Front page


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

[Back to main blog]

[Or dive into the blarchive...]

Take me home