Karoo by Steve Tesich: Book review.


51WlQuHaqnL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I totally stumbled upon this book.  In fact my wife did.

I knew nothing about it or its author Steve Tesich (who it transpires wrote the screenplays for The World According to Garp, Eleni, Four Friends and won an Academy Award for Breaking Away.  He died in 1996 aged 53, just after finishing this novel.)

It’s flawed.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not very good.

First flaw.  It’s pretty long and ekes out a story that might benefit from a fairly savage edit.  At times it becomes, not so much repetitive as just too languid.  The story threatens constantly to burst into action, and yet ever does.  But this is also one of its strengths because Tesich writes in such an engaging way that being immersed in the book is as pleasing as being driven by narrative.

It’s the story of a highly succesful but alcoholic screenwriter, Saul Karoo, who can no longer get drunk and who’s mid-divorce.  In fact he’s not so much a screen writer but a script doctor (or hack as he defines himself.)

He can’t find any way to create true loving relationships with anyone, most notably his adopted son Billy, who was taken from the arms of a 14 year old girl, Leila, straight from birth.

Upon rewriting (in fact recutting) a failed movie by a film auteur (which Saul regards a masterpiece) he realises that an extra in the movie is Leila, tracks her down and begins a relationship with her, planning to introduce her, at some time to his (her) son Billy.

After that it gets a little complicated.

Second flaw. The story becomes a story within a story and that is one of the tricks of the novel.  Sadly, the denouement adds a story within a story within a story, that fails miserably.

It’s funny, sometimes laugh out loud so and it’s skilfully written..  The character of Saul Karoo whilst not lovable is affable enough and his deeply embedded lack of self esteem (despite his brilliant career) often overwhelms him with anxiety and lack of drive and ambition.

He hates Hollywood.  He hates the movie business.  He hates life frankly.

It’s an odd thing in many ways, but I cautiously recommend it.

If after 100 pages it’s too slow for you, ditch it.  It doesn’t go anywhere any faster.

 

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: Book Review


Colson-Whitehead-Underground-Railraod.png

“And America too is a delusion, the grandest one of all.  The White race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land.  To kill Indians.  Make War. Enslave their brothers.  This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.  Yet here we are.”

“The word we.  In some ways, the only thing we have in common is the colour of our skin.  Our ancestors came from all over the African continent.  It’s quite large.”

“Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation’s government.  The word we.  We are not one people but many different people.  How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children.”

The words of black activist Lander at the conclusion of Colson Whitehead’s monumental novel about slavery.

And yet, this man, made it to the White House.

obama_sotu_2016_ap_img.jpgTo represent a race that has been shackled and burdoned for centuries. only to pass it back into the hands of a disgusting white supremacist, the likes of which stride the evil pages of this wondrous novel.

donald-trump.jpg

A white man that dies his skin orange.  Perhaps because of the shame of his innermost thoughts.

In Whitehead’s novel he makes the Underground Railroad a real thing.  A metaphor for the metaphor that was the actual Underground Railroad.  A nationwide collaboration between white slavery abolitionists.

It’s genius to do that.

The story is one slave’s journey (Cora) from Georgia to ‘The North’ where slavery has been abolished in, well I don’t know, maybe the 1860’s.

It deservedly won, not only the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize for fiction too.

It really is monumental.  Cora is chased from here to there, stumbling upon the Underground Railroad, again and again.  And all the while pursued by an evil slave catcher set to the task by her owner, Terence Randall, of cotton picking Georgia.

I won’t say any more, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  Just promise me one thing; you’ll read it.

Whitehead’s prose takes a little getting used to and there’s many a stumble along the way.  Appropriately so.

And while it’s all fiction, its resonance and sense of history, of evilness, is breathtaking in its grip.

Many books are called masterpieces.  This should be one of them.

Devastating.

 

 

A long way down by Nick Hornby


product-6194743

I missed the ‘release’ of this, mainly because I thought Hornby’s early promise had run out of steam.  ( I loved Fever Pitch and liked Hi Fidelity.)  He seemed to be becoming a bit ‘four weddings and a funeral’ for my liking and the snob in me saw him selling out.

His “about a boy’ book was kind of pish really.

But I picked this up in a charity shop and it sat in the pile for a while before I decided to read it.

It’s overrated, I have to say that to start with.  It will win no literary prizes , but the critics seem to hold Hornby in some sort of thrall.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that actually if you ignore the startlingly unbelievable critical tosh it’s rather good on a simple storytelling level.

It has no great insights on life (or death) but it is a good read and Hornby creates four distinct characters; two of which work very well (the comedic ones ) Jess and Martin; one who nearly gets there but is underdeveloped (Maureen); and one that’s just a bit crap (JJ).

And yet, still, it works.  I liked it on the whole.  Quite a lot actually.

Maybe I liked it because it’s just a good story with an unpredictable ending, well told, and actually a very good mix of humour and pathos.

Oh, it’s  about four people and their take on suicide, and how they collectively fight it, in case you didn’t know.

Engleby by Sebastian faulks


I can’t review this book without *SPOILERS* so if you don’t want to know too much about it look away now.

I think he might be a) dodgy or b) misunderstood.

I think he might be a) dodgy or b) misunderstood.

So, oh you’re still with me? Good.

I just finished this intriguing book. And quite a few people I know have read it before me so I’ve been able to gauge reaction. It is a classic game of two halves. The first half is a slightly surreal coming of age story building up the detailed circumstances that explain the second half. It’s hilarious in parts, light, page turning and quite frothy. The prevailing mood is sarcastic and details how Michael Engleby (or is it Mike, or Mike(!) or Michelle or Michael Watson or Toilet?) struggles through childhood, a crummy public school and Cambridge (for some reason unnamed until the end). Clearly he is a social misfit. Hardly surprising given the rough treatment he received from his tough dad and his uber cruel schoolmates.

At Cambridge he adopts the role of a loner, petty thief, alcoholic and junkie, quietly stalking the most popular girl in the college, Jennifer Arkland.

The book dramatically turns soon after Jennifer suddenly disappears. It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that Engleby has killed her. And, indeed, the remainder of the book gradually unravels the truth behind the events leading up to her inevitable death, the very drawn out police hunt and Engleby’s final arrest and subsequent 17 year term in a mental hospital overlooking his old school.

What makes this book so intriguing is the way that Faulks uses it as an exercise in deconstruction. This makes it quite an extreme writerly experience.

Ostensibly, Faulks tears the first half of the book apart, paragraph by paragraph to reveal what it was that turned Engleby into, as it turns out, a serial killer.

But it’s cleverer than that. He uses the deconstruction technique not only as a key plot device but also as a way to play with the notion of time, memory and, dare I say it, existentialism.

Latterly the book is no page-turner, but I found it incredibly clever. It’s open to criticism as a piece of cod philosophy and self-indulgence of course. But I’m not a philosopher so I don’t know how grown up his observations are.

At times I was inclined to think he was showing off a bit (as some say Ian McEwan did in ‘On Chesil Beach‘) but I’m not so sure.

The final page is a brilliant twist. Or is it? Nah, it isn’t. It’s just another wee bit of writerly trickery and closed the book with a resounding smirk.

Good stuff Seb.

1974 by David Peace


peace_nineteenseventyfour.jpg

The talent of David Peace is pretty well documented, but not in the mainstream. Which is a shame because in some ways he is a mainstream writer. Well, he writes crime novels and has written one about football. (Incidentally, the best sports book I have ever read as I documented here.)

damned.jpg

This is firmly in the crime camp. But it’s not Rebus.

David Peace is a unique writer. His style is more aggressive than Mike Tyson on the downturn.

Short.

Sharp.

One sentence para’s.

And grizzly, basic, twisted, evil, some might say sick, uncompromising but utteerly compelling situations.

A plot more convoluted than the current US Democratic Primaries.

1974 is the first in a quartet of books, now known as the Yorkshire series. It’s set in Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield and other cities in the grim north. It is not inconsistent with the grim north America of Silence of The Lambs.

Centring around the story of rookie crime reporter Edward Dunford and the murder of a child (part of a serial killer series we are led to believe) it soon escalates into a full-blown corruption case.

Dunford, the masogynistic beer, whisky fag and sex overindulger soon finds himself way out of his depth in a world of property developers, rugby league stars, mediums and worst of all bent cops.

Rather than painting Dunford as the hero Peace makes him a hateful scumbag, and yet still maintains his heroic stance throughout the book.

I cannot think of a central character, of late, that so deflects your sympathy, and yet in at least small amounts, garners it. I can think of few writers that are so visceral and don’t, frankly, give a fuck.

This is a great book. But if you are in any way sensitive…avoid.

But for me, the best thing is I still have three books to read in the quartet , and this is apparently the safe one.

It’s a thrilling prospect.

The NABS Burns supper


In my spare time, when I’m not writing this drivel, I sit on a fundraising committee for the advertising and media industry in Scotland called NABS (National Advertising Benevolent Society). It pays for the repair of broken Ferrari axles and so on. (That’s a joke!)

Last night was the inaugural Burns Supper for said charity and despite doing bugger all in terms of organising it I found myself on the top table clapped in as we followed the piper into the the main suite at the Roxburgh Hotel in Edinburgh. Then, to my delight, I found I was seated next to wit and raconteur, Charlie Mclean, one of world’s greatest authorities on Malt whisky and allegedly the most famous whisky writer in Macedonia.

He can certainly lay claim to having one of the more distinguished moustaches in Edinburgh.

charlie.jpg

It transpires that all that nosing, swirling and spitting out of whisky to “taste” it is a load of bollocks. You just neck it and move on. That was an interesting and reassuring insight. Between us and not many others we “nosed” a bottle of Old Poulteney.

The event was a triumph and Keith Crane should be knighted or something for his efforts.

My highlight of the evening was, on telling Charlie that he must read a sublime Newfoundland collection of short stories by Alastair Mcleod, called “The lost Salt Gift of Blood” which had been recommended to me by Simon Scott he told me that he had recommended it to Simon Scott.

Now, this is a book that is beyond reviewable. It is possibly the finest book I have ever read (pre blog days) and concerns itself with life in Newfoundlanfd. Taut, sparingly written and seemingly monochromatic it is a bleak but intense insight into human life.

lost-salt.jpg

It’s been out of print for years but second hand copies are available through Amazon. Sadly, I lent my copy to some bastard who never gave it back to me but I urge you to read it.

(If you are the bastard I leant it to could you give it back please.)

I played golf in the winter league this morning. I think the “nosing” affected my performance a tad. Four 7’s on the back nine not being the basis of great success, although my partner, Jon Rough (good name for golf), pissed it and won the medal.

(PS.  I gave the book to the Mrs, so forget the above random accusation.)

Books of the year


It was a slow year for me. I can’t have read more than a dozen books in all, but very few duffers came my way, indeed I think the Mrs may have out-read me and will no doubt post her own best-of by close of play today.

However many of the best books I read were recommended by Ian Dommett, so he goes to the top of my critics list.

In no particular order my favourite reads of the year were.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.

handmaids-tale1.jpg

In truth this probably wins by a nose. The fact that it was written in 1985 is a strength as it shows off her perceptiveness even better than if one read it at the time of its release. Is it her best book? Hard to say as she is such a brilliant writer, but it certainly sits alongside Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and he Blind Assassin. All magnificent.

You’ll find my full review here if you are interested.

Then We came to The End by Joshua Ferris

thenwe-came-to-the-end.jpg

I predict this will be a monster in paperback. It’s been on many year end lists this year and so should get the reviews it deserves when it comes out in PB in 2008. I think it’s slated for a movie too, although the mystery that is implicit in its writing will probably be diluted on screen. I reviewed it here.

The Damned Utd byDavid Peace

damned-utd.jpg

My all time favourite sports book. It’s a novel but reads like a Biography od Brian Clough in his 43 days as manager of Leeds Utd. Not a happy experience. It is frightening how out of control Cloughie was. So good was it that I asked for, and recieved, “provided you don’t Kiss me, 20 Years with Brian Clough” for my Christmas. I’m really looking forward to that. Anyway I reviewed David Peace here. Highly recommended.

An Occurance at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce

owl-creek.jpg

It’s just a short story but it’s packed with drama and a brilliant twist.  Read more here.

 The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

virgicides.jpg

I was blown away by this.  Far superior (aren’t they all) to the movie; it gets right under your skin in a very odd way.  But he’s a very odd writer.  My mother read this and his other masterpiece, Middlesex, on my recommendation and loved both of them.  More here.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

god-delusion.jpg

This is an interesting but overwritten and ultimately pompous diatribe against the existence of God.  Nevertheless, until he starts getting overly political about it all it is a very interesting essay and worthy of reading for anyone who has any interest in the existence of god(s).  Read more here.

 Auchwitz by Laurence Rees

auchwitz1.jpg

I was gripped by this book and I also liked the BBC Drama later in the year that depicted the liberation of Auchwitz.  Not by the same writer.

It’s a detailed account of the concept behind Auchwitz and throws the net of Nazi guilt far wider than Hitler.  Well written and absorbing it is, despite its gruesome content, a compelling read. 

 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

chesil_beach.jpg

Great, but not his greatest.  I wrote an overly glowing review of this on completion, but, in hindsight, it’s a bit style over content.  Still beats most of the muck that gets published though.

Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

zig-zag.jpg

If this was a novel it would be rejected on grounds of ludicracy.  It is in fact, the true life account of an English Double agent who crossed sides more often than Michael Stewart.  It’s real boys own stuff and a splendid read.  What ho!