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Mixed reviews

27 Mar 18 | Re: Books | Link-U-Post

For almost a year, I’ve kept meaning to post a book review here. First it was one book, then I read another before I could review that one, and so on, not reading especially frantically but always faster than I could find the time to marshall my thoughts.

So what I’m going to do here is have a bit of a tidy-up. For most of these books, good or bad, I’ve only got a few pithy observations to make anyway, so why not put them all in one post. This will represent most of what I’ve read over the last ten months (at least as far as books for grown-ups go).

Something Happened (Joseph Heller)

Just as reputed, this was hard going. The narrator paces round and round and round the cell of his own miserable mind. I found the bits about his job more enjoyable, and somewhat closer to Catch-22, than the family stuff, which was just too sad to take. I can’t really recommend attempting the whole thing, although if you can stomach it, it might have modern relevance as a case study of how the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, because the point of it is that the central character is just as trapped at the top of the tree as he could be at the bottom, or feels he is.

In one respect it’s quite uplifting, since it seems clear that, no matter how bad society might be today, race, gender and family relations have got immeasurably better since it was written. A modern version of the narrator (assuming he wasn’t the guy from American Psycho, a clear sequel) would at least be free to get a hobby instead of having to spend what should be his free time playing golf. To me, that’s the key to his downfall. It would all have been bearable without the golf.

60 Degrees North and Undiscovered Islands (Malachy Talach)

You know those books where the writer decides to do some mad thing for a year: only eat chips, or call everyone they meet “Toots”, or abandon the letter E? And then they have some amazing epiphany because of it? Well, what if they did that, but didn’t have the epiphany they were after, but then wrote the book anyway? That’s sort of what 60 Degrees North is. Malachy Talach decides to visit every country on the latitude 60 North – a cool idea, except that he’s doing it in the clear hope of finding himself, which he transparently fails to do. The problem is that he’s super wet behind the ears and also rather shy, so he visits all these places but has no insight into them and doesn’t really meet or talk to anyone. All these places? Well, no – he skips Kamchatka because he’s been there before, so you don’t get everything as a continuous journey. The book is sporadically interesting, but the intended profundities are generally half-baked and you get the sense throughout that he’s having to convince himself that it’s all been worthwhile. The cover is full of quotes about how well and clearly he writes, but I don’t see it.

Undiscovered Islands is a bit better, since Talach doesn’t go to the places in question, sparing us the travel narrative. Instead he looks up the Wikipedia entries for 24 islands that were once thought to exist, but don’t. The book is very nicely presented and, again, interesting, but Talach himself seems the most dispensible part of the project.

The New Book of Snobs (DJ Taylor)

Not sure what I was thinking here. I’d heard vaguely good things about DJ Taylor and this in particular looked like a fun book of astute observations about the foibles of the modern British character. It’s not. Instead you get a very long essay about what DJ Taylor thinks about the essence of snobbery – and not modern snobbery either. A hundred pages in and he is still banging on about Thackeray. Even when he gets past the nineteenth century, his main touchstones for “modern” snobbery are Orwell (as an authority, not a snob himself), the fast-vanishing Anthony Powell and a complete nonentity called James Lees-Milne. Literally the most current reference is John Prescott, himself now at least one generation out of date. Even if you allow Taylor the whole twentieth century to pick from, you’d expect some reference to defining figures of snobbery like Basil Fawlty and Hyacinth Bucket. There are none.

The funniest bit is probably a brief exploration of literary snobbery, where Taylor (writer of literary fiction and clear literary snob) concludes that it’s impossible to be a literary snob because literary fiction is just better than everything else. He lambasts Janet Street-Porter for complaining that popular books never get nominated for literary prizes, but doesn’t engage with her point at all. She’s saying that a really good book, if popular, will be overlooked purely because of its popularity. He pretends she’s saying that popularity should itself be a qualification. He remains uncovered in glory.

If this is a book for anyone, it seems to be for the kind of people who read the collections of authors’ letters that periodically get published and make me wonder who in the world, apart from university libraries, can be buying them. I’m willing to believe there is a still a set of people in existence who think Anthony Powell is where it’s at – the same people who are still excited about the Mitford sisters. But this stuff doesn’t embody society any more, it’s its own irrelevant, dwindling subculture that has no bearing on modern Britain. I should have stopped reading sooner but I couldn’t believe he was going to stay on that desolate hill for the whole book.

There’s a lot you could say about snobbery in the modern day: tech snobs, anti-tech snobs, music snobs, hipsters, and the many inversions of snobbery about snobbery itself. But if that was a gap in the market before this was written, it’s still a gap now. Someone else should write it.

Why Mummy Drinks (Gill Sims)

This is pretty good. As a person somewhat outside the main intended audience I found it interesting how the narrator feels her life is constantly being judged against a standard she can never meet. I don’t feel like that and hadn’t really understood that some people do. Good insight.

The style is very “hurrah for gin” – sort of a female equivalent of “a flagon of your finest ale please barkeep”, methinks-speak. But that’s the idiom. I found the plot and characters very enjoyable and would give it a thumbs up. My only real reservation is the way all the problems can be solved by a big influx of money – but then again it’s a harsh truth that a lot of unhappiness springs from financial necessities.

Boxer Beetle (Ned Beauman)

This is just the kind of thing I like, especially the bits where the POV character is a total poltroon who has no idea what a poltroon he is – I haven’t seen that device so well deployed since English Passengers. Ten out of ten, and there were bits where I was almost taken out of the story by my admiration of how good it was. The only complaint is a weird couple of paragraphs near the end where he mansplains (explains? but he is a man) a load of things I already knew about the plot. I expect the publishers made him put that bit in.

Set The Boy Free (Johnny Marr)

Johnny Marr’s autobiography, which I read somewhere was unghostwritten but reads like it was: on several occasions you can all but hear an interviewer ask a question which Johnny then answers. That said it's an interesting story, and the bits about how he wrote and recorded certain songs are fascinating. Marr’s incredible talent puts him in situations where things just happen for him, and the air is more often of bemusement than triumph or awe. Highlights are when he becomes a lifelong vegetarian just because Morrissey tells him to, when he runs a marathon on a whim, and everything to do with his lifelong sweetheart Angie. Also the discussion of Aldous Huxley where he’s very careful to explain that, actually, it’s a great shame that people only know him for his early work because actually, with a lot of artists, their late work is actually much more interesting than the early work that’s come to define them.

There But For The (Ali Smith)

This is everything I love about Belle and Sebastian distilled into the form of a novel. Optimism, unassuming individuality, precocity without fear, kindness and quiet fortitude in the face of outrageous provocation. I could rave for ages, but you get the idea. It’s just lovely.

The character I want to highlight is one of the non-Belle and Sebastian-esque supporting cast. Gen Lee, the owner of the house where the central events take place, is a figure of fun because of her small-mindedness and constant dropping into conversation of her material advantages. But I also found her sympathetic, because I got the sense of someone who has lived her life in exactly the way she was told she was supposed to, and then found that it wasn’t enough. There must be millions of people who get an upbringing that leaves them well positioned but skimps on the inner life, the soul. I suppose it’s right that they should have our sympathy.

Autobiography (Morrissey)

I read Marr’s, so I thought I’d better read Morrissey’s – a third Smith for this round-up. I found Autobiography well-written, interesting and often very funny, until about the last quarter which is mainly a list of random solo gigs in different countries. (I think this is to make the reasonable point that he is a very popular act worldwide in his own right, but it does go on a bit.) My favourite passage was his account of getting into poetry, which made me want to go and read the poets who touched him myself.

Morrissey is super-peevish, but more often than not you tend to take his side; I too have been disappointed that being right too forthrightly can somehow put you in the wrong. He’s flawed, demanding of endless patience in others while unwilling to be patient himself, very jealous of the benefit of the doubt, but entitled to all the opinions he expresses and often on the money. He still has no idea why the Smiths broke up, and nor do I, even after reading Marr’s book as well. He hates, hates, hates the drummer Mike Joyce and bears grudges against judges. He’s obsessed with human death, and unconvincing but passionate on animal rights. He laments that no newspaper story can be written about him unless it fits the headline HEAVEN KNOWS HE’S MISERABLE NOW or BIGMOUTH STRIKES AGAIN. He flies the flag for artists who mean something to him. He finds Andy Warhol boring and doesn’t recognise Tom Hanks. Do read it, but it peters out at the end so you can stop anywhere from about p350 onwards.

Posted by PHILIP ERSKINE at 22:38

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The sons and the heirs

31 Jan 18 | Re: A hidden musical lineage | Link-U-Post

As I understand it, the hip hop and RnB A-listers of today (Beyonce, Drake, Kanye, Kendrick) work as follows: they get dozens of interesting producers from all over the world to send them beats, and then they get lyrics they’ve been working on (or sometimes maybe just their diary) and sing them over the top. This results in popular, acclaimed albums that share several features:

With that in mind, I’ve just been reading Johnny Marr’s autobiography, and it’s impossible not to notice that the hip hop and RnB A-listers of today work in just about the exact same way The Smiths used to. Morrissey didn’t have dozens of interesting producers from all over the world - he had Johnny Marr, who distilled the essence of dozens if not hundreds of musicians into his own original and multi-faceted style. But that apart, the method is the same: Johnny would bring the guitar part fully formed, then Morrissey would choose a page from his big book of lyric ideas and put the song on top of them. That’s why people hearing The Smiths for the first time tend to ask why that guy keeps singing the same three notes: while the song is credited music: Marr / lyrics: Morrissey, the melody goes along with the lyrics and not with the music; it isn’t written by the primary musician.

So it’s no surprise that the three bullet points above apply as much to The Smiths as they do to the hip hop and RnB A-listers of today. Since the music is made in basically the same way, it would be mildly surprising if they didn’t. Listen again to One Dance by Drake. It’s so easy to imagine Morrissey singing that song - the topline is so Smiths-like it’s unreal. Or imagine Drake singing Reel Around The Fountain. They are musical cousins.

In a world where the casual listener wouldn’t discern much Smiths influence, or much of any of the canonical bands, in the top 75 most weeks, it’s nice to have noticed that some of their spirit lives on, whether as a direct influence or not. The next question is, did anyone work that way before The Smiths? Did any previous band or artiste take busy, intricate backing tracks and plonk non-melodies over the top of them without much regard for their details? Or was that the key to The Smiths’ originality?

Posted by nbeauman at 20:56

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Aspects of Clef

19 Sep 17 | Re: One of my faves | Link-U-Post

Superb news this week for Wyclef Jean fans: Wyclef has released his first album in eight years, The Carnival III. And almost as good news for fans of this blog, since that release has inspired my first post in roughly the same amount of time.

The bad news is that I’ve listened to the album and, sad to say, this is the first album of his that isn’t doing it for me*. Even the deliberately niche Welcome to Haiti had a fair bit in it to delight me (through novelty, wanton absurdity or occasionally, good songs), but this Carnival III just doesn’t seem to be the Wyclef I know. As foreboded by the April Showers mixtape a few years ago, Clef seems to have settled into a kind of elder statesman idiom that’s become his default sound: drum machine, guitar, mournfully sung meandering half-tunes, a lot of soul but not much pop, snap or crackle. That doesn’t account for all of the album, but even the collaborations and genre-hops seem to lack the spark that I would expect. Sad!

So rather than dwell on exactly what I don’t like about this new one, I thought I’d chat about some of the things that made me such a fan in the first place. Here, and without recourse to the hits because I don’t need them, is my guide to the many aspects of Clef. Spotify playlist embedded at the bottom.

*STOP PRESS! I've just discovered that this is Wyclef's first album without his longtime co-producer Jerry Duplessis. Mystery solved. We miss you Jerry!

Posted by COLONEL BLUCHER at 21:46

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Back... Further back...

...rump of loons ...an upsetting of the natural order

...Launch fearlessly into analogies ...twins in the bin ...INTENSO MODE ...mad stuntwoman ...move-busting, rotund scholastics ...fourth's the golden eagle ...a list of tired cliches that it will not resort to in any circumstances ...You bet your asthma inhaler ...offend the wizards of Liechtenstein ...absurdly jazztastic and showy ...Your name is Alan Carstairs ...You may feel a little... tingling ...valiant strugglers against the tide of charisma ...we seem to be in some kind of golden age.

Thank you so much to ticket touts everywhere ... Goonrock I find most beguiling ... pole-greasing careerists ... assent past the point of absurdity ... sly one slips from the shadows ... she mutated into something even bigger ... Top Media Geek ... laugh with delight, long and loud ... all the big beat fun stuff.

LOL AT THIS ELECTION

... only alluded to cryptically via a crossword clue ... he beetled off ... panegyric hosedown ... looking to plagiarise a harvest acrostic.

Activism!

... hapless Buttons-type character ... fictional Radiohead-appreciator ... The last proper one must be Edward I ... a fortress built out of the blood of thousands of slaughtered bulls ... drummers shivering in vests ... Back to the drawing board, chart-watchers!

... he conveniently says the word fridge about fifty times ... a slight hoarseness or croakiness ... a sepia tide ... he could nearly have scooped Miguel de Cervantes.

Sandal sales boom. Razor sales plummet.

... messing up the next edition of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles ... a carboard signpost pointing the way down Plot Street ... eat old peanuts out of the sofa ... the Funky Giraffe baby product range ... All objections are cant ... jacket-wearing nonsense ... just enough mud sticking ... the arch-users of that particular fiddle ... slack-jawed cogitation ... a full-body frown that exerts every single muscle ... far too much of the intricate robot gubbins.

In Jessie J terms ... obvious Brontë fan Shaun Ryder ... anthem-type music as a Trojan horse ... cutesy hip-hop moves ... Now That’s What I Call Wigging Out.

... characteristically nasal delivery ... too much democracy ... all-killer-no-filler dancefloor bangers ... a grimly eccentric minority ... West End-style camped up non-rock ... a ripping winner’s single ... a lovely lullaby.

... brattish charisma fountain ... Cowardy Custard ... a kind of Platonic Jagger.

Galahad Roger Potter ... to her surprise Aslan appears ... a pink smartphone on a Saturday night ... a thousand eloquent turns of phrase ... someone will invent a great big battery ... the land of tooth obsession ... the virtue of knaves ... an ideal snack for a train journey ... a vaguely arty, continental bloke?

... referrative case ... shaped like Rigel ... poetic pressure ... awful, awful blog posts ... Democratic utopia!

... waxy-surfaced nick-nack ... tip-top, AV-elected representatives folky bits ... Garbage (if you count them) ... poor, poor Lib Dems ... that same train-window feel ... crud scraping ... world wig-out shortage ... brainless fawning over royalistic trivia ... twice as hard next time ... good material for sit-com sex.

No C-word this week, C-word fans!

A great new approach to dinner drinking ... scratchy breakdown bit ... beacon of oratorial skill ... Why, John Power? Why? ... little clumps of fact ... musical alchemists ... a little patch of bad skin on one hand ... feedback squealing vaguely ... the most rational human alive ... you may be exactly the same as me.

... Pshaaaaw! to all of that ... fascinating mechanical clock ... digestives in the shape of a loaf of bread ... endless popgun barrage of short-sentence trivia ... What do we all think about that, eh?

Michael Parkinson ... A train of thought that started with tea ... carrots ... the most generous funny man in double act history ... joining in the great haiku-writing tradition ... long, orange vegetable ... Jay-Z agrees ... unanimous nominee ... distinctive brand of slow service.

... hot buttered soul ... political blancmange ... the ideal is just a little shuffle of the shoulders.

York and Lancaster ... spoiling the line of my trousers ... doughty journeyman ... bop about in one of his fine jackets ... almost worth watching ... Joan of Arc’s canonisation ... recommending expensive food and clothes ... What a silly magazine Q is.

How barbarous ... extra-biblical tradition ... unwitting TV Burp fans ... spend whatever time remains bopping about and grinning ... one-sided Moebius rectangle ... don’t go looking in the Gospels.

But a radical sees a little further ... cute little pickaxe ... a meter not normally assigned to any word in the English language ... an ingenious way to reward superfans ... Not Echobelly ... the company directors probably kept most of the saving ... the smallest Mr Man ... a Lepidus fan who just wants to talk Lepidus.

... answer floats in the ether ... you can boil or steam some specially beforehand ... the Toronto Hobbits.

... distinctly pedestrian raps ... Look on my works and despair! ... Stevland “Stevie” Wonder ... flim-flam and dross ... cooing, benevolent soft-soaper ... metaphor, onomatopoeia, synecdoche, hypallage ... inexplicable pop-up rapper ... cherish loveliness ... named after a moon goddess or whatever ... a birthday on the 39th ... like a heart-shaped coffee spoon ... Victoria Hesketh ... three poorly-dressed blokes ... the Roman geezer ... Maddening cereal design ... a bit of low-level recognition ... the elusive sharp end of Lawro’s wit ... exactly what Marvel Comics need.

Jiminy Jillickers!

... special occasions are going to involve speeches ... “just a fan in a suit” ... commentary box hate figure ... magisterial preface ... the notoriously rigorous UEFA coaching badge ... whoever else she is ... match the style of the master ... another milestone in gender equality ... football-haters, block-heads and innumerates ... fount of bons mots ... exposure to Nick Grimshaw ... good old David James ... slightly surprised ... reasons for messing everything up ... he’s making it up as he goes along.

Prancing about like a nincompoop in the town centre ... music on a razor’s edge ... sausage-fingered musical regressionists ... still preoccupied with 1985 ... jolly, benign busybodies ... my zero followers ... Looks pretty though.

Hardly Hard-Fi territory, I think you’ll agree ... kazoo-and-saucepan bands ... mooching buddy ... Mrs Tolkien put her foot down ... only ever really existed on Planet Bushell ... actually quite a nice sign ... cavorting more than a sportsman strictly ought ... made the mistake of copying Shed Seven instead.

... going from door to door trying all the handles ... ignominious foundering collapse ... There is a lot of religion in it ... answer to that: play better ... He also says that he is dapper ... tour de force of restrained longing ... the word ‘ghastly’ might be involved at some point.

... an idealised dancefloor where the stars have aligned ... unfussy, mathematically minded nation ... the triumph of wide-eyed teenage promise ... fail ... my most up-to-date thoughts ... A-list wigsbies ... a picturesque fragility ... doesn’t always show the expected level of respect ... no sooner buy a CD single than a penny-farthing ... pure dance gold ... instead of onions I substituted eggs ... better without the sides ... I wonder if the Bahranians are watching.

... it just stretches out and fades away ... you don’t actually write all the questions out ... pictures of gurning old women ... a twinkling miscellany of other incidentalia ... especially the boiling cauldron bit ... stripily garish woollen socks ... Santa-suited disco dancers ... in aching anticipation ... the admirable Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ... come on, audio people ... rather takes the edge off the feminist intent ... Britain has never won it ... despotic or bonkers or charismatic ... nostalgia, only for another place ... brain-exerciser ... shovelling junk mail into landfill sites ... got the idea from the prog band ASIA ... that woman out of Madison Avenue ... this panegyric isn’t post-gig euphoria.

I believe the G usually stands for God ... Wrestling fans should have had no problem ... the ‘have mercy’ element can get missed ... a sign made of a grimy blue tarpaulin ... an air of real gravitas ... a nice new dodgy flat in Bristol ... warm and welcoming ... Oirish no-hopers ... lucky country ... as stretched-out as Peter Crouch ... question rate ... the millions of Mills’s minions ... You have to admire the guy.

... What does it mean for God to rest? ... bling bling baby ... gunged up with big hits ... 0.1% of the prize money ... draw back the cloak of invisibility ... oily megalopolis ... zenarchistic pop pragmatists ... legalise at least some drugs ... urchin and Becker fans.

Blast, you've spotted me.

... you STILL get equal boys and girls ... Score one for the Chinese government I suppose ... moan about something that is bound to happen ... Lando is the right answer ... shake their fists at the monitor ... a strange land of mountains, horsemen and tour cyclists ... goats on tightropes ... in the style of Digitiser ... plenty of water in the southern hemisphere, sure ... create your own ... an accordion player called Corn Mo ... a point for drummer ... Sweden and everywhere else ... a bit like the wooden spoon ... O-trivia Newton John ... it would one day be misused by the chief executive of the Independent Schools Council ... out of the bank.

... may not actually have a surname at all ... crew of gangster midgets ... the heirs of the mighty conqueror ... woolly turtleneck ... directional trend-setting demigods ... seven in almost 1000 years ... run-of-the-mill internet raving ... must be time for a second ... pleasantly rounded, like a genial uncle ... only writing LOL if you actually laugh out loud ... replace hat, arrange hair, check hat, take towel ... a facsimile of knowledge ... impossibly dramatic and thrilling ... cool eh? ... you know, for fun ... doesn’t actually answer or even appear to understand even one of the questions ... First post done.

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