Straight-faced

23 09 2017

Straight Man by Richard Russo

 

Hank Devereaux is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character – he is a born anarchist – and partly in the fact that his department is savagely divided.

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. In short, Straight Man is classic Russo – side-splitting, poignant, compassionate and unforgettable.

 

This was recommended to me by someone whose literary taste I have never had reason to question. Until now. I am always a sucker for a campus novel as there really are so few around. However, good ones are even harder to find and I was therefore delighted to be pointed at this one and could not have been more excited by the reviews. I found it hard not to keep thinking what a nightmare Hank would be to work and live with so zero sympathy there. And it is genuinely hard to recall a book which has less deserved the description “side-splitting”. Suspect it is therefore heading for an adaptation in the Radio 4 6.30pm comedy slot as I write. Only reason for two stars rather than one is the moderately diverting escapade involving the goose.

 

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President gas

16 09 2017

To Kill the President by Sam Bourne

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The unthinkable has happened…

The United States has elected a volatile demagogue as president, backed by his ruthless chief strategist, Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara.

When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.

Soon Maggie Costello, a seasoned Washington operator and stubbornly principled, discovers an inside plot to kill the President – and faces the ultimate moral dilemma. Should she save the President and leave the free world at the mercy of an increasingly crazed would-be tyrant – or commit treason against her Commander in Chief and risk plunging the country into a civil war?

Not remotely unthinkable, unfortunately. There are so many parallels with current events it’s frightening but this is a genuinely gripping and fast-moving thriller. Intelligently written and with plenty of twists and turns it is just all too believable. Well worth a read.

four stars

 





Endless days

9 09 2017

Days without end by Sebastian Barry

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

It’s an extraordinary tale and beautifully written. Captures the hardships and horrors exceptionally well and with a distinctive  angle. Highly recommended.

four stars





It can’t, can it?

2 09 2017

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, fearmongering demagogue runs for President of the United States – and wins. Sinclair Lewis’s chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, ‘Professional Common Man’, who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path. As the new regime slides into authoritarianism, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup can’t believe it will last – but is he right? This cautionary tale of liberal complacency in the face of populist tyranny shows it really can happen here.

As the Guardian described it, “eerily prescient,” and it certainly is. The parallels with the ascendancy and electoral success of Trump are striking. What happens afterwards though is much, much worse. But then we are only just at the beginning. Well worth reading.

 





Street life

26 08 2017

The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith

 

Bertie’s respite from his overbearing mother, Irene, is over. She has returned from the middle-east, only to discover that her son has been exposed to the worst evils of cartoons, movies and Irn Bru, and her wrath falls upon her unfortunate husband, Stuart. Meanwhile, Bruce has fallen in love with someone other than himself; Big Lou wants to adopt her beloved Finlay; Matthew and Elspeth host the Duke of Johannesburg for supper and Bertie decides he wants to move out of Scotland Street altogether and live with his grandmother, Nicola.

Can Irene and Stuart’s marriage survive? Will Bruce’s newfound love last? And will Bertie really leave Scotland Street?

It’s yet another set of stories of life in Edinburgh’s most entertaining street. I do enjoy these tales from the prolific McCall Smith but was appalled to find this massively erroneous digression on the issue of the pronunciation of my former home:

…the whole issue of whether Gullane was pronounced Gullun or Gillin (the latter, of course, being the correct pronunciation). On that last point she had recently heard a friend talk of Gullun (sic) – a friend who should have known better. She had remonstrated with him in vain and had been rebuffed; he had thrown in the towel, it seemed, unwilling to stand any more in the way of those who regarded the correct pronunciation as somehow elitist. She had felt sorry to see one of the few remaining bastions topple and fall, but had realised that those who pandered to the enthusiasms of the moment just wanted to be loved – as everybody did – and had chosen this form of identification with error to strike the pose that would, they hoped, bring them love and acceptance from those who pronounced Gullane incorrectly.
It really is not, has never been and never should be pronounced Gillin. Never. Other than that it’s business as usual in the Street. Long may it continue.
 




Going Underground

19 08 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

It’s hard to argue with the brief Barack Obama assessment on the front cover here, this really is a terrific book. It’s thrilling, horrific in places and brilliantly imaginative and overall a completely compelling and deep story. Rightly long listed for the 2017 Man Booker and should be a tight battle with the superb Reservoir 13.

four stars





Go between days

12 08 2017

Grant & I by Robert Forster

In early ’77 I asked Grant if he’d form a band with me. `No,’ was his blunt reply.” Grant McLennan didn’t want to be in a band. He couldn’t play an instrument; Charlie Chaplin was his hero du jour. And yet, when Robert Forster wrote Hemingway, Genet, Chandler and Joyce into his lyrics, McLennan couldn’t resist a second invitation to become 80s indie sensation The Go Betweens. The friends would collaborate for three decades, until Grant’s premature death in 2006. Beautifully written – like lyrics, like prose – Grant & I is a rock memoir akin to no other. Part `making of’, part music industry expose, part buddy-book, this is a delicate and perceptive celebration of creative endeavour. With wit and candour, Robert Forster pays tribute to a band who found huge success in the margins, having friendship at its heart.

As a fan since first being introduced to the Go Betweens by an Aussie friend (thank you Andrew Rohl) back in 1983 or thereabouts I couldn’t wait to read this. It’s a lovely but melancholy tale which is a true and heartfelt memoir about love, loss and music and quite like nothing else I’ve read in this genre.

Bit of a fanboy rating therefore but it is genuinely a really good read.








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