Owlish anecdotes

22 07 2018

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

A guy walks into a bar . . .

From here the story could take many turns. A guy walks into a bar and meets the love of his life. A guy walks into a bar and finds no one else is there. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless. In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Sedaris delights with twists of humour and intelligence, remembering his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants) his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant) and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered pygmy. By turns hilarious and moving, David Sedaris masterfully looks at life’s absurdities as he takes us on adventures that are not to be forgotten.

He is a master of expanding on small observations and fragments of recollections. As the Guardian puts it:

All these superficially insignificant memories are preserved for later examination, like the dead animals that are a recurring theme – Sedaris seeks a rare stuffed owl as a gift for his partner, Hugh; his sister Gretchen carries around a jar full of dead insects to study. A joyous moment swimming with a giant sea turtle in Hawaii reminds Sedaris of how, aged 10, he captured a clutch of baby sea turtles and kept them at home for weeks, giving them minced beef to eat until their tank turned into a rancid turtle graveyard.

It’s a really entertaining and at times disturbing collection of well-honed and crafted tales which I found it was almost impossible not to read without hearing Sedaris’ voice. Anyway, having seen him read in Nottingham the other day (at a packed Royal Concert Hall) he really is very good value. Take a look at this recent commencement speech at Oberlin College for an example of his work:

Commencement Address 2018: David Sedaris from Oberlin College and Conservatory on Vimeo.

 

four stars

 

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Vinyl dreams

14 07 2018

 

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

 

Two men with a passion for vinyl create a society for the appreciation of records. Their aim is simple: to elevate the art of listening by doing so in forensic detail. The society enjoys moderate success in the back room of their local pub, The Half Moon, with other enthusiasts drawn to the initial promise of the weekly gathering. The master of the comic deadpan returns for his ninth novel, a spectacularly disingenuous exploration of power, fanaticism and really, really good records.

 

A wonderful novel which two vinyl-loving musical purists launch a distinctive society, which meets in a local pub and is dedicated to listening to records (mainly singles) forensically. Others soon join in, each with their own musical preferences, but then there are ideological splits, the forensic records society fractures and different groups form, with alternative musical criteria. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Magnus Mills’ novels though and, despite the matter of fact, plain deadpan style, strange things happen in the Half Moon pub, time seems to pass unevenly, the musical selections are eclectic to say the least and the undercurrents at play between the main characters are difficult to fathom. Ultimately, the forensics are very much left to the reader but it is nevertheless a highly entertaining and delightfully strange story.

(This brief review originally appeared in THE on 5 July.)

four stars





Let it Snowe

30 06 2018

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

 

With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte Brontë reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is Brontë’s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a French boarding school in the town of Villette. There, she unexpectedly [develops] her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Gineva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. The first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life’s journey – a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman’s consciousness in English literature.

Plot summaries like this really fail to do justice to Brontë’s big, deep and hefty novel which paints an incredibly detailed picture on a very small canvas. Lucy Snowe’s narrative is long and winding and often frustrating in its detail of her life, work and longings. However, the overall effect is incredibly powerful in places and the characters are portrayed in delightfully rich detail. Undoubtedly a great book which leads to a remarkable conclusion.

 





Living on an island

23 06 2018

No Dominion by Louise Welsh

 

It is seven years after the Sweats wiped out most of the world’s population. Survivors settled on the Orkney Islands are trying to build a new society but their world crashes for a second time when the islands’ teenagers vanish. Stevie and Magnus are the only ones who can bring them home.

Stevie hasn’t been back to the mainland since she escaped to the islands after a desperate flight north from London. Magnus never saw himself leaving either. After all, what’s left for him there? But Shug was born on the islands and has never known anything different; has never left them. Until now.

And what starts out as a journey to bring home some young people intent on adventure soon turns into a race against time to find Shug before he comes down with the Sweats. Or worse.

 

The third in Welsh’s plague trilogy, following Death is a Welcome Guest, No Dominion is another fast-moving and entertainingly grim tale from Louise Welsh. The representation of a post-apocalyptic world is as convincing as ever and the narrative is at times gripping and at times quite moving. A fitting climax to the series.

 





In a time of cholera

16 06 2018

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

 

 

Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with charming, attractive and exciting Charles Townsend. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages…

First published to a storm of protest, The Painted Veil is a classic story of a woman’s spiritual awakening.

The protest referred to in the blurb is about the fear of possible confusion of the caddish Townsend to a British consular staff member in Hong Kong which resulted in the name of the colony being changed to a fictional one. This followed a successful libel case against the publishers by a couple from Hong Kong named Lane as a result of which Maugham changed the name of the main characters to Fane.

The story though is a compelling one as we move from the scandalous affair to the cholera-stricken region to self-realisation and death and then to the gentle conclusion. Not seen the movie but it appears, somewhat inevitably, to feature Toby Jones (although not in a leading role) and therefore now tempted to get it. In the meantime, the book is worth a go.

 

 





It’s just rock ‘n’ roll…

10 06 2018

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 by David Hepworth

The age of the rock star, like the age of the cowboy, has passed. Like the cowboy, the idea of the rock star lives on in our imaginations.
What did we see in them? Swagger. Recklessness. Sexual charisma. Damn-the-torpedoes self-belief. A certain way of carrying themselves. Good hair. Interesting shoes. Talent we wished we had.
What did we want of them? To be larger than life but also like us. To live out their songs. To stay young forever. No wonder many didn’t stay the course.
In Uncommon People, David Hepworth zeroes in on defining moments and turning points in the lives of forty rock stars from 1955 to 1995, taking us on a journey to burst a hundred myths and create a hundred more.
As this tribe of uniquely motivated nobodies went about turning themselves into the ultimate somebodies, they also shaped us, our real lives and our fantasies. Uncommon People isn’t just their story. It’s ours as well.
From 1955 to 1994 he covers lots of big names from Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly to Bob Marley, Ian Dury and Duran Duran as well as Guns N’ Roses, Madonna and Prince until finishing off with the person he sees as the very last rock star, Kurt Cobain. It’s a really entertaining read with some terrific anecdotes about rock stars through the ages. You could argue that there are possibly a few genuine stars who followed Cobain but Hepworth had to draw the line somewhere I guess. And his advice to young music fans runs entirely counter to what I would have expected:
I’d encourage any young person to see Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney in concert, even though they might be having to sing their songs in the only key they can still reach and their knees might not be quite as forgiving as they once were. I would encourage young people to see them because they are the last of a breed. Once they’ve gone, nobody will be doing what they do. When they go, the art will go with them.
Why? The world has changed and, whilst there is still great music, it just doesn’t have the same impact:
Music can be every bit as good now as it used to be, but it can never be as precious as it used to be. It doesn’t have our undivided attention any longer. We are no longer invested in it in quite the same way. Now that we have easy access to everything, the individual atoms that make up that ‘everything’ are less significant in themselves. The same applies to the people associated with those atoms. That’s why we don’t have rock stars any more. The business of entertainment has seen this kind of change before and will see it again. In the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, William Holden says to Gloria Swanson, the old star of the silents, ‘You used to be big.’ Her eyes widen. Her nostrils flare. ‘I am big,’ she assures him. ‘It’s the pictures that got small.’
Well worth reading.

.

four stars




Dictatorial

26 05 2018

Dictator by Robert Harris

 

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins.

Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome.

But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

Yet again it’s all about the politics. It is all a bit up and down for Cicero in the most challenging of times but he nevertheless remains a compelling central character to the very end. A terrific finale to a wonderful trilogy.

 








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