Beatlebone – Kevin Barry

Warning: I’m going over my 10 sentence limit with this one!

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Kevin Barry’s fictionalised account of John Lennon’s visit to the island he owned in the Irish sea is a work of aural loveliness.  Yes, I did just say “aural” because this piece of writing is an audiological symphony of sounds – music, harmony, silence, screaming, ranting, nature’s melody and the racket in one’s head.  My sensory experience of this book has been very different to other reads. My memory of it is of noise and silence.  Near the start, the Lennon of the book is told to “listen – really listen to fuck’n everything around you”.  It feels like an instruction to the reader as well as the character.  What Lennon really wants to do is to “scream his fucking lungs out” – what I did was open my ears.

This re-imagining of John Lennon’s search for the words and melody to his next piece of work clips along at a pace due to Barry’s lilting poetic style (I either heard the words in my head in a gorgeous Irish twang or the nasally soft scouse Lennon was known for).  This retreat is also supposed to help Lennon to “at last be over himself” and for him to “be that fucking lonely I’ll want to fucking die”.  Although there is a plot, plot is not what this book is about.  It is more an exploration of a myriad emotions, not least abandonment, self loathing and doubt, but set against the bewitchingly described picturesque west of Ireland land- and seascapes Barry so mesmerisingly evokes with his well chosen and clearly much thought through words, the book becomes less of a depressing rant and more a cathartic journey.

Barry also messes with form and structure in this work; it is either set out in volumes with little punctuation or like a script with character “lines”.  Then, just when you think you know where you are, Barry inserts himself into the narrative, taking over several pages to explain his own journey of research to write this book.  It’s a brave move to slot a reportage section into fiction that is rumbling along quite nicely and has the reader in their reading stride.  Somehow it worked for me – I wasn’t put off by it at all, in fact I was struck by the similarities between Barry’s (or the unnamed writer’s) search for answers and his mental state, and the Lennon of the fiction.

I loved this book for lots of reasons, all of which I could ramble on about (music nerds will enjoy spotting Beatles lyrics slotted into the narrative), mainly though I was bowled over by the perfectly chosen turns of phrase which deftly describe a situation, a scene, a character, a sound or a view and quite honestly the hilarious chapter in the pub which turns into some Godawful trip is worth reading the book for on its own.

 

 

 

Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith

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In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.

 

11 sentences – must try harder!

Neues Wilhelm Busch Album – Wilhelm Busch

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Wilhelm Busch (1832 – 1908) was a German humorist, poet and illustrator.  His wood engraving illustrations satirised almost all parts of society but particularly Catholicism, religion in general, morality and everyday life in towns and villages across Germany.  This beautiful anthology belonging to my mother, was given to her by a neighbour when she was 12.  It was a firm feature of my own childhood.  I vividly remember my sister and I leafing through the fine pages fascinated and vaguely disturbed in equal measure, because like Grimm’s fairy stories, some of Busch’s cautionary tales end badly for his characters.

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Busch is best remembered for Max and Moritz the cheeky twosome who terrorise hardworking folk in their local community.  This collection opens with the Max and Moritz series “Eine Bubengescichte in sieben Streichen”  my translation “A rogue’s story in seven pranks” This is Dennis the Menace in double.  Each “Streich” shows the boys carrying out pranks ranging from stealing cooked chickens, loading their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder or stuffing beetles under an elderly gent’s bedclothes.

All pretty fun and seemingly harmless until the last prank.  After slicing rips into a farmer’s corn sacks, the farmer catches them and stuffs them into a bag.

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The farmer takes them to the miller who promptly tips them into his mill, grinding them into small pieces.

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The ground up bits of Max and Mortiz are gobbled up by the ducks.  A really gruesome end.

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Busch ends the seventh prank with the villagers rejoicing at the demise of the young irritants!

wp-1448828219987.jpegOther everyday farcical gems include the warring neighbours who beat the living daylights out of each other; the miller’s daughter who dispatches 3 thieves in grim fashion; the couple who trash their house while chasing a mouse; the guy driven to distraction by his toothache.

The series called The holy Antony of Padua told over 10 chapters guides us through this priest’s life from birth to arrival at the pearly gates all the while mocking the church and its hypocritical practises.

Most of the illustrated stories are accompanied with verse, which honestly I sometimes found tricky to make out.  This is due to the typeface which is a form of old German handwriting style called Suetterlin – really tricky to work out sometimes; even more difficult in Busch’s original hand (see below).  This is featured later in the book which covers his life, career and includes prints of his sketches in progress.  There is also some of his longer stories at the back of the album.

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His illustrations are delightful if slightly grotesque.  The characters are either portly with rosy cheeks and bulbous noses or they are skinny and wiry and frankly not to be trusted.  The violence is slapstick.  There’s always someone being bashed with a broom, falling through the floor or tripping and injuring themselves in some foolish act.  All really good fun.

This is a beautiful anthology of a little known commentator of life in late 19th century Germany.  I’ve enjoyed dipping into it again after years of having forgotten all about it.

Thanks to my mum for letting me borrow it!

I read this for German Literature Month

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The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Anthea Bell)

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For German Lit Month 2012 I read Ferdinand von Schirach’s collection of crime short stories Crime & Guilt largely based on his experiences as one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers.  The Collini Case  is Schirach’s first attempt at slightly longer fiction (although it is still short at only 182 pages) and as with the stories in Crime & Guilt Schirach manages to portray the perpetrator of a vicious crime in a humane light by explaining his back story.  The investigation into a seemingly motiveless attack on an elderly industrialist goes nowhere.  This, plus his client’s unwillingness to talk, explain himself or defend his position, causes up-and-coming defence lawyer, Casper Leinen some sleepless nights.  Casper’s personal connection to the victim provides the emotional conflict and personal angle to this story.

Schirach cleverly reveals the moving yet horrifying back story of both killer and victim with such dignity that I could not help but feel some sympathy for the defendant and his decision to commit such a brutal act (in fact my face streamed with tears reading parts of this book as my train chugged through the Belgian countryside towards Bruges last week).  This is a tense and gripping yet precise courtroom drama with a bittersweet ending.  And despite its brevity it packed a punch in Germany; the shame associated with the very specific piece of German law featured and highlighted in this novella led to a review of the marks left on the Ministry of Justice by its past connections to the Nazi party.  Worth reading for that alone.

I read this for German Literature Month

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Room at the Top – John Braine

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John Braine was an Angry Young Man.  One of a group of primarily working class writers emerging in the 1950s and using their art to voice disillusionment with the post-war class constraints of British society.  His début Room at the Top is a passionate story of a man seeking his destiny whilst covering themes this group of writers was exploring at the time; oddly it doesn’t feel out of place today as some of the issues are not dissimilar to inequalities still present in our society now.

Joe Lampton yearns for a better life away from the industrial town of his birth.  With new accountancy qualifications under his belt he finds the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side; life decisions are difficult and heartbreaking wherever you live and whichever class you belong to, but the cars are nicer and parties more exclusive if you have money.  Room at the Top asks questions about class and what it means to fit in, which sacrifices need to be made to gain acceptance and whether ultimately those sacrifices are worth it if they make you miserable.  Joe gives up a passionate life with the married older woman he adores to marry up and gain the status he craves.  It doesn’t end well.  Joe is not a character you can warm to because he has a selfish and manipulative nature, neither of which Braine glamourises or makes apology for.  Like Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room this book offers a fascinating insight into that difficult post war period, where almost everyone questioned the status quo and wanted more for themselves…cracking stuff.

P.S

There’s a great black and white adaptation of Room at the Top available to watch on YouTube, or look out for the more recent BBC adaptation with the wonderful Maxine Peake

Post Office – Charles Bukowski

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Bukowski was a pretty prolific writer.  Not in the way that someone grim like Dick Francis is prolific, churning out the dirge, more in the variety of work he produced; poetry, short stories, non-fiction, TV & film screenplays and novels.  Post Office being the first of his attempts at the latter form.  He was 49 years old and had accepted an offer by publisher John Martin of Black Sparrow Press to write full-time , having recently quit his job at the US Postal Service to do so.

This visceral, semi-autobiographical account of his time with the USPS follows anti-hero Henry Chianski as he drinks, gambles, misogonises (sorry, I know this is not a verb really, but describes it quite well!) and fucks his way firstly around his given route as a mail carrier and latterly as a chair-bound sorter, taking his life by the scruff of its neck and introducing us to grubby glimpses of his existence.  Structured as a series of vignettes and mini everyday-life occurences, we soon learn of the ridiculous ways the USPS controls its employees.  Chianski often finds himself at the rough and sharp end of some “Soup” (supervisor) or other’s wroth.  He never gives a stuff, metaphorically giving them all the bird any chance he gets by carrying out his own private rebellions.  Yet his staying power to endure this arcane form of employment torture is impressive.  Despite his grossness, lack of respect for himself and often others, there is something admirable and fascinating about his entire disregard and lack of love for himself.

Bukowski shows us human failings in a rich and honest manner with speech that spatters the page and genius character descriptions – you cannot help but respect and marvel at the work; it’s funny too in places and packs a punch despite its slim 160 pages.  Total legend.

(12 sentences – bugger!  I’m totally not managing to stick to this 10 sentences rule…postcript below also, which is sort of cheating!)

Postscript

The story goes that Bukowski was heavily influenced by John Fante; there are certainly similarities between Wait until Spring, Bandini and Post Office.  If one legend spawned another then that influence must have been great indeed.  Certainly Bukowski was responsible for persuading Black Sparrow Press to reissue Fante’s work in the late 1970s when it had been long out of print.  Clearly they owe each other some sort of debt or does this count as literary karma?

If you want to read some other more excellent reviews than mine of Post Office check:

Guy @ His Futile Preoccupations

Max @ Pechorin’s Journal

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 3

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I am crap at this business of posting regularly.  It’s been over 2 weeks since I saw Kate Atkinson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I’ve still not managed to write-up her talk or anything else for that matter.  Having said that, everything she talked about was so fascinating I don’t think it really matters how tardy I’ve been with getting this out.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has been an ever present feature of the last 20 years of my reading life.  I have read all her novels in almost the sequence they were written, except this one.  Whilst waiting for Atkinson to take to the stage, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  We chatted as festival goers do; what have you been to? what have you got coming up? I told her my “I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s books except this one” story, whereupon the man in front of me, clearly earwigging the conversation turned and said “oh you just must, it’s divine.”  And I guess this is the thing with Kate Atkinson.  She appeals to a broad range of readers, because life in her varied stories is recognisable. She writes about every day, ordinary observations with such vividness that it plays out in my head like a film in glorious technicolor.  Her novels feature her trademark dry wit, always bringing a smirk to my face – they cheer me up.  This was the first time I’d seen her talk and she was no less interesting in the flesh than on the page.

A God in Ruins is a companion book to Life After Life, featuring at its centre Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy. Atkinson said she knew Teddy would have his own book.  She was saving him for it.  Asked about the timeframe of this new book, she told us the second world war is endlessly fascinating for British people, we can’t seem to leave it behind.  She has always written about being English and this book is no different; it is really about gaining a sense of Englishness in a post war setting.  The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from her coronation to her golden jubilee, provides the framework for the book although this may not be immediately obvious to a reader.  Atkinson said that when she wrote Life After Life she really inhabited the Second World War period and had done significant research, so when it came to A God in Ruins she already knew how her characters would behave, what they would say and how they would say it.  She had been working with wartime vocabulary for a long time, so everything felt immediately familiar and she did minimal research.

Atkinson also talked about her writing process.  Interestingly, she generally starts a book at the beginning and writes in sequence.  She tends to write the first chapter over and over (sometimes only the opening paragraph) until it is right, then she will move on.  As the book nears its conclusion, she tends to write almost constantly and her work flows more easily.  She holds the whole book in her head, so she knows where she is at any one moment.  Writing sequentially stops the temptation to write all the good bits first and leave the difficult stuff till last – which can only lead to disaster.  She finds writing beginnings and endings simple, it’s the middle bits that cause her problems.  My ignorance of the writing process became obvious to me when Atkinson was asked how long it had taken her to write the passage she read aloud (no longer than 4 pages).  I thought, maybe a morning? It took her a week to get it perfect!  She realises she has an odd attitude to editing and re-writing.  She loves doing it and sees it as a process of constant improvement.

Having an authentic relationship with her characters is vital to her as a writer.  She said “Characters require authenticity and the reader knows and can see when a writer fails at this relationship.”  Her characters always appear to her fully formed and are immediately in her head in all their amazing roundness before she starts a new book.  She is a writer who loves plot and structure, but character is everything to her and the driving force behind her work.  She also said that all fiction is about fiction and identity.  As readers we know we are reading a book, a work of fiction, so we want art, not reality; the skill is in making that art real.

Her final thoughts were on reading.  She told us that when she writes, she never thinks about her readers in terms of what they may want.  There are too many readers to satisfy them all.  Her advice was “You have to be your own best reader first, if the book is good for me as a reader, then I am happy.”   She added that she has spent most of her life reading.  Reading is the best apprenticeship for any writer.  In fact she said “If you want to write, you have to read everything ever written”  I’d better crack on then!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Jackson Brodie & Me

Life After Life

on being addicted to books

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