Archive for the ‘Literature Reviews’ Category

A few of the books enjoyed by the Cowboy in 2011 (not necessarily written in that year):

The End of the Party – The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley)

Following the inevitable plethora of political memoirs that followed new labour’s demise in 2010, it was difficult to determine fact from fiction with each offering spun in favour of the author and his actions, no doubt to the detriment of the truth. Sight alone of Rawnsley’s chronicling of labour’s conduct in office following its second general election victory, suggests that his will be a more satisfactory appraisal, running as it does to 895 pages including 90 pages of references. Readers of The Observer will be familiar with Rawnsley’s concise and informative political commentary and it is this tight style, together with the attention to detail and quality of the sources (Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Powell, Balls, Darling etc), that gives The End its authoritative voice.

I do not consider myself as having more than a passing interest in politics, but I devoured The End in several days, captivated by the punchy, often wry and humorous writing used to describe the many key disagreements that punctuated this mostly shambolic government. The chapters covering the Brown and Blair wars are fascinating, and it is incredible to think that they managed to promote a (largely) united front to the unknowing public for so many years. Brown, in particular, comes across as the most grotesque individual imaginable; an emotionally retarded, yet physical hulk of a man with no concept of how his behaviour affected others:

“‘He was astonishingly rude to people.’ Civil servants were shocked by his habit of abruptly getting up and leaving meetings when officials were in the middle of speaking. He became notorious within the building for shouting at the duty clerks, bawling at the superbly professional staff who manned the Number 10 switchboard and blowing up at the affectionately regarded ‘Garden Girls’, so called because the room from which they provide Downing Street’s secretarial services overlooks the garden. When one of the secretaries was not typing fast enough for an angrily impatient Prime Minister, he turfed the stunned garden girl out of her chair and took over the keyboard himself. Word of these incidents reached the alarmed ears of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The Cabinet Secretary was so concerned about the garden girl episode that he made his own inquiries into it. Though the worst excesses of the Prime Minister’s temper were kept hidden, it was inevitable that some accounts began to filter out across Whitehall and then into the media, which reported stories about mobile phones being hurled in fury and the furniture being kicked.

One civil servant who applied for a position at Number 10 was asked at the interview whether he could cope with ‘extreme verbal abuse’ and violence done to objects. The civil servant was so scared by the description of what it could be like to work for the Prime Minister that he withdrew his application.”

Aside from the intrigue of warts-and-all access to our decision makers, what struck me was the draining nature of high politics – the frequent 6am talks, late-night skulduggery, briefings and de-briefings with the individual all the while expected to function as a human being. Family life seldom receives any mention and it is hard to see where moments that we take for granted – a simple Sunday lunch, a pleasant afternoon stroll – could ever feature in a career politician’s schedule packed with issues such as war, internal conflict and the credit crunch. No wonder Cherie turned into a fruit-loop.

Boxer Beetle (Ned Beauman)

“A collector of Nazi memorabilia. A nine-toed gay Jewish boxer. A 1930s aristocrat with a yen for eugenics. Ned Beauman’s time-travelling debut takes the cast list from the film Tarantino never made and adds perhaps the creepiest McGuffin of all time: a swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri.”

– Time Out

Whoever wrote the above paragraph that appears on the reverse of Ned Beauman’s entertaining debut novel should receive a stiff pat on the back for services to decent copywriting. It was likely the duel references to a nine-toed gay Jewish boxer and a swastika-marked beetle bearing Hitler’s name that encouraged me to dispense with £7.99 of my hard-earned English wonga. Thankfully, it was a worthwhile punt.

The book travels between the present day and the mid-1930s, with the modern-day narrative tracking the exploits of a Nazi memorabilia collector and the historic chapters dealing with said gay Jewish boxer (Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach) and hapless facist and discoverer of Anophthalmus Hitleri, Philip Erskine. Sinner is a ridiculous creation, an aggressive short-arse who lives for booze, fighting and squalid sexual encounters, barely offering sentences extending beyond one or two words (often a curt, “fuck off”, which reminds me of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski“shut the fuck up, Donny”). The narrative is fast-paced with hugely enjoyable exchanges between Sinner and the awkward Erksine:

“And just then, as he watched, the beetle shot out of the case with an explosion of glass and soil and flew straight for the opposite table, on which there was a sack of live earthworms that Erksine had ordered from a fishing shop in Richmond. It punctured the bag with a meaty thud and then the bag began to shiver. Erksine screamed.

‘Roach! Roach! Come, for God’s sake!’

Sinner came in and stared at the bag.

‘Get it out!’

‘Get what out?’

‘The beetle. Get it out of there before it gets away. But don’t kill it.’

‘How am I supposed to do that?’

Erksine wasn’t sure.”

The plot is entertaining enough but like a Tarantino film, you get the feeling that the style, development and activities of the characters are what drive the creator, and this is no bad thing. To some extent, Boxer Beetle reminds me of another great character writer – Carl Hiaasen – and in both instances the characters carry the story, rather than the reader avidly page-turning to find out the next plotline twist. While ‘serious’ literature (see The Corrections below, for example) rewards the reader on a traditional emotional level, surreal stylistic outings such as Boxer Beetle too have their place, and long may it continue.

The Celestial Cafe (Stuart Murdoch)

As a big Belle & Sebastian fan, I’ve often read Stuart Murdoch’s gently entertaining blog posts on the band’s website, and The Celestial Cafe is a collection of his diaries from 2002 – 2006 (by way of flavour, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – see my album review here: – https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/ was written in 2003). Anyone familiar with B & S will know not to expect raucous tales of binge-drinking, sexual promiscuity and general rock ‘n roll excess; instead, we read about his struggles on the football field, what makes a good cafe and occasional insights into the background for certain songs.

In terms of musical history, don’t expect nuggets of information about song-writing craft, which is a shame considering the information he must have to pass on. Similarly, discussions about one-time partner of Murdoch and fellow B & S member Isobel Campbell are off-limits, save for a few minor exchanges:

“Katrina asked if I was taking anyone to the dinner. She needed to know for numbers.

‘Is Isobel coming?’ I said.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘I’m just curious. I might have to get a partner.’

‘What? I don’t understand.’

‘I just want… Well, I’m just thinking I might need some sort of…”

Murdoch comes across as a solitary creature during this period, not surprising as the start of the diaries comes soon after Isobel left the band in 2002. However rather than moping, he throws himself into community church projects with his religious faith omnipresent throughout the diaries. His love of the band is also a strong constant and it is clear that this is where his life priorities lie. As with his lyrics, Murdoch is best when making curious observations on modern life:

“I looked for the graffiti in the toilets, ‘PUSH BARman TO OPEN old wounds’ doctored as ‘plEASE don’t put YOUR FEET IN THE SEAts’, but it had disappeared, and I felt old like I always feel old these days. I ranted against the blokes who stand in the middle of dancefloors supping pints, surveying all, like frigging lighthouses, sucking up space, making it impossible to dance.”

The burgeoning Scotland music scene is also represented with enthusiastic praisings of his sometime football partners, Franz Ferdinand (‘they’ve got words, action and groove in all the right places’) and tales of coffee house rendezvous with fellow indie darlings, Camera Obscura. Murdoch also includes some of his participatory blog threads, where he allows his readers to create the content. Here are some of the responses to his poser on things that are sexy without involving sex:

“Clear and malleable unpierced ears. I find them sexy.

– Raquel

I’m a sucker for a boy with protruding veins in his forearms. I’m pretty sure this stems from my first love who played a lot of tennis and had great forearms. This might sound as if I like men with tons of muscles, but that’s not the case, just toned arms with active veins.

– Kristine

Long hair on a man. To keep long hair nice, clean and shiny takes dedication, and if a man can take the time to be that dedicated to his hair, you must wonder what else he could be dedicated to.

– Eve

I work at a university and yesterday there was a girl from the track-and-field team sitting and studying in the coffee shop. She was obviously a sprinter, and the torso of a young sprinter of Scandinavian descent is about as sexy as it gets.

– Ray”

Barney’s Version (Mordecai Richler)

I must confess to coming to this book after watching the recent film adaptation staring Paul Giamatti as the eponymous anti-hero. The trailer hadn’t really caught me, but I’m a sucker for a free Picturehouse screening on a Sunday and still relish Giamatti’s performance in Sideways, so I gave it a whirl. Alas the film was fairly average and failed – I realised after reading the book – to capture Barney’s voice as it appears on page, removing any redeeming feature from his character (the wit doesn’t come through) which allows at least a modicum of connection by the audience.

As is implicit by the novel’s title, the story of Barney’s life as delivered in the novel is but a version of the truth. The narrator is first of all Barney who of course cannot be objective about his own activities. We later learn that Barney has Alzheimer’s disease muddying the water further. The novel is littered with footnotes, which at first we think must be corrections by Barney of his disease-caused memory lapses, however we ultimately find out that [spoiler] these have been added by his son Michael, who finally edits the collected diaries. The footnotes made the book for me, occasionally exposing Barney’s knowing lies to enhance his own reputation, but also adding an air of seriousness to the absurd, thus creating farce. The following example concerns Barney’s decision at his own wedding to “The Second Mrs Panofsky” to pursue his future third wife by fleeing the reception to track her down on a departing train:

“’Please, Barney, don’t embarrass me any further. Get off the train at Montreal West.’

‘If I do, will you agree to have dinner with me in Toronto?’

‘No,’ she said, leaping and grabbing a bag from the overhead rack. ‘Now I’m going to my sleeper and I’m locking the door. Good night.’

‘You’re not being awfully friendly, considering the trouble I’ve gone to.’

‘You’re crazy. Good night.’

‘I did stagger of the train at Montreal West¹…’

¹My doubts about the chronology of these events were confirmed when I discovered that the hockey game, on April 9, 1959, ended at 10:29, but the overnight train to Toronto left at 10:25, which meant that it would have been impossible for my father to learn the final score and still have time to race to Windsor Station and board my mother’s train. However, when I confronted my mother with these troubling details, her lower lip began to tremble. ‘It’s true,’ she said, ‘it’s true.’ And then she began to sob, and I thought it insensitive to pursue the matter further.

I do not doubt my father’s veracity or my mother’s testimony, but I do believe Barney muddled things. Miriam probably left the Ritz at the end of the second period, at 9:41, and my father’s taxi was not tied up in Stanley Cup traffic until he returned from the Montreal West Station. Another possibility is that the departure on the overnight train to Toronto was delayed. I have twice written to Canadian Pacific to ask for the departure time of the overnight train to Toronto, on April 9, 1959, but I am still waiting for a reply.”

In terms of basic structure, the novel is divided into sections dealing with his three wives, the last of whom, Miriam, remains ‘his heart’s desire’. Indeed, even though the other Mrs Panofskys receive dedicated chapters, these are still punctuated by references to Miriam, and he labours under the delusion that he may one day win her back, despite his greater love for liquor and ice hockey. The reader knows, of course, that this will never happen and his efforts are both touching and humerous.

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of Barney’s Version is his regular contretemps with friend-turned-nemesis, Terry McIver. A writer of low-brow literature (in Barney’s eyes, at any rate) it is McIver’s decision to publish his memoirs that prompts Barney to do the same, determined to contradict McIver’s slurs on his character. The exchanges between Barney and McIver are comedy gold and while a small excerpt cannot do justice, below is a taster of the tone from a letter by McIver to Barney, after Barney’s son trashes McIver’s latest work in an American broadsheet:

‘Dear Barney,

To each his own albatross.

From the day of your arrival in Paris, touchingly gauche, ill-educated, pushy, it was abundantly clear to me (and others I could name) that you were consumed with envy for my talent. Nay, obsessed is what you were, ingratiating yourself by feigning friendship. I was not fooled. But I took pity on you and watched.

I have heard that your maternal grandfather was a junk dealer, so it strikes me as altogether fitting, a symmetry of sorts, that you have subsequently become wealthy as a purveyor of TV trash to the ‘hoi polloi’. I was not surprised, given your vengeful nature, that you considered it droll to title an especially prurient series ‘McIver of the RCMP’. Neither was I astonished to see you suffering at the Leacock Auditorium when I recently read to a sell-out audience. But, fool I am, I believed that there was some calumny that even you would not stoop to. Congratulations, Barney.’

I can do little more than recommend this with every feeble fibre of my mortal being.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

Well, OK – I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m in the final third and enjoying it immensely; lush, rich yet tight prose with characters that are somehow both familiar and slightly over-the-top. It is one of those books which you read around midnight, eyes half closed, willing a natural paragraph break so you can fold the corner and restart tomorrow. An excellent purchase at £2.50 from a second-hand bookshop and I look forward to seeing what the end brings. Sample paragraph below:

“She was naive enough, she told Denise, to think this ended the discussion. She had a good marriage, stably founded on childrearing, eating, and sex. It was true that she and Brian had different class backgrounds, but High Temp Products wasn’t exactly E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, and Robin, holding degrees from two elite schools, wasn’t your typical proletarian. Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn’t imagine that style had anything to do with happiness. Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp. That Robin dressed like a grad student in white sneakers and a purple nylon shell and oversized round wireframes last worn by fashionable people in 1978 didn’t altogether disappoint Brian, because he along among men got to see her naked. That Robin was high-strung and had a penetrating screechy voice and a kookaburra laugh seemed, likewise, a small price to pay for a heart of gold and an eye-popping streak of lechery and a racing metabolism that kept her movie-actress thin. That Robin never shaved her armpits and too seldom washed her glasses-well, she was the mother of Brian’s children, and as long as he could play his music and tinker with his tensors by himself, he didn’t mind indulging in her the anti-style that liberal women of a certain age wore as a badge of feminist identity. This, at any rate, was how Denise imagined Brian had solved the problem of style until the money from W—— came rolling in.”

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