Sunday, January 27, 2008

What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Baywater

Failed the first chapter test...irritating chattering classes book that no doubt enables amusing dinner party conversations...clearly I am too common to appreciate its wit...sigh back to the scullery where I belong. See the reaction when I told them!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

You are a good person, pay your taxes, honour your parents, do an honest’s days work…so nothing in common with whores, drug addicts, boot-lickers, queers, hustlers, drunkards, jail fodder. You are a good honest citizen looking out for others.

Last week I was on a train that got stuck outside of Bristol by the floods for several hours, we moved up and down the tracks and stopped before moving up and down the tracks. Eventually we returned to Taunton and were dumped at the station. The promised coaches did not turn up, it was bucketing down rain and no one from the rail company took any responsibility to tell what was happening or to manage how and who got access to the coaches when they arrived. When they did in dribs and drabs 300+ people ran as if we were fleeing a doomed city. No thoughts given to parents with babes in arms, to elderly passengers struggling with heavy cases. I bet you that we were all good people, who pay our taxes…

In Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren asks “why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."

The book was written at the on set of the cold war in the 1950’s but is set in the Deep south of the early 1930’s. Algren himself went into popular and critical decline soon after in part due to the abuses of McCarthyism and in part to his own hard drinking, gambling and drug taking.

The story starts with Dove a Southern trailer trash illiterate 16 year old in the Mexican-Texas border. His grandfather is traveling preacher…described by Dove as the type that makes you want to throw your Bible away. He is barefoot, and in country yokel jeans. At the end he is in the height of fashion albeit bedraggled due to prison sentence for being drunk and disorderly.

Along the way we see the ins and outs of hustling, working in a peepshow, making and selling rubbers. We meet the women he loves or has sex with and one who keeps her humanity perhaps to love him. This unfolds as he jumps trains to New Orleans and then tries to make a living.

The narrative can at time feel like a series of short stories threaded together but its both naturalistic and funny. See Dove as an innocent abroad who walks where others fear to tread and so sails through danger that passes over his head. It also has lots of little passages of songs scatters throughout the book. Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed is based on the book and was going to be part of a musical of the book- want to see that if it ever happens!

It has to be said it’s a flawed masterpiece but still better then many other writers best work so give it a try and get a sense if you could believe in humanity if crushed at the bottom of the pile.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bones Would Rain From the Sky by Suzanne Clothier

Well, lookee here: Books and dogs.

An old Turkish proverb says that if a dog's prayers were answered, bones would rain from the sky. Subtitled Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs, Clothier expects that if we pay more attention to our furred friends, we can interpret their feelings and emotional states, achieving our training ends more easily and with the cooperation of our dogs.

Clothier, although she never calls herself that, is truly a dog whisperer. She can intuit a dog's logic and state of mind and form fast friendships sooner than we can say, "Fetch"!

Since I hardly know my own mind (something that she points out in the book) nor is my life my animals (besides umpteen dogs, Clothier and her husband farm cattle, goats, chickens, pigs and other critters), it is unlikely that I will be a star pupil. Still, I found the book useful.

The first half and the last quarter are mostly an account of Clothier's philosophy; Bones is not meant to train the trainer. The middle section, though, does have fairly concrete examples of some of her experiences with "aggressive" dogs. Between the examples and the philosophy, she gives the ordinary owner something to strive for. And she can be very amusing.

I would recommend that anyone with a dog read this, preferably before you are, again, seized with the urge to shout or, worse, hit. Not only will your dog make more sense to you, you will make much more sense to your dog.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Faust, uh, Eric is the Discworld's only demonology hacker. He manages to summon up Rincewind, the most incompetent wizard in the universe, along with The Luggage, the most faithful -- and scariest -- suitcase in literature. In an effort to fulfill Eric's three wishes -- to be immortal, rule the world, have the most beautiful woman in the world (the usual) -- their adventures take them on a journey through time and space.

Maybe not quite as good as some of the Discworld novels, but, in the Discworld, the adventure is not in the adventure; it's in Pratchett's knowledge of just about everything and the way he plays with it. A good ride through Faust, time travel and the big "bang." And other stuff.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Abandoned book: Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

I am reading 50 cult books this year and this would have been the third but its on the to be swapped pile now!

This is a book first published in 1978 and is an experimental novel. To put it context imagine an 18th century painting of a landowner and his family under a tree. At first glance this is natural but it’s a construct from both the style of the sitting to the painting techniques used to artificially create naturalism. If you deconstruct this then you draw on a range of counter images or techniques. Say having the landowner be a woman and the landscape constructed from dead bodies reflecting the true nature of the power illustrated.

This book is based on post modernist assumptions of deconstructing narrative; form etc to expose the oppressive nature of being a woman defined by men or being in a system then robs individuality- libertarian feminism as it were. One of the approaches that Kathy Acker takes is to take a brutal pornographic view of men and have the women adopt the same view to expose how a feminine romantic view of sex is part of the oppressive suppression of female sexuality.

The book does not follow the rules of dramatic narrative but is a montage of pastiches, poems, play scenes, pornographic drawings, dreamscapes that are not about telling a story but creating images and feelings that deconstruct the social view of say education, the state, religion etc. The opening few pages are written as a play dialogue with inner monologues between a 10 year old girl and a father who has sex with her. But from the context its not a 10 year old girl(the language and the content is of an older woman) so one reading is that this is a inner monologue along the lines of Transactional Analysis of stern parent and child which reflects how women are infantilised by men.

So why abandoned the book? Two reasons, the first is its relentless politics. It’s a book best read by young students who have the advantage of seeing the world in black and white: all men are bastards; your parents *** you up; police are pigs; education is fascism etc. The second is the format whilst containing many powerful nuggets tends to drag and not engage me as it is essentially a series of diverse pieces of writing and drawings thrown together it feels at random. Life is too short…which was first put into print in May 1877, The Morning Oregonian included a story with this opinion:

"Oh I say, drawled Gerard; 'life's too short to be wasted talking about a woman. Let's go and get some beer."

Oh dear…

The Best American Sports Writing (2004), Ed. Richard Ben Cramer & Glenn Stout

The best sports writing is generally not about the game, but about the people, the challenge, the struggle against inside and outside forces, the context, and occasionally, the great play, Great American Sports Writing has it all.

I'm game to go for the next one.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

How German Is It = Wie Deutsch Ist Es by Walter Abish

When should victims and their descents stop being victims and when do the crimes of our ancestors stop being our fault? This is territory of How German Is It = Wie Deutsch Ist Es by Walter Abish published in 1981 but set in the 70’s when the post war generation were having to come to terms with their futures and the pasts it was built on. Abish is an American but whose family had fled Europe during the Hitler years.

The central character is Ulrich a writer who is the son of a former high ranking German military officer executed for his role in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. He and his brother a modernist architect are from the aristocratic elite who supported Hitler’s anti-communist stance as a political necessity. We first meet Ulrich having returned to the new post war town and discover that he had been caught up with a terrorist cell who were imprisoned based on his evidence so he and his wife are free. This has serious consequences as it clear that his wife who leaves him believes in the terrorist cause as may one of his girl friends. His brother, Helmuth is helping to build the new Germany and is in cahoots with the Mayor and has a chaotic sex life causing his marriage to fall about. This again ripples through the novel and helps to shape the climax of the story.

A servant who saved the family in the fall of Nazi Germany lives in the new town and serves in the best restaurant and is known and loved by the two brothers. But it’s clear in the web of relationships that build up that not all is as it seems. As the character’s relationships build up a picture of who Ulrich is and why he must react in the final count in the way he does, we also start to discover that the new town is built on the ruins of a concentration camp and a willingness to try and ignore the past. To the point that we begin to see that the terrorists may well be the moralists except they are as much a failure as the bright new town.

It is a political thriller and more as Abish is an experimentalist writer who uses German stereotypes and a central character, Ulrich, who is initially a cipher to builds up the story by switches in narrator, by the author questioning the action or intention of the character or situation etc. As the story unfolds the interaction with the other characters builds in to real psychological studies. The climax and its consequences for Ulrich seek to answer the question of the novel’s title.

The novel is highly recommended and for all it being experimental is not a difficult read. It won the American book award(PEN/Faulkner) in 1981 and deserves a wider readership.

Pardonnable Lies by Jennifer Winspear

Oh, how I wanted to love this! A friend has been trying to get me to read a Maisie Dobbs mystery for a year and I wanted to please her. Lucky me, someone started a BookCrossing ray (post the book from person to person; last person decides what to do with it) and I joined.

If you wonder how I got through since yesterday (I wrote this the day after my last review, but am trying a new system of "publishing," so it didn't show up until now), the answer is: I didn't. The story is O.K. -- for all I know it's fantastic -- but the writing is awful. Winspear needs to re-read the text book chapter on "Show, Don't Tell." And especially don't tell me things that are obvious. Plod, plod, plod.

Another minority opinion from Margot

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

My first read of the year arrived as part of the Not So Secret Father Christmas BookCrossing Exchange. I'm not sure what I've said that would indicate that this would be a good book for me -- most of the fiction I read is crime fiction -- but it was an excellent choice.

Paradise is a story of Africa, subtly told as a coming of age novel. Yusuf is sent away from home to live with his "Uncle" Aziz near the sea and to tend his shop along with Khalil, another boy pawned to Uncle Aziz for his father's debts. As the book follows Yusuf from age 12 to late teens, he learns about the complicated relations between master and servant, trader and villager, Islam and animist religion, learns the landscape during trading journeys, sees the effects of colonisation on the Africans, watches the coming of war.

This will be in my inventory after a short BookCrossing ring.

This novel is a good companion piece to Alan Moorhead's histories of early African exploration and colonisation, all of which I also loved. Here's the African side of the story.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dreamers of the Day: A Novel: by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell has created another winner in her new book Dreamers of the Day. It is the story of a school teacher Agnes Shanklin, who survives the great influenza and left without family embarks on a trip to the Middle East with her 'flawed' but beloved dachshund. Here she encounters some notable historic figures such as Winston Churchill, Mrs. Churchill and T. E. Lawrence. While the plot is not as intricate as her complex historical tale A Thread of Grace where we follow the Italian resistance at the end of WWII, we do however find Agnes at the Cairo peace conference attended by notable historic presences. Agnes is a well developed character that I found myself rooting for, as I watched her transformation. But I wished for more of the friends I had found in her other novels such as Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit priest in The Sparrow, or Sophia, the AI expert in the Children of God. These characters, like Agnes and her dog Rosie, will linger as friends in the back of my mind for a long while. I felt as if I knew them all personally. All in all it was a good read, the disappointments were in comparison to the fabulous historical complexity of Russell's A Thread of Grace and in searching for traces not only of the old friends I had found in The Sparrow and Children of God, but in the sheer level of inventiveness that I found in this pair of books. Mary Doria Russell is one of those authors that I find myself eagerly awaiting their next new work. She writes with an intensity that captures and holds you throughout the book, and leaves you waiting for more. A recommended read! This review was based on the Advance Reader's Edition.

Mary Jones