Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #45: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

9781408842393I think the publisher is trying to flog this as Patchett’s memoir, which it ain’t. It’s a collection of her non-fiction, stuff she cheerfully points out in the intro was mostly written to pay the rent while she worked on her novels. Which fits in to my current thirst for essays very well. I have read some of Patchett’s fiction, and loved it, but the book of hers that walloped me was Truth & Beauty. The story of her friendship with author Lucy Grealy, I read it in my early twenties and had never encountered such a deep examination of female friendship. It’s still a personal touchstone for me, one of those books that reached me just when I needed it.

She touches on the legacy of that book twice in this collection, in two works that confront the attempted banning of Truth & Beauty when it was assigned as college reading. Her tone is a little shrill when dealing with it, but then, if someone dismissed my work as Satan-loving pornography, I’d be shoving a pitchfork in their nethers, not demonstrating nearly as much good grace.

There is a lot of biography in here: her parent’s miserable marriage, her own joyful one – despite the title, this is not a smug couple fest, it’s genuine and astonished, her writing on writing, and her dog, Rose. I will ‘fess up: I skipped the chapter about her bookstore, not because I don’t trust her opinion, I just cannot deal with any kind of commentary on the publishing/bookselling industry’s future anymore. I have reached my absolute limit and get slightly ill even thinking about it.

The rest of this collection I hoovered up, with tremendous joy. She is self-effacing about this work in her introduction, but there’s no need: it’s a first rate set of writing.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #44: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

imagesBest known for his GQ profiles, which take on popular culture from very idiosyncratic perspectives characterised by a ‘John Jeremiah Sullivan’ savant-doofus character bumbling around in them, I was a bit wary of this collection. I stumbled on the opening essay, Upon this Rock, which opens seemingly hellbent on banishing straight journalistic standards of brevity and objectivity to whimsy along with this Sullivan character making a dick of himself en route to his subject matter – a Christian Rock festival. Better seen almost as a travelogue-meets-memoir, over 40 pages it gets down into sociological insight, theological meandering, and memoir: rewarding, once you’re tuned in to his frequency. But a little too clever for his own good, maybe. Easy to worry over the idea that he’s repping the only worldview that allows this kind of indulgence. Just imagine a similar essay written from a female or minority perspective: it would be dismissed as “too personal”, I bet. (Relevant).

Still, that’s not JJS’s fault, and Jeebus knows, the guy can write. I’d already read his nigh-legendary Axl Rose profile, which riffs on the Gale Talese ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ no-contact-with-the-primary-subject format, and does so brilliantly. I re-read it for probably the third time in this collection, and enjoyed it even more. His Michael Jackson profile ‘Back in the Day‘ is the stand out from all his popular culture analysis bits, hell it’s the best Jackson piece I’ve ever read and had me on the verge of tears.

But where he really surprised me was his reportage of more esoteric subjects. The pieces on Native American cave art, eccentric naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, and the weird insular world of early blues record collecting, which spins into a discourse on American heritage and memory, are jaw-droppingly good. He gets out of his own way in this work, and gives the subjects more foreground.

Not that I’d want to have missed his description of renting his house out to a TV company as a set for One Tree Hill, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I finished this collection feeling a little more in awe of the world, and more than a little stupid in comparison.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #43: Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson

I’d remembered the review of an essay collection by Douglas Coupland. It had been in the Saturday Guardian book section. Or the Observer; whatever, the placement of the article on the page was fixed in my mind, along with the sensation of attraction and interest. I’d bookmarked it in my head. I could comfortably know it would be there – ‘there’ being wherever I chose to look for it, in a bookshop or library or on record on a catalogue or the Guardian website or Google.

Except it wasn’t. I looked it up a couple of times, trying to get the name right, and it maddeningly refused to show up. I whacked the enter key over and over again: Coupland, nonfiction. I looked at his Wiki page enough to have that now fixed in my mind’s eye. The only nonfiction work he’d produced had been on architecture or something, and the dates were wrong. How could he have done this to me? Was it some sort of postmodern stunt?

Then I was looking for something else at the bookshop, and there it was: a collection of essays from the career of William Gibson.

You and I have a vague idea of how computer memory, or a tape recording, or a video clip, works. But the human memory does things we’ve come to recognise and adapt with, but that are still strange and wondrous things emerging from a far more complex creation. Gibson is a science fiction writer – and bless him for always referring to himself as such – who has a good handle on just how weird our own wiring is.

We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child, the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no Rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run.

– Dead Man Sings

I read this book out of embarrassment at getting it wrong. Sorry, Gibbo. But I’m very glad I did. Back in the days just beyond cave painting and wax cylinders when I was getting half of a degree in media studies (whatever the hell that is), I had to trudge through all this New Media Theory verbiage that was very big just then. Cyborg theory and the posthuman era and network society and Marshall bleeding McLuhan and his dated aphorisms all got weary glances from me. I’m never very interested in predictions for the future, because I’m mostly a coward and a slothful one. Change is scary and disorientating and I don’t long to know just how unprepared I am for the world of tomorrow.

Gibson is very good at nailing the glazed-eye visions of the future trotted out by professional predictors. While he’s benefited from stumbling over ideas of future technology – he is humble about coining the term ‘cyberspace’ and downplays any hand he had in ‘predicting’ it – as the title says, he distrusts those who claim to see exactly what’s coming.

It’s this critical distance, as well as his sense of irony, and matchless curiosity, that make him so good at writing about technology and society. Not that there’s anything as simple as one theme in this book, though if it is, it’s not that; it’s really about psychology. But it goes to some interesting places

It swings around from Singapore’s totalitarian Disneyland chic to early eBay adventures in the vintage timepiece category, to his Steely Dan fandom, to introductions to some of his foundational ideas – autobiographical sketches snuck in to discussions of tech and lit. A beautifully-designed collection, most of the essays or speeches are a few pages long, but they’re all interesting and I found them compulsive reading. How much of it I’ll remember afterwards will be another adventure.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #42: The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Yesterday evening I picked this up after it had been waiting on my shelf for a few years, and five minutes ago I closed it with a deep sigh of satisfaction. The storytelling is so good, taking you in unexpected directions, with so much life and humour and darkness wrapped up under that silly-sounding title, it’s was like getting a big hug. I feel like I’ve climbed out of a piping hot bath, relaxed and wistful.

The title is a touch of wonderfully Teutonic directness: the author sets out to discover the origin of currywurst, the famous streetfood he recalls eating as a child. This takes him to the woman who ran a food stall for thirty years, Lena Bruckner, now in her eighties, frail and blind. Did you invent curried sausage?

Yes, yes she did. But the how of it lies in her story of the last month of WWII in Hamburg.

This is a book about the war, then, from the perspective of a woman trying to survive in her ruined city. It’s also the story of the people around her, including Lammers, the die-hard Nazi building warden, who has long suspected her of a ‘defeatist attitude’. And the chef, Holzinger, who carefully upset the stomachs of high-ranking German officials and teaches Lena her skills with spices. And then there is Bremer, a naval officer she meets at a cinema. It is their story, really, a story which is a secret that needs to be unraveled to get to the accidental creation of curried sausage.

the wurst is yet to comeThe wurst is yet to come! 

The descriptions of the blackmarket economy that kept people alive after the war is particularly engaging. Timm also approaches the toughest revelation, of the death camps to the German people, in a careful but clear-eyed way.

This is a book with a touch of everything – food, family, sex, flavour, distance, and desperation.  A small revelation, like the first touch of curry powder on your tongue.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #41: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

Mr. Arthur Norris is a perfectly debauched creation, a fey man of middling years with the murkiest of pasts and a complete vacancy of morals. Meeting him on a train to Berlin in the ’30s, young English teacher William Bradshaw – another Isherwood stand-in – is taken by his acquaintance: “His smile had great charm. It diclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks.”

Amused by this delicate dandy with his equal parts fastidiousness and generosity, their friendship is cemented over the first of many drinks. Later, Bradshaw notes, “the second cognac worked wonders”, and in Norris and Bradshaw’s decadent Berlin, it generally does. The brownshirts and the political turmoil around them is a backdrop to Norris’s much more appealing transgressions – drunken evenings, sexual perversity, and disreputable company. And then there is the delicate topic of money, and how Norris funds his many proclivities. It is all, to Bradshaw, a bit of fun, despite what his other friends may thing of his odd duck friend. But then there is one con too many, and his Berlin adventures begin to get far more serious.

Isherwood condemned his own novel, twenty years later, as a heartless fairy-story. But as a description of one type of mischief that was lost with the Nazi regime, the unraveling of a sub-society, and the terrible rise of Hitler, it is effective and heartrending. After reading Orwell condemn just the sort of poncey halfassed Marxist that Isherwood clearly knew he was, this was an interesting counterpoint: we need many different kinds of stories about war and politics, and the exposure of people to evil, and the fact that even Norris is horrified by Hitler is a darkly funny testament to that. Not heartless at all, it’s a very funny work shot through with suppressed terror.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #40: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

levyLast week my train home was delayed by, according to the tired-of-this-shit station announcer, “At least 45 minutes.” It turned out to be closer to an hour twenty. I was thrilled. It was just enough time to finish reading Swimming Home, let the whiplash of the ending flip me back to re-read several passages, and walk off a little of the shock and satisfaction of this odd, intense novel.

Spinning a tale from that clunky old set-up, bickering English people on holiday somewhere hot and slightly exotic, Levy sets up a family group in a villa on the Riviera, and sticks a body in their swimming pool. The body is the very alive, very naked, Kitty Finch – a character who reminded me of Poison Ivy. She’s beautiful, and bonkers, and a botany student; she also writes poetry, toxic tendrils of which unfurl in the direction of alpha male Joe. Joe is a famous poet, an adulterer, a loving father, a man on holiday with some of his wife’s friends who don’t much care for him, and he knows that Kitty is dangerous. Everyone seems to see something dark in Kitty – except for Joe’s wife, Isabel, a war correspondent. Isabel invites Kitty to stay.

Thus the stage is set. People bake under the sun and plants wilt. Things begin to rot. Levy sends us through the bottom of the dark pool of an Agatha Christie plot and dredges up something that’s off. But the writing is limber and sparky, each word sinking deeply like a pebble hitting the water. It was kind of like watching a subtitled movie, one with many hazy long shots that you can’t quite puzzle out – you have to sink in to the resonance of emotion, and the otherness of the world created.

It’s an arty thriller, like The Secret History, but with a whole different set of references. It made me very glad to be staycationing in grey England and not somewhere hot and unsettling.


Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #39: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

The first reference to this book I can remember came from Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. What I recall is a line about Orwell ‘sneering’ at the locals and ‘slagging off’ the town, which may well be a complete mistake – I doubt Bryson had an ax to grind in his cheerful travel book. But that was the kind of thing I grew up assuming this was: a clever clogs Southern writer banging on about how grim it was Oop North. But The Road to Wigan Pier is a far stranger book than that, and much better. It’s many things – a historical document, a piece of longform investigative journalism, a slice of social realism, a political screed, a reasoned argument, an examination of self and society – and never less than vital and arresting.

It opens in a desperate boarding house that’s like something out of Hieronymus Bosch’s joke book, a squalid room crammed with unfortunate souls perched over a tripe shop. It’s queasy, blackly funny, and pathetic, and sets the scene for a penetrating exposure of an underbelly to English life that most people would rather ignore. But that’s not what Orwell does – having got our attention, he then begins to describe the slums of the Northern towns, and the architecture of misery that forms the lives in them. The way housing shortages, unemployment, poor nutrition, and political disenfranchisement converges on the working class, and how damaging it is. Then he goes down the mining pits, and from there paints a picture of what miner’s lives are like, contrary to the then-popular attitudes to them. Always interested in health and hygiene, he administers a thorough kicking to the myth that ‘miners would only use baths to store coal’. And far from sneering, the writer stands in unabashed awe at the work they do and the lives they lead.

From there, Orwell goes on to examine his own prejudices and snobbishness. The book concludes with a lengthy tract on how the contemporary Socialist movement has alienated the people it needs to help and to be effective. All this would be deary, except we’re in the hands of one of the greatest political writers ever, and he only sneers when he has built a case to sneer at.

Reading this now, I flipped between boggling at the ghastliness of the poverty, and bringing myself up short to recall that it’s by no means left in the past. Yes, largely speaking standards of housing and employment have vastly improved in the UK (there are still miners, and many millions of people living in unfathomable poverty so that we can live well), but I have friends who have been ‘invisibly homeless’, and I’ve seen squats being evicted and leaving whole families on the streets. I’ve never been in a squat with facilities as poor as the ones described in the opening chapters, which housed workers.

I giggled a little at his description of the rise of the machine age, and the attendant fears of it – then it’s struck me that this book was written only a handful of years before the death camps. His catch-all terms for the ineffectual cranks he found clogging up the left-wing movement are funny now – ‘fruit juice drinkers’ and ‘aspirin eaters’ – but the wider point, that in-fighting and alienation from a wider audience holds back movements devoted to justice, is one that’s bitterly still true. This line:

Possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, they do not often bother to discover what is going on in people’s heads

launches his critique of smug Marxists. It’s a factor that I’ve found all-too-common in academics, activists, cultural critics, and bores of all stripes. Orwell’s ability to hit the nail on the head of human fallibility is demonstrated throughout the book. Often, he concedes that one solution to the poverty he describes is merely the lesser of two evils, a pragmatic touch lacking from so much sociological analysis. His summing-up reinforces a long held suspicion of mine against anyone trying to sell a Utopia. That’s what’s still valuable about this document, as much as the view on a lost community. Richard Hoggart’s introduction points out that in 1937 Orwell points out that it is erroneously but popularly believed that class distinctions are fading, when they were clearly just shifting, and that thirty years later Hoggart himself was taken to task for making a similar point. It’s 2013 and class is still an important issue, one that’s hard to talk about (I think that’s one thing the Occupy movement was pretty good at), and here’s a recent snarky sample of how pernicious it is. Or check out this review of Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Orwell made many of these points here, in language as clear as his anger.