's never easy having to wear someone else clothes and Kevin Barry probably thinks it's a bit early for a new him as well. Barrett has gracefully acknowledged Barry's influence and Barry has anthologised Barrett so the town seems big enough for both of them.
I find it difficult at times to write about short stories. I tend to read collections over a long period and indeed, I have many that I have dipped into on numerous occasions without finishing and often return to favourite stories again and again. Plans to cover my short story reading have yet to come to fruition. One of the problems is that it can be very easy to give away too much about a story, it's not like a novel where you can tell a lot without really giving anything away.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Flann O'Brien Documentary

Flann O'Brien Documentary
"a real writer, with the true comic spirit" - James Joyce

Here is a treat, a documentary on the wonderful Irish writer Flann O'Brien a.k.a. Brian O'Nolan, writer of two of the greatest Irish novels: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. He also produced one of the greatest satirical newspaper columns ever - An Cruiskeen Lawn.

In some ways he is the Irish Orson Welles, starting off with such great masterpieces that everything else is seen by some as a disappointment. And there is no doubt that he descended from those heights and suffered from frustration and alcoholism.

Thanks to Mick Mahon, who edited this documentary, for sharing.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

A Scots Quair

A Scots Quair - Lewis Grassic Gibbon
(Sunset Song; Cloud Howe; Grey Granite)

This trilogy reminded me strongly of Thomas Hardy with it's powerful sense of the lives of the rural poor and the vagaries of fate. The books were written in the early 1930's in a poetic Scottish dialect and the action covers the years before, during and after the First World War. I became aware of them through the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Although popular in Scotland they had not previously attracted my attention. I'm glad they did. Indeed they are likely to meet with a surge in popularity as the great Terence Davies has just begun filming Sunset Song. The mix of tenderness and brutality he brought to the screen in Distant Voices, Still Lives would appear to be on the cards for a reprise.

Friday 25 April 2014

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Where do we to to to find authenticity in our lives? Artistic expression; meaningful work; love and marriage; family; children ... And what do we do if what we find there seems little more than cheap artifice or a momentarily shared delusion?

The opening of the novel largely concerns the unsuccessful staging of an amateur production of The Petrified Forest*. The play actually pre-empts much of the storyline of the novel, with dreams of escaping to France and artistic creation clashing against drear mundanity.

Monday 14 April 2014

Death of the Heart

Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen

This has been on my TBR list for a long time. I was finally encouraged to pull it from my shelves by a list by author Yiyun Li of five books that she rereads.  It seems to me to be a masterpiece, an essential book. I have read The Last September and thought it great but this is even better. At times the writing is exhilarating in its cumulative virtuosity, even when the insights are speculative and eccentric. Or maybe because they are eccentric and speculative.

The book tells of a period of time in the life of the orphaned Portia Quayne,  a sixteen year old girl who is staying with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, who have no children of their own and little time or sympathy for Portia. Portia was born when Thomas and Portia's father had an affair which brought an end to his marriage, after which he and Portia's mother lived in a succession of second rate accommodations around Europe. Thomas remembers her as a young girl who "stared at him like a kitten that expects to be drowned." It was their father's deathbed request that Thomas take Portia for a year. They feel that it would be bad form not to accede to a dying man's wish.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Top 102 Albums Minus 14 - Fire of Love

Top 102 Albums Minus 14
Fire of Love - The Gun Club
"I'm going to buy me a graveyard all of my own
and kill everyone who ever did me harm"

Hank Williams staggered from the bar onto the dusty highway. StEaling an aXe from John Henry he chopped down electricity poles and JACKed up on electro convulsive blues, as a WOLF drove past in a tattered limousine HOWLING some artery rippinG pUNk yarn discovered rotting in a bootleggers shack by Harry Smith .

Stripped back, shredded roCk that stands beside bands Like The Stooges, The Birthday Party, Einstürzende NeUBauten in the intensity of its exorcistic orgies.

Friday 4 April 2014

How's the Pain?

How's the Pain? - Pascal Garnier
(Translated by Emily Boyce)

"In which part of Africa was it that people greeted each other every morning with the question "How's the pain?" Simon could no longer remember."

I was inspired to read this by a list of favourite noir books selected by John Banville, and it was not a disappointment. It has many of the reflexes of a genre novel but is also a humdrum existential meditation on death.

An older man, Simon arrives at Val-les-Bains, a spa town in rural France. He strikes up a conversation with Bernard, a simple young man and invites him out for dinner. He then offers him a job driving him to a seaside town and back. He offers good money. There has to be more to it than first appears and, of course, there is.

Indeed we know that it will end with Simon hanging himself and leaving everything to Bernard. For we begin at the end, the first short chapter being Simon's preparing to hang himself in his hotel room. And the second chapter lets us know that Bernard will assist him.

Sunday 23 March 2014


Antwerp - Roberto Bolaño
"reality seems to me like a swarm of stray sentences"

I started jotting down notes towards a coherent post on Antwerp but it seemed easier more in keeping with the spirit of the novel to leave them as simply notes towards a blog post.

Antwerp is the first known novel written by Bolaño. It was written around 1980 but not published until just before his death. It is short and experimental, with atmosphere and effect more than plot and character the driving force. It is closer in spirit to poetry than prose and perhaps marks the major staging post between both poles of Bolaño's writing.

The gun was only a word.”
Chekov, famously, said something about having to use a gun, if you introduce it. Bolaño seems to be saying that you don't.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna / The Man Who Went Up In Smoke

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who have left their stamp on Scandinavian writing.
Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna & The Man Who Went Up In Smoke - Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

Here, or elsewhere I made the statement that I'd immerse myself in crime for a portion of the year. I thought that reading a ten book series would be a good way to make good on that promise. Unfortunately I still have to find book three, four and ten so for the now I'll write up some thoughts on the first two books in the Martin Beck series, often blamed for the wave of Nordic noir that has descended upon us over the last number of years.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Not to Disturb

Not to Disturb - Muriel Spark

"'Their life,' says Lister, 'a general mist of error. Their death, a hideous storm of terror - I quote from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, an English dramatist of old.'"

This short novella is from the early seventies and is similar in style to The Hothouse by the East River, which I read and wrote about a few years ago. It is a spectral book, with elements of a play, and of a film script, only ninety one pages long and telling a story of murder and suicide in a locked room, mostly from the outside. And not alone are we outside the room but we also seem in some way to be outside time.

Thursday 13 March 2014


Bilgewater - Jane Gardam
"My mother died when I was born which makes me sound princess-like and rather quaint."

I was inspired to read something by Jane Gardam by her inclusion on the shortlist for the Folio Prize. I had picked this one up at some point in a charity shop and so decided to pull it from the shelves. It was initially published as a children's book but was subsequently published for us adults as well.

Friday 7 March 2014

Dissident Gardens

Dissident Gardens - Jonathan Lethem

I felt strangely ambivalent about this book while reading it, initial trepidation turning into admiration but always tempered by a feeling that the book had arisen from the unholy union of a host of Sunday Magazine articles and an accessible, hip course of lectures on Critical Theory. It seems almost unbearably bourgeoise, an Upper Middle Class embrace of sexual, racial and political dissidents and sympathy for their tragic fates.

It is a book full of characteristics but without really convincing characters, full of speech but devoid of a voice. Not that I find these insurmountable problems, many books are brilliantly fake, but it feels at times like this book aims to be either realist family saga and metafictional gloss on family sagas but falls a little between the stools.  However, despite these failings there is still much to enjoy here.

Friday 28 February 2014

Top 102 Albums Minus 13 - No Other

Top 102 Albums Minus 13
No Other - Gene Clark
"Some streets are easy
While some are cruel
Could these be reasons
Why man is Life's Greatest Fool"

Gene Clark was a founder member of The Byrds and wrote their signature song Eight Miles High. That's enough to assure a place in the Hall of Fame, I guess.

By the time he got around to recording No Other he had left the Byrds, recorded a solo album, rejoined The Byrds for three weeks, recorded more solo albums and rejoined The Byrds a second time only for the band to break up after releasing the album Byrds.